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.”
Where to Eat in Seoul
For the traveler who really wants to get to know Seoul, experiencing its cuisine is as important as seeing the sites. Excellent meals are easy to find in even the most unassuming restaurants and street stalls. And like hiking and visiting a karaoke bar, eating and drinking are deeply communal and symbolic activities.
Redolent in savory sauces made from red peppers, garlic, sesame, and soy, Korean food is earthy and healthy. The cuisine owes its unique complexity to Buddhist and Confucian influences, abundant seas, and, as is often the case when it comes to a nation’s gastronomy, to times of hardship. “Korean food is where the slowest foods meet the freshest foods,” says Shin Kim, a New York–based chef who writes for Zenkimchi.com, an online journal about food in Korea; her own blog is Shinshine.com. “Out of necessity, people started fermenting and pickling their harvests to make them last as long. But Koreans are also very aware of what’s in season and are obsessed with quality and using local produce.”
A building block of Korean cuisine is jang, or seasoned sauce. The three main types of jang (fermented bean, soy, and red pepper) can be rendered in innumerable variations, reflecting everything from region to season and family recipe. Deceptively simple, jang has come to symbolize Koreans’ symbiotic relationship with food. “There’s a saying, ‘When the jang changes, a collapse of the family,’” says Kim. “Making jang is an intense process that happens over months, even years, and so if the mother is troubled and therefore neglectful of the jang, the taste changes.”
Deliciousness is just one happy by-product of the philosophy behind Korean cuisine, which holds that the universe, and therefore human bodies and the food they eat, are governed by yin and yang (or, um and yang, in Korea), and it is composed of five elements. Thus, a proper Korean dish harmoniously combines um (greens, fruits, pungent, cold) and yang (roots, meat, spicy, fried) and contains five colors (red, green, yellow, white, and black).
Arguably, there is no food more accessible or desirable than meat grilled over an open flame. In Seoul, the intoxicating aroma of smoldering charcoal fills the streets no matter what neighborhood. But wonderfully cooked meat is just part of the Korean barbecue experience. Just as important are the numerous side dishes called banchan. Small bowls filled with any variety of kimchi (there are hundreds), salad, pickled squid, cold soup, dried anchovies, and rice are placed on the table all at once and for everyone to share.
The best barbecue restaurants can be found in affluent Gangnam-gu. Though not listed in guidebooks, Park Daegamne is a favorite among low-key locals and movie stars (whose photos grace the walls). Go for the grilled tenderloin and the galbi tang, a soup made with stewed beef short ribs and daikon. Hanok (www.ihanok.co.kr) is more refined and a bit more expensive but not touristy. Its meat is impossibly tender. Set in a sleek steel-encased building, the upscale Bamboo House (www.bamboohouse.or.kr) is where heads of state and Tom Cruise go. The house specialty is called cognac sirloin, and the vegetables, grown at the restaurant’s farm, are particularly flavorful.
Economic prosperity has created a boom in the arts and a homegrown entertainment industry. By 2005, the Korean wave, or hallyu, as the flowering of local culture is known, was exporting $22 billion–worth of television shows, movies, and pop music throughout Asia. One TV series, Jewel in the Palace, a period drama set during the Joseon dynasty (from 1392 to 1910) about a peasant girl who toils her way to becoming a palace chef, has jumpstarted a revival in hanjeongsik, the traditional table d’hôte of aristocratic households. At Phil Kyung Jae (www.philkyungjae.co.kr), modern gourmands can set the clock back 500 years and dine at a banquet table in the original home of King Sejong’s great-great-grandson, where his descendents now live and meticulously re-create ancient family recipes. Travelers seeking further immersion can take a cooking class at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine (www.food.co.kr) in Wonseo-dong.
An easy way to find great food in Korea is to go to the open-air food markets and choose among the slew of casual sit-down restaurants neighboring the stalls. A number of restaurants at Noryangjin Fish Market, a cavernous warehouse in central Seoul, offer virtually every sea creature, including sannakji, a local delicacy also known as live octopus. It’s not actually alive, though raw tentacles can wiggle on the plate, and in the mouth. Drizzling sesame oil over the cephalopod adds flavor – and foils the still-active suckers.
In a city where dried squid are draped alongside chewing gum and sesame bars, culinary adventures are in abundance. Street carts and pojangmacha, orange tents set up in high-traffic areas, serve up a cornucopia of delicious and cheap treats. Three hard-to-miss staples are tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes in red pepper sauce; sundae, a form of sausage stuffed with viscid rice, noodles, and ox or pig blood; and odeng, Japanese-style fish cakes on a skewer.
Many of the tents serve soju, a potent Korean liquor, and chances are neighboring nibblers will offer a shot from their bottle. Etiquette says it’s rude to refuse. Custom calls for the recipient to hold the glass with both hands and always replenish others’ glasses once they are empty – but never one’s own. To be on the cutting-edge of Seoul’s drinking culture, seek out bars specializing in makgeolli, a milky liquor made from fermented sweet rice. First consumed over a thousand years ago, the beverage is enjoying a serious comeback with new producers creating artisanal versions from traditional recipes. At Chin Chin, in the hip university neighborhood Hongdae, owner Eliot Choi serves copious brands and has created an iPhone app that details the history, origin, flavor, and ingredients for each.
What to Do in Seoul
The history of dynastic rule on the Korean peninsula starting in 2,333 BC includes 11 separate, and at times concurrent, empires. Reigning more than 500 years before falling to Japanese occupiers in 1910, the Joseon Dynasty was the last, and its Confucian-based philosophy still influences modern customs concerning food and flower arrangements, as well as those involving social mores and legal systems. Besides the founding of Seoul, one of the greatest Joseon legacies is Hangul, the phonemic alphabet created by King Sejong in the 15th century that’s still in use today. Five palaces from Joseon times are clustered in the same downtown vicinity. Visitors should allot at least two days to explore the two most impressive ones, plus the attractions near each.
Like Beijing’s Forbidden City, Gyeongbokgung (www.royalpalace.go.kr; meaning Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven) was once the seat of the government. The grandest of the palaces, Gyeongbokgung was built in 1394 for King Taejo and features a two-tiered imperial throne room and a buttressed banquet pavilion that seems to float over a lotus pond. For a sense of the lives of the royals (and their servants, slaves, and eunuchs), view the costumes, art, and everyday objects at the on-site National Palace Museum.
At the palace’s south gate, guards wearing bright red capes and black bolero hats and carrying medieval swords change shifts three times a day. Normally steely-eyed and frowning, the sentinels smile gamely for photos. Across the street is Gwanghwamun Plaza (www.royalpalace.go.kr), Seoul’s newest landmark. Between two boulevards, carpets of flowers and lighted walkways lead south to grand statues of King Sejong and Joseon naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-shin.
With the rocky pyramid of Mount Bugaksan soaring in the background, the expanse is a popular meeting place, especially for students creating performance art. At the end of the plaza is Cheonggyecheon Stream. Covered by a highway in the 1960s, the 4-mile stream was restored a few years ago, and now locals and tourists alike stroll its romantic sunken banks to be cooled by a breeze, explore exhibits, and gaze at wacky nighttime laser shows.
The royal residence of Changdeokgung (www.eng.cdg.go.kr; Palace of Illustrious Virtue), which exudes a homier feel than the stately Gyeongbokgung, is perched on a hillside and bears majestic towers and pavilions that blend into the lush greenery. Its bridges arc gently over a stream ending in a soothing waterfall. Tucked toward the rear is Huwon Garden. Spanning 78 acres of landscaped lawns, lotus ponds, and hundreds of tree species, this is where royals met under the utmost privacy.
Outside the palace’s west wall is the elite enclave of Bukchon, where more than 900 Joseon-era houses, called hanok, sit side by side along steep alleyways. When viewed from the highest point, the black-tile rooftops form a rocky sea undulating over red clay walls.
Further west is Samcheong-Dong, a gingko-lined neighborhood that’s become the SoHo of Seoul. Housed in traditional buildings are modern cafés, boutiques of handmade crafts, and art galleries. Two of the best galleries are adjacent: Kukje Gallery (www.kukje.org), which shows pieces by museum favorites Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois next to works by acclaimed young Korean artists (Cho Duck Hyun, Yeondoo Jung), and Hakgojae Gallery (www.hakgojae.com), which presents ancient art and calligraphy as well as up-and-coming Asian artists.
A bit farther south is Insadong, a historic commune that, despite being quite touristic, exudes a whimsical charm. (Maps of the area mark McDonald’s with the same emphasis as Place Where Min Yeong-hwan Took His Own Life.) Packed with shops, this area sells anything regarded as traditional, including antiques, hanji paper, calligraphy brushes, and hanbok clothing. Along the main drag, young men put on a show while kneading and stretching kkultarae, a royal malt and honey candy, into thousands of silky strands. Take time to decompress at one of the many teahouses such as A Doll in Salt that Went to the Sea or Sanchon (www.sanchon.com), which serves Buddhist temple food and is run by a former monk.
Like Insadong, other shopping districts offer their own product niche, and watching locals haggle is an amusing spectator sport. Serving as many as 400,000 customers each day, Namdaemun Market (www.namdaemunmarket.co.kr) is Korea’s largest, and craziest. More than 10,000 stores burst at the seams with wholesale products, from eyeglasses and children’s clothes to belts and ginseng. Though Dongdaemun Market (www.dongdaemun.com) is open all day, hard-core fashionistas wait until after midnight to plow through the latest styles at the massive complex of stores and stalls. Both markets are in the city center.
Perhaps because it provides a yin tonic for a yang shopping obsession, hiking is one of South Korea’s great pastimes. Every day, jovial mobs in nylon pants; windbreakers of reds, purples, and pinks; and gigantic visors shaped like platypus bills take to the trails. And since Seoul has 37 mountains, a path is always within reach. At Mount Bugaksan, hiking trails lead to temples and striking urban panoramas. At the southern tip of downtown is modest Mount Namsan, topped by the needle-shaped Seoul Tower, whose observatory is open past nightfall. Around the tower, as well as in other green spaces, are barefoot parks. Made of various types of rocks, the footpaths are designed for street-worn feet to walk unshod with the aim of improving circulation, stimulating internal organs, and gaining much deserved relief.
Side Trips from Seoul
Jeju is an island of threes. Locals have given their volcanic island off Korea’s southern coast three nicknames: Island of the Gods (after the 18,000 resident gods and goddesses), Samdado (island with three abundances, namely wind, women, and rocks), and Sammudo (island lacking three things: thieves, beggars, and gates). And along with sandy beaches, forested and flowered mountains, temples, waterfalls, and a temperate climate, Jeju claims a triad of Unesco World Natural Heritage sites.
The island’s remoteness has spawned a culture distinct from the mainland. Though times have changed (today 50 daily flights arrive from Seoul), some centuries-old customs remain intact. While they have traded flowy gowns for seal-like wetsuits, female free divers – or haenyo – still plunge up to 65 feet, gathering shellfish and seaweed.
In the mid-1960s, tourism and tangerines saved the island’s flagging economy, and this mystical spot became known as the Hawaii of Asia. Large resorts, such as the Hyatt Regency Jeju (www.jeju.regency.hyatt.com), sprouted along the southern coast, and orange orchards cover the countryside. Rising from Jeju’s heart is the volcano Mount Hallasan. At its base, trails weave up and around to the towering summit and crater lake. Canvassing the island are grassy volcanic mounds called oreum. Underneath them lies a system of lava tubes, which is among the finest of its kind in the world.
Exceedingly friendly, Jeju is definitely eccentric: WE LOVE HAVING YOU HERE signs dot the highways and the ubiquitous mascot is a “grandfather stone” statue who sports a mushroom-shaped cap and a smile. Possibly nowhere else boasts more mini theme parks, including ones devoted to minor landmarks, chocolate, tea, teddy bears, paper dolls, folklore, bonsai, and even sex. The latter, Loveland, features sculptures in various stages of intimacy and arousal. As one could imagine, the giant mountable phallus is a popular photo op.
Four-and-a-half hours south from Seoul by train or 40 minutes by plane, Gyeongju is a small town with a giant history. Sheltered by three soaring mountain chains, Gyeongju was the golden capital of the Silla Kingdom, from 57 BC to 935 AD, and where the monarchs built glittering palaces and Buddhist temples. With streets beautified by poplars and forsythia, and a law forbidding skyscrapers, Gyeongju offers an enchanting counterpoint to Seoul.
Cited by Unesco as one of the world’s most important ancient cultural cities, Gyeongju harbors numerous fascinating sites, many in the town’s center. Built in the mid-seventh century, the Cheomseongdae Observatory was the first of its kind in the Far East. The pear-shaped stone tower, where royal astronomers once mapped the heavens, now glows in golden light at night, as does nearby Imhaejeonji, a photogenic cluster of pavilions set in a pond shaped like the Korean peninsula.
Pathways lined with cherry blossoms lead to a walled compound containing 23 tombs including Cheonmachong, the only one open to the public. Inside are reproductions of a deceased king’s golden treasures. The genuine articles are in the Gyeongju National Museum (www.gyeongju.museum.go.kr/eng), a must-see spot for understanding the artistry and opulence of the kingdom known as the “land of bright silver and gold.”
On the slopes of Mount Tohamsan – and also pictured on the 10 won coin – is Bulguksa Temple, a Buddhist masterpiece where stone bridges lead to vibrantly colored pavilions, representing a symbolic journey from the everyday world to the celestial realm. High above Bulguksa, enshrined in a grotto carved into the mountain’s slope is one of Korea’s most marvelous achievements, the Seokguram Buddha. Chiseled out of a single white granite block, the 11.5-foot statue stands as a zenith of Buddhist craft, geometry, and art. Visitors must rely on their memory of such a sublime sight, as no cameras are allowed.
When to Go to Seoul
South Korea has four very distinct seasons. Winters are bitterly cold and summers are very hot and humid, so visit in autumn (September to November) when the weather is warm, the skies are blue, and the forested mountains are ablaze with stunning fall colors. Or travel in spring (April to June) when temperatures are mild and cherry blossoms across the country are in bloom (usually the beginning of April).
While it would be easy to spend an entire holiday in Seoul, South Korea’s personality shines outside the pulsating capital. At least three to four days should be spent discovering the capital, but the best itinerary would also include trips south to the town of Gyeongju and its staggering remains of the Silla Kingdom, as well as to oddball Jeju Island, a volcanic rarity in the Korea Strait where tangerines and statues resembling Papa Smurf abound.
Getting To and Around Seoul
Asiana Airlines (www.flyasiana.com), Korean Air (www.koreanair.com), and a number of domestic carriers fly nonstop to Seoul from the U.S. About the size of Indiana, South Korea has an able network of planes (www.flyasiana.com) and trains (www.info.korail.com/2007/eng/eng_index.jsp), affording a visitor the luxury of seeing a lot in a short time. At airports, passing through security checkpoints is fast, hassle-free, and frequently accompanied by the happy singsong greeting Ahn nyeong hah seh yo!