If any country is on the world’s radar, it’s South Korea, and this time it’s not all about the rocky relationship with its estranged brother in the north. In July, PyeongChang won the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and much of the campaign’s success was attributed to figure-skating champion “Queen” Kim Yu Na, who set a new world record at the 2010 games. In June, five K-pop groups marked the first time any Korean singer held a concert in Europe (tickets sold out in minutes). At last year’s Cannes, director Lee Chang Dong won best screenplay for Poetry, a poignant film about a woman who deals with her grandson’s crimes through poetry.
And by now it’s well known that Seoul, home to more than 10.5 million people, is the most wired city on the planet, with nearly 95 percent of households hooked up to broadband. Deep in the subways riders young and old surf, text and watch live TV on their gadgets. Never mind that all this connectivity has led to a growing problem of Internet and gaming addicts, the worst case of which ended in the death of a four-month-old due to neglect by her gaming-obsessed parents: The city plans to increase broadband speed in every home to one gigabit per second by the end of 2012.
It’s not just about newsmakers and tech, though. Seoul was named the 2010 World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an odd designation at first glance. An aerial view of the 235-square-mile metropolis shows streets weaving in and out in every direction, buildings high and low crammed onto each block. One minute you’re in a crowded market; a few steps away, there’s an ancient Buddhist temple. Identical concrete slabs still dominate the skyline. No, these aren’t public housing projects; rather, they’re apartment complexes, a result of the rapid—hasty—rebuilding of the country after the Korean War.
“Until recently we were a ‘hard city,’ putting first and foremost construction, business, function and utility,” says Lim Ok Gi, director general of Seoul’s design bureau. “Today we’re being reborn as a ‘soft city’ of culture, the arts and design.” Joining this revival are international architects: Two years ago Rem Koolhaas created the Prada Transformer, a temporary pavilion that changed shapes for events, like an exhibit for the Italian designer. Last year’s Pritzker-prize winners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are designing a theater, slated to open by 2013, which will feature the same sound system as the Walt Disney concert hall’s. That same year Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, a 914,932-square-foot cultural space of organic lines and futuristic shapes, will open along the walls of a gate built in 1396. The stadiumesque building will house galleries, libraries and museums with seven acres of parks, a welcome addition to this mega mall–dense district. U.S. architect Daniel Libeskind is behind DreamHub, a $28 billion project on Yongsan’s waterfront area. On more than 30 million square feet will be some 20 buildings—the tallest will be 2,180 feet, with developers rumored to be luring hotel chains such as the Four Seasons and Shangri-La—that will be arranged to resemble a crown from the Shilla Dynasty (a.d. 669–935) when it is completed in 2016.
A major part of beautifying Seoul centers around the Han River Renaissance project, which is turning a formerly dumpy waterway that flows through the city into a 319-mile-long promenade of bike paths, pools and parks; 28 bridges transform into works of light art, producing stunning night vistas. Fendi’s fall/winter show marked the debut of the Floating Island, a manmade three-islet archipelago. The event—streamed live, of course—was held on the main island, on a circular runway inside a curved glass building illuminated by neon lights. An impressive engineering feat, the archipelago weighs 5,434 tons and includes a restaurant, a café and concert halls, as well as a water sports center. A much smaller waterway, Cheongyecheon, a stream covered by roads in the 1970s, was restored in 2005 as a place for strolling, picnicking and viewing artworks. Near Incheon airport, ranked within the top three best airports in the last three years, is Songdo, a city built from the ground up as a utopia of sorts (see “The New Sustainable Cities”). “Seoul is a fascinating place,” says Hadid. “The dynamism of Korea’s development is breathtaking. You can sense the enthusiasm, ambition and boundless energy of the upcoming generation.”
Often overlooked as an Asian destination, Korea has seen a steady rise in visitors. Last year there were more than 6.3 million tourists (nearly half from Japan and China), a 32 percent increase from 2005. This transformation of Seoul into a global city has led to a surge of new hotels, restaurants and shops, with one of the most apparent changes in the last few years being the restaurant scene, as young chefs introduce innovative cuisine as well as Western food done right (gone are the days when T.G.I. Friday’s was the city’s go-to non-Korean eatery). On any given night, restaurants and cafés bustle with savvy diners. Eating out is no longer an occasion; much like New York, it’s the norm.
At the year-and-a-half-old Elbon the Table (Sinsa-dong 530-5; 82-2/547-4100; elbon.co.kr), chef Choi Hyun Seok, a tall, charismatic 39-year-old, creates the unexpected. His restaurant occupies the second and third floors of a mod black box on Garusogil, or “treelined street.” (On the first and basement levels is Elbon the Style, a boutique of designer shoes and bags from Bottega Veneta to Frankie Morelo.) Nicknamed the Crazy Chef because of his unique menu and experimental attitude, Choi has no international training but comes from a well-known culinary family. He’s credited with bringing molecular gastronomy to Korea, like his nitrogen-apple dessert that, when cracked open, is filled with powdered ice cream. “Inspiration strikes me after a glimpse of an ingredient,” he says. “One day I’ll be obsessed with crispiness, such as fried chicken skins; next it’ll be kimchi and fermentation.” From his open kitchen, Choi, who hopes to open a restaurant in New York next fall, turns out imaginative dishes like a sensational foie gras with orange chutney, grilled bananas and truffle ice cream and comforting lobster cream soup with tomato purée and basil ice cream.
Korea’s father of French bistro cuisine, Lim Ki Hak, 34, who trained under Daniel Boulud and Gray Kunz in New York, opened the 16-seat L’Espoir in 2008 (Samsung-dong 65; 82-2/517-6034). In a nondescript building, the dark-wood space is warm, one wall lined with culinary magazines. Reserved and determined—he used to commute three hours to DB Bistro Moderne for his internship—Lim emphasizes that his roots don’t matter at L’Espoir. “I want to produce authentic French food,” he says. “Once I feel I’m a true authority on French cuisine, maybe I’ll bring in Korean elements.” After a bite of Lim’s dishes, it’s clear he has mastered the genre: The velvety onion soup is perfectly hearty, while the duck confit with truffle broth could’ve come straight from Paris.
The city’s not without renowned culinary names, too. Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire opened a Seoul location on the 35th floor of the Lotte Hotel’s new wing in 2008 (Sogong-dong 1; 82-2/317-7181; pierregagnaire.co.kr). While the menu is French, Gagnaire incorporates local ingredients in dishes like Korean-beer sorbet, marinated key jogae (a type of scallop) and local-beef fillet and Jeju Island pork with braised eggplant, mushrooms and paprika. Guests can expect impeccable Michelin-starred service in an opulent setting: gilded ceilings, ornate chandeliers, spectacular views. There are also four private rooms, each named after a famous French writer. The dimly lit Pierre’s Bar is a trendy spot, especially among bankers, whose offices are in the area.
The strong outside influence doesn’t mean Korean food is on the demise. Quite to the contrary—this is probably one of the world’s most nationalistic countries, after all—such eateries abound, offering strong, sometimes pungent, flavors: kimchi, grilled pork belly, barbecued marinated short ribs (galbi), spicy stews, bibimbap, raw seafood dipped in gochujang (a spicy fermented sauce)…the list goes on and on. Opened last October, Mooldongyi (Itaewon-dong 258-13; 82-2/792-0474) is an intimate spot serving “royal” fare like seafood salad with pine nut dressing, kimchi “pancakes” and spicy beef soup. Such dishes may have been popular with nobles and kings, but here they taste like a refined version of mom’s home cooking—not surprising, as the recipes come from owner Kim In Kyun’s mother. Only two tasting menus are offered, and reservations are highly recommended.
Barbecue is what the year-old Sonsooheon (Nonhyeon-dong 99-32; 82-2/3442-2567) does best, offering premium Korean beef in a sleek bamboo-wood setting. The four-floor restaurant caters to the cultural preference of private rooms—there are 14 of them and only five tables. As is the tradition, the tender meat is grilled at the table, but unlike many barbecue places, the ventilation system here is so superior, you leave without a hint of smokiness on your clothes or in your hair. “As Seoul has become wealthier, people want a more luxurious version of home cooking,” says 35-year-old chef Park Rae Sun. Numerous healthy side dishes accompany the meal, and the radish kimchi stew and grilled corvina are must-haves.
Perhaps the most ingenious is chef Yim Jung Sik, 33, whose talent and originality are indisputable. At Jung Sik Dang (Sinsa-dong 649-7; 82-2/517-4654; jungsikdang.com), which opened in 2009, Yim uses Western cooking techniques to reinvent local cuisine. These New Korean creations, all plated to the nines, look nothing like traditional fare, yet the flavors are undeniably Korean. “Food is multidimensional, and I wanted to show that this idea can be applied to Korean food,” says Yim, who, after years of washing dishes and waiting tables in Seoul, trained at New York’s Aquavit and Bouley as well as Spain’s Michelin three-starred Akelarre. The Five Senses Satisfaction bossam (lettuce-wrapped confited pork belly)—the whimsical names don’t translate, unfortunately—is an haute version of a humble comfort food. The Bibim salad, a twist on the rice-and-vegetable dish, is made of tomato jelly, basil oil, mozzarella, potato chips and vegetables. Even the desserts, like the soo jung gwa, a cinnamon-and-ginger tea, is morphed into a delightful combination of cinnamon pepper jelly, ginger cream and Korean pear sorbet that’s eaten with a spoon. “It’s my dream for New Korean cuisine to go global,” says Yim. And he’s seeing to it: Jung Sik, in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, opened last month (2 Harrison St.; 212-219-0900; jungsik.kr).
The hyper-absorption of international cultures extends to material consumption as well. Koreans have always been somewhat obsessed with luxury, status and trends, which may explain why Hyundai’s hometown swarms with Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, Ferraris, Porsches—we’re talking R- and S-series Audis, AMG-series Mercedes—in wealthy neighborhoods like Apkujung and Cheondam. Along Apkujung Road are huge designer boutiques (Ferragamo, Zegna, Gucci, Prada, Phillip Lim, Cartier, et al), as well as the 15,069-square-foot Seoul outpost of the Milan concept store 10 Corso Como (Cheongdam-dong 79; 10corsocomo.co.kr). Here you’ll find items like a gold crescent necklace by Thakoon ($3,490), an Azzedine Alaïa mesh flower-cut dress ($2,345) and a slouchy python bag by local designer Sang A ($5,115). In the back alleys are other familiar designers like Marc Jacobs and Ann Demeulemeester, but also new multibrand boutiques such as the seven-month-old Je Ne Sais Quoi (Sinsa-dong 650-11; jenesaisquoi.kr), an airy space with a meticulously curated collection of international and Korean designers. There’s vintage Chanel jewelry (from $1,550), Malcolm X frames by Shuron ($330), Temperley London dresses (from $1,750) and men’s jackets (from $695) by Korean designer Wooyoungmi, whose cutting-edge looks are sold all over the world (she also has a Paris boutique in Marais). Nearby, Hermès (Sinsa-dong 630-26; hermes.com) opened in 2007 with great fanfare, unveiling four levels belowground, with a café and a museum of the brand’s designs, plus seven floors on top, including the Atelier Hermès art exhibition space.
Over in Itaewon, formerly a seedy area that sold fake designer everything, Comme des Garçons (Hannam-dong 739-1; comme-des-garcons.com) opened a massive shop last August, accented by Rei Kawakubo’s signature black polka dots within its glass façade. The seven floors of the mazelike space are connected by tunnels instead of stairs. The basement gallery, Six, showcases up-and-coming artists, and on the first level is the first non-European outpost of Paris’s Rose Bakery.
Name-brand luxury aside, the quintessential Seoul shopping experience is about local stores—and scouring. A must-do is Dongdaemun (where Hadid’s plaza will be), the district of high-rise 24-hour “markets” selling affordable but chic clothing and accessories that change rapidly according to trends and seasons. Haggling down prices is no longer allowed, but some owners may throw in a free T-shirt if you buy a lot and pay in cash. The best is Doota (Ulji-ro 6-ga 18-12; doota.com), which has some 600 stalls and includes a Designer Gallery where up-and-comers can present their collections. Chaos and Dongdaemun go hand in hand—Doota was packed even at 2:30 a.m. on a weekday during one visit—so crowd-averse travelers should steer clear.
For a more tranquil setting, head to Garusogil, a charming half-mile street lined with gingko trees where fashionistas, artsy types and young couples mingle in cozy cafés, boutiques, bars and restaurants. The online store Bagazimuri opened a store here in 2009 (Sinsa-dong 535-4; 82-2/541-8241), making its flirty, feminine blouses (from $15) and dresses (from $30) available to more tactile shoppers. 103 (Sinsa-dong 545-14; 82-2/511-5661) is a favorite among Seoul’s trendsetters and celebrities—even Rihanna dropped in last year—for its vintage-y mix, from boho-chic watercolor dresses ($30) to strappy leather ankle sandal boots ($50). A few doors down, Mogoolworks offers unique handcrafted headwear—straw-and-mesh caps (from $30), patchwork sun hats (from $65)—as well as custom pieces (545–10; mogoolworks.com). Gorgeous traditional clothing (from $500), called hanboks, and bedding (from $200), all handmade, can be found at Hansoonrye (Sinsa-dong 530-2; 82-2/3443-6375).
Last year it seemed as if a new or renovated hotel was debuting every month, starting in March with IP Boutique in Itaewon (rooms, from $200; Hannam-dong 737-32; 82-2/3702-8000; ipboutiquehotel.com). Step into the Mondrian-like building and you may feel as if you’ve fallen into a contemporary Alice in Wonderland. At the entrance is a bright red bench. Against one wall is a bright yellow sofa, and next to it hang giant lime-green swings. Ride a vintage steamer trunk elevator upstairs, where the adventure continues in the 136 small but well-laid-out rooms and six suites, each of which has giant Pop art—huge red lips, perhaps, or a Warhol-esque female cartoon—painted on the wall. Behind this otherworldly design is CEO Shin Chul Ho, who hopes to go global with his Imperial Palace brand (there are already locations in the Philippines and Japan). A hot nightclub occupies the basement, while the first-floor Café Amiga plays live music.
High up on a hill in the former historic Tower Hotel, the Banyan Tree Club & Spa (rooms, from $480; Jangchungdong 2-ga; banyantree.com) redefines luxury city accommodations. Opened last June, each of the 16 rooms and 16 suites—there are only two suites or four rooms on each floor—includes a relaxation pool and a shower that doubles as a steam room. The two duplex Presidential Suites on the 18th and 19th floors have dizzying views from all sides. The outdoor pool transports guests to, say, Phuket, with surrounding private cabanas that have their own mini-pools; during winter this turns into a skating rink. Guests also have access to the club’s driving range, two gyms (one on the roof) and tennis and basketball courts. At times you may feel like the staff is more attentive to its club members, but perhaps this is understandable—paying a $123,650 initiation fee and $3,000 in annual dues, they are among the country’s elite.
Last November, The Plaza (rooms, from $340; Taepyeongno 2-ga 23; 82-2/771-2200; hoteltheplaza.com), facing the new city hall that will be completed next May, reopened after a massive facelift. Italian architect Guido Ciompi, whose projects include Venice’s Centurion Palace, designed everything from the exterior and the furniture to the staff uniforms, transforming the once staid hotel into an übermodern space with high-tech devices to match (radio-frequency ID keys, touchscreen controls for everything). The lobby features a revolving mini-exhibit of art, and the six restaurants include the 35-year-old Taoyuen, famous for its upscale Chinese cuisine. The 400 rooms, which are on the smaller side but have efficient, studio apartment–like layouts, feature contemporary dark-wood and white furniture with colorful accents like yellow throw pillows and lavender walls. The only exception is the VVIP-only 2,800-square-foot Royal Suite, reserved for the likes of presidents, whose old-European interior was left intact.
Not new but still among Seoul’s best hotels are the Park Hyatt ( rooms, from $500; Daechi 3-dong 995-14; 82-2/2016-1234; seoul.park.hyatt.com) and The Shilla (rooms, from $390; Jangchung-dong 2-ga 202; 82-2/2233-3131; shilla.net). The Park Hyatt is at the top of the list for travelers and local hedge fund types alike. Its minimalist rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and spa-like bathrooms. The Shilla, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, stands out for its unparalleled service—with staff so mindful, it’s like having a personal concierge. With big-deal guests such as Bill Gates, Tom Cruise and former president George Bush, it’s no wonder the two Presidential Suites are connected to a helipad. The rooms need an update, but interior designer Peter Remedios, who revamped the lobby in 2006, will return in December to begin renovations (the hotel will remain open).
Named one of The New York Times’ “31 Places to Go in 2010,” ranked the fifth-best city in Wallpaper’s 2010 Design Awards and described as the world’s greatest city by CNN in May, Seoul has risen as a newfound Asian hot spot. And the city shows no signs of stopping: As Hadid says, “There are very few places in the world today with such forward-looking people with such passion for innovation.”
Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.
Historical Museums in Seoul, Korea
Despite Seoul’s hypermodernity, its people, a proud bunch, are serious about preserving its past and traditions. From torture methods by the Japanese during their occupation to wooden dolls to chicken art, these small museums reveal unknown details about the country’s complex history.
Choonwondang Museum of Korean Medicine: This three-year-old museum, opened by one of the most prestigious Oriental medicine clinics, teaches visitors about medicine through a collection that dates from 1847. At Donhwamun-ro 9-gil 27.
Gahoe Museum: The collection of ancient amulets, folk paintings and shamanistic objects reveals the hidden meanings of Korea’s ancient beliefs: how a tiger’s teeth were thought to repel evil spirits, for example. At Gahoe-dong 11-103.
Lock Museum: The windowless building’s rusty façade is a fitting exterior for the 4,000 locks, latches and key charms exhibited within. Most are from ancient Korea, but there are also some from Europe and Asia. At Dongsung-dong 187-8.
Mokin Museum: Dedicated to wooden dolls, this cozy space includes more than 8,000 carved and painted sculptures from Korea, China, India and Nepal. At Gyeonji-dong 82.
Seodaemun Prison: Koreans still carry a lot of han—an untranslatable emotion relating to mourning and injustice—from Japanese colonization. A visit here explains why. Once used to confine independence fighters, the prison now displays gruesome re-creations of Japanese torture methods. At Hyeonjeo-dong 101.
Seoul Museum of Chicken Art: Local culture elevates the everyday bird as a symbol of wealth and success, and here visitors can explore this through artworks from around the world. At Gahoe-dong 12.
Historic Sites in Seoul, Korea
As someone who lived in Seoul for ten years, I’m often asked, “What must I do?” Here, three places of the old Seoul you shouldn’t miss.
Changdeokgung: Among the skyscrapers are several ancient royal palaces. The most impressive is Changdeokgung, a unesco World Heritage Site, built in 1405. The palace is composed of hundreds of pavilions, each serving a specific purpose: residences for the queen and royal officials, libraries, the king’s chamber. The main garden, Biwon, is an exquisitely tranquil place with a lotus pond. eng.cdg.go.kr.
DMZ: It’s impossible to tell from the Koreans’ nonchalance, but technically the peninsula is still at war. Much of the surrounding area of the world’s most heavily armed border is actually breathtaking, with pristine mountainous landscapes and wildlife. But watching soldiers from each side stare each other down, you can feel the chilling and sad reality of a country divided.
Insa-Dong: During the Chosun Dynasty, this was the residential area for state officials and nobility. Today it’s filled with antiques shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants serving traditional fare. There’s everything from new- and old-style custom hanboks to “royal” rice cakes to Korean calligraphy tools. Be sure to stop by O’Sulloc Tea House, a minimalist three-floor space that serves more than ten types of green teas and delicious pastries—get the green tea and black tea dacquoises—and also sells tea sets and unique works by famous artisans. At Gwanhun-dong 170; osulloc.com.