When I mentioned to my Korean hairdresser in Christchurch that I was heading to Seoul, his response was hardly reaffirming. “Why would you want to go there?”
Sure, Seoul doesn’t enjoy the reputational hype of Tokyo, Shanghai or Bangkok, but as a quick stopover or side-trip, the city struck me as immensely engaging.
Arriving into Seoul by fast train from Incheon Airport, one of the first imposing landmarks to stop me in my tracks was Namdaemun, the city’s South Gate, resplendently restored after being bombed during the Korean War.
The gate forms part of Seoul’s old city walls, of which 70 per cent are remarkably intact. Over 600 years old, the 18km circuit wraps around the city core and threads together the four guardian mountains that keep watch over Seoul. The city continues rebuilding the missing chunks but if you’re up for a power-walk, in every sense, head to the Bukak-san section.
The highest of the four peaks at 342m, it stands guard over Korea’s seat of power and the summit viewpoint overlooks the Blue House, Korea’s splendid presidential palace.
There’s a variety of royal palaces clustered around the central city including Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s premier palace which has performed a Phoenix-like resurrection, from the cinders of destruction. It was from here that the Joseon Dynasty ruled the roost for 600 years, before the Japanese muscled in.
A highly theatrical changing of the guard is performed daily, purely as a patriotic fist-pump, around the entrance gate of Gwanghwamun. The blaze of colourfully-costumed regalia is loved by the locals as much as the selfie-stick toting tourists. Gyeongbokgung translates as the Palace of Shining Happiness, a colossal compound of astounding architecture, ornamental gardens and vivid history.
It previously contained 800 buildings and 200 gates. The Joseon kings had several thousand servants at their disposal within the royal household, including 500 ladies-in-waiting and 400 eunuchs.
Trying to get your head around the sheer extravagance of this imperial relic is best decoded with a good guide.
I explored the palace as part of a city tour with VIP Travel, who run a great-value and illuminating guided sightseeing service. www.vviptravel.com
Perfectly perched in the heart of Seoul’s cultural district, Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Namdaemun delivers a distinct experience, with the carnival colour of Namdaemun Market, right across the road.
Just one year old, this engaging property still has new-hotel-smell, and elegantly furnished with all the creature comforts you’d expect from an ultra-contemporary hotel. Wi-fi is free and lightning-fast, guestrooms are spacious and the city views are electrifying.
You’ll enjoy 24-hour access to the generously equipped fitness centre, outstanding concierge services, impeccable hospitality and all-day dining at Momo Café.
If you want to push the boat out, upgrade to executive lounge access, where you can enjoy an indulgent and exclusive space loaded with privileges, headlined by complimentary Happy Hour drinks and meal-worthy bites, showcasing a wide palette of Asian culinary delights. courtyard.marriott.com
The streets of Seoul are packed with culinary delights and a one-stop-shop for bargain buys and great bites is the Namdaemun Market, a frenetic night-and-day emporium that sprawls for blocks and is Korea’s biggest market.
Whether its clothing, accessories or handicrafts, each section comprises hundreds of stalls, spilling across pedestrianised streets.
The sensory overload is most graphically illustrated by the profusion of food stalls, sizzling with binge-worthy things on sticks and in bowls, which will soon challenge your stomach space.
Best bites include odeng, fishcake skewers seasoned in spring-onion soup; tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes that are revved up with red-pepper paste; and dakkochi, the ubiquitous barbequed chicken on skewers in a sticky, tangy sauce.
They are nearly as pervasive as kimchi, Korea’s great staple of salted, seasoned and fermented vegetables.
Don’t leave town without trying Korean doughnuts, hotteok, spicy pancakes stuffed with sunflower seeds, peanuts, red beans and honey. Namdaemun Market is centrally located in Myeong-dong, which is Seoul’s shopaholic mecca. All of the global fashion heavyweights are here, alongside chic Asian faves and the temple-like department stores.
Pop into Mitsukoshi, the Harrods of Seoul, and the city’s oldest department store with an opulent food hall in the basement. My local guide told me that 20 pr cent of Seoul’s women have facial surgery. They binge on cosmetic perfectionism and you’ll see a surfeit of specimens in Mitsukoshi.
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