Three Perfect Days: Seoul
Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea has undertaken an unrelenting drive toward modernization, nowhere more so than in its capital. The fifth-largest metropolitan area on Earth, Seoul is buzzing with energy and ambition, epitomized as much by the near-universal wireless access as by the brand-new Lotte World Tower, the planet’s fifth-tallest building. And yet, despite the frenetic pace of change, the city has not lost its sense of history, thanks to its many ancient temples, traditional houses, and tranquil palace gardens. Indeed, it’s the ever-shifting swirl of the old and the new that makes Seoul such an intriguing, enchanting place to be.
A cough jolts me awake. “Who’s in my room?” I think. Then, “Why am I on the floor?” It takes a moment to remember I’m staying at Secret Retreats Rak Ko Jae, a boutique hotel set in a 130-year-old hanok, a traditional type of wooden house that’s still common throughout Seoul. I shift on my floor mat, lifting my head from the seed-filled headrest I gamely chose over a fluffy pillow, and look out through the papery window shade. Outside, I see wooden decks, a tranquil courtyard dotted with pine trees and huge brown kimchi pots, and the source of the cough, a smiling woman who shuffles in with my breakfast of eggs and bacon.
After my meal, I take the short stroll to nearby Gyeongbokgung, the largest of Seoul’s five palaces, arriving just in time to watch the changing of the royal guard. Brandishing pikes and colorful shields, the bearded guards march past the imposing stone gate, Bugaksan Mountain rising darkly in the distance. After the ceremony, I meet Young Sun Nam, a guide with the Korea Tourism Organization. Young Sun tells me that the palace was built in 1395 during the Joseon Dynasty but has since been destroyed several times by aggressors (more than once by the Japanese, who ended Korea’s imperial period when they annexed the country in 1910). We walk through the outer courtyards and into the palace complex through a series of diminishing gates, each topped with a curving dancheong roof, elaborately painted in burnt reds and pale greens. At one gate, a weathered ticket collector mumbles something, then bursts out laughing. “He said we’re looking really hot,” Young Sun tells me afterward, “and this is only the second gate.”
Indeed, it is uncommonly hot today, and I wonder why so many women are wearing hanboks, high-waisted, floor-dusting dresses that date back to the 14th century. But for the sneakers visible beneath the colorful skirts, I could have stepped back in time. A teenage girl tells me she’s renting hers by the hour. “You must try,” she says, perspiration sparkling on her forehead. “It’s actually very comfortable in the hot weather.” I smile and shake my head, fanning my face with the palace visitor’s brochure.
Young Sun and I continue on, wandering through clusters of buildings bristling with dragons, pigs, and monkeys, supposedly Buddhist messengers sent to protect the royal family. Queen Inhyeon’s quarters are tucked away in the back, the elegant painted doors of the inner chamber opening onto a tiered garden. “This is the crying garden,” Young Sun says. “The queen cried because she wasn’t allowed to be jealous, even though she had to raise the children of the concubines.” I may cry too if I don’t find an air conditioner soon.
After a quick spin through the National Folk Museum of Korea—a pagoda-topped structure on the palace grounds that houses thousands of cultural artifacts, ranging from shards of ancient pottery to photographs from the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century—we catch a cab to Myeong-dong, Seoul’s buzziest shopping district, for a more modern cultural experience. The shoppers here are packed in shoulder to shoulder, buying everything from foot-tall ice cream cones to Obama-themed socks, and it takes 15 minutes of squeezing and sliding to reach Myeong-dong Kyoja, a no-frills eatery known for its bibimkuksu, a traditional dish of noodles with sesame oil and spicy pepper paste. Sitting at a stark wooden table, I watch as diners move flailing noodles from bowl to lip with silvery flashes of chopsticks. My sticks are slippery with steam and oil, and when it becomes apparent I might starve, Young Sun conjures up a fork.
My next cross-cultural challenge is to decide which of Myeong-dong’s many K-Beauty stores I’ll be entrusting my skin to. I settle on Olive Young—the Sephora of South Korea, according to Young Sun—where a saleswoman inspects my face with an expression of pity. “N.M.F. Aquaring Ampoule Mask Rex,” she says, bowing as she hands me a sheet mask. I have no idea what that means, but I pay up and slip the mask into my purse, hoping I’ll remember to put it on before bed.
At nearby Anguk subway station, I meet Korean-American Daniel Gray, owner of food tour outfit Delectable Travels. We grab iced coffees at one of Seoul’s omnipresent cafés, and Daniel provides a primer on the history of Korean cuisine. “Traditionally, average Koreans didn’t eat a big variety of food because the best was reserved for the royal court,” he says. “For a long time, there was a big barrier because the taste [of high cuisine] was so strong, but now it’s the fighting between all the different flavors that Koreans really love.”
A couple of trains later we arrive in Hapjeong-dong, a formerly rundown riverside neighborhood in western Seoul that now buzzes with bars and restaurants. We meet up with a few more tour-takers, then head for the famed Korean barbecue joint Seo-Seo Galbi, where the staff greets us with a synchronized bow before offering chilled emerald bottles of the country’s favorite liquor, soju. “Gun-bae,” Daniel says, Korean for “cheers,” then downs his shot.
After that first clink, things happen fast. Galbi, beef on-the-bone, sizzles on a central grill as the table heaves beneath an ever-increasing selection of sides—kimchi, pickled radishes, bean paste—delivered by ostentatiously polite waiters. Daniel uses giant scissors to cut the meat into bite-size bits, while I clumsily fumble garlic toward the grill with my chopsticks. “This garlic has a bite,” Daniel warns. “Vampires don’t do well in Korea.” He’s right, and I regret popping the entire clove into my mouth at once. Luckily, soju is the perfect salve.
Our next stop is Mangwon Market, where we try pan-fried jeon pancakes and sticky rice doughnuts called chapssal. Mangwon isn’t Seoul’s glitziest shopping destination, but it’s where locals go to buy things like kitchen sponges and ingredients for the night’s dinner. The din is deafening, and every square inch is taken up with vendors hawking miniature crabs, dried turnips, sesame leaves, and just about anything else you can imagine. I’m particularly intrigued by a stall that sells rice cakes shot from a machine at warp speed, like clay pigeons. We finish the tour at one of Korea’s 36,000-plus fried chicken joints—a figure that’s about the same as the number of McDonald’s restaurants globally. While waiting, Daniel leads our little group in lively Korean drinking games that involve a lot of clapping and counting. My mind’s addled by the heat and soju, so I lose repeatedly, which means I drink repeatedly. It’s a vicious cycle.
Somewhat woozily, I check into the glossy, hyper-modern Conrad Seoul, in the city’s main financial district, Yeoeuido, which takes up a large island in the Han River, Seoul’s version of the Seine. Before bed I head up to the 37 Grill & Bar, where I sip a Tanqueray and tonic nightcap and watch the blinking lights atop the rocketlike N Seoul Tower. Back in my room, there’s a jar of tiny candy letters that I munch on while applying the facial mask I bought earlier. The mask is cold to the touch and a bit slimy, and it takes a few moments to properly align the eye, nose, and mouth holes. When I spot my reflection in the mirror, I instantly think of Halloween. This is the last thing I remember.
Overly moisturized and sticky-mouthed, I decide to start the day with a dip in the Conrad’s 8th-floor indoor pool, only to find a cluster of women bopping along to K-Pop in a water aerobics class. So I skip the healthful bopping in favor of a quiet bath in my room. Breakfast is back up on the 37th floor, where I consume ample quantities of pan-fried mandu, beef dumplings that come with spicy soy sauce, while watching water-skiers create sparkling silver stripes on the river far below.
I’m spending the rest of the morning at Siloam Fire Pot Sauna, a traditional jjimjilbang bathhouse back across the river in Jung-gu. Immediately, I am faced with a dilemma: Do I start in the ice room? The jade room? The salt room? I decide to stew in one of the hot pools. I feel a bit out of place as the lone oversize foreigner amid the little old local women wearing towels on their heads, but I close my eyes and focus on the healing qualities of the natural germanium water lapping at my chin.
I end my treatment with a remarkably vigorous body scrub, then zip off to check into the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, an unremittingly luxurious property that opened late last year in the Central Business District. The cavernous lobby leaves me momentarily dumbstruck, but I snap out of it when I remember I have an appointment across the city, in the south-eastern residential district of Songpa-gu.
From the window of my cab, I spy what looks like an alien spacecraft that has landed in the middle of the city, but it turns out to be the Zaha Hadid–designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an innovative venue housing galleries and concert halls. While I’m pondering the consequences of an extraterrestrial invasion, my cabbie announces that we’ve arrived at Byeokje Galbi, a wood-and-glass-paneled restaurant known for its highly marbled hanwoo beef.
Waiting for me is Seoul native Hyun Ah Han, a poised starlet with coiffed brown hair and a wide smile. As I scan the menu, the actress launches into a soliloquy about Korean beauty—of which she is a particularly fine example. “Korean women are known for having nice skin,” she says. “We have high quality beauty products in Korea, but we also eat a lot of green food, and we have good weather.”
I’ve had the rejuvenating face mask, but based on “beefmaster” chef Won Suk Yoon’s rundown of the menu, my lunch isn’t going to be very green. I order a dish with a name that translates to “char-grilled chef’s special assorted Korean prime beef steaks with sea salt,” which comes with sides of thick bokki noodles, pungent kimchi, and yellow root vegetables (good for digestion, the beefmaster tells me).
After lunch, Hyun Ah takes me to Garosugil, the most popular shopping spot in Gangnam, the district immortalized by the K-Popster Psy. The name Gangnam means “south of the river,” but many Seoulites refer to it as “Beverly Hills,” due to its profusion of high-end retailers and pocketbook-size dogs. On tree-lined streets, fashionable young women totter about on vertiginous heels, flitting in and out of shops with names like Skin Food. We stop at chic café C27 Cheesecake and Coffee, where a sign reads: “A-musement park for women.” I probe Hyun Ah about it. “It’s because the light is good and the cake is good. It’s perfect for taking selfies, which is what Korean girls do these days.”
As we nibble photogenic slices of green-tea cheesecake, Hyun Ah outlines the historical roots of local fashion tastes. “We are a Confucian society, so we have always followed our elders, which in the past used to be royalty,” she says. “Now, celebrities are like the new royalty, and Koreans will buy a shade of red lipstick or an off-the-shoulder top if their favorite celebrity is wearing it.” She confesses she would like to become an “it” actress responsible for starting such trends, which doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.
I say good-bye to Hyun Ah and make a dash to nearby Jamsil Baseball Stadium, arriving well into the first inning of a game between the LG Twins and KT Wiz, rival members of the 10-team KBO, the country’s highest league. At the ticket booth, a woman produces a rapid burst of Korean accompanied by hand motions that resemble a flapping bird. I shrug, and the bird sighs, then calls over a baby-faced guard to help her handle the American woman. “You must wear helmet,” he says in adorably broken English. “Follow me.”
At a nearby counter, I’m instructed to hand over my driver’s license as collateral for the battered black batting helmet they insist I wear because I’m sitting in the “exciting” section. I put it on and find my exciting seat, where I notice that the only other helmeted fan is a 5-year-old boy. I grab a beer and watch the game, trying not to think about the countless sweaty heads that have donned this piece of plastic. Fans around me cheer demurely as the hometown Twins hit two home runs in a row, then they continue munching on dried squid—the Korean version of ballgame popcorn. At the end of a 10-4 Twins victory, I return my helmet and head to the Sports Complex subway stop.
I exit the subway back across the river at City Hall, a grand municipal building dating from 1926 that’s now dwarfed by the Space-Age glass extension hovering behind it. I walk past a jazz band that’s singing in Spanish, then pop into the popular chain restaurant Bonjuk for a late dinner. Juk is a rice porridge traditionally served to the elderly, the infirm, and babies. I order a version with mixed vegetables, served with a side of kimchi, naturally.
I finish the night by meeting one of the couples from last night’s food tour (he is from Slovakia, she from New York City) at Luxury Su Noraebang, a karaoke bar in the clubby Hongdae neighborhood. We immediately set about mangling the most popular karaoke song in Seoul, “Let It Go” from Frozen. “I won’t have a voice tomorrow,” my Slovak friend croaks. Later, I ask him what his favorite thing about Seoul has been so far. “It’s either this or eating kimchi,” he replies. I can’t argue.
The windows in my plush purple-and-gray room at the Four Seasons overlook Gyeongbokgung Palace, allowing me an encore viewing of the changing of the guard. Beyond the compound, I spot the sloping roof of the Blue House, home to President Geun Hye Park. It’s pretty far off, but I offer a small bow, just in case, before I head to breakfast at Boccalino, a bright, Milan-inspired restaurant that overlooks commuters hustling to work below. There’s a Western-style buffet, but the Korean menu of ginseng salad, grilled mackerel, and baechu kimchi is too good to resist.
Walking down the broad and busy avenue Sejong-daero, I spot a large bronze statue of Sejong the Great, the 15th-century monarch who created Korea’s modern alphabet. Not far from here is Cheonggyecheon, a man-made stream that flows for seven miles through the gleaming office blocks of central Seoul. Lost in appreciation of a waterfall, I almost step on a white miniature poodle in a bumblebee outfit, then notice another pup high-stepping down the sidewalk in shiny pink shoes. Apparently humans aren’t the only stylish residents in South Korea’s capital.
After soaking my tired feet in the stream, I continue on to Insa-dong, a traditional neighborhood in Jongno characterized by small alleys, tea rooms, and impossibly quaint hanok houses. The main drag, Insadong-gil, is chock-a-block with antique shops and chichi boutiques, but the real attraction is its street food, which includes swirling cauldrons of beondegi (boiled silkworm pupae). The plump, wormy niblets aren’t my idea of a hearty snack, but I decide to try one. The vendor, a short woman in a very large hat, laughs uproariously as I steel myself for a bite. The earthy taste isn’t exactly unpleasant, but the texture (let’s call it “bursting”) is. “Ha ha!” the vendor says. “Ho ho!”
Now that I’ve begun to expand my gastronomic horizons, I’m ready to meet Derek Iwanuk, a Canadian expat and travel blogger who wrote the guidebook Itaewon Eats: Where the World Meets to Eat in Seoul. Derek reckons that the local food scene is on the up, and that Itaewon-dong, the city’s most international neighborhood and the subject of his book, is the center of it all. “Seven years ago, you were lucky to find a half-decent burger,” he says. “Over the years, there’s been a food revolution, and now there are little pockets of world cuisine.”
One of those pockets is Coreanos Kitchen, a hip Korean-Mexican restaurant opened in 2013 by two Korean-Americans who badly missed tacos. We order fries topped with galbi, hot sauce, and cilantro, plus a couple of burritos loaded with kimchi and braised pork belly. For Derek, a meal like this speaks to Seoul’s ongoing emergence as a global destination. It is, he says, a city that is vying desperately for attention.
I thank Derek for the burritos, then run through the rain to hail a cab. The car whisks me back past Gyeongbokgung and up to Samcheong-dong, a hip, gallery-rich neighborhood that’s home to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Waiting for me inside is Yoon Kyung Kim, a petite installation artist whose nose crinkles when she laughs. We browse for a while, contemplating avant-garde paintings and multimedia works, ending up at an interactive exhibit by acclaimed Korean artist Soo Ja Kim. In a vast black room, we’re invited to sit around a circular table and given pieces of clay to mold into balls. I frown at an unsettling noise. “It’s a recording of the artist gargling,” the curator explains. “It’s the artist’s intention while you make the ball that the shape of your mind is visualized.” I’m not sure what shape my mind is exactly, but I hope it’s not the lumpy brown blob I’ve created. Yoon, meanwhile, has formed two balls, one grapefruit sized and the other just a grape. “This is my brain,” she says, pointing to the small one.
Creating brains is thirsty work, so we head to the Kraze Burgers down the block to discuss art over beers. “Korean parents are usually very focused on math and English,” Yoon says as we sip from frosty glasses. “They need to realize that, even if their children don’t become artists, if they’re exposed to art they’ll become better at other subjects.”
I pop back to the Four Seasons for a massage at the spa, then hit happy hour at the 28th-floor Executive Club Lounge, whose defining feature is its wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows. I sip a sauvignon blanc and watch the setting sun light up the surrounding skyscrapers—one of which is home to my dinner destination.
In the rotating n.Grill, at the top of the 775-foot N Seoul Tower, I’m led to a secluded booth with a sweeping view of the city backed by craggy hills stretching toward the North Korean border, 30-odd miles away. As a well-groomed waiter pours me a glass of pink sparkling wine, I’m greeted by Michelin-starred English chef Duncan Robertson, who moved to Seoul after meeting his Korean wife in France. I sip my bubbly and ask Duncan for his take on the food scene here.
“Seoul’s becoming more and more open,” he says. “When I first came six years ago and baked baguette-style bread with a crusty exterior, everyone was complaining and trying to eat it with a fork and knife. Now, artisanal bakeries here are a niche market, and people are becoming very open-minded about food.”
My meal begins with a parade of appetizers, including a savory parmesan soup and poached salmon topped with potato cream, basil sauce, and salmon roe. Next come three different cuts of beef, topped with grilled green chilies and buttery roasted garlic. I top it off with a passion-fruit tart and a dollop of gingery chocolate cream, then sit back with Ol’ Blue Eyes crooning in the background and look out at the glinting gold facade of the 63 Building.
To end the evening, I board an E-land Cruise boat, where I meet Myo Jung Kim, an all-grown-up former middle-school student of mine from when I taught ESL here. As we head for the top-deck bar, past bubblegum-pink blossoms of faux cherry trees, I tell Myo Jung that it feels odd to be drinking with her—like I’m being a bad influence. “Don’t worry, teacher,” she says, ordering us a pair of fruity cocktails. “Times change.”