Korea not only has a strong tea tradition, but a serious addiction to coffee shops. This has given rise to an inordinate number of cafes, each doing its best to set itself apart with a novel theme.
So far the city has seen everything from a Santa Claus coffee shop -- a Christmas grotto year-round -- to wedding cafes, where patrons dress up and pose in matrimonial get-up whilst sipping on sickly sweet drinks, with names like First Love and Marry. Cat and dog petting cafes, although they still exist, no longer quite suffice – enter Thanks Nature Café, with its roaming sheep.
One of the best areas for finding cafes is arty Samcheong-dong, but half the fun is stumbling upon new ones yourself -- the more outlandish the gimmick the better -- so keep a lookout wherever you are in the city. If you don’t have much time and want a cafe that’s around for the long-haul however, go to Mustoy -- a stalwart of the café circuit where you can paint your own dolls.
Koreans don’t like eating alone – you’ll notice that from the funny looks you’ll get if you attempt to do so. Restaurants are set up for groups, with menus offering meals for two or more and tables arranged with a barbeque grill in the middle for friends to gather round. Individual options at dinnertime just don’t really exist in Korean restaurants (although you can find them in international restaurants). Also, convention dictates that the most senior at the table will order food for everyone to share.
This all makes for great fun, actually, and it means you get to dip in and out of all kinds of intriguing dishes. The banchan that comes with most barbequed meals, such as the ubiquitous samgyeopsal (grilled pork), consists of lots of small dishes – usually a selection including kimchi (the nation’s favourite side -- spicy pickled cabbage), beansprouts, garlicky greens and tofu garnished with sesame seeds. Don’t be afraid to try it all – it’s delicious and often pretty healthy, too.
Most meals are washed down with a combination of beer and soju (vodka-esque rice liquor) and, consequently, a lot of merriment. However long you’re stopping in Korea, you won’t want to miss the experience of a full-blown feast.
Go to Chuncheonjip Dakgalbi (57-8 Changcheon-dong, Tel: +82 (0)2 325 2361) and tuck into dakgalbi – marinated chicken, rice cakes and vegetables stir-fried in a hot, incomprehensibly dreamy sauce. For added decadence, ask for cheese-filled rice cakes.
3.Music & Nightlife
Seoulites live the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos to the extreme – that’s why you’ll see them sleeping on the subway, there’s simply scant other time for it. Bars seem to stay open until the last man is no longer standing, and noraebangs (singing rooms) can stay open throughout the night. You’ll find both of these all over the city, but hotspots include famously upmarket Gangnam and, a favourite among students and expats, Hongdae. Seoul, you’ll discover, is a 24-hour city where you can stay up partying till sunrise.
Outside K-pop (you’ll hear more than enough about that) there’s a modest but interesting live music scene. Indie kids, hipsters and fans of the alternative are well advised to check out Supercolorsuper.com. The brainchild of American Sean Patrick Maylone, this music and arts collective meets booking agency has brought big international names to previously under-frequented Korean venues, from Mogwai to Four Tet, and now presents a killer line-up of shows. For everything else, check out Koreagigguide.com.
The city is full of beautiful people dressed well – image is key in Korea, so don’t be surprised to receive comments on your appearance. “You look tired!” and “You must be very poor!” are not unheard of remarks. If you feel compelled to smarten up your act as a result, the city offers world-class shopping suited to all your Korean Won budgets.
Try one of the enormous markets, such as Dongdaemun for affordable fashion or Namdaemun for absolutely anything else -- from ginseng to comedy K-pop socks. Head to Myeong-dong for high street shopping and more make-up stores than you can shake a blusher brush at. Alternatively, take on the designer boutiques of Apgujeong and Cheongdam-dong. Don’t be surprised if you glimpse Psy himself around here, these enclaves on the outskirts of Gangnam are populated by the rich and famous. A decent place to start is The Galleria shopping centre, a swanky branch of it can be found in Apgujeong but also in multiple locations around the city. Don’t stay long though, there’s a gargantuan number of shops to explore.
Despite being a sprawling metropolis, home to around 10 million people, Seoul’s landscape is interspersed with peaceful, picturesque mountains. They’re easy on the eyes in such a vast urban jungle, but they also enable you to quickly escape the frenetic pace of city life and take part in a popular local pastime – hiking. Rocky Mt. Buk is a favourite, and also a top spot to try climbing.
If you want to take it a step further, stay in a temple and experience the simple life of a Buddhist monk. Be prepared for an early start, you’ll be woken up around 4.30am in time for morning meditation. The views are worth it though -- Myogaksa Temple in the foothills of Mt. Nak is in the centre of Seoul and a great place for views that help you get your bearings. Visit Templestay.com to arrange your trip.
For up to date weather reports for Korea, use the Korean Meteorological website: http://web.kma.go.kr/eng/index.jsp
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Written by hannah stuart leach
Culture & Lifestyle Journalist – Currency Today .