Mini guide to Seoul, Korea
Dongdaemun Gate surrounded by traffic at dusk. (Martin Moos/LPI)
Seoul rose phoenix-like from the rubble of the Korean War, to become the busy centre of an Asian tiger economy. Today, new projects are changing the landscape from the revitalised Han River park to Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza.
Meaning 'North Village', Bukchon is home to around 900 hanok, Seoul's largest concentration of traditional Korean homes. The buildings' patterned walls and tiled roofs contrast with the distant modern city. To find out more, visit the Bukchon Traditional Culture Centre (00 82 3707 8388; 9am-6pm Mon-Fri; free).
If you only have time to visit one of Seoul's palace complexes, make it Changdeokgung. Building started in 1405 and the highlight today is the Secret Garden (00 82 762 8261; cha.go.kr; English tours 11.30am-3.30pm Tue-Sun Dec-Mar, Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun Apr-Nov; guided tour £1.70).
Vibrant Namdaemun Market has more than 10,000 stores dealing in everything from seaweed to spectacles. Pick up an English map from one of two tourist information booths in the market (Namchang-dong Jung-gu; 8.30am-6pm).
Trek up Inwangsan, White Tiger Mountain, to see Seoul's famous shamanist shrine. From the shrine, walk left up the steps to Seonbawi for great views of the city. To the east is Seoul's fortress wall, which leads down to the main road (see main tourism site visitkorea.or.kr).
A raised highway was torn down to bring daylight back to the Cheonggyecheon, a stream running through the centre of Seoul. The result is a beautifully landscaped oasis with waterfalls and artworks. Laser light shows take place in the evenings (cheonggyecheon.or.kr; free).
Eat and drink
Traditional, unmodernised Gwangjang Market feels like it's been frozen in time. At its heart is Seoul's largest food alley, with some 200 stalls specialising in dishes such as bibimbap (mixed rice) and crispy, thick nokdu bindaetteok (mung-bean pancakes) that are big enough for two to share (lunch and dinner; mains from £2.50).
Koong's traditional Kaeseong dumplings, prepared from the recipe of a 94-year-old grandmother, are legendary. Enjoy them in a flavourful soup along with chewy balls of rice cake (00 82 733 9240; koong.co.kr; off Seokjeongol-gil, Insa-dong; lunch and dinner; mains from £4).
Fish and crab meals are a bargain at Busan Ilbeonji on the 2nd floor of Noryangjin fish market. Try kkotge, a crab in a spicy or mild soup, which comes with sides such as garnished tofu, pumpkin and shredded jellyfish (00 82 813 7799; Noryangjin; lunch and dinner; mains from £5.50).
Tosokchon Samgyetang is housed in a sprawling hanok, and for many locals it's the best place to eat in Seoul. Despite the crowds, the chicken stewed with ginseng arrives fast and still bubbling (00 82 737 7444; 85-1 Chebu-dong Jongno-gu; lunch and dinner; mains from £7.50).
A dozen courses make up the royal banquet at Korea House. The staff wear traditional hanbok costume and zither music hums in the background (00 82 22 669101; koreahouse.or.kr; Namsan; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, dinner Sun; set menus £30-£55).
Bebop House is a hostelcum- hotel that captures the youthful, artistic buzz of Hongik district. The whitewashed house is decorated with bright print wallpapers and tons of posters. Breakfast is self-service, with food provided in the kitchen (00 82 82 614835; bebop-guesthouse.com; Seogyo-dong; from £30).
Located in an enchanting hanok, Tea Guesthouse has small, minimalist rooms with modern, wooden furniture that blends in with the architectural detail of the house. Breakfast is served in a traditional-style common room, complete with floor cushions (00 82 36 759877; teaguesthouse.com; Gyedong-gil, Bukchon; from £50).
Many of Seoul's 'love motels' have moved upscale, and offer good value if you don't mind the slightly naughty feel. Jelly Hotel looks like a regular hotel save the theatrical touches in rooms ranging from Bali-resort style to princess. The best has a full-size pool table and a heart-shaped spa (00 82 553 4737; jellyhotel.com; Gangnamgu; from £50).
Sleep Rak-Ko-Jae is a beautifully restored hanok. Rooms feature exquisite jade floors and wooden detailing and use of the mudwalled sauna is included. It's also worth ordering the excellent dinner and partaking in the tea ceremony (00 82 742 3410; rkj.co.kr; Bukchon; from £140).
A discreet entrance - look for the rock sticking out of the wall - sets the Zen minimalist tone for the gorgeous Park Hyatt Seoul. The décor combines the high tech with traditional finishes such as Burmese oak, stone flooring and furniture and granite baths (00 82 201 61234; seoul.park.hyatt.com; Daechi 3, dong- Gangnam-gu; from £170).
When to go
With dry, cold winters and humid summers, Seoul is best in spring and autumn. From April to mid-May, cherry trees blossom and you can catch the Hi Seoul arts festival (hiseoulfest.org). September to November is temperate and the autumn foliage is spectacular.
The efficient subway costs from 50p (smrt.co.kr). Rechargeable touch-and-go T-Money cards are available at stations for £1.50. For English-speaking drivers, flag down the orange International Taxis (internationaltaxi.co.kr).
Asiana and Korean Air fly direct from London Heathrow (£640; flyasiana.com). Airport buses run to downtown Seoul (£5-£7; 1½ hours; kallimousine.com). A taxi costs £35 to the centre and takes about an hour.