Despite being rooted in centuries-old traditions, the South Korean capital is unabashedly trendy and forward-looking.
AUTHOR LAYLA SCHLACK
THERE MAY BE NO PLACE IN THE WORLD where the gap between ancient enchantment and modern attractions is more pronounced than in Seoul. Due to a legacy of invasion (by the Japanese, the Mongolians, the Chinese), the city has rebuilt itself numerous times since becoming the capital of the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century. Its latest incarnation is divided into two zones: the design-forward, tech-savvy and trend-loving southern part of the city—where alleyways crowded with irresistible boutiques intersect wide streets lined with luxury condos and restaurants—and the more crowded area north of the Han River, where narrow streets are home to historical sites, traditional residences and packed outdoor markets. The city remains fiercely proud of its traditions and monuments while wholeheartedly embracing commercial growth. It’s a major metropolis with pockets that feel untouched by industrialization. The joy of a visit is in plunging into both sides of Seoul—the old and the new—and imagining where the city will go from here.
Seoul from on high
Image – Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
DAY ONE There’s a lot of walking on today’s agenda, so you’ll want a good breakfast. Grab a quick bite at Take Urban café (1), just two blocks from your home base at The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul (2). The exterior’s honeycomb-pattern facade and the spacious, rustic-chic interior are part of a modern design boom that’s taking place in the southern part of town. The coffee is strong, the pastries are sweet, and the subway station is right outside. You’re ready to go. All directions are in English and Korean, which makes for an extra-easy ride for the uninitiated.
Five quick stops later, you’re at the National Cemetery (3), a large park filled with exhibits of weaponry and photos of troops, a striking reminder of how profoundly the Korean War affected the city. Strolling among its gingko trees is like walking in the country, and after a while, you’re ready for a little more hustle and bustle. Get back on the subway to the Yongsan Electronics Market (4). The stalls outside are no-frills—just pegboards lined with processors, graphics cards and tangles of high-tech doodads. But as you head deeper into the maze of shops, away from the stalls and food carts, you’ll find more buyer-friendly fare, such as tiny netbooks and an assortment of Hello Kitty portable hard drives. Time for a new desktop? The prices are on the high side, but if you’re planning to build your own computer— many Seoul-dwellers seem to be doing just that—this is the place to pick up the pieces.
Image – Frédéric Belge
Opting for lunch instead, you jump into a cab and head for Sushi Hyo (5). At the sushi bar, the chef serves one piece at a time, starting with yellowtail and haddock, and moving on to octopus and succulent fatty tuna. (A note on etiquette: Sushi is eaten with your hands; chopsticks are for the pickled ginger.) Having consumed more fish than you ever thought possible, you walk to Cheongdam-dong (6), Seoul’s answer to Rodeo Drive, where you stop in one of many designer boutiques and grab a Louis Vuitton bag before moving on.
Namdaemun (7) is a sprawling market where you’ll find everything from Japanese pastries—baked this morning in Japan—to rows and rows of the stainless steel chopsticks favored in restaurants around the city. The market is named after the city’s ancient south gate, which was damaged by fire in 2008. Stay on the lookout for accessories, tableware and hanbok (traditional outfits consisting of full, high-waisted skirts and short fitted jackets for the women, and loose, silky overcoats for the men). Craving a glimpse of Seoul’s storied youth culture, you head east to Dongdaemun (8), the scene’s epicenter. The latest hit by “K-pop” music sensation Girls’ Generation blares from hundreds of TVs as teeny boppers wearing teddy bear hats shop for cartoon cell phone charms. Pick up a pair of anime-themed knee socks and be on your way.
Image – LPI/Newscom
Before dinner, you ride to the top of N Seoul Tower (9), Seoul’s observatory high on a hill. Arriving just as the sun is setting, you spend a moment watching young couples write their names on locks, which they attach to the fence around the base, cementing their romance. Then you ascend, and Seoul’s vastness extends before you—376 square miles and 10.2 million people. As you gaze out at Seoul’s infamously entangled traffic, you make a decision: You’ll be taking the subway to dinner.
Hop on the No. 4 line and make the easy transfer to the No. 9. Your destination is Nonhyeon Samgyetang (10), where you order samgyetang, a traditional chicken-ginseng stew. It’s a whole baby bird stuffed with rice, chestnuts and ginseng in a delicious savory broth. After a long day, the soup is so soothing you risk falling asleep in your bowl. Fortunately you’re close to the Ritz. You take note of Seoul’s stylish set lined up to dance under the laser lightshow inside Club Eden before passing through the hotel’s palatial lobby and up to your cushy suite. You climb under the fluffy comforter and flip on the flatscreen in the bedroom, but you’re asleep before you even notice what’s on.