Seoul Preserves Its Ancient Heart

With the South Korean currency, called the won, down against the dollar, now’s the time to wander the grounds of 600-year-old palaces, meditate in Buddhist temples and trawl cafes and markets in the labyrinthine capital city, Seoul.

Seoul has continuously been Korea’s capital city since 1392, making it the world’s oldest capital. This distinction is more than a factoid. At the very heart of this megalopolis of 14 million are islands out of time that evoke the grace of an era that has receded into the mists of time.

GETTING AROUND: Seoul, home to nearly a quarter of South Korea’s people and one of the world’s most densely populated cities, has eight subway lines, hundreds of buses covering every corner and affordable cabs.

From Incheon International Airport, city shuttle buses reach Seoul for about $7 (9,000 won). Korean Air offers a more comfy door-to-door service to major hotels for $10 (14,000 won), A taxi to the city center runs $38-$45 (50,000-60,000 won).

The subway — — is fast and cheap. Fares start at 70 cents (900 won). The $1.10 (1,500-won) T-Money Card also works on buses and in many cabs. When taking cabs, look for silver or white taxis, which start the meter at $1.50 (1,900 won). (A fare increase is slated for June). “Luxury” black cabs are more expensive.

CHEAP STAYS: Staying in a traditional Korean house is the best way to live the history of Seoul. The narrow, winding alleyways of Bukchon, one of the last surviving old-style areas of the capital, is full of guesthouses built in the traditional, U-shaped “hanok” style with graceful, swooping eaves and intimate courtyards.

Anguk Culture House — — is a charming hanok near the Insadong antiques district. Book early; it only has five rooms, all with en suite bathrooms and Western-style beds. Twin rooms cost $53 (70,000 won) and doubles $60 (80,000), only slightly more than hostels. Other hanok options: Tea Guest House, singles $38 (50,000 won) and doubles $60 (80,000 won) — — or the Seoul Guesthouse — — with twin rooms, $38 (50,000 won) and a shaggy dog that according to Korean folklore will chase away evil spirits.

Or live like a Buddhist monk with a temple stay. The Bongeunsa and Hwagyesa temples offer 24-hour packages of activities including ceremonial services, meditation, tea ceremonies, communal work on temple grounds, arts and crafts and authentic Buddhist meals. Beware: Lights out at 9:30 p.m. and wake up calls come at a bracing 3:30 a.m. Prices are $23-38 (30,000-50,000 won). Reserve at least a week in advance: or or

For hostels, the modern Hongdae Guesthouse — — in the student district is also in the heart of Seoul’s community of young designers, with a myriad of small cafes and an affordable Saturday art market. Dormitory beds are $16-$18 (21,000-24,000 won). In the city center, try Seoul Backpackers or its sister guesthouse, Banana Backpackers — — with doubles at $34-38 (45,000-50,000 won) and dormitory beds at $15 (20,000 won).

Jet-lagged on arrival? Nab a nap at one of Seoul’s “jjimjilbang” bathhouses. After paying the entrance fee, you get your own loungewear and access to baths, saunas, therapy rooms and relaxation area where perfect strangers catnap side by side or in individual booths. Sauna areas are men/women only but relaxation areas are usually co-ed. “Jjimjilbang” are open 24 hours, but go during the week as they can get family-style noisy on weekends.

The Hurest Well Being Club Spa offers city views from its upper floors in the downtown Myeongdong shopping area; entrance fee $4.50-$7.50 (6,000-10,000 won). The Riverside Spa Land — — is popular, with a salt room, clay room, charcoal room and oxygen room. The Seoul Leisure Sports Club — — offers a swimming pool and golf range. The Korean Tourism Organization has an excellent introduction to the “jjimjilbang” experience here.