Weekend escapes in Asian capital-cities are one of the luxuries of living in Hong-Kong. However it always feels a bit of a challenge to approach a new country and culture for such a short time. We had only 48 hours to spend in Seoul and I was determined to make the best out of it. I immediately sought advice from my Korean friend and food blogger, Mina Park from Sook who came up with a full list of restaurants and places to visit. She paved our route through the city making this first visit to Korea a memorable one. (detailed map, click here)
Friday: a first night out in Seoul
It was a one-hour drive from the airport to the hotel without much traffic. We took our quarters at the Grand Hyatt, which from the outside looks like a gigantic soul-less hotel overlooking the town from up-hill. It actually turned out to be a warm and lively place to stay at: the hotel is part of the Korean social-life with locals coming up for an evening drink or Sunday brunch. The facilities are excellent, especially the huge outdoor swimming pool. The rooms are comfortable and ours had an outstanding view to the city. All areas we explored where at a fifteen to twenty minutes taxi-ride from the hotel.
Poom - An exclusive introduction to fine Korean food
This venue, very close to the Grand Hyatt, had to be booked in advance and pre-paid as the food is all fresh and set as a single tasting menu. Poom is known for turning ancient Korean recipes into exquisite modern cuisine. It was quite a surprise when the taxi dropped us at the bottom of an office building with no restaurant sign (he missed the main entrance at the top of the hill). We remained doubtful as we were climbing up the quiet staircase but that was only for a better surprise. Poom’s intimate and elegant wooden dining room offers stunning views to the city. We appreciated the considerate and warm service and truly enjoyed the refined and savory courses.
Night walk in Insa-dong
As we weren’t ready to head back to the hotel, we took a taxi to Jonggak metro station and strolled around the Insa-dong neighborhood which was bustling with youngsters coming in and out of restaurants and bars lined up one after another. We loved the lively and friendly atmosphere of this Friday night lightened up by millions of neons and bright signs. We did not join the party but simply soaked the street ambiance.
Saturday: from markets to museums
We arrived early and witnessed the awakening of this huge covered-market, which consists of aisles of shops gathered by specialties: colorful fabrics, traditional gowns, kitchenware, spices, etc. As the shopkeepers were slowly opening up their iron curtains, welcoming us with a smile, the food stalls were already up and running with people gathering on wooden benches for a morning-fix.
It was still relatively early when we reached the attractive promenade along the Cheong-gye-cheon therefore we could enjoy a peaceful walk on that popular weekend and touristic hang-out. While admiring the stream flowing, the poetic stone footpaths, the wild herons, it was hard to picture that ten years back a raised highway was crossing the city at that exact same location. There were several interesting art exhibitions on our way up to Cheong-gye Plaza.
Sanchon: a vegetarian feast in Insa-dong
By the time we reached Insa-dong, the whole area was animated with street performances and pedestrians on a weekend stroll. We indulged ourselves with a delicious meal at the lovely Buddhist vegetarian restaurant Sanchon.
We then spent a good part of the afternoon visiting art galleries and shopping in the numerous antique and souvenir boutiques. Before we left the area we made a pause at one of Seoul’s eldest teahouse, Dawon.
This brilliant museums’ complex is a must-visit both for its unique architecture, combining the talents of three major architects (Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem KoolHaas), and for its collections bringing together Korean art, traditional and contemporary, and international art, modern and contemporary (Giacometti, Bacon, Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beys, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Amish Kapoor, Olafur Eliason, etc). The constant dialogue between the architecture and the art pieces offers unique perspectives on both.
An evening in Gangman
The evening started with an exquisite and refine dinner at Jungsik restaurant. The food was an innovative mix of traditional ingredients and the service extremely attentive.
Next we went for a stroll in close-by Garosu-gil area, which is bustling with small shops, food restaurants and trendy vibes.
Sunday: A walk through traditional Seoul
Changdeokgung Palace and its secret garden
We had to choose one of the two main palaces and picked the Changdeokgung Palace mainly for its secret garden. However we asked our taxi driver to drive up the impressive Gwanghwamun square and pass by the massive entrance gate of Gyeongbokgung palace. At Changdeokgung Palace, we joined a guided tour, which took us through the main pagodas. We then joined another tour to get into the secret garden: a one-hour walk in dense woodland and poetic landscapes featuring gracious pavilions and lily ponds. This garden is a peaceful heaven at the heart of the city.
Joining the local crowds at Samcheongdong-gil
We loved the lively atmosphere in this popular and old neighborhood. People come for a weekend stroll and visit the many restaurants, shops, and cafes housed in renovated traditional Korean homes.
We had a Korean barbecue lunch in the quiet garden of Mapple Tree House.
The area is also home to some large contemporary art galleries (PKM, Art Sonje Center, Kukje Gallery, Gallery Simon, Palais de Séoul and One and J Gallery).
Later we stopped in a modern coffee shop with an interesting industrial design. D’Industry, real furniture cafe 55 (if you want a break from Korean food, they serve excellent shrimp and avocado burgers).
Traditional (and busy) Bukchon Hanok village
It was a nice walk to the traditional village and it is worth discovering these absolutely beautiful wooden houses with graceful tiled roofs and internal courtyard gardens. The neighborhood is up on a hill and offers nice views to the city. However we did not stay long as we had to struggle against a compact crowd of tourists. There are probably more peaceful days to get lost in these labyrinthine streets and explore the many hidden shops, galleries and cafes.
Last dive into traditional Korea at Namsangol Hanok village
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the foot of Namsan Park where five houses from the Joseon era have been moved from different parts of Seoul. The architecture of these houses from the upper-class is quite austere and simple, it is interesting to see as one can then picture how people used to live. We were lucky to visit on a special day when Kung-Fu demonstrations were held; we were thrilled with the performances and the audience’s enthusiasm.
We arrived at the hotel just on time to pick up our bags and head to the airport. There is much more we would like to see in Seoul and next time we will certainly visit with the children since I am convinced it would be a great destination for them as well.