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See Seoul's ancient sights for less

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.
Image: South Koreans in traditional dresses dancing
South Koreans in traditional dresses dance to celebrate the birthday of Buddha on May 2 at the Jogye Temple in Seoul, South Korea. Lee Jin-man / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

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.

Cheap eats: Eating cheap in Seoul means spice, rice and plenty of everything. Seoulites like to eat out, filling thousands of mom-and-pop places that give good local color and value.

If you're new to Korean food, start at Lotte Department store's self-serve food court, where traditional dishes, from dolsot bibimbap (rice and vegetables cooked in stone bowls) to naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) are on mouthwatering display. Note the number of the dish you want, pay at the central ticket booth, and watch for your number on the digital display.

The alleyways of the antiques district of Insadong are packed with tourist-friendly restaurants featuring traditional fare for less than $6 (8,000 won) for a set meal of soondubu chigae (spicy tofu stew) with rice, bulgogi (marinated beef) or dduk mandu guk (dumplings and rice cake in beef broth), and side dishes, including Korea's most famous condiment, kimchi, fermented and pickled vegetables. Wash it down with traditional liquor, milky makgeolli or tart dongdongju.

Ssamziegil Market in Insadong has cheap, chic restaurants like the healthy Dubu Ma-eul, or "Tofu Village," and the elegant Oh Mok Theh for hearty seafood pancakes.

Must-sees: Seoul's jewels are the five palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), with beautifully ornate buildings and lush gardens.

Changdeokgung Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts a magnificent "secret" garden, "Biwon," where 13 of Korea's kings strolled over the centuries. Visits are by group tour only, $2.30 (3,000 won). English guides are available daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. In summer, the palace provides a stunning backdrop for performances, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Thursdays, of traditional Korean p'ansori opera, court music and dance. Closed Mondays.

Gyeongbokgung is impressive as the main palace and center of royal affairs during the Joseon period, housing the king's throne. Make sure to see the Hyangwonjeon, a two-story pavilion on a lotus pond. Visits by tour only, $2.30 (3,000 won). Closed Tuesdays.

At nearby Gyeonghui Palace, the Prada Transformer — a novel, four-sided structure designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his Office of Metropolitan Architecture — will host art exhibits, a film festival and fashion shows through mid-October, flipping on a different side for each event.

For a free glimpse of ancient customs, start at the Bosingak Belfry at the Jonggak Station, which was used to ring open the old city gates. From 11:30 a.m., four dozen men in colorful traditional attire perform a bell-ringing ceremony before marching through the financial district to relieve guards at Deoksogung Palace. There is also a changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. The palace grounds are worth a visit for 75 cents (1,000 won). Closed Mondays.

Drop into a Buddhist temple for a respite. Most are open day and night, with lulling chants at 4 a.m., 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Jogyesa Temple near Insadong is the only traditional Buddhist temple within ancient Seoul's city limits. It offers free tours in English and an introduction to temple life that includes making lotus lanterns and prayer beads, printing sutras and a tea ceremony. The program runs the second and fourth Saturday of every month, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and costs $15 (20,000 won). Bongeunsa Temple offers a two-hour program Thursdays at 2 p.m. with temple tour, meditation and tea ceremony for $7.50 (10,000 won).

City strolls: For a great view of the city, take the cable car from the edge of the Myeongdong shopping district to Seoul Tower in lush Namsan Park; round-trip $5.50 (7,500 won).

The Namsangol Hanok village near the bottom of Namsan Park is a picturesque group of five painstakingly restored, old-style Korean homes that host traditional wedding ceremonies on weekends.

Carve out an afternoon for the alleyways, antique shops and galleries of Insadong, where you can pick up a ceramic charm, rice paper fan or silk satchel for a few dollars. Small independent shops also have jewelry, handicrafts and calligraphy materials. The main street is closed to cars on Sundays, allowing street vendors to roll out carpets covered with artifacts and food carts. At the top end of the area, around Anguk subway station, explore modern art galleries and the Ssamziegil Market for shopping or a bite to eat at the rooftop book and magazine cafe.

Traditional, tree-lined Samcheongdong next to Gyeongbokgung Palace is also a haven for art lovers and a great place to wander the streets.

One of Seoul's newer centerpieces is the tranquil Cheonggyecheon stream, which cuts through the heart of old Seoul and is popular for romantic strolls.

Rent a bike for the trails along the Han River, which cuts through the middle of the city. In summer, enjoy cold beer and dried squid at riverside picnic areas. Try to spot where the mutated creature from the South Korean blockbuster movie "The Host" crawled out of the water. (Hint: It's near the pleasure boats and Yeouinaru subway station).

Shopping: Seoul has dozens of markets but two stand out. Dongdaemun market is an entire city district filled with hundreds of shops, cramped into high-rise malls and tiny shops deep underground. Go at night; many stalls are open only 5 p.m.-1 p.m. the next day, allowing shop owners from around South Korea to stock up. Expect Korean-made brands at discounts.

Namdaemun, known as the Goblin market, has about 1,000 stores selling everything from kitchen sponges, pots and pans to watches, cameras and ginseng. Shops hidden deep inside larger buildings have the best prices.

Beyond city limits: South Koreans love hiking and take it seriously, donning the latest gear for Sunday trips to the 37 picturesque mountains overlooking Seoul.

Take the subway to Dobongsan Station and trek up Mount Bukhansan, Seoul's largest mountain in the scenic Bukhansan National Park. Go for a full day and you could reach the old Bukhan Sanseong fortress, on a centuries-old defense line protecting the old capital. Fortress admission is $1.20 (1,600 won).

For a shorter hike, try Mount Umyeonsan, near the Nambu Express Bus Terminal south of the Han River. An hour's walk will get you to the Daeseongsa temple and its water spring.