Photo: Bukchon Hanok village in Seoul

Traditional homes line a lane in the Bukchon neighborhood.

Photograph by Dagmar Schwelle, laif/Redux

By Jonathan Hopfner

Seoul has long been painted as the unknown quantity among Asia’s megacities, at most a stopover for travelers on their way to somewhere with more cachet. But that portrayal looks increasingly outdated for a place starting to set trends. In the past few years the South Korean capital has hosted high-profile events such as the G-20 summit, won accolades for its design savvy, and flooded overseas markets with high-end Samsung smart phones and sleek Hyundai cars (not to mention its polished pop culture).

The city of ten-million-plus residents is both investing in the future and riding a resurgence of tradition. Seoul’s newfound fortune has also brought with it a diversity that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Seoul “is becoming much more sophisticated as Koreans who grew up in a prosperous, democratic society get older,” says Seoul National University professor Robert J. Fouser. “It’s also friendly. At times, it feels like an overgrown small town.”

The best time to experience Seoul is now, before this former underdog gets too comfortable in the global spotlight.

What to do While much is made of Seoul’s headlong dash to development, a celebrated past still lives on in its stately royal palaces. Here the country’s kings and queens resided until Korea’s occupation by neighboring Japan in the early 20th century hastened the demise of the monarchy. The largest palace, Gyeongbokgung, has sat at the foot of Mount Bugak for over 600 years, as old as the capital itself. Fronted by the towering, radiantly colored Gwanghwamun gate, it’s a sprawling network of pavilions, passageways, and courtyards. At its center lies a vast throne hall still furnished with royal accoutrements such as an ornate wooden throne and banners depicting mountains, dragons, and other symbols of longevity and power. The palace’s eastern counterpart, Changdeokgung, is arguably even better preserved and was named a World Heritage site for its quintessential expression of traditional Korean architecture. Its sculpted gardens, graced with ponds and pagodas, infuse a welcome dose of tranquillity in an often frenetic urban core.

Between these two historic structures lies the Bukchon neighborhood, one of Seoul’s few remaining patches of hanok, or old-style Korean homes. Built so closely together that their delicately curved, tiled roofs frequently touch, the snug houses edge a web of alleyways that beg to be explored, each turn likely to toss up a quaint teahouse or curio-stocked gallery. “A walk in Bukchon is really a must,” says Fouser. “Most of the houses have been rebuilt or heavily renovated in recent years, but all in keeping with the traditional cityscape.”

Seoul’s landscape is defined by the mountains cradling the city and the waterways running through it. The rebuilt Seoul Fortress, a stone wall that once traversed the ridges overlooking the city center, has proved a boon for trekkers, who now ramble its length, soaking in forested vistas. The segment of the wall from Buam-dong to Samcheong-dong is particularly picturesque, skirting bucolic old neighborhoods and parks. The less athletically inclined can ride a cable car up Mount Nam to the needlelike N Seoul Tower, where on a clear day they just might be able to see all the way to South Korea’s reclusive northern neighbor.

Seoul’s previously neglected rivers have also received a new lease on life. The Cheong­gyecheon once again courses above ground after a 2005 restoration project that saw it unearthed from the concrete and fitted with walkways, fountains, and light displays. Farther south, the mighty Han River is now lined with parks and bike paths and adorned with some eye-catching architecture, including the world’s largest artificial floating island—three linked structures of glass and steel that spring from the river like futuristic lily pads.

The National Museum of Korea houses an unrivaled collection of art, artifacts, and sculpture including epic landscape paintings and ornate Buddhist pagodas, some from China. For a more contemporary focus, head to the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, which juxtaposes Buddhist iconography and the work of postmodern bad boys like Damien Hirst. The mammoth War Memorial displays a remarkable collection of vintage fighting vehicles (a 1950s-era antisubmarine aircraft, helicopters).

Where to shop The older districts north of the Han are still dominated by traditional markets, some of which have operated for centuries. They span multiple city blocks and cater to teeming crowds with dazzling arrays of housewares, fresh produce, and cooked snacks—in other words, a formula for sensory overload and fertile ground for bargain-hunters. Namdaemun is the most accessible for visitors, its stalls bursting with Korean specialties such as ginseng and lacquerware. The fashion-conscious rely on nearby Dongdae­mun, packed with the work of young designers as well as bulk quantities of factory-produced clothing, shoes, and bags. Insadong remains the city’s go-to zone for classic art, crafts, and souvenirs; calligraphy and ceramics tend to be good buys.

South of the Han River in the affluent Apgujeong district, Garosu-gil, a laid-back enclave with funky boutiques and stores that spotlight up-and-coming talent, has fast blossomed into one of the city’s most vibrant blocks. Highlights include People of Tastes, an emporium of locally designed clothing and accessories that appeal to a young demographic, and MMMG, which specializes in whimsical stationery and tastefully designed everyday items like mugs and key chains.

Where to eat While foreign cuisine remains popular, more restaurants are beginning to traffic in culinary nostalgia. Down-home barbecue joint Hongik Sutbul Galbi cooks fresh cuts of beef and pork over steel drums and accompanies them with pungent stews and fiery pickled vegetables. The Korean rural idyll has found urbane new digs in places like Moon Jar, where humble standards such as steamed pork and mung-bean pancakes are paired with artisanal rice wines. Buddhist temple cuisine, which draws on thousands of years of tradition, delights modern-day diners at elegant Baru, which serves vegetarian meals that adhere to ancient principles but sacrifice nothing in terms of flavor or variety.

Lest one accuse Seoul restaurateurs of being mired in the past, a new crop of chefs is boldly reinterpreting Korean cuisine. Trailblazer Jung Sik Dang in the Apgujeong area still leads the way with its slick, minimalist atmosphere and constantly overhauled menu that sees native delicacies like sea squirt, kimchi (pickled cabbage), and rice cakes employed in inventive ways. In the gentrifying Itaewon neighborhood, Vatos has successfully re-created the Korean taco truck phenomenon in a lively, chic environment of dark wood and exposed brick, along with an airy rooftop terrace that fills with revelers on warm nights.

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