Discovering Seoul for The Hi! Seoul Festival (하이서울페스티벌)

It seems like no other city in the world has spent as much effort and enthusiasm in making itself a world-class tourist destination as Seoul, South Korea. A late-bloomer in the 20th century, South Korea’s economic and political landscape was hampered by its proximity to an unfriendly northern neighbor, but it has overcome incredible odds to become the manufacturing powerhouse it is today. But Seoul had bigger aspirations, as manufacturing does not a tourist destination make.

The strategic development of Korean pop-culture began with internationally acclaimed dark revenge dramas. Popping up at Sundance and Cannes, these films put South Korean directors on the radar alongside art-house filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee. Next came K-pop, modeled on the structure of the American boy/girl-band era and the music videos of Japanese pop bands. K-pop spent years gaining momentum in Asia and finally exploded on the western world stage with Psy’s kitschy “Gangnam Style” music video in 2012. Similarly, addictive K-dramas like “City Hunter” offer daytime soap/telenovela formats with a cult-like following, which has spread through online platforms like Hulu and Viki. And, of course, all of this pop art incorporates the futuristic interactivity and technology you’d expect from tech manufacturers of innovative gadgets, such as Samsung.

Film, television and music also expose audiences other great things in South Korea. There are incomparable beauty products and spa services for a generation obsessed with youth; a fashion culture where traditional Asian styles are made trendy; and an emphasis on food preparation and quality that could make Korean soul food the new bento box in midtown offices. A whip-smart, and eager-to-please capital city, Seoul offers it all. Tourists often flock to classical Asian destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Singapore or Beijing, but the shiny metropolis of Seoul is now catching their eye as a vision of a futuristic Tomorrowland where east meets west. Say annyeong-haseyo to Seoul.

Showcasing South Korea’s eclectic pop-culture scene, the Hi Seoul Festival is a five-day street art event that focuses on wordless art forms that locals and tourists alike will appreciate — think extravagant dance, modern art, video and interactive installations. The opening ceremony on Oct. 1 at Seoul Plaza offers orchestral music, modern dance, video projection and fireworks that are poetically described as “lasting memories of sadness [returning] as beautiful sparks of fire.”

Discover Sinsa-dong’s Garosu-gil, a boulevard where the hippest fashionistas shop. Named for the gingko trees adorning its path, this upscale, bohemian fashion district is lined by boutiques featuring designers and artists with international flair (think Melrose or Silverlake’s Sunset Junction). Located in the Gangnam district (no kidding!), you’ll find multi-story fashion houses and big windows that are distinctly Korean, as well as some international High Street names have sneaked onto the scene. If the cutting-edge styles of Garosu-gil pique your sartorial interest, check out the popular Korean clothing brands in Myeong-dong, the commercial shopping zone where popular designers have retail outlets.

Interested in seeing into the future? The (Telecom Ubiquitous Museum) illustrates just that as envisioned by SK Telecom, Korea’s largest telecommunications network. Museum tours take participants through Korean homes of the future, where walls can display beach-resort views or a picturesque Seoul cityscape. With a flick of the wrist, a scanner will create your personal-measurement-avatar (great for quick shopping trips) while cell phones unlock home amenities, from lights and music to flushing toilets. This is not just a vision of the future — it’s a preview of coming attractions from Asia’s technology universe, where everything is amazingly interactive, able to be touched and manipulated by participants. Tours are available in English by appointment only for corporate and educational groups (basically anyone not claiming to be a tourist).

Combine food, music, dance and cultural appreciation with a visit to one of Seoul’s NANTA theatres. Since its premiere at the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the non-verbal musical has reached over 8 million people as it mixes traditional Korean rhythms with narrative comedy and drama. The show follows a story of four cooks who must prepare a wedding meal and teach the boss’s son to cook in one day. Some audience members can participate in the “wedding banquet” to make each show uniquely spectacular.

Enjoy a relaxing day at the spa, the Korean way. The jimjilbang spa facility doubles as a beauty bar and entertainment complex, conveniently allowing an all-day stay — and some visitors even stay overnight. Segregated by gender, customers store their clothes in a locker before taking a shower (useful scrubbers are available) and dipping naked in a variety of pools (boiling hot, teabag-warm or ice cold) and saunas. Clothing is worn in the co-ed pool areas, heated-floor sleeping spaces, nail salons, massage rooms and karaoke and meeting rooms on multiple floors. Ask a Seoulite about their favorite spa experience, or visit the go-to, best-in-show Dragon Hill Spa near the Yongsan metro station. 

Breakfast is as good a time as any to eat Korea’s signature dish kimchi. The spicy, fermented cabbage is usually served alongside any meat broth, fish, tofu or vegetable. Can’t start the day without tasty pancakes, waffles or other western breakfast options? The Flying Pan Blue is one of Seoul’s most popular brunch spots, located in multicultural Itaewon (while “White” and “Red” branches are respectively in Sinsadong and Gangnam). The itty-bitty eatery Egg and Spoon Race in Edae offers beautiful omelettes and other western fare along with Korean pickled side dishes. Enjoy a non-sweet Asian wake-up with weekend brunch at the Parkview inside the cool and classy Hotel Shilla. The buffet menu offers Korea’s favorite pickled options as well as Vietnamese, Chinese and western meals for an array of meats, sushi, salads, cheese plates and sweet pastries.

Missing L.A. street food? Visit the Kogi truck’s upscale counterpart Vatos for Korean-Mexican fusion food. Started by Korean-Americans from Southern California, Vatos has taken Seoul by storm and has been named the city’s “hottest new restaurant” by CNN in 2012. Taste worldwide influences and local favorites in one epic gastronomic sitting at Gourmet 494. This swanky food court is Seoul’s answer to Rodeo Drive, where the lower level offers the Galleria department store and branches of Sushi Matsumoto and the authentic Pizzeria d’ Buzza. Try elegant Korean rice cakes and pastries (heretofore reserved for royalty) at Howondang before having Scoops-style, small-batch ice cream at Fell + Cole.

The heart of Seoul is a gastronomic cornucopia of Korean dishes, ranging from robust gogi jip (Korean barbeque “meat houses”) and refreshing naengmyeon (a clear noodle dish akin to Vietnamese pho) and homestyle bibimbap (a hot stone bowl of white rice, steamed vegetables and meat topped with a fresh egg that cooks as you stir it). Byeokje Galbi is widely known for Korean barbeque to end all Korean barbeques, as organically raised Korean beef (think Korea’s take on Kobe) is grilled and served with a proliferation of side dishes. Seoul’s not-to-miss Song Jook Heon offers traditional hanjeongsik dining with nearly 30 shareable plates of nibbles, including kimchi varietals, grilled and fried whole fish, noodles, dumplings, bulgogi and salted fish eggs. The minimalistic Yong Su San or Gae Hwa Oak (661-18 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu) pair comforting, slow-cooked meats with tastefully presented vegetables and seafood. The high end of Seoul’s fine dining, Si Hwa Dam in Itaewon is an edible fine-art emporium with elaborately designed food plates that will delight your eyes along with your palate. And for an inventive, international seafood-based menu, visit Jungsik Dang (a second location in New York holds two Michelin stars).

Experience true “Gangnam style” Korean nightlife at clubs NB and Octagon. As crowds of fierce dancers unite, the Korean vodka-like rice alcohol soju is the drink of choice. Across the city in the expat-central neighborhood of Itaewon, the Glam Lounge lives up to its name. The crystal-cased horseshoe bar is made for mingling while consuming cocktails and wine with young, fashionable professionals and business travelers.

In the mood for spirit-based drinks? Whiskey aficionados gravitate to the newly opened Parity Bit (7–19 Nonhyun-dong, Gangnam-gu), where a top-rated bartender matches Ballentine whiskey tastings with chocolates and spices, and mixes up exotic whiskey cocktails with a wink and a smile. The Korean soju cocktail phenomenon truly lives at the Flower Shop That Serves Alcohol in Hongdae. The floral, feminine interior and refreshing spirits like soju sangria attract mainly women to this friendly respite.

With minimalistic mid-century-modern design, the Woo Bar inside the W Hotel – Walkerhill is the place for K-pop celeb spotting. This popular location for Korean dramas oozes a mod style and cosmopolitan drinks, which pair nicely with lounge-based house beats. And don’t miss the breathtaking urban views from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

It’s impossible to leave Seoul without indulging in Asia’s favorite nighttime pastime norebang, the notorious “private room” karaoke. Luxury Norebang in Hongdae is a great place to show off your warbling skills in a private room with floor-to-ceiling windows. You can also dance above the streets while serenading your friends and eating complimentary ice cream.

Dating back to 1960, Metro Hotel is Korea’s oldest tourist hotel and a favorite of business travelers seeking a central location in Myeong-dong. It retains some of its mid-century minimalism along with affordable rooms that start at $83 a night. Hotel April in Yeoksam-dong is another great option for budget travelers, with its dark Manhattan lobby, exposed brick and loft-style rooms that start at $60 a night.

The colorful Lego-block exterior of Itaewon’s IP Boutique Hotel alludes to its charming, eclectic interiors — each of its white, modern rooms features a splash of colorful art. With rates starting at $150 a night, the hip style and playful designs make for a stunning home-away-from-home. Hotel The Designers in Gangnam offers inspiration at every turn via a unique boutique hotel concept with individual rooms (starting under $180 a night) designed by 15 interior designers and artists.

The sleek W Hotel chain’s first Asian outpost overlooks the Han River in the Walkerhill area of the Guangjin neighborhood. While the location is a bit far east for many Seoulites, the W’s alluring charm doesn’t disappoint — and with rooms starting around $225 a night, the W is an affordable luxury. Celebrity guests and society weddings are par for the course at the ornate Hotel Shilla in downtown Seoul, where spacious rooms start at $300 a night. Offering views of Namsan Peak, a spa and convenient luxury goods shopping, it lives up to its reputation as the favorite Seoul hotel of dignitaries and artists.

Experience life inside Rak Ko Jae, a 130-year-old Korean hanok hotel renovated in 2003 by a celebrated carpenter/designer. Known as the setting for the Korean drama “Personal Taste,” this elegant boutique hotel offers a traditional tea ceremony, yellow-mud sauna and the centuries-old innovation of ondol (water-based floor heating). With only five available guest rooms costing between $200 and $500 a night, be sure to reserve well in advance of your stay.