48 Hours in Seoul
Going Seoul searching to discover the best of the South Korean capital in just 48 hours.
1. Why Go Now?
While the weather in Seoul might be at its best in autumn (September to November), in winter (December to February) temple roofs are picturesquely coated in snow, and in spring (April to June) cherry blossoms start to bloom.
2. Get your bearings
Seoul, cut in two by the kilometre-wide Han river, is surrounded by eight mountains and the Han river plain. With a population of more than 10 million people in 25 districts, or gu, the Korean capital is twice as densely populated as New York. The heart of the city, north of the river, is the old Joseon dynasty city, where palaces and traditional markets are located.
3. Check in
Head to the surprisingly affordable Grand Ambassador Seoul. Originally opened in 1955, the Grand combines history and tradition with modernity and style. Located just outside downtown, in a quieter area, the hotel runs a regular shuttle bus to take guests to the centre of the action.
4. Known for
For the historical, head to Gyeongbok Palace – the Palace of Shining Happiness – the largest of five grand palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1897. Dating from 1394, it features intricate architecture and picturesque lakes. For excellent views over modern Seoul, a showcase megacity, N Seoul Tower on Namsan mountain lets you see to infinity and beyond.
5. Worth walking
Downtown, stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream, which runs from west to east, providing a splash of nature in this urban jungle. This public recreation space was opened in 2005, after an initiative reclaimed it from post-war, economic-boom concrete. It’s a lovely walk and a good means of navigating between the city’s glitzy high-rise towers.
6. Quick lunch
Myeongdong Gyoja, in the east of downtown, doesn’t look like much from the outside, but its cheap, traditional food is revered. Serving only four dishes – plus the ubiquitous kimchi (spicy cabbage) – it gets you in, fed and out in quick order, but patrons leave happy. The kal guksu (knife noodles) and mandu (dumplings) are especially tasty.
7. Cultural afternoon
The Korean Folk Village on the outskirts of Seoul, features more than 260 traditional
Korean houses, in the style of the 14th century Joseon dynasty. This open-air living museum showcases Korean life and cultural heritage. A functioning community, craftsmen dressed in traditional colourful costumes perform age-old skills and traditional dances.
8. Cocktail hour
On the southside of the Han in the little neighbourhood of Apgujeong-dong in Gangnam-gu, the intimate Le Cox serves cocktails and champagne to a trendy crowd. The outdoor terrace is perfect for people watching while the velvet lounge is great for small groups at the start of the evening.
9. Dressing for dinner
In the centre of the city in Jongno-gu, Sanchon restaurant serves Buddhist temple-style food. Guests dine on a selection of vegetable dishes, served in traditional wooden bowls, including pickled roots, broths and salted beans, while watching a drum and dance performance. When you’re only in the capital for a couple of days, this is a great way to sample one aspect on monastic life, while trying authentic old-fashioned Korean food.
10. Night on the town
The Nanta theatre, near to Gyeongbok Palace, is a longrunning high-octane show, set in a kitchen. The clever and entertaining musical performance mixes magic tricks, circus acts, comedy, martial arts, drumming and cooking, to thrilling effect.
11. Easy like…
Seoul Forest Park is a great place to unwind on a Sunday morning. Just north of the river in Seongdong-gu, the 115-hectare park is free and open all year Bring a picnic, wander among the 40,000 trees or feed the deer in the zoo.
12. Window shopping
Insadong Street, which runs for 700 metres between Anguk-dong Rotary and Tapgol Park, was a centre of study for painters during the Joseon dynasty. Today, it is still the area for arts and crafts, with a number of specialist stores selling items only found in South Korea. Popular picks include hanbok (traditional clothing), hanji (traditional paper) and ceramics. Naedaemun market has a similar bustle, but with a larger number of modern items and a staggering amount of stalls and street vendors, there’s a little more hustle too.
13. Don’t miss
The War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan-dong is a huge military history museum, recounting numerous invasions throughout Korea’s history – including the Chinese, Mongols and Japanese. Tanks, planes and guns are all on display and, as the South is technically still at war with the North, there is something of a frisson to any visit here.
14. Out of town
Take a trip to Panmunjom, 55km north of Seoul and the only place by the 4km-wide Demilitarised Zone on the 38th parallel where visitors are permitted. The village was established on the ceasefire line and is home to an ultra-modern rail station (ready for a united Korea), blue UN buildings – where peace discussions continue – and tooled up soldiers. The theatrical posturing of these soldiers, from either side, will leave a lasting impression.