An old Korean proverb goes, 'Even if you have to crawl on your knees, get yourself to Seoul!' It’s a view that the New York Times recently concurred with by tipping the South Korean city – which in January assumed the mantle of World Design Capital – as one of its top places to visit for 2010.
And yet on this website recently one reader hazed Seoul for being an 'appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.' What gives?
Like any booming metropolis, Seoul sure ain’t perfect. But, as I discovered researching the new edition of Lonely Planet’s Korea, there are plenty more reasons to embrace rather than reject one of Asia’s most underrated and unjustly maligned cities. The following ten, presented in no particular order, will set you on the fast track to loving Seoul.
'Eclectic' hardly covers Seoul’s buzzing contemporary art scene, which ranges from dreamy modern renditions of traditional Korean landscape paintings to quirky public art sculptures. Spend a day being amazed by the varied offerings in the galleries of Insa-dong, Samcheon-dong and up-and-coming Tongui-dong.
Compensating for all those sterile apartment blocks are the picturesque traditional quarter of Bukchon Hanok Village and striking contemporary structures such as the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art or Tangent, the HQ of Hyundai Development Corp. By the end of this year the city will also have Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza as its show pony.
An ideal way of recovering after a night’s partying in Seoul (I’d recommend hitting the bars and clubs of happening Hongdae over the expat enclave of Itaewon) is sweating it out at a jimjilbang, a traditional Korean sauna. Slip into the foreigner-friendly Silloam Fomentation Sauna, near Seoul Station.
The free entertainment
Thrilling demonstration of taekwando at Gyeonghui-gung; the changing of the guard at Gyeongbok-gung; traditional music performances at Seoul Plaza; spectacular light shows along the Cheong-gye-cheon, at N-Seoul Tower and the Bampo Bridge – it won’t cost you one won to enjoy any of these regular public events.
The tea shops
Sipping a fruity, herbal beverage and nibbling rice cakes in a quaint teashop is one of Seoul’s great pleasures. Tiny Yetchatjip is famous for the songbirds that flit around its bric-a-brac-packed salon, but I prefer Dawon for its airy gallery-surrounded courtyard and traditional hanok tea room. Both can be found in Insa-dong.
Concrete abounds in Seoul, but there’s also no shortage of natural greenery. Soak up the serenity of the Secret Garden at World Heritage-listed Changdeokgung, or saunter along the revived Cheong-gye-cheon, an ingeniously landscaped stream flowing through Seoul’s heart. One of my favourite spots is beautiful Seonyu-do Park, crafted from an old water filtration plant on an island in the Han River.
More greenery is at hand in the mountains and hills that encircle the city, fantastic, accessible hiking territory for all. Shadow the remains of Seoul’s ancient fortress walls for panoramic views from the summit of Bukaksan or climb sacred Inwangsan, where shamans still practice their daily rituals.
Whatever you want to buy, it’s sure to be on sale in Seoul. For a taste of old Asia, flex your bargaining skills at the buzzing all-night Namdaemun or Dongdaemun markets, or go contemporary and cruise the slick boutiques and department stores of Myeong-dong and Apgujeong.
Freeways dominate Seoul, but as part of its drive to be more eco-minded the city has started to promote pedal power. Bicycle rental stations are becoming more common, and dedicated cycle paths along much of the Han River provide great views and a fun way to exercise.
I saved the best reason to last. Seoul offers some of Asia’s best eating, from sizzling nokdu bindaetteok (mung-bean pancakes) at Gwangjang Market to elegant royal banquets at Korea House. Gourmands should also schedule a visit to Noryangjin fish market, where all kinds of marine life is just waiting to be consumed. Enjoy!