There’s a reason Asian tourists regularly rank Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as their favorite world city. Actually, there are 50 of them and possibly many, many more.
Come with us as we take the Korean barbecue scraper to dig beneath the surface of one of Asia’s true world cities.
50. From bomb shelters to bull markets
Springing from the ruins of the Korean War, Seoul has boomed in just 50 years to become the world’s 10th-most economically powerful city and second-largest metropolitan area. No matter how large or small, Seoulites have never met a job they couldn’t finish ahead of schedule.
49. More side dishes than main dishes
A typical Korean meal comes with seven or eight separate side dishes. And free refills. There’s more color on a Korean table than at Lotte World on Children’s Day.
48. World’s most wired city
Welcome to the world’s leader in IT. South Korea has the world’s fastest average internet connection speed.
47. Best airport in the world
Incheon International Airport, which services Seoul and other nearby Korean cities, has regularly been called the best airport in the world. The sprawling, über-efficient facility is equipped with a golf course, skating rink, Museum of Korean Culture, casino, high-end spa and restaurants serving just about any kind of pre-flight meal you’d want.
46. Hangover stew
Drinking and partying is such a staple of Korean culture that an entire cuisine has sprung up around curing the hangover. If a steaming bowl of haejangguk (spicy beef broth with congealed cow blood and bean sprouts) doesn’t put you right, you’re probably getting wheeled to the morgue. Get the authentic taste at ultra-casual Cheongjinok restaurant.
Cheongjinok, 24 Jongno-gu Jongno-1-ga (종로구 종로1가 24); +82 2 735 1690
45. Sleeping is for losers
Cafes, PC bangs, restaurants, spas, shopping centers and fast food chains are open any hour of any night. The streets of Gangnam, Hongdae or Dongdaemun offer countless anytime venues for drinking, eating and all kinds of play.
Financiers and consultants fly to Seoul from all over Asia on weekends for the booking experience at Seoul nightclubs. A unique form of speed dating in which waiters escort girls into rooms rented by groups of guys, booking can be both awkward, ego crushing and ruthlessly efficient. If the girl doesn’t like what she sees, she leaves with minimal singing, drinking or fake-number-exchanging involved.
43. Beautiful women
Who cares they’ve had plastic surgery? We’ll keep staring.
42. Beautiful men
Who cares if they wear BB cream? We’ll keep staring.
41. Most committed celeb stalkers
Real-time updates in the world’s most connected city are every Korean celebrity’s nightmare. Check the personal blogs of crazy sa-seng (stalker fans) and decode the mono-character posts for hourly updates on your favorite hallyu star. If you want to join the fans on a star search, the posh Apgujeong hair salons and Sinsa karoakes are solid bets for a sighting and acceptable public freak out.
40. Green tiramisu
Just when you thought you’d had enough tasty desserts in Seoul, you bump into the famed green tiramisu from tart cafe Duex Cremes in Sinsa-dong. Rich and creamy with just a hint of green tea tang, this is one dessert you definitely want to venture out for. Most of the tarts at this sleek date spot are sold out by the time the cafe closes, another reason to postpone that visit to the museum.
Duex Cremes, 533-11, Sinsa-dong, Gangam-gu (강남구 신사동 533-11); +82 2 545 7931
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39. Live octopus
Sure, Oh Dae-su went a little overboard in “Oldboy” by swallowing that thing whole. But aside from fighting with your parents, nothing connects you with your primal self like a set of tentacles sucking on your tongue while you eat.
38. 24-hour study rooms
In a country where education is one of the most sensitive topics (15% of the average household income is spent on after-school tutoring), 24-hour study rooms provide an intense and quiet atmosphere. Rooms are divided into rows of cubicles that can be rented for as little as $6 (₩7,000) a day.
37. An ice princess you actually like
Luminous ice queen Kim Yuna is the pride of every Korean’s heart. The first female skater to place first at the Olympics, World Skating Championships, Grand Prix Final and Four Continents Championships, she has served as global ambassador for the Visit Korea campaign.
36. Groupon is so yesterday
With the massive popularity of Coupang and Ticketmonster, social commerce sites are springing up in Seoul at the rate of one per day.
35. Our tech is bigger than yours
Once a giant landfill, Seoul’s Digital Media City’s 557,00 square meters of electronic nirvana is the home for broadcasting, film production, games, telecom companies, cable channels, online shopping centers and e-learning. The 133-floor Digital Media City Landmark Building, slated for completion in 2015, will become the second-tallest building in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
34. Couple couches at movie theaters
It’s not just that the popcorn is easier to share. At Seoul theaters, no more arm rests means nothing gets in the way of snuggling, hand-holding or a sneaky grope.
33. McDonald’s delivers
McNuggets brought to your door 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Probably not conducive to dieting, but it’s hard to care when you have the 2 a.m. munchies.
32. Girl group domination
From TV and billboards to ramen packages and water filters, girl groups are everywhere in Seoul. They’re now going global, with the Wonder Girls infiltrating New York and the U.S. fashion scene, 2NE1 dominating Sandara Park’s native Philippines and Kara and Girls’ Generation battling it out for supremacy on Japan’s Oricon charts.
31. Smart homes
Smart phones and robot vacuum cleaners – yawn. Apartments in Seoul can now be controlled from cell phones and central keypads. Samsung Electronics reps say that facial-recognition will soon be introduced as an addition to bio-recognition security systems.
30. G Dragon
Since debuting in 2006, the audacious leader of K-pop group Big Bang has thrilled Seoul fashionistas with fierce fashion – Alexander McQueen silk skull scarves, wedge loafers, skirts! Best fashion moment: head-to-toe vintage Chanel – complete with a retro headband – and Kanye West Louis Vuitton neon high tops for the group’s concert Big Show 2008.
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29. Cable channels devoted to online gaming
Korea’s unofficial national pastime is dissected with such love that even losers can start to feel like winners.
28. Excellence in flight
Korean Airlines and Asiana Air are a favorite amongst many Koreans.
27. Heated floors
At traditional Korean restaurants, tables are low and chairs are discarded in favor of embroidered cushions. Your butt may fall asleep and your limbs might seize over long lunches, but at least you won’t have to worry about a chill – heated floors (ondol) keep buns balmy and toes toasty. They also take the sting out of traditional sleepovers, in which a plush blanket on the floor replaces a bed.
Korea’s most recognized dish after Korean barbeque, bibimbap is a rice bowl mixed with sauteed roots, marinated beef and chili paste in a hot stone pot. It was Michael Jackson’s favorite dish. It’s still the signature lunch aboard Korean Air flights. You can get it almost anywhere, including local institution Go-gung.
Go-gung, 12-14 Chungmuro-2-ga, Jung-gu (중구 충무로2가 12-14); +82 2 776 3211
25. Most art openings per square mile
Earning the attention of art aficionados worldwide, internationally renowned artists fly into Seoul almost every week for new exhibitions or collaborations. Local artists are also rising to acclaim with increasingly strange and arresting multimedia works. In Cheongdam-dong, a single building called Nature Poem – itself a work of art – houses 18 galleries.
24. Superb service; random freebies, no tipping
It’s tough not to smile when your breakfast cereal comes with a free pair of socks or your latest clothing purchase bags you a designer kitchen knife. Seoulites love dishing out freebies, the more random, the better. Known simply as “service,” free gifts can be anything from a packet of Kleenex with a full tank of gas to a plate of chicken with your pitcher of Hite beer. The perfectionist jeongshin (mentality) of the service industry in Seoul ensures incredibly cheerful service. Best of all: no tipping.
23. Road trip to the North
OK, you can’t actually wander around in North Korea, but a trip to the DMZ is just a couple of hours away. Soldiers from North and South eyeball each other across the fence-free border, U.S. Army personnel (your tour guides) point out perfectly plain edifices that become instantly fascinating simply for their location and you can actually get to step into the North, albeit inside a strictly guarded building.
22. Heads that split wood
Ever try snapping a plank with your head? OK, you might not get as far as that in a taekwondo taster class, but Kumgang Taekwondo does at least offer the chance to try your hand at a two-centimeter-thick wooden board.
Kumgang Taekwondo, 2/F 736-1 Kumgang Taekwondo Center, Yangcheon-gu (양천구 금강태권도센터 2층 736-1); +82 2 2642 0692
21. Cheap Internet phones
For a low monthly fee, you can sign up for an 070 internet phone that gives you free wireless and free calls to other 070 phones. It’s like Skype with a hand-held phone. Cheap rates on international calls clinch this as the greatest phone innovation since Angry Birds.
20. Soju is cheaper than water
Soju martinis and soju cosmopolitans are debuting in bars overseas, but in Seoul, we prefer to drink the distilled rice (usually) beverage neat, or mixed with whiskey.
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19. No question left unanswered
Need to know the best transgender club in Itaewon? The number of the closest fried chicken shop for delivery? Which public transportation to use from the airport to the nearest sauna? Perky operators at the 120 Dasan Center provide answers to any question you might have for free, 24 hours a day, in Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Mongolian. Call 02-120 from a cell phone or 120 from a landline.
18. Canine coffee breaks
Koreans have an unfortunate reputation for turning man’s best friend into man’s next meal, but at Hongdae’s Bau Haus Cafe and other Seoul dog cafes, you can hang out with resident pups – many of them rescue dogs – while drinking lattes and using Wi-Fi. Be warned, dogs will be dogs. Attentive staffers are on “plastic glove” duty.
Bau Haus Cafe, 3/F, Seogyo-dong 405-13, Mapo gu (마포구 서교동 405-13 3층); + 82 2 334 5152
17. Palaces of morning calm
Seoul boasts a route of Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) edifices known as the Five Grand Palaces. Although the exteriors and grounds are breathtaking, palace interiors are completely bare, due to ruthless looting during the Japanese occupation.
Each palace occupies its own niche – Changdeokgung is a World Heritage Site accesible only on a guided tour. Deoksugung houses museums. Changgyeonggung’s allure lies in its oft-overlooked, and therefore less crowded status.
The western location of Gyeonghuigung deemed it where the king would retreat to in times of emergency and Gyeongbokgung has the broadest appeal for history lovers, architecture junkies and dress-up fiends alike.
16. The kimchi miracle
When Seoul escaped relatively unscathed from the SARS outbreak, locals credited the nation’s kimchi consumption. The spicy cabbage dish was celebrated again when scientists showed that kimchi helps prevent bird flu and Newcastle disease.
15. High-tech bargains
The birthplace of leading global electronics companies such as Samsung and LG, Korea is renowned for its cutting-edge technology. Nowhere is that technology more evident and accessible than at the Yongsan Electronics Market. Dozens of buildings house stores that specialize in one or two of the latest high-tech items. There’s lots of competition to bag the next sale, so haggling is OK.
14. A bang for every occasion
Few people party like work-hard, play-hard Seoulites. Local bang (literally meaning “room”) culture provides the like-minded a place to gather and obsess over their favorite activities. Show off your hottest Kara butt dance at norae bang (karaoke lounge), watch movies in a DVD bang, play poker at a board game bang or slay all comers in Starcraft at a PC bang (internet cafe).
13. Favorite ‘Flower Boy’ date spot
With its panoramic views of Seoul, N Seoul Tower has been a landmark for 25 years. But after being featured in TV dramas and reality shows, the tower has become a popular date destination. Hopeful Seoulites take the cable car ride to the top just like Jan-di and Jun-pyo did on their first date in the 2009 hit hallyu drama “Boys Over Flowers.” Meanwhile, the Tower’s “love-lock” fences bear the mark of Nickhun and Victoria’s “We Got Married” outing.
n.GRILL (revolving restaurant), 5/F, 1-3 Yongsan-dong 2-ga, Yongsan-gu (용산구 용산동2가 1-3 5층); +82 2 3455 9277
12. Myeongdong Gyoja
Since its 1966 opening, this noodle shop’s steaming kalguksu noodles have had locals and tourists flocking to Myeong-dong. Despite the brusque service and shabby decor, lines out the door remain long.
Myeongdong Gyoja, 25-3 Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu (중구 명동2가 25-3); +82 2 776 5348
11. Vienna coffee at Gamu
This tryst spot of yore has undergone numerous – and sometimes godawful – renovations in the past decade. Fortunately their signature drink – a scrumptious double shot of espresso, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate powder – tastes exactly the same as it did back when Gamu opened in 1972. Or that’s what our parents tell us, anyway.
Gamu. 55-13 Myeongdong-2-ga, Jung-gu (중구 명동2가 55-13); +82 2 776 3141
10. Asia’s largest underground mall
In Samseong-dong, Coex is a sprawling playground of shops, arcades, restaurants, theaters and the Kimchi Museum. The vast exhibition centers upstairs showcase the latest wedding expo or housing fair, and were also the main venue for the 2010 G20 Seoul Summit.
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9. Museum for the morbid
It’s not Seoul’s most cheerful outing, but history buffs and Park Chan-wook fans can tour Seodaemun Prison. Once used to incarcerate independence fighters who rose against Japanese rule, the prison is now a museum with ghastly exhibits, such as a chilling execution room.
Seodaemun Prison, 247 Uljuro, Seodaemun-gu (서대문구 을지로 247); +82 2 360 8590
8. ‘Well-being’ mania
Seoulites never tire of telling you how healthy life can be. They’ll eat anything in the name of longevity, leading to a city-wide obsession with organic foods and other long-life tonics.
7. Golf in any weather
Mark Twain once said that golf was a good walk spoiled, but Seoulites don’t let walking get in the way of a game of golf. At screen golf venues around the city, serious players don golf shoes, rent clubs and whack their hearts out at huge canvas screens. Cameras record you as you swing, so that you can watch the replay and correct your embarrassment accordingly.
6. Wildest celebrity scandal
Lee Ji-ah was already one of the most mysterious actresses in Korea – a remarkable feat considering the exhaustive Internet search skills of most Korean netizens. Then news broke in 2011 that for nine years she’d been married to Seo Taiji, Korea’s biggest singer and “Cultural President.” And divorced for five!
Add the fact that she was dating Korea’s hottest male movie star Jung Woo Sung when the news hit and you get a national pandemonium. Thankfully, we’ve recovered and are completely prepared for our next collective meltdown.
MORE: Seoul: Insider Travel Guide
5. Bright happy jjimjilbangs of fun
Korean saunas (jjimjilbangs) draw on an age-old tradition of thermotherapy to help you sweat out stress. The best jjimjilbangs – like famed Dragon Hill Spa – feature multi-stories of whirlpool baths, mineral rooms, massage parlors, nail salons, TV rooms, manga cafes and restaurants where you can relax before and after soaking, scrubbing and steaming your way to rejuvenation.
Dragon Hill Spa, 40-713 3-ga Hangang-ro, Yongsan-gu (용산구 한강로 3가40-713); tel. +82 2 792 0001
4. World’s most spectacular bridge-fountain
Banpo Bridge and its Moonlight Rainbow Fountain made it into the Guinness World Records as the world’s longest bridge fountain at 1,140 meters. It’s also the most photogenic, shooting out dancing rivulets of water via 10,000 dazzling LED nozzles. To see it at its most stunning, check the schedule and view it from 88 Highway or the Gangbyeon Highway after dark.
3. World’s smartest, and cheapest, personal assistants
Haejuseyo chore services will pick up your dry-cleaning and deliver food – and perform more difficult, personalized chores – at the low starting fee of $6 (₩7,000. Maybe that’s why New York’s “The Daily Beast” called Korea the laziest country in Asia. They got it wrong, of course. If we weren’t so busy all the time, we wouldn’t need all the extra help.
2. Drama queens
It all started with Choi Ji-woo’s lisp and Bae Yong-joon’s memory loss in the 2002 drama “Winter Sonata.” Love-struck Japanese housewives descended on Seoul in droves, opening the floodgates for hallyu (Korean wave) drama productions and international fandom. Camera crews film on location throughout Seoul. They’re easy to spot – most are followed by hundreds of squealing fans.
The marinated barbecued ribs called galbi are the most popular Korean dish among foreigners. Eating is a DIY experience, with a designated chef in your group devoting his or her attention to grilling the marinated raw meat over a sunken barbeque at the center of your table. Helpful staff are always on hand to help out beginners. The galbi at beloved chain Budnamujip never disappoints.
Budnamujip, 689-12 Yeoksam-dong Gangnamgu (강남구 역삼동 689-12); +82 2 2088 3392
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2011. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.