Despite being rooted in centuries-old traditions, the South Korean capital is unabashedly trendy and forward-looking.
Author Layla Schlack
DAY TWO | Fully rested, you sample a traditional Korean breakfast of abalone porridge at the buffet in The Garden on the Ritz-Carlton’s ground floor (if that sounds too adventurous for this hour, Western fare is also on hand). Your first stop today is Changdeokgung Palace (1). Originally built in 1405, over the centuries it housed various Joseon Dynasty kings. What with its airy cabin suspended over a lotus pond and colorful, intricate flower motifs painted on all the buildings, you wouldn’t mind spending a couple hundred years here either. The hour-and-a-half tour is compulsory but worthwhile. Your guide is endearing, especially when advising you to walk through the king’s doorway because it’s of normal height. The others are shorter so that his men had to bow as they entered.
Ready for more of traditional Seoul, you walk to Insadong (2), a shopping district that specializes in celadon pottery, custom calligraphy stamps and some of the most pleasant incense you’ve ever encountered. For a hearty traditional meal, you venture off the main drag into one of the winding alleys and land at Nui Jo (3). Remove your shoes, have a seat on the floor and order the smallest of the prix-fixe meals. The appetizers—mild kimchi and melt-in-your-mouth roasted pork—are delicious, but pace yourself, because the main course, a savory rice pudding with mushrooms and chestnuts, is still to come, along with more kimchi, steamed spinach and anchovies with chili paste.
Your next activity—a stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream (4)—is fast becoming another of Seoul’s great traditions, and families line the paths. Eventually, you emerge near Gwanghwamun Plaza (5), in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Take a quick gander at the new statue of King Sejong before moving on to take in the art scene.
It’s a short walk to the gallery district Bukchon Village (6). Ducking in and out of exhibition spaces, you browse paintings by local artists before hailing a cab to Cho-won (7) to dine on some globefish, also known as blowfish. This infamous Japanese fare is easy to find in South Korea, so the chefs have enough experience preparing it that they deftly avoid the poisonous part. Surprisingly delicate, the blowfish is first served shabushabu-style, then in deep-fried chunks.
Having survived dinner, you cab it back to swanky Cheongdam-dong, where the sidewalks are thick with fashionistas hitting the wine and sake bars. You stop in at The Foot Shop (8) for a foot massage. It’s preceded by a “fish pedicure,” which entails dipping your feet into a small, cold tub and letting tiny carp nibble off the dead skin. Then the masseuse calls you in, putting an end to the ticklish proceedings, and gets down to business. Though you make good use of the phrase “apayo,” which means “It’s painful,” the massage does the trick, and back at the Ritz-Carlton, you’re feeling especially relaxed, so you stop in at the bar and sip a Soju-based cocktail as a live jazz trio unwinds some bebop. Soon, though, that fluffy king-size bed calls your name.