By Matthew Crompton — Check out his 36 Hours in Seoul Guide for all his recommendations!
Think Tokyo is the city that never sleeps? Convinced that Shanghai is the place to be? Think again. For a real buzz far off the tourist trail, try Seoul. The hip, gritty, and supremely affordable South Korean capital is perfect for a weekender – packed with sights, shopping, and culinary gems, and linked by one of the world’s best (and cheapest!) subway systems, so you waste no time in getting where you want to be. I’ll take you through 36 excellent hours here in the “Miracle on the Han River”.
- Arriving to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, take a limousine bus (15,000 Korean won; helpful airport staff will direct you to the right one) into central Seoul’s flagship hotel, The Shilla. Named after the medieval dynasty that first unified Korea, it’s where the illustrious stay in the Korean capital, but put off enjoying the luxury for a few hours and instead drop your bags and head just two stops to the jam-packed neon glitter of the Myeongdong shopping district.
- To get an idea of what it really means to be the world’s second-largest urban area (25 million people – more than the entire population of Australia) take the Namsan Cable Car up to the 237-meter N’Seoul Tower, and ascend the needle for a 360-degree panorama of the city lights sprawling on and on through endless ridges of low mountains.
- You’re hungry, right? Back down in Myeongdong, make your way to Myeongdong Gyoja – a Seoul institution that’s been making the world’s best kalguksu (thick, rich, hearty noodle soup) and mandu (to-die-for steamed meat dumplings) for nearly fifty years. Don’t be intimidated by the line out the door – it’s always that way, and turnover is crazy fast.
- It’s only 12 minutes from Myeongdong (Eujiro 1-ga station, line 2) to the Hongik University neighbourhood, better known as Hongdae. With a hip, arty vibe, this student neighbourhood is the epicentre of Seoul’s burgeoning arts-and-music scene, and Friday night is the perfect time to take in the street life and catch the free interactive music-dance-and-comedy shows put on in Hongik Park. Subway closed when it’s time to go? Just hail one of Seoul’s ubiquitous silver taxis, and hand them the business card for your hotel.
- Caffeinate and get out there – there’s a lot to do. First head to Gyeongbokgung, the largest of Seoul’s Joseon-Dynasty-era medieval palaces. Though it’s been extensively restored, a wander through the sprawling grounds shows off the best of Korea’s traditional palace architecture. When you’re done, head out to the colossal Gwanghwamun Plaza, with its nifty synchronized fountains (one of the best places for photography in the city during the warm summer months) and towering statues. Have a stroll along the main street of Jongno, and up into Insadong, Seoul’s flagship tourist street, for a bit of shopping. (My favourite gift from the capital is one of the gorgeous handmade woodblock prints from Jeongak Gallery.)
- Lunchtime! Pop across the alleys for a visit to the historic Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, and when you’re finished with the giant Buddha sculptures, head to the temple-stay building across the street, and its fabulously artful vegan temple-cuisine restaurant, Baru. It’s super-tasty, and the wonderful presentation might just make it Seoul’s most beautiful meal (seven-course set menu 30,000 won).
- The jjimjilbang (public spa) is at the heart of the Korean experience, and absolutely can’t be missed. Head down to Yongsan station for a dip at the sex-segregated public baths of the nearby Dragon Hill Spa. (I personally favor a steam in the hot bath followed by a plunge into the icy-cold pool – don’t forget to check out the various saunas and relaxation rooms!) When you’re as clean and relaxed as you’re going to get, put those clothes back on and have a wander through the Yongsan Electronics Market (connected to the station), a great intro to Korea’s tech-obsessed culture.
- Culture break: pop over to Seoul’s most gorgeous museum, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. Housed in buildings designed by architectural luminaries Rem Koolhaus, Jean Nouvel, and Mario Botta, the collection here is top-notch and the spaces are among the prettiest in the city. It can be fully absorbed in just 90 minutes.
- As night nears, it’s time to make your way down to Gangnam, the “new” Seoul south of the Han River (Gangnam Station, line 2 exit 2). Nosh out for dinner at GOMcine on the dish that made Korea famous: barbeque. Order a couple of servings of marinated raw beef to grill up, washed down with a bottle of soju – Korea’s sinister rice vodka. When you’re properly stuffed and besotted, head to Woodstock Bar for a taste of the city’s mixed social scene, with pitchers of cheap beer and an excellent music request system. If you’ve got someone who can navigate the Korean language barrier, this would be a perfect time to pop into a norebang (a karaoke room – just look for the signs reading 노래방: 20,000 – 30,000 won per hour).
- Ready for bed yet? If not, you might as well experience Seoul’s legendary party scene, and Club Mass (Gangnam station exit 6) is the perfect place to do it. The best of Gangnam’s electronic clubs, it’s a Korean scene, full of the city’s young and beautiful. By midnight, Mass should be packed, and will be going until the subway opens up again with the dawn. Bring your aspirin and be sure not to miss that flight out.