If a picture paints a thousand words then probably the photos shown in these pages will be enough to satisfy your need for a perfect Christmas vacation.
But admit it, that’s not how things work. At some point in your life you have written in your endless Christmas wishes to go to a place where snow falls from the sky. With that in mind, now is the best time to visit Seoul in South Korea and experience a white Christmas ̶ just a plane ride away from the Philippines.
Bordered by the Yellow Sea on the west and the Sea of Japan in the east, the name Korea was derived from “Koryo”, the dynasty that ruled the peninsula from 918 to 1392. At the end of the World War II, the country was split into two parts namely: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or commonly known as North Korea with Pyongyang as its capital, and the Republic of Korea or South Korea with Seoul as its capital.
Over the years, after the separation of the two nations, Seoul has been the center of South Korea’s commercial, industrial and cultural industry. It has played a big role in the city’s development that up until now is attracting many tourists from all over the world.
But if you think you’ve seen enough of Seoul, then think again. The city is emerging fast and hard not only with superstars and different K-Pop groups but also with picturesque waterways, idyllic palaces, stunning amusement parks and more.
River of plenty
Dominating a bigger part of South Korea, the Han River or Hangang River is considered as the major, and the fourth longest river, in the Korean peninsula. Stretching over 500 kilometers long, the river originates from the Namhan River in Mount Daedeok and the Bukhan River in Mount Geumgang. Thanks to its strategic position, it has played an important role in the Korean history especially as a trade route to China and as a fortress for protection against attack.
Han River has been called by many different names. It was referred to as “Daesu” during the Han Commanderies period and the early part of the Three Kingdoms period; “Arisu” during the state of Goguryeo, “Ungniha” for the Baekje and “Iha” during the reign of the Kingdom of Silla. After serving its purpose as a fortress, at present there are over 20 bridges built across it to accommodate different tourist’s attractions and activities.
One of these is the 12 Hangang Parks along the river banks offering different sporting facilities like hiking and biking trails, soccer fields, tennis courts, skateboarding and skating parks as well as water cruises and facilities like swimming pools and water taxis. Adding to the treats, the parks are open for 24 hours all year round! The River was also featured in some movies like “The Host”, “The Castaway Moon” and “Inchon”.
Another body of water that dominates the city is the Cheonggyecheon Stream located in downtown Seoul. During the Joseon Dynasty, the stream was named “Gaecheon” or Open Stream after the first renovation project that constructed a drainage system along it. It was only renamed to Cheonggyecheon during the Japanese Colonial Period. In 1958, the stream was covered up with concrete and an elevated highway was built over it, when more people migrated to Seoul and settled along the stream resulting to its worsening condition because of waste and trash.
Mayor Lee Myung-bak on July 2003 initiated a two-year project to remove the highway and restore the stream costing over 386 billion won. It was first criticized by many but the project soon became fruitful when many locals and tourists consider it as one of the best places to visit in the city.
The Stream now offers a laser show during the night aside from a free display of various arts, statues and special themes for every event. Concerts are also held near the Gwanghwamun station for tourists to enjoy.
A glimpse of the past
After visiting the two major rivers in Seoul why not enter the royal palace and learn some history in Gyeongbokgung, constructed by the Joseon Dynasty in 1394. Located in northern Seoul, it was considered as the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces namely; Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung.
Located in the heart of the Korean capital city, the name Gyeongbokgung was derived from the words “Gyeongbok” meaning “Greatly Blessed by Heaven” and “Gung” meaning “Palace”. It was destroyed during the Japanese colonization but is now continuously reconstructed by the South Korean Government since 1989. In a report in the year 2009, roughly 40% of the earliest number of palaces and buildings still stand and have been reestablished.
The Palace has six gates, Gwanghwanun as the main and south gate, Heungnyemun as the second inner gate, Geunjeongmun as the third inner gate, Sinmumun as the north gate, Geonchunmun as the east gate and Yeongchumun as the west gate. It also has 6 outer (Oejeon) and 3 inner (Naejeon) courts. The outer courts are Geunjeonggmun, Geunjeongjeon (the throne hall), Sajeongjeon (the executive office), Sujeongjeon, Cheonchujeon and the Manchunjeon. The inner courts are Gangyeongjeon (the King’s quarters), Gyotaejeon (the Queen’s quarters) and the Jagyeongjeon (the late Queen’s quarters).
The Palace of the Crown Prince (Donggung) has two quarters the Jaseondang (the Crown Prince’s quarters) and the Bihyeongak (the study of the Crown Prince). Gyeonghoeru (the Royal Banguet Hall) and the Hyangwonjeong are the two palace pavilions while the bridges are the Yeongjegyo, where various imaginary creatures called Seosu is located right next to the bridge, and the Chwihyanggyo, the longest bridge made of wood located on the north side of the palace but was transferred on the south side in 1953.
Visitors of the place can stroll and wander around the area for hours with free guided walking tours in English, Japanese and Chinese languages. It is open from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon except on Tuesdays.
One of the many things that are always on top of every visitor’s list when going to the city is shopping. And for this very purpose Gangnam District and Myeong-do is very popular.
Literally meaning “South of the Han River”, Gangnam District is one of the 25 districts of Seoul. The place is very popular for having high standards of education making it as the national capital of education. Also due to this factor, the district was also considered as the most attractive destination in South Korea. But aside from its extreme competition for university entrances, the place also offers different attractions and activities.
First on the list is the Bongeun Temple, the biggest and most visited temple in Seoul mainly because it is a resting and praying place. It is also the best place to see the skyline of downtown Seoul. Next is COEX Mall located in Samsung-dong, here you can enter the Kimchi Museum (a video game arcade), COEX Aquarium (a spacious western style cinema), salons, bookstores as well as many other boutiques.
Tourists can also play and get lucky at the Seven Luck Casino located near the COEX mall. Wear your favorite anime costumes in the World Comic Convention held twice a month. Relax and get fit in the Park Club Spa & Fitness Center and buy branded items in Apqujeong or commonly known as “The Beverly Hills of Seoul”.
Another shopping destination that should not be missed is Myeongdong located in the Jung district. The place dates back to the Joseon Dynasty where it was first used as a residential area called Myeongryebang. It was only used as a commercial area during the Japanese period changing its name to Myeongchijeong. After gaining independence, the area became the official district of Myeongdong and today it was listed as the ninth most expensive shopping street in the world.
Its most dominating feature is the Myeongdong Catholic Church built way back 1898. Built in a gothic style, the Cathedral was the earliest church built in Korea using a combination of colored bricks. Aside from the church there are also many shopping centers in the area including the Lotte Department Store, Shinsagae Department Store, Migliore, M Plaza and Noon Square.
Myeongdong Festival, held twice a year, is also one of the attractions of Myeongdong, encouraging more tourists and businessmen to shop and invest in the area.
Of theme parks and assembly building
Not only is the city filled with many shopping destinations, historical palaces and water adventures it also caters to politically-inclined people, kids and kids-at-heart. The National Assembly Building is the best spot to observe the Korean Government and its system. With its unique exterior, no wonder many people want to enter the vicinity and wonder in its different passages. The Lotte World Amusement park is the perfect place for entertainment and fun.
Built in 1975, the National Assembly Building is the first thing that visitors will see upon arriving in the city. Located in the Yeouido Island right beside the Han River, the building is the seat of the legislative branch of the South Korean national government. Unknown to many, antecedent to its completion, the Korean Government first used the Japanese General Government Building located on the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The building was demolished in the 1990s resulting in the construction of the National Assembly Building.
Roam the area and take a closer look into its 24 granite columns, white exterior and large blue dome. The Visitor’s Center and the National Assembly’s Memorial Hall are open from morning to afternoon every day except on Sundays. The path around the building is also popular during spring where cherry blossom trees bloom.
Divided into two sections, the indoor area and the Magic Island, Lotte World is an amusement park filled with thrilling rides and extraordinary activities. Built in 1989, it is located in the heart of the city of Seoul. The indoor area includes an ice skating rink surrounded by over 20 different rides, the Adventure Island features delicacies from around the world, games and shops, and the Folk Museum on the 3rd floor showcases Korean history through pictures, models, and artifacts. It is now considered as the world’s largest indoor theme park.
The second floor of the indoor area leads to the Magic Island, an outdoor area located in Seokchon Lake. It is built like an island with 17 different rides, Gyro Vertical Drop and Gyro Swing as the top choices. There is also a massive castle at the center similar to Disneyland’s, a shooting range and path ways to stroll or have a picnic around the lake.
A tower in the mountain
Before the day ends, there are still two more spots to visit in the city. First is the N Tower in the Namsan Mountain. Originally called as Mount Mongmyeok, Namsan Mountain literally means “South Mountain”. Its top attractions are the Namsak Hanok Village, Palgakjeong pavilion (Octagonal Hall), Maritime Aquarium, fountains, Namsan Library and the N Seoul Tower. Visitors of the place may take a cable car or walk up the stairway path to reach the top.
The N Seoul Tower or the Namsan Tower, on the other hand, was built way back in 1969 as a television communications tower. It has four observations decks overlooking the whole landscape of Seoul and the neighboring west sea. Aside from its gift shops, cafes and convenience stores located on the first and second floors, it also offers a revolving restaurant on the observatory gallery.
A seven-meter Christmas tree made with 300 teddy bears was put up in the Teddy Bear Museum in 2008 to display different dioramas of teddy bears portraying the past, present and future of Seoul. The Tower is open to all from 10 in the morning till midnight.
Of buildings and skylines
Lastly, tourists would not want to miss seeing the skyline of Seoul through the Bongeunsa Temple where a huge statue of a Buddha, called Mireukdaebul, overlooks downtown Seoul. Located in the Gangnam District, the Buddhist Temple is built during the Silla Kingdom and was once believed to have started from the Gyeonseongsa Temple.
Once standing in the middle of a farm land at the foot of the Sudo Mountain, the temple is now a representation of modern Seoul surrounded by various infrastructures like skyscrapers, shopping malls. and convention centers. But despite all these, Koreans could still find peace and serenity as the temple has maintained its many praying and meditation areas.
It is open for all visitors from 3 o’clock in the morning till 11’ o clock in the evening. It also offers free tours, tea ceremony demonstrations and conversation with monks. Annually, on September 9th, a ceremony called Jeongdaebulsa is held. It is a festival where people walk around the temple holding wooden Buddhist scriptures on their heads.
Upon leaving the temple, people could go through the different and unique buildings of the Yeouido Island. Built along the Han River, the 63 Building or the 63 City & Golden Tower in Seoul was opened for public in 1985. Reaching 817 feet, it is considered as the thirdrd tallest building in Korea. The building’s one-of-a-kind feature are its windows made of reflective glass materials that, when hit by sunlight, glows showing a golden color.
Inside, people can enjoy an IMAX Theater, Aquarium, Wax Museums and Shopping malls aside from the observatory called Sky Art located on the 60th floor. It also consists of financial offices, entertainment areas and restaurants to enjoy.
Christmas must be something more
Every one of us deserves an ultimate Christmas vacation. We all deserve to have all our wishes come true. With many places to go and visit in Seoul, it’s just right to say that Santa has already given us our reward for working hard and doing good deeds all throughout the year ̶ a blissful Korean vacation that we can never easily forget.
But, as much as we are worth our prize, we should always remember that Christmas is not just fulfilling our wants it is also about celebrating the birth of our savior. That in everything and in anything we do this Yuletide Season, we should never forget that true Christmas happens when we give from the heart.