What determines the identity of a city? Between fantasy and reality, the great cities of Asia unfold, always fascinating, often almost familiar thanks to the millions of pieces of information that circulate about them, and, more rarely, totally unexpected. It seems to me that Seoul is one of those cities that doesn't at all resemble the image we have of it. It's not a city whose beauty is obvious. And is it beautiful? Well, not really, by my own standards. But there's something else, a personality like no other, a gentleness beneath its roughness, a calm behind its cheekiness. She reveals herself in little touches, moments of grace that suspend the passage of time, that we have to look for in the midst of chaos, that weave bonds, that grow within us, that create attachment. Because yes, we do fall in love with Seoul, but not at first sight like other Asian cities. And that's what this article is all about. A travel diary of non-blissful fascination and confirmed favourites.
SEOUL, THE FABRIC OF A CITY
Policed but borderline, tech obsessed but untidy... It's not a 'clean' city, it's a bit cheeky, more like Shanghai than Tokyo it seems to me. Order doesn't reign everywhere, in fact it's a mess in some places, with things piling up, overflowing and smelling strongly, particularly of fermented vegetables, a pungent smell that grabs you by the throat when you're not used to it and as you get into taxis with the windows closed.
Alongside the spectacular, crazy buildings, visions of architects who have been given free rein, the city has its leprous side, with peeling paint on shop fronts and tangled electrical wires that look like vines reaching out into the urban jungle, which takes on the air of Rio de Janeiro's favélas from some spectacular vantage points. The city has inherited its turbulent past, 70 years of extraordinary economic and technological development, and it mixed all these layers on top of each other, like a mille feuilles in which the order of assembly was freely executed.
And it's this eccentricity that gives it its contrasting charm: huge blocks of flats of around thirty storeys with bucolic names like "Sky View", "Nature Hill" and "Park Avenue" to make you forget the concrete; hills where nature seems to be reclaiming its rights, unreal visions that emerge at the end of steeply sloping streets in this ultra-urban forest; stalls that spill out onto the asphalt, spreading out their benches where you can help yourself to a mysterious steaming dish, clumsy signposts and multicoloured lantern lights. It's like being in a cartoon!
At weekends, you come across young girls in rented hanboks (traditional dress) worn over jeans and trainers. They form cheerful clusters amidst the fairytale palaces that stand unchanged, centuries old, in the middle of the city, or in the villages of gleaming hanoks (traditional houses), escapades in an ancient Korea that weaves the fabric of a city on the move, encompassing everything, what is old, what is current, and what will be tomorrow.
NEIGHBOURHOODS FOR SLOWING DOWN
Instead of Apgujeong-dong, the showcase district of Korean success on the Gangnam side, we prefer the older, more intimate Seoul that unfolds around 2 spectacular palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Between Insa-dong, Seochon and Bukchon, this is a Seoul where you can wander around on foot, an ideal base from which to enjoy the city. Choosing the right location is even more important here than elsewhere, as getting around wastes a lot of time, as the city is spread out and traffic jams are frequent. Gangnam's 12-lane avenues are legion, making getting around on foot an ordeal.
There are several options for accommodation in Insa-dong, Seochon and Bukchon, from the more standardised (but practical) to the more intimate. Here's a review of tried and tested addresses:
An excellent address in Insa-dong, close to everything, directly overlooking the pretty pedestrian shopping street Insadong-gil on one side and the very active Jogyesa temple on the other is the Nine Tree Premier Hotel Insadong.
Functional, elegant and excellent value for money, it's not the most authentic address in Seoul (it's more of a business hotel) but it ticks all the practical boxes.
Another option in the neighbourhood is the Moxy, more trendy but still very good value for money, and beautifully positioned for enjoying the evening madness of the Ikseon-dong district, literally at the foot of the hotel.
The real reward of a stay in Seoul is being able to spend a few nights in a traditional hanok, which is incredibly charming. Many have been superbly renovated and transformed into either small hotels or houses to rent out entirely. Budgets are higher than those of a 'classic' hotel for a pretty hanok, but the experience is truly magical.
Rak Koe Jae in the beautiful (but very touristy) district of Bukchon, a magnificent guest house, each room unique and a tribute to traditional Korean culture. There are only 5 rooms, so book early. Breakfast is fabulous, served directly in the room on a soban, a small wooden table for individual use.
Another fabulous experience is renting an entire hanok. There are several options for this: airbnb, where you can specifically select hanok rentals and an independent operator that I particularly recommend: Stayfolio, which offers absolutely magnificent accommodation all over Korea, and is a partner of the Aman and Hoshino chains, the ultimate guarantee of service and quality. You have to become a member to access the booking system, but it's free (the navigation is in English). I discovered hôtel Cappuccino thanks to Stayfolio, and regardless of the fact that its neighbourhood was not at all to my liking (Gangnam), it was a very good hotel experience (even if it had nothing to do with a hanok!).
Otherwise, my little nugget is Nuile, a hanok listed by Stayfolio. The budget is substantial, but it's so beautiful that you're willing to break your piggy bank for it!
SUBJECTIVELY: THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN SEOUL
This address book has a bias: to focus only on places that showcase Korean culture, whether traditional or contemporary, around its crafts and heritage. So it's not here that you'll find ultra-tech ideas, but rather charming places to relax, discover and take your time in this city that knows how to be something other than frenetic when you look closely.
Beautiful traditional tea/coffee room in a charming courtyard: KyungIn Art Gallery Dawon
A favourite! Traditional Korean pastry. Upstairs, a superb little place: HAAP Wonseo
Superb hanji (Korean paper) museum: 한지문화산업센터
A beautiful tea house with a very contemporary decor: Osulloc Tea House Bukchon
Stayfolio's pretty shop, in my favourite district, Seochon: 메이크폴리오 서촌
A beautiful place that promotes Korean culture. Arumjigi Cultural Keepers
Charming cafe in a renovated old Korean house: Lake 삼청
Favourite! Opened in 2021, the must-see museum to discover Korean crafts: Seoul Museum of Craft Art
A superb museum: Leeum Museum of Art
On several floors, beautiful shops (including D&Department for those who know this Japanese brand), very design, on the ground floor a nice café: mmmg
A beautiful cosmetics brand with a magnificent retail concept. Sulwhasoo SPA
A slightly snobbish but very interesting concept store: LCDC Seoul
The very trendy and spectacular (old disused building): Cafe Onion Seongsu
Japanese-style tea house: Matchacha – Tea room
Vegetarian temple cuisine: Balwoo Gongyang
Traditional Korean embroidery shop: Kukje Embroidery
I hope you find this Seoul travel diary useful at some point, and that you enjoy your stay in a city that always makes you want to return.
Photos: ©️Atelier Ikiwa