A place where the past and present collide in a spectacular fusion of colour and culture, Seoul is the beating heart of South Korea, known for its fast fashion, high-tech nature, tradition, cutting-edge design, mountain trails and of course, its nonstop obsession with K-Pop!
It’s 5am in the morning, and instead of being woken up by the all-familiar sound of the mosque, the music that meets my ears is that from the passionate people of Seoul singing through the streets, a normal occurrence despite the early hour – I’m told that Seoul, like the UAE, is one of the safest countries in the world and that often visitors join in on these early morning sing-a-longs. At this moment I realise, Seoul and myself are going to become fast friends!
Expansive doesn’t even start to cover the size of this capital. A city with an extraordinary story, Seoul is home to one of the most technologically advanced and beauty obsessed nations in the world – a place where skyscrapers and a bustling nightlife meet dramatic landscapes and rolling mountains, not only is it home to some of the world’s biggest and most prominent beauty businesses, I have never experienced wifi in a city quite like it – every street, bus and building is connected, never letting you down. The streets of Seoul offer an abundance of treasures that will tease all types of travellers – from gallery hopping to boutique shops, street-side barbeques and quirky bars; this is definitely one of Asia’s most exciting cities.
Let’s set the scene – a country with freezing cold winters and steaming hot summers, South Korea came to be in 1945 when the country was divided in two. Whilst the south took a noticeable economic dip after the Second World War in the 60s, it has since made a cultural and clever comeback, becoming a superpower of the east and the world’s 13th-largest economy. With this quick change in economy comes a remarkable physical difference between generations. Whilst the elders spent their youth doing manual labour, the middle and younger generation, though have worked hard, have grown up to be beautiful and oddly, taller – with the elders coming in around 5ft high and hunched, the youngsters are hitting 6ft.
It is not only the generations who have smartened up their appearance over the last 50 years - Incheon International Airport has been named one of the world’s best airports for the 12th year running, which is no surprise as it’s home to free showers, saunas, an ice rink, a golf course and two cinemas. The shopping is sensational and believe it or not, passport control isn’t an experience to be dread. As well as its super snazzy airport, Seoul boasts a design ethos like no other city. Softening its industrial edges from the past, the city has infused an appealing urban feel - glass, concrete and steel are crafted into natural forms and scattered with parks, greenery and cycling routes.
The mountains that are scattered amongst the city are also mesmerising and if you have time, I strongly recommend visiting Namsam Tower – this is possibly the only place you will get 360 degrees views of the heart of the city. It’s also super safe – whether you are travelling alone, in a couple or with a family, seeing the city is easy-peasy. While Seoul has an eye clearly on the future, there are still fascinating fragments of the past. Public transport is brilliant and the subway is spotless and cheap complete with English signs and air-con. Regardless of the time, Seoul is always ready to be explored – from early morning temple sightseeing to evening self-service karaoke there is so much to do, see, eat and shop and by the time you look at your watch again, it will be dawn!
Seasons play a big part in South Korea, each offering its own unique experience. With cherry blossom blooming in the spring, red leaves filling the floor in the autumn, crisp winters and humid summers – a year in Seoul offers all sorts of weather. Dressing for this is key and will enable you to explore more of the city. Getting to know Seoul can be tough – whether it is keeping up with city’s current trends (think matching outfits and Hello Kitty galore) or exploring their imaginative cuisine, give yourself a day or two to adjust and you will find that Seoul slowly seeps into your heart. Like most sprawling metropolises, the city is split into different areas – so whilst Jongno is home to Korean politics and Gangnam the super cool Uptown of the city, Yeongdeungpo is the business hub, Jung is the central district and Mapo the epicentre of young Seoul, is the city’s up and coming hub of independent cafés, restaurants, music labels and galleries.
There are bags of things to see in Seoul - you might be surprised that the city has not only one, but five main palaces. Gyeongbokgung is the largest and most important. Restored after a fire during the 16th century Japanese invasion, it now has more than 500 buildings. Also worth exploring is the Bukchon Hanok Village - formerly the residence of the nobility throughout the Joseon Dynasty, this village now serves as a cultural centre to educate visitors about the traditional Korean way of life. Those looking for something more modern can indulge in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art - an institution in Korean art circles – whilst fit fans can take a stroll or cycle through the Yeouido Park or hike to Namsan Tower. The capital is also home to some truly striking architecture, including Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza and the enormous Lotte World Tower, the fifth tallest building in the world.
Taking part in Korea’s K-Pop movement is another must – whilst South Korea danced its way onto the world music map with ‘Gangnam Style’ back in 2012, K-pop remains a hugely popular genre of music around the country. SMTOWN at COEX Artium houses a variety of attractions centered around their roster of K-pop superstars - check out six floors of Korean musical history and prepare to be amazed. Meanwhile, Club I LOVE K-POP offers tourists a chance to listen and dance to the popular genre.
After all this exploring, you’ll need to find something to fill your stomach with substance for the next adventure. For a quick bite, try Gwangjang Market - Seoul’s largest food alley and home to Korean cuisine. Look out for haemul pajeon (seafood pancake) and the famous japchae (sweet-potato noodles). Street-side dining is also popular and most often seen in the form of barbeque. Found on most street corners, experiment with meats, sauces and a side of salad. Restaurants and cafes come in abundance - Mr Holmes Bakehouse is also worth a visit – we love the pink neon signs, black and cream leather seats and gold accented marble tables – the food is equally as cool. For all things beauty, check out Sinsa-Dong and visit the likes of Dr Jart, Banila Beauty and Olive Young (Korea’s answer to Boots!). For candles, there is Sooh Yang and for Korea’s coolest shades, visit Gentle Monster. Another day can definitely be spent shopping the streets of Myendong, exploring the six floors of Stylenanda and eating the cheapest Michelin star eats at Myeondong Kyoja. Meanwhile Doota Mall will cover all your clothes shopping cravings and Insadong for local-made handicrafts.
Showcasing past, present and future with a trendy K-Pop touch, prepare for the adventure of your life as you ride the lightening speedy city that is Seoul. And when it comes to wifi, come on capitals – step up and be more Seoul!