Don’t let its crazy neighbour scare you off — the South Korean capital is an unmissable stop on your travel bucket list.
Their neighbours north of the 38th parallel don’t have a monopoly on over-the-top opulence on the Korean peninsula — Gyeonbokgung Palace is a glimpse of the luxury of the ancient Korean Empire, while you can’t miss the secret gardens of the Changdeokgung Palace. And if you love a dose of political tension on your holidays, your hotel can organise a day trip to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) bordering North Korea, just 50km away from the city.
Stroll through the 24-hour Dongdaemun Market (below), typical of South Korea’s dynamic, neon-covered capital. For something a little more traditional, rub shoulders (and perhaps even more flesh) with the locals at a Korean bathhouse, or check out the Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok villages, which offers a taste of traditional Korean architecture in the heart of the city, contrasted with cutting-edge modern art galleries.
Korean barbecue is of course the most popular meal in the city, but for something a little more fancy, scale to the top of N Seoul Tower and have a feed at the rotating restaurant with panoramic views of the entire city from 480m above sea level. For a hyper-modern meal with a huge reputation, Jungsikdang serves top-rated molecular Korean food, while Gwangjang market dishes up traditional dumplings and pancakes for fans of street food. Gangnam — yes, of Psy fame — has plenty of upscale eateries beneath a forest of neon skyscrapers.
Y1975 at Cheongdam-dong is a bar lifted straight out of a Bond villain’s lair, with a shark-filled aquarium floating overhead as you enjoy a trendy cocktail, while dimly lit Le Chamber offers an upscale speakeasy vibe. Hongdae — the student precinct around the Hongik University — is a lively, eclectic night out, and don’t miss the chance to take part in Korea’s favourite pastime: karaoke.
W Seoul Walkerhill was the first W hotel to open in Asia, sitting at the foot of a stunning mountain, while the Grand Hyatt boasts the best panoramic views in the Korean capital, plus five-star on-site restaurants and a pool that freezes into an ice skating rink during winter. Seoul also has a penchant for themed hotels — there’s even a Spongebob Squarepants experience — if that’s your schtick.