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Seoul (서울) is the capital of South Korea. With a municipal population of over 11.8 million, and a metropolitan population totaling over 25.6 million, Seoul is by far South Korea’s largest city and one of East Asia’s financial and cultural epicenters. A fascinating blend of ancient traditions and cutting-edge digital technology, home to endless street food vendors and vast nightlife districts, an extraordinarily high-pressure educational system and serene Buddhist temples, a trend-setting youth culture and often crushing conformism, extraordinary architecture and endless monotonous rows of grey apartment buildings, Seoul is a city filled with stark contrasts.
With over 11.8 million people, a figure that more than doubles if you include neighboring cities and suburbs, Seoul is the largest city in South Korea and unquestionably the economic, political and cultural hub of the country. By some measures it is the second largest urban agglomeration on the planet, after Greater Tokyo.
Seoul has a long history stretching far back into Korea’s dynastic past. There is evidence for settlement in this area as far as 18 BC but Seoul as the capital city of Korea has a history back to the 14th century. Originally named Hanseong (한성; 漢城), the city was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 to 1910, and remained the capital of Korea during the period of Japanese colonial rule which followed under the name Gyeongseong (경성; 京城), or Keijo in Japanese. The Joseon Dynasty built most of Seoul’s most recognisable landmarks, including the Five Grand Palaces and Namdaemun. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the city was re-named to its current name, Seoul. Since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, Seoul has been the capital of South Korea. Occupied twice during the Korean War by Communist forces, the city was extensively rebuilt and today is one of Asia’s primary metropolises.
While few historical points of interest remain (most of the temples and palaces are reconstructions), much of Seoul’s infrastructure is exceptionally modern and clean. Skyscrapers and high rises abound. The subway system is the third-largest in the world and perhaps one of the finest. Seoul is truly vast – though the casual traveler can see most of the main sites in a few days, a dedicated traveler could spend weeks exploring all the alleyways and far-off neighborhoods. As the capital of a country that has gone through massive development in the past sixty years, it is constantly changing at an incredible pace, matched only by the mainland Chinese cities. This frantic pace of life is reflected everywhere – in Seoul’s cutting-edge digital technology, in the millions of commuters rushing to work everyday, in one of the vibrant nightlife scene, and in the thousands of buildings still under construction.
In recent years, Seoul has been swamped with tourists from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, following the success of Korean pop culture. Travelers will frequently overhear Japanese, Mandarin, or Cantonese; many restaurants and stores, especially in the more touristy areas like Myeongdong, will have signs in Japanese and Chinese as well as Korean and English. Long popular among Asians, Seoul has been relatively unknown in the West and frequently passed over by Westerners for nearby Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, and Hong Kong. However, recently things have been changing; tourism numbers to Seoul have been exploding in the past five years or so, with no indications of slowing down or stopping.