The South Korean capital city, awash in economic exuberance, is developing as a design, fashion and technology centre, and breaking out as a key business hub.

Just like a Korean-built Samsung or LG appliance, Seoul gets faster, brighter and more user-friendly with every new version.

The South Korean capital city, awash in economic exuberance, is developing as a design, fashion and technology centre, and is breaking out as a key business hub. With the 2012 World Expo taking place in nearby Yeosu this summer, the city is sure to snag more of the international limelight.  

Seoul is a bustling, sprawling city of 10 million, ringed by mountains and divided by the Han River. The traditional city centre, Gangbuk, is located on the northern side of the Han while the fast-growing, younger part of the city, Gangnam, lies to the south. A series of 27 bridges and a modern, easy-to-use subway system (with onboard announcements in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean) keeps this modern megalopolis connected.

About 45 minutes west of the city is Seoul’s state-of-the-art Incheon International Airport (ICN), which spent the last seven years at the top of the prestigious Airport Service Quality Awards from Airports Council International. As a testament to Korea’s new focus on the fashion industry, ICN landed the world’s first Louis Vuitton airport boutique in 2011. The airport is the hub for Korean Air, which has a new fleet of Airbus A380s, true lie-flat business class seats and a provocative global advertising campaign — all of which are giving Asian service standard bearers like Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific a run for their money. Locals refer to ICN as simply “Incheon” to distinguish it from the older Gimpo airport, which offers flights to mostly domestic airports, and to a handful of cities in nearby China and Japan.

For the somewhat lengthy journey from Incheon to central Seoul, passengers can take the new Airport Railroad Express or ride in one of the comfortable coaches that drop off passengers at their hotels -- a better option for those arriving with heavy luggage.


The 465-room Shilla Seoul rests serenely at the top of the city’s hotel hierarchy. CEOs, diplomats and celebrities are drawn to its elegant design, central location and white glove service (and its free wi-fi connections). Four design firms were hired to revamp the rooms at the massive (and massively popular) 1,120-room Lotte Hotel Seoul — allowing guests to choose between four different room designs. The venerable 605-room Westin Chosun Seoul, known for its gracious, nearly-impeccable service standards and central location, has been around since 1914 in many iterations, the latest being a modern 20-storey building. The elegant Ritz-Carlton, Seoul, the newly renovated JW Marriott and the convenient Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas hotels lie on the south side of the Han, which is closer to the city’s Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre, and near the headquarters of big name corporations such as Hyundai, Samsung and Kia Motors.

Since land is at such a premium in Seoul’s dense central core, there are few new-from-the-ground-up hotels. But plenty of existing hotels have received modern makeovers in recent years. Located near City Hall, the Plaza emerged in 2010 after a complete re-do by Italian designer Guido Ciompi. Even though many of its 400 rooms are smallish, they feel trendy despite the gray building’s drab 1970s exterior. If you are attending one of the big exhibitions at the Coex Centre, stay at the sleek 185-room Park Hyatt Seoul across the street. Bright rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwoods and spa-like bathrooms that take design cues from the hotel’s popular rooftop gym and spa. Young urbanites also head to the 253-room W Seoul-Walkerhill hotel, located on a hillside on the eastern edge of the downtown area.

Expense account
Many of the best restaurants for business-class lunches or celebratory dinners are located in Seoul’s large western-style hotels. For example, Michelin-starred celebrity chef Pierre Gagnaire recently opened the opulent, Parisian-style Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul atop the Lotte Hotel in 2008. Similarly, the elegant Shilla hotel offers sumptuous buffets by day and an upscale French experience by night at its popular Continental rooftop restaurant. Most of the 21 upscale restaurants in the sprawling Seoul Finance Center -- including Western-style steakhouses, Indian cuisine, traditional Korean fare such as bibimbap (a warm mixed rice dish) and Japanese sushi -- are perfect choices for lunch or dinner with colleagues or clients.

Off the clock
To beat jet lag and get some fresh air, take a short trek to the 240m-tall N Seoul Tower on the top of Namsan Mountain, smack in the middle of town. The 360-degree views (best at twilight) will help establish your bearings among the urban sprawl. (Ask your hotel concierge about the best days/times to go to avoid crowds.)

After a few days in this hectic city, cool your heels and sooth your mind with a stroll along the serene six kilometre Cheonggyecheon stream, once covered over by development, but resuscitated in 2005 as an urban park in the middle of Seoul’s bustle.

Futurists with some extra time on their hands should check out Songdo, Korea’s “city of the future”, connected by a bridge to Incheon Airport. It officially opened in 2009 and is already home to 22,000 people. By 2015, the master-planned, sustainable city should have more than 1,000 new buildings.

Go local
To get a glimpse of what life is like for locals, do what they do: shop! During Seoul’s muggy summer or frigid winter days, spend some time in the city’s many urban shopping malls, most of which are conveniently located on top of key subway stations. The newest, flashiest mall is the enormous, light-filled, glass-roofed Times Square, which has an almost indoor/outdoor feel. The popular Lotte World mall is a combination shopping mall and indoor amusement park. Business travellers in town for conferences and exhibitions will likely find their way into the Coex mall — Asia’s largest underground mall.

At night, join in with the locals at Seoul’s diverse outdoor markets, such as Dongdaemun and Myeong-dong, both known for food as well as fashion. Namdaemun is the city’s oldest market — its stalls are packed with everything from electronics and clothing to pork and kimchi. If you are looking for the perfect souvenir, check out the Insadong craft market.

Don’t do this!
Do not assume your mobile phone will work as easily in Korea as it does elsewhere. While cellular phone systems in most countries now use GSM technology, South Korea uses the less-common CDMA platform, which may require renting a phone or buying a special SIM card. Be sure to check with your mobile phone provider before your trip to determine coverage.