One of the most beautiful things about Seoul is its ability to juxtapose traditional and modern elements at every corner, without it feeling strange or out of place. In the span of a day, you can easily go shopping in populous hubs like Myeongdong and Hongdae, while also visiting the temples and palaces nearby. I’m reminded of this every time I go to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an architectural feat of a building known for its cutting-edge design and ingenious art, and only a few minutes down the street I can see Heunginjimun Gate, standing proudly as one of the few remnants of the Seoul City Wall from the Joseon Dynasty.
Today I want to share with you two places I’ve been that represent this great juxtaposition.
Last Sunday, I went to Seodaemun Prison Memorial Hall. Built during the Japanese occupation period of Korea, which lasted from 1910-1945, the prison stands as a place of remembrance for activists and patriots who fought for Korea’s liberation against Japanese imperialists. It was a fairly somber and heavy place, especially when the museum vividly depicted the tragedies that occured to the people who lost their lives.
Many prison buildings were left intact, allowing visitors to go through cells and underground areas so they could experience what it was like for themselves. Photos, placards, and artifacts were everywhere, giving detailed biographies of martyrs and their actions, along with the resources they had back then.
I’m really glad I spent a few hours there, because it shed a lot of light on the Japanese occupation period, which was something I wasn’t too familiar with before. Although my friends and I left the museum feeling somewhat emotionally drained, it was an enlightening experience to learn about how Korea viewed this vulnerable time.
Switching gears, I found myself in Gangnam, Seoul’s richest district, two days later. Although I’ve been to Gangnam several times now, it was my first time in the neighborhoods of Apgujeong and Cheongdam. It sure lived up to its reputation, with huge department stores filled with luxury brands towering over us on every block. Even while waiting to cross the street, the only cars driving by were Ferraris, Rolls Royces, BMWs, Range Rovers, and the like. My friend and I definitely felt out of place, but we had a lot of fun walking around.
Our main itinerary for the day was to go shopping at the SuperM pop-up store, which due to an unexpected queue, took a surprisingly long time to enter. We stood in the sun for 20 minutes only to find out that the merchandise I wanted to buy was sold out, even though they had just opened a few hours prior. (Note to self: go to pop-up shops early!)
Afterwards, we stopped by Tiger Sugar and ordered some drinks after staring at the menu for ten minutes, because apparently, there is a distinction between pearls and boba. Nevertheless, I am completely on board with the brown sugar bubble tea craze going on in Korea right now, and if you have the chance, I suggest that you order a cup for yourself too!
The day ended with us relaxing at the SM Communication Center in Cheongdam, which is by far the swankiest SM building in Korea. Although we didn’t order any food (you have to be careful with your wallet around SM!), we were wrapped up in our own conversation until the sun went down, and the cafe was closing before we knew it. And so ended an incredibly successful day in Gangnam.
If you ever get the chance to come to Seoul, I highly recommend that you spend time going to both traditional and modern places! Of course it’s fun going to the ‘instagrammable’ hot spots with crowds and neon lights, but Korea has so much to offer in terms of history too. I think visiting both types of places within a short trip makes it even better, because it really puts into perspective how much Korea has progressed over time, yet stays closely connected to their roots. I hope you’ll be able to gain just as much insight as I have!
Celeste Oon is a 2019 Global Ambassador majoring in linguistics and East Asian studies. Celeste is studying at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.
Don’t get left behind. Read more about Celeste’s experience in Korea>>