“Seoul… amazing city,” my friend Patrick remarked. Then he chuckled. “If you go home before 4am, you’re a loser.” Now, I wouldn’t say that makes you a loser per se, but he has a point; Seoul is a city that truly never sleeps.
Showcasing a glorious mix of old and new, where slick skyscrapers soar over traditional hanok houses, Seoul – which will host the Winter Olympics in 2018 – embraces the latest trends and technology, while staying true to its roots. The epic eating and drinking scene mirrors this striking contrast, with street vendors hawking every latest food craze alongside classic Korean bites.
Words: Judy Joo
Lufthansa flies to Seoul from London Heathrow up to eight times daily via Frankfurt and Munich. Flight time is around 12 hours. Economy-class return fares, including taxes and fees, start at £791 return. LH.com
When to go
It’s best to visit in the spring or autumn. Seoul enjoys four distinct seasons, including bitterly cold winters and sweltering hot, humid summers. Spicy soups gladly warm your bones on snowy days and refreshingly crisp salads offer a respite from the blistering heat.
Where to stay
Situated in Gwanghwamun, in the heart of the city, the cool and contemporary Four Seasons Hotel Seoul (below) has 317 luxuriously appointed guest rooms with panoramic views of Seoul city. Pampering facilities include a spa, an indoor pool, and traditional Korean sauna facilities. Double room from £239. fourseasons.com
6am Start the day at the famed Dragon Hill Spa, open 24/7, for a traditional Korean body scrub. This experience is not for the shy – get completely naked (men and women are separated) and plunge into a number of therapeutic pools before relinquishing yourself to an ajooma (older woman), who will scrub off all that airplane grime. You’ll emerge feeling baby-soft and ready for a lively day in Seoul. From £8. dragonhillspa.com
8am Head to one of the famed Isaac Toasts for breakfast. With multiple locations all over the city, it’s easy to see why this chain is so popular. I opt for the bulgogi (Korean-style barbecue beef) toast with egg and cheese, nuzzled between two thick and crispy pieces of white buttermilk bread. From £1.90. Isaac Toast, 105 Toegye-ro, Chungmuro 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
10am Embrace Korea’s rich history and visit the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace (above). Get lost in the sprawling gardens and watch the grandiose changing-of-the-guards ceremony. Afterwards, wander around the architecturally divine Jongno-gu neighbourhood, and pop into one of the many small hidden cafes for a fragrant and colourful cup of antioxidant brew. Palace entry from £25.50. Gyeongbokgung Palace, 161 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
2pm Time for a relaxing traditional lunch and breathtaking views at Bicena (below), on the 81st floor of the newly constructed Lotte Tower. With a shiny Michelin star, Bicena is one of the few stylish venues where you can enjoy truly seasonal and traditional fare executed in a modern yet casual way. Set lunch from £48. lottehotel.com
5pm Make your way to Cheongdam-dong and the tree-lined street of Garosugil for a bit of shopping and people-watching. The stores here boast young and hip designers and the clientele to match. Don’t miss the 10 Corso Como – a café, gallery and fashion boutique. 10corsocomo.com
8pm For dinner, head to Maple Tree House for a traditional Korean barbecue, where built-in table grills take centre stage. A must-have here is the famed Hanwoo beef, the Korean version of wagyu. Eat like the locals and wrap your beef in lettuce (ssam), add a scoop of steamed white rice, a smear of spicy ssamjang sauce and top with kimchi. Dinner from £41. mapletreehouse.co.kr
11pm The night is still young, so head to the Four Seasons’ ‘hidden’ basement bar Charles H (above), an ultra-cool speakeasy bar with slick cocktails and a cool vibe. Try a soju – Korea’s answer to vodka, but made from rice. You’ll also be offered some salty snacks – anything from nuts mixed with crispy anchovies to rice crackers. Drinks from £13.75. fourseasons.com
12am The healthy clubbing scene is just getting started. Try Octagon nightclub in Itaewon, an area known for its progressive international scene. Table service is normal for groups, but be wary – the Koreans love to drink, and your table will be laden with soju and flavoured cloudy makgeolli (fermented rice wine). Club Octagon, B1/B2 New Hilltop Hotel, 152 Nonhyeon-ro, Seoul
3am Time to partake in the post-party tradition of Haejang Guk (hangover soup) – an old tried-and-tested ‘cure’ to prevent the pains of excessive imbibing. Grab a seat at Cheongjinok and slurp up this spicy beefy soup teeming with cubes of ox blood, bean sprouts and spring onions. Cheongjinok, 24 Jongno 1-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul
9am Make an early-morning visit to bustling Noryangjin Fish Market (above), a fascinating place with all kinds of sea creatures on display in glass tanks. You can’t get fresher than this – take your pick and bring it still alive to one of the many small restaurants upstairs, where the chefs can prepare your chosen fish a number of ways. Noryangjin Fish Market, 674 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul
10am Dive into Korea’s checkered history of invasion and occupation at The War Memorial of Korea (below), which showcases poignant exhibits, artwork and artefacts. A must-see in Seoul, especially now, to help understand the tense relationship between North and South Korea. warmemo.or.kr
1pm For lunch, head over to Gwangjang Market for the best street food Seoul has to offer. Enjoy jap chae glass noodles, addictive rice rolls and bindaetteok – a savoury mung-bean pancake studded with unctuous pieces of pork and tangy kimchi. Gwangjang Market, 88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
3pm In the famed district artistic of Insadong you can explore art galleries, teahouses and souvenir shops. Speciality Korean dumpling restaurants also abound here in the small side alleys – my favourite, Bukchon Sonmandu, plates up some of the best king-sized dumplings in town. Bukchon Sonmandu, 42-5 Insadong-gil, Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
7pm Seoulites love whiskey and many specialist bars have popped up in recent years. Finding Le Chamber is a bit tricky, with only a discreet bookshelf to greet you, and you have to be in the know as to which book to select to gain entry. Once inside, the extensive whisky selection and slick cocktails will set the mood for a civilised evening. Drinks from £13.75. Le Chamber, 42, Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
9pm Upscale dining is on the menu tonight at Gaon (above), one of only two restaurants in Seoul to be graced with three Michelin stars. Gaon harbours an understated elegance, hinting that you are about to engage in something quite special. Fresh crab marinated delicately in soy sauce, buttery hanwoo beef grilled to perfection, poached fish kissed with ginger… you’ll leave smiling and very content. Dinner from £150. Gaon, M Floor Holim Art Center, 317 Dosan-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
12pm Dare I say it… be a loser and retire to the refined Four Seasons. And congratulate yourself on really doing Seoul.
Judy Joo is the chef patron of Jinjuu Restaurants in London and Hong Kong, and the host (Food Network UK) and author of Korean Food Made Simple (Jacqui Small, £22).
Lufthansa cabin crew tips for Seoul
Kim Heejin | flight attendant
Serving excellent speciality coffees in a renovated traditional hanok (traditional Korean house), this is a welcome addition to the Gwanghwamun coffee-shop scene. 24, Jahamun-ro 24-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
The Hand and Malt Brewing Company Tap Room
Here you can sample a range of reasonably priced, quality craft beers from this small local microbrewery. thehandandmalt.com
This restaurant in Hongdae specialises in Korean home cooking. Head here for large bowls of comforting Bibimbap. 203-56 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
This article was published 5 September 2017