With the international spotlight firmly on South Korea and the Winter Olympics underway, we explore its dynamic capital city of Seoul; a modern metropolis and a well-kept secret amongst group travellers and prize winners.
In recent years, Seoul has made a concerted effort to soften its post-war concrete edges and the result is a wonderful mash-up of traditional and ultra-modern; soaring towers overlook traditional hanok (traditional style) villages, futuristic skygardens sit alongside ancient Buddhist temples and the new City Hall sits like a suspended wave over the old. Where polluted waterways once trickled through downtown, you’ll now find a landscaped sanctuary of walkways, footbridges and waterfalls where Seoulites gather to escape the thrum of the city. There’s a lot more to Seoul than K-pop and kimchi.
SLEEPING IN SEOUL
Four Seasons Seoul: For seasoned travellers
With bucket-loads of old city charm, the 317-room Four Seasons is located within a city oasis. Hong Kong designer Andre Fu’s signature minimalist aesthetic means that a meal at either of the hotel’s exquisite restaurants will be a stylish and sensory affair. Kioku is a Tokyo-style sushi bar that serves up elegant plates for diners in the know, while Yu Yuan offers the best Chinese dining experience in Seoul, picking up a Michelin star in 2017. The Charles H. Bar is a must for cocktail aficionados too. Named after the legendary American cocktail writer Charles H Baker, the menu embodies the romance and glamour of world travel as it traces Baker’s epic journeys in search of the perfect drink.
JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square: For the style conscious
One of Seoul’s newer additions, this 170-room boutique offering is marked out by its super chic interior. Relatively modest in size, it manages to punch well above its weight with fantastic views over Dongdaemun – where many an international exhibition takes place. There’s also a stunning indoor pool complete with marble tiles and a chandelier – what better reason to choose a hotel in the City.
Vista Walkerhill Seoul: For young groups
Formerly W Seoul, Vista Walkerhill re-opened its doors in September 2017 after an extensive renovation. The hotel retains its cutting-edge cool for younger groups but is looking to promote the idea of ‘sustainable luxury’ – which is immediately evident on entering the lobby where an 800-year-old olive tree now sits in pride of place. The hotel’s iconic bar overlooking the Han River is still in place but now with the addition of an 18m-long bar top – perfect for a craft cocktail at the end of a day of immersing yourself in the city’s best spots.
Its dining traditions may go back centuries but Seoul’s culinary scene is changing fast. You’ll still find warming bone broths served out of hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood spots, vast street food markets and temples dishing out elegantly simple vegan Buddhist fare, but there’s a new generation of chefs cooking up a storm.
With South Korea’s Michelin guide now in its second year, many young chefs are returning home to prove themselves in one of the most dynamic dining scenes on Earth. With new restaurant openings an almost daily occurrence, it’s not uncommon for the latest hyped establishment to have queues around the block one month and then disappear the next; Instagram-driven diners scouring the web for hotlists that are out of date before they’re even published.
Four Season’s Yu Yuan restaurant obviously makes the cut but here are a few more of our favourites:
With a Michelin star and views to die for, Bicena has made a new home for itself on the 81st floor of the Lotte World Tower, making it the highest restaurant in the country. Seoulites make the ascent for its authentic Korean cuisine.
First opened in trendy Gangnam in 2009, this pioneer of modern Korean dining quickly made it into Asia’s Top 50 restaurants. And while it has since moved into expanded premises in Cheongdam the food has remained sublime.
Fine dining and barbecue might not sit together in your mind but Byeokje Galbi is hard to beat on both counts. They specialise in beef and use only the best premium local meat (hanwoo) and serve the best cold noodles in the city.
Another Michelin-starred establishment, Mosu is a prime example of a returning chef done good. Sung Anh is heading back to Seoul from San Francisco and bringing his life experience to the table in the form of Korean food with Western techniques to create something truly unique.
SEOUL NIGHT LONG
Mexico has tequila, Scotland has whisky and South Korea has soju. Traditionally distilled from rice, South Koreans have been sipping on soju since the 13th century. Just be sure to mind your manners: use two hands when offering, accepting and drinking; and most importantly, never pour your own.
Karaoke may have been invented in Japan but nowhere has it been embraced like South Korea. You can hire out these themed wonderlands and sing your heart out in front of your colleagues. Noraebang, or song rooms, come equipped with thick songbooks so rest assured that there’ll be a Whitney ballad or two in there amongst the K-pop classics.
If you’ve grown tired of your colleagues singing Oasis covers in faux-Manchester accents then we’ve got a few recommendations of our own:
Yes it’s in Hongdae. And no we didn’t expect to find the finest craft cocktails in the city in a student district either. But here we are. There are no surreptitious speakeasy vibes here but once you’re inside, the bottles that line the back bar are very special: a selection of the finest spirits from all over the world that are served impeccably, whether straight or mixed.
Once in a Blue Moon
Spread over three floors, this jazz bar first opened its doors in ’98. In that time it has seen many pretenders to its crown but it remains the place to go for live jazz every night by both South Korean and international artists.
Located on the top floor of the 21-storey Mercure Ambassador Hotel, Kloud has an irresistible combination of spectacular panoramic views, a chic atmosphere and top-notch cocktails. Kloud describes itself as the sort of place James Bond would relax on a night off and who are we to argue with that level of confidence.
Public transport in South Korea is phenomenal, if you’re all too familiar with the perennially delayed Southern Rail service into London Victoria then this is the utopia you’ve been yearning for on your morning commute. With that in mind, there’s no excuse not to venture slightly further afield to experience life outside the capital.
The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) a 4km-wide & 240km-long buffer zone, is ironically the most militarised border in the world and has become a major tourist attraction, with observatories that allow you a sneak peek into North Korea. You’ll probably want to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) – nowhere else can you get as close to North Korea, or its soldiers, without risk of being shot – just don’t forget your passport.
South Korea’s second city, Busan has white-sand beaches, pristine mountains, hot springs and sumptuous seafood. Life here moves at half the frenetic pace of Seoul so it can offer a welcome respite while still having lots to offer. For an added touch of glamour, you could visit in October when the annual Busan International Film Festival is held.
Known as the ‘museum without walls’, Gyeongju is packed with more tombs, temples, pagodas and palaces than you can shake a stick at. Travel back in time to the capital of the Silla Empire and visit significant sights such as Bulguk-sa and Seokguram en route to or from Busan.
Under the radar of many visitors, Jeonju was designated a Unesco City of Gastronomy in 2012. The spiritual home of bibimbap, here you can wander cobbled lanes, graze at food stalls and enjoy a soju-sauced night out. The largest collection of hanok in the country, many of the buildings have been restored and so aren’t strictly antique – but it still looks the part. Nambu market is the street food hotspot: we’d recommend the hotteok (pancakes), mandu (dumplings), churros, meatballs and deep fried squid. Makgeolli is the local tipple; this fermented rice milk is served in huge kettles and best enjoyed as part of a small group – it’s infamous for its horrendous hangovers.
WHEN TO GO