Like many others who love to travel, I have a real affinity with capital cities: the buzz, the excitement, the rich culture and the atmosphere give a revealing snapshot of the capital’s home country. I’m constantly being asked how London compares to Seoul, and find this question tricky as I love both so much. Although I could never pick one over another as a favourite, this question does compel me to notice the similarities and differences between the two.
A huge part of any capital’s appeal is its reputation and those who carry it. Korea’s royal past with King Sejong at its helm makes Seoul a magnet for culture vultures, language students and lovers of the recent trend in period drama movies and series. Of course, members of England’s current monarchy still reside in London, and with the news of a new royal baby on the way (as well as the royal wedding and jubilee not far behind), the allure of Queen Elizabeth II et al have never been greater.
Less-royal celebs also have high stakes in attracting visitors. K-pop idols, as well as actors who have broken in to Hollywood such as Rain and Lee Byun-Hyun are living, breathing adverts for Seoul- and who could resist? There’s also no way that I could get through this article without mentioning Psy; no matter your opinion of the Gangnam Style phenomenon, it has thrown Seoul into the world’s limelight.
Britain’s film industry has more global reach than Korea’s, and it is franchises like Harry Potter and one-offs like rom-com Love Actually that have proliferated the romance of London.
London: The Royals, history, celebrities, London films and stars.
Seoul: Oriental architecture, history, K-pop idols, celebrities.
Here we find Korea’s colourful oriental temples telling a story of dynasties, empires, colonisation and war. In contrast, London’s eclectic architecture reflects the changes in life, politics, art and religion in a city that has undergone plague, fire and again, war.
London: Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Windsor Castle, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Royal Albert Hall.
Seoul: Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Gyeonghuigung Palaces; Jogyesa Temple; Dongdaemun Gate.
As well as having a rich history in common, Seoul and London also share the quality of modernity. Seoul’s modern buildings mirror its status as a design, technological and increasingly economic capital. London’s high status in commerce and finance resonates through its modern architecture.
London: Millennium Dome, The Shard, Canary Wharf, Lloyd’s Building, The Gherkin.
Seoul: N Seoul Tower, Seongdong-gu Offices, Kring Building, Boutique Monaco.
It would be almost impossible to list every museum and place of interest in either London or Seoul. There is as bizarre a place as the Trickeye Museum (focusing solely on optical illusions) in Seoul and Ripley’s Believe it or Not (featuring only oddities) in London. Then there are the cultural niches such as Pulmuone Kimchi Museum in Seoul and the Bank of England Museum in London. The lists below include perhaps the most popular cultural attractions, echoing the personality of each respective city:
London: The British Museum, Natural History Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Science Museum.
Seoul: National Museum of Korea, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, The National Folk Museum of Korea, King Sejong Memorial Hall.
London’s pleasure attractions are more modest and small-scale than Seoul’s, relying on gimmickry or fascination as opposed to spectacle. Seoul on the other hand does not hold back, with lavish, extravagant theme parks designed to wow.
London: London Eye, London Dungeons, London Zoo, Sea Life London Aquarium.
Seoul: Lotte World, Everland, Dream Land, Seoulland, Coex Aquarium.
London is arguably more globally recognised as a fashion capital, and its shopping districts are iconic. However, the elegant style possessed by modern Korean celebrities exposes Seoul’s chic. I find Londoners more eclectic and daring in terms of alternative fashions (although if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a Korean Lolita or two), and Seoulites (both male and female) to be more widely concerned with sophistication. Both cities certainly have distinct and confident fashion consciousness in their own style.
London: Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Spitalfields Market, Camden Market, Westfield Shopping Centres.
Seoul: Myeongdong, Dongdaemun Market, Namdaemun Market, Garosugil, Insadong, Coex Mall.
The main difference here is that Seoul is far more of a 24-hour city than London. Sure, London’s clubs remain open until the early hours, but nothing else does. Seoul stays alive at night, with a number of clothes stores, markets, restaurants, street food stalls, convenience stores and norebangs that are “open all hours”. As well as being exciting, this is of the utmost convenience for night owls like myself.
London: Soho (central district and gay bars), Shoreditch (uber-trendy area), Islington (artsy an eclectic area), Stoke Newington (up-and-coming area), Camden (alternative bars and gig venues).
Seoul: Myeongdong (central district), Apgujeong-dong (exclusive district), Gangnam (now famous!), Itaewon (international district), Hongdae (alternative and student area), Sinchon (another student area).
Both cities have areas of sublime natural beauty. Seoul’s mountains are visible from many areas, with the beautiful effect of sparkling manmade lights against nature’s best. London’s nature is more closely hidden in its plethora of parks. Visiting one of these transports from “London as we know it” into a greener, more magical place.
London: Parks including Hyde Park, Richmond Park, Greenwich Park, Victoria Park, London Fields.
Seoul: Mountains including Namsan, Bukhansan, Dobongsan, Gwanaksan, Achasan.
London: London’s “melting pot” quality is its foodie triumph, with Brick Lane curries, Chinatown noodles and an emerging international street food scene as unlikely pioneers of London food. Staying Brit, the charm of a “greasy spoon” (cheap but cheerful caff usually selling full English breakfasts) is one that should be experienced by all. Jellied eels are less good; and fish and chips are best-enjoyed at the seaside rather than in a city.
Seoul: Unsurprisingly, Seoul has a far wider range of foreign foods than anywhere else in Korea. Yet unlike London, the most perfect meal to be enjoyed here is a Korean one. Don’t get me wrong, you can get some yummy foreign and fusion grub here, but none that compares to the deliciousness of Seoul K-cuisine.
Atmosphere / feel
Although Korean friends often talk of the “ppali ppali” feel of Seoul, I beg to differ. Maybe it’s because I’ve never worked in Seoul’s “rat race”, but to me, London is frenzied, crazy and non-stop (and that’s why I love it), whereas Seoul is chilled, cool and calm (again- why I love it!) I wonder if a Seoulite would agree.
London: Busy, cramped, buzzing, hyper.
Seoul: Ppali ppali, spacious, calm.
A quick round-up? Both London and Seoul are trendy, modern, metropolitan cities steeped in history and rich in culture. Both have their lovable quirks. Both have user-friendly transport systems. Seoul has hot summers and frozen winters, and London only has one of the above. London is almost unbearably expensive (either to visit or live in) whereas Seoul is quite the opposite. London welcomes and celebrates the strange, the unusual and the eccentric, whereas Seoul prides itself on its sophistication.
I live in London, thrive on its vibrancy, and call it my home. Yet when I visited Seoul last year, I was overcome with emotion, nostalgia and comfort. I’m so sorry to cop out but home is where the heart is, and mine is definitely in (at least) two very worthy cities.