Friday, 5 pm: Take it all in
After checking into your hotel (I picked classy Fraser Place Namdaemun), head to Myeongdong and catch the cable car to the top of Namsan hill. If time is limited, don’t bother going into N Seoul Tower – from the hill you’ll still enjoy beautiful views of Seoul and the surrounding mountains at sunset. If you are with your loved one, make sure you add a padlock to the pile.
Friday, 7 pm: Savour Myeongdong
Worked up an appetite? The many stalls in busy Myeongdong are a perfect way to try a few local delicacies. They sell fun-looking and yummy food – I had dumplings and cabbage omelette. Stuffed animals and drawings will help you understand what you are eating when an English translation isn’t available.
Satuday, 9 am: Immerse yourself in history
Seoul’s response to the Forbidden City, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the gorgeous former home of the Joseon dynasty. Make sure you catch the Changing of the Guard at 10 AM, a colourful ceremony with amazing uniforms and drums. Then head into the palace grounds and marvel at the statues of animals (reminiscent of anime) decorating them and at the elegance of the buildings. Don’t miss the four chimneys in the Amisan garden, the Geunjeongjeon Hall (the throne hall) and the living quarters.
Saturday, 11 am: Korean living
Walk to nearby Bukchon Hanok Village for a glimpse into what the city looked like a few centuries ago. Explore the alleys and admire the traditional dwellings (hanoks) – you won’t be surprised to hear this area was home to high-ranking officials. Before walking up the hill to the “village” (make sure you find the right way up, I had a climbed a fence at the top of a staircase lining a few apartment buildings), stop at the super-cool Heartist store for some morning shopping.
Saturday, 1 pm: Fuel up on calories and souvenirs
From Bukchon Hanok is a 15-minute walk to Insadong, one of the best neighbourhoods in Seoul for shopping. Stop for some traditional bibimpap in one of the restaurants lining up the main thoroughfare (ask for the hot one, unless raw egg on a bunch of cold ingredients is your thing) and then hunt for souvenirs and antiques – I particularly loved the Korean traditional masks sold in many of the shops. For a touristy but fun experience, check out the shops at Ssamji-gil. Music buffs shouldn’t miss Nagwon Music Mall: I have never seen that many instruments in one place!
Saturday, 3:30 pm: Enjoy a hot drink in a traditional tea house
No visit to Seoul would be complete without a stop at a traditional tea house – I tried Shin Old Tea House. Sip some tea (I can’t honestly recommend the cinnamon one) and munch on yakgwa honey biscuits while enjoying your peaceful surroundings.
Saturday, 4:30 pm: Reflect on the meaning of life
For a more spiritual experience, head to Jongmyo, where impressive and beautiful Confucian shrines preserve the memory of the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty. A welcome break from the noises of the metropolis.
Saturday, 5:30 pm: Follow the water
Reach the Cheonggyecheon Stream – a urban renewal project that has creatively transformed the stream into a recreational area where locals come to jog, stroll and dip their feet in the water in the stifling summer months. This was one of Seoul’s highlights for me – rarely have I seen such a cleverly put together regeneration project. From the western end of the 10-km stream, walk to City Hall: the old building (built during the Japanese occupation) is now a library, whereas the spaceship-like modern one is the seat of the city government.
Saturday, 7 pm: BBQ away
On The Grill in Myeongdong is an unassuming and great eatery serving traditional Korean BBQ – get ready to cook your meat yourself, using the sizzling hot grill built into every table. Try the pork belly!
Saturday, 8:30 pm: Shop till you drop
Hop on the subway (where gas masks dispensers remind you that South Korea’s neighbour to the North has been acting out) and head to popular Dongdaemun for some evening shopping – literally miles of shopping malls. If like me you hate malls and tend to find such places a bit overwhelming, opt for a stroll around that architectural masterpiece that is Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Absolutely jaw-dropping.