The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is locally known as the New York of Asia – and make no mistake – this city is overwhelmingly rich in its diverse offerings. From highly decorated temples and intimate hanok (traditional houses) to contemporary skyscrapers and a new wave of pop culture, Seoul has something for every traveller.
eat & drink
Food and drinks are the main platform for every form of social interaction in Seoul. As a result, the culinary scene is awe-inspiring. Every street corner boasts at least one stall emitting enticing scents of fried doughy delights or spicy snacks. From tteokbokki (spicy sweet rice cakes) and hotteok (pancakes) to ice cream wrapped in ‘goldfish’ waffles, Seoul’s street food is a smorgasbord of unique flavours and textures.
To escape the crowds, step off the street into one of Seoul’s many restaurants for a taste of Korean favourites such as bibimbap, ramen, Korean BBQ and fried chicken.
For a taste of the high life, make a booking at chef Tae Hwan Ryu’s fine-dining establishment in Sinsa-dong. After working around the world and alongside culinary legends such as Gordon Ramsay, Ryu returned to his home country to open Ryunique. The tasting menu offers 10 courses of contemporary gastro-scientific creations reminiscent of those by famed gastronomic chef Heston Blumenthal. If you’re short on time, get a bite-sized sampling of chef Ryu’s famous fare at his sister eatery, Normal by Ryunique, also in Sinsa-dong.
It’s impossible to spend a day in Seoul without being tempted by a dessert shop. Aesthetics are top priority when it comes to sweet treats in Seoul, and they taste just as delicious as they look. Satisfy your sugar cravings at Rendeja-vous in Mapo-gu. Rustic and plant-filled, this dessert café rebels against the minimalist interior design trend taking over many of Seoul’s popular eateries, and the menu features impeccably presented fresh fruit tarts and sweet, milky tea.
The city is a juxtaposition of sharply modern design and traditional beauty, where a trip to the local grocery store can take you past both a 14th-century temple and a glass-encased skyscraper.
Travel back through time at Jogyesa Temple, one of Seoul’s oldest and most celebrated places of worship. Take part in tea ceremonies, traditional awakenings and yebul (morning and evening chants), and then rush back to the present by taking a vertical trip up Lotte World Tower – the tallest building in SK and fifth-tallest globally – for a brilliant bird’s-eye view of the capital.
Make sure to spend a day in Dongdaemun to view the work of world-famous architect Zaha Hadid. Her Design Plaza is an architectural marvel, while the nearby traditional markets – situated just north of the plaza – are perfect for a languid afternoon of shopping.
For a true hidden treasure, explore Ikseon-dong. One of the oldest in Seoul, this area has attracted a wave of young artists and entrepreneurs who are opening up bistros, cafes and shops in the small traditional hanok that crowd the streets. It is difficult to find (it’s surrounded by a maze of alleyways), but well worth a visit.
Try Restaurant Gyeongyangsik 1920’s delicious pork cutlet (tonkatsu), as well as Pojangmacha Street’s authentic street food, ranging from udon and ramen to odeng (fishcakes) and kimchi. For tea, coffee and cakes, head to Cafe Graang, which also sells some cool local artwork. Once you’ve eaten, stop by Soozip & Vintage Bunny for classic ʼ50s design pieces to take home as souvenirs.
Nature also plays a role in Seoul’s sights to see, and many Seoulites are avid hikers or cyclers. Even if you don’t get to hike, do make time for a stroll along the Han River or around Seokchon Lake, as both make for a pleasing break from the buzz of the metropolis.
Korean design is becoming increasingly popular around the world, and with well-known young musicians such as BTS (Bangtan Boys) and models such as Irene Kim, the musical and fashion scenes are burgeoning, too. Dedicate a day or two to exploring local shops for unique clothing, inspiring technology and traditional titbits.
To do so, skip the Myeong-dong tourist trap and head to Seoul’s popular University district for all your retail needs. Hongdae is crowded with street stores and pop-ups filled with fascinating finds (think light bulbs that illuminate when you touch them). The atmosphere is electrifying: students take to the streets to show off their musical and dramatic talents, and there are multiple experimental restaurants and cafés to pop into when your feet tire.
If you start to miss home, head to Itaewon-dong (known for its large expat community owing to the US military base nearby), which has everything a foreigner needs to combat homesickness – even a South African restaurant called Braai Republic. It also has some of the best nightlife options for those looking to get a taste of Korean underground hip-hop and sample a few local tipples.