Welcome to Seoul, Asia’s fourth richest city
So you know your kimchi from your k-pop – time, then, to check out this cool Asian outpost.
‘Even if you have to crawl on your knees,’ states a historical Asian proverb, ‘get yourself to Seoul.’ South Korea’s dynamic capital city is a mash-up of mountains and markets, teahouses and temples. It’s a global hub for technology and fashion, and it’s also one of the world’s most intriguing foodie destinations.
Base yourself in well-positioned Insadong and explore Asia’s fourth richest city on foot. Spoken English is thin on the ground, but remember please (chusayo) and thank you (kamsahamnida), and you’ll receive warm welcomes wherever you go. Because if there’s one thing Koreans love more than shitty pop music, it’s manners.
The standout star of Seoul’s museum scene is the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, housing a stellar collection of Korean and contemporary international works (Damien Hirst has a permanent exhibition). For arts more martial, check out Kukkiwon, Taekwondo’s world headquarters, where you can watch a bout or have a lesson. And for those who get their kicks in greener surrounds, cycle round Seoul Forest, south of the river.
Myeong-dong is the best area for shopping, with Namdaemun Market a major highlight. At the other end of the spectrum, Shinsegae is Seoul’s Harrods equivalent, with local menswear labels like Eastlogue by Dongki Lee and Diafvine for leather jackets. And hit Ohkoos in Sinsa-dong and level five on the Noon Square Mall for next season’s trends.
Look no further than ShinShin – a sleek boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. Elsewhere, The Shilla in Dasan Dong – the young, lively district uphill from Itaewon – offers cutting-edge cool and five-star luxury.
Seoul food is incredible, with infinite options and a massive range of delicacies to sample – from galbi (barbecue ribs) to bulgogi (literally ‘fire meat’). For barbecue cuisine, look no further than Tuppul Deungshim, specialists in the highest quality hanwoo (Korean beef). If you fancy dumplings, eat at Koong. Gwangjang night market has vendors selling street food from stewed pig trotters and snouts to gimbap (veg, rice and ham rolled in sheets of seaweed). And for a treat, head to stylish basement restaurant, Gogung, and order a spicy Korean hotpot.
South Koreans down the most spirits, per capita, of any nation in the world – fact. Usually this is soju, a rice liquor, or makgeolli – a carbonated, milky rice wine. Intent on an evening out? Don’t miss the quintessential Seoul nightlife experience at any one of the pojenmacha (street tent bars) lining the Han River. For up-market, hit up luxe wine bar Naos Nova, or popular cafe-bar Comfort Zone. Then, there’s the Gangnam area (made famous by PSY), home to Seoul’s best clubs, including Ellui and Eden.
Make a beeline for N Seoul Tower (236m above sea-level) to get some initial bearings. Go at sunset for the most striking views then have dinner at n.GRILL, atop the tower. If karaoke (noraebang) is more your bag, head to the bar-lined streets of hipster-friendly Hongdae, where upmarket ‘Luxury Su’ should strike the perfect note.
Feel the chill of the Cold War on a guided tour of the infamous Demilitarised Zone, a 1.5-hour drive from Seoul. You’ll also be able to see the Third Infiltration Tunnel – part of a (failed) attempt by the North to invade in the ’70s