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15 Things You Should Know about Seoul

Updated on April 9, 2014

Seoul (Sŏul) is the political, economic, and cultural center of the Republic of Korea or South Korea. Completely rebuilt and modernized since the Korean War (1950–1953), the Republic of Korea’s capital is one of the world's largest cities.

1. Seoul is a major center for service industries, including finance and printing and publishing. Its manufacturing industries produce food, transportation equipment, electronics, chemicals, and textiles.

2. Modern highway and rail systems connect Seoul with all corners of the Republic of Korea. There is an airport at Kimp'o (Gimpo), on the western edge of the city, for domestic flights and one in Inch'ŏn (Incheon), about 32 miles (52 km) away, for international flights. Situated on the Yellow Sea, Inch'ŏn is also Seoul's seaport, but expressways and railroads, including a high-speed bullet train, permit the city to make efficient use also of the distant port of Pusan.

3. Seoul is situated on the lower Han River in the west-central part of the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War left the capital only 35 miles (55 km) from the Demilitarized Zone established between the South and North in 1953.

4. The city has a monsoonal climate characterized by cold, dry winters and hot, moist summers. Mean monthly temperatures range from 23.2° F (-4.9° C) to 77.7° F (25.4° C). Rainfall is heavily concentrated in the summer. Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times of the year.


5. From its historic core in a mountain bowl north of the river, Seoul has expanded in every direction, going up valleys, over hills, and around mountains. On the south, for example, where in 1950 the city was bounded by the Han, the municipal limits now include extensive areas beyond the river. Yŏido, an island in the river, and Kangnam, on the south bank, have become major population centers, complete with high-rise apartment complexes, office buildings, and shopping centers. Only in the north was the city's growth restricted. There the Pukhan Mountain massif rises to 2,743 feet (836 meters), compressing urban spread into a narrow valley that leads to Ŭibŏngju.

6. The heart of Seoul is the ancient capital of the Yi dynasty state of Chosŏn (1392–1910). Traces of the old walls remain on the Yi city's mountain rim. Although skyscrapers crowd historical sites, the central city retains the layout of the royal capital, which was designed according to traditional Chinese principles of urban planning. Main streets run north-south and east-west. Chong-no, or Bell Street, extends from the East Gate to where the West Gate once stood. At the foot of Mt. Pugak in the north is Kyŏngbok Palace, the primary royal complex of the Yi dynasty. From the palace entrance the broad Sejong-no, "(King) Sejong Street," leads down to the old city's South Gate (1398), which was destroyed by fire in 2008. South Mountain (Nam-san) marks the southern limit of the Yi capital.

Jongno Tower
Jongno Tower | Source

7. Several other palace areas are prominent within the central zone. Tŏksu Palace, originally a detached villa, is next to City Hall Plaza. Not far away is a complex of royal sites that includes two more palaces, Ch'angdŏk and Ch'anggyŏng, a royal park of great scenic beauty called the Secret Garden (Piwon), and the ancestral shrines of the Yi dynasty (Chong-myo). Nearby, on the grounds of Sŏnggyun'gwan University, is the old Confucian Academy and shrine to Confucius.

8. City Hall Plaza is the hub of much of the Republic of Korea's economic life. Converging on it are two subway routes and streets lined with large corporate office buildings, banks, hotels, and department stores. Beyond lies the fashionable Myŏngdong shopping district, noted for its boutiques and restaurants. Myŏngdong and adjacent streets southeast of City Hall Plaza are the center of nightlife in downtown Seoul.

9. Seoul is divided into wards (ku), two of which encompass most of the old royal capital. The outlying ku are mixtures of commercial, industrial, and small residential properties, dotted with schools and colleges, churches and temples, hotels and high-rise apartment buildings. A subway network and radial thoroughfares connected by circular routes link the areas of newer growth with the urban center. Numerous bridges span the river.

Han River
Han River | Source

10. Vast city blocks, honeycombed with alleyways, give a sense of unrelenting monotony to large areas of the metropolis, but hills -especially Nam-san, now pierced by tunnels- are green havens. Across the river in Kangnam ku, good planning has provided broader streets and neighborhood parks at regular intervals. Yet even there the endless rows of apartment blocks are variations on the theme of urban congestion.

11. Yongsan and Map'o, between the central basin and the Han River, were well developed by the 1950s: Yongsan, owing to its railroad yards, warehouses, and garrison; and Map'o because it was Seoul's river port. The port, however, fell into disuse after the Korean War when part of the Demilitarized Zone was drawn through the mouth of the Han, blocking access to the Yellow Sea. West of the old city, residential areas spread through a series of valleys, creating what is now Sŏdaemun (West Gate) ku, known for its markets and universities.

12. Yŏŭido, a sandbar in the Han, was developed into a unique area of Seoul. Originally little used because it was inundated each rainy season, it was reclaimed through construction of a levee around it. The land was sectioned off, streets were laid, and a major public square was created. The island became Seoul's financial center, and the new National Assembly Hall was built there. Yŏŭido also features the 63-story DLI Tower and the Central Full Gospel Church, one of the largest churches in the world.

13. The Olympic Sports Complex, site of the 1988 Summer Olympics, lies south of the Han in the Chamsil district of Kangdong ku. It includes a 100,000-seat stadium, a baseball park, gymnasiums, and swimming pools. Preparations for the Olympics stimulated a wave of building projects throughout the city. Hotels, highways, bridges, rapid transit, and beautification of the Han riverbanks were among the assets for Seoul to enjoy long after the games.

14. Although Seoul did not become Korea's capital until 1394, the area was settled for many centuries before that. During the Three Kingdoms Period (?57 B.C.–668 A.D.), the states of Paekche, Koguryŏ, and Silla vied for control of the centrally located Han River valley. Silla occupied the valley in 554, creating a prefecture that came to be known as Hanyang—a name used for Seoul ever since. Possession of Hanyang helped Silla defeat both Paekche and Koguryŏ in the mid-7th century and unify the Korean Peninsula.

15. Under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Seoul was known as Kyŏngsŏng (Keijō in Japanese). In 1948, following Japan's defeat in World War II and the division of Korea, the city became the capital of the Republic of Korea. During the Korean War it changed hands four times, and at the signing of the 1953 truce it lay in ruins.


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