The Soul of Seoul
Once a quiet hermit kingdom known as the Land of Morning Calm, South Korea has made an astonishing rise from war-torn dictatorship to economic titan — and in recent years, it’s only picked up the pace. Two years ago, the nation had its largest-ever protests, leading to the peaceful, democratic removal of the president. It then successfully hosted the largest Winter Olympics of all time. Now, some believe Korea will become the site of a peace deal unprecedented in human history.
But this is more than an economic and political exemplar. Seoul, the capital of the most wired nation on earth, is also a tech mecca that’s home to global brands like Samsung and LG as well as scrappy AI labs, VR startups that are learning to read human emotions and public, collaborative work spaces. It’s the Silicon Valley of Asia.
An architectural delight, Seoul offers works ranging from Zaha Hadid’s hyper-modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza to Gyeongbok Palace, full of old-world elegance. As a culinary powerhouse, the city has 24 Michelin restaurants, a street food culture that can’t be beat, a booming craft beer scene and the world’s best baguettes (yes, really).
Whether it’s brunch in a pop-up bistro, boutique shopping or soaking one’s feet in a thermal spa, Seoul has something for everyone — all serviced by one of the world’s finest airports, Incheon International.
Experts Weigh In
To give you a guided tour of this vibrant city, we spoke to local Sohee Kim and longtime resident Daniel Tudor for insights on the best things to do and places to see.
Sohee is a Seoul native, born and bred, and is currently in graduate school for accounting. She loves anything outdoorsy, especially hiking and kayaking, and is a competitive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner.
Daniel Tudor is the former Korea correspondent for The Economist, the author of a number of books on the country including "Korea: The Impossible Country" and "A Geek in Korea: Discovering Asia’s New Kingdom of Cool," and the co-founder of The Booth, a small chain of craft beer pubs in Seoul.
Let our local guides show you the way, and you’ll be settled like a native in no time.
Best Place to Go for Live Music
For a night of live music, Sohee says few places can compare to the Hongdae area. Named after the local Hongik University, the country’s best art school, this neighborhood is full of students with a discerning taste for good music, and is subsequently a great spot to explore if you’re looking for a live show. Sohee recommends clubs such as Queen Bar, Rolling Hall and DGBD.
Daniel’s first thoughts drift to Hongdae as well, but he prefers the laid-back vibe of a pocket bar or the chilled-out, basement atmosphere of a place like Strange Fruit, one of his all-time favorites.
Best Place to Nerd Out At
There’s the National Science Museum, the Seoul Museum of Art or any number of trendy new galleries along the winding streets of Insa-dong, which is chock-full of tea houses in case you’d like to stop in for a cup between viewing exhibitions.
But for Sohee, the best place to nerd out is at one of several city branches of the Kyobo Book Centre, Korea's largest chain of bookstores. She says she loves going to see people studiously working or just lazily browsing.
Daniel's pick is the Seoul Animation Center, always a great place to check out the latest in manhwa (Korean anime) or maybe catch a film festival.
Best Fancy Dining Spot
The 3-star Michelin restaurants Gaon and La Yeon are popular draws, as are any of the restaurants around the palace offering traditional court food. But Sohee says her favorite spot for fine dining is Bistro Seoul near Gwangwhamun, in the heart of the city. “It serves traditional dishes,” she says, “and it’s close to Kyunghee Palace, so you can take a nice walk outside after.”
Daniel prefers the courtyard quiet of Dugahun, the avant-garde Italian fare at Paolo di Maria or the aptly named Walking on the Cloud, a European restaurant situated at the top of the 63 Building — the food is great, he says, but go for the views of the city.
Best Cheap and Greasy Dining
A classic Korean comfort food is the sundae (or soondae), a type of blood sausage made by stuffing steamed intestines with minced meat, rice and vegetables. Traditionally consumed on special occasions, these days it’s enjoyed year-round. “The Sundae near Sinrim Station,” says Sohee, “only costs about 10,000 won [$9.39] for two people and you get huge portions. It's greasy and filling.”
As for Daniel, he says he doesn’t often go for cheap and greasy grub but that when he does, Chinese food in Daerim or Travel Maker in Hongdae — which excels at American breakfast — are his go-tos.
Wildest Night in the City
Here again, Sohee points to Hongdae, which has long been one of the top three neighborhoods in the city for nightlife — the other two being Gangnam and Itaewon. But Gangnam is a bit pricey and many of Itaewon’s attractions have a more Western feel. For a Korean nightlife experience that won’t break the bank, she says Hongdae is definitely the place to go.
Daniel says things can get pretty wild at after-hours clubs in Gangnam — like Dstar, a popular spot for house and hip-hop dancing.
Best Cup of Joe
There is no question, Sohee says, that the best brew in Seoul is served up at Kalas Coffee in Mapo-gu, winner of the 2015 Korea Coffee Roasting Championship. The shop also has a number of YouTube videos for anyone interested in honing their skills, picking up the craft, or just mind-bathing in the meditative images of latte art or a Chemex pour being lovingly prepared.
Daniel’s favorite is Tailor Coffee in Yeonnam-dong, a basement hideout suffused with the smell of roasting beans, outfitted with California pop art, and offering some of the tastiest treats around. But be careful. Their espressos hit harder than a hammer.
Best Pint of Beer
The Korean craft beer scene is finding its own voice and there’s never been a better time to try a local pint.
This was the only one on the list where Sohee and Daniel agreed, with both selecting Magpie in Itaewon as the place to go for Korean handcrafted suds. “Korea doesn't do much micro-brewing,” Sohee said, “but this is one of those few great breweries.”
Daniel, whose 2012 article on Korean beer for The Economist kickstarted the microbrew revolution in South Korea, is the owner of a brew pub himself — The Booth, which serves pizza by the slice as well as delicious draught beer. “But I guess it's not cool to mention my own place,” he says, “so I'll say Magpie.”
Magpie’s latest concoctions include a red rye IPA titled Red Magick, a gose named The Ghost and a Baltic porter known as The First Train.
For all its many unusual sights, sounds and especially smells, Sohee says Dongdaemun Market is hard to beat when looking for a weird day out in the city. Encompassing over 30,000 specialty shops covering more than 10 blocks, this sprawling madness is a great place to find cheap socks, knock-off designer bags or exotic Asian fare — making it a paradise for bargain hunters, window-shoppers, foodies and Korean culture junkies alike.
If you want something even quirkier, Daniel suggests hopping on over to the Museum of Chicken Art in Bukcheon, to peruse a selection of sculptures, paintings and calligraphic works depicting our favorite feathered friend.
Sports Team to Root for (and Sports Team to Hate)
Baseball is a big deal in Korea, and Seoul is home to three baseball teams: the Doosan Bears, the LG Twins and the Nexen Heroes. “It’s fun to just pick a team and root for them,” Sohee says. Plus, Korean baseball stadiums are electric with activity. Outside drinks are allowed in to ballparks and spectators can even have outside food, such as fried chicken or pizza, delivered to their seats. After victory, fans often celebrate with soju or beer.
Daniel is not so neutral when it comes to choosing favorites. “The team to root for is Nexen Heroes,” he says, firmly. “And the team to hate, that’s maybe the LG Twins just because everyone else likes them." Daniel also frowns upon the rowdy nature of fans of the Kia Tigers, a baseball team based in nearby Gwangju. But diplomatically, he adds, "Whether you love or hate that is up to you!”
Best Spot for a Day Trip
About an hour out from Seoul by subway, right near the international airport in Incheon, is the country’s largest Chinatown — a great place for a day trip, according to Sohee. The sights and sounds are the closest one can get to the Middle Kingdom without venturing across the Yellow Sea, and the food is always phenomenal.
If you’d rather stick closer to downtown, Daniel suggests the Bugak Skyway walk, an 11.8-mile path that runs along the ridge of Bugak Mountain, leading up to the Palgakjeong pavilion, where visitors can take in a breathtaking view of the city. From there, Daniel says, it’s just a short walk down to Seochon Village for a pleasant bite to eat.
Best Place to Celebrate a Birthday
The creative team at Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon cooks up delectable Korean-Mexican fusion dishes, including kimchi carnitas fries and spicy bulgogi burritos, that make it an ideal spot for a birthday bash, according to Sohee. (Or just head there for Sunday lunch with a margarita the size of a soup bowl.) As Sohee likes to point out, “Even Barack Obama ate here when he visited.”
Daniel says he may be too old to party but that Wausan Road in Hongdae is probably the place to go. Featuring Club FF, Gr8 Hookah Bar and a number of other hot spots, this tiny alley stands out as one of the trendiest blocks in the neighborhood. And it’s perfect for birthday bar hopping, Daniel says, because “there are a million places to get drunk.”
Where to Go on a Rainy Day
Sohee says the best thing to do on a rainy day is to grab an umbrella and take a walk along the Han River, especially the area near Jamsu Bridge and Banpo Bridge, two structures built directly on top of each other. Banpo is the site of the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain, the world's longest bridge fountain with nearly 10,000 LED nozzles, creating a dazzling array of light and water every evening. “It’s pretty romantic at night,” says Sohee, “especially on a rainy day.”
When the summer monsoon season hits between June and September, Daniel says he likes to frequent Sophie Malt and Wine, a basement-level whisky bar in Yeonnam-dong that makes for a great place to brood during the outside gloom or just kick back for a few hours.
Best Place for Adventure
The Cheonggyecheon offers 6.8 miles of scenic walking along a stream that takes pedestrians through the center of the city. This $900 million urban renewal project opened in 2005 to great acclaim and quickly turned into one of the city's most beloved sites. “It’s fun to walk along the Cheonggyecheon,” says Sohee, “and just casually listen to the stream or take in different parts of the city.”
Daniel’s sense of adventure, however, adds a touch of risk. “A friend took me to the abandoned — that is, soon to be redeveloped — neighborhood by Ahyeon Station and we went into houses and up on roofs, one of which caved in when he tried to walk across it. Thankfully, he emerged from the house he fell into completely unscathed. I'm absolutely not suggesting you try that, though. But by all means, walk around the area. It's really interesting.”
Why Seoul is Objectively the Best City on Planet Earth
“It’s changing a lot,” says Sohee, “and it offers a lot of different things to do and see all in one place.” One of her favorite things about the city is the way it’s been able to maintain a balance between the old and new, despite undergoing so many rapid changes. “In some places, you will see a glimpse of the '70s and '80s. In other places, what you get looks more like the future.”
Meanwhile, Daniel hesitates to label Seoul as objectively the best but hastens to add that as someone who is easily bored, he never finds himself twiddling his thumbs in the city. And what’s more, “it's getting better all the time.”