When I visited Seoul, Korea in 2009 to explore its soju industry for a liquor trade book, I found the city to be a sensory overloaded K-Pop video come to life. It was awash with “what recession?” mega-malls, designer branded outdoor advertising and teens wearing frilly statement fashion. Plastic surgery-driven med tourism was also taking off in a big way at that time. In other words, “Gangnam style” was a way of life three years before it was parodied in Psy’s witty video.
Seoul’s med tourism industrial has grown since 2009, as has high-end mega-mall shopping. However, a different mood in the city had since taken over---one that invites a visitor to seek out places where natural, indigenous beauty reigns supreme. Several palaces, temples and parks are so gorgeous that a 30-minute dash through them is an injustice. During my November 2015 visit, I could have sat contentedly for hours in a temple or palace courtyard soaking in sky, trees and centuries old architectural influences.
Café society, as it exists today in this city, is also a mellow treat, and not only because it is fun to people watch and see what vibrant expressions of street fashion are cropping up. In fact, one thing that may surprise many westerners about Seoul is that the coffee is phenomenal. Although neither coffee nor the practice of sipping coffee is native to Korea, Koreans have truly made it their own. In Seoul, every other storefront is a coffee bar. Furthermore, there is a consistency of quality, whether you buy a cup from Starbucks, a local chain (i.e. A Twosome Place, Paris Baguette, Caffe Bene or Angel-in-Us) or a one-off gem like 2Cats Café in Insadong or DooRoo in the Bukchon historic area. And by the way, the tea in its many forms, not surprisingly, is also fabulous.
The new, more welcoming vibe of Seoul, however, is no accident. “Given Seoul's reputation as a high tech city, we are working on improving our digital apps and web presence to make them as user friendly as possible,” said Jin-Hyeok Park, Head of the Seoul Convention Bureau’s MICE managing team over a breakfast to introduce me and other reporters from Spain, Argentina, France, the U.S. and the U.K. to the city’s rich array of convention and meeting options. “We are also working on communicating to ordinary Seoul citizens and hospitality professionals the importance of improving their foreign language capabilities. This includes a ‘smile campaign’ to make overseas visitors feel welcome.”
Park also mentioned the city was stepping up efforts to stage festivals and fairs on a year-round basis, not only for locals looking for something fun to do, but also for visitors an opportunity to interact with Seoul’s lifestyle and people. While my trip was technically a business-focused exploration, I was able to break away after dinner to check out the Seoul Lantern Festival. I ended up spending nearly two hours marveling at what could be done with light and paper, and seeing how the locals reacted to the gorgeous ephemeral sculptures. It also left me wondering if I had enough SkyMiles points saved up for a return trip (a proper vacation) in Korean Air’s generally excellent Prestige Class cabin.
Where History and Culture are in Style
Many of Seoul’s most famous temples, palaces and museums, including Gyeongbokgung Palace (Korea’s answer to Buckingham Palace, flanked by the excellent National Folk Museum of Korea) are no-brainer activities for the to-do lists. However, new cultural and multi-purpose sites have opened their doors
One excellent example of this is The Seoul Museum (not to be confused with the Seoul Museum of Art). Located in the tranquil Jongno neighborhood, the pyramid-shaped structure showcases Korean artists from the late 19th century forward as well as traveling exhibits that blend international and Korean artists. Its grounds encompass a 1,000 year-old Shilla Dynasty pagoda, a 650 year-old pine tree and Seokpajeong, a restored heritage building built by Heungseon Daewongun, father of the Jeoson Dynasty’s last king who ruled at the end of the 19th century. Dongdaemun Design Plaza (a.k.a. DDP), designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, may primarily be designed for conventions. However, it is worth a look for its futuristic design as well as art galleries, children’s museum and a sprawling design store with one-of-a-kind things you probably won’t find at the Shinsegae or Hyundai department stores.
Jinkwansa Temple, located at Seoul’s western edge and originally established in 1010 BC (and rebuilt after the Korean War), is a heaven on earth. In the capable hands of the temple’s Buddhist nuns, you can reclaim inner peace through a sublime “temple food” vegan lunch, dahdoh (tea ceremony) or full-blown temple stay complete with meditation sessions. While Coex, encompassing convention space and a popular-with-the-kids mall, one of its best features is its being across the street from Bongeunsa, a stunning Buddhist temple on hilly grounds originally constructed in the 8th Century with an impressive Buddha.
The Seoul History Museum takes visitors from pre-history through various royal dynasties to the years since the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Korea emerged as a global technological, financial and pop cultural juggernaut. Unique features include a couple of photo booths (putting you in traditional costume and historic settings), a decorative arts room, an impressive model of the city and an area tracking pop culture through the decades. Just next door, there’s Gyeonghuigung, the most humble of the city’s five main royal palaces providing a poignant counterpoint to the splendor of Gyeongbokgung.
There are also slightly irreverent venues tapping into definitively Koran pop culture and technology. The new Seoul outpost of the Paris-based Grevin Museum has a fascinating floor with key Korean historic figures, a music-themed floor (imagine “Vogue-ing” with Madonna, moving like Jagger or doing it “Gangnam Style” with Psy), a Korean soap opera themed room and other rooms celebrating athletes (Michael Jordan), cinema (have dinner with DeNiro and Pacino!), world leaders (Mandela, Gandhi) and artists (Picasso). If you are really intrigued with the growing global K-Pop phenomenon, you can learn about it in all three dimensions at SMTOWN, launched by SM Entertainment, effectively the “Motown” of K-Pop. The in-your face experience includes a themed hotel, virtual concerts and opportunities to get a VIP wardrobe makeover and dance lessons.
Fit For A King…or Queen
Several of the city’s best dining options are a custom fit for group dinners and lunches, though Some smaller tables can be had by asking your concierge to phone or email the restaurant to check on availability. Jinjinbara, with six locations across the city, specializes in traditional hanjeongsik (or, multi-course meals inspired by what kings would have eaten back in the days of the dynasties). Delicately prepared side dishes, including kimchee (spicy cabbage), pickled vegetables, fried vegetable pancakes, cold noodles, seaweed and mushrooms beautifully frame various fish, beef and pork “main” dishes and rice, which is served last.
Mingles in Gangnam has earned its rep as one of the city’s “it” restaurants for turning hanjeongsik on its head with infusions of Japanese, French and Italian flavor and techniques. It also looks like an artists’ studio, with its earthy décor and eclectic scattering of pottery and artwork. Top Cloud, in contrast, personifies modern Korean luxury at its most extreme. Rooted with soft, live jazz, the sky-high restaurant rolls out elaborate buffet-style and set menu options along with gracious service, a very futuristic décor scheme and 360º vistas.
Meat lovers shouldn’t leave Seoul without a visit to a sizzling, savory Korean BBQ. Though not fancy, Chamsookgol has the requisite private rooms on its upper floors for group dining and is renowned for generous portions of perfectly marinated beef cooked at the table, and tons of side dishes and condiments. We wash the feast down with Cass, one of Korea’s fizzy, food-friendly beers.
With street food being as en vogue as fine dining everywhere in the world—and especially in Korea--Gwangjang Market lives up to its hype by Anthony Bourdain and others from the West have established. The aromas generated by such treats as mungbean pancakes, tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes in a spicy r pepper paste sauce), odeng (fish cakes) and other fried snacks, dumplings and soups make the quest a worthwhile pursuit. Furthermore, everything is proffered with great showmanship by grandmotherly ajummas (Korean ladies).
What’s in Store
Make no mistake—Koreans still love their international labels, and one can find them in force in the Apgujeong area. While Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Ferragamo draw local fashionistas, higher end Korean labels and street fashion can be found at spots like Dover Street Market, Boon the Shop and MIK 24/7. Myeong-dong, adjacent to the North Seoul Tower, is full-blown urban Asian capitalism and earned comparisons to Tokyo’s Shibuya district by Vogue. Go here for the ultimate people-watching experience, especially as international high street stores like Zara and Uniqlo dominate.
In Dongdaemun, architect Zaha Hadid was not the only one making a bold fashion statement. In the home of Seoul Fashion Week, savvy shoppers can literally get lost in style at countless boutiques housed in shopping complexes like Doota (a favorite haunt of mine from my 2009 trip, where I picked up pewter gladiator sandals that I just can’t part with) and other fashion market buildings housing local designers. Some venues are open well into the early morning hours. Those in power-shopping mode can refuel at Dongdaemun Market’s street food stalls. Avid bargain hunters may also be pleased to discover that some of the same embroidered bags, enamel boxes and other craft items can be unmined in some of the shops and kiosks at Gwangjang Market.
Although Insadong is no longer a new shopping neighborhood discovery (still wear the delicate silver fan and cherry blossom earrings I splurged on in ’09), one-off stores and street vendors tucked in amid souvenir places hawking embroidery and celadon pottery are worth your time. A tiny mall with tinier boutiques in the center of the neighborhood, as well as the little alley offshoots, are as addictive as ever. 2Cats Café, three floors above the street, is warm and welcoming—complete with irresistible Scottish folds and tabbies.
The real find of my recent trip, however, is the business district surrounding historic Bukchon Hanok Village, tucked away between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgun palaces. The area, which is a living, breathing neighborhood and not a tourist section, is by its very design quiet, intimate and private (i.e. it is no longer a site covered by walking tours at the urging of its current residents). Consequently, art galleries, specialty museums, jewelry stores and clothing boutiques have done an excellent job of extending the character of the Hanok homes into their properties. The coffeehouse DooRoo feels like you could be inside one of those homes, with its bookshelves, artwork, sepia lighting and wooden furnishings. And yes, some of the best coffee and hot cocoa in town can be found here.
The Four Seasons Seoul
The Four Seasons Seoul (fourseasons.com/seoul) opened October 2015, just in time for its explosively colorful autumn and the Seoul Lantern Festival along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, now restored and transformed into a fine promenade in the city center after having been paved over for years. The hotel, which looks like an unfolding fan, is walking distance from key government buildings and several of Seoul’s most important historic landmarks, including the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul City Hall and The Seoul Museum of History. Postcard views abound on higher floors and the VIP executive level. The city’s still-emerging cocktail scene is off and running at the speakeasy-inspired Charles H. and Bar Boccalino, where Italian cocktail recipes are given a fresh Asian twist by congenial bartenders.
One could spend an entire week in the hotel and still feel she’s had a perfect Seoul experience. While the entry has a “boutique hotel” feel, it unfolds into several opulent public areas and 317 rooms and suites. Private rooms integrate ancient Korean motifs with contemporary design, push-button operated lighting and shades, plush beds, and more than enough outlets, amenities and office supplies to keep guests fully charged and completely comfortable. When its time to emerge from one’s personal sanctuary, there’s a floor-spanning fitness center with an endless array of machines (no fighting over a lone elliptical machine here!). The spa and sauna should not be missed, especially if you happen to be familiar with Korea’s national obsession with hair and skincare.
Even with the genuinely warm disposition of the hotel staff (and an even warmer lobby with a roaring fire and cozy furniture), one will want to get out to see the historic sites and seriously cool shopping opportunities. While cabs are fairly affordable, the Metro superbly and efficiently puts most of the must-do places in this still sprawling city within easy reach.
In an air travel climate where space is both a luxury and a necessity, Korean Air’s Prestige Class (80 seats occupying the upper deck of the A380 jet) feels like a day spa in the sky. While the seats run a touch narrow, there’s an abundance of legroom and a very generous tray table set-up for people who work in flight. The airline’s soft signature blue provides a calming milieu, and flight (save for the announcements) is so quiet you can hear the proverbial pin drop.
The flight attendants in both directions epitomize the graciousness present at Seoul’s better hotels (such as the newly-opened Four Seasons). And while the service is attentive (down to the lead flight attendant personally thanking you for your selecting Korean Air), it is not intrusive. Those looking for a quick stretch can also check out the bar, which has a lovely “private jet” feel to it.
Amenities, while simple, are lovely. The masculine in-flight kit, filled with Davi (as in Robert Mondavi) wine-based unisex skin care products, embossed with the 2018 Olympics logo reflects management clearly knows who their business customer is. The entertainment system is superb, with a generous choice of current and classic movies. The headphones provided could be a little better so fliers can appreciate the care that went into the systems.
While “Excellence in flight” has a small ways to go when it comes to consistency in the food program, the wine and spirits program is nicely done, and features Perrier Jouet Champagne and quality wines from Bordeaux and the U.S.
Many in the West think they know Seoul through major global corporations like LG and Samsung and pop-cultural forces like SM Entertainment (not to mention that “Gangnam Style” song from 2012). However, the truth of the matter is that Seoul is timeless and deserves deeper exploration. Go ahead and order yourself that extra large coffee when you get to Seoul. Enjoy the buzz the city has crafted so painstakingly.
Where to Stay and Eat:
The Four Seasons Seoul: www.fourseasons.com/seoul
Top Cloud: www.topcloud.co.kr
Gwangjang Market: www.theseoulguide.com/sights/markets-and.../gwangjang-market/
Dongdaemon Design Plaza (DDP): ddp.seoul.go.kr
Seoul Museum: www.seoulmuseum.org
Gyeongbokgung Palace: www.digahun.com
The Seoul Museum of History: eng.museum.seoul.kr