The “Hermit Kingdom’s” capital is wide open for fun. Korea shut its borders in the 19th century, earning the nickname “Hermit Kingdom.” And though today Seoul is a modern capital of more than 12 million people, visitors still will find themselves enjoying a thoroughly foreign (but friendly) city.
Skip the coffee and start your day with a caffeine kick in historic Insa Dong, on the north bank of the Han River. At the beginning of Insadongdaero, make a stop at the Crown Bakery (tel 82 2 341 5260) for one of their famous pastries. Then walk down the street to the Areumdaun Cha Bangmulgwan “Beautiful Tea Museum.” (tel 82 2 735 6678) Here you can taste more than 100 types of tea, including chrysanthemum, plum, green pea and pomegranate.
Properly fortified, you’re now ready to spend the morning exploring Insa Dong, which many consider Korea’s cultural capital. Grab a map —you’ll need it! — from one of the three tourism information centers on the street. Then wind your way through cobbled streets and alleyways filled with galleries, restaurants and more than 40 percent of the country’s antique stores. This is your best bet for authentic souvenirs, like hanbok (traditional clothing), delicate silk bags or the blue-green celadon ceramics for which Seoul is known.
For authentic cuisine, Chwedaegamne (first floor, Gyeonun-dong 64-67, Jongno-gu, tel 82 2 733 9355) is the place for lunch. This famous Insa Dong eatery features a lovely garden and pond, and such specialties as galbi (ribs), ssam (rice wrapped in lettuce), and Korea’s national dish, kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage).
Admission is free at the recently restored Chogyesa Temple, one block west of Insa Dong (tel 82 2 732 2115). Built in 1910, the temple is the center of the Chogye Order, Korean Buddhism’s largest sect. The colorfully painted Main Hall illustrates the story of Buddha and his path to enlightenment. Paintings of hundreds of Buddhas flank the central shrine, and a 500-year-old white pine graces the compound.
Changdeokgung Palace Complex (2-71 Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, tel 82 2 762 9513) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a fine example of Far Eastern palace architecture. Be sure not to miss the Secret Garden and the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. There are three English-language guided tours each day (11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.).
Putting all this history in context is the job of the nearby National Folk Museum of Korea (1-1 Jongno-gu, tel 82 2 734 1330). Spend an hour or so browsing exhibits of Korean culture from prehistory through the Joseon period, which ended in 1910. The outdoor sculptures displayed on Jejudo Island are excellent, and you don’t have to pay the museum’s admission fee to enjoy them.
After culture, cleansing. Grab a taxi to Hurest Well Being Club (Myong Dong Tower, 31-1 Myong Dong 2-ga, tel 82 2 778 7700) and enjoy a traditional Korean sauna. This modern jim jil bang (family spa) has amazing views of Seoul, and sparklingly clean, modern facilities.
Scrubbing and soaking should ensure you’re refreshed and ready for dinner. Samwon Garden (6235 Sinsadong, Gangnam-gu, tel 82 2 548 3030) is the place for barbecued bulgogi (marinated beef) and more. Enjoy a few shots of soju, a potent liquor distilled from potatoes. End the evening with a final toast (gun-bae), perched on a plastic stool at an informal roadside pojangmacha.
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