Photo: Lotus Lantern Festival

At the annual Lotus Lantern Festival, held to celebrate Buddha's birthday, traditional fan-dancers perform on a stage in front of Buddha's image.

Photograph by Heimo Aga

The Korean capital is a city of contrasts. Fourteenth-century city gates squat in the shadow of 21st-century skyscrapers, while the broad Han River is back-dropped by granite mountains rising in the city center—complete with alpine highways speeding around their contours and temples nestling among their crags. Fashionable, gadget-laden youths battle for sidewalk space with fortune-tellers and peddlers, while tiny neighborhoods of traditional cottages contrast with endless ranks of identical apartments. Daytime visits to palaces and museums are balanced with pulsating, 24/7 nightlife. Shoppers can flash plastic in ritzy department stores or venture into labyrinthine markets; gourmets can sample garlicky barbequed ribs or the genteel vegetarianism of Buddhist cuisine. Fizzing with the energy of its ten million people, this sprawling metropolis is one of millennial Asia’s most exciting—but least visited—cities.

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