Seoul is a rambling, crowded, and exciting metropolis. First-time visitors may have trouble with the congestion (both automotive and human) and the smog, but the city has many wonderful things to offer. City government's attempts to clean up the traffic and the air have been somewhat successful. The addition of "bus-only lanes" and clean-air buses, and the development of Cheonggyecheon, a stream that flows through the city's center, have improved the look and feel of the city.

Located in the northwestern part of the country, Seoul is bordered by eight mountains and the level plains of the Han River, which bisects the city. Seoul occupies an area of about 605 sq. km (234 sq. miles), but is the second-most-densely populated city in the world (just behind Tokyo). With a population of over 10 million, it's home to 25% of the country's population. The greater metropolitan area is home to almost 23 million residents, or roughly half of South Korea's population.

Seoul became the capital of Korea more than 600 years ago, when King Daejo moved the capital from Gaegyong at the end of the 14th century.

I've watched the city transform itself through decades, and the Seoul of my childhood has grown into a modern capital. Love motels have been built on the former site of neighborhood playgrounds, open market stalls have given rise to giant megastores, and the once predominantly vegetarian and seafood-based cuisine has become focused on meat. What used to be Asia's best-kept secret for great deals on merchandise is now blown wide open, and Seoul has become a world-class shopping city, with high prices to boot (though bargains can be found in traditional markets and tucked around street corners in quieter neighborhoods).

Still, the charm of the city lies in its contradictions and surprises. You'll see well-heeled young women eating spicy-red ddeokbokgi (rice-cake sticks) from tarp-covered stalls. Centuries-old palaces maintain their stately serenity under the shadows of downtown skyscrapers. Little old ladies still jostle you as they haggle their way through open marketplaces. Even with the world's best Internet infrastructure, some of the most complete cellphone coverage anywhere, and modern cafes dotting the landscape, parts of Seoul still maintain its distinctly Korean flavor.

There is much to explore here, and I hope you won't be afraid to see Seoul's hidden charms. I have no doubt you'll come to love this ever-changing city as much as I do.

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