Thursday, Oct. 09, 2008

Park Hyatt

This sleek, newish, 24-story glass tower, set south of the Han River near the COEX convention and shopping center, caters to Seoul's nouveaux riches and visiting business travelers. The sleek, minimalist interiors — in both the common areas and the 185 rooms — are airy and punctuated by Korean antiques. The guest rooms, with their floor-to-ceiling windows, polished wood floors and headboards, and baths and shower stalls made from rough-cut granite, have a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright–meets–Zen master aesthetic; all have luxurious extras like Bang & Olufsen stereos, Aesop toiletries, and Egyptian cotton linens. The hotel's fitness center is one of the best in the city, with an indoor pool and treadmills overlooking the city skyline; the spa has plunge pools, steam rooms, and iron-handed masseuses. There are three on-site lounges; our pick is the Timber House, decorated like a traditional Korean hanok (house); stop in for sake and soju cocktails, fresh sashimi, and (on many nights) live jazz performers.

Insider Tip: If you don't have much time for sightseeing, consider taking advantage of the hotel's "Culture at the Park" package; it provides a guided whirlwind tour of Seoul's palaces, markets, and art district.

Room to Book: The Diplomatic Suite. Why? The gas fireplace adds a flickery-flame ambience the others rooms don't have. The Presidential Suite has one also, but its size may be overkill for most travelers.


Opened in 1996 as one of the first luxury hotels south of the Han River — when the Korean economy was flush with parvenu cash — the semi-pyramid-shaped Ritz-Carlton has an ostentatious vibe that seems a little dated by today's standards. The lobby, all marble pillars, garish chandeliers, and polished wainscoting, recalls an Elizabethan bordello; thankfully, though, the 375 newly renovated rooms are decorated in traditional Ritz-Carlton style (elegant pine furnishings, soothing-colored upholstery, crisp white linens). The hotel's six eateries run the gamut from casual (a deli and bakery) to elaborate (the Oksan Buffet has more than 150 dishes from around the world). The fitness center is most notable for its hinoki soaking tub, made from aromatic Japanese cypress that contains natural antibacterial agents and therapeutic minerals.

Insider Tip: If seeing shark-fin soup on the menu offends your sensibilities, you'll want to skip the on-site Chee Hong restaurant.

Room to Book: Rooms in the "Club Balcony Deluxe" category come as advertised, with private balconies (rare in this city) overlooking the Seoul skyline.

The Shilla

If hotel design were an Olympic sport, the Shilla would be the Michael Phelps of Seoul properties. Adjacent to the 23-acre, lushly landscaped Jangchungdan Park, where walking trails wind among pine trees and sculptures by Korean artists, the 465-room hotel provides luxurious seclusion in this otherwise extremely congested city. The rooms are decorated in an understated East-meets-West motif (with blond Euro-style wood furniture, eggshell-colored striped wallpaper, and sliding rice-paper window screens) and have both free high-speed wired and wireless connections, and free loaner mobile phones (a major plus since American cell phones don't work in Korea). The on-site health and fitness facilities include an outdoor pool — a rarity in Seoul — and a Guerlain Spa offering anti-aging treatments, Bouvier hydrotherapy, and even medical exams by graduates of the country's top medical university.

Insider Tip: Despite the fantastic cuisine at all four of the hotel's restaurants, the dining prices here are legendarily exorbitant. Consider eating out in the nearby neighborhoods where great local cuisine can be had at a fraction of the price and twice the local color.

Room to Book: Get any room facing Namsan, a small, forested mountain. Rooms in the opposite direction have too much light pollution from the neon cityscape they overlook.

W Seoul

The hippest hotel in town (as all W's aim to be) occupies an angular, 14-story glass building overlooking the Han River, 30 minutes east of downtown Seoul. The 252 guest rooms are categorized with hypey, not-very-useful names (Wow, Wonderful, Fabulous, and Cool are a few of the designations) — each with individual features like molded, egg-shaped chairs, round platform beds, freestanding cylindrical tubs, and walk-in glass showers with rainforest showerheads and heated towel racks. The minimalist-chic WooBar, where mixologists sling creative cocktails till dawn, is one of the city's premier hot spots; those who've overindulged can head straight to the Away Spa for an herbal detox wrap or a yin-yang balancing facial.

Insider Tip: Bring Fido. The W is one of the only hotels in Korea where pets are welcome (rather than on the menu).

Room to Book: The Mega Suite, stylish enough for a fashion photo shoot and with expansive river views, is relatively affordable at $350 per night.

Westin Chosun

History buffs and captains of industry choose this centrally located hotel, which is walking distance from Korea's political and corporate halls of power (both modern and ancient). Built in 1914, the hotel has the longest history of any in the city, but a complete renovation in 2004 has brought the property into the modern age. The 453 guest rooms now include chic curvilinear settees and padded headboards, as well as up-to-the-minute features like hypoallergenic carpets and electronic in-room checkout (no reception desk visit required). The Ninth Gate restaurant is a choice venue for Continental cuisine, and the wine bar is one of the best stocked in the city.

Insider Tip: Take advantage of the premium espresso coffee machines in the rooms. Although downtown Seoul has plenty of coffee shops, finding one open early in the morning is an impossible task.

Room to Book: Ask for a room overlooking the historic Seoul City Hall — which might not exist for much longer. The landmark building is facing demolition to make way for a controversial new government complex.