It’s often overlooked in favour of Tokyo, but Seoul is no less exciting. It marches to the beat of its own K-Pop drum, and has an exciting, vibrant and unique culture all of its own.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with this sprawling neon metropolis, which is as kitsch and eclectic as it is modern and progressive. You could spend hours simply wandering aound the interesting streets and stumbling across tea houses, restaurants, bars and incredible imperial buildings. From the towering N Seoul Tower to the dance-til-dawn bars and clubs of Hongdae, to the quirky boutiques of Myeongdong, there’s so much to discover in the city that you’ll likely be reluctant to leave.
Forget Stockholm; sweet potato lattés at Seoul’s weird and wonderful cafés are where it’s at. There are hundreds across the city, such as Café Noriter, which serves plenty of unusual red bean-based desserts. For roasted green tea caramel lattés and green tea roll cakes, go to a branch of Osulloc Tea House (www.osulloc.com).
Right in the centre of the city, this majestic building is a joy to wander around. The hourly changing of the guards at the gate is colourful and fun to watch, if a little bit of a tourist gimmick, but the gardens behind the gate are stunning. Especially if you visit in April when the whole place is engulfed by cherry blossoms.
Korean bathhouses are an essential part of everyday life in the country. Dunk yourself in and out of pools and Jacuzzis that range in temperature from more than 40°C to icy cold. Dragon Hill Spa (www.dragonhillspa.co.kr) is without doubt one of the flashiest, boasting a cinema, beauty treatment rooms and multiple dining outlets. The pools are gender segregated, so make sure to read up on etiquette before visiting. Many jimjilbangs around the country also offer sleeping rooms that are open 24/7. They are an excellent way to save money if you’re on a budget.
Also called a Noreabang, karaoke booths are easy to find in Seoul. In Seoul, people are serious about their singing and booths come with complicated remote controls for skipping instrumental bits, adding echoes and even changing vocal ranges. They are everywhere – just look out for some kind of neon sign with a microphone or musical symbol.
Korea has a unique and intriguing culinary scene. Head to busy markets and subway stations for fiery Tteokbokki (a sweet chili stew with rice and fish cakes) or visit Hongdae after dark when street carts appear piled high with all manner of skewered meats. Korean barbecue joints are a dime a dozen, and it would be criminal to visit the city without sampling Korean fried chicken. But don’t leave, either, without a meal at the best ramen bar in the city, Menya Sandaime. It’s unforgettable.
Nightlife in Hongdae
The kids in Korea know how to party. For a night out, head to the student district of Hongdae where the bars and clubs (everything from American-style dive bars to rock music venues) are packed from about 10pm until past dawn.
From modern art and photography galleries to a museum all about locks to another all about toilets, Seoul is crammed with weird, and wonderful museums. History buffs, in particular, will have plenty to see. The National Museum of Korea (www.museum.go.kr) is one of the largest in Asia, and offers a huge overview of the country’s history. At The War Memorial of Korea (www.warmemo.or.kr) you can wander between military hardware such as planes and tanks and view archival footage of the Korean war. For galleries, design shops and exhibition spaces and a 24-hour market, head to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (www.ddp.or.kr), or gaze at modern works at The Total Museum of Contemporary Art (www.totalmuseum.org).
Seoul is a shopping fan’s dream. Head to the famous bustling Myeongdong district for unique shops that you won’t find elsewhere in the world, along with global high street brands. Try the sprawling Dongdaemun market to get lost among the hundreds of quirky stalls crammed with kitsch Korean fashion. Metro stations also, oddly, offer shop after shop of second-hand clothing, food, technology, fashion and more — they are excellent for bargain hunting. After something a little more high-end? Check out Apgujeongm, which is full of designer brands, or to the Garosugil area of Gangnam for cutting-edge finds from up-and-coming designers.
Where to stay
Grand Hyatt Seoul
Rooms at this luxurious hotel come with breathtaking, panoramic city vistas. If you’re not on a budget, the views alone make it worth the five-star prices. The staff are fantastic, too.
This beautiful little traditional guesthouse is one of the more upmarket and picturesque in the city. Traditional Korean porridge is served for breakfast, for free, and there are a number of experiences on offer including kimchi-making and traditional tea ceremonies.
Thanks to the large American military presence, subways in Seoul have plenty of English and are relatively easy to navigate. It’s extensive enough that it should be the only transport you will need. There’s plenty of information online, too.
Qatar Airways fly direct to Seoul from Doha from QR6,255. Flights take approximately eight-and-a-half hours.