CITY GUIDE: Everything you need to know about Seoul

Season 8 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship reaches its conclusion this weekend, with a thrilling double-header in new host city Seoul. Ahead of this season's electric finale at the Hana Bank Seoul E-Prix, we've cast our eyes over one of the world's most exciting cities to see what Seoul is all about.

Special City

Don't just take our word for it: the official name for South Korea's capital is Seoul Special City. After the establisment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, the Korean government ordained Seoul as a Special City, giving it the same rights and powers as Korea's provinces. The city has a population of almost ten million, which rises to 26 million when taking in the Seoul Capital Area (which includes nearby Incheon and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province).

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The Capital Area is the world's fourth-largest metropolitan economy, thanks in part to major technology hubs in affluent Gangnam and its financial pulling power – it's home to 15 Fortune 500 companies, including LG, Hyundai and Samsung.

Long history

Seoul's global influence has been a long time coming. Strategically located on the Han River, surrounded by hills and mountains, the city was officially founded in 18BC by the Baekje kingdom, but had seen activity since 4000BC.

Seoul first became South Korea's capital in the early 15th Century, and grew in stature due to its position along a major water trade route to China. However, the late 19th Century saw the beginning of Seoul as an outward-looking city, with close trading partnerships between the capital and countries like the USA and France.

Seoul Han River

Seoul was the first city in East Asia to install electricity, and was central to the "Miracle on the Han River", a period of rapid growth after the Korean War that saw South Korea move from one of the world's least-developed countries to its current status as a leading nation.

Global heritage

Seoul is packed full of ancient history. The Seoul Capital Area contains five UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Changdeok Palace, Hwaseong Fortress, Jongmyo Shrine, Namhansanseong mountain fortress and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty. The Amsa-dong Prehistoric Settlement Site was partially uncovered by a flood in 1925, and contains the remains of a Neolithic settlement.

Seoul's Fortress Wall was first built in 1396 to protect the city from wild animals and attacks from marauding bands of invaders. After centuries of development, destruction and rebuilding, about two thirds of the walls remain, along with six of the original Eight Gates of Seoul.

Seoul fortress wall

High hopes

Seoul's recent development can be tracked by the ever-higher towers springing up from the city, including the 236-metre-tall N Seoul Tower, a 20th Century icon of the city that served as Seoul's first radio tower from 1969 and offers panoramic views of the city from its perch on Namsan Mountain.

The Samsung Tower Palace is a collection of seven towers, ranging from 42 to 73 floors, that serve as luxury residential apartments, while Gangnam's Trade Tower stands at 228 metres, forms a large part of Seoul's World Trade Centre complex and hosts a 52nd-floor restaurant. Further towards the Seoul Sports Complex, South Korea's Formula E home, the Lotte World Tower opened in 2017 and, at 555 metres, is South Korea's tallest tower – and sixth in the world.

Other more modern architectural highlights include Seoul's modern, wave-shaped City Hall, and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a fashion and design hub created by Dame Zaha Hadid in one of Seoul's oldest districts.

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Life and Seoul of the party

When Seoul's famously-hard-working population finally clocks off for the evening, the city is ready to celebrate with one of Asia's buzziest nightlife scenes. Grab a soju and get your singing voice ready: from gogi jib (Korean barbecue restaurants) to the city's thousands of bars, clubs and lounges, via the compulsory noraebang (Korean karaoke), Seoul has all the makings of a night – and early morning – to remember.

K-Pop

Seoul has a strong claim as the birthplace of K-pop. The now-global musical phenomenon - short for Korean popular music - was a major player in kick-starting the Korean Wave, a growing appreciation and popularisation of South Korean culture since the 1990s.

Today, megabands like Blackpink and BTS have taken K-pop into the global mainstream, and so monumental has the K-pop boom been, that Seoul has just announced the construction of a stadium dedcated exclusively to K-pop concerts, slated for completion in 2025.

Seoul Festa opened the E-Prix week on Wednesday night, with PSY and other K-pop royalty taking to the stage in the Olympic Stadium.

Accelerating change

The Korean government's support of Formula E is a significant moment in the country's move towards a greener future. Air quality and pollution levels have been historically poor, but support for Formula E and Seoul's Festa festival – the city's biggest since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on EVs and green initatives – is an encouraging sign of the country's dedication to green practices and sustainability.

Seoul has always experimented with unique ideas to solve its transportation problems. Well-known for its extensive use of big data, Seoul is now building new infrastructure such as smart highways and test cities to become ready for a future of EVs and self-driving vehicles. It is also developing distinctive solutions, such as making use of obsolete infrastructure to develop green spaces for walking and cycling.

In a boost to the Hana Bank Seoul E-Prix, BTS was appointed as the event's global ambassador in December 2019. "With air pollution presenting the single largest environmental risk to human health today and causing more deaths each year than smoking cigarettes, both Formula E and BTS hope to inspire the next generation and millions of young fans to embrace clean energy and become future drivers of electric vehicles," the FIA said.

The Korean New Deal

The South Korean government's New Deal has outlined plans to invest about US$144 billion in creating 1,901,000 jobs by 2025. The plan focuses on a Digital New Deal and Green New Deal, and includes overarching policy support to strengthen employment and social safety nets.

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Korea has identified ten key projects ranging from green mobility to smart healthcare. It includes the central and local governments' involvement to bring innovation and jobs to the regional economy, with half of the money invested outside Seoul.

The Green New Deal focuses on renewable energy, green infrastructure and industrial sector. Its green car subsidy programme offers up to US$17 million in subsidies to people buying electric cars in 2021 and up to US$33.5 million for hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles. 

In December 2020, South Korea submitted to the UNFCCC its NDC and 2050 Carbon Neutral Strategy. The latter includes Korea's long-term strategy for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Sporting Seoul

Seoul is hosting Formula E for the first time, but is no stranger to major sporting events. The brand new racing circuit snakes around the Seoul Sports Complex and Seoul Olympic Stadium, both built to host the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympic Games.

The Olypmic Stadium is the largest in South Korea, holding just under 70,000 spectators, and has hosted matches for the Korea Football Association, but the Formula E finale will be the first major international sporting event at the stadium since the Olympic Games. The circuit also weaves by the city's Jamsil baseball stadium, with the pit-lane sat directly opposite.

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The stadium might not have been used too regularly for sporting events, but as the country's largest stadium, it's seen plenty of action in other areas. The stadium has hosted an impressive range of concerts in recent years, including gigs from BTS, Coldplay, Sir Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Sir Elton John.

Circuit details

The newest track on the Formula E calendar is one of its most challenging. The 2.6km, 22-turn circuit starts with a tight run before snaking into the Olympic Stadium in a simliar way to Mexico City, where drivers will see the almost 70,000-strong audience for the first time. A new track also brings an untested surface that's sure to change as the race weekend plays out.

Seoul's climate will be another issue for teams and drivers to contend with, as high temperaures and blankets of humidity provide hurdles for the cars' battery systems and powertrains, along with the risk of sudden, heavy rain, as seen in the run up to the 2022 E-Prix.

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100 not out

Saturday's race will be the 99th Formula E race in series history, with the final race of the season on Sunday taking the championship to its century.

Seoul's natural buzz and pageantry feels a fitting place for Formula E to bring up its hundred, looking to the future to bring excitement and green technology to a wider audience than ever. A good innings so far, and Formula E shows no signs of stopping.

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