SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - South Korea’s frenetic capital lends itself to many things such as round-the-clock dining, soaking up the country’s rich, tumultuous history, or watching cutting-edge technology in action.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a short stay in Seoul.
7 pm - Dive into contemporary Seoul head-first by heading to Gangnam, an affluent district south of the Han River known for corporate powerhouses, buzzing shopping complexes and some of the city’s best-loved restaurants, including Samwon Garden (www.samwongarden.com). This massive eatery, in a house surrounded by greenery and waterfalls, is popular with tourists, but plenty of locals eat here too because few places do Korea’s famous barbecue better, or in such comfortable surroundings.
9 pm - A short hop away, Garosu-gil (“Tree-lined Street”) is Seoul’s stab at gallery and boutique-dominated districts like New York’s Soho. While it doesn’t quite ascend those heights, it’s still a great place for a stroll and to ease into a night on the town in an eclectic cafe or wine bar. Grandmother (02-544-7411) stands out with its cozy, Persian-themed interior, ample wine list and pan-Asian snack menu.
11 pm - There are a growing number of challengers to the throne but Gangnam is still the city’s premier club district. Eden (www.eden-club.co.kr), in the basement of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, is one of the more recent and sophisticated additions to the scene, and attracts an energetic, well-heeled crowd with heady cocktails, a space-age sound system and top-ranked DJs.
9 am - Work off the previous night’s excesses and take in some culture with a walk up Inwangsan, one of the key “guardian” mountains that marked the boundaries of old Seoul. Its well-maintained, relatively undemanding trails offer sweeping views of the city center, including landmarks such as Gyeongbokkung, the largest of the Seoul’s restored palaces, and Cheong Wa Dae, the president’s official residence. Long a haven for monks and mystics, Inwangsan is also dotted with Buddhist temples and shamanist shrines.
12 pm - Come back down to earth in tranquil Buam-dong, a neighborhood just minutes from the crowds and skyscrapers of the city center that somehow retains a small-town atmosphere. Not to imply it lacks sophistication - it’s home to important artistic assets like the Whanki Museum (www.whankimuseum.org), which pays tribute to the life and work of Kim Whanki, Korea’s foremost abstract painter. Take time out for lunch at Jaha Sonmandu (02-379-2648), a Buam-dong fixture that’s been doling out delicious handmade dumplings for well over a decade.
2 pm - Stop by spanking-new Gwanghwamun Plaza, the latest in a succession of ambitious beautification projects aiming to revitalize Seoul’s ancient heart. The plaza boasts a few historic and not-so-historic attractions, including displays of Joseon-era relics, dancing fountains, and a towering statue of Sejong the Great, beloved inventor of Korea’s hangeul alphabet. But it’s probably most memorable for the surreal experience of standing on a concrete island in the middle of one of Seoul’s busiest thoroughfares as the city’s notorious traffic roars around you.
3.30 pm - Follow the Cheonggyecheon waterway east and you’ll eventually reach the sprawling Dongdaemun (Great Eastern Gate) shopping area, a hive-like network of indoor and outdoor stalls and malls heavily devoted to fashion and textiles. On Dongdaemun’s fringes are several smaller long-standing markets focusing on other items, including Geyongdong (oriental medicine and herbs) and Gwangjang (silk, traditional clothing) and piping-hot pinddaetok, or mung-bean, pancakes. The dedicated shopper could probably spend days here but even a quick visit will turn up some serious bargains.
6 pm - The free-spirited district surrounding Hongik University, known as Hongdae, is the epicenter of Seoul youth culture and lively any night of the week. By far the best activity here is simply walking around and taking in the consistently festive atmosphere, often reinforced by impromptu street performances or open-air art displays. Hongdae is crammed with solid dining options, including the aA Design Museum and Cafe (www.aadesignmuseum.com), which serves fresh, flavorful salads, pastas and baked goods in a whimsical building full of the owner’s substantial collection of vintage furniture.
8 pm - Long looked down upon, the sweet, milky rice wine known as makgeolli has gone from frumpy to fashionable. For a taste of the transformation, visit Chin Chin (02-334-1476), a very contemporary bar-lounge with a menu of dozens of artisanal varieties. The “Indochina” cocktail, a house specialty that pairs makgeolli with lemongrass and coconut, comes recommended.
11 am - For a good, leisurely brunch, most roads lead to the expatriate-centric Itaewon area, and Suji’s (www.sujis.net) in particular. This self-billed “New York style” institution just might be the city’s top spot for gut-busting morning delicacies like steak and eggs, pancakes and breakfast burritos.
1 pm - Head east of Suji’s along the main Itaewon strip for a tour of Seoul’s only truly multicultural zone, just a stone’s throw from the main U.S. Army base. Once fairly seedy and dominated by military traffic, it’s become a far more diverse place in recent years, with international schools, mosques, and a plethora of bars and ethnic restaurants. This is a good area to browse for old curious and furniture, especially on the “Antique Street” running south from the Hamilton Hotel.
3 pm - At the foot of nearby Namsan (South Mountain), the Namsangol Hanok Village is a cluster of beautifully restored hanok, or Korean homes, that provides a glimpse of what everyday life was once like here without lapsing into tourist kitsch. A relatively recent addition is the Namsan Gugakdang, a hall run by the renowned Sejong Center for the Performing Arts that regularly stages performances of traditional music and dance.
5 pm - Enjoy a lengthy dinner at Pulhyanggi (02-796-3490) in the Hannam-dong diplomatic quarter. This lovely restaurant, designed to evoke a rural feel, prides itself on ornate jongsik, or set meals, of dozens of delectable courses. Many emphasize fresh seasonal vegetables and health-giving herbs, so there’s no need to guilty about the vast amount you’ll inevitably eat.
7 pm - Return to Itaewon and pick a terrace on the lively street behind the Hamilton Hotel, where most of the district’s recent development has been concentrated, for a coffee or drink and some fine people-watching. Bliss (02-798-1125) is a current favorite.
Editing by Miral Fahmy