May 24, 2024

Contrary to the perception of Seoul being a city of historical palaces, it’s actually a bustling metropolis brimming with new restaurants, award-winning bars, and vibrant neighbourhoods. Photo / 123rf

K-pop fans, lovers of kimchi and even contemporary art enthusiasts should visit South Korea’s capital city of Seoul at least once, writes Michelle Tchea.

Do you have K-fever? Love yourself a catchy K-pop song? Or maybe you just can’t stop eating kimchi? There’s a word for being completely obsessed with Korean culture and its sweeping the world. The word hallyu, affectionately means Korean wave and is used to describe the phenomenon surrounding the rise in popularity of Korean culture. Some say it started with the mega hit Gangnam Style by K-pop star Psi, but the gnarly K-wave has definitely continued to rise well beyond the pop charts. We’ve all danced unashamedly to a BTS song and who hasn’t binged on a Netflix Original drama series like Squid Game? If you find yourself obsessed with K-culture, like the rest of the world, it might be time to visit South Korea. Because no matter how great your local Korean eatery is or how many times you watch the Korean movie, Parasite, nothing beats seeing, eating, and yes, experiencing South Korea first-hand.

But if you thought visiting South Korea was just skipping from one historical palace to another – think again. The city is booming with new restaurants, award-winning bars and is constantly evolving with epic neighbourhoods for both arts and culture discoveries. Seoul, the capital city is where you should start your adventures because it has it all. So what are you waiting for? Thinking of visiting South Korea – here are 10 reasons why you should do it.

READ MORE: Curious about North Korea? This is the best way to take a peek

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Seoul is booming with new restaurants, award-winning bars and is constantly evolving with epic neighbourhoods. Photo / Zequn Gui on Unsplash
Seoul is booming with new restaurants, award-winning bars and is constantly evolving with epic neighbourhoods. Photo / Zequn Gui on Unsplash

There’s tradition

Pick up any guidebook and it will tell you that the city of Seoul is all about contrasts and contradictions. What they mean by this is that the city has a lot of history and tradition that can be found in the heart of a booming cosmopolitan city.

For first-timers, the traditional palaces and temples are must-visit destinations because they give you some grounding on what “Old-Seoul” looked like before high-risers and K-pop took over the city. Running through downtown Seoul, Cheonggyecheon Stream was built as an urban renewal project a few years ago and now you will find both tourists and travellers alike walking up and down the 11km waterway for a stroll, run or jog. Dating back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the recreational space leads to the Gyeongbokgung Palace for a nice day exploring historical Seoul. Built in 1592, the palace is visited by history buffs, as well as fans of K-pop dramas with many of the viral shows being filmed in the city’s historical walls. In the same area, be sure to visit both the National Palace Museum of Korea and National Folk Museum for a day of culture.

Seoul offers a blend of tradition and modernity, evident in landmarks like Gyeongbokgung Palace, dating back to the Joseon Dynasty. Photo / 123rf
Seoul offers a blend of tradition and modernity, evident in landmarks like Gyeongbokgung Palace, dating back to the Joseon Dynasty. Photo / 123rf

There’s Nature

An incomparable dynamic urban destination, Seoul has a lot of greenery so if you feel like getting up close to nature during your time in Seoul, just go out for a walk to one of the national parks. The best time to visit Seoul would be during spring when cherry blossoms are in full glory. One of the best places to see them is in Seoul Grand Park but if you don’t visit during this seasonally delightful period, check out Seoul Forest, the city’s third largest park and the best for preserved wildlife viewing. It is located along the Han River and you can enjoy a picnic lunch amid mandarin ducks, moorhens and other animals living in the urban sanctuary.

An incomparable dynamic urban destination, Seoul also has a lot of greenery. Photo / Getty Images
An incomparable dynamic urban destination, Seoul also has a lot of greenery. Photo / Getty Images

There are Unesco World Heritage sites

There are more than 15 UnescoWorld Heritage sites found smack-bang in the middle of Seoul. The one that shouldn’t be missed is the Changdeokgung Palace Complex: a series of royal structures designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. The palace is a fitting representation of East Asian palace architecture with the tiled hipped roofs supported by ornamental carvings. Framed by elaborate gardens, it is a site worth visiting and now there are surrounding cafes for travellers to stop, relax and enjoy the quiet serenity of a heritage site in a bustling city that never sleeps. Other Unesco World Heritage sites in the city include: Jongmyo Shrine and Jseong Reung.

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The Changdeokgung Palace Complex: a series of royal structures was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. Photo / Getty Images
The Changdeokgung Palace Complex: a series of royal structures was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. Photo / Getty Images

There’s speciality coffee

No one will tell you that Seoul is one of the best cities for coffee. The caffeine boom happened more than 10 years ago when Starbucks first entered the Korean market – putting the whole country on a serious coffee buzz. Although you will still find Starbucks in every neighbourhood, you will also find enormous competition rivalling the American coffee chain with local roasters, boutique coffee shops and even themed cafes on every street corner. Some of the best include Felt Coffee, Approach in the hip neighbourhood of Sinyongsang, as well as Namusairo, which is seen as one of the pioneers in the city’s speciality coffee scene.

Seoul's coffee scene has flourished over the past decade, with local roasters and boutique cafes rivalling global chains like Starbucks. Speciality coffee shops such as Felt Coffee and Namusairo offer unique blends. Photo / 123rf
Seoul’s coffee scene has flourished over the past decade, with local roasters and boutique cafes rivalling global chains like Starbucks. Speciality coffee shops such as Felt Coffee and Namusairo offer unique blends. Photo / 123rf

There’s a cool cafe culture

Coffee is such a big deal in Seoul that it deserves another mention. If you are not a coffee drinker, you still can enjoy the cafes in Seoul which sell anything from frothy pumpkin spiced, strawberry and even 5-grain nut lattes. There are some themed cafes in the city which are more for the “instagramming” crowds, and one of the best cafe experiences you can have in Seoul is in a Hanok cafe. Hanok is a traditional Korean house and many of them have been converted into cute little cafes. Once again old and new come together in Seoul with double-shot macchiatos being served next to traditional Korean sweets like jooak – a twisted doughnut, as found in many of these Hanok cafes. There are many around the city but Teumari, a three-storey hanok cafe with views of Jongmyo Shrine and Griuni, where you can drink your coffee on a toetmaru (outdoor wooden veranda) while eating Chodang soft bean curd are worth seeking out if you have time.

There’s traditional food and you don’t need a guidebook

Seoul is one of the rare cities in the world where you don’t need a guidebook to tell you where to eat. Although it is a thriving cosmopolitan city, it is rare to walk into a “tourist” restaurant so you’re best just following your nose and walking into a restaurant filled with people during lunch hours. Around the city you can find many traditional eateries like Hwangsaengga Kalguksu, which specialises in Pyongyang-style hand-cut noodles and also Eunjujeong, a place specialising in pork belly and also kimchi stew called jjigae. For people who want to enjoy Korean BBQ, a timeless favourite among locals is Wooraeok, which has been serving grilled Korean beef in a DIY setting since 1946. If you can’t get yourself a seat there, check out Born and Bred and make sure you ask for hanwoo – Korean beef which is hand cut when ordered. If you are not brave enough to visit a restaurant on a whim, check out a traditional market like GwangJang Market for hundreds of individual food stalls under the one roof.

Seoul's culinary scene is a treasure trove for food enthusiasts, with traditional eateries offering authentic dishes like Pyongyang-style hand-cut noodles and kimchi stew. Photo / 123rf
Seoul’s culinary scene is a treasure trove for food enthusiasts, with traditional eateries offering authentic dishes like Pyongyang-style hand-cut noodles and kimchi stew. Photo / 123rf

There’s an exciting fine-dining scene

A new breed of fine-dining chefs are slowly taking Seoul by storm. Many of the chefs have cut their teeth in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants in Paris, London and also NYC, but have returned home to help reshape the culinary landscape of their home country. Chef Tony Yoo was one of the first on the scene and recently moved to the suburbs to accommodate the demand for his Buddhist-focused cuisine and set the ball rolling for many young, aspiring chefs, including chef Son Jongwon, executive chef at Eatanic Garden. Perched high above Gangnam, a hip neighbourhood that inspired Psi’s megahit of the same name, a strong focus on local terroir, seasonal produce and reinventing Korean food in modern ways awaits gourmets on the 36th floor of the Michelin-starred restaurant. Other restaurants worth checking out include Bicena and STAY, both 1-Michelin star restaurants perched high on the 81st floor of the Signiel Hotel and don’t forget to visit Yu-Yuan, the city’s only Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant (get the truffle Peking Duck).

There are cool bars

Asia has some of the coolest bars right now and South Korea is showing what they are made of. Zest is ranked number 5 in the world’s “best bar” list, however, if you want to experience Korean culture through the invention of creative cocktails, check out OUL Bar. Located in the Four Seasons Seoul, the bar pays homage to Korean traditions, childhood favourite snacks and even Korean ingredients like kimchi and jang, but in the form of a cleverly crafted cocktail. Hotel bars on rooftops are having a moment right now and Signiel Seoul on the 81st floor with panoramic views of the city is a must-hit with celebrity sightings and also access to Asia’s largest champagne list. If you can’t snag a spot there, head over to Conrad Seoul’s rooftop bar on the other side of the Han River after some retail therapy in the Hyundai centre. For a no-thrills experience, check out Han Chu, for the best place for draught beer in Apgujeong – the oldest drinking spot dating back to 1989.

There is plenty of nightlife and multiple cool bars in Seoul. Photo / Getty Images
There is plenty of nightlife and multiple cool bars in Seoul. Photo / Getty Images

There’s wellness

There’s nothing like escaping the hustle and bustle of the city than relaxing in a wellness spa. Koreans have a long history of wellness and the most common activity involves a visit to a jjimjilbang. Otherwise known as a Korean bathhouse, you can find jjimjilbangs in rural areas outside of Seoul, but nowadays, hotels are offering Korean cultural experiences in the form of a relaxing massage, scrub and good old soak in a Jacuzzi overlooking the city. The jjimjilbangs come highly recommended because they are “tourist-friendly” with English-speaking services and state-of-the-art amenities. Four Seasons Seoul, Signiel Seoul and also Conrad Seoul are all excellent spots where locals visit on weekends for a K-scrub, K-sauna and K-treatment. Be sure to leave all your inhibitions behind because it is an “all naked” zone.

There’s modern art

Once again South Korea blends tradition with modernity and it’s found in the art galleries and museums around the city. Amore Pacific Art Museum is dedicated to contemporary art with exhibitions on cosmetics, beauty and also fashion; Songwon Art Centre has five floors with multicultural spaces with works by emerging Korean artists and D Museum is one for art lovers who want to challenge the status quo through art with a continuous lineup of exhibitions that are constantly pushing boundaries which are led by young Koreans in the contemporary arts space.

Checklist

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

GETTING THERE

Fly from Auckland to Seoul with Jetstar, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Air NZ with one stopover. In addition, Air New Zealand flies non-stop from Auckland to Seoul seasonally between October and March.

DETAILS

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