There are cities out there in the world whose appeal lies in their timelessness. Take the quaint streets of Paris as an example. It seems like not much has changed since the Impressionists famously captured the charming cafes and cobblestone streets on their canvases. Seoul is not one of these classic cities. Seoul impresses you because of its insistence to improve and reinvent itself for the better. The Seoul I remember 20 years ago from my childhood is very different from the Seoul I visited in recent weeks.
Seoul is so fancy now, home to wealthy consumers with a discerning eye, making it a key market for many high end retailers. I was talking to the head of merchandising at online retailer Totokaelo a few months ago, and I found it very interesting that the company wanted to open their next brick-and-mortar luxury store in Seoul. I had no idea at the time that the luxury market in Korea was that big. But I’ve seen it in person while walking the streets of Apgujeong in Gangnam, where a critical mass of fashion-forward retailers with beautiful storefronts like Acne Studios, 10 Corso Como and Boon the Shop has formed.
Sometimes I am nostalgic for a simpler Korea defined by cutesy Morning Glory stationery sets and delicious street food and pastries. That part of Korea still exists, luckily, especially in areas like Myeongdong, a busy, brightly lit shopping area that’s home to a ton of cosmetics stores hawking the latest in Korean face masks, and Insadong, a neighborhood noted for its galleries, antiques and traditional architecture. 48 hours is not enough to do Seoul justice, but if you need a weekend itinerary that lets you see a bit of the old and the new, see below for some ideas.
Day 1 – We arrived in Seoul at 5 pm, weary from the 14 hour flight, but there was no time to waste, as we only had three nights in the city. We went straight to dinner at Tao Yuen, an elegant Korean Chinese restaurant at The Plaza Seoul near City Hall. Korean Chinese is a very specific hybrid cuisine that originated when the ethnic Chinese who immigrated to the country started making derivatives of northern style Chinese cuisine inspired by the flavors of their new homeland. Signature dishes include the very spicy jampong noodle soup dish, the hearty black bean noodles jjajjangmyeon (similar to the Chinese dan dan noodles), and tangsuyuk, or sweet and sour fried pork. In the States, and at the traditional delivery places in Korea, the flavors tend to be pretty strong and the food is heavy, but Tao Yuen’s refined preparation ladles away all the extra grease and extraneous sauce for a modern, cleaner take. The weekend “Harmony” meal set at 68,000 won (~$58) is a very good deal in which you get 6 courses of the highest quality that lets you try a little bit of everything. I couldn’t find any fault with this dinner, but if I had to choose, the fruit cream shrimp and the pork tangsuyuk were the standouts.
We walked off our dinner by wandering around Myeongdong, which was packed with late night revelers noshing on different snacks. If you’re ever craving popular snacks like hotteok (sweet pancakes), ddeok bukki (spicy rice cakes) or fish-shaped bungeoppang bread filled with red bean, this is the place to get it. You can also ride the wave of K-cosmetic popularity and stock up on a year’s supply of face masks at one of the many cosmetic shops lining the street. There are literally dozens of storefronts, and oftentimes the same brand will have 2 or 3 outlets. I don’t know how they all stay in business, but the oversupply is keeping face mask prices low, which is a boon for me.
Day 2 – We woke up at 5 am thanks to the joys of jet lag, so after working out at the old man Korean gym at The Plaza Seoul, we worked up an appetite and wanted something savory and hearty. Apparently Myeongdong is home to many specialty porridge shops, and that fit the criteria of what we wanted to eat, so we made our way to Migabon for breakfast. I like how each Asian culture has its own style of congee. The Chinese version is more watery and soupier, whereas the Korean and Japanese ones are starchier and stickier. The porridge at Migabon was excellent and was by the far the best Korean-style porridge that I’ve ever had. I would highly recommend the chicken and ginger for something more filling, or the crab meat if you want something on the lighter side. For some reason, they offer male customers free porridge refills, which I found a little strange and possibly sexist, but I profited off of it somehow so I couldn’t complain.
No trip to Korea is complete without a shopping trip to Gangnam, the posh area made famous by Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video. Apgujeong is an area of Gangnam that is equivalent to Madison Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It’s a luxury shopper’s paradise, and you can find everything from classic high-end retailers like Cartier or more forward thinking specialty boutiques and brands like 10 Corso Como or Rick Owens.
Most of it was out of my price range, but I could afford a fancy Korean meal at Yeon Ha Deung. I grew up eating Korean food that was made by mothers and grandmothers, and so of course that style of cooking was very homey, with the seasonings being on the stronger side. It never occurred to me that Korean cooking could be sophisticated and restrained, and just as visually stunning as what could be presented in a Western restaurant, which is the style at Yeon Ha Deung. We were seated in our own private room salon, which added to the luxurious atmosphere, and the service was actually very good and on point. The weekend lunch set at 38,000 won (~$32) gets you the most bang for your buck–5 small courses, banchan, a main (we chose the delicious bo ssam and the steak) and a refreshing bowl of naengmyun noodles at the end. For the full Yeon Ha Deung write-up, click here.
We were ready to do some more window shopping. One store that particularly caught our eye was Queen Mama Market, a high end lifestyle retailing concept that sells everything from clothing, gardening tools, home furnishings and coffee. It’s stores like these that give me hope that brick and mortar retail isn’t dead. Everything was so carefully curated and interesting and beautifully arranged, and I truly felt that a purchase there would be an essential addition to making my life more stylish. I didn’t want to leave, and the coffee shop on the top floor with a roof deck makes it very easy to do so.
Seoul isn’t all fancy Gangnam style. No trip would be complete without getting your hands a little dirty eating some Korean bbq. There are nice chains like Sam Won Garden that provide a very comfortable bbq experience, but for something with more character, you should venture out a bit, take the Bundang subway line to the Seoul Forest station exit and walk towards a block crammed with pork bbq restaurants at every turn. It’s a very modest and diy affair, and it’s a little chaotic trying to cook your meat in the outdoors with windy conditions and such, but the fun, block party feel more than makes up for it.
We took a late evening stroll through Insadong, a neighborhood known for its traditional store fronts selling ceramics and artwork. Our visit coincided with Buddha’s birthday, so many parts of the street were blocked off for the festivities that were taking place in the area. There were people dancing and singing on a large stage, a scene that reminded me of those old live concerts I used to watch on KBS. The Jogyesa temple, which is the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, a very influential religious group in the country, was decorated in brightly lit lanterns in honor of the deity’s birthday.
There are a lot of tea shops in Insadong, and a famous one is O’Sulloc Tea House, which sells green tea grown and harvested in Cheju Island. You can buy the teas in the retail store, and upstairs in the cafe you can enjoy green tea treats like ice cream and pastries. The green tea ice cream here is very strong and especially bitter, and as if there weren’t enough tea in the ice cream already, you get to drizzle some more green tea syrup on top of it.
Our very short trip to Seoul was coming to an end. To extend our stay a little longer, we woke up early the next morning to have our last meal at Sinseon, which makes seulongtang oxtail soup in Myeongdong. It was a clean broth without the notorious film of cloudy fat that these soups are known for, and it came pre-seasoned with salt and scallions, an unusual move as the old school places typically let you season to taste. We were full and ready to hibernate on the 12 hour flight back. Who knows if any of these places will still be around the next time I’m back. Seoul keeps getting younger and newer with time.
Taoyuen at The Plaza Seoul (Central Business District)
119 Sogong-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul 04525, South Korea
Migabon and Sinseon (in the same building)
1F and 2F 2-23, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
O’Sulloc Tea House
170 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
55 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Yeon Ha Deung Restaurant
33 Seollung-ro 152-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Queen Mama Market
50 Apgujeong-ro 46-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
27-2 Seollung-ro 162 Gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Boon the Shop
17 Apgujeong-ro 60-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
10 Corso Como
416 Apgujeong-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
93-6 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
95-5 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Pork restaurant area
Take the Bundang Line and get off at Seoul Forest station. The phonetic translation of the restaurant we went to is Neul Bom Galbi