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Seoul is not a city for the fainthearted; navigating the sprawl with the city’s 25 million inhabitants – packed into towering high-rise buildings, driving on 10-lane roads and swarming around markets open for 24 hours a day – takes patience, practicality and a sense of adventure. Unsurprisingly, many of those familiar with the city call it “Tokyo on steroids:.
Getting to know Seoul, where people tend to give you directions based on the twists and turns of the Han river, can be tough. Locals are generally very kind but speak next to no English. It’s a place of the weird, the wonderful and the future – keep your eyes peeled, because Koreans are often one step ahead of the game. Nowhere is this more evident than when you look at the city’s current trends, including matching outfits for couples, apps like StyleShare, whacky food trends and a beautifully minimalist dress sense that will make you feel frumpy no matter what you’re wearing.
Give yourself a day or two to adjust and you will find that Seoul slowly seeps into your heart. Unlike so many other places, it will give you a fix of adrenaline, which can quickly prove to be addictive.
Seoul is a sprawling megacity, so we’ve divided up our guide into areas.
Jongno-gu plays an important role in Korean politics, housing government buildings and historic palaces. It is also home to Dongdaemun, the city’s garment district, which is filled with wholesale shops that stay open throughout the night and shopping malls packed with young designers. Go to Insa-dong to find traditional Korean artefacts, street food and fortune tellers. While other areas of Seoul have fully embraced the influx of western culture and chain shops, the Insa-dong district has endeavoured to maintain its character. All the businesses here are required to write their names in Korean – even Starbucks – so use this as an opportunity to brush up on your language skills.
Translated as the “central district”, this area is home to the famous Shilla Hotel and the Myeong-dong shopping area, which is visited by more than a million shoppers every day.
The business hub of Seoul, this district is home to the tallest office building in the city. You probably wouldn’t come here unless you were making the trip to see clients, but if you do find yourself in the area then this is where you should go.
Gangnam is to Seoul what Uptown is to New York. Located on the south side of the Han river, it is famous for its designer shops and critically acclaimed restaurants. Go to Dosan Park to see some of the best-dressed people in the world, sporting the most trailblazing trends around. Garosu-gil, which means ‘tree-lined streets’, is known for its quaint stores and bohemian vibe.
Sitting north of the river, Yongsan is a densely populated district of Seoul. The former US military base Itaewon is the most ethnically diverse part of the city, making it a friendly place for foreigners, and the area has lots of restaurants and bars to hang out in day or night. Also be sure to visit the hilltop community of Hannam-dong, which has recently boomed into a centre for art and culture.
Undoubtedly the epicentre of young Seoul, Mapo-gu includes the neighbourhoods of Hongdae and its up-and-coming hipster sister Hapjeong. Filled with independent cafés and restaurants, the district is home to music labels and the city’s most renowned art school. The chaos and bright lights draw in swarms of people around the clock.
Rakkojae Boutique Hotel Jongno-gu
Live like an aristocrat with a stay at this family-owned hotel housed in a network of hanoks (historic Korean houses). With feng-shui gardens, a sauna, breakfast and dinner included, this is the perfect place to relax while maintaining close proximity to the buzzing metropolis.
- +82 2 742 3410
- Go to Website
The Shilla Hotel Jung-Gu
Even if you don’t get a room here, you should visit this famous hotel for tea and cakes. The service, views and food are excellent and definitely worth the hefty price tag.
- +82 2 2233 3131
- Go to Website
For urban travellers who like their hotels to feel like an extension of their homes, Hotel Cappuccino fits the bill. Well set up with workstations, a gym and rooftop bar, guests can continue their daily routines in the comfort of stylised, simplistic surroundings. Order Vietnamese bun cha at Restaurant Hot Eatsue located on the 17th floor and enjoy killer views. As the name suggests, coffee, supplied by local roaster Anthracite, is available on tap, but it isn’t just for breakfast; the rooftop bar – the first Gintoneria in Seoul – serves up an the best espresso martini in town.
- +82 2 2038 9500
- Go to Website
Rak Ko Jae
The Shilla Hotel
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