Seoul Purpose: a local's guide to the South Korean capital

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The heart of Seoul lies in its palaces, skyscrapers  - and its stomach.

Seoul is a city is split by the River Han – old money to the north, new money south of the river. Northside, think palaces, president’s house and traditional hanok houses: snap up classic ceramics or perhaps a hanbok dress in Insa-dong and drink 100-flower tea in Bukchon. 

To the south of the river, Gangnam is all about Euro-luxe labels. Would-be models strut the streets as they shop at the Garosu-Gil fashion strip, Asia’s largest underground mall, COEX, or too-cool Cheongdam-dong, with its Italian boutiques and wine bars. 

At any tick of the 24-hour clock, you’ll find some of Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants in the pubs, karaoke bars, restaurants, internet cafes and saunas. Iif anything closes, it’s always late. In Seoul, the neon lights are never switched off. 

Tosokchon restaurant
Three things you have to see in Seoul
Tea oils the wheels of Korean society. The Beautiful Tea Museum is a gorgeously serene space in the antiques hood of Insa-dong, selling and serving 130 beautiful teas and their accoutrements. It also exhibits perfect, simple ceramics (Jongno-gu Insa-dong 193-1, www.tmuseum.co.kr ) Otherwise, go traditional at Cha Masineun Tteul, which lives up to its name, cosy garden where people drink tea’. Take a seat on hanoks warm floor as tea ladies serve iced strawberry summer punch or hot spiced dae chu cha (Asian date tea), rice cakes and toasted sunflower seeds while you look out on that cosy garden or out over the rooftops (Jongno-gu, Samcheong-dong 35-169).  

Another wonderful place to see Seoul’s traditional architecture is Bukchon Hanok Village, considered the most beautiful corner of Seoul. Its neighbourhood of 900 hanoks makes  a welcome change to the industrial-strength apartment blocks that pierce the city skyline. The tourist information booth opposite Gyeongbokgung Palace (Jogno-gu, 1 Sejong-ro, www.royalpalace.go.kr)  offers excellent walking maps of the area, including a trail with eight signposted photo spots that give the best views down tiny, picturesque alleyways and over the rooftops to the palace. 

Of a more transient nature are the comically named ‘tent restaurants’ that dominate the city’s streets: sun shelters lined with clear plastic walls to keep out the fierce winter winds. Korea’s food culture is wildly rich: walk any street and try fried silkworms, suck down a live octopus, chomp on pig’s trotters or snack on a jeon (Korean savoury pancake) washed down with makgeoli (rice wine). At the massive Noryangjin Fish Market, buy your seafood and have it thrown in the pot in seconds. No matter how lean your purse or how limited your Korean, you’ll never starve in this town.
Samcheong-dong

Artisan Mecca
Samcheong-dong’s three-kilometer-long cobbled street, between the president’s house and Gyeongbokgung Palace, sniffs at mainstream labels. On this strip, it’s all about one-offs and their stylish producers –  shoemakers, milliners, bespoke designers and art galleries, with a hundred latte-pumping cafés in between. Cool, yes, but also resolutely Korean. You’ll still find locals queuing for the classic sujaebi, which is soup with dumplings, green onions and kimchi. You can get your fill of this dish for about $6 at Samcheong-dong Sujabei (Samcheong-dong 102).


At the table
With hundreds of eating-out options – from traditional Korean barbeques to fusion fare – in every neighbourhood, Seoul cements itself as one of Asia’s prime food capitals.

JungSik
SUMMER FLAVOURS A visit to Tosokchon (Jahamun-ro 5-gil 5, Jongno-gu) means tucking in to samgyetang, a summer broth of ginseng and chicken. Tosokchon enjoys a cult following, with former president Roh Moo Hyun amongst its devotees.
LIKE A LOCAL Young chef Yim Jung Sik is currently wowing New York diners with his ‘New Korean’ cooking. His Seoul dining room JungSik (649-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam, jungsik.kr) is a celebration of truly beautiful plates. The kitchen uses using quintessentially Korean ingredients to serve up fresh delectable dishes.
CHEAP EATS Visit lpumdang (16-1 Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu, ilpumdang.co.kr) and you’ll realise that Korea’s best chow isn’t necessarily found in the most expensive restaurants. Order the Korean shabu shabu – thin wafers of beef cooked in broth and served with dipping sauce.

Hidden cultural gems
Want to find out what the locals are really drinking? “We teach Korea’s drinking culture – how to pour and what to drink,” says Korean-American guide Daniel Grey. His Korean Night Dining Tour steers you through the joys of drinking soju (potent rice wine) and snacking up a storm in the city’s alleyway barbeque cafés (ongofood.com). 
Korean Night Dining Tour
After you’ve been fed and watered, the place to be on the last Friday of the month is Hongdae district for Club Day, where $12 gets you entry to a dozen or more clubs in the happening Hongik University area. Don’t expect to get home early – it kicks off around 11pm and diehards call it a night around 5am. The second Friday of the month is the smaller Sound Day, with fewer clubs and a focus on live music, from 8pm-5am (02 333 3910). 
Hongdae
After a big night, recharge at a jjimjilbang (public bathhouse), which is guaranteed to knock a dress size off you, thanks to a battalion of scrubbers and fiery steam rooms: expect rampant public nudity (yes, they are segregated). Most hotels have their own sauna, or try the foreigner-friendly, seven-story Yongsan Dragon Hill Spa (dragonhillspa.co.kr)
The Westin Chosun

Pillow talk
 FASHIONABLE The Westin Chosun (Jung-gu, 87 Sogong-dong, westin.com/seoul) is walking distance to Namdaemun market, Myengdong fashion town, beautiful department stores and two palaces.

SPA BREAK On the side of Mount Nam sit the luxe San 5-5, Jang Chung-dong 2-Ga Jung-gu,
banyan tree.com). Each of the hotel’s huge 32 suites has a steamy indoor pool and sauna and its spectacular outdoor pool is a favoured haunt of Seoul’s elite.

Banyan Tree Seoul
BUDGET Sophias Guest House (Jongno-gu, 157-1 Sogyeok-dong, sophiagh.com), a 150-year-old hanok with ondol rooms (mattresses on heated floors) around a pretty courtyard, a short walk from the arty enclave of Insa-dong.

BOUTIQUE In the expat district of Itaewon you’ll find IP Boutique Hotel (737-32 Hannam-dong, Yongsangu, ipboutiquehotel.com) It has has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, with jungle swings in the foyer and compact, mirrored all-white rooms.

LUXURY RakKoJae (98 Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, rkj.co.kr) is a serene luxury hanok in Bukchon, with natural jade floors in its ondol rooms and a yellow-mud sauna.

National Folk Museum
Don’t leave Seoul without:
Visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace, the first home of the Joseon dynasty. Dating from 1395, it also houses the excellent National Folk Museum with a great, kitch-free gift shop. Closed Tuesdays (royalpalace.go.kr) For live entertainment, you can’t beat non-verbal theatre, which is massive in Seoul – great if your Korean is rusty. 

Nanta is a blood-pumping kitchen comedy set to traditional samulnori rhythm, and audience members are regularly invited on stage to participate (nanta.co.kr). 


Finally, spend a day at Namdaemun Market; stop for dumplings in alleys of food stalls or buy jars of pickled ginseng or gorgeous kitchenwear from more than 1000 stalls. Nearby, you’ll find the 14th-century Sungnyemun Gate, officially Korea’s Number 1 National Treasure.

Insa-dong
Q&A
Celebrity snapper Kim Jung-Man is Korea’s top commercial photographer and been named one of the country’s Men of Culture in 2000.

What’s the quintessential photograph of Seoul? It lies somewhere between the historical past and the advance of the modern structure: the juxtaposition between hanoks and palaces and its modern architecture. It is best to find this in Gwangwhamun, near Gyeongbokgung Palace. 
What is the most beautiful street in Seoul? Personally, I think I'm the only one in Seoul who enjoys red lights. I take photos while stopped in traffic. 
Where’s Seoul’s heart of art? Hongdae and Insadong. Independent musicians play in the park at night in Hongdae and there is a great grunge feeling to the street art there. Hongdae has various flea markets where artists sell their wares while Insa-dong is famous for its many art galleries and historic feeling. 
Where do you go to find nature in Seoul? Namsan, which is Nam Mountain, the center of the city. There is nature even in the heart of Seoul, if you know where to look. 
Your favourite art gallery in Seoul? Gallery Kong (157-78 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-go, gallerykong.com)



Getting there: To book your flight to Seoul with our codeshare partner, Singapore Airlines, visit www.virginaustralia.com or simply call 13 67 89 (in Australia).

Source: Belinda Jackson, Voyeur magazine, Virgin Australia. October 2012.

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