South Korean capital is a surprisingly swinging city
See crazy theatre With performances in two dedicated theatres in Seoul, popular musical NANTA (which translates as Cookin’) is one of Korea’s biggest theatrical successes. Be prepared to have balls hurled your way, dodge cabbage chunks, and possibly be hauled on to the stage to participate. Tickets from Dhs100. Transport: Euljiro 1-ga station, line 2, exit 6. UNESCO Building, Myeongdong 2-ga 50-14 and Jeong Dong Art Hall, Jeongdong, nanta.i-pmc.co.k (+82 2 739 8288).
Observe chicken art Be sure to set aside time to tour the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art. Yes, you read that right – chicken art. This private collection reveals portrayals of the humble chicken through culture and art – start with the permanent exhibit on the first floor, then explore the special exhibitions on the second. The museum is one of the main attractions in Bukchon Hanok Village – give it a good hour. Admission Dhs10. Open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm. Transport: Anguk station, line 3, exit 2. Gahoedong 12 (+82 2 763 9995).
Eat sea cucumber If you’re ready for a look at Korea’s earthier side, Noryangjin fish market is the place to go. A pungent wave of raw fish heralds your arrival, with 6,000 sq m of floor space given over to edible wonders of the deep. Start with the wholesalers auctioning off their catches during the early hours of the morning, then follow the sellers to their shops – each one a hive of activity. The atmosphere is convivial: there’s no hard sell, no pressure to buy, and haggling is part of the game. Meander around for long enough and you’ll eventually want to buy some fish or king crab and head up to a nearby restaurant, where it will either be cooked or sliced and served raw. It may sometimes feel like a reality show gone weird, but fortune does indeed favour the brave at Noryangjin – where else will you be able to say you’ve tried sea cucumber? Transport: Seonyudo station (line 9), Yeongdeungpo station (line 1), Singil station (lines 1 and 5).
Visit the world’s biggest theme park Lotte World is a colossal theme park – in fact, the largest indoor theme park in the world. There’s also an outdoor section: Magic Island, connected to the indoor area by monorail. It’s even possible to go ice-skating or bowling elsewhere in the complex. Admission Dhs90 excl facilities and rides; discounts available for children and after 4pm. Open Mon-Thu 9.30am-10pm; Fri-Sun 9.30am-11pm. Transport: Samseong station (line 2), exit 4. Jamsildong 40-1 (+82 2 411 2000).
Step back in time Though beloved by locals today, the area could have looked quite different had other plans come to fruition: in the ’60s, as with more or less everywhere else in what was then a city with new-found affluence and a booming population, Bukchon was slated for renovation. However, protests from locals (and the nearby location of the presidential home) persuaded the government to spare the area, which has been left distinctly low-rise as skyscrapers have sprouted to the south. End result: one of the most visually pleasing places in Seoul, its winding, hilly lanes a reminder of past times. Transport: Anguk subway (line 3).
Pay a royal visit The ‘Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven’, as its name (Gyeongbokgung) means, has the longest and most widely documented history of any Korean palace, with a story that starts in 1395, three years after the beginning of Joseon Dynasty rule. Later kings of the Joseon Dynasty continued to expand the palace, but much of it was destroyed during a slave rebellion in 1592. Fast-forward to 1867, when the palace buildings were reconstructed. The new structures, more than 330 in all, made up a massive complex with 5,792 rooms, taking up 410,000 sq m of land. Today, about 40 per cent of Gyeongbokgung’s original buildings exist. The absence of those that are no more have made some room for walking – and the massive crowds. This is the most-visited place in all Korea by foreign tourists, and locals love it as well, even more so since the unveiling of the reconstructed front gate, Gwanghwamun, in 2010. Admission Dhs10. Open Mar-Oct Mon, Wed-Sun 9am-6pm; Nov-Feb Mon, Wed-Sun 9am-5pm. English-language guided tours 11am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm. Transport: Gyeongbokgung station (line 3), exit 5. Sejongno 1-1 (+82 2 3700 3900).
Dabble in the arts The Gahoe Museum holds more than 1,500 traditional Korean art and craft pieces, including hundreds of time-worn paintings and amulets, as well as beautiful folding screens, shown in two exhibition halls. The primary focuses are on beauty, religion and a humble lifestyle. Don’t forget to try a complimentary cup of green tea, made from leaves grown in the south-western province of Jeollanam-do. Admission Dhs10. Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Transport: Anguk station (line 3), exit 2. Gahoedong 11-103 (+82 2 741 0466).
Have a head for heights Picture a sort of miniature Dubai, built on reclaimed tidal flats. This is Songdo International City, part of Incheon’s Free Economic Zone (FEZ), and a Dhs146 billion private effort to create an international business hub. Located just 35km west of Seoul, and designed to accommodate 250,000 residents with residential, retail, office and cultural space, the masterplan for this ‘insta-city’ has features similar – at least in theory – to the boulevards of Paris, New York’s Central Park and Venice’s canals. Incheon’s city of the future can already claim South Korea’s tallest building (the 305-metre Northeast Asia Trade Tower), one of the world’s longest bridges and the technological sophistication of a ‘ubiquitous city’ – all major information systems share data across an integrated network. Although the 2008 global recession took its toll, the world’s largest and most expensive private real estate development wrapped up phase one in 2009, with final completion set for 2020. www.songdo.com.
Go to a rock fest Until 2009, the Incheon-based Pentaport Rock Festival reigned supreme on the Korean rockers’ calendar. But some of the organisers split off after a disagreement and started a second, simultaneous event – the Jisan Valley Rock Festival. Since both festivals take place in the summer (Pentaport in the first weekend of August, and Jisan in the last week of July), around the same time as Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival, they’ve been able to draw big acts already on tour in Asia, such as Belle & Sebastian, Pet Shop Boys and Oasis. Pentaport, near Dream Park, Incheon, www.pentaportrock.com. Jisan Valley Rock, Jisan Valley San Haewolli 28-1, Majang-myeon, Icheon City, Gyeonggi Province, www.valleyrockfestival.com.
Visit ‘the scariest place on earth’ A four-kilometre-wide strip of land runs clean across the Korean peninsula from east to west, dividing the communist North and democratic south. It’s known in English as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, though this is something of a misnomer – it is by far the most heavily fortified border on the planet, a fact that led to its memorable description by Bill Clinton as the ‘scariest place on earth’. Yet, despite this, and despite its distance from Seoul (doable in a day trip), it’s also one of the country’s most popular tourist draws.
So, what’s to see? Though various sights and lookout points can be reached by public transport, the most interesting sights are only accessible on a guided tour. Precise itineraries vary, but most hit the same spots: an observatory looking out over North Korea, a trip to one of the tunnels beneath the border apparently dug by North Korean infiltrators, and the famed Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom. Parts of the DMZ can be reached on public transport, but for the full experience, take a tour. The United Service Organisations (USO) offers excellent tours guided by American infantry for Dhs260, though you’ll have to book at least four days in advance. Whichever company you choose, make sure the tour heads to the Joint Security Area, which is the most interesting DMZ sight. Tours from Dhs240. USO (+82 2 724 7781).
See things in 4D Although 4D films have been shown in American theme parks in the past, Korea was the first country in the world to screen these sensual stimulations – at appropriate points in the film, your seat will bank, rise or buzz; small jets of air hit the back of your head; and scents will drop from the ceiling. There are currently 4D-equipped CGV cinemas in Yongsan and Yeongdeungpo, with more set to follow. Yongsan, 6F l’Park, Hangangno 40-999 (+82 2 2012 3000). Yeongdeungpo, Yeongdeungpodong 441-10 (+82 2 1544 1122).
Do the jimjilbang thang There are few more enjoyable places in which to get a grip on contemporary Korea than the jimjilbang: a curious mix of sauna, spa and entertainment facility, and also doubling up as the country’s cheapest form of accommodation. First, put your shoes into a locker and pay the entry fee: typically around Dhs16 for the pools and sauna rooms alone, or Dhs25 if you want to use other facilities or stay the night. Those choosing the latter course of action will be given a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, for use later. Then it’s into the changing rooms, which are segregated by gender; here you lock all clothing away, and wander naked into the pool area. After showering, you’re free to take your pick of sauna rooms, steam rooms and a variety of pools – some ice-cold, some turned green from huge teabags. Those who venture into a jimjilbang will have to follow a few rules of etiquette. First, it’s essential to wash thoroughly before entering the water – the showers are easy to spot, and all have bars of soap. You’ll get extra points for using the abrasive scrubbing flannels, usually located by the door on the way from the changing rooms to the showers. The second major point to note regards entry into the water – diving into the pool is a big no-no. Follow the Korean lead and in no time at all, you’ll be relaxing in the most local way possible. There are jimjilbang all over Seoul, and facilities are fairly standard across the board; any local will point you to your nearest one. The most notable facility in town is the gigantic Dragon Hill, just outside the main entrance of Yongsan train station. Dragon Hill (+82 2 792 0001).
Need to know
Getting there Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Seoul, with prices from Dhs5,160 return. www.emirates.com.
Where to stay There are all sorts of swanky hotels to choose from in Seoul, but to get a real sense of the city, stay in a traditional hanok guesthouse. Sophia Guesthouse just off one of Seoul’s most youthfully artsy streets, has an authentic dynastic feel. The dark-wood Josean structures and courtyard make you feel like you’ve gone back 150 years, creating a contrast to – and respite from – modern Seoul on your doorstep. Sogyeokdong 157-1 (+82 2 720 5467).
Dubai to seoul Flight time: Approximately nine hours direct Time difference: Five hours ahead of Dubai Dhs1 = 307 South Korean won