Wednesday, Oct. 08, 2008


Seoul is the seat of government and it's as crowded and competitive, if more homogeneous, as any other developed megacity. Skyscrapers dwarf shanty towns, throngs of delivery men on motorcycles jockey with black Mercedes Benzes on the roads, and behind the straight major boulevards where multitudes of well-attired Seoulites shop at fancy boutiques and posh department stores, lies a maze of narrow alleyways filled with innumerable itty-bitty shops selling everything from dried squid to cell-phone paraphernalia. This bustling city has a lot to offer the first-time visitor, so when you visit the South Korean peninsula (which is technically an island because of the closed border with North Korea) make sure to hit some of the top tourist sites as well as places that are a bit more unorthodox.

1. Gyeongbok Palace

This former seat of power is probably Korea's most famous royal palace. It's tough to miss given its location at the northern end of Seoul's main boulevard, Sejongro, a stone's throw from the Blue House (the President's residence) and the U.S embassy. Gyeongbok Palace (closed Tuesday) was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. English tours are available about three times daily for visitors to learn more about Korea's architectural traditions and court customs. Give yourself at least an hour to stroll around the pavilions and halls within the palace's spacious walled grounds.

2. Bukchon Village

It's not hard to imagine the days of yore when you stroll through this utterly picturesque neighborhood. Flanked by two palaces — Gyeongbok Palace to the west and Changdeok Palace to the east — this village has the largest cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes or hanok in Seoul. Keep an eye out for the half-dozen or so alleys that have beautifully restored architectural features like small courtyards, decorative outer walls and dark tiled roofs. The neighborhood is also peppered with quaint cafés, art galleries and restaurants, including the popular Wood & Brick, which serves up divine lobster ravioli down the road from the Art Sonje Center gallery. The easiest way to get to Bukchon is to take subway line 3 to Anguk Station and take Exit 3.

3. Shinsegae Department Store

If you want to see Seoulites drop the equivalent of a couple of hundred dollars on a few melons or a handful of locally grown oranges, Shinsegae's flagship downtown store is the place to go. This is one of the "big three" department stores in the city (the other two are Lotte and Hyundai) and it's a dazzling emporium that sells all manner of merchandise. In the basement, Korean women jostle to buy prepared dishes and staples like fresh fish at the end of the day. The selection of Korean fare is mind-boggling; step up and sample Korea's beloved kimchi, a spicy cabbage traditionally fermented in huge jars dug into the earth. Upstairs, the city's uber-brand-conscious consumers snap up the latest Ferragamo shoes and Hermes silk scarves. On the rooftop, Shinsegae's new garden is also a welcome respite from the megacity's hubbub.

The store is directly across from the Bank of Korea on Chungmuro, between the Namdaemun market and the Myeongdong shopping district. Get here by taking subway line 4 to Hoehyun Station. Rival Lotte department store, about 10 minutes by foot down the road, also has an exotic grocery store and a popular food court.

4. Bugaksan

Mountains ring Seoul and one of the best to climb is Bugaksan, the peak behind the President's pad, Cheongwadae or Blue House. Several trailheads take hikers through reconstructed 15th-century gates and along Seoul's ancient fortress wall. From the top of the 342-m (112-ft.) ascent, you'll get a commanding view of the capital. You'll also get to follow in the footsteps of North Korean commandos who climbed the mountain some 40 years ago in an unsuccessful bid to assassinate the president; the Seoul Fortress, which had been closed for security purposes, was re-opened to visitors in 2006 (make a tour reservation a week in advance).

Seoul's mountain trails can get clogged fairly quickly, so it's best to hit this hill during the week when the city's mountaineering hobbyists are at their offices. Ask a cab driver to take you to the Sukjeongmun gate, where you can access the best of the three trailheads. It's about a 10-minute drive from City Hall. Also, you'll need your passport to get on the trail, even if you don't look like a would-be assassin.

5. Itaewon

Every foreigner who comes to Seoul gravitates to this gritty expat-friendly neighborhood near the main U.S. Army base. Itaewon is choc-a-block with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops selling everything from reproduction Korean furniture and tailored suits to jewelry and Korean pottery. One of the best clubs in the city, Club Volume, is here, in the basement of the Crown Hotel; it reputedly recruits some of the world's best DJs. To get to it, take subway line 6 to the Naksapyeong station; the club will be about 500 meters, or a third of mile, down the hill on the lefthand side. It doesn't open until 9 p.m., so get dinner at the light and airy Kate's Kitchen beforehand, which has a delicious sirloin steak with truffle-infused potatoes. Next door, the French wine bar and bistro, Le Saint Ex, is also a good value and popular with the Sunday brunch crowd.

6. Namdaemun Market

The Namdaemun market is seemingly open round-the-clock (though a few retailers close on Sunday) and is a fantastic place to pick up inexpensive clothing, housewares, fabrics, jewelry, accessories, toys, food, flowers, stationery and appliances. But it's easy to get turned around here, as there are thousands of shops located in the 30 or so multistory buildings, not to mention an endless sprawl of street-vendor stalls. This market is seriously crowded, so be prepared to get bumped around. If you feel peckish, take the opportunity to graze at the dozens of food stalls; try mandu gook, a simple and savory dumpling soup, or bindae duk, a skillet-fried mung-bean pancake. To get to Namdaemun market, take subway line 4 to Hoehyeon Station. The market also has a tourist information line: 02-752-1913.

7. Cheonggyecheon Stream

Oh, the serenity! A walk along this 5.8-km (3.6-mile) stream is almost as good as a spa for clearing one's mind or rethinking a deal. While it's just off Sejongro, one of the busiest boulevards in Seoul, Cheonggyecheon is remarkably quiet because the stream is more than 15 ft. (4.6 m) below street level and feels a little like a dugout. You can take an organized walking tour (register online in advance) or stroll alone. It's very serene with small waterfalls, and nearly two dozen overhead bridges. Don't be surprised if you see more couples here than in New York's Central Park.

8. War Memorial of Korea

Korea has been invaded about a gazillion times and this is the best place to learn about its troubled history, especially its relationships with its near neighbors. Though it calls itself a war memorial, this is really a huge military history museum ($3 admission), with tanks, planes and guns on display. Given that the peninsula is still technically at war with North Korea, this place seems very relevant. Take subway line 4 to Samgakji Station.

9. Seoul City Tour Bus

If you want to hit most of Seoul's major attractions but aren't keen on traversing the city by taxi or subway, these buses are the way to go. For a mere $10, you can hop on and off at at least two palaces, the major markets and N Seoul Tower, a communication tower that rises 479.7 m (1,574 ft.) above sea level and has a revolving restaurant and good views of the city — and get free history lessons en route. Look for the blue sign poles around the city to board. Double- and single-decker buses run Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is also a night run from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Buy tickets on board.

10. Korean Feasts

For an excellent full-course Korean lunch, hit the quaint Baedongbaji in Samcheong-dong. For about $15 per person, you can sample many popular dishes like japchae (cellophane noodles stir-fried with sliced beef and veggies), doenjang jjigae (stew made with bean paste, tofu and veggies or meat) and sengsun ya-chae jeon (fried fish with vegetables). The restaurant is inside a hanok, or a small traditional wooden home, and is just a hop, skip and a jump from the three-way junction on the main road. Take subway line 3 to Anguk Station and take Exit 1.

For a great place to try the Korean specialty, kalbi, grilled marinated beef, check out Arirang Folk Restaurant directly behind the Westin Chosun Hotel. Take subway line 2 to Ulchiro 1-ga Station and get out at Exit 7.