South Korea has been on our radar, with the Winter Olympics last year and its thawing of relations with North Korea. U.S. tourist arrivals have soared by 33 percent since the Games. Bus tours to the Demilitarized Zone, including a tunnel believed to have been part of a planned North Korean invasion route, top many itineraries. South Korea’s K-pop, K-dramas, and K-beauty have coalesced into a global Korean wave. Head to Seoul to see the birthplace of these trends.
HIGH IN SEOUL
The city contains a sea of skyscrapers and is dotted with ancient temples and palaces. The Seoul Capital Area is home to nearly half the country’s population. Most visitors take it in from the N Seoul Tower. The second highest point in Seoul, it rises 777 feet from Mount Namsan’s summit, offering an observation deck, restaurants, and countless love locks bearing romantic messages. The city’s highest point—at 1,824 feet—is the Lotte World Tower and Mall, the fifth-tallest building in the world. Resembling a calligrapher’s brush, it houses restaurants, an aquarium, and shopping on its 123 floors. The top seven floors are devoted to Seoul Sky with its glass Sky Walk deck that has you walking on clouds.
Signiel Seoul, a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World, brings luxurious East-meets-West sensibilities to floors 71 to 101 of the Lotte World Tower. The rooms soar above the clouds, providing amazing views of the area ($320 and up). The hotel includes a pool and fitness center, plus Stay and Bicena restaurants—French and Korean, respectively—both Michelin-starred; Bar 81, the largest champagne bar in Korea; and supersleek Evian Spa.
PAVILIONS OF CULTURE
Changdeokgung Palace, built in 1405, offers tours in English three times daily. Full of splendid architecture deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s best known for the pavilions and ponds of its Secret Garden. Performing-arts lovers might head to Seoul Arts Center, marking its 30th year, for concerts, grand opera, and ballet; visual-arts aficionados should visit Seoul Museum of Art. The modest-sounding Korea Furniture Museum, by reservation only, displays exquisite traditional furniture in 10 traditional houses (hanoks) on immaculate grounds.
The hanoks—made with wood, stone, and paper and not a single nail—are available for overnights throughout the city. At 130-year-old Rakkojae Seoul, enjoy traditional architecture, aristocratic culture, a tea ceremony, a coursed meal, kimchi-making, yellow-mud sauna, and sleeping on a naturally heated jade floor ($230 and up). Temple-stay programs allow a look at the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns.
Insadong is renowned for its galleries, antiques, teahouses, and restaurants. Attend a Buddhist service at flower-laden Jogyesa Temple. Just opposite, you can enjoy a Michelin-starred multi-course Temple Food Experience at Balwoo Gongyang. The fascinating fixed menus (from about $25) might start with dried acorn jelly and end with a dessert of balloon-flower root. Street foods include the astonishing Korean court cake—the vendor doubles strands from a single loop to precisely 16,384 ethereal wisps in about 60 seconds.
ON THE TRAIL
About two hours east is Gangneung, known for its beaches and world-class skiing. Koreans gather daily at Jeongdongjin Beach to watch the sunrise; the Jeongdong-simgok Badabuchae-gil Trail along the shore is a former military patrol route with fan-shaped rocks. What looks like a cruise ship run aground atop the cliff at trail’s end is a re-creation of a Royal Caribbean vessel that serves as the Sun Cruise Resort & Yacht. Seoraksan National Park, a UNESCO biosphere, offers hiking amid granite peaks, a cable car, and 903 metal stairs with views of three waterfalls.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
July 19 through 28: At the Boryeong Mud Festival, people come for mud wrestling, mud massages, mud swimming, and a mud marathon—plus an air show, rave party, and beach fireworks. boryeongmudfestival.com
TIP FROM A LOCAL
“I love to picnic at Seoul Forest. There are trails for walking and bicycling, and you can feed the deer, too. For great photos at sunset, it is an easy walk to the Han River. In Korea, you can have food delivered to either!”
—HYOJUNG KIM, SEOUL RESIDENT