The first-time visitor might find it a little intimidating. I consider myself a city boy, but greater Seoul, with its population of 25 million people, can make even the most hardened urbanite feel like a country bumpkin. I was familiar with the long workday (well, not personally, but I know people), but I didn’t realize that in South Korea this extends to infants. Korean babies are the most sleep deprived little people in the world. And, having spent some time in the megacities of China, I thought I understood the kind of scale that boggles the mind. But did you know that, after Tokyo, Seoul has the highest concentration of restaurants per capital in the world? The South Korean capital is full of such brain-melting factoids. Somehow, without anyone noticing—and by anyone, I mean me—Seoul has become one of the great cities of the world, a giant pulsating star, radiating its energy to the farthest corners, too busy with the here and now to worry about the apocalyptic shenanigans of its northern neighbor. Where, I wondered, does one even begin to explore a city like Seoul? “You should begin in the very center of Seoul,” my friend said.
AS IT TURNS OUT, the center is found on Mount Namsan, an idyllic 860-foot promontory capped by the N Seoul Tower, which looms over the city like a watchful sentry.
I like to begin the day with a little serenity, and the undulating four-mile footpath that encircles the hill is about the only place you’ll find it in this dense urban wonderland. It was late winter when I strolled up its slopes—the streams that tumbled down the hillside remained frozen and the trees barren—but the ever present clamor of birdsong suggested that spring was imminent.
Here and there I came across remnants of the old city walls, constructed during the early Joseon dynasty, when Mount Namsan marked the southern border of Seoul. Interspersed throughout were the exercise yards typical of East Asia, which seemed to be the exclusive domain of elderly gentlemen, each with an old-timey transistor radio emitting the warbling love songs of a bygone Korea. There is a cable car to the peak, but I chose to follow an enchanting stone stairway, and after 45 minutes of clambering I emerged at the top, where I was greeted by the sight of tens of thousands of “love locks” hung on fences, gates, railings, and even officially sanctioned, specially designed metal “trees of love” that line the paths like Christmas trees.
Love is a serious business in Seoul. One of the first things that come up in a budding relationship is determining whether or not a couple is blood compatible. Many Koreans believe that blood type determines personality. Type A’s, for instance, are understood to be kind though prone to being introverted and perfectionists. I, as a Type O, am apparently a confident, expressive, egotistical risk taker, which does not sound good but does help explain some questionable life decisions.
But I had not come here for romance. I bought a ticket to the observatory deck of N Seoul Tower and rocketed up in a swift elevator. At the top, the first thing one encounters is a Weeny Beeny candy shop, and while tempted, I had not come to the mountain for sugar either. No, I had come to behold Seoul.
Its immensity is staggering. Tower after tower stretching off as far as the eye can see, filling every nook and valley of the rugged landscape, from the Lotte World Tower, which ascends to 1,821 feet, to the hundreds of apartment blocks.
And for the visitor, there is everything here, as I would dis-cover in the days ahead. Do you desire some old-school imperial Korea? Well then, head on down—via cable car, regally—to Changdeokgung, the Palace of Illustrious Virtue, the home of Korea’s last emperor, and wander the grounds, making sure to visit the secret garden, and accept your insignificance.
Restore your humanity with a walk through the alleyways of Bukchon Hanok Village, where more than 900 traditional Korean homes and guesthouses have been carefully preserved. Absorb the lilting, angular roofs, the heavy wooden doors, and the decorative brick walls, and remember that once upon a time Seoul was but a small town. Then make your way to nearby Hyoja-dong, long a home for craftsmen but increasingly recognized for its avant-garde art galleries. Not as well known as Samcheong-dong, Seoul’s venerable art mecca, Hyoja-dong is notable for its commitment to preserving the historic ambience of this district of hanoks and mazelike passageways while welcoming the hot glare of the contemporary art world.
And now you’re hungry, of course. And because you’re a first-time visitor to Seoul, you have no idea where to go. That’s OK! Because what Seoul does really well is street food. There are dozens of markets spread throughout the city. Some, like Dongdaemun, are known for fashion.
Others, like Namdaemun, are known for, well, everything. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Namdaemun, it’s probably not available anywhere on Earth. Spicy rice cakes and Korean fried chicken (so much tastier than its American version—sorry, Southerners) are ubiquitous, but keep your eyes open for silkworms (beondegi) and poo bread. Trust me.
Nearly every Korean, it seems, is passionate about food. And you soon understand why. Korean cuisine is not subtle. Every bite is a carnival of tastes, from the fiery chicken feet (dakbal) to the bitter dandelion salad (mindeulle muchim) and sweet Korean pancakes (hotteok). Me? I like the traditional galbi restaurants, where you grill marinated beef short ribs at your table while your dining companions get marinated on soju, the local firewater. And perhaps no place does it better than Mapo Sutbul Galbi in trendy Apgujeong-dong, where the stars of K-pop and film come to dine. People are beautiful here, but now so are you. You have arrived. You are in the center of the universe. You are in Seoul.
Travel back in time at a tradi-tional Korean house (hanok), with its upturned tile roof, paper-screened windows, and interior courtyard. Home-cooked meals are often included. The Hanok Homestay Information Center, in Bukchon Hanok Village, can book reservations.
Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel
This playful, high-design spot (have a go on the cushioned swings in the lobby) is located in Itaewon district, with its trendy restaurant and bar scene. From $100. imperial palaceboutiquehotel.com
Grand Hyatt Seoul
Perched on Mount Namsan, this luxe hotel offers grand views, indoor and outdoor pools, and possibly the best health club in the city. From $200. seoul.grand.hyatt.com
Lotte Hotel Seoul
Business travelers love this centrally located hotel, owned by one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates and across the street from the popular Myeongdong shopping district. From $230. lotte hotelseoul.com
Seoul Food and Drink
Over a hundred years old, Gwangjang Market, near Dongdaemun, sells everything from bedding and classic Korean dresses to an endless variety of street foods. Try the bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) and the bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl).
Buddhist nuns serve multi-course vegan dishes (pickled lotus root, miso soup) in Jongno-gu. The healthy menus, based on Buddhist principles, change seasonally. balwoo.or.kr
Sample Korea’s unfiltered rice wine, called makgeolli, at any number of bars around town, including Neurin Maeul and Moon Jar, both in Gangnam.
WHAT’S YOUR SUITE INDULGENCE?
We all love a little bit of Indulgence every now and then. For some it’s fine wine and dining, for others it’s shopping and pampering, and for many of us, it’s the time spent to relax and enjoy great times with family and loved ones. What better way to indulge yourself than to stay in one of these stunning suites in four of Southeast and Northeast Asia’s most amazing destinations where you can enjoy all of the above?