Anything unusual happen to you today? I’ve been led through crowded streets by a six-foot cat and a stream meandering through office blocks started playing music at me when I walked alongside it. No, this isn’t the screenplay of a David Lynch or a Disney film. This is Seoul!
I didn’t know what to expect of the city. Some friends warned I’d be fed all sorts of strange food. It didn’t happen. And there were safety concerns voiced about my trip because of South Korea’s nutty neighbour in the north, but his rants don’t seem to impact on everyday life in Seoul. Ok, there were ‘shelter’ signs in the deeper metro stations but the city is in the typhoon belt, so they probably protect people from falling masonry rather than missiles or fallout, don’t they? My experience was all good.
Seoul was better than I had expected. It is a modern city that balances high technology with tradition. Some Asian cities have lost their sense of individuality as multinationals have moved in. Not Seoul. The main city shopping areas are clean, car-free and just as familiar as Oxford Street. But turn the corner in the city of Samsung and Kia and you’ll find Korean temples and cafes selling kimchi, their cherished fermented vegetable dish – a sort of spicy sauerkraut.
From my airport bus seat driving into the city I was transfixed by the massive, monolithic housing blocks laced across the landscape side-to-side like dominos, some balanced on the highest mountain peaks. These vertical villages rose to fifteen stories or more, stretching a quarter of a mile across. If that was suburbia, I thought, then there has to be a congested, cramped city centre. In fact central Seoul has wide avenues, squares, trees and open spaces and is set across a series of hills giving it a real sense of different neighbourhoods, like London or Paris. And those are worthy comparisons in this world-class city. One of those open spaces Seoul residents are so proud of was first on my must-visit list.
Water Music in Central Seoul
Walking from the main shopping zone into a mainly office and business area I reached a bridge carrying the main road across the Cheonggyecheon stream. The waterway has been highly praised as an example of urban regeneration. It runs for around 8km through the centre of Seoul in a concrete conduit with landscaped paths, waterfalls, fountains and seating at either side. The stream was originally a drain and when it became heavily polluted the city covered it over. A road was then built on top. In 2003 the city spent over $200m on removing the highway and uncovering the stream in order to create a new social and recreational space. Now it provides a walking route through the city during the day. At night it’s a lovers’ walk and is gently illuminated – lovely and quite relaxing for an evening stroll. My initial surprise turned to laugher when the stream started serenading me! As I walked along, music blared out and a fine mist was pumped into the air around the stream, which gave a magical appearance, similar to using dry ice or smoke.
Further along, at the start of the stream, there’s a waterfall, that changes colour. People can step out onto a concrete promontory, make a wish and throw coins into the water. In typical Seoul high-tech style, there’s a machine on the wall opposite that changes your bank notes into coins, ready for tossing into the stream! Again, tradition meets the 21st century, Seoul-style.
Myeong-dong and the Six-Foot Cat!
“In Seoul, always look up.” Anica Kim, Global PR Manager of the Hotel Shilla offered me that great advice when visiting her city. It’s a top tip because if you only see Seoul at street level you’re not getting the whole story.
That’s how I saw the sign for the dog café, up on the 4th floor in the vibrant Myeong-dong area, which is filled with high street fashion retailers. It’s Covent Garden meets Regent’s Street. The pet petting business concept came from Japan where small apartments mean that people can’t keep their own animals at home. I climbed the three flights of stairs to reach the 4th floor. In Korea, the ground floor is referred to as the first floor, the same as in the USA. When I glanced inside and felt like I had gatecrashed a private party. The customers were sitting on the floor cross-legged, fussing over the dogs. It felt odd. I didn’t hang around.
A few hundred yards down the street I spotted someone holding one of those placards that usually advertises golf sales. ‘Cat Café’ it exclaimed. A 6-foot tall ‘cat’ was there too, handing out leaflets. “Where is it?” I asked. The massive moggie remained mute and instead grabbed me by the hand and led me down the street. Was I being catnapped? We walked for five minutes, hand in paw. Onlookers’ expressions varied between surprise, laughter and pity for another sucker. Again, the café was up three flights of stairs. Animal lovers must have super-firm calf muscles in Seoul.
When I got to the entrance I was told to remove my shoes, leave them in a locker and put on a set a slippers. Inside cat lovers were stroking, tickling and talking to the cats. I counted around ten felines – all different shapes, sizes and colours. Some customers were splayed out on the floor with coffee or cake in one hand, the cat occupying the other. The walls were covered with cat pictures and moggie merchandise to buy. I spoke to Yeung-Jan, a woman in her 30s. She told me that she visited twice each week and the café, which was open until 11pm, provided her with an “escape.” As I said goodbye and left, I wondered exactly what she was escaping from.
They like things that change colour in Seoul. Well, this is the biggest. Wherever you are in city, day or night, you’ll see the North Seoul TV tower. The structure has a 1960s sci-fi look to it and stands on the highest peak in the city, 236 metres up, on top of Namsan mountain. The tower’s colour changes according to Seoul’s pollution levels. If it’s blue, it’s safe to breathe. If it isn’t and you’re afraid to inhale then its YOU that goes blue. I genuinely couldn’t find out what the bad colours were. It went green when I was there. You’d think that was good.
When you reach the plaza at the top of the cable car run you can also peer into a TV studio as they broadcast the local news from the foot of the mast. Then, if you want to see the city from the absolute highest elevation you can pay to take the lift to the tower viewing gallery. Afterwards, there are plenty of restaurants and bars around the square to appreciate the vista. You can buy a return cable car ticket or catch a bus from the peak to another part of the city.
This is the tourist attraction-rich section of Seoul with the most shrines, palaces, temples and parks. I went to see the changing of the Royal Guard at the gate of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The ritual takes place at 11am and 1pm and it is free so get there fifteen minutes early if you want to be at the front to photograph the show. The performance lasts around ten minutes. What happens? The afternoon guards dressed in their bright red and blue satin uniforms are checked over before they take over on protection duties. The show consists of choreographed walking around as a senior officer pokes at the men’s uniforms and tugs the cloth to mimic inspection. The men march into place to the beat of a drum and one guard rings a handbell. It’s not really the most excitingly event and, if you remember Trumpton on TV as a kid, it has a touch of the ‘Pippin Fort’ about it. But it is free and a thing to tick-off your to-do list.
Afterwards you can wander around the palace, which is a complex made up of a collection of traditional single-level, wooden, temple-like buildings. There are free English tours – one starts at 1.30pm – during which you can learn about Seoul’s ruling dynasties.
At this point I was hungry so I went wandering in search of food. Ten minutes walk from the palace I found an interesting looking café – a traditional Korean building, like a chalet with wooden shutters. Inside, there were wooden beams and walls covered with black-and-white images of the Korean war. The lights were covered with paper creating a soft lighting effect. It really stood out in its place at the side of a pedestrianized shopping street.
The restaurant’s called Insadong Geujip. As I was standing outside, looking at the menu pictures, a woman came over and, in perfect English, told me that the food was really good. She had entered the restaurant with a friend and had sat down. I followed her recommendation and I was glad that I did. The food was excellent. A spicy seafood stir-fry with a thick, hot sauce not dissimilar to what you’d get in a good British curry house. There were also a number of side dish bowls including the acquired taste of the Kimchi cabbage, a staple at every Korean meal, creamy coleslaw and a miso-style soup. Large, slightly bitter mizuna leaves, that look like a lettuce-sized piece of mint, are provided to wrap your main course in and eat as if it was bread in a sandwich. I also had a can of cider, which was listed as a soft drink on the menu. I had expected apple juice, like the American cider. On opening it, I realised it was a sweet type of 7-Up or Sprite. The very filling and delicious meal cost less than £9. You’ll find Insadong Geujip at 3, Insadong 12-gil.
Buy a Label and Your Love is True. Here’s Where to Get One in Seoul!
Just around the corner from the restaurant, if you can still walk after their generous portions, are the arts and crafts galleries and stores at Ssamzieigil. Seventy small units stretch across four floors on a continuous spiral ramp. Keeping with the British comparisons, it’s like Camden or Greenwich Market. Each space is compact and some of the artists specialise in items as diverse as scarves, pottery, copper work, lacquer ware, ties and second hand LPs. There was a fair bit of Abba on sale. There’s also a useful little shop that sells travel accessories. I saw a funky camera wrist strap that double up as a camera cover. You pull on the strap, it opens into a kind of elastic-type cloth, which will stretch over your lens and remain in place. Genius.
On the top floor there’s a rooftop café where you can buy a label, write the name of your special person on it and then put it up. I hope they’ve weighed those labels or consulted a structural engineer. There are a lot of them!
Itaewon for Beer and Ex-Pats
Itaewon is outside the main central area but it is still central Seoul. You know you’ve reached Itaewon. There’s a 60-foot arch spanning the main road to tell you where you are. The area is full of bars and pubs. It is where many westerners have settled and you’ll also find lots of craft breweries. Aussie and Dutch visitors have places to drink their home beers with their fellow nationals, but when in Rome, I say try the great locally brewed products. You’ll find surprisingly excellent real ales, IPAs and porters all over this district.
I have good memories of the bar called Stacked. I had two rounds of dim sum. One of my choices was not available and the waiter came over and apologised profusely because the kitchen had run out of shrimp wonton. So I just continued with my ordered food and had two rather good craft beers. When I came to pay, the manager came over, apologised again and said it was all on the house! Wow.
Gangnam is probably the most well known suburb of Seoul, made famous by the hit pop track by Korean singer Psi. It’s on the southern side of the wide Han river, where you’ll find a Manhattan-like landscape with tree-lined boulevards, tall, glass-fronted skyscrapers and high-end shopping malls. It could be New York’s Fifth Avenue. You probably knew that Gangam had style – it’s referred to in the pop song, but if you’ve seen the dancing on the video, you could argue against that. Amongst the designer clothes and Parisian-style patisseries and coffee shops you’ll sense Seoul, in sight, smell and sound. Bars and café’s blast out the hugely popular K-pop music. And you won’t hear the chords and keys of Chinese or Japanese style music here. Korean pop would pass for any British or Irish boyband or a medley from an episode of ‘Glee.’
The sights though confirm your destination. Bars and restaurants offer food and drink, their illuminated signs glowing with Korean characters in yellow, white, red and green. As you walk past the open doors of the restaurants where you grill your meat at the table you’ll experience a singularly Seoul smell – barbecue with a warm air blast of garlic and sesame.
All the cafes and restaurants I visited appeared spotlessly clean and it’s easy to catch the waiter or barmaid’s attention in Seoul – most tables have a small, red call button on the tables. You press it and a doorbell sound tells your server you’re ready for food, or more beer, or your bill!
Getting Around Seoul
Taxi’s are very cheap in Seoul by European standards. A 15-minute ride will cost you less than £5. And taxis are plentiful. In the evenings one in three vehicles on the road is a cab. The city’s metro or underground is also very efficient, fast and cheap. It is well lit and safe. English information appears on a screen at the platform and you’re told which stop you are approaching with an English display on the train.
A single fare is around 70p, which you can buy from a ticket machine with an English language option. You’ll get an electronic card, which you tap at the turnstile to get onto the platform then tap again to exit. You even get about 20p back as a deposit by inserting your card into the ‘refund’ machine by the barrier after you’ve exited. If you’re staying for a few days, you can buy a card similar to a Metrocard in New York or a London Underground Oystercard.
Getting To and From the Airport
Seoul is huge and it can take a while to get to your destination from the city’s two airports, Incheon and Gimpo. Incheon is their Heathrow and the most likely arrival point for intercontinental flights. Gimpo is more like Gatwick with a mix of domestic and local Asian flights. There’s a fast train linking the two and you can use the same line or the interconnecting subway system to get into the centre or outlying districts.
If you’re staying south of the river in Gangnam you could use the Line 9 metro train to or from the city. Just make sure you wait for the train announced as the ‘express’ service. It is much quicker. If you are traveling to or from a non-express station you can get off at an express station nearest to your stop and board a slow train, which will stop at all stations, to make the final part of the journey.
If you arrive at Incheon after a long flight, you’ll probably be tired and you’ll want to get to your hotel easily. I’d suggest that you take a ‘KAL’ limousine bus at the airport. They are clean, comfortable and will take you direct to most major hotels in the city. Go to the desk on the ground floor in arrivals. Tell the staff which hotel you’re going to and they’ll tell you the bus number and the bay from which it leaves. It costs around £10 for the coach. Alternatively, take a cab into central Seoul from the airport, which will cost between £25 and £50 depending on your destination and the traffic. It’s about a one-hour ride to the centre.
Where to Stay
We recommend the Shilla Hotel Seoul. This is a stylish, luxury hotel in an upmarket, hilltop area of the city. The Shilla is proud of its Korean heritage and Koreans regard it highly. Rooms are beautifully designed – tasteful and uncluttered but very comfortable. The hotel guest lounges and restaurants are also worth seeing even if you’re not staying there. The lounges are filled with comfortable sofas and coffee tables where you can lose yourself in a book or the breath-taking and expansive views across the city. The lounge hosts a curated selection of books and art.
The Shilla Hotel provides a superb buffet breakfast catering for any taste, Western or Asian, and their restaurants include Korean, Japanese, French and Chinese. There’s also a patisserie that produces incredible cakes and biscuits. The Shilla’s afternoon teas are a local institution and the tea menu was created by the personal chef of Prince Harry and Prince William when they were children.
The indoor pool is large, there’s a well equipped fitness suite and an outdoor golf driving range where you can borrow equipment if you haven’t brought your clubs. There’s also a series of outdoor pools with sun loungers. Relaxing there will make you forget you’re in the centre of a city of ten million people! That’s because the Shilla is set in acres of landscaped gardens and hosts a sculpture park placed on a hill with possibly the best Seoul views of any hotel in the city. It is also very accessible – the underground station for Dongguk University is a few minutes walk away. You can find out more at www.shilla.net.
Listen to Anica Kim as she guides us around the Shilla Hotel Seoul: