36 Hours in Seoul
By ARIC CHEN
Published: November 11, 2010
HASTILY rebuilt after the Korean War, Seoul is shedding its once-gritty image to become one of Asia’s most glittering metropolises. Under its design-obsessed mayor, Oh Se-hoon, the city has been spiffed up with everything from sleek bus shelters to decked-out bridges. What’s more, it was named this year’s World Design Capital by an international design alliance. But that’s just the beginning. Seoul has a booming contemporary art scene, fashionable stores throughout the urban landscape, and a thriving pop and youth culture that now rivals that of other Asian capitals like Tokyo.
1) CULTURE, THEN AND NOW
The convergence of art and architecture, Korean and Western, old and new, finds a marquee home at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (747-18 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2-2014-6900; leeum.samsungfoundation.org). Squirreled away in a hilly residential section of the Itaewon area, the museum showcases the Samsung Foundation’s impressive art collection in a campus of buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Mario Botta. Pieces date from historic Korean Buddhist paintings and celadon ceramics to works by Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Nam June Paik. Then, for a contrast to the Leeum’s polished presentation, walk five minutes to Ggooll (683-31 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-70-4127-6468; choijeonghwa.com). The experimental artist Choi Jeong Hwa has turned this former hovel into a riotous, well, hovel that doubles as a cafe and alternative gallery.
2) KIMCHI REDUX
It was only a matter of time before Korean cuisine got the nouvelle treatment, and a pioneer in this growing movement is Jung Sik Dang (3F, Acros B/D, 649-7 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-517-4654; jungsikdang.com), next to Dosan Park. The dining room is modern and subdued, with white tablecloths and leather chairs. The rotating set menu (100,000 or 120,000 won, or about $92 or $110 at 1,085 won to the dollar) might include sea squirt bibimbap, anchovy paella and “Five Senses Satisfaction Pork Belly.” There is just a handful of tables, so be sure to make a reservation.
3) SEOUL AFTER DARK
Seoul has a panoply of night-life districts that cater to different crowds, but perhaps the trendiest is Garosu-gil. It’s home to cute cafes and immaculate boutiques like p. 532 and Ilmo Outlet, but at night its many bars throb to life. Two cool spots include Café des Arts (2F, 545 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-541-0507), with its beer and flea market vibe, and the yuppie-ish, dark-and-moody Wine & Dine (535-18 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-545-6677).
4) DESIGN DIGS
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a massive complex designed by Zaha Hadid, will be a centerpiece of Seoul’s design transformation when it is completed as early as 2012. Though still under construction, its impressive, space-age skeleton is already worth a look (2 Eulji-ro 7-ga, Jung-gu; 82-2-2266-7330; seouldesign.or.kr). So is the new Hadid-designed park that surrounds it, which elegantly incorporates recently discovered ruins, including a military complex from the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Small design exhibitions accompany a museum chronicling the site’s history.
5) WHITE CUBES
The city’s contemporary art scene is blossoming and it’s centered in pleasant Samcheong-dong. Blue-chip spaces include Gallery Hyundai (80 Sagan-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-2287-3570; galleryhyundai.com); Kukje Gallery (59-1 Sokeuk-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-735-8449; kukjegallery.com); and Arario Gallery (149-2 Sokeuk-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-723-6190; arariogallery.com). Anchoring the area is the Artsonje Center (144-2 Sokeuk-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-733-8945; artsonje.org), founded in 1998 to support contemporary and experimental art. Meanwhile, over in the Cheongdam area is the Platoon Kunsthalle (97-22 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-3447-1191; kunsthalle.com), an alternative art space built from stacked shipping containers.
6) CHEAP OR CHIC
For lunch in Samcheong-dong, try the Kukje Gallery’s upscale continental restaurant (18,000 won for the scallop risotto). Or slip into one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants tucked into the hilly side streets, like Cheonjin Poja (148-5 Sokeuk-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-739-6086), where an order of pork mandoo dumplings will set you back 4,000 won. There’s also aA (55 Sokeuk-dong, Jongro-gu; 82-2-722-1211), a new four-level temple to vintage modern furniture, though the draw is more the Danish lighting than the 8,000-won ham and Brie sandwiches.
7) CREDIT CRUNCH
There’s no shortage of ways to max out a credit card in Seoul. The heart of temptation lies in the Cheongdam-dong district, and spreads out from there. Watch international brands try to outdo one another, be it with the vegetation-covered Ann Demeulemeester (650-14 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-3442-2570; anndemeulemeester.be); the new concrete-on-concrete Rick Owens (651 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-516-2217; rickowens.eu); or the unapologetically decadent 10 Corso Como (79 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-3018-1010; 10corsocomo.co.kr). For homegrown luxury emporiums, stop by Boon the Shop (89-3 and 79-13 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-542-8006; boontheshop.com) and the edgier Daily Projects (1-24 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-3218-4075; dailyprojects.kr). And for local skater and streetwear design, Humantree (4F, 653-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-514-3464; humantree.info) shows off its hoodies and T-shirts next to a Planet of the Apes blow-up doll.
8) FASHION BARBECUE
Given that its proprietor is a former editor at Vogue Korea, you might expect Tadak (412-29 Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2-333-6564) to be a tad pretentious. Quite the opposite. Stylish yet low-key, this warm-and-woody Korean barbecue restaurant opened earlier this year near the Hongdae student night-life district. Beef, pork and vegetables are grilled over wood charcoal at your table, accompanied by all the pickled and bean paste fixings. The prices are just as palatable: 10,000 won per one-person portion. A serving of cold naeng myun noodles is 4,500 won.
9) WHERE THE KIDS ROAM
Seoul has its share of sleek bars and sophisticated clubs, but for a bit of urban anthropology to go with your drink, head to Hongdae. Packed with teenagers, university students and other 20-somethings, this carnivalesque, neon-lit area is where on weekend nights you might find yourself dodging a stilt walker as a rock band plays nearby. On the main drag, you can’t miss Luxury Norebang (367-39 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2-322-3111), a multistory karaoke palace that looks like Pee Wee’s Playhouse as decorated by Laura Ashley. For a more upscale party vibe, check out Lound (83-13 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-517-7412; 74lound.com), which draws a fashionable set to its hyperslick spaces.
10) TAPAS WITH A VIEW
Have brunch with the in-crowd at Between (124-7 Yongsan-gu, Itaewon-dong; 82-2-795-6164), a multilevel Italian and Spanish tapas restaurant, with a terrace and lounge, that opened earlier this year. Its airy, contemporary interior is an ideal place to wake up with an eggs Benedict (16,000 won) or prosciutto sandwich (17,000 won) and good people-watching.
11) BATH AND BEYOND
A staple of Korean life has long been the jjimjilbang, or bathhouse. And perhaps the biggest and most extravagant of them all is the seven-story Dragon Hill Spa & Resort (40-713 Hangang-ro 3-ga, Yongsan-gu; 82-2-798-0114; dragonhillspa.com). Something like an amusement park with a touch of ’80s Vegas, complete with pyramids and a Native American-themed pub, this family-friendly spot comes with sex-segregated spa areas, shared saunas, outdoor pools, Jacuzzis and more: picture nail salons, video arcades, an Internet cafe, even a cinema and putting green. (Admission 10,000 to 12,000 won; spa packages from 100,000 won.) A Zen retreat this is not. But it’s a fun (and funny) place for a few hours of entertainment — and maybe some relaxation, too.
IF YOU GO
The 185-room Park Hyatt Seoul (995-14 Daechi 3-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-2016-1234; seoul.park.hyatt.com) occupies a 24 -story glass-and-steel building in the central Gangnam district. Floor-to-ceiling windows, warm wood finishes and granite baths outfit its spacious, modern rooms. Doubles start at 270,000 won (about $249).
The new IP Boutique Hotel (737-32 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2-3702-8000; ipboutiquehotel.com) is conveniently situated in Itaewon. It has a colorful facade that matches the 132 comfortable rooms within: think lots of white with splashes of Pop color. Rates start at 200,000 won, with frequent discounts available.
Situated in the heart of fashionable Garosu-gil, the Hotel Tea Tree & Co (535-12 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-542-9954; teatreehotel.com) opened last year with 38 spare yet cozy rooms. Standard rooms start at 96,800 won.