Best of Seoul
Seoul is immense and diverse enough to keep the average visitor occupied for far longer, but a few days are enough to take in the city’s major highlights, as well as a few lesser-known attractions, and come away a sense of what makes the city tick.
Start your visit with a stroll among the imposing gates and towering halls of Gyeongbokgung, which even in the throes of restoration is the largest remnant of the city’s royal legacy. Leave via the palace’s east exit and head up the street into trendy Samcheong-dong, where you can browse work by contemporary artists in top-ranked galleries like Gallery Hyundai and stop off for some justifiably famous noodle soup at Samcheong-dong Sujebi.
After lunch, explore the winding lanes and dignified old homes of nearby Bukchon Hanok Village, stopping at the small but charming Gahoe Museum to take in some folk art if time permits. Head south towards nearby Insa-dong to browse dozens of stalls and shops displaying traditional crafts, and have dinner at one of the area’s many fine hanjeongsik (set course meal) restaurants—vegetarian eatery Sanchon, run by a former Buddhist monk, is a particularly character-filled choice.
Cap off the evening at Dawon, a traditional tea shop, or at the Pureunbyol Jumak pub sampling local rice wines.
An early breakfast will allow you to beat the crowds up Namsan to the N Seoul Tower, where the sweeping views will give you a sense of just how massive the metropolis really is. After a stroll around the mountain’s pleasant paths, if you’ve got some cash to burn head straight for Poom, a restaurant on Namsan that offers pricey but delectable “new Korean” cuisine in a stylish setting.
Head down the mountain to get acquainted with Myeong-dong, a constantly buzzing shopping and entertainment district, where it’s easy to fill up on street food if Poom was a bit outside your pay grade. Wander north a few blocks to decompress on the banks of the restored Cheonggyecheon waterway, then take a cab (or walk, if you’re feeling ambitious) to Changdeokgung in time for the 3:30 p.m. palace tour, which will introduce you to its beautiful hidden gardens and some of the city’s most magnificent examples of Joseon-era architecture. Then take another quick cab ride (or long stroll) over to the Daehang-no area, where there are plenty of lively eateries, bars, and theaters.
Wash away fatigue (and perhaps recover from the previous night’s excesses) at the Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan. When you’re suitably relaxed you can explore the nearby Yongsan Electronics Market, which, while specializing in miraculous gadgetry of all kinds, also houses a number of good food courts and restaurants.
The culturally inclined may want to head straight for the National Museum of Korea, a facility of staggering proportions that houses many of the country’s most important relics. Catch the subway or a taxi over to the Itaewon area to visit the sobering War Memorial of Korea and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
Both are a short distance from the internationally themed delights of the Itaewon strip, where there are dozens of different cuisines to choose from for dinner and an equal variety of places to enjoy a nightcap.
Devote this day to Seoul’s more contemporary, consumer-oriented face, starting off in the city’s hub for all things moneyed and fashionable—the Apgujeong district. Outlets here that blend art, retail, and dining possibilities, such as the Maison Hermes Dosan Park and 10 Corso Como, are likely to enchant even non-shoppers.
Delve into the inventive restaurants and cafés of leafy Garosu-gil for lunch, such as Deli Heinzburg, then hop the subway or a taxi southeast to Bongeunsa, a serene Buddhist temple compound incongruously located in the middle of a major office district. The huge COEX mall, which incorporates an aquarium and a museum devoted to kimchi (Korea’s spicy cabbage staple), is virtually next door.
As night rolls around you can visit one of the famous Korean barbecue houses south of the river, such as Samwon Garden, and then move on to one of the mega-clubs of the moment, like Club Heaven or Club Answer. There are plenty of bars and cafés around Gangnam subway station if you’re in the mood for something more relaxed.
The Hangang (Han River) is Seoul’s lifeline, and a morning cruise from Jamsil Pier to the island of Yeouido is the best way to get an up-close look at its impressive bridges and the redevelopment that’s taken place along its banks. Upon alighting, take a breather at Yeouido’s lovely riverside park and pay a visit to the impressive grounds of Korea’s National Assembly or 63 City.
If you’re even in the least partial to seafood, you owe it to yourself to visit Yeouido’s Noryangjin Seafood Market, a sprawling mass of vendors and restaurants, where the fish (and other creatures) on offer couldn’t be cheaper or fresher.
Cross the river to the vibrant, youth-oriented Hongik University (Hongdae) area, where if it’s a weekend you’ll be able to peruse the wares of emerging artists and designers at the Hope and Free Markets. Even midweek, the district’s good, inexpensive eats and energetic bars make it a fitting venue to celebrate the end of a Seoul excursion.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition