Zoe Strimpel samples the incredible street food, art galleries and bathhouses of South Korea’s buzzing capital city
I AM not a particularly resourceful traveller. I am easily baffled by public transport, flustered by people staring, commenting or touting, and phobic of having to bargain. Travel in east Asia, then, can be stressful.
Seoul, however, is different. I landed, bleary eyed, at 9am in the morning from an unexpectedly brief BA flight from London (about 10 and a half hours). After making my way through the gleaming airport, my bus came and took me straight to my hotel, the chic Park Hyatt. I was the only passenger on the bus, which was the sort of vehicle a rock star would take on tour, with pairs of enormous, ergonomic leather seats and lace curtains. It cost 3,000 won (£10) and the ride took just over an hour.
Seoul is staggeringly enormous. But unlike Tokyo – the most obvious point of comparison – it feels homely. The subway is easy to use as all of the ticket machines and announcements are in both Korean and English, making getting around town hassle free.
The song Gangnam Style was inspired by a big ritzy patch of the city south of the river (Gang means south; Hangnam is north of the river). Thirty years ago Gangnam was paddy fields. Now, its residents strut down the street in Louis Vuitton and Prada. Its Mercedes Benz-driving shoppers swig Dom Perignon at prices that make Mayfair look cheap. Even so, Gangnam is not just a playground for the super rich. I spent many happy hours strolling around the small alleys of Abgu, its epicenter, eating in tiny, delicious dumpling restaurants; sampling the cheaper, quirkier end of the boutique spectrum. Wagyu beef is available at Korean BBQ restaurants for 30 won per head.
Food is taken extremely seriously in Korea and, like all true foodie nations, there are parallel worlds of street food and restaurant food, equally complex and rewarding. The street stalls offer favourites like tempura-style tubes of rice wrapped in seaweed, fish squares and a range of deep fried red bean and green tea-based sweets. There are also stalls selling porridge, dumplings, cooked insects and deep-fried tofu.
For a Korean BBQ, an enormous plate of meat is delivered to your table and you cook it as you wish. I was particularly enamoured by the Wagyu cuts and the marinated pork specially reared on a local island. Kimchee – delicious garlicky, chilli-infused cabbage – comes with everything: I had it three or four times a day.
There are other things to do in Seoul apart from eating and wasting your life savings with a mandatory retail sweep of Gangnam. (And it’s not just Gangnam that is good for shopping: I recommend Insadong for charming boutiques, galleries and a villagey feel, a bit like Hampstead.)
There is plenty of art in Seoul. The Leeum Art Museum, built by the local Samsung chief, looks similar to the Guggenheim with good contemporary and heritage Korean collections. It sits on a mountainside surrounded by fresh air and the compounds of the wealthiest koreans, including the whole Samsung and LG families. I spent the most time in the enormous, scrupulously-curated National Museum of Korea, which spans over four Smithsonian-sized floors with vast collections of ceramics, paintings, legal texts and technology spanning the earliest Korean settlements to the Korean-American war. You can see the first ever telephone used in Korea from around the turn of the 20th century – a poignantly archaic tool next to the Galaxy Notes through which the locals live and breathe today. I loved the beautiful gold jewellery and decadent, bejewelled furniture of the Gaya Confederacy (42–532 AD) as well as the pale blue Celadon pottery of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s longest (1392-1897). To spend a few hours here is to take a deep inhalation of both Korean history and of the essence of a peculiarly intense cultural pride, all the more piquant when taken alongside the materialism of 21st century Seoul.
The Korean Folk Museum, located in the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex (built by the first Joseon King), is the other bastion of cultural pride. Another massive depot of historical information and painstaking curation, this is also worth a whip round so that when you emerge back into the whorls of superfast highways and skyscrapers, you remember just how young modern Seoul is. If Seoul were closer to London, I’d go for weekend spa breaks. The sort of spas I’m talking about, though, are not what you or I associate with the very expensive European wellbeing industry. These “bathhouses” are all-you-can-do halls of cheap and cheerful sensuality: they're zero-frills and scruffy, but you leave feeling like a million bucks. Within one bath house you will find sex-segregated hot tubs and cold pools with mandatory nakedness, and – in the women’s baths – ladies in floral underwear vigorously scrubbing naked clients with rags, eggs, strawberry yogurt and cucumber. In one tub full of greenish water, I found a metal canister stuffed with green tea leaves that gave the water its murky colour. Also in the bathhouse you’ll find a mixed-sex massage chamber. It was here that a short bulky man went to work on my back, leaving it equally bruised and supple. I nearly cried from pain several times throughout his vigorous routine, but afterwards I felt great. Elsewhere is a sauna room, which resembles a bombed-out mound of rubble – I don’t even recall a roof. Groups of spa-goers huddle over coals roasting yams and rice sausages. This is evidently completely normal (Koreans love a picnic as I was told by one or two disgruntled citizens) as food is for sale in the bathhouse. Walking past these people you will come to a nondescript curtain: open it, and inside is a tiny dome of heat, like the opposite of an igloo, stuffed full of gossipers, readers, meditators and other heat-seekers with towels wrapped around their foreheads.
Making our way back to the pools to cool off, we passed a lecture on posture, a massive communal nap (many locals simply pay the $10 to gain entry to the 24 hour bath houses where they can kip on mats after a few too many beers instead of paying for a hotel), a fortune telling room, several fast food restaurants and nail art.
I reflected on all the posh spas I’d experienced in my life, including the very nice massage I’d had in the subtly-scented, richly furnished Park Hyatt Hotel in Gangnam. The hours spent in the public bath houses of Seoul with their garish orange walls, noisy playing children and smell of roasting yams produced the finest glow my skin has ever known. I’ll be back.
located in Gangnam, the Park Hyatt is convenient and flashy. Hop on the subway two stops, and you’ll be in the heart of the charming Abgu, where wealthy students and housewives hang out. With fully glassed walls, it’s light and airy, with a minimalist style. My room was a spacious cube with high quality wood floors, slate and a wonderful heated toilet. The spa is small and well formed with an infinity pool, a gym looking out on the city, heated pools with showers, and some well-appointed treatment rooms. The Cornerstone restaurant, however, is expensive and unexciting compared to the rest of the city. Breakfast is brilliant though. The home-made granola and sweet loaves braided with green tea paste and streusel were highlights.
From £230 per night (385,000 won) seoul.park.hyatt.com
Koreans love the W brand. If you do too, this is a good example of it. If you think it’s naff, avoid at all costs. In a vast glass-fronted building on a hill, with great pink neon cylinders at the front, it’s become a bit of a scene among Seoul’s hipsters. The bar is arranged like a London theatre with sloping seats for better perusal of the people below you. Avoid if you want to relax: it’s more like a club than a hotel. The rooms, though, have marvellous beds and big, sweeping views of the river. The hotel is a little way out, but every ten minutes a shuttle bus goes to and from Gangbyeong, a central station not far from Gangnam.
From £150 per night (265,000 won) starwoodhotels.com/whotels
■ The DMZ
■ Gyeongbokgung Palace
■ Insadong (Seoul’s Hampstead)
■ Apgujeong (Notting Hill meets Dalston)
■ Leeum Museum of Art
■ Museum of Korea
■ National Folk Museum of Korea
■ Bathhouses (there are hundreds)