Wedged between Japan and China, South Korea is one of the most overlooked nations of the East. The 2002 World Cup may have helped put the country on travelers' radar, but it remains largely a stop for businessmen. And in the news it's all politics; you rarely hear about the flourishing nightlife, fabulous shopping, and excellent cuisine. Seoul, the capital (population 10.3 million), has become so high-tech that you sometimes feel as if you have journeyed to the future, where everything is wireless and multimedia. Yet history holds strong, like the centuries-old pagodas that stand among glittering skyscrapers. What has emerged is a culture at ease with both the traditional and the avant-garde.
Take Seoul's newest boutique hotel, the Park Hyatt. The all-glass building is unremarkable, but the minimalist interior has striking Asian touches (and spectacular views from the floor-to-ceiling windows). Each bathroom, equipped with a flat-screen TV, features a wall of granite quarried in Japan and China; a sit-down shower incorporates the traditional way of bathing. At the hotel bar, Timber House, glass cases hold weathered calligraphy books, and miniature water-filled hangaris (earthenware jars) adorn the tables. The contemporary vibe comes from the chic clientele and the jazz band that plays nightly.
The year-old W Seoul-Walkerhill aims straight for the cutting edge. In the lobby is the Wooden Mirror, a series of panels that undulate as you walk by (which you'll likely do twice). The rooms are full of high-tech innovations such as a home-theater system and a customizable aromatherapy scheme. The dishes at the hotel's Namu include Korean bouillabaisse, a twist on the traditional spicy codfish soup, and yukhweh (Korean beef tartare) with garlic, onions, and chiles. At the multilevel WooBar, Seoul's fashionistas sip soju martinis while sitting in egg-shaped chairs.
You'll see the same crowd in the happening neighborhoods of Apgujeong- and Cheongdam-dong. The Galleria in the former is the place to find D&G and Prada, as well as popular Korean labels like System and Mine. At Cheongdam-dong's Mue, a three-story shop whose translucent wall projects 20-foot-high images, clothes by Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga hang sparsely on mechanically controlled racks. Get ready to bargain at Dongdaemun, on the other side of the river, a district best known for flashy night-market "malls" such as Doota. The gorgeous handmade jewelry, home goods, and trendy clothes there are hard to resist.
If Korea is famous for one dish—other than kimchee—it's barbecue. Samwon Garden, renowned for its mouthwatering galbi, is the place to grill your own meat (that's the Korean way). When the owner's daughter, six-time LPGA victor Grace Park, wins a tournament, your meal is half price.
If you're seeking authenticity, head to Insa-dong, where the historic alleyways are lined with gift shops and home-style restaurants (stop for some sundubu-jjigae, a hearty tofu casserole). Urisegae sells lovely silk pillows and placemats in subtle colors. Bordering Insa-dong's main strip is the small but significant TapGol Park, home to the 540-year-old Wongak Temple. Plenty more national treasures are on display at the sleek Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. The complex buildings designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas contain an impressive collection of Buddhist art in addition to works by Nam June Paik, Hirst, and Rothko. The museum lends out PDA guides that sense what you're looking at and explain accordingly. Near-obsessive modernism in the service of culture: a perfect emblem of Korea today.
PARK HYATT From $445 to $4,165. 995-14 Daechi 3-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/2016-1100; www.seoul.park.hyatt.com
W SEOUL-WALKERHILL From $460 to $7,150. 21 Gwangjang-dong, Gwangjin-gu; 82-2/465-2222; www.whotels.com/seoul
SAMWON GARDEN Dinner, $100. 623-5 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/548-3030; www.samwongarden.com
DOOTA 18-12 Euljiro 6-ga, Jung-gu; 82-2/3398-2386
GALLERIA 494 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3449-4114; www.galleria.co.kr
MUE 93-6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3446-8074
URISEGAE 33 Gwanhoon-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2/725-1216; www.urisegae.co.kr
LEEUM, SAMSUNG MUSEUM OF ART Fee, $10 (reservation required). 747-18 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/2014-6901; www.leeum.org
TAPGOL PARK 38-1 Jongno 2-ga, Jongno-gu; 82-2/731-0534