From traditional tea houses to a lesson in Taekwondo, Seoul offers a fascinating range of new experiences. Felicity Cousins gets a kick out of the South Korean capital
1. Gyeongbok Palace
Situated at the northwest of the old city of Seoul, this palace (pictured) is a good example of the old world meeting the new, with skyscrapers puncturing the sky around the temple grounds. It’s worth getting here before 9.30am if you can as the tour buses start arriving shortly afterwards. Built in 1395 “the Palace greatly blessed by heaven” was originally built in Chinese style but was torn down when the Japanese invaded, and since 1990 there have been ongoing restoration projects. Inside the central courtyard is the king’s throne, with a painting of five mountains behind in red and white signifying ying and yang, and a memorial to the queen who was murdered by the Japanese in 1895.
2. Shopping in InsaDong
A short walk south from the temple is Insadong, a popular shopping district and a good place to soak up some of the friendly atmosphere of the city. Colourful shops selling paper and ceramics and martial art weapons line the pedestrian-friendly streets and food stalls offer deep-fried goods, and nuts and spices. When I was there a procession of traditional folk dancers poured down the street, colours flashing, streamers on hats swinging fast, drumming and singing filling the air. Just off the main shopping street is the Old Tea Shop, a traditional tea-house. At the top of some very steep stairs you enter a magical room with running water and birds flying around your head. The tearoom areas are divided into bamboo enclosures, and you must remove your shoes before settling down on the cushions. Paintings and statues cling to the walls, and lamps and trinkets line small shelves, while the birds perform mating dances above you. I tried Double Harmony tea – made from a mixture of beneficial herbs “effective for physical and mental fatigue”. Alternatively, go for a refreshing chilled pear tea – “a precious beverage in the place of the chosun era appeases
your thirst”. Old Tea Shop, 2F 2-2 Kwan Hun-Dong, open 10am to 11pm.
3. Experience Real Taekwondo
Where better to learn Taekwondo than in Seoul, the home of the martial art? Dressed in white in the grounds of Gyeonghuigung Palace, follow the strict orders of Mr Lee, a black belt in Taekwondo who used to weigh 88 kilos but is now a lithe, supple and extremely fast 60-kilo man. He teaches you the basics from the stretches at the beginning to a sequence of hits and kicks and turns, and once you’ve mastered the sequence he’ll even let you kick him in various different ways. Finally he produces a plank of wood, which you are then ordered to kick in half – a very satisfying experience. See tour2korea.com.
4. N Seoul tower
Just north of the river and on top of Namsan Mountain is the N Seoul Tower. At 480m above sea level, the views from the top are fantastic on a clear day and Seoul looks incredibly green, with parks and woodland on both sides of the river. Written on each window is the distance to different locations, depending on which way you are facing. Entry 7,000 won (£3.70), open daily. Visit nseoultower.com.
5. Dongdaemun Market
This 24-hour market has hundreds of stalls selling everything from watches and jewellery to sports clothes and household goods. If you dare, try the fish and chips on a stick – basically fish on a stick with chips wrapped around using copious amounts of oil to make sure it all sticks together. I saw puppies in a cage, all with their individual “hair cuts” and “bling” gold medallions, and turned down the offer of insoles for my shoes, which make you five inches taller. It’s a lively place and if the pushing and shoving gets on your nerves you can head to one of the 24-hour shopping malls across the road.
6. DMZ tour
It’s easy to forget that Seoul is only 60km from the border with North Korea, and if you do have the time then the one-day tour of the DMZ is well worth it, for a better understanding of the conflict (albeit from the South Korean point of view). The rules for the visit are incredibly strict. Your passport will be taken and returned when you are on the bus. You must look smart (no denim or trainers or vest tops). The bus ride to the border takes around an hour with the tour operator giving the low-down on the situation. Once at the border there is a museum and the Unification Observatory, which looks over the river to North Korea, and a talk with a video. After several security checks and a briefing, you will be escorted by a UN soldier into North Korea (a meeting room with the border running through the middle). You are not allowed to laugh, point or talk to the guards, and after about five minutes you are ordered to leave. To book see tour2korea.com.