Seoul is the capital of South Korea, one of the world’s largest and most modern cities. However, if you step away from Seoul’s broad new avenues you’ll find labyrinths of narrow alleyways and innumerable tiny shops, noodle houses and old-fashioned Korean markets. Seoul flourished in the 14th century, when such lavish palaces as Gyeongbokgung served as seat of government and royal residence. The palace’s extensive, calming gardens are in vivid contrast to the fast pace of the nearby city center with its exclusive shopping districts and high-density business towers, and also to Seoul’s intense and fascinating street markets, including traditional, colorful Namdaemun and gritty but charming Itaewon, with high-spirited nightlife amid market stalls.
Few cities are as aptly named as Seoul, which comes from the Korean "sorabol," meaning "the center of everything." Seoul not only is the capital of South Korea, it is the nation's heart and soul. With a population of more than 9 million, Seoul is one of the world's 10 largest cities, and its metropolitan area is home to about one-fourth of Korea's total population.
Moreover, more than half the nation's automobiles are in Seoul and more than 40 percent of the country's college students attend institutions here. They include Seoul National University, Dongguk University and Ehwa Women's University.
Seoul also is the commercial and cultural focus of South Korea. The World Trade Center is one of the landmark skyscrapers and symbolic of the city's growth since its recovery from the damage suffered during the Korean War (1950-53). Among the cultural highlights are the National Theater of Korea, home of seven national performing-arts companies; the Myongdong theater district, a downtown focus of popular entertainment; and the Sejong Cultural Center, a home for the performing arts.
Several palaces from Korea's royal period are open to the public as museums, including Kyongbokgung Palace and Ch'angkyongwon, the residence of rulers from the Yi Dynasty. A more modern legacy was left by the 1988 Summer Olympics, which provided Seoul with wide and varied sports facilities.