Gyeongbokgung Palace


The heart of Seoul lies in its palaces, skyscrapers  – and its stomach.

Seoul is a city is split by the River Han – old money to the north, new money south of the
river. Northside, think palaces, president’s house and traditional hanok houses: snap up classic ceramics or
perhaps a hanbok dress in Insa-dong
and drink 100-flower tea in Bukchon. 

To the south of the river, Gangnam is all
about Euro-luxe labels. Would-be models strut the streets as they shop at the Garosu-Gil
fashion strip, Asia’s largest underground mall, COEX, or too-cool
Cheongdam-dong, with its Italian boutiques and wine bars. 

At any tick of the
24-hour clock, you’ll find some of Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants in the pubs, karaoke
bars, restaurants, internet cafes and saunas. Iif anything closes, it’s always
late. In Seoul, the neon lights are never switched off. 

Tosokchon restaurant

Three things you
have to see in Seoul

Tea oils the wheels of Korean
society. The Beautiful Tea Museum is
a gorgeously serene space in the antiques hood of Insa-dong, selling and serving
130 beautiful teas and their accoutrements. It also exhibits perfect, simple
ceramics (Jongno-gu Insa-dong 193-1, www.tmuseum.co.kr ) Otherwise, go traditional at Cha Masineun Tteul, which lives up to its
name, ‘cosy garden where people drink tea’. Take a seat on hanoks warm floor as tea ladies serve iced
strawberry summer punch or hot spiced dae
chu cha
(Asian date tea), rice cakes and toasted sunflower seeds while you
look out on that cosy garden or out over the rooftops (Jongno-gu, Samcheong-dong 35-169).  

Another
wonderful place to see Seoul’s traditional architecture is Bukchon
Hanok Village, considered the most beautiful corner of Seoul. Its neighbourhood
of 900 hanoks makes  a welcome change to the industrial-strength
apartment blocks that pierce the city skyline. The tourist information booth
opposite Gyeongbokgung Palace (Jogno-gu, 1 Sejong-ro, www.royalpalace.go.kr)  offers excellent walking maps of the area, including
a trail with eight signposted photo spots that give the
best
views down tiny, picturesque alleyways and over the rooftops to the palace. 

Of
a more transient nature are the comically named ‘tent restaurants’ that dominate the city’s streets: sun shelters
lined with clear plastic walls to keep out the fierce winter winds. Korea’s
food culture is wildly rich: walk any street and try fried silkworms, suck
down a live octopus, chomp on pig’s trotters or snack on a jeon (Korean
savoury pancake) washed down with makgeoli
(rice wine). At the massive Noryangjin
Fish Market
, buy your seafood and have it thrown in the pot in seconds. No
matter how lean your purse or how limited your Korean, you’ll never starve in
this town.

Samcheong-dong

Artisan Mecca
Samcheong-dong’s
three-kilometer-long cobbled street, between the president’s house and Gyeongbokgung Palace,
sniffs at mainstream labels. On this strip, it’s all about one-offs and their stylish
producers –  shoemakers, milliners, bespoke
designers and art galleries, with a hundred latte-pumping cafés in between. Cool,
yes, but also resolutely Korean. You’ll still find locals queuing for the
classic sujaebi, which is soup with dumplings, green onions and kimchi. You can get your fill of this dish for about $6 at Samcheong-dong
Sujabei (Samcheong-dong 102).


At the table
With hundreds of
eating-out options – from traditional Korean barbeques to fusion fare – in every
neighbourhood, Seoul cements itself as one of Asia’s prime food capitals.
JungSik

SUMMER FLAVOURS A visit to Tosokchon (Jahamun-ro 5-gil 5, Jongno-gu) means
tucking in to samgyetang, a summer broth of ginseng and chicken. Tosokchon enjoys
a cult following, with former president Roh Moo Hyun amongst its devotees.

LIKE A LOCAL Young chef Yim Jung Sik is
currently wowing New York diners with his ‘New Korean’ cooking. His Seoul
dining room JungSik (649-7
Sinsa-dong, Gangnam, jungsik.kr) is a celebration of truly beautiful plates.
The kitchen uses using quintessentially Korean ingredients to serve up fresh
delectable dishes.
CHEAP EATS Visit lpumdang (16-1 Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu, ilpumdang.co.kr) and you’ll
realise that Korea’s best chow isn’t necessarily found in the most expensive
restaurants. Order the Korean shabu shabu
– thin wafers of beef cooked in broth and served with dipping sauce.
Hidden cultural
gems
Want
to find out what the locals are really drinking? “We teach Korea’s drinking
culture – how to pour and what to drink,” says Korean-American guide Daniel Grey. His Korean Night Dining Tour steers you through the joys of
drinking soju (potent rice wine) and
snacking up a storm in the city’s alleyway barbeque cafés (ongofood.com). 

Korean Night Dining Tour

After you’ve been fed
and watered, the place to be on the last Friday of the month is Hongdae
district for Club Day, where $12
gets you entry to a dozen or more clubs in the happening Hongik University area.
Don’t expect to get home early – it kicks off around 11pm and diehards call it
a night around 5am. The second Friday of the month is the smaller Sound Day,
with fewer clubs and a focus on live music, from 8pm-5am (02 333 3910). 

Hongdae

After
a big night, recharge at a jjimjilbang (public bathhouse), which
is guaranteed to knock a dress size off you, thanks to a battalion of
scrubbers and fiery steam
rooms: expect rampant public nudity (yes, they are segregated). Most hotels
have their own sauna, or try the foreigner-friendly, seven-story Yongsan Dragon
Hill Spa (dragonhillspa.co.kr)

The Westin Chosun

Pillow talk
 FASHIONABLE
The Westin
Chosun (Jung-gu, 87
Sogong-dong, westin.com/seoul) is walking distance to Namdaemun market,
Myengdong fashion town, beautiful department stores and two palaces.

SPA BREAK On the side of Mount Nam sit the luxe San
5-5, Jang Chung-dong 2-Ga Jung-gu,

banyan tree.com).
Each of the hotel’s huge 32 suites has a steamy indoor pool and sauna and its
spectacular outdoor pool is a favoured haunt of Seoul’s elite.

Banyan Tree Seoul

BUDGET Sophias Guest House (Jongno-gu, 157-1 Sogyeok-dong, sophiagh.com), a 150-year-old hanok with ondol
rooms (mattresses on heated floors) around a pretty courtyard, a short walk from
the arty enclave of Insa-dong.


BOUTIQUE In the expat district of Itaewon you’ll find IP Boutique Hotel (737-32
Hannam-dong, Yongsangu, ipboutiquehotel.com) It has has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, with jungle swings in
the foyer and compact, mirrored all-white rooms.



LUXURY RakKoJae (98 Gye-dong,
Jongno-gu, rkj.co.kr) is a serene luxury hanok in Bukchon, with natural jade
floors in its ondol rooms and a yellow-mud sauna.
National Folk Museum

Don’t leave Seoul
without:

Visiting
Gyeongbokgung Palace
, the first home of the Joseon dynasty.
Dating from 1395, it also houses the excellent National Folk Museum with a
great, kitch-free gift shop. Closed Tuesdays (royalpalace.go.kr) For live
entertainment, you can’t beat non-verbal theatre,
which is massive in Seoul – great if your Korean is rusty. 


Nanta is a
blood-pumping kitchen comedy set to traditional samulnori rhythm, and audience
members are regularly invited on stage to participate (nanta.co.kr). 

Finally,
spend a day at Namdaemun Market; stop for dumplings in alleys of food
stalls or buy jars of pickled ginseng or gorgeous kitchenwear from more than
1000 stalls. Nearby, you’ll find the 14th-century Sungnyemun Gate, officially Korea’s
Number 1 National Treasure.

Insa-dong

Q&A

Celebrity snapper Kim
Jung-Man
is Korea’s top commercial photographer and been named one of the
country’s Men of Culture in 2000.
What’s the quintessential
photograph of Seoul?
It lies somewhere between the historical past and
the advance of the modern structure: the juxtaposition between hanoks and palaces and its modern
architecture. It is best to find this in Gwangwhamun, near Gyeongbokgung Palace. 
What is the most beautiful street in Seoul? Personally, I think I’m
the only one in Seoul who enjoys red lights. I take photos while stopped in
traffic. 
Where’s Seoul’s
heart of art
? Hongdae and Insadong. Independent musicians play in the park
at night in Hongdae and there is a great grunge feeling to the street art
there. Hongdae has various flea markets where artists sell their wares while Insa-dong
is famous for its many art galleries and historic feeling. 
Where do you go to find nature in Seoul? Namsan, which is Nam
Mountain, the center of the city. There is nature even in the heart of Seoul,
if you know where to look. 
Your favourite art gallery in Seoul? Gallery Kong (157-78
Samcheong-dong, Jongno-go, gallerykong.com)





Getting there: To book your flight to Seoul with our codeshare partner, Singapore Airlines, visit www.virginaustralia.com or simply call 13 67 89 (in Australia).
Source: Belinda Jackson, Voyeur magazine, Virgin Australia. October 2012.