The first thing you’ll notice when touching down at Incheon (ranked as the best airport in the world for the past nine years) is that everything is really modern and really clean. The second thing that’ll hit you is that whatever the hour there are literally people everywhere. This is one of the many great contrasts Seoul has to offer. Things simply work, even if they shouldn’t.
And just when you’ve gotten used to one of the busiest and cleanest airports around, get ready for the subway – which is the worlds largest – and one that over 9 million people use every day. Yep. Every day the entire population of Sweden jumps on the tube. You might be curious about how many delays I experienced during my 4 month long sojourn? Just the one. When my duffel bag got stuck in the door. Stupid Swedes.
Seoul is the second biggest metropolitan area in the world, yet my first real contact with this bustling city was when it popped up as an alternative for my university exchange studies. Before that, Seoul and South Korea was nothing more than a faraway land that had given birth to companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai – plus the world’s best StarCraft players of course. So, like anyone who’s naturally curious (and tired of life in an old Swedish university town) I decided to pack my bags and go.
Seoul is a city of contrasts. From beautiful ancient palaces with centuries of history to high-tech skyscrapers of steel and glass, from ancient texts to the highest rate of Internet access in the world and Gangnam Style. With one foot in the past and another in the future, Seoul is one of our favourite cities – and one that never ceases to amaze. The pace is hectic and practically anything can be done 24 hours a day.
Here are some of our favourite picks:
Apgujeong: The South Korean capital is shaking off its reputation as an architectural fright – and the southern district of Apgujeong is leading the way. It’s one of our favourite areas and where the softer side of Seoul is easy to spot. Dosan Park – a welcome green space – is fringed with open-air cafés and much sought-after apartments. Nearby is the absolutely lovely tree lined street of Garosu-gil with cafés, bars and boutiques. Apgujeong has enough labels to keep the most enthusiastic shopper happy. It also has the biggest Hermés store I’ve ever seen, which is definitely worth a visit. For dinner, head over to nearby trendy (and celebrity-owned) Gorilla in the Kitchen, which is all about healthy food and a healthy lifestyle.
Bukchon Village: It’s not hard to imagine the days of the past when you stroll through this downright picturesque neighbourhood. Flanked by two impressive palaces – Gyeongbok Palace to the west and Changdeok Palace to the east – this village has the largest cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes (hanok) in Seoul. The neighbourhood is also peppered with charming cafés, art galleries and restaurants, including the popular Wood and Brick, which serves up a mouth-watering lobster ravioli.
Cheonggyecheon Stream: A walk along this 5.8 km stream is the perfect recipe for clearing one’s mind. While it’s just off Sejongro, one of the busiest roads in all of Seoul, it’s remarkably quiet because the stream is below street level and feels a little like a dugout. Another stark, but lovely, contrast which is (unsurprisingly) popular with the lovebirds.
If you’re up for a bit of a hike, there’s plenty to be had in Seoul. Mountains circle the city and one of the best climbs is Bugaksan, the peak behind the President’s pad, the Blue House. Several trails take hikers through reconstructed 15th-century gates and along Seoul’s ancient fortress wall. From the top of the 342 m ascent, you’ll get a commanding view of the capital. Also check out Namsan Park, where the reward for all that walking is the commanding Seoul Tower, which gives you a great view of Seoul and the West Sea beyond Incheon. Additionally, Hangang Park offers great jogging paths along the river.
If you’re not tired of shopping, or simply want to watch Seoulites drop cash on the good stuff, head over to Shinsegae Department Store and Myeongdong. Here you’ll find the awesome Uniqlo flagship store, plus a mix of international and local brands. Neighbouring Namdaemun Market, is the biggest traditional market in Korea but also a bit touristy for our taste.
Unless you’re looking to catch a game of European football, we suggest you skip neighbourhood Itaewon, which is full of bad restaurants and loud American soldiers on leave.
Where to stay? Boutique hotel Park Hyatt is a reliable choice if you’re staying in Gangnam, on the south side of the Han. Japanese team Super Potato has minimally designed its 24-storey building and its top floor indoor pool offers great views of the city.
Flights to Seoul:
- From London: Korean Air – one flight daily
- From Los Angeles: Korean Air – up to four flights daily
- From Stockholm: SAS and Finnair – flights via Helsinki
PS. If you’re going to Seoul for business, check out Monocle’s ever-excellent business travel guide.