On the Road to Seoul, South Korea

Facing major political demonstrations during her journey to South Korea, Executive Edge Leisure Travel Advisor Christina Higgs unveils the country’s lively capital city and its irresistible mix of ancient and modern in this centuries old Asian metropolis set in a stunning mountain valley. Christina discovered Seoul’s cultural landmarks, revered temples, culinary treats, fashionable shopping and medieval palaces.

Q: Set in the vibrant Gwanghwamum district, the stylish Four Seasons Seoul was your home for exploring this exciting destination in South Korea.

The Four Seasons Seoul is one of the newest and most anticipated hotel openings in Seoul. Set in a prime location within easy walking distance to the famous South Korean Market, bustling shopping and the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The atmosphere is stylishly chic with a twist of traditional. Upon entering the foyer you are instantly calmed by the soft lighting and beige tones with hints of brass. The staff is attentive but discreet, whisking away your luggage to appear in your room moments after you’ve checked in. They surely are at the top of their game when it comes to service.

The rooms are more than twice the size of most hotel rooms in Seoul, following the same colour scheme as the common areas. Classic Korean design with a modern touch. Floor to ceiling windows with views over the city landscape. As expected, the bedding and amenities were exceptional and entering the room after a full day of Seoul sightseeing was like entering your own little haven of bliss.

Q: Your discovery of the largest metropolis of the Republic of Korea began by visiting the division line of its repressive northern neighbour. The armistice that put a halt to the Korean War divided the Korean Peninsula into South and North Korea, separated by the DMZ, otherwise known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Was it a profound experience seeing the buffer zone intended to prevent military collisions between the neighbouring countries?

Visiting the DMZ was a much anticipated event for me. Being part of a family that discussed world events and politics, this was one of the experiences I was very keen to partake in. A very structured experience having to enter a military zone, we were required to submit our passport information and sign a waiver document agreeing that no one is responsible for accident, injury or even death.

Driving out to the DMZ (approximately a 4km zone) you enter the JSA, the closest point a tourist can get to North Korea. This is the only spot you can physically stand in North Korea once entering the blue building where talks between leaders have taken place in the past trying to resolve this never ending war. (Technically the North & South are still at war – there has only been a cease fire). This area is jointly patrolled by the South Korean and US Military. It becomes very clear how volatile the area still is and how uneasy the area is due to North Korea’s unpredictability.

The list of border incidents is a long one with the line between North and South becoming the definitive border. (Both North and South Korean soldiers could roam within the JSA within certain perimeters.) On August 18, 1976, an attempt to trim a tree in the DMZ ended with two US soldiers dead and injuries to another 9 soldiers. The American soldiers were merely cutting down a tree that blocked the view of the United Nations into North Korea when they were attacked by the North Koreans. It was a very sobering experience to understand that only 56 kilometres away, millions of people in the modern metropolis of Seoul are going about their day to day business with their freedom potentially hanging in the balance.

Q: How would you articulate the attributes of Seoul for the visitor? What makes this city a must-see destination for the sophisticated traveller?

Seoul has one foot firmly placed in the modern world yet is still living in the past. This city offers the traveller true insight into a culture that is holding onto to its turbulent past but propelling forward into the future faster than most countries on this planet. Technology runs the youth of this population and Wifi is accessible all over the city. You’ll find most young Koreans walking around with a Samsung phone and a pair of earphones.

On the weekends the city temples and palace are full of young students strolling around in the traditional Korean dress as entry into these sights is free and a way to socialize and meet potential romantic interests. The city has something to offer every type of traveller – from the active outdoor enthusiast to the cultural buff (with historical sights not overcrowded by tourists) to the foodie. Choose from Korean barbeque, Kimchi (there are many different varieties not just cabbage) and the unique Royal cuisine (food prepared especially for the King) which is the essence of Korean food culture. Prepared by the best cooks of the Royal court, this art has been passed down by word of mouth from court cooks to royal descendants. A select number of restaurants have been appointed to serve this royal culinary cuisine in Seoul. For physical activity, there are more than 50 hiking trails for the active traveller less than 15 minutes from the city centre.

Q: Looking to its past, Seoul’s history stretches back more than 2000 years. What did you learn at the Seoul Museum that stood out to you?

We did not have the chance to visit Seoul Museum due to unforeseen political demonstration in Seoul during the time of our visit.

Q: On a lighter note, you enjoyed dinner at Sanchon, a restaurant opened by a Monk serving primarily temple food which is simple, clean and healthy utilizing all natural ingredients such as vegetables and mountain herbs. Are you a fan?

Sanchon restaurant was an interesting experience to say the least. It was tucked down an alleyway in the Insadong district. A carnivore myself, I struggled to fill up on ingredients that were quite foreign. The atmosphere was incredible, surrounded by antique furniture mish mashed perfectly amongst plants and trees. We couldn’t quite figure out whether we were inside or out. Founded by Monk Jeonsan, this is a full temple food experience. Twelve courses are served with a myriad of mainly greens, some vegetables, kimchi and funghi steamed, pickled or boiled. Would I be back for the food? Probably not. I needed something more substantial and less bland. Would I be back for the experience and atmosphere? Definitely. The food presentation, antiques, lanterns, candles, incense, music and staff create an experience for all your senses not just your tastebuds.

Q: Your 3rd day in Seoul was a whirlwind filled with educational adventures to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Samcheonggak and the National Museum. Describe the highlights of each.

Every day at the Four Seasons started with an impressive breakfast preparing us for a full day of sightseeing. A short stroll through the main square of the Gwanghwamum district and we were at the entrance of the Gyeongbokgun Palace, the main royal palace of the Joeng Dynasty. A must do while visiting Seoul, it provides a true insight into the history of Korea. Abandoned for over 300 years and destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion, a major restoration project began 1989 and still continues. With a majority of the buidlings reconstructed the palace stands proudly in the centre of the district. We were lucky enough to witness the pompous changing of the guards and tour the grounds of the palace.

After a short rickshaw ride through winding streets, I arrived to the highlight of the trip for me. Bukchon Hanok Village. Surrounded by the Palace it is home to hundreds of traditional houses called ‘hanok’ that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. During the Joseon dynasty royal families, aristocrats and the wealthy lived in the hanok residences of the village. This is still a real neighbourhood, an area for the elite of Seoul to live dotted by hip restaurants, traditional tea houses and residents going about their day to day life. This area was spared by the Seoul government back in the 60’s when many hon buildings were destroyed to make way with Seoul’s urbanisation. A wonderful area to spend a few hours strolling and taking in Korean life.

A few hours spent strolling through the hilly streets whet the appetite for the delicious modern French cuisine with a hint of Korean. We were lucky enough to experience “The Restaurant”, located just outside the palace walls, an area dotted by modern galleries, hip cafes and this top restaurant (one of the best meals I had in Seoul) – French haute cuisine mixed with Korean ingredients like seaweed and green tea.

Q: After all this cerebral exercise, it was time for a physical workout with Korea’s most representative martial arts form. Did you enjoy the Taekwondo master class?

I was not looking forward to the Taekwondo Masterclass, not being the martial arts type, so I was a little out of my comfort zone. After being handed our fresh crisp whites we started with the basics of Taekwondo with our teacher (Sensei). After a short history of the principles of Taekwondo, we went through a series of basic kicks and stretches.

A great bonding experience for our group as we stretched, pulled and turned in ways many hadn’t for years. Our goal by the end of the class was to break a piece of wood. We all laughed and declared it was impossible. Sensei guided us through a series of techniques and by the end of the 3 hour session we had all broken a piece of wood in two with our bare hands.

A testament to this art of mind over matter, we all walked away with a sense of accomplishment and bruised hands.

Q: South Korea, and Seoul in particular, is known for its markets. What surprises were in store for you at Gwangjang Market?

Our market experience was fun, fun, fun. Being a foodie myself I couldn’t wait to explore the oldest and largest traditional market in South Korea. The market is open every day and sells everyday items, souvenirs, textiles and street food. Some local food is not for the faint hearted like live squid, penis fish or blood sausage. I opted to try the Mung Bean pancake (Bindaetteok) and Gimbap ( a traditional rice paper roll). The insight to any culture begins with their food and the Koreans love their food spicy. Kimchi is must with everything. This is a staple in the Korean diet and every family has a special recipe that is passed down from generation to generation. Our local guide even informed that every Korean household has its own Kimchi fridge in the kitchen. Most Westerners know of this delicacy as pickled cabbage with lots of garlic and chilli but Koreans will pickle onions, carrots and many other root vegetables in the same manner. By the time we finished sampling the many foods on offer I’d lost all sensation in my mouth. Koreans love chilli!

Q: Four Seasons Seoul has a stellar collection of 7 restaurants to choose from. Tell us the stand outs.

The Four seasons Seoul has a myriad of cuisines to choose from. We sampled the Italian restaurant Boccalino, based on a traditional Milanese trattoria. As always the décor was exceptional, a marble contemporary interior with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the city lights. The stand out dish was the lobster ravioli, delicious.

A hidden little gem was the Charles H Bar. All moody and dark with no signage you must be in the know to find this bar. Hidden under the Four Seasons staircase on the lower level you enter though a unmarked door. A place to wind down and enjoy some cocktails made by expert mixologists. A great way to end the evening and this eye opening trip to Seoul.

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