Last updated: 10:30 PM ET, Tue April 07 2015

Seoul Searching

Travelers will find history, culture, cuisine and more in this major city

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | Tim Wood

Seoul Searching

PHOTO: Seoul combines the 24-hour vitality of New York City with the quirky culture of San Francisco.

A city steeped in centuries of history has become one of the world leaders in innovation, design and cuisine. Imagine the 24-hour vitality of New York City combined with the quirky culture of San Francisco and you have Seoul, South Korea. The city burst onto the world stage in 1988 as host of the Summer Olympic Games. It was a coming-out party for a city and a country on the verge of a cultural and technological revolution.

Now, 30 years later, the area is about to once again showcase itself to the world. Korean Air founder and CEO Yang Ho Cho led a winning bid for the Winter Olympics, to be held in 2018 in the Pyeong-Chang region east of Seoul.

Convention-goers have quickly come to know Seoul as one of the world’s top 10 destinations, hosting hundreds of international meetings each year in its more than 30 large-scale convention hotels.

Whether you’re looking for a tour group or looking for a unique and luxurious getaway for a couple, Seoul has all the trappings of a perfect vacation.

Spicy, innovative and bold, Korean food has mastered ancient traditions while evolving into a 21st-century favorite of foodies across Europe and North America. It is a cuisine known for its hot chilies, garlic and ginger, soy sauce and sesame and for its health benefits — locals will tell you it promotes digestion and longevity.

PHOTO: Food vendors in Seoul offer local favorites, such as marinated barbecued ribs.

Airlines like Korean Air will likely give you a sampling of Korean delights such as bibimbap (a bowl of rice with mixed vegetables, ground beef and fried egg), but one of the most unique ways to sample the food yourself is by taking a Korean cooking class.

Hit one of the local underground markets, where you can sample many of the 200 varieties of kimchi, a spicy staple of the Korean diet.

PHOTO: The Namdaemun market is one of several vibrant markets around Seoul.

Then, at dusk, make sure you hit one of the vibrant night markets around the city, such as the Gwangjang, Dongdaemun or Namdaemun markets. You’ll witness a carnival-like setting where food vendors offer you traditional favorites such as mungbean pancakes and gaibi, a marinated barbecue rib delight, while artists and street vendors give you plenty of souvenir-shopping options.

Art galleries are plentiful on nearly every corner of Seoul, which has rapidly become one of the world’s favorite stops for art aficionados. A perfect place to sample Korean fine art is at Insa-dong, a stretch of shops and galleries in the heart of the city. More than 100 galleries line the main road with alleys stretching out on each side. You’ll find teahouses and restaurants sprinkled throughout the area as you take in the best of the city’s painting and sculpture. On weekends, Insa-dong becomes even more of a street fair, with exhibits and live performances all day.

The $230 million National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is the centerpiece museum for Korean contemporary art, just across the street from Gyeongbokgung Palace. Opened in November 2013, it has quickly earned comparisons to New York’s MoMA and London’s Tate.

You’ve likely heard the pop music sensation Psy sing of “Gangnam Style.” Experience it for yourself in the Gangnam District, a shoppers’ paradise that features high-class international brands and the latest in fashion and style trends. Garosu-gil, in particular, is a street filled with designer boutiques and outlets, and has become known for its great people-watching cafés and restaurants. This area also highlights the high-tech prowess of the city.

Over 95 percent of the city’s residences are wired for broadband, and among many benefits, that means you’ll rarely get lost. Just look down at your smart phone to scan many of the city’s sidewalk-embedded QR codes to get “you are here” directions sent immediately.

One other can’t-miss attraction is the COEX, the largest underground shopping center in Asia. Located in the basement of the Korea World Trade Center, the mall features an aquarium, an epic video arcade that celebrates Koreans’ obsession with gaming and the Kimchi Museum.

All of this is accessible via one of the world’s safest and most expansive subway systems, a must-see for its architecture alone. Many stops along its nine lines take you to underground shopping centers.

Pyeong-chang will play host to the 2018 Winter Games and is about 110 miles east of Seoul, about a two-and-a-half-hour car ride. Pyeong-chang boasts gorgeous landscapes and has a very rural feel to it for now, though the country hopes the Games will boast an economic revival in the region. In fact, many Olympic sites in Pyeong-chang are already open for touring, including the ski jump center.

PHOTO: The snow festival in Pyeong-chang, which will host to the 2018 Winter Games.

One unique experience on the highway to Pyeong-chang is a stop at the Daegwallyeong Farm, one of many large animal farms in the region and Korea’s only sheep farm. The sprawling meadows and green hills are a stark contrast to the skyscrapers and constant action of Seoul. For just 3,000 won, you can pet and feed hay to one of the 200 sheep in their grazing pens. At no cost, you can also walk the 1.2-kilometer path, lined with wildflowers.

Seoul boasts a wide array of accommodations, from the five-star luxury hotels of City Center and Dongdaemun to the chic hotels of Gangnam to the more unique traditional houses of the Palace Quarter.

We sampled two of the city’s higher-end hotels during our time in Seoul.

The two-year-old Conrad Seoul is in the International Finance Centre in Seoul’s Yeouido Business District and is close to both Incheon and Gimpo International Airports. The hotel is near shopping, a cineplex and an array of high-end dining.

The five-star hotel features 434 guestrooms, including 50 suites. The rooms run on an Apple-based tech infrastructure and overlook the Han River and Seoul skyline.

The Pulse8 health club was particularly impressive, featuring 24/7 access to a 25-meter indoor swimming pool and seven indoor golf driving ranges — a common high-end feature in a country obsessed with the sport.

The hotel’s four dining options are highlighted by Atrio, featuring traditional interpretations of authentic Italian cuisine.

The Korean Air-owned Grand Hyatt Incheon is as popular a spot for Koreans preferring the weekend “staycation” as it is for tourists. The new West Tower was completed in October 2014, giving the hotel a total of 1,022 guestrooms, including 43 suites and 31 longer-stay residences. The hotel’s East Tower is now in the middle of an 18-month renovation.

The hotel is three minutes from Incheon International Airport and is accessible by tram from the airport. The ocean-inspired, wave-shaped West Tower, in particular, is an architectural marvel. The hotel’s amenities include two rooftop indoor pools, a 25-meter lap pool in the East Tower and a 20-meter lap pool in the West Tower; a jogging track; and an extensive fitness center.

One especially impressive family perk is the children’s pool and outdoor playground with a castle for younger kids.

The hotel is also top notch with in-room technology, including remote-control-operated bidets. For travelers: a KAL counter is in the lobby to check-in to your flight before heading to the airport.

For a spiritual retreat, the Weoljeongsa Buddhist temple stay is an absolute must. Located inside the majestic Mount Odae National Park near Pyeong-chang, the attraction gives visitors the opportunity to pray with and live the Buddhist lifestyle.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the April 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.