Seoul is the pulsating heart of South Korea.
Cutting edge and traditional in equal measure, Seoul is a 24-hour world megacity, multi-faceted and ever-evolving. A journey through the city’s diverse neighborhoods is akin to a journey through the ages, taking one from centuries-old villages to third-millennium shopping complexes, serene green spaces to lively nightlife districts, cutting-edge technological plazas to traditional arts and crafts markets, street food stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants, glass-framed high-rises to traditional tiled huts, around the world and back again. It is a city that has something to offer at any time of night or day, and we propose that we do just that. Let’s take a 24-hour tour of the city and discover everything it has to offer.
Jongno-gu (“gu” stands for “district”) is where the concentration of Seoul’s attractions is at its highest. Get an early start to the day and walk the streets of historic Bukchon Hanok Village lined with traditional Korean houses (“hanok”), today given over to modern art galleries, tea houses, eateries and artisan boutiques.
Not too far from here are Seoul’s two royal palaces: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Changdeokgung was often favored by the Joseon Dynasty over its stately counterpart – Gyeongbokgung – but both merit a visit equally.
Historic Jongno is also home to the artistic neighborhood of Insadong, an area once populated by local aristocracy. Browse thought its many art galleries and craft shops, or stop for tea at one of the traditional tea rooms before heading onward.
Jongno isn’t all about the ages forgone. The urban renewal project along the banks of Cheonggyecheon Stream (once concealed by a highway after the Korean War) attracts city residents both day and night, and is an appealing recreation spot. Admission to Cheonggyecheon Museum on its banks is free of charge.
Make Gwangjang Market your last stop on the way out of Jongno. As lunch time rolls around, explore the fascinating world of Korean street food and fill up on gimbap (rice rolls similar to Japanese maki), tteok-bokki (stir-fried rice cakes), and – if you’re feeling adventurous – soondae (blood sausage). For dessert, get the mung bean pancakes – bindaetteok, served with a side of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage consumed extensively).
Hit Myeong-dong at lunchtime, before its pedestrian-only thoroughfares and side alleys fill up with bargain-hunters, and street food stalls get busy with customers.
Alongside Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, Meyong-dong is Seoul’s prime shopping district, whose highlights (apart from countless fashion and Korean cosmetics shops) are reputable department stores such as Lotte (the basement deli floor is a must for Korean specialties) and Migliore.
Namdaemun market is another shopping must-do. Apart from being the largest and longest-standing market in all of Korea, its main draw is the fact that many of its shops are direct factory outlets, which means prices are often unbeatable, especially if you do not hesitate to bargain – relentlessly.
The market’s 10,000 stores sell everything under the sun, from clothing to local foods and all manner of knick-knacks.
For dinner, head to Seoul’s arguably most intercultural neighborhood – Itaewon. Its proximity to the US army base made for the area’s initial permeation with foreign influences, its early-day gritty vibe now shifting towards a hip and eclectic one, with a thriving expat community now residing in its dwellings. Peruse the streets for international eateries (a good place to start is the street behind Hamilton Hotel, whose open-air pool is open to the public), which range from American to Asian, European and Middle Eastern.
Edgy Hongdae is Seoul’s premiere creative center, a trendsetter in every sense of the word, shaping the future of Korea’s music, art, design and fashion. Artisans line the sidewalks with their crafts, and musicians showcase the city’s staggering diversity of tastes and trends, from hip hop beats and break-dancing to punk, pop and folk.
The area’s prolific artistic scene is driven by Hongik University, a world-class art school and center of creativity, and the relentless momentum of the area’s youthful population has resulted in a fascinating neighborhood with fantastic dining, from cheap street eats to international restaurants to quirky cafes, and perhaps the best and most varied nightlife in the city.
Some may be surprised to know that we highly recommend Gangnam as the best place to stay. Not only does it epitomize the economic and technological growth of Korea in recent times, but it is relatively central and has easy connections to the city’s distant areas; yet, though it offers a lot in terms of excitement and entertainment, Gangnam is relatively low-key when compared to some of the city’s more hectic neighborhoods, which makes it an alluring place to be based.
Our top recommendation for accommodation is the Imperial Palace, the stunning hotel that was selected as the best hotel in Korea by TripAdvisor’s 2017 Traveller’s Choice. It exudes sophistication and boasts absolutely impeccable facilities and service. The hotel has a fantastic location, with great entertainment and dining nearby, and is just steps away from two subway stations that can easily transport you wherever you need to go. Click here for a more detailed and in-depth review.
Gallery images: 1.Daniel Valenzuela, 2. f11photo/Shutterstock.com, 3. Daniel Valenzuela, 4. CJ Nattanai