01 Grand Palaces
There are five of them, each offering a traditional architectural antidote to the brash, high-rise modernity that defines this city. Of the five, Changdeok in Jongno-gu is the grandest, surrounded by peaceful gardens. A visit here can be followed by a wander down Insa-dong, a street lined with shops selling antiques, dusty books and traditional Korean clothes, plus art galleries and great hawker stalls serving food faves such as ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and gimbap (Korean sushi).
02 Bukchon Village
This is the best place to catch a glimpse of old Korea, home to the largest number of hanock (traditional wooden houses) in Seoul. Wander narrow alleys leading to homes with pretty courtyards and call in to Art Sonje Center, a gallery specialising in experimental art, for a sense of the neighbourhood’s contemporary cultural clout. www.artsonje.org
03 Window shop
Unless you’ve got £100 to spend on a bag of mandarins, looking is all you’ll be doing at Shinsegae’s. But that’s OK, as Seoul’s landmark department store is an incredible sight. The food hall is a lesson in Korean culinary exotica, from fresh fish to otherworldly tropical fruit. The emporium has its own garden and is neighbour to the massive Namdeamun outdoor market. http://english.shinsegae.com
04 Mountain climb
Of the many mountains surrounding the city, Bugaksan is the most popular with walkers. Towering ominously over the president’s residence, this is where North Korean soldiers climbed in 1961 in an effort to assassinate the premier. It’s one of the best places for views of the city and is home to Seoul Fortress, the medieval city walls, which re-opened in 2006, having been closed to the public since the attempted assassination.
05 Island hop
The world’s largest floating island opened on the Han River this summer, followed by two more to create a three-strong archipelago focusing on arts and tourism. Unlike the man-made sandbank islands in Dubai, these islets, measuring over 35,000sq ft, float on the surface of the water, secured by ropes and buoys and are home to restaurants and concert halls. At night, the main island’s buildings are lit up, so the river seems to glow.
06 Sing Star
There are thousands of noraebang (karaoke rooms) in Seoul, so your inner pop star will be spoilt for choice. Most stock thousands of songs (a significant number in English) plus tambourines and disco lights. If you prefer to see a show, head to the Timber House — a bar decked out like a traditional Korean home in the basement of the Park Hyatt. www.seoul.park.hyatt.com
£££ The Gaon: Korea’s TV chef Yoon Jong-jin’s inventive offering in a traditional Korean kitchen, with dishes served on designer china. 631-23 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu. T: 0082 23446 8411.
££ Gorilla in the Kitchen: Owned by South Korean celebrity/actor Bae Yong-joon, this restaurant specialises in healthy food without sacrificing flavour or fun (‘human’ or ‘gorilla’ meal sizes are offered). 650 Sinsa-Dong, Gangnam-gu. T: 0082 23442 1688. www.gorillakitchen.co.kr
£ Naengmyeon Alley: Take your pick from the canteen-style restaurants along this alley in the Ojang-dong district for the city’s best naengmyeon (buck wheat noodle soup), from North Korea.
Great divide: Take a tour of the DMZ (demilitarised zone), the 38th parallel that splits South and North Korea in half, located about half an hour from the city. www.tourdmz.com
Did you know: South Korea is the birthplace of the controversial Unification Church, which is synonymous with the blessing ceremonies often referred to as mass ‘Moonie’ weddings — televised events that marry stranger brides and grooms in their thousands.
Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)