If you’ve never been to Korea, you should be prepared for surprises when visiting it’s sparkling capital, Seoul. From the moment you touchdown in Incheon international airport, the stage is set for pleasant surprises; the airport itself is a menagerie of well thought-out conveniences, and infrastructure that easily whisks you to your connection or provides ample amenities for business and leisure travelers to while away the time between flights. Beautiful lounges welcome all classes of air travelers (for a fee of course), massage shops relieve travel stress, global food offerings titillate the palette, boutiques serve up shopping galore, and the museum and cultural heritage center inform, enlighten and educate visitors. The kaleidoscope of options continue when you head for Seoul.
The Grand Hyatt Seoul has played host to diplomats and royalty the world over and offers a great base to start your day. Breakfast is a wide selection of western and eastern options. Western fare ranges from mouthwatering pastries that would make any Frenchman weep from joy at discovering them, to wholesome and hearty meat and egg dishes. The real joy, however, lies in discovering the eastern breakfast tableau. Try the Juk or Congee, a rice porridge, which when combined with available garnishes of meat, scallions and mushrooms is both refreshing and wholesome. Since my first Juk in Seoul, I now enjoy eating Congee as my alternative to eggs and sausages at any breakfast where it’s offered, followed by a Danish or croissant and tea to balance out East and West.
Start your sightseeing itinerary with a visit to a cultural gem, the iconic Gyeong Bok Gung, or Gyeong Bok Palace. This exquisite example of royal Korean architecture is the oldest palace of the Joseon dynasty and a burst of orange and green feast for the eyes. Visit the throne hall, several pavilions, a lotus pond, and many buildings around grand garden landscaping. Also onsite is the National Folk Museum, while the Seoul History Museum is only a few blocks away.
For a special venue of Korean cultural and culinary heritage, visit Korean House; it hosts numerous performances and cultural displays throughout the year. Korea House runs a traditional restaurant specializing in Royal Cuisine (Jeongsik), an absolute must for the foodie to try. Make sure to at least reserve lunch, or if time allows on longer itineraries, even the lavish dinners which often come with a show included. Meals here are more than just food, they are lifetime culinary experiences that you’ll remember and cherish.
What better way to spend an afternoon after a great meal and cultural infusion than with a stroll, and the shopping in Seoul provides many walkable options. The Itaewon district sits in the heart of town just a few minutes from Namsan park and the Grand Hyatt. This area is chock full of history and caters well to visitors due to continued US military presence in the neighborhood. Shops here offer everything from souvenirs and knick knacks, to the ever present custom tailored suit and clothing. Note, however, that while you will easily find good quality tailors happy to provide your very own bespoke suit or dress, you won’t be able to find the words ‘deal’ or ‘cheap’ to describe the purchase. As Seoul has prospered and grown into a modern city, so too does it boast modern prices now. Shoppers should expect to pay relatively about the same here for a custom suit as they would at home in the USA or Canada, with a little digging around. For a missed lunch or a late afternoon snack, make sure to add a visit to the tiny hidden restaurant, called simply the Korean Restaurant in the Hamilton Hotel Itaewon. This little secret place offers arguable the best bibimbap (a national rice bowl served with vegetable, meat, and numerous side dishes) on the planet for less than $10 a person!
Insadong district lies in downtown Seoul, north of Namsan park. Known for antiques and cultural shops, this area boasts quaint stores where merchants remember well the tradition of customer service with a smile. Considering what to buy? Korean traditional handicrafts abound, but the most representative are the ones simply referred to as Korean decorative knots. They range from low quality ‘souvenir grade’ machine-made $3-$10 pieces on every corner, to hand-made artisanal pieces incorporating ivory, jade, or cinnabar for several hundred or several thousand dollars each. Rare masterpieces are available from such veteran artist as Kim Hee-jin, a renowned expert practitioner of Korea’s intangible cultural asset, the making of decorative knots.
For authentic Korean barbeque, any local will tell you that Samwon Garden is the place to go. Hefty iron grills are placed atop glowing wood coals to produce a flavor no gas flame can ever recreate. This restaurant is massive, and boasts it can host up to 1200 diners simultaneously! Alternatively, you can include a visit for lunch to better enjoy the landscaping and gardens in the daytime.
One of the best shows in town is Nanta, an institution that has won rave reviews and awards the world over, and is performed nightly in its own dedicated theatre. Nanta is Seoul’s answer to Blue Man Group meets Iron Chef! Traditional rhythms are choreographed to a comical screen play and performed using pots, pans, kitchen utensils, and even food chopping.
Close to all the action and a hub of action and activity itself, the W Seoul Walkerhill is modern chic, incarnate. Guests need go no further than the W lobby and bar to be immersed in a hopping, happening, and hip atmosphere that only mellows well past midnight. The tempo here is decidedly club and lounge, slowing a bit in the hours before noon, but quickly picking up the pace to start the evening in the early afternoon. “Chic” and “contemporary” don’t do justice to this property where suites tastefully push the boundaries of interior design and individual lobby bathrooms are shaped like spheroids about to launch into orbit.
Twenty four hours don’t allow nearly enough time for visitors to fully explore any city, much less one as rich and diverse in its offerings as Seoul, Korea. Whether visiting Korea on its own or as a stop in a full Asian itinerary, your time in Seoul Korea will have you coming back for more soon!
If You Go: