South Korea’s capital of Seoul has been in the news nearly non-stop because of its proximity to the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea, just 35 miles away. However, while both locals in Seoul and foreign expatriate residents discuss “the situation” concerning their northern neighbor, life in Seoul goes on as normal.
Whether it’s business that brings one to Seoul or an interest in Korean culture, arts or cuisine, one will find that Seoul is a vibrant, energy-driven city with plenty of historical sights, museums and art galleries to enjoy. There are also world-class hotels, great restaurants and plenty of neon-lit clubs for night owls.
Tucked away on a side street off the main Sejong-daero, the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul is the ultimate urban oasis. A stone’s throw from Gyeongbokgung Palace between Mount Bukhansan to the north and Mount Namsan to the south and walking distance to several galleries, museums and restaurants, it’s the perfect spot to hang one’s hat.
With 317 large, well-decorated guest rooms on 28 floors, the Four Seasons Seoul has a traditional Korean Spa with several soaking pools, and a steam room and sauna. One floor down, via an utterly ethereal, white marble staircase that gives the sensation of floating through clouds inspiring heavenly visions, there’s an enormous “ultra” state-of-the-art fitness center with head on city views. There are personal trainers available and several daily scheduled exercise classes, including Yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba, Tae Bo and spinning. It’s by far the most beautiful, spacious and well-equipped city hotel fitness center I have encountered anywhere in the world.
In a cheerful space, the “Kids for all seasons” club had me wanting to connect with my inner tot. There were organized activities, computers, and a primary colored bouncy area. Resembling the sweetest of dreams no doubt inspired by the likes of Willy Wonka, the kids club is outfitted with goodies artfully lined up in large clear jars along the length of an entire wall. This is fantasyland for the under 12 set.
To improve adults’ golf games, there is a golf center with separate stations: for men, women, for right-handed swingers and left-handed ones. Overhead are large screens where various programs provide virtual play to aid one’s technique. There’s a golf specialist on hand for additional tips and a small putting green. There’s also a nail bar, and of course, a swimming pool.
With all of this on offer in such a great location, parting the Four Seasons Seoul truly is such sweet sorrow.
If you are walking around the Dongdaemun area and engaging in serious retail therapy, a colorful respite for a quick lunch or early dinner is Gwangjiang Market. Here open-air stalls abound with communal seating where smiling vendors wave their utensils to get you to sit and serve all manner of grilled animal parts, along with several spicy noodles and rice-based vegetarian options.
In Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, Parc Seoul has tasty Aussie beef bulgogi. They also have vegetarian options including comfort food staple, kimchi fried rice.
In the popular Insadong area, tea rooms, restaurants and small shops line the narrow streets. If visiting on a Sunday, traffic is prohibited making strolling the neighborhood a pleasure. There is excellent street food including grilled chicken skewers, soft-serve green tea ice cream and boong-a-bbang, a scrumptiously sweet, black bean filled, fish-shaped pancake.
Seoul’s best kept culinary secret – indeed its entrance is extremely difficult to find – is Dosa Restaurant Seoul that just recently received a Michelin Star. (Hint: When you arrive to the front of Itaewon section’s Park Building, which is Dosa’s actual street address, do not enter the building. Instead, with your back to Coffee Bean, turn right around the corner to the side and look for a black door with a moniker that can’t really be called signage.)
The frustration in finding Dosa starts to recede when seated in the minimal space where white and gray walls are adorned with large acrylic painted canvasses crafted by the mother of Owner/Chef Back Seung-Wook, better known as Akira Back. It then dissipates entirely the moment one samples the first of nine mouth-watering courses comprising the tasting menu prepared by the extremely talented, California raised, New York-trained Chef de Cuisine, Jason Oh. For all courses, including the mackerel with sour chili paste, pork with soy bean paste and kimchi and roasted chestnut soup served with spinach sponge cake and black charcoal bread, the dish presentations are Louvre-worthy, magnificent, deliciously edible art.
The Four Seasons Hotel Seoul has a hidden speakeasy, the Charles M. And it is indeed well hidden. (Clue: take the elevator to the lower lobby level and opposite the Market Restaurant hostess station, look for a solid marble wall. Then search for an oddly placed door handle. If you still can’t find it – I couldn’t – return to the lobby and the concierge will escort you down.) With its secret nature, mood lighting and period furnishings, Charles M is an excellent spot to enjoy after dinner cocktails while you focus on the clandestine stories – real and imagined – of other patrons.
Locals – both singles and couples – often rent colorful, traditional silk Korean hanbok costumes and come to Gyeongbokgung Palace to take photos both near the palace’s entry gates and inside the peaceful, picturesque grounds. If you are at the main gate at 9:30am or 1:30pm (except Tuesdays), you can also see the traditionally dressed Royal Guards ceremoniously change their palace posts.
Ten minutes away on foot is the entry to Bukchon Hanok Village. Punctuated by narrow streets, traditional structures are built seemingly into walls of stones. Here art galleries, small restaurants and cafés vie for attention. There are also some quirky storefronts with names like “Dessert Pizza,” “Churro 101 – Better than a boyfriend,” and a serious candy shop with a large fuchsia cross called “Happy Pills.” The latter I fully understood.
If walking from other neighborhoods of central Seoul, it’s a bit challenging to find the funicular entrance at the base of Mount Namsan, though Seoul’s landmark soaring needle – the N Seoul Tower – at Namsan’s apex is easily visible. Finding the funicular and riding it to the top however is surprisingly well worth it. With stellar 360-degree views, it allows travelers to grasp the vastness of Seoul’s metropolitan area containing 25 million people and the extent of the mountainous coverage in and around it.
At the top of Namsan many trees are covered with “locks of love.” After buying padlocks symbolizing eternal love, couples place them on trees here, then toss the keys. If you are atop at dusk and the clouds cooperate, a glowing orange-red sunset gift will be bestowed. There are also plenty of eateries with floor-to-ceiling view windows, and for the caffeine deprived, the proverbial Starbucks. If traveling with kids or kids-at-heart, there is a teddy bear museum in the N Seoul Tower.
Nearby, the Namsangol Hanok Village, is one of the most serene places in all of Seoul. Moved from other sections of the city, several traditional wood homes from the Josean dynasty were moved, preserved and placed here amid well-maintained, manicured gardens and a small, tranquil lake.
In Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, the Leeum Samsung Museum houses the private art collections of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul and his son, Lee Kun-hee. In a stunningly beautiful curated space that is light-filled and modern yet warm, these collections shine.
Leeum Building One contains traditional Korean art including Celadon pottery, Buddhist art, calligraphy and metalware juxtaposed with a smattering of modern pieces by Mark Rothko and an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. Building Two houses the modern collection, including pieces by Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami. Bursting with verdant color is Kim Chong-Hak’s “Green shades and fragrant plants” marvelous and imposing canvas. Do not miss Damien Hirst’s 10-foot oval butterfly piece and his “Nothing to fear” prescription drug shadow box. You will never look at aspirin in quite the same way.
The lessons learned
A city bound in tradition, Seoul has a modern, energized pulse in the country known as land of the morning calm. There are excellent hotels, great restaurants and excellent art galleries and museums. And several “hidden” and difficult-to-find gems are well worth exploring. With plenty of taxis and an admirably efficient subway system, in just a few days one can experience and savor much of what Seoul has to offer.
Julie L. Kessler is an attorney, legal columnist and travel writer based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book: Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com