Seoul throbs with a vigor and a vitality that come as a shock to anyone returning years after visiting the shattered capital in the aftermath of the Korean War—or even a generation ago, when it remained a distant Asian outpost, clearly fallen behind other major regional centers. Just 40 miles below the line that separates North from South Korea, Seoul sprawls on either side of the Han River, 20 miles inland from industrial Incheon—that's the port city that's building even farther into the sea in hopes of becoming the transportation hub of Northeast Asia. Together, the Seoul-Incheon megalopolis, including surrounding Kyonggi Province, shelters half of South Korea's 48 million citizens. Often at odds with one another on such hot-button issues as the economy, labor, the Korean-American alliance and how to deal with North Korea, locals swagger with an ebullience that belies headlines of the North's nuclear weapons, anti-American demos and political in-fighting.
Beneath shining office towers and apartment blocks that rise like giant matchboxes everywhere, the city is expanding its cultural and business horizons so rapidly that an official from the tourist office warns that "everything keeps changing." Sturdy stone bridges span a bubbling stream that was hidden beneath an expressway two years ago. A few months earlier, those bridges were heaps of stones, their gently arched walkways blocked by barriers, as workers strived mightily to meet the deadline for completion set by Seoul's dynamic mayor, Lee Myung Bok, who once ran the enormous construction company that covered the stream with asphalt in the first place.
Now Mayor Lee's dream is to beautify the capital, defying critics who say it grew so rapidly in the explosion of the '60s and '70s that civic planners and builders sublimated aesthetic values in the interests of Korea's "economic miracle." Strollers wander by the stream in the shadow of some of the country's largest corporations, down to an old-but-new district of all-night shopping centers, textile factories, clothing outlets and sporting goods stores near Tongdaemun, the city's historic East Gate. Cheong Gye Cheon, translated as "pristine stream," infuses a fiercely bustling commercial enclave with serenity and charm. The other way, on the broad avenue sweeping south to Seoul Station, traffic swirls around Namdaemun, the city's equally venerable South Gate, lording it over a warren of shops offering terrific bargains, above ground and in a winding underground arcade.
But Mayor Lee's vision does not stop there. In front of the historic City Hall, a massive pile of cement built under Japanese colonial rule, the vast City Hall plaza, once a magnet for enormous demonstrations, is now a grassed-over circle fit for concerts, parties—and a daily parade of figures dressed in bright Chosun-dynasty costumes as they reenact the "changing of the guard" in front of Deoksu Palace across the way. The square is truly the center of the capital, although many of the biggest chaebol, or conglomerates, have set up headquarters several miles away, south of the broad Han, whose twists and turns divide "old" from "new" Seoul. Wide, sweeping avenues, enormous department stores and soaring skyscrapers add a special luster "south of the river," even as Cheong Gye Cheon revitalizes the traditional city center.
Rushing from one place to another is a daunting proposition for newcomers. While Seoul's transport system takes getting used to, frequent visitors soon discover some basic rules. If your business is anywhere from COEX, the huge exhibition center, to Apkujeong, the flossy district of high-fashion boutiques, upscale restaurants and nightclubs, stay "south of the river." Otherwise, you'll spend altogether too much time in traffic jams, if you go by taxi, or battling through a crowded subway system. But if you're "north of the river" and have to venture south of the river, plunge into the subway. Beginning with line number one, which runs all the way to Incheon via City Hall and Seoul Station, the capital has built one of the world's largest, most efficient networks in little more than 30 years. Subway maps in English are available, and you'll save time as well as money by hopping aboard. A trip from north of the river around to COEX, for instance, may take 45 minutes by subway—and upwards of an hour by taxi. Buses are also plentiful, but it may prove frustrating to determine where to get the one you want. Few foreigners take them—which is a pity, since the bus system is convenient and comfortable if you have the time and energy to figure it out.
Once noted for its culinary provincialism, Korea has turned into a gourmet's paradise. Yes, Korean food—like bulgoki or kalbi, classic beef dishes; or bibimbap, a mélange of veggies, bits of beef (vegetarians can order the dish sans beef) and maybe an egg mingled with rice and hot pepper sauce—is ubiquitous, but you can also savor everything from fast-food pizza and burgers to haute cuisine. For the best in Korean food, wander a few blocks north of Chong Gye Cheon to Insa-dong, an ancient district of traditional restaurants and small shops selling distinctly Korean artifacts. A tiny favorite: Daenamoo Bobjip (Bamboo Rice House, 02 735-2356). For the most exquisite in fusion as well as Korean, look for Min's Club, in a restored Korean-style house (02 733-2977, fax 02 733-2967).
Fine dining is everywhere, including in Itaewon, where great restaurants have sprung up just a few blocks from the thriving tailor and souvenir shops, sleazy bars and pickup joints catering to GIs from the nearby U.S. military base. One of the best: Le Saint-Ex (02 795-2465), on an alley off the main drag through Itaewon. Owner Benjamin Jonau somehow squeezes in art exhibitions along with a constantly shifting menu—and he opened a Spanish restaurant, La Plancha (02 790-0063), across the way.
South of the river, in glitzy Apukujeong, try Gossen (02 515-1863) for Italianstyle and Korean fare opposite the Galleria Department Store. Nearby, Once in a Blue Moon (02 540-5490) offers live music, featuring western standards to complement a standard western menu. Most hotels have terrific if expensive restaurants, both Korean and foreign. Room 201 (02 3701-0500 or 02 735-9071) is a new Italian restaurant, part of which actually is Room 201 in the New Seoul Hotel behind City Hall. The set lunch is highly recommended for fine dining at a reasonable price.
Hotels Seoul has numerous hotels, with a number of five-star international options. If you're north of the river, the Westin Chosun (02 771-0500, www.echosunhotel.com) remains the all-around best, as it has been ever since its founding as Seoul's first hotel in 1914, soon after the onset of Japanese rule. Across the street, the Radisson Seoul Plaza, (02 771-0200, www.seoulplaza.co.kr) overlooks City Hall plaza. Its second-floor coffee shop is a favorite meeting place for match-makers introducing eligible young men and women. Around the corner, just off the plaza, the Lotte (02 771-1000, www.lottehotel.co.kr) offers remodeled rooms in high-rises above a refurbished lobby.
On a slope of Namsan, the mountain in the middle of the capital, the Grand Hyatt (02 797-1234, www.grandhyattseoul.co.kr) looms above Itaewon, to which the hotel runs shuttle vans. Also on the side of Namsan, closer to the center, is the Seoul Hilton (02 753-7788, www.hilton.co.kr), where Miss Kong has presided with loving care for years over the capital's best business center. (Just don't confuse the Seoul Hilton with its rival Grand Hilton, formerly the Swiss Grand, on the northern fringe near World Cup Stadium.)
On the other side of Namsan, a favorite for big conferences is the Shilla (02 2233-3131, www.shilla.net). If you're attending a convention or show at COEX or the World Trade Center, way south of the river, stay at the Grand InterContinental (02 555-5656, www.seoul.interconti.com), its newer partner, the COEX InterContinental (02 3452-2500, www.seoul.interconti.com), or the Ramada (02 6202-2000, www.ramadaseoul.co.kr). Closer to Apukujeong, the JW Marriott (02 6282-6262, www.jw-marriott. co.kr) rises over Seoul's biggest intercity bus terminal. Not far away, also conveniently south of the river, are the renovated and renamed Imperial Palace (02 3440-8000, www.iphotel.co.kr), formerly Amiga; the Ritz-Carlton (02 3451-8000, www.ritz.co.kr); and the Renaissance (02 555-0501, www.renaissance-seoul.com).
You'll never run out of ways to get to know the capital and the country. For a dose of modern history, join a regular day tour to the DMZ, the four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone that divides South from North Korea. A full tour of the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom includes a briefing from an American soldier (shouting out a standard history that he's had to memorize) and a walk through Freedom House, a modern building that faces the North-South line in the middle of the Joint Security Area.
You'll see North Korean guards staring at you, and you'll enter the small aluminum-covered building right on the line where North Korean and American officers stage occasional meetings. Your tour bus will take you to the "bridge of no return," over which prisoners were exchanged after the signing of the truce at Panmunjom. Outside the JSA, the tour may also include a look at the "third tunnel," one of the infiltration routes dug out by the North Koreans and later discovered and opened up by U.S. army engineers. If possible, you should also visit spacious if underused Dora Station, the last stop on the new rail line linking North to South, and ride up nearby Mount Dora to an observatory for a sweeping look over the line into North Korea.
But don't forget the past: Half a dozen palaces are wide open for tours right in central Seoul. You can spend hours wandering through the secret garden of royalty behind the tall walls surrounding Changdeok Palace. For a lovely view of the city, go up Namsan Tower, at the top of Namsan. And for much greater views, plus invigorating exercise, consider hiking up Mount Pugak, north of the city center but still inside the city limits. It's two or three hours to the top up any of several winding forest trails.
They said it couldn't be done, but Incheon Airport, opened more than four years ago, ranks as possibly the most modern and convenient in Asia. Its long horseshoe terminal, spacious and rarely overcrowded, now serves more than 50 passenger airlines accounting for nearly 500 take-offs and landings a day, and "limousine" buses whisk you to stops throughout Seoul in anywhere from one to 1.5 hours. (Express buses go from the airport to most major cities elsewhere in the country.)
The airport is an engineering marvel, built on reclaimed land linking two islands, defying the legendary high tides of Incheon. Plans exist for another three runways and a cluster of luxury hotels, apartment blocks and shopping centers in varying degrees of construction. They're all part of the vision of Incheon as a hub, not only a port of entry into the Seoul metropolitan region and the rest of Korea, but also a transit point for destinations throughout Asia. A single beautiful bridge links the mainland to the airport, but plans are afoot for two more bridges, and a railroad is due to open in two years linking Incheon to Gimpo, the major domestic airport, much closer to Seoul.
Don't overlook Gimpo, half the distance to Seoul, for flying into Korea—you can reach Gimpo from Haneda, Tokyo's domestic airport (located right in the city, as opposed to Narita International Airport, two hours away), vastly slashing travel time between Tokyo and Seoul. To travel from Gimpo to downtown, you have a choice of buses or a subway line. A final note: If you're coming on a quick business trip, rent a cell phone at either Incheon or Gimpo. The price, when you return it before leaving, will be much lower than you'd pay your hotel—that is, if you're not staying in an executive-floor room that provides the mobile with the high price of the room.
DON KIRK is a journalist based in Seoul.
With towering skyscrapers, modern shopping complexes, and cultural attractions rivaling those of the most cosmopolitan capital, Seoul has grown into one of the world’s great cities. The “miracle on the Han,” the river that roughly bisects the city between the traditional area to the north and the trendy office and apartment districts to the south, reflects the success of a nation that has grown into an economic power in just half a century.
The miracle has flowered against the background of the 500-year Chosun dynasty that ended with the onset of 35 years of Japanese colonialism in 1910. Legacies of half a millennium of royalty, in the form of sprawling palaces, parks, and gardens, recapture the glory that was Chosun. The heritage of the kingdom lives on in Korean pride in business and industry and also in flourishing art centers, lively nightclubs and restaurants, expressways jammed with Korean-made vehicles, and stores brimming with the latest styles. Explore the museums, the cuisine, the shops, and the street life for three days and you’ll discover a society in spirited pursuit of peace and prosperity.
DAY ONE / You’re staying in The Westin Chosun, Seoul’s oldest hotel, founded as the Chosun in 1914. Your room is on the north “pagoda side” overlooking the charming garden and the Temple of Heaven where kings prayed for good harvests.
In a city where subways are often standing-room only and avenues are bumper-to-bumper in rush hour, you can spend a great first day in downtown Seoul on foot. You’re dedicating much of this day to Korea’s dynastic history. Start with the Deoksu Palace. Duck down the cement stairs on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, wend your way through a shopping arcade and beneath the Seoul Plaza Hotel, and emerge in front of the palace’s main gate. The only Western-style building among Korean palaces, Deoksu’s Royal Museum is filled with knickknacks of royal rule.
After wandering around the Deoksu museum and grounds, you’re ready for the 15-minute walk along Sejong-ro toward the Gyeongbok Palace, rebuilt to appear as it was at the zenith of the Chosun era. Astride Sejong-ro (the name memorializes King Sejong; ro, pronounced “no,” means avenue) looms a statue of Admiral Yi Sun Shin, whose ironclad turtle boats repelled the Japanese in the late 16th century. Stop at the Kyobo Book Store, which fills the basement of the Kyobo Building, opposite the statue. Check the Korean section for information on travel, history, art, and literature. Armed with reading material, walk past the Sejong Cultural Center, go under another avenue, and you’re at Gwanghwamun, the landmark gate about 200 yards in front of the palace.
Take the Gyeongbok Palace at a leisurely pace, observing how Chosun royals ruled, entertained, and lived. And don’t skip the National Museum of Korea on the left as you enter the palace grounds. Absorb the paintings of life in old Korea—urban and country scenes of nobility and peasantry, done in caricature style. (The museum will move in two or three years to a far grander building under construction several miles away.)
Next, look around The National Folk Museum of Korea to see how ordinary Koreans, mainly farmers, lived in the old days. The building with the blue-tiled Oriental-style roof visible behind the palace complex is Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House), the palatial residence of the president. If you’ve called or e-mailed a week or two ahead, you can take a one-hour tour.
Come out the side entrance of the Gyeongbok Palace complex onto Samchongdong, a tree-shaded boulevard lined with art galleries. You’re lunching at The Restaurant (that’s really its name), above the Kukje Gallery, a favorite of Blue House bureaucrats. The fare is Continental, with an emphasis on fish and parfaits. From that elegant setting, wander down Samchongdong Street beside the palace wall to the main avenue, go underneath, turn left, and walk a few blocks to Insadong Street, where you’ll find souvenirs of every imaginable sort, not to mention antiques—some real, others imitation.
But you’re not done with palaces. Leaving Insadong where you entered, turn right, walk past the headquarters of the Hyundai group, and you’re at Huwon (or Biwon), the Secret Garden, and two of the most storied palaces of all, Changdeok and Changgyeong, originally built for the royalty that couldn’t fit into the main palace. Take a stroll at dusk around the Secret Garden, the playground of royalty.
Time for a traditional Korean dinner. Departing the Secret Garden as you entered, turn left around the corner and walk about three blocks up the side street along the palace wall. On the left, past Hyundai headquarters, is one of several branches of Yongsusan restaurant, with menus in Korean and English, offering a wide variety of main courses, all served with kimchi, the pickled vegetable that is a staple of the Korean diet. After dinner, take a cab back to the hotel. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.
DAY TWO / Your prime destination this morning is Itaewon, the legendary restaurant, bar, and shopping area in the Yongsan district. On the way, you’re stopping at the War Memorial—not just a simple monument but a cavernous museum. Here you get a scene-by-scene overview of the conflicts with the Japanese and Chinese and, most dramatically, the Korean War.
After you’ve immersed yourself in military history, turn left at the gate and walk down the avenue to the main street through Itaewon. You can buy just about any type of clothing here in the basement shops packing underground arcades, at the stalls and stands on the sidewalk, and in the street-level shops with show windows. Brass-ware, jewelry, furniture, toys, and curios of all sorts are also for sale. Prices have been edging up, but remember to bargain (many of the shopkeepers speak English) as you examine the offerings both on the main drag and in the alleys and side streets.
A sure sign of Itaewon’s growing respectability is the proliferation of first-class restaurants in a district once noted for fast food and hostess bars. For lunch, you’ve reserved a spot at the French bistro Le Saint-Ex. Afterward, visit Nashville, on the main street, offering four floors of country-and-western ambiance. A few doors down from Le Saint-Ex, Gecko’s Garden offers a wide range of beers and wines in a multi-tiered Spanish- style villa formed by architectural sleight-of-hand from a couple of old buildings. Choose the courtyard, the intimate bar, or the rooftop tables for an afternoon sip.
Your shopping isn’t done yet. Taxi to Namdaemun Market, around the great South Gate built to guard the old southern entrance of the city on the broad avenue to the Gyeongbok Palace. You’ll find a panoply of labels—some counterfeit, others extra copies of items produced for U.S. and European manufacturers. Most vendors don’t speak English, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent to bargaining in one of Seoul’s most famous markets. If it’s getting late, go into the Mesa building next to the market. It’s a high-rise packed with shops that are open all night long.
Time to feast. Taxi to Korea House, 10 minutes from Namdaemun, for dinner and a show. Try to make it by 8 p.m., in time to eat and watch the second show, which begins at 8:50. The architecture is traditional, the song-and-dance is an exquisite rendition of ancient artistry, and the cuisine is a choice of several dozen Korean confections. Afterward, walk over to Myongdong, pausing first in front of Migliore, another all-night shopping tower, to sample the K-pop, performed live for free on a stage in front. Navigating through narrow streets filled with exuberant kids, you’ll be back at the Chosun in 15 minutes.
DAY THREE / Dawn breaks with the realization that you still haven’t been south of the river, where many of Korea’s most famous companies are making their headquarters. Forget about a taxi in the morning rush. You’ll get there faster, and a whole lot cheaper, by subway. Walk down the incline from the Chosun and descend into the Ulchiro 1-ga (Ulchi Street, section one) station—stop number two on the green line (line number two), which does a circular route around the city. Buy a ticket from a machine or a ticket window for 700 won, about 55 cents, for a 40-minute ride.
Get off at Jamsil, stop 216, meaning stop 16 on the number two line. The magnet here is Lotte World, a complex of hotel, department store, and amusement park. The amusement park, an imitation Disneyland, has one unique distinction: the Folk Museum, including a folk village, which features dioramas of life on the Korean peninsula as it has evolved over 5,000 years. From the Lotte complex, hike 15 minutes to Olympic Park for a view of prehistoric sites, including funeral mounds and earthen fortresses, along with venues for the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics.
You’re now ready for high-tech Korea. Take a taxi from Olympic Park to the soaring World Trade Center and COEX, the setting for exhibitions and such events as the Seoul Motor Show. (The acronym stands for Convention and Exhibition Center.) Wander through the subterranean mall, and savor the high-velocity pace of the city and its people. On the second level, visit the aquarium, home to 40,000 sea creatures, and the kimchi museum, telling you possibly more than you’ll ever need to know about Korea’s national side dish.
For a late lunch, dive into one of Seoul’s 500-plus Italian restaurants, almost all pasta-and-pizza joints but a select few up to fine dining. Taxi over to the next neighborhood, Cheongdam-dong, and look for Buon Posto, where you’ll enjoy fare far above the average Italian fast food that’s become a Korean national fad.
It’s time for high fashion on Seoul’s own Rodeo Street, AKA Fashion Street, running from Cheongdam through the city’s trendiest area, Apgujeong-dong, on the northern edge of Gangnam near the river. Shops here feature the creations of Korea’s growing number of designers, along with imports, and the customers are almost all upscale Koreans. Here, too, is Galleria, arguably the most fashionable of Seoul’s department stores. But Galleria faces strong competition from the Hyundai Department Store next door.
Sip a latte at one of the coffee shops along Rodeo Street to prepare for your evening at the Seoul Arts Center, also in Gangnam, a theater complex that’s sure to have one or two concerts, operas, musicals, or dramas every night of the week. Hop on the orange line, number three, at Apgujeong Station (number 336). From there it’s a 10-minute ride to Nambu Station (number 341) and a 15-minute walk (or five-minute ride by microbus) to the Arts Center. After the performance, ride the orange line north to Gyeongbok Palace Station (number 327). Walk over to Samchongdong Street, right of the palace, grab a taxi, and tell the driver “skyway.” That’s a winding road through hills overlooking the city from the north, past some of Seoul’s most sumptuous homes. If it’s after dusk, you’ll be treated to a twinkling cityscape below as you look toward Namsan (the South Mountain), topped by Seoul Tower.
The skyway route, through the Samchong tunnel, takes about 15 minutes one-way. Pausing for libation at Bear House, at the northern crest, you see still more mountains, including Bugak, on the northern fringe of Seoul. After looping back to central Seoul, you’ll want nothing more than to relax in the hotel. To the left off the lobby as you enter the Chosun, The Ninth Gate offers classic Continental fare. As you dine in serene comfort, gaze out on the Temple of Heaven, backlit beyond the big picture windows, a lovely ending to three busy—and perfect—days.
on the web
Two basic sites for background on the city are www.metro.seoul.kr and www.tour2korea.com. Try www.seoulnow.net for news and features from the Seoul metropolitan government. Another city site, www.visitseoul.net, provides information on cultural attractions. Chosun Ilbo, the largest daily newspaper, carries travel articles and is available in translation at english.chosun.com. Get a preview of your Seoul visit by exploring the sites for the National Museum of Korea (www.museum.go.kr), The National Folk Museum of Korea (www.nfm.go.kr), and the Seoul Arts Center (www.sac.or.kr).
Limousine buses leave Incheon International Airport on four different routes, departing at 20-minute intervals, covering hotels in different parts of Seoul. Give yourself 90 minutes to reach your hotel. The price for the bus is W11,000 (US$9). Taxis may not make the trip any faster than the bus and will cost five times as much. Other buses make other stops in Seoul, some of them for as low as W6,000 (US$5), and buses also go from the airport to other cities. Ask for schedules at information booths outside the main doors on the arrival level.
Seoul is an enormous city with a population of more than 10 million. The great dividing line is the Han River. Most intercity trains depart from Seoul Station, north of the river. Gimpo, formerly the international airport but now the domestic airport, is approximately midway between Incheon and Seoul.
Taxis come in two varieties—the big black sedans whose meters start at W4,000 (US$3) and the ordinary midsize taxis, gray or white, with fares beginning at W1,600. The less-expensive ones are not allowed to wait by entrances to some top hotels, so you may have no choice. Visitors tend to avoid the subway and buses, but that’s a mistake. Subway maps in English are available in your hotel, at the ticket windows in subway stations, and at tourist information centers. Taking the subway is often quicker, simpler, and less agonizing than sitting in traffic watching the meter tick up.
Seoul has four distinct temperature seasons, with pronounced wet and dry seasons. Seoul shares in the vast Asiatic monsoon cycle, which dumps 70 percent of the city’s rain from late June to early September.
The mild, dry days of April and May become a fleeting memory in June. The tropical air mass brings increasing cloudiness, and rainfall occurs about once every three days. Light clothing and rain gear are essential. Summer is rainy, hot, and humid. Exacerbating this, one to three typhoons sideswipe Korea during the wet season. Storms bringing 8 to 12 inches of rain in a short time are not unheard-of. However, the wet season can be capricious, and serious droughts periodically occur. In August, the sultry heat climaxes. The average high temperature may be in the upper 80s, but 100-degree days are not uncommon.
Fall brings the most beautiful weather of the year as dry northwest winds take over. Progressively cooler and much clearer days change the leaves into a palette of brilliant colors. During the winter, cold Siberian high pressure takes over. Arctic outbreaks can produce subzero cold. Seoul experiences 28 snow days each winter. However, snowfall of 6 inches or more is rare, occurring only once every 30 years. Winds are strongest during the winter and can bring visibility-reducing yellow dust and sand into the city in March.