South Korea’s capital is on the ascendancy, with its inimitable fashion and music scenes particularly attracting the attention of a global audience in recent years. As Seoul’s tourism industry booms, discover its intriguing blend of thoroughly modern skyscrapers and shopping malls alongside historic temples and crowded night markets.
1/6During the Lotus Lantern festival in May, the city is festooned with vibrant lanternsPhoto:
2/6The bright lights of downtown Seoul
3/6Discover Seoul’s rich history with a tour of Bukchon Hanok Village, an important area during the Joseon Dynasty some 600 years ago
4/6Take a tour of the 7th century Namhansanseong mountain fortress just south-east of Seoul to see the UNESCO World Heritage birthplace of King Onjo, the first ruler of the Baekje Kingdom Photo:
5/6Explore the peaceful grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace
6/6Catch a cable car up Namsan Hill to enjoy panoramic views across the city
During the Lotus Lantern festival in May, the city is festooned with vibrant lanterns
The bright lights of downtown Seoul
Discover Seoul’s rich history with a tour of Bukchon Hanok Village, an important area during the Joseon Dynasty some 600 years ago
Take a tour of the 7th century Namhansanseong mountain fortress just south-east of Seoul to see the UNESCO World Heritage birthplace of King Onjo, the first ruler of the Baekje Kingdom
Explore the peaceful grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace
Catch a cable car up Namsan Hill to enjoy panoramic views across the city
Things to do
We've chosen the must-see highlights of this fantastic city.
We've chosen the must-see highlights of this fantastic city.
Yido Pottery Gallery
Japanese ceramicist Yi Yoonshin is the creative force behind Yido Pottery Gallery, a ceramic-wares shop that produces handcrafted porcelain pieces. Stop by to browse the selection of exquisite ceramics, or head upstairs to its white-walled gallery on its top floor, where there are exhibitions showcasing contemporary crafts.
This humongous shopping complex houses everything you'd ever need. Its wide range of luxury brands and high street stores, a handful of restaurants, and the world’s largest permanent cinema screen attract diehard shoppers and movie-goers.
Place assumptions of Korean food to one side – at ‘molecular’ restaurant Jungsik, chef Jung Sik Yim boldly transforms his country’s culinary traditions into something determinedly modern. Ranked 10th in the annual list of Asia’s best restaurant, Yim’s use of traditional ingredients is far from conventional – instead, expect delicately deconstructed dishes like the crispy duck with kimchi or a green tea mousse. Don’t forget to select a bottle from the critically acclaimed wine list, or enlist the sommelier’s help and pay for a wine pairing.
Contemporary arts and culture
The late architect Zaha Hadid was responsible for Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the most Instagram-tagged location in Korea of 2015 and a striking symbol of Seoul’s modern attitude towards design. The neo-futuristic landmark in downtown Seoul features shops, exhibition spaces, a park on its roof, and restored parts of the ancient Seoul Fortress. Feeling inspired? Carry on to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, a $230 million art museum that opened in 2014. With ambitions to rival New York’s MoMA, it’s a formidable new star on the international art scene.
Cycling along the Han River
Pick up a bicycle from a rental kiosk and set off along the Han River, the fourth largest river in South Korea and an iconic symbol of the capital. Lined with bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, and public parks, the edge of the Han River is a scenic green space beloved by the city’s residents. Along the way, numerous kiosks and restaurants serve up a variety of food and drink to satiate your appetite.
The Market Kitchen & Larder
If you’re looking for a menu with lots of choices, The Market Kitchen’s spectacular selection of pan-Asian and international cuisine should be just the ticket. Fresh oysters, seafood and charcuterie cheese platters are just some of the delicacies on display; on Saturdays and Sundays, the champagne brunch is a decadent treat. Pressed for time? Grab a gourmet meal, prepared by the same chefs, from The Market Larder, a cosy grocer next door with a curated range of tasty items.
Seoul’s Fashion Week is always a favourite with street style photographers and for good reason – South Koreans take great pride and pleasure in their apparel. At Sem Eyewear, mass production is ignored in favour of old-fashioned artisanship as each piece of the brand’s exquisite eyewear is handcrafted from durable acetate. Spend some time designing a pair of glasses that are truly reflective of your style (and then maybe you can parade around in them next Fashion Week). From fridge magnets to geometric-patterned carpets, design buffs will delight in the beautiful selection of quirky pieces on sale at J’Aime Blanc. Long after you leave South Korea, the boutique’s zany pieces will serve as an apt reminder of the country’s approach to style.
Smack-bang in the center of Seoul stands Namsan Hill, an 860-foot peak that offers scenic vistas across the city. Visitors enjoy hiking and picnicking in the surrounding public park – and, for those less interested in exercise, a cable car can whizz you up. At the top, snap a picture of Namsan Tower, a communication and observation tower that marks the highest point in Seoul.
Seoul’s greatest historical hits
Step back in time at the unmissable Changdeokgung Palace. Built in the 15th-century, it is one of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ built during the Joseon Dynasty and considered the most beautiful. Its 87-acre garden is a particular highlight, the lotus pond, landscaped lawns and graceful trees providing a spot for quiet contemplation. At the 14th-century Seoul Fortress, originally built to protect the city against invaders, book a tour guide service to explore the winding walkways with a trained guide. And the Korean Demilitarized Zone, established to split the Korean peninsular in half after the Korean War, provides a fascinating look at the country’s more recent bloodshed. A number of tour operators offer half and full-day packages.
1-1 Cheongun-dong, Jongno-gu (Changuimun Info Center)
Seoul encourages late nights with an array of cocktail bars to suit any mood. As the sun sets, T Bar’s third-floor rooftop – innocuously located above a women’s tailor – offers oversized sofas on astroturf, great views, and a selection of tapas to snack on. Cafe Ronin is another intimate spot for a relaxed drink. Its mojito is particularly outstanding – the herbs used are homegrown to pack a minty punch. The much-lauded Charles H amps up the glamour in a speakeasy discreetly hidden away in the Four Seasons’ basement. Named for cocktail connoisseur and author Charles H. Baker, the bar has a cocktail list that pays tribute to the various cities that Baker once lived in, as well as a few other signature recipes.
Seoul Kimchi Academy
Sour, pickled kimchi is a staple of Korean cuisine so brush up on your skills at the grandly named Seoul Kimchi Academy. Overseen by a professional instructor, prepare to chop, mix and spread the paste on to cabbage leaves, then pack it up and take it home with you. After the 45 minute class, slip on a handbok – the traditional Korean dress – for an unmissable photo opportunity. Now say, “one, two, three, KIMCHIIII!”