South Korea is a beautifully dichotomy of ancient history and tradition while at the same time a culture that embraces the future and all things high-tech. Today we see that play out in architecture, fashion, food and design. While some cultures fight change, South Korea allows the old and new to sit comfortably side by side; historic neighbourhoods beside skyscrapers, hanboks worn by K-Pop stars, and ancient design reimagined in new more, forward-thinking ways.
As a visitor to South Korea, it’s possible to have a diverse experience, to appreciate the past, see the centuries-old history and practices steeped in tradition, while at the same time going on a journey with South Koreans who are living very much in the now, forging a cutting-edge, technologically-clever, future.
Neighbourhoods: the modern Songdo, a smart city versus the Bukchon Hanok Village
Songdo is known as Korea's most advanced international city in Incheon, 30 km southwest of Seoul. It’s a smart city built from the ground up on 600 ha of reclaimed land, along the waterfront. It is considered a model for smart cities around the globe. In addition to the widespread implementation of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standard, 40% of the city has been set aside as green public space. Songdo offers an idyllic and sustainable place in which to live, work and play. Residents can enjoy pneumatic tubes that send rubbish straight from home to an underground waste facility, where it’s sorted, recycled, or burned for energy generation; garbage—and garbage trucks—are virtually non-existent. Everything from the lights to the temperature in apartments can be adjusted via a central control panel or via smartphone. During the winter, you can warm up the apartment before heading home. Songdo is an example of a new city that brings together the world’s best technologies, building design and eco-friendly practices.
The Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul is a neighbourhood where hundreds of old-style Korean homes (hanoks) that date back 600 years to the Joseon Dynasty, reside. Regarded as Seoul’s mostrepresentative traditional residential area, Bukchon features a cluster of traditional hanoks between Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, and Jongmyo Shrine. It is also referred to as a ‘street museum in the city center’ as the area is full of historic sites, cultural heritage and folklore materials. Stroll the cobbled streets, seek out quaint tea houses or curio-filled galleries and immerse yourself in traditional Korean culture. Complete the experience by trying on a hanbok, the traditional Korean outfit, often characterised by vibrant colours and simple lines, worn at celebrations.
Buildings: the modern skyscraper - Lotte World Tower versus the ancient Gyeongbokgung Palace
The tallest building in South Korea, is the Lotte World Tower – 555.7 metre and 123 story high skyscraper located in Seoul. It is the fifth tallest building in the world and houses retail, offices, 7-star luxury hotel and an officetel, as well as public spaces such as entertainment facilities, an observation deck and rooftop café. It opened in 2017 and has been heralded as taking inspiration from traditional Korean art forms in the design of the various interior program spaces. The sleek tapered form looks like a slender cone with convex and gently curved sides and stands out on the capital city’s skyline. An exterior of pale-coloured glass draws inspiration from Korean ceramics and features accents of metal filigree.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is a vast complex built in 1394 and was the largest of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces and considered the most beautiful. Wander through the grounds, filled with lotus ponds, pleasure gardens and ornate statues, and peruse the exhibits at the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum. There are sprawling networks of pavilions, passageways, shrines and courtyards. The architectural principles of ancient Korea were incorporated into the tradition and appearance of the Joseon royal court and the entire property has been painstakingly restored and returned to its original glory.
Libraries: the modern Starfield Library versus Gyujanggak, the royal library
The Starfield Library is a self-described ‘cultural sensibility space where people can come together with relaxation and communicate with books’. Located in the middle of Starfield COEX Mall in Seoul, Starfield Library offers visitors a perfect reading space. The two-story library has 13-meter-tall bookshelves and soft lights to ease the eyes as well as various types of tables with electric plugs for laptops. With more than 70,000 books ranging from literature, humanities, foreign books to hobbies as well as over 400 types of magazines including overseas magazines, visitors are welcome to find pleasure in reading and relaxing. Regular book themed cultural events are held as well as notable art projects and installations.
The Gyujanggak, was the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty. Founded in 1776 by order of King Jeongjo of Joseon, it was located on the grounds of Changdeokgung Palace. Today known as Gyujanggak Royal Library or Gyujanggak Archives are maintained by Gyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at the Seoul National University, located in Seoul. It is the key storehouse of Korean historical records and a centre for research and publishes an annual journal called Gyujanggak. The publication is named after imperial calligraphic works stored there, the gyujang, which literally means ‘writings of Gyu’, a scholar-deity, but has come to refer to divinely inspired writings, specifically, the emperor's.
Food: modern tastes – Chimaek (Korean Fried Chicken & Beer) versus traditional Royal Cuisine
Chimaek is a compound word for chi-cken and maek-ju, the Korean word for ‘beer’. It’s another popular anju dish (food consumed with alcohol) that refers to the duo of Korean fried chicken and beer. Fried chicken dishes became a popular food in Korea around the mid to late 20th century. It was around that time that a new draft beer was also gaining popularity, so it became common to combine the two as a single menu item. Today, fried chicken is one of the most popular foods in Korea, with the term chimaek being coined during the 2002 Korea–Japan World Cup. What makes Korean fried chicken so good is that it’s double-fried, resulting in crunchier and less greasy skin.
Korean royal court cuisine was the style of cookery within Korean cuisine traditionally consumed at the court of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910. There has been a revival of this cookery style in the 21st century. Joseon dynasty was the peak of royal culture in Korean history, and therefore royal cuisine became the quintessence of traditional food culture in Korea. The meals served for the king were prepared by the best cooks in the court with quality ingredients from across the country, consisting of local specialties and fresh seasonal foods. Royal cuisine has been passed down by word of mouth of court cooks and royal descendants for generations, as well as in written records of royal feasts. The royal table called surasang, was served with 12 dishes, including rice and soup, as well as stew, hot pot, kimchi and sauces. Both white rice and sweet rice were served, and the most common soups were miyeok guk (seaweed soup) and gomtang (beef bone soup). You too can eat like a king and experience Royal Cuisine at many restaurants across South Korea.
Hotels: modern design of the Podo Hotel versus historic hanok guest houses
Set on the Hallasan Mountain on Jeju Island, the Podo Hotel, from the air looks like a bunch of grapes. It boasts modern, outstanding architectural beauty to reflect the natural environment. It was designed to capture the artistic philosophy of world-renowned architect Itami Jum. Set in Seogwipo, Podo Hotel features charming design inspired by Jeju's parasitic cones and traditional houses It has twenty-six rooms, recreating the beauty of Jeju's folk house with a curved roof. The Podo gallery onsite is open to provide a space to enjoy Jeju's culture and arts. In addition, the diverse architectural art programs are available to ensure that more people can appreciate Itami Jun’s interpretation and meaning of his works hidden all over the space.
Gurume Resort in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-doset amongst serene, leafy hills at the foot of a mountain is now the location of seven early traditional Korean guest houses (hanoks) that were rescued and relocated after a flood. Built in the 17th century, ‘Baksanjeong’ is the oldest while ‘Cheongongjeong’, Gamdongjaesa’, and Palhoejaesa were built in the 18th century, and the final three houses - ‘Seounjeong’, ‘Gyenam Old House’ and ‘Chilgok Old House’ were built in the 19th century. The houses all look slightly different due the varying ages however they have all been renovated and equipped with comfortable modern facilities such as bathrooms, air conditioning and hi-tech security systems. Most of the features of a traditional Korean house have been preserved, showing how traditional and modern design can co-exist. It’s an ideal place to take a step back in time and relax amongst nature.
Clothing: modern fashion versus traditional threads - hanbok
Dongdaemunis an internationally known, fashion district in Seoul, now a hub for the regional fashion industry providing creative, affordable fashion items. With its fully developed distribution and sales networks, highly efficient production facilities, and a throng of talented, aspiring designers, this district is now a must-visit attraction in Seoul for the fashion conscious.
Gangnamin Seoul, now a household name across the world thanks to the song ‘Gangnam Style’, is a large district where you’ll find the busiest fashion streets. This fashion zone attracts numerous fashion-minded visitors from around the world with special fashion events that see global designers in attendance and emerging talents showing their designs.
Korea’s traditional clothing, hanbok which literally means Korean clothing, has maintained its features throughout Korea’s 5,000-year history while its styles and forms have evolved in various ways based on lifestyle, social conditions, and aesthetic taste of the times. A full set of hanbok for men consists of a vest, jeogori (top jacket), and a pair of pants while women's include a jeogori, undershirt, skirt, and a pair of pantaloons.Koreans wear the brightly colouredhanbokfor formal or semi-formal occasions and events such as festivals, celebrations, and ceremonies.
Today, South Korea is in the global spotlight because of a variety of hanbok designs that reinterpret traditional Korean designs and patterns in a modern artistic sensibility. The music videos of K-pop singers such as BTS and BLACKPINK also contribute to the higher global recognition of hanbok as an attractive costume for its unique style and beauty.
Outdoor installations: the modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) or ‘The Wave’ versus ancient tombs
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is a cultural complex located in Seoul designed by the late, famous architect Zaha Hadid. Inside you’ll discover not only an excavated piece of the Seoul City Wall (found during construction) but also galleries, design shops, a walkable park on its roof and museums. The neo-futuristic building itself is the wow factor, with curving forms of elongated structures, it is an imposing design like no other. Forming the centrepiece of South Korea’s fashion hub, it has been lauded as one of the main reasons for Seoul’s designation as World Design Capital in 2010.
D'strict, a digital design company designed ‘The Wave’, in COEX Artium, Seoul that looks like a wave crashing in a large box on top of a building. Using the largest and highest definition outdoor advertising screen in South Korea, D’strict created what they described as an ‘anamorphic illusion’. The illusion works by distorting the projection, so when the viewer looks at it from just the right angle, it appears to come alive with a depth effect. The screen used to create this digital piece is 80.1 x 20.1 meters with a resolution of 7,840 x 1,952 pixels - nearly twice the resolution of normal ultra-high-definition, meaning this wave looks almost identical to the real thing and is a mesmerising piece of natural beauty perched atop a building. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzxuftgFuoE&t=16s
A total of seven ancient tombs from the Baekje era make up the Buyeo Royal Tombs of the Baekje dynasty from 538 to 660. The identities of the grave occupants are still unknown but they are presumed to be part of the royal family. One tomb in particular, Junghachong, has an arched ceiling just like that of the royal tomb of King Muryeong, differentiating it from the remaining tombs that have ceilings in the shape of squares or hexagons. Hundreds of Baekje tombs are scattered across Buyeo. Among them, Neungsan-ri Ancient Tombs, which are close to Buyeo, have been relatively well preserved and are fairly large in size.
Next to the tombs, visitors can see what remains of Buyeo Naseong, the outer fortress wall protecting the ancient capital city. The wall is made up of a flat stone exterior, with a gentle sloping hill on the city side to allow those inside the fortress to more easily fight off outside attacks. The location of the wall provides insight into how large the capital city was during the Baekje period in Buyeo.
Shopping – modern Hyundai Premium Outlets versus oldest Namdaemun Market
Hyundai Premium Outlets – SPACE1 in Seoul is Korea’s first gallery-type outlet for people who want to enjoy shopping in an artistic environment. The outlet opened in June 2020 and combines elements of a shopping mall, art gallery and theme park into one. The main art installations are the outdoor Cube Square and indoor Jamie Hayon Garden and Mocha Play. Cube Square is located in the centre of the shopping mall and features a large red sculpture created with the theme ‘Festival’. Jaime Hayon Garden was designed by the famous Spanish designer of the same name and offers interesting sculptures set within nature.
Namdaemun Market is a traditional market with a 600 year old history. It offers over 1,700 varieties of goods at affordable prices which include pottery, clothing, accessories, kitchenware, and regional specialties. It is also known as one of the best marketplaces to buy traditional handicrafts, glasses, and sunglasses. Namdaemun Market is famous for delicious foods such as, Guksu (noodles), Jokbal (pig’s trotters) and Galchi Jorim (stewed beltfish). Popular attractions like Myeong-dong, Deoksugung Palace, and Gwanghwamun Gate are located nearby, making the market a perfect place to stop by after a tour of the neighbourhood.
Wellness – modern spa Sulwhasoo versus ancient temple retreats
Sulwhasoo is a herbal cosmetics company in South Korea that uses prime Asian herbs and ingredients to create a range of products and experiences to heal the mind and body. The flagship store in Seoul has a luxurious spa that brings together traditional Asian wellness practices and rituals to bring warmth back to tired skin and bring some peace back to a weary mind. You can also take tours, enjoy a tea ceremony, participate in beauty and skincare tutorials, treatments and subscriber-only programs. https://www.sulwhasoo.com/int/en/flagship/journey/journey.html
There are about 900 traditional Buddhist temples in South Korea. Many have been built in places believed to have the best pung-su (feng shui), so you’ll find temples in stunning mountain areas, lush forests and along coastlines. If you are looking for a humbling experience, these places of worship can help you access an allusive inner calm whilst immersing yourself in the history of these serene locations. And, if you choose to take up one of the Templestay experiences, you can stay overnight in a beautiful temple and enjoy the Buddhist practice of meditation, chanting, calligraphy, Mandala (stress-relieving colouring) and enjoy Buddhist vegan meals, all under the guidance of a local monk. https://eng.templestay.com