An Adventure preview from Accidentally Wes Anderson: Adventures

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Modern skyscrapers next to ancient palaces. Aggressively contemporary shopping malls across the street from centuries-old temples. This is Seoul: a remarkably approachable bridge between the ancestral and the avant-garde. Though the entirety of South Korea reflects the intent to keep ancestral traditions alive and appreciated, its ultra-flashy capital embodies it best. It is an inspired mingling of old and new, with fortresses and palaces abutting karaoke bars and towering buildings of steel. But the real magic is not that such extremes exist in the same place so much as how artfully they’re merged. Adventures in Seoul don’t feel disjointed or confusing; somehow, they feel balanced, and so do you.


In a city of modern marvels, the sprawling Gyeongbokgung Palace is a launchpad into Korea’s royal past. Once home to the royal family, this resilient landmark has been standing since 1395. It served as the seat of government for two centuries, then was abandoned for another two centuries, before over three hundred of its majestic buildings on a plot of 410,000 square meters were restored to their original architecture.

Though fire, invasion, and damage inflicted during the Korean War were profoundly disruptive to the foundation of Gyeongbokgung, the palace received another much-needed glow-up in the late twentieth century. This time, architects and craftspeople relied on paintings and old photographs to painstakingly piece together and accurately replicate its original appearance.

The palace’s name roughly means “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven,” which rings true with grand gates that look like they could guard a dragon’s lair. But with no fire-breathers in sight, the guards have to keep busy, and thus five times a day the typically serene courtyard gets a welcome interruption with a colorful changing of the guards—a ceremony attracting the highest number of visitors each day. Some visitors dress in hanbok—traditional Korean clothing—adding to the historical accuracy of the events. It’s also a path to frugality, as renting and donning the sixteen-hundred-year-old attire grants you free entry to all five of the grand palaces.


This blinged-out beauty was built in the fifteenth century but in later eras was left to deteriorate amid the forest in which it’s nestled. It’s foundation was rebuilt in 1900 during the reign of King Sunjong, but shortly after, the king got very sick. Distraught, his father beseeched a monk to pray for his ailing son. The prayers appeared to be effective, compelling the monarch to offer the monk personal riches, but the monk demurred. He would never accept jewels in exchange for prayer. Instead, he put forward the humble request to cover this Buddhist sanctum in pure gold. That way, everyday people could find it easily and worship within its radiance.

To this day, they still do. It remains an active place of worship, predominantly visited by residents who live nearby. Like many temples in Seoul, it is built on a slope, so despite the fact that it gleams with the midday sun, it is relatively unknown to travelers. Those treated to time there appreciate its healing shimmer, and are happy to keep it among Seoul’s lesser-known stash of treasures.


Just outside the city center in the Jongno-gu district, the first hanok public library welcomes readers to be one with literature and nature. Traditional hanok buildings distinguish themselves by their overall balance and by being made almost exclusively from natural materials, offering tribute to the elements. It’s not uncommon for them to abut mountains, as Chungwoon does.

Removed from the bustle of urban landmarks, the library is just a few strides from the foot of Inwangsan mountain. Clumped together with the nearby Yun Dong-ju Literary Museum, Poet’s Hill, and a startling sensation that—after a moment—you realize is just peace and quiet, the area is a literary hub of Seoul. Handmade traditional tiles line the roof, a steady waterfall streams out the window, and more than twenty thousand works are arranged inside for patrons’ perusing pleasure. Visitors—especially muddy-booted hikers—take note: you must take off your shoes before entering.


After nearly twenty years in the making, the 555 meters of soaring glass that is Lotte Tower finally opened its doors in 2017. It is Seoul’s first building over 100 stories, with an observation deck located on the 123rd floor. Want to engage in a staring contest with the clouds? Hop a ride on Seoul Sky’s double-decker elevators, which can carry more than one hundred passengers to the top in a single minute, reducing everyone below to tiny-size figurines. If you happen to bring your regular-size bathing suit, you can head down to the 85th floor and take a dip in the world’s highest swimming pool.

By night, the skyscraper shows off a massive light-show display, turning the tower into a gigantic canvas for digital art. Though enormous and unabashedly flashy, the building has been very intentional about its footprint: recycling rainwater, going easy on energy, and using its double-skin glass to keep everybody cool—particularly useful if you’re sweating from a fear of heights.


In a significantly less hidden area, amidst the hectic Gangnam district, is Bongeunsa, a colorful, prominent Buddhist temple that is among the most well-known in the city. Given the location, entering feels like a gentle escape into an oasis with lanterns. Even if you don’t manage to see the temple, if you’re nearby, you’ll hear its warm tribute. At 4:10 a.m. and 6:40 p.m. every day, a percussion ceremony is performed by the temple’s monks, using four instruments intended to awaken beings from all the elements.

Originally founded in AD 794, the temple has since served as an all-seeing ancestor of the city. Once surrounded by open countryside, family farms, and humble orchards, today it stands as a landmark in what has become one of Seoul’s busiest, wealthiest, and most modern neighborhoods. Bongeunsa distinguishes itself and is profoundly emblematic of the capital’s appeal, for not merely surviving the changes but also adapting to them in a way that comprises the old and the new so gracefully.

Like seemingly everything in Seoul, it has undergone multiple reconstructions and renovations, but they have all been meticulous in preserving the original purpose of the site as a center for Korean Buddhism. The complex includes several beautiful structures, statues, a garden, and a hall for Zen meditation.

It is perhaps the most profound symbol of the harmonious coexistence of the traditional and the modern elements of Seoul…especially given the distraction of what’s literally across the street.


Literally across the street from Bongeunsa is the Starfield COEX Mall, and at its center is the atypical Starfield Library: a baffling museum of sorts that exhibits a futuristic, gleaming galaxy of books. Several sections of it are dedicated to foreign books and authors, driving home its global invitation. Its skyscraper bookshelves and placement in the heart of a high-energy mall underscore that it’s no ordinary library, or not quite a library by most people’s definition: books cannot be borrowed but merely appreciated and browsed. Be mindful not to get too engaged in any fine print while ascending or descending its steep escalator.

In the Seoul section of the library, you’ll find histories of ancient temples, of dynasties in which grand palaces flourished and battles occurred on streets you just walked down. Peruse a bit more, and you’ll come across literature detailing hanok villages that have maintained their original architecture, as well as works describing surrounding neighborhoods’ traditional teahouses. Carry on down the shelf, and you’ll be presented with books about K-pop and K-drama, and guides to the best karaoke spots and immersive art exhibits in town. No matter how engrossed you may be, we remind you not to attempt to check out any of these books, but do take as much time as you’d like to appreciate the extent to which Seoul’s generational buffet satisfies every craving. Also be mindful, as you’re reading about the cherry blossom festival celebrations at Yeouido Hangang Park, for example, that the ultra-neon lights may require that you take a break from Starfield and perhaps stroll around the block of this harmonious city.

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