For one of the quickest and cheapest destinations for a last-minute vacation from the Mainland, Seoul can’t be beat.
The South Korean capital is a heady combination of 2,000 years of history banged together with cutting-edge modernity. There are the palaces and ancient streets of Jongno abutting the busy university nightlife district of Hongdae; south of the Han River is the hip, boutique-filled Sinsa-dong and the flashy, neon-clad Gangnam (as in ‘Style’). Seoul’s metropolitan area is sprawling, with over 25 million residents and more than half of South Korea’s citizens. Never has the phrase ‘there’s something for everyone’ been truer.
Wander and look
Full of winding alleyways and hanok (traditional Korean houses), the preserved area of Bukchon in the historical district of Jongno gives a peek into what Seoul felt like 600 years ago. The neighbourhood is between two of Seoul’s main historical attractions, the majestic Gyeongbokgung Palace
and Changdeokgung Palace
, and a whole day can be spent wandering the royal halls and meandering the ancient streets.
For a modern take on the city, make your way over to architect extraordinaire Zaha Hadid’s recent feat, Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP; 281 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu). Opened in 2014, the cultural complex is quite a sight to behold. The buildings are massive, sparkling and so futuristic they almost feel extra-terrestrial. The DDP houses a design museum, galleries and shops, but it’s enough to just visit after dark when the buildings are glimmering and wander through the 38,000sqm public space.
Shop, shop, shop
Seoul is nearly unrivalled as a shopping destination. It’s basically a closer Europe; affluent Mainland Chinese plan for long weekends there with the express purpose of stocking up on cosmetics and clothes.
You’ll find everything you need to ‘put your face on’ in Myeongdong, where Korean cosmetics shops offering top-tier makeup on the cheap – look out for Holika Holika and Etude House – pile on top of international clothing brands such as Zara and H&M. This is the place for skincare and beautifying products in all of Seoul. Try to hit at least 30,000KRW (160RMB) per item if you’re in it for the tax-refund as that’s the minimum sum eligible.
While Dongdaemun Market is the most famous hotspot for clothes shopping in Seoul, Sinsadong and Apgujeong-dong offer much more charm and character. The streets are lined with trees and the vibe is laid-back. Major international chains are represented, but the gems are the smaller, independent boutiques sprinkled through the neighbourhood.
Menswear multibrand shop Msk Shop (10 Nonhyeonro 161-gil, Gangnam-gu, +82 2 70 8233 3107; mskshop.net
) curates a fantastic selection of up-andcoming Korean brands as well as some foreign imports. The area is also home to the nicer branches of successful local brands. Drawing comparisons to Urban Outfitters, Åland (548-5 Sinsa-dong, Gangnamgu, +82 2 3210 5869; a-land.co.kr
) has a few outlets around town and offers good-quality apparel, plus some vintage finds, for reasonable prices. Similarly, multi-brand shop Anthology (44 Dosan-daero 11-gil, Gangnam-gu, +82 2 6959 5979; anthology.co.kr
) is a great bet for finding cool Korean clobber but also not a bad spot to pick up smaller design pieces.
University area Hongdae is another major spot to get your shop on – and for bargain prices, too. But if you’re looking for the freshest fashion experience, best head east towards Konkuk University. Touted as the world’s biggest container shopping mall and launched only in spring of last year, Common Ground (200 Achasan-ro, Gwangjin-gu; common-ground.co.kr
) in Gwangji district hosts roughly 200 shipping containers. The containers have been stacked four stories high and are interconnected to create a public space full of shops and restaurants. Trendy local brands ‘pop up’ for a limited time, with price tags aimed at the twentysomethings who flock to the hip concept mall. Don’t miss the food trucks in the square, particularly The Kimchi Bus, which has travelled the globe hawking its Korean tacos.
Like most of Asia, Korea is all about the eats. You could plan a whole trip around fried chicken alone. A great place to get heavy into Korean street food 101 is Gwangjang Market (88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu), a fabric and textile market with a serious food court. Here you can get into ‘sundae’ (think Korean blood pudding, not ice cream), all kinds of gimbap (rice rolls), mungbean pancakes and most other snack-y Korean treats you can think of.
Any trip to Korea should have at least as many fried chicken and beer meals as days spent in the country. There’s no one definitive joint for the best fried chicken in Seoul, but Hanchu (549-9 Sinsadong, Gangnam-gu, +82 2 3446 5778) is a city-wide favourite and strong contender for the title. Order a pitcher of beer (12,000KRW; 65RMB) to accompany a large platter of ultra-crispy Korean fried chicken (17,000KRW; 92RMB); you’ll be back for more. In Mapo district, Reggae Chicken (6 3-1, Dongmak-ro, Mapo-gu, +82 2 338 3438) offers a twist on the standard (but delicious) fried chicken and beer combo that every second bar serves. This rasta-fied drinking hole serves up a curry version (15,000KRW; 80RMB) and cannabis beer (10,000KRW; 55RMB).
For an educational twist to your eating, check out Museum Kimchikan (formerly the Kimchi Field Museum, 35-4 Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu, +82 2 6002 6456). This multi-storey paean to the nation’s ubiquitous dish gives a thorough look into the history, science and culture behind the fermented side dish. First established in 1986, it reopened last year in the centre of Insadong, kitted out with high-tech exhibits and a small tasting room.
Non-stop return tickets from Beijing Capital International Airport to Seoul (Gimpo or Incheon) start from 2,100RMB (including taxes), with over ten flights departing daily.
Where to stay
FIVE-STAR: The Conrad
Stunning views over the Han River and a prime location at the International Finance Towers (IFC Seoul) with easy subway access. 23-1 Yeouidodong, Yeongdeungpo-gu (+82 2 6137 7000). Rooms start from 302,000KRW (1,640RMB).
BOUTIQUE: A. Mass Hotel
A slick, minimalist hotel with a large rooftop terrace tucked at the entrance of Changdeokgung palace in the heart of Seoul. 11 Yulgok-ro 10-gil, Jongno-gu (+82 2 744 1271; amasshotel.com
). Rooms start from 115,000KRW (624RMB).