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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

So ... how's Seoul?

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

These days I am calling Seoul home. We are here for a few months, on a temporary relocation from Canada for my husband’s work. I had the chance to get a taste of South Korea last year, visiting Chuncheon and Seoul. Seen through my tourist lenses, Seoul seemed like a good place to live, but I had my doubts.


For the first weeks I felt I was on a never-ending orienteering contest. For a start I don't have a good sense of direction, then on top I didn't speak the language, so I had to prepare ahead and be really focused all the way through. I used two navigation apps to get the right route and, while on the move, I would constantly check the blue dot on the phone to make sure I am heading in the right direction. It was quite an operation! But, with time and practice, I got used to the new status quo and started to enjoy my city safari adventures.

And then, one day, I refused to double check the navigation app for what I already knew, got on the bus, and just looked at the window, observing the streets and the people. I smiled. That day I felt at home. That day I felt that worries of unknown dissipated and wonder settled in instead.


When I am asked to describe Seoul, the first word that comes to mind is “big”. Seoul proper, officially named Seoul Special City, has a population of about 9 million and an area of 600 km2, which sets the population density at 16,000 people/km2. This is nearly 3 times the density of Vancouver city (5,749.9/km2), the highest in Canada. However, living here feels better than reading the statistics as, despite its busyness, Seoul doesn’t feel suffocating or tiring.

Next word would be “high-rises”. It is quite common to see clusters of 40-50 storey buildings, hosting offices or residences. They form mini towns, with the main level being dedicated to commercial spaces. There are small grocery stores, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, flower shops, day-care centers, dry-cleaning shops, beauty salons, animal clinics, pretty much any service one would need and care to have for every-day life. The building we are living in features a fantastic gym and even an indoor golf practice area. Yeap, we got everything in a box!

Similar to other megacities, the development of the sky-high condo towers is taking over older residential areas. Personally, I’ve come to grow quite fond of the older parts of the town and I would hate to see them go.

Itaewon and Gangnam are the most popular among expats and tourists, but there are neighbourhoods like Hannam, Insadong, Yongsan Station, that give me a rather warm, homey feel. Older brick buildings, narrow alleys, looking kind of shabby but nevertheless clean and upkept, are often home to chique boutiques, coffee shops and small restaurants. When I go out to check out some new area, I usually set a target, but I end up wondering around, walking the labyrinth of small streets, with just a good enough sense of direction. This is what I enjoy most as it allows me to get a feel for the city and people’s everyday life. One moment I could be on a posh street with designer stores, and after a turn on a small alley I would run into family run eateries, one-person expresso cafes, street food and crammed convenience stores with fresh veggies.

One rarely needs a car in Seoul. The public transport is affordable, reliable, safe and boosts an extensive network of subways, buses and trains that can get you within and outside the city. At first, I was overwhelmed by its size, but once I familiarized myself with its core structure and conventions, I found it quite easy to follow. The stations names are available in English, and so are the audible and written transportation announcements. To top it off, free WiFi is available in the subway and big buses so it's really hard to get lost with a smartphone. I typically use both Google Maps and Naver to plot my route. Google is convenient as it takes input in English, but it doesn’t have walking directions and that got me into a bit of a pickle a few times. So, to work around Naver’s search entry limitations, I copy the Korean address from Google, paste it into Naver, and I am all set.

English versions are available for the street and bridge names, as well as traffic signs and that makes it easy to follow directions. Although available, rental bicycles are not at every corner. Neither are the electrical scooters, aka kick scooters, for which a Korean driver license is required. We (Eddie to be precise) also drove during our stay here and I must say that the car's GPS is the best we've ever seen. It is precise, with a pleasant voice, and knows even the speed bumps!


I walk a lot in Seoul and sidewalks are present everywhere, surprisingly wide in the new residential areas. I am lucky to live within walking distance to shops and transit stations. It’s been a while since I walked back home with a bag of groceries, and I do like the double benefit of getting a workout while running an errand. I was used to do this back in Sibiu, the town I grew up in. There it’s a given due to the city’s medieval layout and short distances, but I didn’t expect it in such a large city. What I did expect and didn’t get disappointed with, was the city traffic. It is quite typical for the roads to have four to six lanes that feed into a web of highways.

In the beginning I was wondering why people, typically calmly walking around, are rushing to a pedestrian crossing to catch the green light on. Well, I quickly realized that it could take a good 10 minutes for the walking-stick-man light to turn back on! Today, fully acclimatized, I watch for the green light from the distance and run to catch it!

Oh, and yes, I feel safe walking around on my own, it is a safe city.

Speaking of traffic, U-turns are legal and are typically accompanying the left turns lanes. I found it odd in the beginning, but they are indeed very useful for changing direction, given that the city doesn’t have a matrix layout. As a pedestrian I learned to pay attention to cars trying to sneak in on a turn the last moment and, most importantly, I learned to pay attention to the delivery guys on the small motorcycles. Although I found Koreans being very law-abiding, these guys are a regular exception and they do take shortcuts whenever they can. I kind of see why, given their line of work, but they are still a nuisance. On a funnier note, I must confess that, in the early days, I was a bit tense if I was in the middle of big moving crowds, like subway corridors or large pedestrian crossings. Even though there are direction signs everywhere, an organic entropy develops and everyone walks everywhere. Given that 90% of the people do this while watching their phone, I am amazed that we don’t all run into each other. I have come to enjoy this quiet chaos and while I trust all will be ok, I haven’t let my guard down yet.


Seoul is quite abundant in green spaces and recreational areas that invite to spending time outdoors. Koreans of all ages like their walks, rain or shine, and I am more than impressed by how the urban planning is facilitating a healthy and active lifestyle. There are many parks in Seoul and I only got the chance to see a few: Yongsan Family Park, partially built on the old grounds of a former US military base, a family favourite, Namsam Mountain park, home to the N Seoul Tower and many hiking trails, a good spot to get the cardio going, and the huge Hangang Park, that stretches along the Han River, a popular spot for having a picnic, going for a stroll or a bike ride. I absolutely love the idea of the free outdoor gym equipment, in very good condition, and ubiquitously available in parks and along walking or cycling paths. And, it's not just for display, people are using it!

Han River, the most significant geographical landmark in Seoul, splits the city in two. The 27 bridges are not only an impressive engineering achievement and good reference points, but also create a beautiful picture of the city, each featuring a unique design. The first bridge I walked on was Hangang Bridge, not far from where I live. What is particularly attractive about this bridge is the Nodulseaon island. Located half- way through the bridge, the island is big enough to host a handful of coffee shops and restaurants, as well as a park where people would have a picnic or just walk around and watch the sunset.

My favourite bridge is Banpo-Jamsu Bridge, a double decker that puts out a show of rainbow lit waterfalls. At its south end, the man made, floating island of Sebitseom, hosts a few coffee shops, restaurants, and exhibition halls, and is a popular place with locals and tourists alike. The lower bridge, Jamsu, is the special attraction. Only a few meters above the water level, the bridge is a great promenade venue, with dedicated paths for pedestrians and cyclists. For a few months in the spring, as car traffic gets closed on Sundays, the bridge becomes a huge fare and gathering place. This year was the first time the tradition rekindled after 3 years of hiatus due to COVID restrictions. The day I went it was packed with food trucks and artisan booths. A small stage in the middle of the bridge was all set for a live performance. People were hanging out, enjoying the warm weather, spending time together at a picnic, reading or playing games. It was busy and relaxing at the same time.

The process of urban renewal with focus on elevating the natural environment is an on-going effort and I am sincerely impressed by this vision and initiatives to support it. It is the presence and near proximity of all the green spaces, small and large, that make a busy city like Seoul so livable.

The most impressive for me yet is the Cheonggyecheon recreation area, built along the water stream with the same name, in the middle of the city. Once covered by a suspended highway, the clear water stream is now an oasis, where people walk or go for a jog, watch wild birds, fish swimming in the stream, and can literally take a breather from the busy work and urban life.

Maybe only second to golfing, cycling is a very popular sport in Seoul, and overall, in South Korea. Thousands of kilometers in cycling paths makes it possible and safe to explore the country by bike. Practiced for leisure or for short distance commuting, cycling is also a performance sport, taken quite seriously. It is quite common to get passed by cyclists sprinting at high speed and sporting high-end gear, ready to take on the Tour de France.

The good news is that one doesn’t have to be Tour de France material to enjoy cycling in Seoul. Although the city is rather hilly, the pathways along both sides of the Han River are flat and very scenic, quite a joy to ride on.

The contemporary Seoul intertwines with the historical Seoul.

Century old palaces and heritage buildings are surrounded by the glass and steel high-rises. The traditional Bukchon Hanok Village hosts certified artisan shops as well as modern cafes in rustic houses, while in Ihwa village the modern murals add a touch of colour to the old buildings and narrow, steep streets.

There are five grand palaces in Seoul and I visited some of them.

Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, is the biggest and most impressive palace built during the Joseon Dynasty. It spreads over 40 hectares, and to the day, stands out as a cultural landmark in the middle of Seoul.

The Changdeokgung palace, initially a secondary palace, served as a main palace for a while and has been registered in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List for its outstanding architecture.

The Secret Garden, adjacent to the Changdeokgung palace, is an oasis for body and mind. Immense, mostly left natural, it has beautiful, intricate landscape designs and buildings that integrate harmoniously. It was early spring when I visited the garden and most of the vegetation was still dormant, and I could only imagine it in its full splendour. There are many old and rare trees in this garden, the most impressive being a 700 year old pine, still standing, helped by a few “crutches”, but otherwise looking pretty healthy. As I look at it I wish it could talk and be our guide to the past, to the lives that unfolded under its branches.

The Changgyeonggung palace, a former residence for three of the dowager queens, seems less grandiose and more practical, and offers a different perspective on the lifestyle and organization of the royal family and its antourage.

Equally royal and revered is the Jongmyo Shrine, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site, the oldest and most authentic of Confucian royal shrines to be preserved (according to Unesco). The shrine is the keeper of the spirit tablets of the Joseon Dynasty kings and queens and is also venue to an exquisite century old tradition, Jongmyo Jerye, the Royal Ancestral Rite. The ceremony, an impressive display of traditional costumes and elaborate rituals, is still performed today, twice a year. I happened to visit the Shrine on one of those days, but since I hadn’t been aware of it ahead of time, I could not experience it in its full display. The ceremony was taking place in the Yeongnyeongjeon hall and, with limited admission, it was full. I did manage to peek through a gate and watch it on the exterior projector screens, enough to get a feel about it and wish to come back to see it all first hand.


As I would walk through the intricate pathways and courtyards of these palaces, I would try to picture them buzzing with live, people moving around with different chores, gathering for meals or family events.

These days visitors are filling up the courtyards on a daily basis. It is quite common to see them dressed up in beautiful Hanbok (traditional Korean) costumes, which adds a lovely touch of colour and happiness to the stern looking structures.


Most of the standing buildings are a restored replica, as original constructions were brought to ruin along the time, due to natural causes or wars, the most marking being the last Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Yet, that doesn’t make them any less valuable. Honouring the history, ancestors and cultural heritage, they are mostly a testimony of the century long resilience of the Korean nation.


My biggest welcome present was the Korean people. Well mannered and polite, they seem to keep to themselves, but I think this is just out of respect, as more than once I was surprised by simple gestures of kindness from complete strangers. There were the older ladies insisting for me to sit down next to them in the subway's reserved seats (with a conspirative nod that is ok for me to do so), or cashiers helping me bag my groceries when they noticed my hand cast. The old man from the Yongsan Electronics Market didn’t speak English and, since he wasn’t convinced that I was buying the right transformer, kept asking me questions. I enrolled Papago for help and, when we were both satisfied, we closed the transaction. English is spoken in Seoul, but it’s spotty. However, everyone I interacted with was more than willing to work around the language barrier and that’s priceless to me.


So ... how’s Seoul? After living here for five months, I have no doubts about Seoul. A modern, technologically advanced city with a rich cultural heritage, safe and clean, with services optimized for a busy life, committed to promoting nature and a healthy lifestyle, Seoul is a great city to live in. With time, I get to learn more about the Korean culture and traditions, learn the language, meet new people and tune into the city’s vibe. Seoul is home for now and my city safaris are not over yet!

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16 Comments

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Guest
Jul 24, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Beautifully written, Cristina! Hope I’ll get there one day… Your blog will be my travel guide. Can’t wait for the next chapter. Enjoy your stay! Wanda xx

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Guest
Jul 22, 2023

Thank you for sharing your experience, and congratulations on the blog Cristina! Well written with lots of insight! I love it! ❤️ Gabriela

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Guest
Jul 17, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great blog! Lots of new information here!


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karendwyergreen
Jul 16, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wow!!!

Christina you are a gifted writer! Thank you for this stroll through Seoul 🌻.

Karen xo

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Guest
Jul 06, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

What a great blog. For being there just five months, you have captured the soul of the city. It makes me wish I was living there as Soule is so invested in the welfare of the people and nature. Keep on travelling and sharing your insights.


Nicole


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Cristina Dwyer
Cristina Dwyer
Jul 16, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Nicole for your feedback and interest. Means a lot to me.

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