Seoul, South Korea, is a gem of an Asian city, though it is sometimes overlooked in favor of places such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. Seoul is a blend of West and East, with clear American influences infusing fashionable areas of the city (e.g. Dunkin’ Donuts in the tony and now infamous Gangnam neighborhood). The South Korean capital offers luxury, excitement and culture at a high level and should not be dismissed when visiting Asia.
Sightseeing in Seoul
Gyeongbokgung is the most famous palace in Seoul and well-worth seeing. Give yourself a few hours to stroll the grounds of this grand Joseon Dynasty compound. The palace has been reconstructed twice, once after falling to disrepair after nearly three centuries without use and once after it was partially destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Modern Seoul has grown up around the Gyeongbokgung complex, so visitors can see the contrast of the ancient and ultra-contemporary in the city.
Namsan Tower is not an especially attractive sight in and of itself, but it does afford visitors an excellent view of the city. The tower is officially the North Seoul Tower, but is generally known by the name of the mountain on which it is built. There is a restaurant in the tower that is known as a romantic spot in the city, though it is also a pricey one, best for special occasions. After enjoying the ambiance during lunch or dinner, couples can place a “love padlock” on a tree on the observation deck, making for a special memory of the city.
Seoul was the site of the 1988 Summer Olympics and as such, now has a lovely Olympic Park that is a great place to visit, especially during the spring and summer months. The World Peace Gate is an imposing and slightly bizarre structure that signals the entrance to the lovely green space. There are unique sculptures throughout the park, as well as tree-lined walking paths. Stroll down them and you will see the impressively fit Korean senior citizens, as well as young lovers catching some time together without the watchful eyes of their parents. It’s a great place to picnic with friends and enjoy some kimbap and soju for an afternoon.
The War Memorial of Korea is a somber place to visit, but an important one to understand the country’s turbulent history and gain better perspective on conflicts in the region. There is a museum in addition to the memorial, and is not to be missed. The excellent Lee-um Samsung Museum is a great place to pass an afternoon. At each level of the museum, visitors are immersed in various eras of regional art, from ancient sculpting techniques to contemporary and abstract pieces.
Shopping in Seoul
Seoul is an excellent city for shopping, especially when it comes to clothes, accessories and cosmetics. South Koreans are notoriously well-dressed and it’s easy to see why when you glimpse the options available at every turn.
For high-end looks and designer fashion, Shinsegae department store is the place to go. Conveniently located near the Express Bus Terminal, Shinsegae is home to a wide range of well-known brands. Even the food court here is high-end, with foods worthy of a proper restaurant, rather than a quick meal on the go. You’ll also find international wines, desserts and hard-to-find Western foods here.
The Myeong-dong shopping district is packed with tiny boutiques, but has international chains such as Zara and Forever 21 as well. Clothes here are less expensive and more eccentric than the fashions you’ll find at Shinsegae, but they’re also of poorer quality and better suited to finding a quick look for a night out. The shopping streets come alive after dark and among the Korean cosmetics stores you should visit are Etude House (famous for its garish pink interiors), Nature Republic and The Face Shop, which sell inexpensive skin care and makeup.
While in this district, make sure you visit Lotte, a full service department store that has a terrific duty-free shopping hall. Lotte’s sporting goods department carries remarkably stylish sportswear for trekking, biking, and running. If you don’t have time to hit Lotte’s duty free shopping hall, you can do so at the Seoul international airport where they operate a massive duty free store filled with Korean cosmetics and skin care products such as Sulwahsoo, Laneige, and Amore Pacific.
Many subway stations are also turned into shopping havens, with stalls and stores bursting with inexpensive clothes, accessories and shoes. The Express Bus Terminal is a particularly extensive market, and has not only clothes but also household products, decorations and houseplants.
Eating out in Seoul
You can’t visit Seoul without spending time in a few Korean barbecue joints where you’ll gorge yourself on sizzling slices of pork and beef wrapped in sesame leaves stuffed with rice, grilled garlic, fresh kimchi and ssamjang, a spicy Korean sauce. There are barbecue restaurants all over the city, though you’ll find quite a concentration of them in Jongno-gu and Gangnam.
Seoul is not without its quality Western restaurants as well, and among the best of these is Zelen, a Bulgarian restaurant. The eatery is found at one end of a long food street in Itaewon, a district known for its international cuisine options and raucous – and occasionally sleazy – nightlife. The food at Zelen is cooked to perfection, and is hearty, filling and savory. They also have an impressive wine selection. It is a bit more expensive than your standard restaurant so it is best for a special occasion.
For fine dining in Seoul, CNN Travel has a round-up of 10 of the best restaurants in the city.
A good night out is very easy to arrange in this city. Itaewon is known for attracting large crowds of foreigners, in part because it is quite close to the American military base there. This is where you’ll find Homo and Hooker hills, which are fairly self-explanatory. Nights out in Itaewon tend to be rowdy. Hongdae, the university area, is a step up, with a great mix of bars, clubs and live music venues at which to dance away an evening.
Where to stay in Seoul
IP Boutique Hotel in Itaewon: funky, artsy reasonably priced, good location.
Tea Tree Hotel: boutique business hotel in Gangnam district
W Seoul: luxury hillside hotel 15 minutes from Gangnam, great for people who like to run and walk; excellent spa and restaurant.