City Stopover: Seoul, South Korea

Section written with help from two Seoul sisters – Thanks!

CITY: Seoul

COUNTRY: South Korea

YEAR OF TRAVEL: 2010 to Present

HOW WE GOT THERE: Cathay Pacific and Korean Air

FLIGHT HIGHLIGHTS: Fine trips. Both airlines sometimes use older equipment on local legs – so air quality gets a little hot and stuffy. International flights, though, are good to go. Also, we don’t know why but passengers to Korea occasionally seem to like taking off their shoes mid-flight.

CITY BRIEFING:

We’ve always said it . . . SEOUL = GOOD-LOOKING PEOPLE, TASTY FOOD, KILLER SHOPPING, and FUN TIMES. This Asian capital may be halved in two by the Han river – but that just doubles the grins. Seoul is very comfortable, has something for everyone, and is the perfect get-away from the overload of Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. The only downside: Not a lot of English is spoken here and traffic can sometimes be a bore. But the shops, tourist attractions, restaurants, and nightlife options are pleasing and plentiful – and certainly make up for a little gridlock and a smidge of culture shock.

Also, Seoul is not hard on the wallet. Food is priced well. Transportation is affordable. A 35-minute cab ride will only set you back around US$10. As you shop, you will find fantastic steals – amazing quality non-branded goods and market items.

Try to avoid buying branded goods and luxury items as import duty and luxury tax will double prices – stop by tax-free Hong Kong for those!

TIPS: 

The city is about an hour bus ride from Incheon Airport. Airport Limousine buses (US$8) are right outside the arrival doors, and run frequently to area hotels.

The KAL Limousine buses are more expensive at US$15.

Taxis into the city may set you back US$60 or so, depending on the traffic.

As noted above, Seoul is divided into two sections – North and South of the Han River.

Transportation — Taxis during rush hour can be a never-ending nightmare. 8 am to 9 am and 6pm to 7:30 pm are the worst time to hail a cab. The subway is a nice and easy alternative, working on a color and number system if you can’t read Korean. We’ve never used it before, but Korean taxis all have an interpreter service on radio – try it out and let us know if it works.

Also, and this seems strange, but forget street names in Seoul. They only exist in the city for official purposes. Most residents don’t know them. Instead, directions are based on landmarks or specific buildings. If you get lost, try asking someone of Gen X or Y for directions.

The city is safe, but if an English-speaking woman is super-friendly at the Hyatt Hotel (especially at the JJ Mahoney’s Bar) or at a bar in the Itaewon section of town, she’s probably “working”.

FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOODS (with dining and sightseeing tips):

Myeongdong (north of the river) – Myeongdong is one of the most happening shopping areas in Seoul at the moment. Tell the taxi driver “Myeongdong – Lotte Department Store” and he’ll get you there. The main shopping street is across the street from Lotte Department Store (1 Sogong-dong, +82 2 771 2500). Also, there are a lot of things to eat here – everything from Burger King to Korean BBQ.

If you’re hungry, Han-woo-ri, a Shabu Shabu restaurant is on the 11th floor of the Lotte Department Store. To satisfy your sweet-tooth visit OSULLOC, a traditional Korean dessert and tea house, in the food court.

Dongdaemun (North of the river, 10 to 15 minute taxi ride from Myeongdong) – Ask your driver to take you to “Doota.” Doota (Seoul-si Jung-gu Euljiro 6-ga 18-12, +82 2 3398 2386) is a shopping mall that’s, no kidding, opened 24 hours. This is mega shopping — cheap, trendy stuff, but good quality. Note: The mall is more crowded actually after midnight.

Namdaemun (north of the river, very close from the Lotte Hotel) – Also, ask your driver to take you to “Namdaemun-Shi-Jang.” This is more of a traditional Asian style open street market – wander into some of the basement stores for cool Asian jewelry.

Gyeongbokgung (north of the river, near Samcheongdong and Insadong, 10 to 15-minute taxi ride from Myeongdong) – This is the location of the palace where the last king lived.

Samcheongdong (north of the river, walk from Gyeongbokgung, a 10 minute walk) – This is old part of town near the Blue House, which is Korea’s White House. The streets in the area retain the charm of days gone by – but it’s becoming very hip. There are galleries, cool cafes, yummy restaurants and some groovy shops. From Samcheondong, it’s an easy walk to Insadong.

Insadong (north of the river, a short walk from Samcheongdong) – The traditional shopping street for Korean antiques, Asian jewelry and souvenirs, many tea houses and restaurants, as well as art galleries. Check out Min’s Club, or “Min-Ga-Da-Hun”, a gorgeous restaurant with European-Korean fusion food set up in a historic house belonging to the Last Empress’s descendants. (66-7 Gyeongun-dong, Jongno-gu, +82-2-733-2967)

NOTE: NEAR INSADONG AND SAMCHEONGDONG IS THE SECRET GARDEN . . . Nope, the Secret Garden is not a musical. It’s a revered forest surrounding Changduk Palace, another old royal spot. Leave your high heels at home for this one, though, and wear comfy walking shoes instead.

Changduk Palace is one of our favorite places. The Last Crown Prince’s wife lived there until the 1990s. The wife was actually Japanese, from an arranged marriage during Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The Secret Garden is only open for guided tours – English language at 1030AM and 230PM for the Palace grounds, and 1130AM and 230PM for the Secret Garden itself. Just show up at the gates of “Changduk-goog” or “Bee-won” 15 minutes beforehand. (Go to http://english.visitkorea.or.kr for more details.)

Itaewon (north of the river, not really connected with any other cool regions, a 15-minute taxi ride from Myeongdong) – Itaewon is where American GI’s used to go to meet local ladies. Right now, it’s pretty hip – lots of things to eat, and if you like knock-offs or tube socks or custom-made clothes or antiques, this is your place. Also, for those of you who are interested, there are some gay clubs here. Kindly tell your diver to head to Itaewon, and he or she will drop you off on the main street.

Also, for those of you art lovers, there’s the Leeum Museum in Itaewon (Seoul-si Yongsan-gu Hannam 2-dong 747-18, +82-2-2014-6900~1). This is the private collection owned by the Samsung Family. We believe this museum might contain the most beautiful collection of international contemporary art in the world. The museum is housed in a cool architectural setting and has a kickin’ coffee shop to boot. Lots of cool cafes and eateries have sprung up around the museum, as well. Passion 5 on the main drag is one example (Seoul-si Yongsan-gu Hannam-dong 729-74, +82-2-2071-9507).

Hongdae (north of the river, the northwestern corner of Seoul, in an area of its own, 30 minute taxi ride from Myeondong, under US$10) – This is the place for our club-lovin’ friends. There are lots, LOTS, of clubs here, and also many nice little cafes. Mostly, though, it’s famous for its clubs, especially on Friday nights. A fun place. 10 minutes away is “E-dae,” otherwise known as Ewha Woman’s University. This is a good area for women’s clothing or chatting up some beautiful Korean college girls.

NOW . . . SOME AREAS SOUTH OF THE RIVER . . .

Shinsadong (south of the river, a 35 minute taxi ride from Myeongdong, a little over US$10) – This section of town does have a street name. It’s called “Shinsadong Garosu-gil,” literally, “tree-lined street.” Once there you’ll find boutique clothing shops, galleries, as well as some of the best coffee shops in town.

Cheongdamdong/Apkujung (south of the river, a ten minute taxi ride from Shinsadong, and just a couple of bucks) – Tell the cab driver to drop you off across the “Galleria Department Store.” Here you will find all ranges of boutique stores, cafes and popular restaurants. Wander through the back alleys behind UniQlo to find more fab bars and eateries. Walk through the side street next to Paris Croissant across the Galleria to begin your adventures. Also check out Dosan Park, or “Dosan Gong Won.”

FAVORITE ACCOMODATIONS:

The Lotte Hotel in the Myeondong section of Seoul is one of our top picks (Seoul-si Jung-gu Sogong-dong 1, +82-2-771-1000).

Also, right across the street is the Ibis Myeondong Hotel, a more affordable option. (59-5 Myeong-dong 1Ga Jung-gu, +82 -2-6361-8888).

For those looking for other options, there’s the Grand Hyatt, The Shilla (which is one of our faves, too), the Millennium Hilton, and The Westin Chosun. They are all conveniently located on the north side of town.

OTHER SIGHTSEEING RECOMMENDATIONS:

* The DMZ (40-something Parallel, +82-4077-4077, www.dot.dashdashdash.dotdot) . . . OUR ODE TO ZAGAT . . . Atten-hut! Prepare to have your “mind blown” at this “international hot spot.” While some might say it’s a “tourist trap for policy wonks,” most contend it’s “a rollercoaster ride without any rollers or any coasters.” (How to get there: Tours arranged through most major hotels; What to bring: Your passport, a little packet of courage and a pair of barbed wire cutters (Just kidding); What to avoid: North Korea and the scheduled bus stop at the touristy, overpriced amethyst market.)

* Everland – The Samsung-run theme park is about two hours outside of Seoul. It’s ranked as one of the best in the world, and some locals say it’s bigger and better than Disneyland. Near Everland is Korea Folk Village, Korea’s answer to Williamsburg, Virginia.

* Casinos – They are two gambling halls in Seoul for non-Korean passport holders only. Locations: The Millennium Hilton Hotel (North Side, a 15 minute taxi ride from Myeongdong) ; Sheraton Walker Hill (North Side, a 60 minute ride from Myeondong).

* A  Han River Cruise . . . “I’m on a boat!” . . .

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As we travel here frequently, expect more updates soon.

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Note: Please check with each venue for address and hours of operation.

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Other Entries In Our “Stopover” Series:

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Barbados

Frankfurt, Germany

Hong Kong SAR

Istanbul, Turkey

London, England

Nairobi, Kenya

New Delhi, India

* Stockholm, Sweden 

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Photo courtesy of thiti/Shutterstock.com