Seoul is not a one day city, but if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll want to take full advantage. In this large, lively city, no one seems to sleep and everyone appears to be eating, drinking or shopping – all the time.
My introduction to Seoul begins at the brand new Four Seasons Hotel, just opened in November. There are many popular parts of Seoul; the Four Seasons happens to be in the Central Business District of Jongno Ju, a five minute walk from the city’s main attraction: Gyeongbokgung Palace, but more on that later.
White washed wood covers the interior walls of the large bedrooms at the Four Seasons. The connection to the outdoors, the natural light seeping through floor to ceiling windows, and views of the mountains all come together to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere. Seoul is not a quiet city, yet noise is completely blocked out of the well-insulated rooms.
The spa and wellness center is the main event covering three floors, including a Korean sauna and three different pools with hot and cold temperatures as well as stand-up and sit down showers. Koreans are obsessed with beauty, and to accommodate their busy lifestyles, the Four Seasons’ spa offers a 30-minute midday treatment with an express lunch for a quick recharge.
The first stop is obvious: Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest of five in Seoul and the first royal palace to be built by the Joseon Dynasty. It’s a vast complex of temples with vividly coloured wood timbers and symbolic animal figures adorning rooftops.
Cabs are cheap in Seoul and a short ride away is Bukchon Village, where one can wander and view traditional Korean homes, along with two palaces and a holy shrine. Start at the top of the hill, and work your way down to nearby Insadong, about a 15-minute walk.
Insadong Street is lined with antique shops, art galleries, and small souvenir shops selling the usual t-shirts and key chains alongside beautiful, handmade cards, traditional clothing boutiques, and inexpensive jewelry stores.
Shop all day and snack on street food
Hop in a cab and head to Shinsegae, Seoul’s answer to Selfridge’s with a food hall to match. Save the shopping for Seoul’s multiple markets and architecturally engaging, futuristic design center in Dongdaemun. Nearby, Korea’s up and coming designers showcase their ready to wear fashions at Doota Mall, a department store-style experience where trendy pieces can be had for reasonable prices.
Either side of Shinsegae are local markets – Namdaemun for cheap goods like scarves and socks – there are lots and lot of colourful socks sold on the streets of Seoul, most of them featuring superheroes, Hello Kitty, animals and other entertaining patterns – and most of them are for grown-ups. In the other direction, Myeongdong is where girls and women flock for one of the country’s other obsessions: makeup. Chain stores lure customers inside their shops with sample sizes of hair and face masks. Myeongdong is also a great place to taste Seoul’s legendary street food, eaten all hours of the day from corn dogs in 24 different flavours, some with chips stuck on top for a double heart attack, tornado potato (essentially a thick twisted potato peel battered and deep-fried on a stick) and my favourite – hotteok, a warm pancake with cinnamon and caramelized sugar inside. Hotteoks are so popular, different stands are known for serving them either crispy, chewy or soft.
Spend the evening in Itaewon, a neighbourhood undergoing a restaurant renaissance. Anchored since the Korean War, by a US military base, Itaewon has always attracted foreigners, but until a few years ago, it was considered a pretty seedy place. These days, back alleys have been turned into a warren of boutiques and specialty shops. Couples stroll the narrow, paved streets killing time before dinner at some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, made popular by their ‘gyopo’ owners. The gyopo are foreign born and bred Koreans. Gyopo from the US and other Anglo countries have returned in the last five to ten years, transforming Itaewon into a den for fusion food. Kenny Park has led the charge. The Korean-American opened Vatos Tacos in 2011, serving tamales and wings alongside some mashed up Mexican-Korean dishes. The place has been such a hit there are now six outlets, including an express branch at Shinsegae and a newly opened shop in Singapore. From Saturday lunch until late, the place is heaving with a mixture of expats, and local groups of friends and families. Reservations are most definitely required. Park may have started the party in Itaewon, but others, like Linus Kim, have helped buoy the scene with places like his ‘Bama Style Barbecue joint. Kim grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and spent time learning from the best before opening his ‘cue shop in Seoul. Koreans love it so much Kim has grown out of his original space and has set up his own smokehouse.
Once you’ve had your fill of comfort food, end the night with a ride up to Namsan Tower. Illuminated in blue until 11pm, the tower offers a digital observatory and 360-degree views over the city.