Seoul Attractions: Things to do in Seoul, South Korea
Seoul Provider: A dynamic South Korean capital offers plenty of bang for your buck
When it comes to Asian megalopolises the term "24-hour city " is a widely bandied description, but enigmatic Seoul is thoroughly deserving of the cliche.
A whirring, purring maelstrom of high-rise, neon-saturated streets and pulsating commerce, its twenty million-plus souls pack sardine-like into a metropolitan area smaller than Luxembourg.
After a decade of rapid urban development, visitors to Seoul can now eat at a staggering array of international and Korean restaurants round the clock, shop at sprawling markets and glitzy, upscale malls, and drink, dance and sing the night away in one of the city's high-energy nightlife areas.
With an excellent public transport system and some great accommodation, Seoul is one of Asia's most vibrant and accessible destinations for the upwardly mobile traveler.
Seoul is the city of reinvention. Known as Hanyang (north of the Han) during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and named Gyeongseong during the Japanese colonial era, Seoul re-branded itself in 1945 with a name taken from the ancient kingdom of Shilla.
Following the country's long saga of annexation, warfare, political instability and, finally, division into the two Koreas, Seoul, the hub of South Korean administration and culture, has now emerged from the ashes with verve and confidence.
Seoulites have good reason to be confident. Perhaps better than any other Asian capital, their city manages to balance old and new, East and West, with style and sensitivity. On the back of some spectacular economic growth Seoul has developed into an affluent, attractive conurbation, with bright lights, space-age architecture and streaming traffic lending a progressive air. Still, with one eye on the future, firmly entrenched cultural practices ensure that nobody loses touch with their roots.
Things to do in Seoul: eating & drinking
Many of those practices center around food and drink, and a night out in Seoul usually begins (or finishes) with a communal meal. As gourmands will gleefully discover, this is a city built for dining out, and with more eateries per square kilometer than Hyundai automobiles, the only problem is running out of time to sample everything on offer.
A mouthwatering array of simple but invariably healthy dishes, many first-time visitors to Seoul find Korean cuisine a taste sensation which goes way beyond the usual expectations of non-stop kimchi (pickled cabbage). Many restaurants will reduce the chili content of their food out of respect for less fire-resistant palates, and a multitude of great non-Korean restaurants are on hand to give spiced out digestive systems a chance to cool.
Of all Korean dishes, perhaps Korean barbecue is the most famous (and popular). This is a style of cooking meat, vegetables and seafood on a wide grill, often over coals. In restaurants, patrons at a table with a wide grill in the center, and raw foods are brought out and cooked at the table. In the galbi variety of Korean barbecue, meat is marinated in a salty sauce, with soy sauce the most prominent ingredient. Boneless short ribs and pork are the most common meats used for galbi.
Anything that is cooked un-marinated is considered non- galbi. Thinly sliced brisket beef, squid and octopus are commonly served at Korean Barbecue restaurants. Cephalopods are served whole and sliced on top of the grill, and the tentacles are eaten as well as the body. It is common to wrap cooked meat in lettuce, together with a dollop of doenjang (soybean paste), kimchi and raw garlic.
One of the best places for sampling seafood in Seoul is Noryangjin Market. A cavernous structure in central Seoul, as large as several football stadiums laid end to end, it's crammed end-to-end with exotic sea creatures from every conceivable aquatic locale: acres of stingrays aligned precisely as roof tiles, buckets of writhing octopi, gilt lengths of ribbonfish, regiments of pike, oceans of halibut, endless trays of pickled clams, and more kinds of jacks and mackerels and anchovies than could be identified with a library of reference books.
There is a big auction area on the second floor of the 24-hour market, but almost all of the downstairs stalls are prepared to slice any one of their fish into sashimi for you on the spot - or, better yet, to put your purchases into plastic bags and point you toward one of the cozy seafood restaurants that line the north end of the complex, where they will serve up your sashimi in the traditional Korean style with sesame leaves, bean paste, sliced chilies, and raw garlic.
Surrounding Hongik University, Hongdae is the number one area for nightlife in Seoul, and is popular with both Koreans and Westerners. Hongik University has the most important arts department in Korea, and Hongdae has a very Bohemian feel, packed with hip bars, restaurants and caf. At night, and especially on the weekend, the streets are packed with revelers, drawn to the area's multitude of pubs, disco pubs and nightclubs. In Hongdae you can listen and dance to any type of music: there is a lot of underground music, but also dance/electronic music, jazz music, Latin American music, hip hop and rock.
"Club Day", on the last Friday of the month, gives access to 13 clubs in the Hongdae district for the price of one ticket. The similar "Sound Day", held on third Friday every month, works on the same principle but is all about live music. Tickets cost $15 and purchasers get a wrist band (with one free drink), a map, and performance schedule - they can then visit any club that is participating.
Another popular area with foreigners is Insadong. Situated at the heart of Seoul for over 600 years, this complex of streets was the center of culture during the Joseon Dynasty Insadong covers a fairly large area, extending from the Anguk-dong Rotary to Tapgol Park in Jongro 2(i)-ga, past the Insa-dong Intersection, and is characterized by a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways, lined with traditional teahouses and wooden architecture (hanok), shops and boutiques, art galleries and museums, and trendy restaurants.
There are regular culture classes and events in Insadong (check with the local tourist office for more details), and the streets are closed to traffic on a Sunday when a large market is held and performers, entertainers and snack stalls turn out in force. Within or near the Insadong area there are also the cultural attractions of Gyeongbokgung and Unhyeon Palaces, and Bosingak, a large bell pavilion.
South Seoul Attractions: Gangnam
Seoul is divided by the Han River, the muddy waters of which are traversed via a plethora of bridges (be sure to witness the spectacular 10-000 nozzle fountain on Banpo Bridge). On the southern side, aptly overlooked by the gleaming contours of the golden 63 Building, lies Gangnam District, home to many of the city's wealthiest inhabitants.
One popular Gangnam bar and restaurant is the chic Baekseju Village, which offers a range of over twenty traditional Korean wines, accompanied by some great side dishes. In a twist on the norm, food is carefully selected to match the alcohol. Another place with an innovative take on Korean liquor is the Chungdam Ann Sojubang, which serves up deceptively alcoholic cocktails made with soju, Korea's answer to vodka, in hollowed out fruit.
For many people nights in Gangnam end up in one of the area's hip nightclubs, such as Club Mass and the Ritz Carlton Hotel's Club Eden. Entry fees are steep, but DJs spin some top tunes and high-tech sound systems keep dancefloors packed until the early hours. More traditional, sedate alternatives are the spectacular music and dance show Miso, put on at the Chongdong Theater, and pansori (Korean folk songs) at The National Theater of Korea.
WHERE TO EAT IN SEOUL
Samwon Gardens (Korean barbecue)
623-5 Sinsa-Dong, Gangnam-Gu / +82 2 548 3030
One of Seoul's top barbecue locations set among greenery, pools and waterfalls. Try the marinated galbi cooked over a charcoal grill.
Noryangjin Fish Market (seafood)
Next to Noryangjin subway station (Line 1, Exit 1) / +82 2 814 2211
Head here in the evening to catch this seafood extravaganza at its most colorful. Live octopus awaits more adventurous diners.
SEOUL BARS AND CAFES
1317-11 Seocho-Dong, Seocho-Gu (near Gangnam subway station) / +82 2 595 1003
Offers a range of specially prepared Korean traditional wines from the company's own brewery, together with some delicious side dishes. The roasted pork slices (bossam) braised with red pepper paste (gochujang) come highly recommended.
Chungdam Ann Sojubang
118-19 Chungdam-Dong, Gagnam-Gu / +82 2 541 6381
One of the area's most happening spots, especially after dinner and on weekends. Try the excellent king ribs and pan-broiled octopus with your deceptively alcoholic fruit soju cocktails.
WHERE TO SING IN SEOUL
Prince Edward Su Noraebang (Hongdae location)
364-24 Seogyo-Dong, Mapo-Gu (near Hongik subway station) / +82 2 336 2332
A luxury, glass-fronted karaoke parlor, complete with drum kits and various other musical paraphernalia. Sing the night away watched by Hongdae's passing crowds.
Ritz Carlton Hotel, 602 Yeoksam-Dong, Gangnam-Gu / +82 2 3451 8000
Beautiful beats for beautiful people. Dress to impress at this newly-opened, high-end club.
1306-8 Seocho-dong, Seogyu-Gu (near Gangnam subway station) / +82 10 8949 4747
One of Seoul's premier electronic music venues, with a huge dancefloor and assorted lounge areas and bars. Regularly hosts top Asian and European DJs.
LIVE MUSIC IN SEOUL
Miso Korean Musical
Chongdong Theater, 41 Jeongdong-Gil, Jung-Gu / +82 2 751 1500
A must-see show that tells a traditional Korean love story through beautifully choreographed dance and music performances.
The National Theater of Korea
SAN 14-67, Jangchungdan-Gil 158, Jung-Gu / +82 2 2280 4414-6
A great venue for watching performances of pansori, traditional Korean folk tales told by solo singers accompanied by rhythmic drumming.
Anyone requiring tourist-related information in Seoul, including information on restaurants, clubs, events and ticketing, can dial 1330 for a 24-hour, bilingual (Korean/English) help service. Those outside South Korea should dial +82 2 1330.
View more images of Korea by Daniel Allen
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