South Korea's fast-paced economic growth is reflected in its ultra-modern capital.
Keeping up with Seoul will leave you breathless
Holidaymakers could hardly be blamed if the well-publicised recent troubles between North and South Korea put them off visiting either country. When I visited South Korea to report on the launch of a daily Etihad Airways service between Abu Dhabi and Seoul in December, the country was reeling from the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island by North Korea that killed two military personnel and two civilians. Yet just three weeks after the incident, residents were busily going about their business and the shopping districts were packed. The only protests I saw in Seoul, the capital, which sits just 40km from the border, centred on welfare spending and animal rights.
With the South Korean mainland largely peaceful for nearly six decades, the potential for conflict seems an unconvincing reason to avoid Seoul, which, with a population of more than 10 million, has been ranked among the world's 10 biggest cities. While world attention often focuses on China's rapid rise in recent decades, South Korea has quietly pulled itself up by its bootstraps in no less dramatic a fashion. Left devastated at the end of the Korean War in 1953, the country now ranks among the world's top dozen nations, according to human development indicators, and is a major producer of everything from oil tankers to pint-sized city cars.
The present-day contrast between this ultra-modern Asian powerhouse, which is building four nuclear power stations in the UAE, and its next-door neighbour North Korea, which relies on food aid, could hardly be more stark.
The historical legacy the Koreas share is the adoption of Chinese culture about one-and-a-half millennia ago, the peninsula embracing it more thoroughly than either Vietnam and Japan. Chinese influence is unmistakable in historical buildings, including many in Seoul, despite the fast-paced modernisation, in language and through the presence of Confucianism and Buddhism.
Thus in what is a resolutely modern city, there is a surprising amount of history to be seen by visitors, including sprawling palaces that trace their history back six centuries, well-preserved old-style neighbourhoods such as Bukchon Hanok Village, and pedestrian- and cycle-friendly developments that make discovering the modern city at your own pace a pleasure.
Bukchon Hanok Village, with hundreds of traditional hanok Korean houses, is the best place to seek traditional culture away from the skyscrapers dominating the cityscape. Perched on a hillside, separated by narrow streets, and with ornate roofs, decorative brickwork and wooden beams, these single-storey dwellings were the homes of privileged government bureaucrats during the Joseon dynasty, which ran from the late 14th century to the end of the 19th.
The village is one of the best preserved in the country and, although it has become a tourist trap, with camera-clicking visitors making it feel like a museum rather than a neighbourhood, it offers an interesting insight into South Korea's past.
At the opposite end of the scale are Seoul's vast imperial palaces, five of which are scattered across the city. These are home to even mightier Chinese-style halls, many raised on terraces to house oversized thrones on which kings were once crowned. Among the most impressive is Gyeongbokgung, which in its six centuries of history was twice destroyed by Japanese invaders. Most of what is seen now dates from the 20th century, and restoration continues. The grandeur and, in parts, tranquility, of the original have been recreated in this complex, which has echoes of Beijing's Forbidden City both in architectural style and layout.
Behind the building, against a beautiful backdrop of hills, visitors can admire a series of lakes with tiny islands decorated with pagodas, offering a peaceful retreat from the crowds viewing the main halls.
At the grand entranceway, dozens of soldiers in traditional costume re-enact the ceremonial changing of the guard and pose with tourists. The majority of visitors are locals or from the region. Japan and China take first and second place in the tourism rankings, with about three million visitors each a year, although there is a sprinkling of tourists from further afield, mostly Europe and North America.
The palace overlooks Sejongno, the city's main boulevard, lined with shops, upmarket hotels and signature office buildings, and busy with five lanes of traffic in each direction.
A once heavily polluted waterway might seem an unlikely tourist attraction, but Cheong-gye-cheon, little more than a stream running through the centre, seems to embody the best of modern Seoul. Cleaned up and uncovered - it had been paved over - at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in a project spearheaded by Lee Myung-bak, then the mayor of Seoul and now the country's president, it is a green escape amid the skyscrapers and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Set a few metres lower than the surrounding streets, and ultimately stretching several miles, the area has sculpted concrete paths skirting the water and, in some places, grass and shrubs to give a natural feel. The paths are busy with families entertained by buskers singing and playing the guitar.
Happily the progressive attitude that led to Cheong-gye-cheon's creation, with the needs of pedestrians on a par with those of cars, is seen elsewhere in the city. There are pedestrian areas with softer surfaces for comfortable walking, showing that Seoul has developed beyond a mere obsession with economic growth. Likewise, cyclists can enjoy the mighty Han River that runs through the city by using dedicated paths on each side.
The N Seoul Tower is the place to head on a clear day, perched as it is on a hill in the city centre. The hike up to the base of the communications tower, with lookout platforms along the way, is popular with locals, who at the top are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of countless thousands of skyscrapers, the Han River and distant mountains.
Yet also clearly seen from the tower is a less ordered neighbourhood not so far away. This area, Itaewon, is home to much of the city's nightlife and offers a slightly more bohemian feel compared with the rest of this well-ordered city. Even on the bitterly cold winter evening I visited, it was buzzing with mostly young people attracted to the many venues with their brightly lit and colourful facades.
Foreign restaurants, including particularly good Indian ones, can be found here aplenty - a welcome respite for those who have had their fill of tofu, made from soy milk, or the fermented and seasoned vegetable dish kimchi, available in countless cheap-and-cheerful South Korean restaurants. The Dongdaemun area is packed with local eateries, some with tanks of live eels, octopus and giant crabs outside to entice adventurous diners. For those brave enough, an octopus dish costs about 7,000 won (Dh23).
Seoul may in many areas lack the exoticism of south-east Asian metropolises such as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but it also avoids the blandness that blights some big cities in China that have developed rapidly by bulldozing much of what was unique and interesting. The city has all the facilities of the West with an eastern flavour.
If You Go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Seoul cost from Dh4,935, including taxes.
The hotel A double room at Banyan Tree Club and Spa Seoul costs from 534,600 South Korean won (Dh1,763), including taxes and breakfast (www.banyantree.com; 00 82 2 2250 8000)