Seoul is a city that never sleeps. From the first moment you land in the South Korean capital, you’ll notice how everything is connected.
Leave your Wi-Fi woes at the door – Seoul has become an increasingly popular tourist destination largely thanks to its overload of futuristic dynamism. From the gleaming, fashion-conscious Gangnam, Itaewon’s global melting pot of diverse cultures, the millennial creative Hongdae to South Korea’s traditional and spiritual heartland of Jongno, here’s how to get the most out of 48 hours in this frenetic city.
Accommodation options in Seoul are plentiful, especially around the tourist hub of Myeondong. Those looking for budget-friendly options will be spoiled for choice; the Ekonomy Hotel is located in the heart of Myeongdong, providing the perfect base for travelling throughout the city. Ibis Ambassador is another popular choice with tourists looking for comfort at a decent price. Travellers who prefer a traditional Korean aesthetic, with refined modern elegance, will find the Shilla Hotel matches their discerning taste. Only 2km from Myeongdong, you’ll be transported to a serene haven, with the surrounding Janchungdan Park and views of Namsan Mountain.
Seoul has a thriving café culture, though it’s Australia’s own Bills that headlines the growing brunch scene. The Lotte World spot is especially popular, so head early as locals combine brunch with a day of high-fashion shopping. Staying true to a minimalist and all-white aesthetic, Bills’ famous ricotta hotcakes are the most popular item, while the Full Aussie packs a hearty punch.
If you’re craving a truly authentic Seoul experience, Gwangjang Market is the place to go. Seoul’s oldest traditional market offers hundreds of street food stalls serving everything from fried bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), fiery, red-pepper laced ttokbeokki (spicy stir-fried rice cake), fresh seafood and my personal favourite, yukhoe (Korean beef tartare).
Cooked and served by gentle ajummas, don’t be surprised if the locals initiate conversations while you eat – an elderly man even fed me food to try! Gwangjang Market is also renowned for silk, linen and hand-crafted goods so if you’re looking to grab a bargain, wear your haggling hat.
After hearty streetfood treats, you might want to stretch your legs with a leisurely walk down the Han River, or if you wish to put the ‘pedal to the metal’ take a ride on the extensive bike paths. A convenient place to start is Banpo Hangang Park where you can cross the Jamsudaegyo (Bridge) and head eastward to Seoul Forest. The rental fee starts at KRW 3,000 ($3.50AUD) for a single bicycle and KRW 6,000 ($6.90AUD) for a tandem bike, so take the opportunity to bask in Seoul’s sunset while cycling through its riverscape.
Seoulites begin their evenings with drinks before congregating for the singular event of BBQ. Bulldog Pub is a great place to start, with its convenient location, well-priced drinks and friendly staff.
For something a little more relaxed, head to cocktail bar Southside Parlour, opened up by three Texas natives. It’s not hard to see why it’s a post-work favourite, thanks to a welcoming ambiance and comfort Tex-Mex fare. Feel free to challenge a stranger on the vintage video arcade machine or to a game of chess.
After whetting your whistle, it’s time to prepare for the Korean BBQ experience. KBBQ is perfect for group-dining where drinking games are mandatory, ‘Flick the Soju Bottle-Lid’ being the easiest. Maple Tree House stands out with its premium cuts of meat and its interior of green soju-bottle walls and pallid wooden tables just work. Enjoy the theatre of glistening pieces of meat being expertly grilled and cut up by the wait staff as you tuck into complimentary banchan (Korean side dishes). The Jeju Pork Belly is a winner and it would not be KBBQ without Soju but beware it’s a drink that sneaks up on you.
Seoul’s nightlife rewards the nocturnal ones where kicking-on till the morning is the norm. Club Octagon draws local and international party-goers thirsty for bass-thumping EDM, while hip-hop fans should head to the intimate, industrial Cakeshop. If jazz is your thing, make a beeline for the 11:30pm Friday show at All That Jazz.
Kick off your second morning at Original Pancake House in Itaewon with American diner classics with American-sized proportions. A favourite was the jalapeño hash and pancake combination, a perfect mix of sweet and savoury. It also has an unlimited coffee refill option for KRW5000 ($5.80AUD), providing the caffeine needed for another huge day in Seoul.
In contrast to Seoul’s futuristic character, travellers can head to Insadong for a peek into Korea’s traditional arts and culture. A hotbed for folk arts and crafts, lose yourself in the narrow alleyways or find your moment of tranquility in Shin Old Tea House. A traditional Korean tea house, embrace the floor seating and dim lighting while tasting regional tea specialties.
O’Sulloc Tea House is a renowned teahouse from Jeju Island, where you can sample green-tea based beverages and desserts ranging from a Green Tea Mojito and an exceptional Green Tea Bingsoo with sweet red beans and condensed milk. You’ll also be able to pick up some neat take-home gifts, like the peanut butter-like Green Tea Spread.
While Gwangjang Market offers a traditional street market experience, Myeongdong Food Street provides a more contemporary take on popular Korean street food. With hundreds of options, prepare to try everything from Gyeran-Bbang (Egg Bread), countless of cheese variations such as the highly addictive Baked Cheese Sticks (skewered sticks of grilled rice cakes and mozzarella cheese with a mystery sauce). For those with a sweet tooth, fall in love with the skyscraper-sized soft serves.
Hongdae is the centre of Seoul’s youth culture, with a quirky, kitsch atmosphere makes it a must-visit destination. If interacting (and snapping some amazing Instagram shots) with illusory paintings sounds sounds like fun, check out The Trick Eye Museum, where you can become a part of the art for KRW 15,000 ($17.35AUD).
Animal-themed cafes are a fresh fad in Seoul, and while cat cafes are common around the world, you’ll find some more peculiar spots around here. The Meerkat Café, for example, is a place to chill with meerkats for the price of beverage.
It’s your last night in Seoul so why not dine in style? We’d recommend JUNGSIK, which has driven gastronomical innovation with an artful mix of Korean and Western flavours for more than eight years. Here, hatted chef Yim Jung Sik shows off his skills for capturing the essence of local and seasonal ingredients in bold, new arrangements. The best part? The price tag is remarkably reasonable, with the degustation setting you back KRW 180,000 ($208AUD). Land and sea are both represented, with dishes such as the slow-cooked octopus and Jungsik’s modern interpretation of banchan continually delighting the restaurant’s devotees.
After Jungsik’s culinary adventure, visit Alice Cheongdam, one of the more interesting concept bars to pop-up in Seoul. Alice is a dreamlike retreat from the city’s glittering neon-lights and constant buzz. Drawing inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, find the rabbit sign, walk down the steps and past a flower shop to find an intimate basement room. Resplendent with grand Victorian décor and homages to Carroll’s fantasy, signatures such as the “Alice Boutique” come in an elephant-like serving glass where the trunk also serves as the straw.
Seoul takes it up a notch on Saturday night and if you’re into popping bottles and the table service life, ARENA in Nonhyeon is the place to be seen. But if you want do it the proper Seoul way, you’ll end up at the noreabang dropping soju-bombs till the wee hours doing your best K-Pop star impression.
For a completely extravagant and quintessentially Seoul experience, head to Luxury Su Noreabang. Set in a dollhouse-like building with floral wallpaper and chandeliers, Luxury has a decent selection of English songs and with free ice cream on tap, how could you say no? (Tip: Forget ‘Gangnam Style’, it’s all about ‘Fantastic Baby’).
It’s impossible to experience a city like Seoul in its entirety in 48 hours but as you leave the city with memories of neon-lights, blaring K-Pop and delicious food you’ll be back hungry for more.
(Lead image: Seongsan Bridge and the Han River/Flickr CC)[qantas_widget code=ICN]Book your flights to Seoul today.[/qantas_widget]