South Korea’s capital is a modern city literally built on its own history. From the sleek suite atop the new Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seoul, you can look out look over the Gyeongbokgung Palace and appreciate the stunning contrast of how this city was created right on top of its former kingdom.
This was where royals dressed in elegant frocks promenaded, perhaps in similar fashion to those in the Korean drama Jewel in the Palace. Perhaps this will help you understand why the subtly modernised interpretation of traditional motifs – lattice works, peony blossoms, butterflies, stripes, mythical tigers – appear in the interiors of many of Seoul’s most stylish establishments.
The home of K-Pop, Samsung phones, astonishing and delightful fashion and Hyundai cars is also a land of rich and extraordinary history – much of it still respected and busily being reinterpreted.
Unlike the well-preserved cities of Europe, Seoul has been constantly reinvented with old areas demolished and replaced with new districts influenced by anything from German Bauhaus to American Wild West to Roppongi Hills, or even Star Trek.
Seoul is one of the most exciting cities in the world. If you are looking for something to stimulate your senses, you won’t be disappointed.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (ddp.or.kr), the city’s most famous destination for cultural programs including Seoul Fashion Week, looks like a space station on Mars. But, if you look closely, you’ll find it was built right on top of the old castle wall connecting Dongdaemun, or the former East Gate, nearby.
The late architect Zaha Hadid was allegedly surprised to find stunning ancient remains upon digging the ground and embraced them as part of the site design.
For the past thousand years, the area has attracted merchants and shoppers, and today the area is open 24/7, complete with a tax-refund office. Check out Doota (doota-mall.com), and browse Migliore, next door; it’s like looking through virtual Korean shops but real-time.
Myeong-dong is one of the primary shopping districts in Seoul. The two main streets meet in the centre of the block with one beginning from Myeong-dong Subway Station (Seoul Subway Line No. 4) and the other from Lotte Department Store at Euljiro. Many brand name shops and department stores line the streets and alleys selling clothes, shoes, and accessories.
Colours are eclectic and shoes can be anything from Mickey Mouse to Chanel chic. It’s what makes shopping in Seoul a real voyage of discovery.
Korea is a land of carnivores. Korean BBQ is world-famous. Why not specifically look for “A++” (pronounced as “tuppul” in Korean) and secretly watch your Korean friends flinch?
Hanwoo refers to rice straw-fed Korean breed of cows raised locally. Due to extreme popularity and demand, the beef is constantly in shortage, thus strictly controlled and graded by the government authority. A++ is the highest grade followed by A+, A and so on. A-grade Hanwoo rarely requires marinade, and at US$30 or more per 100 gram, serious carnivores can break the bank, especially over delicious Gran Cru or 20-proof authentic soju made of real rice. (Regular green bottles are made of tapioca and artificial sweeter, FYI.)
A leading restaurant group Dinehill (dinehill.co.kr) operates Two Plus specializing in top-grade beef.
If you’re a pork lover, don’t settle for anything less than authentic black pig meat, or “heukdoeji” straight from Jeju Island. Koreans know exactly what it is: pricier than regular pork often imported from Chile, but it’s worth the price. Restaurant chain Heukdonga (blackpigkorea.co.kr) is a good place to try. Not fancy but reputable and affordable. And, be sure to leave your Balmain at home.
People-watching over a cup of latte is fun at Coffeesmith (coffeesmith.co.kr) on Garosu-gil in Gangnam. The coffee chain is famous for being right in the smack of trendy spots, usually attracting young and hip crowd, like the one on Garosu-gil, a popular area for shopping and dining. Be sure to bring a pair of fashionable sunglasses to hide your obvious glare at oh-so-perfect Korean beauties passing by.
After sundown, sociable types, Korean or foreign, enjoy bar and lounge hopping in the area called Itaewon, unless you’re into grand Gangnam-style clubbing on electro beats. At Korea’s most famous club Octagon (octagonseoul.com), bouncers screen based on how you look, or who you’re connected to. My tip: pre-pay a private room and you may find yourself next to famous Korean stars on a night out.
For less serious evening out, check out Glam Lounge (02-796-6853 for reservation) where dress code is strictly enforced (no shorts, flip-flops and sweat shirts – even if you really went to Harvard).
Fragrant house cocktail at about US$10 is a perfect starter, and if you’re in the mood for dancing, just walk over to Club Mute (in the same building), featuring Korea’s – and occasionally world-class DJs. The street where Glam is located on is the city’s most popular destination (like Soho in Hong Kong, but a more subdued, short strip) for drinking, dining and dancing – and making potentially new friends. All done? Now you know what you want to do for your next trip to Seoul.
T-money and Cashbee are cards can be used on public buses and subways in several different metropolitan cities and locations throughout the nation. Even many cabs take them, and they start at just $3. The transport systems in Seoul are good, with buses and trains at regular times.