It’s ironic how Pyongyang, capital of secretive North Korea, is never out of the news — thanks to the shenanigans of its corpulent ‘Dear Leader’ — yet Seoul, by comparison, almost hides in plain sight.
A pulsating megalopolis of 10.5 million, the South Korean capital isn’t somewhere to tick off highlights. Much of its remaining architecture from the 500-year Joseon Dynasty that had survived Japanese occupation (1897-1945) and the Korean War (1950-53) was swept away by unbridled development during the 1970s, as South Korea’s fast-paced ‘Asian Tiger’ economy transformed the country.
From Bukchon’s well-preserved historic quarter, the view over downtown Seoul is of an unending concrete and glass jungle straddling the Hangang River. “If you see photographs from after the war, this was just a devastated plain of dust,” says Jinny Kim, a local guide. Seoul rebuilt and rose like a phoenix in a hurry.
Now, with lightning transformation from Third World to developed economy achieved, Seoul has nurtured its cultural psyche and embraced internationalism over the past decade. Youthful, fashion-conscious, coffee-shop-addicted, shopaholic Seoulites flood the streets nightly, as if atoning for recent generations’ austerity.
It’s a city for night owls, devotees of urban design and fashion and, most importantly, culinary adventurers, because authentic Korean food remains the most unheralded on the planet.
“When I first came here, the energy felt like being dropped into a bucket of icy water,” says ex-pat Alabaman Joe McPherson, a food-blogger at zenkimchi.com and resident of 10 years.
Does Seoul have soul? Does Gangnam have style? Load up your credit card, forget about sleep, and enjoy the ride finding out.
Seoul’s finest indulgence is filling your stomach with the spices, peerless sourness, persimmon sweetness, and textural nuances of Korean food; complemented with milky makgoelli (rice wine) and soju (rice liquor). You can enjoy a different style of cuisine every night at speciality restaurants. Perhaps chilled naengmyeon noodles or a hanjeongsik (banquet) — dipping your chopsticks into abundant side dishes accompanying a ceramic pot of rice. Koreans love eating at a table bowing under the weight of dishes, which inevitably include the national addiction, kimchi: a hot, spicy — and particularly stinky — fermented vegetable dish.
Joe McPherson runs ZenKimchi, a food tours/blog website that offers an insider’s insight into the city’s bewildering array of culinary options.
“Fermentation is what makes Korean food different — the bean pastes and kimchi,” Joe tells me, as we tour three restaurants around Mapo District, which is largely unfrequented by Western diners. “It’s so good I’ve had Japanese visitors on my tour saying, ‘My god, this food actually tastes of something.’”
Mapo Jeong Daepo is a barbecue house where diners, seated around circular tables resembling hubcaps, grill salted pork belly and a pork cut called galmaegisal (skirt-meat) on hot coals. Joe demonstrates how to wrap lettuce-leaf parcels of grilled meat, kimchi, and spicy ssamjang paste. “You can impress locals by stuffing it in all in one mouthful, as they do,” he says. Chewing slowly to avoid choking on such impolite mouthfuls creates a lengthy enjoyment of colliding flavours.
Seoul’s markets are an introduction to the cuisine’s communality: sharing dishes and noisy prolonged toasts of makgoelli (wheat-and-rice wine), slurped from tin bowls. Gwangjang Market is usually so crowded it’s hard to find bum space on benches around food stations preparing fresh mung bean pancakes and raw beef salads. Market food is superb value: two dishes and a 50cl bottle of rice wine typically costs just 13,000KRW (£9).
“You have to prepare Korean food with your heart and mutual respect for customers,” explains Mi-Kyung Lee, who hosts cookery courses at cultural centre Korea House, where I’m taught to prepare refined royal court dishes like seasoned bamboo shoots with ripe persimmon and cabbage-wrapped dumplings.
“Food must be prepared for health, as if serving medicine,” explains Mi-Kyung, outlining five basic ingredient colours for body harmony. They include: black for kidneys (e.g. shitake mushrooms); green for liver detoxification (e.g spinach); and red for reducing cholesterol (e.g. chili).
Seoul’s current penchant for oven-fired pizzas doesn’t quite conform to this culinary yin and yang. Nevertheless, global food outlets are burgeoning here. “When I first arrived it was a monoculture of Korean foods, but 10 years on and you can now eat any international food imaginable,” says Joe.
The finest import is Pierre Gagnaire à Séoul — the eponymous establishment of the three-Michelin-starred French super-chef — on the 35th-floor of Lotte Hotel Seoul; its lavish interior inspired by the Secret Garden at Versailles. If I’d imagined this bastion of French haute cuisine might incorporate Korean influences, such notions evaporated when a classic-style starter of exquisite refinement arrived: ‘pocket cocktails’, featuring lobster veloute and foie gras.
Pierre Gagnaire’s exquisite lunchtime menu is a quatre-plat snip at 121,000KRW (£69) yet utilises only a modicum of local ingredients — not least mouthwatering Korean beef and a local omiza berry coulis that added zest to a stratospherically scrumptious chocolate mousse. Passionate head chef Frédéric Eyrier, from Avignon, makes no apologies for the Francophilic menu. “Our guests are mainly Korean, they come for a taste of France — not grilled pork,” he chides. I smile (discreetly) when he analyses Korean ingredients: “There are no truffles, no veal, we have to get lamb from Australia… but you know, I think the oysters here are even better than in France”.
A typical Korean night out involves different stages (cha): il-cha, i-cha, sam-cha, and so on until inebriation, or worse, noraebang — Korean karaoke. Stage one, il-cha, is the main meal. For stage two, i-cha, the group may well move on to a bar (or hof) for more beverages, accompanied by snacks (beer and chicken is a popular combo). Thereafter, sam-cha involves more libations with nightclubbing a distinct possibility. Seoulites work hard and play hard and the big night out can be on any evening of the week.
A good plan is to enjoy the contrast of the three main entertainment districts: Gangnam, Hongdae, and Itaewon. Gangnam resident Jinny Kim tells me rapid economic growth since the 1980s has transformed what was once a virtual wasteland into a skyscraper-infested playground for the rich and famous. The hottest nightclub here is an edgy venue called Octagon. “It’s for beautiful guys and girls who dance well,” says Jinny, “but you won’t get in if you’re over 30”. Judging by the numerous hoardings advertising local cosmetic surgeons, it’s clear more than a few of these beautiful people may have had a little help living up to the ‘sexy lady’ lyric in local pop star Psy’s hit song, Gangnam Style.
By contrast, Hongdae is a student area. Like a supersized Camden Market, it’s neon-lit streets throng with dressed-down kids and laid-back creative types out evening shopping and socialising; enjoying busking artists and getting caffeinated within the insane density of coffeehouses. There’s even a cafe for the stressed-out to therapeutically pet cute puppies.
Somewhere in between these contrasts lies the more grown-up Itaewon. Popular with foreigners, the risque nightlife here has its origins in the wartime entertainment laid on for US GIs in the ’50s. A small red-light district also remains, but today Itaewon is better known for pioneering Seoul’s LGBT club scene, and its international cuisine.
Look no further than ‘World Food Street’, a United Nations of entertainment, to perform a Korean cha-cha-cha. After marinated barbecued pork belly at Maple Tree House, I migrate for i-cha to the frighteningly hip Glam Lounge, whose long, moodily-lit central bar is abuzz with well-heeled professionals, untroubled by the eye-watering price of fine wines. Thereafter, it was chillax time at The Bungalow Tropical Lounge, where patrons remove their socks in the indoor sandpit and sip cocktails shaken by female mixologists under plastic palm trees. For sam-cha, I head to All That Jazz for live music; joining a youthful crowd appreciating an energetic quintet in a warehouse-like setting.
There’s no escaping Seoul’s 24/7 rampant consumerism. Besides vast street markets at Namdaemun and Dongdaemun and skyscraper department stores, even underpasses invariably lead into nebulous subterranean malls.
The sort of souvenirs you might be expected to return from the Far East with — ceramic tea-sets, speciality teas — can be easily bought in Insadong, on popular tourist shopping street Insadong-gil, or from the artisans of Bukchon.
Today, however, shopping here should be defined by innovation and cutting-edge design. Thirty-one-year-old designer Goen.J is a rising star in the fashion world. She works among trendy Sinsadong Street’s upmarket fashion boutiques. “My theme is harmony and contrast; masculine garments but feminised with faux fur, velour, and lace,” she says as we examine a picture of Rihanna wearing a Goen.J creation: a knee-length baseball jacket. “Seoul has many young designers not out for commercialism but the right time and place for their clothes,” she adds. Nearby outlet Koon with a View sells her garments.
Shopping in Seoul is highly interactive. In Sinsadong, BagStage is a handbag-themed — and handbag-shaped — building that features a museum, and a store selling its 0914 brand but also offers customers the opportunity to make their own handbags under the tuition of designers during a short course costing 200,000KRW (£115). Meanwhile, Samsung d’light is this mega-corporation’s showroom. It’s a must to visit, if only to play on Samsung’s next generation technology — prices for the latest items such as Galaxy Gear smartwatches are scarcely cheaper than buying online.
Seoul is chiefly somewhere to throw yourself into rather than sightsee in. Yet the architectural legacy of 27 kings from Seoul’s powerful Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) lingers on. Bukchon retains many traditional hanok houses in an early 20th-century district, formerly home to royal courtesans and artisans. Now gentrified, Bukchon’s twisty lanes are overhung by the upturned eaves of stone-tiled roofs and are great to explore on foot. Some hanoks have been converted into tea houses like Cha Mashineun Ddeul, which serves chrysanthemum tea and pumpkin rice cakes, and artisans’ workshops, several of which teach traditional court skills.
Knot-making, for decorative tassels, was all the rage during dynastic times and is now taught by fourth-generation craftswoman Jin-Young Park, who teaches me to knot a decidedly untraditional damselfly-shaped fob for my mobile phone. “My ancestor was a knot-maker at the last Joseon court in the early 1900s,” says Park. “Cheap imports from China have reduced our profession but I maintain our family tradition so it isn’t lost.”
Nearby, in the royal quarter, are two of Seoul’s five massive Joseon palace complexes, dating from the late 14th century. Gyeongbokhung and Changdeokgung’s tiered pavilions, temples, and pagodas rival Beijing’s Forbidden City for spectacle — not least during Gyeongbokhung’s showy changing of the guard ceremony, performed six times daily on the hour by a theatrically attired cast of thousands.
Seoul’s loveliest secret, however, lies within Chagdeokgung’s 192-acre walled garden. Daily guided tours are rushed, but on Thursdays you can pay 15,000KRW (£8.40) and amble around unhurried by yourself. It’s totally Zen.
Although only a dozen subway stops apart, Rak Ko Jae and the W Seoul – Walkerhill are two hotels that seem to be separated by a time travellers’ wormhole. Rak Ko Jae, a century-old hanok, has been lovingly restored to exude feng shui calm within its walled compound. Originally a scholar’s house, five rooms face onto a courtyard of bamboo and pines, glazed fermenting pots and an ancestral shrine. In the mornings, an aesthetically appealing breakfast tray of savoury porridge with accompanying crisped anchovies and kimchi is delivered to guests.
“Most hanoks were destroyed during wartime,” says assistant manager Whoopi Mun. “The owner [Mr Ahn] was motivated to restore this one because he was ashamed to invite his American business colleagues to Korea, as he felt Seoul’s culture was being lost.”
The rooms are similar in appearance to those in traditional Japanese inns: with futon beds, short-legged tables, and sliding, canvas windows. But, Whoopi explains, the main way in which hanoks differ from their Japanese counterparts is the deliciously snug underfoot heating. Instead of having tatami mats, the floors are made from pressed paper, heated from the outside by a wood fire that spreads warmth in the manner of a Roman hypocaust.
Light years away in ethos, meanwhile, is the W Seoul – Walkerhill. Before entering the lobby, guests are forewarned of its sci-fi content by a polka-dot facade and forest of pink neon pillars. It’s sex on concrete foundations.
The problem with the W is you don’t know where to look first. Every nook and cranny bursts with wildly wacky design touches. The atrium/lobby has stepped seating arranged like a Roman forum and offers a2001: A Space Odyssey view of the future, including geode seats that are pure Terence Conran. Stepping inside the Water Zone’s spa and swimming pool, meanwhile, feels like entering the psychedelic Lego creation of a mad scientist on LSD; weirder still, funky neon gymnast rings light the elevators’ black interiors.
All the while there’s a pervading heartbeat of electronic music throughout the hotel; a Mark Ronson remix greets me as I enter my room, where magnificent views of the Hangang River are unhindered, even from within the bathroom, due to a Perspex interior wall. The volume dial ramps up after 9pm, when the beautiful people arrive and the lobby transforms into one of Seoul’s hippest nightspots: WooBar. The resident DJ mixes from somewhere inside a giant pod.
Neither of these two hotels comes cheap. Fortunately, there are other accommodation options in the city that offer value without sacrificing style or comfort. The 75-room Hotel Shinshin, located downtown, near Namdaemun Market, has doubles from 175,000KRW (£100). Originally built in 1964, Shinshin is a microcosm of how Seoul has mellowed in the intervening period — evolving a functional, concrete brutalist building (when Seoul was experiencing rapid, growth-at-all-costs development) to a stylish little boutique number, redesigned in funky, bumblebee colours.
The extensive metro system is excellent. Buy a fixed price T-money M-Pass (top-up as you go) card at Incheon International Airport for unlimited travel, including on the A’REX airport transfer train into downtown Seoul. From 10,000 won (£5.60) for a one-day pass.
When to go
Korea has a hot, wet summer in the middle of the year, and a cold winter from November-March, with temperatures from -9C to 30C. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
Need to know
Currency: Won (KRW). £1 = 1,750KRW.
International dial code: 00 82.
Time difference: GMT +9.
Time Out Seoul. RRP: £12.99.
How to do it
BA Holidays offers five nights at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill, including flights, from £1,039 per person. ba.com/holidays
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)