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Seoul's vibrant hustle and bustle under the night sky
Seoul's vibrant hustle and bustle under the night sky
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Seoul Spotlight

South Korea's mega-proseperous capital city welcomes visitors with ancient palaces, dynamic nightlife, and a dining culture equal to any in Asia

By Victoria De Silverio

ShermansTravel.com

September 29th, 2010

The Land of the Morning Calm has quietly seeped into American consciousness: Pinkberry and Red Mango; Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. Ask any teenage girl where she shops and who ranks on her heartthrob list and Forever 21 and Rain, the dreamy South Korean action star-singer, will surely chart. Bulgogi and kimchi have risen to the ranks of urbanite comfort food on par with dim sum and falafel, and even mall staple California Pizza Kitchen offers a Korean barbecue taco. And yet, beyond knowledge of South Korea’s geographical position – and extreme cultural and economic juxtaposition with its northern neighbor – the average westerner’s awareness of this fascinating and fun country is sorely limited. While American leisure travelers heading east have traditionally flocked to Japan or Hong Kong, South Korea is now coming into its own as a vacation destination.

At its economic and cultural center lies a capital city that has the frenetic, addictive pace of Tokyo; a burgeoning art scene that may soon match Beijing’s; and a dynamic dining culture that is equal to any in Asia. The incredible ascendance of Seoul, or what economists refer to as the “Miracle on the Han River,” and South Korea’s recent competitive gains are essential to understanding the current energized mind-set of the city and the country as a whole. After 35 years of occupation by the Japanese and a brutal civil war five years later, the city was practically leveled and the nation left struggling with extreme poverty. Yet South Korea managed to turn its fortunes around, and in a remarkably short time. As Andrei Lankov points out in The Dawn of Modern Korea, “In 1957, South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana. And by 2008, its GDP was 17 times higher than Ghana’s.”
 
Now that the country is established as a mega-prosperous democracy (following the election of the first civilian president in 1992), South Koreans are showing renewed interest in their 5,000-year-old dynastic history and a desire to welcome the world in. Massive restoration efforts have repaired war-torn relics and the entire city of Seoul is being reimagined. Seeking to “enhance its attractiveness,” Mayor Oh Se-hoon has created special Design Streets, commissioned eye-grabbing public artworks, brought in energy-efficient buses and electric trams, and reworked public spaces to be more pedestrian- and tourist-friendly. Free maps are now available and travelers need only dial 1330, day or night, to be connected to a multilingual operator who will offer guidance or communicate with confused taxi drivers or waitresses – a welcome service since, outside hotels, English is not prevalent.

Seoul sits in the northwest of South Korea, where four streams from four mountains converge – a spot, legend says, chosen by a Taoist monk for its auspicious feng shui. The city originally occupied only a section on the north banks of the Han River, but today’s metropolis, the size of 10 Manhattans and home to almost 11 million people, is bisected by the river and divided into 25 gu (administrative districts) that are subdivided into hundreds of dong (neighborhoods). Although vast, the city is easy to navigate, thanks to its clean, efficient metro and numerous moderately priced taxis.
 
The section known as downtown is a busy 6-acre swath in the center of the city north of the Han where historical landmarks, traditional markets, and Mount Namsan abut gleaming skyscrapers. South of the Han are financial districts and affluent neighborhoods such as Gangnam-gu, home to many top restaurants and, notably, Park Hyatt Seoul (www.seoul.park.hyatt.com), the city’s most pleasurable place to stay. Designed by Japanese firm Super Potato, the hotel attracts both business customers and movers and shakers involved in the creative arts. North of the Han is The Shilla Seoul (www.shilla.net/en/seoul), owned by modern Korea’s prevailing dynastic heir, Samsung. This is where Seoul old money (a rarity) reigns and their children nosh on Michael Jackson bibimbap, as this was the King of Pop’s favorite place to stay. For center-of-the-action nightlife, W Seoul-Walkerhill (www.wseoul.com) offers three restaurants and two bars.

Despite its size, fast pace, and tonnage of concrete and steel, Seoul feels friendly. Happy, even. South Koreans are often compared to Italians. Warm, passionate, and welcoming, they value romance and worry about whether or not you’ve eaten. Look remotely lost on a street, and a local will surely offer assistance, often shepherding the wayward to their destinations. Which is helpful, since street names are confusing and spoken directions usually involve some version of “Make a right at Mr. Donut” or “Go left at the orange sign.”

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