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How to spend 36 hours in Seoul: What to eat, drink and do

The Korean capital is packed with bulgogi, beauty spas and bars. Here's how to hit all that and then some.

Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is basking in the global attention engendered by its wildly popular cultural output. It’s not just K-pop fans flocking here; international art galleries are setting up shop one after another, and this fall, the city hosted Frieze’s first art fair in Asia.

Here, you can hike fortress walls nestled amid skyscrapers, cycle past a towering LED screen abutting a royal palace and get lost in a tangle of backstreets harbouring some of the city’s most interesting bars and restaurants.

Seoul embraces both its past and constant reinvention, and it has a resilient spirit. The city is still mourning lives lost in a Halloween crowd surge — a tragedy made all the more devastating because many of the victims were young people drawn from all parts of the world to Seoul’s vibrancy.

ITIINERARY

Friday

4.30 p.m. | Ride along a river

Get oriented by hitting the bike trails that follow the Han River’s north and south banks. Ddareungi, Seoul’s bike-share program, has more than 2,600 stations across the city (at a cost of 1,000 South Korean won per hour, or 77 cents), and Bike Nara, near Hapjeong station, has nice rides (20,000 to 50,000 won, about $15 to $38, for a daylong rental with helmets and locks). Start at the station and head to Han River Park, then ride east along the river’s northern bank toward Banpo Bridge. Cross on the lower of the bridge’s two decks, then ride west back to Yanghwa Bridge for a 14-mile loop (about 1 1/2 hours). Nice pit stops include a sculpture garden at Ichon Hangang Park, the willow tree-lined Banpo Hangang Park and, for a couple of weeks in April, cherry blossoms at Yeouido Hangang Park.

7:30 p.m. | Go to a market

Take your appetite to the 117-year-old Gwangjang Market, a sprawling complex in central Jongno-gu. (You can cycle there on the new bike lanes along Cheonggyecheon, a stream that links up with the Han.) In the food alley at the market’s centre, you’ll find mung bean pancakes, yukhoe (beef tartare) and kalguksu (hand-cut noodles in broth) — but save your stomach for bori bibimbap, served at stalls near the end of the alley. The shopkeeper heaps barley rice in a stainless steel bowl and assembles a dozen or so ingredients from mounds of vegetables for a hearty, down-home version of the staple Korean mixed-rice dish (6,000 won).

9 p.m. | Drink in vibrant alleys

The labyrinthine alleyways of the central Euljiro neighbourhood, once a varied manufacturing hub, now host a vibrant scene of bars and restaurants. Scan upper-level windows for interesting lighting to find cocktail bars like Ace Four Club, with fin-de-siècle aesthetics, or neon-lit dives like Seendosi (cocktails 10,000 to 22,000 won at both bars). If steep stairs are a deterrent (it’s always one more flight than you think), join the after-work crowds downing pints of beer at street level, at the plastic tables and chairs in Nogari Alley (named for the dried pollock available as a bar snack at any of the street’s dozen or so establishments). In a sign of Seoul’s rapid evolution, the area is scheduled for redevelopment in 2023. Some of Euljiro’s scruffy appeal may soon be paved over — experience it before it’s gone.

Saturday

9 a.m. | Take a hike

As built up as Seoul is, it also has dozens of verdant peaks that you can hike without leaving the city limits, and all are accessible by subway or bus. Head northeast to Bukhansan National Park, which has several viewpoints that offer unparalleled vistas of the city. Be warned, the city’s unforgiving efficiency also applies to its trails — most are strenuous climbs heading straight up, not bothering with moseying switchbacks. Alternatively, walk an hour or two along the old city wall on Inwangsan, a mountain near the city centre, which offers a nice panorama. No matter the altitude, you’ll see locals decked out in head-to-toe hiking gear and indulging in a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine) at the top.

1 p.m. | Wander back in time

To the west of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the seat of power during the five-century-long Joseon dynasty, the neighbourhood Seochon — literally, “West Village” — has some of the city’s better-preserved hanok, traditional tile-roofed homes. Wandering through the winding backstreets can feel like a glimpse into a bygone century. For lunch, Patic is an unassuming bistro on a residential street where southern French inspirations meet seasonal and distinctly Korean ingredients (reservations recommended). The clam “escargot” with garlic foam is a must (18,000 won). There are no desserts, but the knickknack-filled Alkimia around the corner has a delightful gelato selection with flavours like rice, red pepper and yuja, a citrus fruit (5,500 won per scoop).

3 p.m. | See Korean abstract art

South Korea’s long-overlooked modern and contemporary art has received a groundswell of international attention in recent years. Much buzz has built up over Dansaekhwa, which translates to “monochrome painting,” a loosely defined movement of abstract art that arose in the 1970s when the country was under authoritarian rule. Seoul’s major art museums, including MMCA, SeMA and Leeum, are reliable stalwarts, but for a more serene experience away from the weekend crowds, head to the Whanki Museum, a short bus ride north from Seochon (admission 13,000 won, check for closures between exhibits). The museum houses the works of Kim Whanki, a pioneer of Korean abstract art whose work is considered foundational to the Dansaekhwa movement, in a well-designed space worthy of his oeuvre.

6:30 p.m. | Imbibe rice wines

After decades of cheap green-bottle soju and insipid beer reigning as Koreans’ drinks of choice, there has been a recent resurgence of traditionally brewed, grain-based alcohol. Yun Seoul, a 10-seat restaurant in the Hongdae area, serves a thoughtful prix fixe menu featuring dry-aged fish, house made noodles, pickled vegetables and delicate sauces (150,000 won, reservations required). The dishes are meant to be paired with traditional drinks, including three types of Korean rice wines: the milky, opaque takju (also known as makgeolli), the filtered, clear yakju and the distilled soju (28,000-54,000 won a bottle). Nearby, Sanullim 1992 has an almost encyclopaedic selection of Korean booze (bottles 7,000-75,000 won) with a perfectly crisp haemul pajeon, seafood scallion pancake (23,000 won), a classic complement to makgeolli.

10 p.m. | Tune into vintage vinyl

For an aural cleanse from the K-pop blasting around Seoul, head to one of the city’s many “LP bars” with robust sound systems and extensive record collections. They range from one-person operations where the owner strictly enforces his or her taste (written rules may include: no Maroon 5 or Oasis) to ones where eclectic requests send the night careening dangerously close to collective karaoke. At Vibd Blvd in Samgakji, which has an excellent sound system and a speakeasy feel, a deadpan DJ in a bucket hat selectively fulfils requests for a younger crowd sipping cocktails (10,000-16,000 won; unmarked and easy to miss, on the second floor). Seochon Blues in Seochon pleases an older clientele with ’70s Korean tunes influenced by American folk, and a wide selection of beers (5,000 to 18,000 won).

Sunday

10 a.m. | Roam among hipsters

There may be no better sign of Seoul’s dedication to making the city more liveable than Seoul Forest Park, where a sprawling green space was fashioned in 2005 from the grounds of an erstwhile racetrack and golf course. “Forest” is a bit of a misnomer, but the park is nonetheless a prized oasis in Seoul’s concrete jungle and surrounded by a trendy and start-up-friendly neighbourhood, Seongsu. Grab coffee at Camouflage (4,000-8,000 won) and stroll through the park, where you might find people filming TikTok dance videos or taking wedding photos. The neighbourhood is full of innovative retail shops that can feel more like exhibition spaces with a smattering of clothing and accessories, like LCDC or 29cm Seongsu (both open at 11 a.m.).

12:30 p.m. | Hold the BBQ

To many, Korean food is still associated with meat sizzling on a tabletop grill. But against all odds in Seoul, veganism is quietly on the rise. Millennial Dining in Seocho, a district south of the river, is run by a mother-and-daughter duo. A five-hour braised carrot dish called Better Than Sex arguably lives up to its bold name (33,000 won), and Pleasure & Danger is a plant-based take on the classic minced-beef patty dish tteokgalbi (35,000 won, bottles of natural wine on the pricey side; reservations recommended). Near the Blue House, the recently vacated presidential residence, Qyun serves sandwiches (17,000 won, with salad and soup) built around fermented sauces and ingredients, like a pesto made from ume, the Japanese plum.

2 p.m. | Flip out at the ballpark

You may think you know baseball, but Korea’s 10-team league, the KBO, is another world. Fans chant and belt out personalized songs for each batter, riled up by each team’s “cheer master” and a coterie of cheerleaders. Batters often swing for the fences and flip their bats majestically. The enthusiasm is infectious, and it makes for great people-watching. Catch a game at one of Seoul’s two ballparks, Jamsil Baseball Stadium or Gocheok Sky Dome (tickets 6,000-85,000 won, the season runs from late March to early October; in the offseason, you can live out your would-be major league dreams at one of Seoul’s “screen baseball” virtual batting cages). The beer is cheap, and the snacks go well beyond hot dogs. (Spicy stir-fried intestines, anyone?)

KEY STOPS

Han River Park encompasses 11 smaller parks along both banks of the river and is best explored on its extensive bike path.

Euljiro, a fast-changing former industrial area, has narrow alleyways teeming with hip bars and restaurants.

On Inwangsan, a mountain near the city’s centre, you can hike along a fortress wall first built in 1396.

WHERE TO EAT

Patic is a bistro with delectable southern French-inspired dishes incorporating seasonal Korean ingredients.

Yun Seoul serves a thoughtful prix fixe menu that showcases dry-aged fish and homemade noodles.

Millennial Dining serves vegan takes on classic Korean flavours with a selection of natural wines.

Alkimia offers surprising gelato flavours, including rice, red pepper and yuja, a citrus fruit.

WHERE TO STAY

The gentle curves of the centrally located Four Seasons Hotel Seoul pay homage to the eaves of traditional tile-roof homes known as hanok. The hotel offers rooms overlooking Gyeongbokgung Palace and the mountains to the north from around 460,000 South Korean won a night.

In bustling Hongdae, the trendy RYSE Autograph Collection has expansive city views (from around 210,000 won). The aroma from Tartine Bakery, originally of San Francisco, in the lobby is a bonus.

Stayfolio is a booking platform founded by local architects. Reserve in advance — some of the popular properties, including renovated hanok, can be booked up months out.

Short-term rentals are relatively cheap. Seongsu-dong, near Seoul Forest Park; Samcheong-dong, with its concentration of galleries and hanok homes; and neighbourhoods along the Han River are good areas to stay.

By Victoria Kim © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

 

Source: New York Times

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