A weekend guide Although often overlooked in favour of its near neighbours, Beijing and Tokyo, the South Korean capital is one of the most vibrant capitals in Asia.
Neon-lit nights and galbi galore in Seoul
Although often overlooked in favour of its near neighbours, Beijing and Tokyo, Seoul is one of the most vibrant capitals in Asia. Designated the World Design Capital for 2010, this increasingly creative city will host the Design Olympiad in October in the 1988 Olympic Stadium. Divided in two by the Han River, Seoul is punctuated by spectacular mountain peaks that allow this city of nearly 11 million people to breathe. Recent beautification projects, such as the downtown Cheonggyecheon stream restoration have revitalised parts of the city centre. Yet it is the city's energy that grabs most visitors: the swathes of neon in Sinchon, the swarming nightlife of Gangnam, the conspicuous consumption of Apgujeong and the traditional markets of Insadong. Seoul is truly a 24-hour city; it is possible to watch a movie, play video games or visit a sauna at any time of the day or night.
The best way to get your bearings is to head for the hills - Seoul is blessed with numerous peaks, none more inspiring than Mount Gwanaksan which provides views of the city to the north and the countryside to the south. Go to Sadang Station on the Green Line (www.smrt.co.kr). There is a hiking shop outside exit 4 and the friendly staff will point you towards the start of the trail that winds through thick forest and passes temples and streams before ending at a steep rope climb to the summit.
The views from the top are stunning and on a clear day you can see across the entire city, including Namsan Tower, the needle-like construction that dominates the skyline. The tower marks the centre of Seoul and it looms over the major shopping district, Myeongdong. Cramped streets, live music acts and tens of thousands of shoppers congregate in the district every day. And now with a weak won there are plenty of bargains to be had for foreign visitors. Head to Lotte Young Plaza (www.lotteshopping.com; 00 82 2 771 2500) for a huge selection of items all under one roof.
If you are worn out by the shopping, relax at a nearby bathhouse. These saunas (or jimjilbangs in Korean) are ubiquitous, but one of the best is in the centre of Myeongdong. The Hurest Well Being Club Spa (www.ispaland.co.kr; 00 82 2 455 3737) features everything from the obligatory hot and cold baths to an oxygen room, a clay mud room and sleeping rooms. It costs US$8 (Dh28) for 24-hours' access.
Once rejuvenated, visit the city centre's northern edge where the five Joseon Dynasty palaces stand, magnificently framed by the mountains behind them. Changdeokgung Palace (eng.cdg.go.kr) is a Unesco world heritage site and probably the most impressive of the palaces, set over lavish gardens and broken up by water features. Visits are by group tour only and cost about $2 (Dh8). Like all of the other palaces, it is closed on Mondays.
Another palace worth visiting is Gyeonghui Palace, where Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has created the Prada Transformer (www.prada-transformer.com), a rotating structure that hosts cinema, arts and theatre events and is made all the more spectacular by its historical backdrop. Once the sun goes down and the neon flickers on, Seoul seems like a different city - the nightlife choices are endless. The younger, clubbier crowd head towards Hongdae, a district of alleyways that lies adjacent to Hongik University (Line 2) and features superclubs such as Club M2 (www.ohoo.net) alongside more intimate venues such as the refreshingly decrepit Aura Bar (cafe.daum.net/clubaura; 00 82 2 333 8665).
If you prefer somewhere more diverse, than Itaewon is the best bet, as it is traditionally the district of Seoul where foreigners tend to congregate. While sometimes a bit rough and ready, it has slowly gentrified and venues such as Bungalow Bar (00 82 10 9001 2380) and Above (00 82 2 749 1717) - both of which are situated near the Hamilton Hotel - could hold their own anywhere in Asia. The mosque that overlooks the centre of Itaewon is surrounded by small, reasonably priced Middle Eastern restaurants.
Budget Right in the centre of Seoul's student district is Guesthouse Korea, a clean, atmospheric place that sees an equal mix of foreign backpackers and Korean students. Close to the city centre palaces and Insadong market, this is probably the best placed of the city's budget accommodations. Dorm rooms cost from $15 (Dh51) per night. 155-1 kwonnong-Dong Jongno-Gu (www.guesthouseinkorea.com; 00 82 2 3675 2205).
Mid-range So-called "love motels" are a ubiquitous part of Seoul's streetscape and many offer amazingly good value. The Herb Hotel, located in Southern Seoul, offers a two-person jacuzzi, plasma screen TV, living room and bedroom. This being Korea, high-speed internet and a PC are provided in the room. Rooms start from $40 (Dh150) per night during the week but prices are slightly higher at the weekend. 1601-13 Nambu Terminal, Seocho-Dong, Seocho-Gu (00 82 2 598 6226).
Luxury The Westin Chosun is right in the centre of the city, a short walk from many of Seoul's tourist attractions. Geared for the business traveller, the hotel has Cantonese, Japanese and international restaurants as well as one of the best fitness centres in the city. The rooms are modern without being overly minimal and the service is superb. Double rooms cost from $240 (Dh880) per night. The Westin Chosun, 87 Songong-dong (www.echosunhotel.com, 00 82 2 771 0500).
Breakfast Koreans are not big on breakfast; most eat a smaller version of lunch (think rice and kimchi) so visitors may want to stick to western fare. One of the best of a new breed of breakfast outlets to open is the Flying Pan Blue (00 82 2 793 5285), located in the heart of Itaewon, right next to the Hamilton Hotel. The eggs Benedict with smoked salmon ($14, Dh51) is a winner, as is the calorie-laden French toast and banana nut waffle topped with ice cream ($9, D33).
Lunch A few minutes from the artsy lanes of Insadong lies the trendy SSamzie Space shopping centre, atop of which lies Oh Mok The (0082 2 739 3211). A favourite with the local business set, the restaurant specialises in bibimbap ($8, Dh30), a delicious mixture of vegetables, egg, rice, meat and chilli paste all cooked in a hot stone pot. If you want something cooler, order the mool naengmyun ($10 Dh37), which combines cold noodles and a beef stew with a spicy edge.
Dinner Seoul has tens of thousands of restaurants and choosing one can be a daunting task; most restaurants specialise in one dish so it's better to choose what you want to eat first. The most popular dish among Koreans is galbi, which is the Korean version of barbecue. Served with side dishes of soup, rice and lettuce (with which to wrap the meat in), the cuts of mostly beef are cooked in front of you on a hotplate. Many of these joints are rather spartan, but HwaRoGaln in Hongdae is a cut above, with a minimal wooden interior and sunken booths divided by chic chain mail. For something slightly different but equally traditional, try budaejigae, the Koreans' take on hot pot; it has its origins in post-war Korea where the locals would mix and match any food they could find and make it into a stew. Nolboo (www.nolboo.co.kr) has more than 400 branches across the country that specialise in the dish - with everything from tofu, sausage, noodles, kimchi and vegetables, it's a sure-fire belly filler.
Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Seoul cost from $1,644 (Dh6,000), including taxes.
The Koreans by Michael Breen is an amusing, accurate portrayal of South Korea at the start of the 21st century.