When my twin brother married a marvelous woman named Emily from Seoul, South Korea, I was elated. I was happy, of course, that he had found love in another and that their future looked bright. But my future was looking pretty rosy too — I now had a perfect excuse to visit South Korea, and a personal tour guide too.
Seoul moves at a faster pace than any city I’ve ever experienced. It seems there’s a constant flux; a neighborhood that’s hot one year might be passe as soon as the next, or vice versa.
For example, when Emily lived there as a teenager, the Cheonggyecheon River was an open sewer beneath a highway overpass. Now, thanks to a massive urban renewal project, a 6km riverside park gently flows through the city and teems with families hopping along stepping-stones by day and young lovers on romantic walks by night.
Although trends change quickly in Seoul, and Emily has lived in the United States for a while, Emily’s continued connection to her family there helped us find today’s gems.
Korean barbecue followed by gin and… flowers
Before we hit the historical palaces, we refreshed ourselves at our personal palace — the Shilla Hotel in Chung-gu. It might be the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed in, but it clearly has a party side: the rooms contain a notice that firecracker use is not permitted inside the hotel. I’m not sure what party prompted that caveat, but I’m bummed I missed it.
We grabbed Emily’s cousin, Paul, a shy 20-something-year-old impeccably dressed in a slim-fitting jacket, about to embark on a two-year compulsory military service. Barbeque was on our minds and he knew a great spot nearby.
As soon as we ordered, our dark, wooden table was covered in banchan — small side dishes that accompany Korean meals. We also started with glasses of soju, an intense local spirit usually poured from a small green bottle into shot-glass-sized glasses. The banchan typically include japchae noodles, kimchi (fermented cabbage), soy-glazed lotus root, or shredded squid.
A server placed a metal dish shaped like a hubcap over the lit coals of the barbeque in the centre of our table, and large platters of raw meat were delivered. Emily immediately took the provided scissors and cut up a steak before laying it methodically out on the grill.
Paul laid some kimchi across the grill as well, which apparently is not normal practice as our waitress scolded us a little because the grill is only meant for meat — but not before we had tasted the delicious grilled cabbage.
Our next stop was Itaewon, the trendy neighborhood near the American army base. Its proximity to the base gave it a somewhat seedy reputation in the past as an area for soldiers to let loose off-base. Now it’s a prominent hotspot where young Koreans go in search of cocktails and nightlife.
We came across a tiny hole-in-the-wall flower shop that specializes in gin cocktails. It was a delightful mix of botanical spirits and genuine botanicals as the bartender was also the one selling the flowers.
Through palaces and traditional wooden houses
Amidst the bustle of northern Seoul, the Joseon Dynasty palaces stand out for their tranquil serenity and beauty. The aesthetic of the palaces and their placement within the landscape is formed through the principles of pungsu — the Korean version of feng shui.
Pungsu is an ancient understanding of balance and harmony in which the patterns of wind, water, and other natural and topographical elements are seen as having the power to influence human health and happiness.
Today the palaces swarm with Korean teens and tourists who have rented high-waisted, vibrant hanboks — traditional Korean garments worn by women — for impromptu photo shoots with friends or beaus.
Seoul’s original principal palace, Gyeongbokgung, was built in the late 14th century and destroyed by the Japanese in the 16th century. Throughout my week in Seoul, this narrative seemed like the refrain in Korean history — the Japanese burnt everything down at some point, and probably a few times.
Changdeokgung was built as a secondary palace at the turn of the 15th century, but became the primary residence of Korean royals after Gyeongbokgung was destroyed. It was inhabited well into the 19th century. The layout is immensely beautiful, set against the backdrop of the Ungbong peak of Mount Bugaksan.
In between these palaces lies Bukchon Village, a throwback to a different time. Narrow streets are lined with hanok, the traditional Korean wood and stone houses with slanted, tiled pagoda-style roofs complete with intricate carvings that immerse you in the traditional history of the Joseon Dynasty of 600 years ago.
The village is still inhabited by locals and guest houses for rent and has the most adorable little cafes and tea houses. We entered a tiny restaurant that had a sign advertising its specialty in one of Emily’s favourite dishes. We were the only customers, sitting at the only table. The cook was also our waitress and hostess.
We tried the heralded dish, samgyetang, a soup made with a whole chicken filled with garlic, rice, scallions, dates, and Korean ginseng. I enjoyed the interplay of the delicate broth with the hearty stuffed chicken — and a serving was way too much for one person to finish, but we gave it the most valliant of efforts.
Natural beauty and ancient tombs
After a few days of nonstop city action, we wanted a break, so we hopped on a high-speed train from Seoul to Gyeongju on the southeast coast. This ancient capital of Korea was the seat of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.–935 A.D.), one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world. We wanted to see the tombs, temples, and the natural beauty of the rugged coastline.
Bulguksa Temple I found even more impressive than the temples and palaces in Seoul because it dates back further (it was built by the Silla in the 8th century). It contains some buildings that managed to withstand attacks from that pervasive destructive force in South Korea’s history, the Japanese. Its colourful wooden guardian statues are meant to intimidate opposing forces, but they are also stunning in a pleasing way, with their bright colours and stern faces.
That evening we visited the magical temple of Donggung on Wolji Pond. Wolji translates as “water that reflects the moon,” and maybe it was the soju, but it most definitely shimmered in fantastic ways as we walked around the promenade and learned about the banquets that were held there millennia ago.
The whole world had eyes on South Korea for the recent winter Olympics, and after our time there, I can easily attest that it was ready for the spotlight.
Text by Laine McDonnell