Seoul Purpose

The heart of South Korea’s capital lies in its stunning palaces, towering skyscrapers — and its stomach.

North-side, think palaces, President Lee Myung-bak’s residence and hanoks (traditional houses with tiled roofs, and walls of clay brick and rice paper). Here, you can snap up classic ceramics or a hanbok dress, while drinking 100-flower tea. To the south, Gangnam-gu is all about Euro-luxe labels. Would-be models strut the streets as they shop at the Garosu-gil fashion strip, Asia’s largest underground mall COEX, or too-cool Cheongdam-dong, with its Italian boutiques and wine bars. At any tick of the 24-hour clock, you’ll find some of Seoul’s more than 10 million inhabitants in the pubs, restaurants, karaoke bars, internet cafes and saunas. If anything closes, it’s always late. In Seoul, the neon lights are never switched off.

Tea and Tradition

Tea oils the wheels of Korean society. The Beautiful Tea Museum is a gorgeously serene space in the antiques hood of Insa-dong, selling and serving 130 beautiful teas and their accoutrements. It also exhibits perfect, simple ceramics. Find tradition, too, at Cha Masineun Tteul , which lives up to its name: ‘a garden where people drink tea’.

Take a seat on the hanok’s warm floor as tea ladies serve iced-strawberry summer punch or hot spiced dae chu cha (date tea), rice cakes and toasted sunflower seeds while you look out on the cosy garden or over the rooftops. Another wonderful place to see Seoul’s traditional architecture is Bukchon Hanok Village, considered to be the most beautiful corner of Seoul. Its neighbourhood of 900 hanoks makes a welcome change to the industrial-strength apartment blocks that pierce the city’s skyline.

The tourist-information booth opposite Gyeongbokgung Palace offers excellent walking maps of the area, including a trail with eight signposted photo spots that give the best views down tiny, picturesque alleyways and over the rooftops to the palace. Of a more transient nature are the comically named ‘tent restaurants’ that dominate the city’s streets: sun shelters lined with clear plastic walls to keep out the fierce winter winds. Korea’s food culture is wildly rich — walk any street and try fried silkworms, suck down a live octopus, chomp on pig’s trotters or snack on a jeon (Korean savoury pancake) washed down with makgeolli (rice wine). At the massive Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market (Dongjak-gu, Noryangjin-dong 8–13 ), buy fresh seafood and have it thrown straight into the pot and cooked in front of you in seconds. No matter how lean your purse or how limited your Korean, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never starve in this town.

Pillow Talk

From traditional accommodation to five-star digs, Seoul has it all.

Fashionable: The Westin Chosun is within walking distance to Namdeamun Market, Myeongdong shopping district, chic department stores and two palaces.

Spa Breaks: On the side of Mount Namsan sits the luxe Banyan Tree Club & Spa Seoul. Each of the hotel’s 34 rooms and suites has an indoor relaxation pool, while the spectacular outdoor version is a favoured haunt of Seoul’s elite.

Budget: Sophia Guest House is a 150-year-old hanok with ondol rooms (mattresses on heated floors) surrounding a pretty courtyard, a short walk from the arty enclave of Insa-dong.

Boutique: In the expat district of Itaewon you’ll find IP Boutique Hotel. It has an Alice in Wonderland feel, with jungle swings in the lobby and mirrored, all-white rooms.

Luxury: Rakkojae is a serene luxury hanok in Bukchon, with natural jade floors in its ondol rooms and an on-site natural mud sauna.

At the table

With hundreds of eating-out options — from traditional Korean barbecue to fusion fare — in every neighbourhood, Seoul cements itself as one of Asia’s prime food capitals.

Summer Flavours: A visit to Tosokchon means tucking into samgyetang, a summer broth of ginseng and chicken. Tosokchon enjoys a cult following, with former president Roh Moo-hyun among its devotees.

Like a Local: Young chef Yim Jung Sik is currently wowing New York diners with his ‘New Korean’ cooking. His Seoul dining room Jung Sik is a celebration of truly beautiful plates. The kitchen uses quintessentially Korean ingredients to serve up fresh delectable dishes.

Cheap Eats: Visit Ilpumdang and you’ll realise that Korea’s best chow isn’t necessarily found in the most expensive restaurants. Order the Korean shabu shabu — thin wafers of beef cooked in broth and served with dipping sauce.

In the Groove

Want to find out what the locals are really drinking? “We teach Korea’s drinking culture — how to pour and what to drink,” says Korean-American guide Daniel Gray. His Korean Night Dining Tour steers you through the joys of drinking soju (potent rice spirit) and snacking up a storm in the city’s alleyway barbecue cafes. After you’ve been fed and watered, the place to be on the last Friday of every month is Hongdae for Club Day, where $12 gets you entry to 11 clubs in the area. Don’t expect an early night — it kicks off about 11pm and diehards call it a night after 5am.

The third Friday of the month is the smaller Sound Day, with fewer clubs and a focus on live music. After a big night, recharge at a jjimjilbang (public bathhouse), which is guaranteed to knock a dress size off you, thanks to a battalion of scrubbers and fiery steam rooms: expect rampant public nudity (yes, they are segregated). Most hotels have their own sauna, or try the foreigner-friendly, seven-storey Dragon Hill Spa & Resort.

Artisan Mecca

Samcheong-dong’s three-kilometre-long cobbled street, between the president’s residence and Gyeongbokgung Palace, sniffs at mainstream labels. On this strip, it’s all about one-offs and their stylish producers — shoemakers, milliners, bespoke designers and art galleries, with a hundred latte-pumping cafes in between. Cool, yes, but also resolutely Korean. You’ll still find locals queuing for the classic sujebi, which is soup with dumplings, green onions and kimchi. You can get your fill of this dish for about $6 at Samcheong-dong Sujebi.

Don’t Leave Without

Visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace, the first home of the Joseon Dynasty. Dating from 1395, it also houses the National Folk Museum. For live entertainment, you can’t beat non-verbal theatre, which is massive in Seoul — and great if your Korean is rusty. Nanta is a blood-pumping kitchen comedy set to traditional samulnori rhythm, and audience members are regularly invited on stage to participate. Finally, spend a day at Namdaemun Market; stop for dumplings in alleys of food stalls, or buy jars of pickled ginseng or gorgeous kitchenware from more than 10,000 stalls. Nearby, you’ll find the 14th-century Sungnyemun Gate, officially Korea’s number-one national treasure.

City Snapshot

Celebrity snapper Kim Jung-Man is Korea’s top commercial photographer and was named one of the country’s Men of Culture in 2000.

What’s the quintessential photograph of Seoul?

It lies somewhere between the historical past and the advance of the modern structure: the juxtaposition between hanoks and palaces, and its modern architecture. It is best to find this in Gwanghwamun, near Gyeongbokgung Palace.

What do you find most beautiful about Seoul?

Personally, I think I’m the only one in Seoul who enjoys red lights. I take photos while stopped in traffic.

Where is Seoul’s heart of art?

Hongdae and Insa-dong. Independent musicians play in the park at night in Hongdae and there is a great grunge vibe to the street art there. Hongdae has various flea markets where artists sell their wares, while Insa-dong is famous for its many art galleries and historic feel.

Where do you go to find nature in Seoul?

Namsan, which is Nam Mountain, the centre of the city. There is nature even in the heart of Seoul, if you know where to look.

Finally, favourite art gallery in Seoul?

Gallery Kong 

 

Words by Belinda Jackson - Published in Voyeur October 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 10.5 million
Area 605.28 km2
Time Zone GMT +9
Languages Korean (official)
Currency Korean Won (KRW)
Electricity 220V 60Hz
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