There is no need to choose between night and day in Seoul. This megacity is fast, dazzling and tempting, whatever the hour. There’s only one thing that seems impossible – sleep.
Movie theatres are busiest two o’clock in the morning. Shopping malls are open around the clock, and trevellers go straight from the night club to office. Seoul never lets up. This is more than just a city – it’s a vision of the future, and it’s taking shape in an ecosystem with a population of 25 million. Life is as vibrant underground as it is in skyscrapers. Artificial light competes with the sun and virtual entertainment outperforms nature.
There is palpable excitement among the people at the entrance of K-Live, a studio on top of one of Seoul’s many department stores. Girls in leg warmers and grey checked skirts can’t stop screaming. Boys sporting identical jackets, pullovers and geometric hairdos are taking a million selfies a minute. The doors suddenly swing open and smoke appears. Everyone starts squealing and rushes towards the stage to get as close as possible to the avatars. The virtual concert begins – 3D holograms of the season’s hottest K-pop (a mixture of Korean dance music and hip hop) stars appear on stage. These carefree songs are Korea’s biggest export after mobile phones. The big names are all on one never-ending tour. As they cannot be in two places at once, technology has come to the rescue.
A hologram performance can rev people up even more than a real one. How come? Koreans live in the world’s most technologically advanced environment. They always have a smartphone or a gaming console in their hands. They love amusement arcades. They even program toilets in public lavatories. Koreans have long ceased to notice the division between the real and the virtual. But that doesn’t mean that they no longer meet other people.
A Trip Back in Time
As I leave the concert, I walk straight into a shopping mall, complete with a warren of subterranean laneways packed with even more stores. You can venture into these warmly illuminated alleys to forget what day or season it is, and simply indulge yourself in endless pleasures. You can buy literally anything, from the latest high-tech equipment to the fanciest and impractical fun gadgets. It’s also a great place to eat out and share a traditional grill-it-at-your-table meal with your friends, sip soju (a local rice liquor), get your back massaged, plunge into a pool, or take a nap in the midst of the never-ending yet calming big city buzz. The many branching alleyways will eventually lead you to the awesome Dongdaemun Design Plaza. This complex was designed by one of the world’s most celebrated architects, Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), who revamped the entire district a few years ago.
Dongdaemun looks like a drop of mercury, frozen to take on a perfectly round shape, and ready to move at any time.
The site was previously an old sports stadium and a chaotically sprawling marketplace. Dongdaemun looks like a drop of mercury, frozen to take on a perfectly round shape, and ready to move at any time. The structure is covered with steel plates that glisten like the skin of a live animal. Tucked inside are an applied design center, and several galleries and cafe bars. There are throngs of people outside who are dating, taking a walk, or just gazing hypnotically.
You won’t find too many romantic spots like that in Seoul. Hundreds of thousands of concrete high-rises, the world’s largest and the most extensive underground rail system, where you can travel more than 60 kilometers on a single line, mammoth motorways with flyovers cutting through the city center… For the previous quarter-century, the city had been adapting itself to meet the demands of mobility, and the rapid movement of people, goods and data. But the overworked Koreans, who spend up to 18 hours a day in their offices, finally decided they wanted to enjoy life. Come evening, and they go jogging or get together along the banks of Cheonggyecheon Creek (until recently covered with concrete and a highway). The area is lit by bright lanterns. Children romp while the elderly watch the birds.
Another often frequented area is the giant grassy square in front of the town hall. Once reserved exclusively for official celebrations, it has now become an urban playground. This is the venue of the sour cabbage Kimchi Festival, and the place for parades in historical costumes and lessons in traditional painting techniques. After many years of innovating their way into the future, Koreans are going back not only to nature, but also to their own past.
The imperial palaces are packed with tourists and locals who come to find relief and a moment of peace. In these perfectly designed palaces, symmetrical courtyards, gazebos and sprawling parks, you can experience a festive spirit, and a sense of splendor and harmony. One of the finest examples of palace architecture takes you beyond time. Once behind its walls, reality is no longer fast and inevitable. Instead of thousands of tiny stores, busy cafe bars and vendors hawking their wares, silence, peace and minimalism reign. The courtyard in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace offers a sweeping panorama of the city – thousands of spires, dozens of storeys high, some made of steel and glass, some concrete, as if they were trying to outperform others in rising into the sky. Crammed together and uniform, they stand as a reminder that haste is not a good builder.
Seoul had busy thriving commercial thoroughfares 500 years ago. Today, you find yourself surrounded by businesses, deals and irresistible products, as soon as you step outside the palace. You can buy a slice of the past at Insa-dong. Streets of antiquarians offer renovated furniture, carved rocking horses, shaded lamps and heavy curtains – remnants of the country’s colonial past. This is a tiny old-fashioned enclave that neighbors with an area abounding in international restaurants that serve everything from Hungarian to Australian cuisine and compete for customers from early morning. Not far away is the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Surrounded by futurist gardens, where flowers have been replaced by blossoming sculptures by Anish Kapoor, the Museum presents an incongruous mixture of traditional Korean art and the latest in international art combined with technology – smart devices guide you through the exhibition.
A Step Away From The Urban Giant
Fifty per cent of Koreans now live in Seoul, which is crammed full of exciting opportunities. Mountain and forest villages are being abandoned, as are other big cities, including Pusan. This city lies on the southern coast, has a spectacular boardwalk, and is only a few hours away by superfast train. The capital is a magnet with its mosaic in which every subway station and every district has its own special culture. But despite that, Koreans have begun to appreciate the charm of places the city hasn’t devoured yet. Two hours on a bus will get you to a national park, such as Bukhasan, where you can climb virgin mountains and explore lakes hidden between rocks. Or spend a night in a stone hut, surrounded by silver-haired ladies sewing bright clothes and cooking delicious rice dishes in their pots.
From July until September, the coastline of the peninsula, with its pristine sandy beaches, and the pine forests of Naksan and Sokcho, attract visitors. You can hop into a boat and explore half-wild islets, and take some time out from the big city.
But you can also head in a very different direction and wend your way towards the future. It only takes an hour to get to Songdo on the western tip of the city by subway. This is a prototype of a new city designed from scratch. It’s hard to believe, but it’s even higher and more innovative than Seoul.
Good To Know
The N Seoul Tower, the 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace or Lotte World are absolute must-sees in Seoul.
What To See
- Lotte World: An amusement park open all year round featuring an ice rink and carousels, but also live performances, castles and a host of other attractions. 240, Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu
- Gyeongbokgung Palace: The 14th century palace erected by the Joseon dynasty is an absolute must-see. 161 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu
- N Seoul Tower: The top offers a panoramic view of the entire city. You can go up to the top in a lift but you can also walk up the tower. 105, Namsangongwon-gil, Yongsan-gu
Where To Eat
- Isaac Toast Myeongdong: Toasted sandwiches are a popular snack in Seoul. For the best ones, go to this address. 105, Toegye-ro, Jung-gu
- Wonjo Wonhalmae Dakhanmari: An eatery founded in 1987 offering delicious local cuisine. Chicken is the specialty. 282-21 Jongno 5-ga, Jongno-gu
- Seoureseo Duljjaero Jalhaneunjip: If in need of red bean soup during a tiresome walk, stop by this place. 28-21, Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu
- Myeongdong Kyoja: No trip to Asia can be complete without dumplings and other flour-based food. 25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu
- Gusto Taco: For those who cannot last a day without traditional, Western-style food. Excellent Mexican food. 41, Wausan-ro, Mapo-gu
Where To Sleep – Seoul Accommodation
- Oak Wood Premier Coex Center: Pets are welcome at this hotel. From EUR 205 per person. 46, Teheran-ro 87-gil, Gangnam-gu
- The Shilla Seoul: A 5-star hotel perfect for a business trip. From EUR 270 per person. 249, Dongho-ro, Jung-gu