It’s official! This month marks the one-year countdown to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and they couldn’t have picked a finer home: a small, highly mountainous, and beautifully scenic country, South Korea is a fascinating fusion of innovative technology and deeply embraced traditions.
Seoul is a densely built metropolis full of surprises and contradictions: teahouses and Starbucks, ubiquitous signs of the K-Pop music wave, countless restaurants (Koreans love to eat), designer-brand-filled boutiques and malls (they also love to shop), UNESCO-listed palaces, and 14th-century city walls that snake up the guardian mountains that surround the city.
Korea’s local cuisine is a revered element of everyday life. Restaurant options in Seoul are myriad and cheap, and markets are great and varied. At Gwangjang Market you can graze your way along hundreds of generations-old stands, sampling specialties like homemade kimchi and deep-fried mung-bean pancakes. (I bypassed the pigs’ trotters, intestines, and pickled baby octopus.) Elsewhere, a love for all things American explains the growing number of Western fast-food chains.
The 500-year history of the Joseon Dynasty is on display during a morning visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace (with its changing of the guard in traditional costume) and Changdeokgung, the second of five magnificent Joseon residences, with its decorative and colorfully painted Korean architecture.
The 150-mile-long buffer established in 1953 an hour outside of Seoul is known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Here you can take a peek at North Korea, the notoriously secretive and self-proclaimed “socialist fairyland” and learn something about the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 through 1953, a military memory still vivid to the United States.
Things are considerably more upbeat at the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, located in the ski-resort town of PyeongChang in the Taebaek Mountains. South Korea’s games will be the first of three straight Olympiads held in Asia, joining the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
Those curious to find a glimpse of old Korea can do so in the province of Andong and the small but historical village of Hahoe. More than 200 residents still live in this cluster of centuries-old wooden homes built during the Joseon Dynasty. Gyeongju, the once-flourishing capital of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC to AD 935) lives up to its reputation as a “museum without walls.” Its Bulguksa Temple is commonly considered Korea’s most famous (and most visited) temple, immersed in a timeless scenario of garden-lined ponds, stone pagodas, and national-treasure bridges. The nearby sitting Buddha of the Seokguram Grotto has long been regarded as a protector of the country, a showcase of workmanship and engineering as outstanding today as it was during its creation in the 8th century.
Busan is the country’s second-largest city, known for its important port, growing popularity as a cruise line port of call, and its bounty of seafood, which is on display in the Jagalchi Fish Market—the biggest in the country. Many opt for a somber visit to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, the burial ground of UN soldiers of the Korean War: Of the 16 different countries that sent combat troops, the US presence looms large.
South Koreans talk about the island of Jeju as if it is the promised land. And it promises a lot as the preferred domestic holiday for honeymooners, nature lovers, families, beach buffs, and frazzled seekers of R & R. Volcanic (it boasts the world’s longest lava tube and the dormant volcano Hallasan, the country’s highest peak), semitropical, and commonly dubbed the Korean Hawaii, there are plenty of natural wonders to keep outdoor enthusiasts busy.
From here, it was just an hour’s flight back to Seoul and my connecting 13½-hour flight back to New York.