24 Hours in Seoul
Discovering the soul of South Korea’s capital.
Seoul is a study in contradictions. The home of influential corporations such as Samsung and Hyundai, Seoul is also a city with still-evident traditions dating back thousands of years. In many parts of the South Korean capital, it’s common to see an ancient royal palace or a Confucian shrine on the same block as a soaring skyscraper or a billboard featuring the latest Korean pop star. And despite covering a smaller area than New York City or London, Seoul’s densely packed metropolitan area is the world’s second largest — a truly expansive playground to discover everything from historic architecture and contemporary design to dazzling shopping arcades and delicious cuisine.
Rise and shine at the luxurious Grand Hyatt Seoul, a centrally located hilltop property with gorgeous views of old Seoul in the north, the sparkling Han River that bisects the city, and the southern Gangnam district (forever famous thanks to the catchy pop song). From your room’s floor-to-ceiling window, enjoy a front-row seat as the fog peels back from the skyline — like a comforter pulled away after a long night’s sleep. For a warm breakfast croissant, mosey over to Passion 5. This popular five-floor bakery is known for its elaborate desserts, but it also features decadent breakfast options in its café and full-service restaurant.
Just a short walk from the Grand Hyatt and Passion 5, the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art is a perfect introduction to the country’s history and culture. Its exhibitions span from early Korean metalworks and delicate gray-green celadon pottery to video-art collections and installations by contemporary Korean artists.
Before you head into the heart of town, stop at the nearby Namsan Mountain to ride the cable car up the 262 meters to the public park on top of the hill. There, standing tall amid the afternoon power-walkers taking laps on the hiking trails, you’ll find Namsan Tower (also known as the North Seoul Tower). Head straight for the observation deck, which offers panoramic views of the city. Then, stay to examine the chain-link fences heavy with thousands of locks signed and secured in place by young couples in love. You can even buy your own lock of love in the gift shop to add to the ever-growing collection.
Descend the mountain and head downtown for lunch along the street food alley near Gwangjang Market. Grab a bibimbap, a savory rice bowl topped with steamed veggies, or a bindaettok, a popular fermented cabbage and mung bean pancake. Afterward, walk off lunch by exploring the sloping bubble-like buildings of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid, the futuristic cultural center looks a bit like a spaceship landed amid the shopping malls and street vendors. Inside, you’ll find an eclectic mix of retail stores and stalls selling everything from souvenir notebooks to modern housewares.
Stay in central Seoul for a quick stop to gaze upon the Gyeongbokgung Palace, a 600-year-old national treasure whose main gate aligns squarely with one of the city’s busiest intersections. Once the principal home of the royal family that governed Seoul from the late 1300s until nearly 1900, the palace now houses the National Folk Museum and the National Palace Museum of Korea.
Then, for a perfect Seoul-style contrast, bundle up to embark on a leisurely stroll along the 11-kilometer Cheonggyecheon stream that runs through the city’s center. A decade ago, a massive concrete highway covered the river, and the area was known for its high crime rates. It can be difficult to imagine now, as the reopened river has been hailed as an urban renewal success. The pedestrian paths and seating areas along the sunken stream provide a particularly welcome respite from the hectic city streets above.
Make your way to nearby Insadong, another beautification success story. The pedestrian street was once known for schlocky trinkets but is now renowned as a hub for craftspeople. Browse the traditional Korean craft boutiques and artisan galleries that offer an array of take-home treasures: hand-pressed stationery paper, pottery and porcelain, and handmade fans. Even if you’re not in the mood for a cup of joe, look for the Starbucks along the row; the marquee’s green Korean characters mark not only where to get your caffeine fix, but also the only one of the coffee chain’s global locations to bear a sign written in its country’s mother tongue.
End the day with a hearty meal at Myeongdong Dakhanmari. Dakhanmari roughly translates to “whole chicken,” and this unassuming restaurant near Dongdaemun features the popular Korean soup for which it is named. Chefs carve the chicken at your table and simmer the bird, along with some noodles, in a broth of garlic, spring onion, and your preferred spices while you watch. A perfect treat on a cool winter day, it’s also plenty to share. Be advised: The staff speaks Korean and a bit of Chinese but no English. Neither this nor a possible wait for a table, however, should deter you from trying this delicious dish.
Enjoy a nightcap at Once in a Blue Moon, a jazz and blues bar with 100-plus wines on the menu and cocktails featuring soju, a favorite South Korean spirit made from flower essences and ethanol. The drinks are as smooth as the musicianship — and in a city known for its many contrasts, this complementary pairing provides a perfect way to end the day.