Neon-washed streets and centuries-old palaces. Day markets, night markets, high-end shopping malls and old-school bath houses. Seoul is a city that always has a surprise up its sleeve. Whether you want to visit world-class museums, hike one of the seven mountains that stud the city, or just feast on fabulous Korean food, Seoul is a place where all things are possible.
Consistently ranking in the Asia edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Jungsik is without a doubt Seoul’s hottest table. Chef Yim Jung-sik delivers contemporary Korean with a twist, with dishes ranging from sea urchin bibimbap to a sublime pork belly. The wine pairings are also superb.
In some cities, diners queue to try the hottest new tables in town. In Seoul, they queue outside a restaurant that has been going strong for three decades. The menu at Tosokchon Samgyetang is packed with dishes designed to do your body good – as well as tasting good. Try the ginseng chicken soup or the stuffed whole chicken.
Want to try a local tradition? On the way home, many Seoul workers will stop in for a quick bite at eateries like Han Chu in Apgujeong. Fried chicken is the go-to dish, but the spicy fried peppers, stuffed with mince, is also a winner.
Need a meditative moment? The Tteuran Tea House is the place to find it. Overlooking a plant-filled courtyard, this old-school teahouse is a haven of tranquillity. Pull up a cushion to sit on (I said it was old-school) and order up a cup of chrysanthemum tea or fermented tea. If you are feeling hungry, the house specialty is red bean porridge.
“Keep calm and drink a book” is the motto at Chaeg Bar, one of several bookstore-bars building a following in Seoul. Tucked into the back alleys of Yeonhui-dong,this intimate venue lets you pick a beverage to match your reading matter. As most of the tomes are in Korean, you may want to bring your own book, but the atmosphere alone makes this worth a visit.
The Riedel glasses are the first sign that the good folk at El Senor Dulce take their wine seriously. The second? A list featuring more than 100 types of wine, from Bourgogne to Bourdeaux. The wines aren’t the only European classics on offer here: they also serve up a superb jamon iberico(Spanish cured ham).
On a sunny afternoon, it seems like half of Seoul heads to Bukhansan national park to take the three-hour trek to Baegundae peak. Much of the trail is shaded by trees and the views are truly superb. You will need proper hiking shoes, and the climb gets tougher as you get closer to the top, so be sure to pace yourself.
One of Seoul’s most tranquil walks is right in the heart of town. Once a polluted waterway, the rehabilitated Cheonggyecheon stream has become a popular place for strolling. With its banks well below street level, the sounds of the city are muted. Along the way you will walk past several small waterfalls and pass beneath 22 lovely bridges.
Sprawling across 915 hectares, Seoul Grand Park has endless options for a scenic stroll. Meander through the rose garden (at its best in June, when up to 30,000 bushes are in bloom), stroll through the Botanic Garden with its ferns, orchids and succulents, or follow the 6km-long trail through the Forest Park, which features a Forest of Meditation complete with a barefoot walking path.
The buildings at Seoul’s best gallery, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, designed by some of the world’s best-known architects, are as compelling as the art on the walls. Jean Nouvel’s rusty steel structure features works by big names such as Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol; inside Mario Botta’s terracotta brick structure, you will find Korean painting and ceramics as well as Buddhist art.
Korean tycoon Kam Chang-il repurposed a 1970s building near Changdeokgung Palace to display his outstanding contemporary art collection. Exploring the labyrinthine interiors of the Arario Museum in Space feels a bit like an artistic treasure hunt: you never know when you are going to stumble across a video by Nam June Paik or a piece by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
It is one of Seoul’s most Instagrammed locations but the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, is more than just an eye-catching piece of architecture. This creative hub variously functions as an incubator for rising designers and a museum showcasing Korean and global trends. And yes, bring your wallet – there are plenty of items for sale.
Local powerhouse Gentle Monsters now has an international following for its elegant eyewear, with in-demand styles regularly selling out. The company has several locations around town, but their original store in Gyedong is worth a visit in its own right, to admire the stylish conversion of an old public bathhouse.
Skip the glossy malls with their international brands and head for Insadong, the city’s single most intriguing shopping street. Here you will find plenty of traditional outlets selling everything from ceramics to antique furniture and calligraphy materials. Stop in at a shop selling hanji(handmade paper) for lightweight but lovely souvenirs.
Here’s the drill. First you wander through the displays at Simone Handbag Museum, which boasts more than 300 bags, ranging from the quirky – think World War Two gas mask bags – to the historic, including one specimen that is 500 years old. Then it is time to go shopping, in the museum’s two seductive outlets.