A decorative SEOUL sign across Cheonggyecheon Stream, a 5-mile long walking path, below street level, in downtown Seoul.

Seoul is often seen as a pass-through city by travelers flying to various parts of Asia. And that’s how my husband and I saw it until, in late 2019, we decided to spend nine days there and see what Seoul had to offer.

Glowing blue tile decorates one of many eye-catching subway entrances in Seoul.

Turns out, it has a lot to offer. Traditional, modern, colorful, and even whimsical, Seoul is a place where sky-high office buildings and captivating street art co-exist with palaces and city walls built in a bygone era, where its citizens love to rent traditional Korean outfits and wander the historic locales while taking selfies, and where you can partake of waffles in a Belgian chocolate shop or sausages in a British-style pub as well as scrumptious Korean food everywhere.

In spite of Korea’s turbulent past—Japanese invasion in the 1590s, Japanese occupation from 1910-1945, and the devastating Korean war from 1950 to 1953 (the basis for the TV show, “M.A.S.H.”)—Seoul has recuperated and reinvented itself. The city is clean and orderly. It’s an easy place to walk, explore, and discover 3D comic-book characters perched near bus stops and even in front of the police station, music concerts in city squares or temple courtyards, colorful changing-of-the-guard pageantry rivaling that of Buckingham Palace, and after-dark streets filled with an array of food vendors. You might even be approached by a duo of Korean girls with surveys in hand, asking your thoughts on visiting their fair city.

Seoul’s subway system is considered one of the best in the world. A warren of underground tunnels lined with shops leads you from station to station. All are artfully designed, signage is excellent, and when your train approaches, a speaker system plays a few bars of classical, pop, or other music to let you know your train is arriving.

Deoksugung Palace

Wherever you go, you’ll see “I.SEOUL.U” signs. The slogan—a friendly tourist branding—means literally, “Seoul is yours and mine.”

Korean Folk Village

Day-tripping local girls in traditional Korean costumes pose for the camera while making the popular V sign (meaning “yeah” or happiness).

In the environs just outside Seoul’s bustling city center, other pleasures await. The Korean Folk Village offers glimpses of local crafts, thatched houses, village life, a water-wheel beside a lake, a mock-wedding ceremony, and a Vegas-type show featuring Korean dances and drumming in an outdoor amphitheater. You’ll even find costumed interpreters dressed as pointy-eared elves and white-faced ghosts.

Gwangmyeong Cave

At scheduled times, a vibrant light show flashes across the rough interior walls of Gwangmyeong Cave.

Another option is Gwangmyeong Cave. During the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation, forced-labor miners pried gold, silver, copper, and other minerals from the earth with pick-axes and drills. Now the cave is alive with strange, luminous creatures lurking in shadowed pockets of rock, a small aquarium, and a wine bar. Lighting shows featuring a giraffe, sea star and woolly mammoth illuminate the rough interior walls at scheduled intervals. Outside, more creatures, such as a hippo, gorilla, polar bear, and white deer, come to life in artistic form; an animated mining video plays on a giant screen; and other artworks include a ball composed of auto side-view mirrors, and a footpath crafted from woven ropes. If you get tired, you can rest on a bench set into the side of a rhinoceros.

Just outside Gwangmyeong Cave, visitors can take a rest break on this bench set into the side of a rhinoceros

Naejangsan National Park

A little further afield but only a short bus trip away is Naejangsan National Park, resplendent in its October autumn colors. A temple complex at the far end is worth exploring, and the stroll takes you past a pavilion set in a charming lake. Legend says that the pavilion once sprouted wings and ascended into the heavens.

In retrospect, our short time there was not enough to explore this fascinating city and its surroundings. To paraphrase The Terminator, “We’ll be back.” For more photos of Seoul, see Seoul Searching by Jennifer Crites

Uhwajeong Pavilion surrounded by autumn foliage seems to float in its lake at Naejangsan National Park.