More than just Gangnam Style and K-pop, Seoul is a city where you’re witnessing development in ultra-high speed. Not long ago, the South Korean capital was bubbling with civil unrest, shaky governments, and severe post-war devastation. Today, the city has a booming economy, thriving arts and entertainment scene, one of the best internet connections worldwide, and the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. It’s this dance between old traditions and its rapid propulsion into the future that makes Seoul one of the most fascinating Asian destinations to visit.
Be warned, Seoul is massive. Like, massive massive. Storey after storey of restaurants, retail, coffee shops, PC cafés, karaoke rooms, massage parlours, and anything else you could want are crammed atop each other like a kaleidoscope of Lego bricks. Given its size, be sure to leave your FOMO at the door as you’re not going to cram it all in in a few days. Instead, focus on a few areas to explore and don’t worry, wherever you choose, you’ll have a blast. Sure, there are the classic tourist destinations you must check out (namely Gyeongbokgung Palace , the National Museum and Bukhansan National Park ) but if you want to feel more like a local, we've got you covered.
Read on for why you Seoul should be your next city getaway in Asia...
Wherever you go in Seoul, good food is inescapable. Street food vendors are everywhere, and blocks upon blocks of different restaurants stacked several stories high is not uncommon. Look out for hole-in-the-wall spots to experience it authentically - a good rule of thumb is if they’re selling steaming pots of dumplings out front, they’re probably pretty good. For a more exquisite fine dining experience, Poom is one of the best restaurants in the country to experience traditional Korean cuisine of the royal courts. The Insta-worthy food is spectacular, and one of the few places you’ll find high-end soju (the country's most popular alcohol). Venture onto the deck before heading into the restaurant for stunning views of Seoul. One of Asia’s top restaurants is called Jung-sik , which explores traditional Korean cuisine through a contemporary lens. Banchan (those little dishes you get with every Korean meal) is presented in amuse-bouche-style bites, and sets the scene for a journey through several courses that showcase Korea’s unique position in balancing rich traditions of the past while being thrust headlong into the modern age.
Hipster Coffee Scene
If you haven’t bumped into, like, a million coffee shops within the block, you may have wandered a little too far ‘north’. To avoid the chains (and surprisingly high coffee prices in the city), your best bet is Hongdae. This college district has an arty vibe packed with funky shops, bars, restaurants, and cafes. Wander around the maze of back streets behind Hongik University Station and discover something interesting. For a relaxing break in one of the city’s very few gardens, You Are Here café offers a hip spot for coffee and to grab some cute not-so-touristy knick-knacks. Seoul is known for its creatively themed cafes. You’ll not only find your usual cat and dog cafes, you’ll also find cafés dedicated to raccoons, sheep, poo (with poo-shaped food and drinks served in toilet-shaped mugs), Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Brown and plenty more.
Whatever kind of nightlife you want, Seoul has it by the bucket-load. The international quarter of Itaewon is overrun by expats and American military personnel letting off steam in the more Western-leaning clubs. It’s a great place to bar hop, wander the streets behind the main drag, and find some hip places to get your party on. Hongdae is great for cool bars, artsy digs, uber-hip clubs, and grunge-chic pubs (check out the eccentric Sangsu-ri for starters). Somehow, most nights end up at Monster Pizza where lines pour out the door with drunken locals and foreigners. A greasy slice will set you back a few bucks and will likely be a distant memory your friends will tell you about the next morning. As to its quality, it’s hard to say, but if you remember it, where you even really there? Gangnam is another hub for nightlife, with loads of fashionable nightclubs and cocktail bars, particularly around the flashy Cheongdam-dong area. Ranked by DJ Mag as the fifth best club, Octagon is one of Korea’s ‘mega clubs’. For around $25US, you can party alongside Seoul’s most stylish party-goers in a massive multi-storied dance Mecca.
Hotels are a-plenty in Seoul. For ultimate luxury, the Grand Hyatt Seoul has elegant rooms and spectacular views of the Han River, mountains, and Namsan Tower. It’s convenient, with the airport limousine (aka super-fancy airport bus) stopping at the hotel’s doorstep, close to Itaewon, and great for a respite from the crazy-busy streets with the gorgeous Namsan Park just next door. If you’re doing Gangnam, Artnouveau City II Gangnam has huge rooms decorated like something straight out of a Victorian-era mystery novel. The hotel is a few streets from the main action, making it a quiet spot to crash after hard partying or dining in the area.
The perfect travel companion for a trip to South Korea? This earpiece and app that translates languages in real time.