24 Hours in Seoul

A cultural and culinary kaleidoscope awaits travelers in Seoul, South Korea.

From the moment clients land in Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, the tone for pleasant surprises throughout their trip is set. Even the airport is a menagerie of well-thought-out conveniences where ample amenities for business and leisure travelers can be found. Highlights include beautiful lounges; massage shops to relieve travel stress; global food offerings; shops galore; a museum and cultural heritage center; and even hotels located inside the airport. The same degree of travel-friendly options continues when clients leave the airport and head for the city itself.

Morning Meanderings
–Breakfast at the Grand Hyatt Seoul
The Grand Hyatt Seoul has played host to diplomats and royalty the world over and offers a great base to start the day. Breakfast is a wide selection of Western and Eastern specialties. Western fare ranges from mouthwatering pastries that would make any Frenchman weep to wholesome and hearty meat-and-egg dishes. The real joy, however, lies in discovering the hotel’s Eastern breakfast tableau. Your clients should consider trying juk, a rice porridge which, when combined with available garnishes of meat, scallions and mushrooms, is both refreshing and wholesome; it’s also a safe dish to try, even for more fussy eaters. Since having my first juk in Seoul, I now enjoy eating it as my alternative to eggs and sausages at any breakfast where it is offered, followed, of course, by a Danish or a croissant with a cup of tea.

Beatiful ponds and pavillions dot the grounds of Gyeongbok palace in Seoul, Korea. (c) PRIDE Travel / S. Nathan DePetris

–Go to Gyeongbokgung Palace
Clients should start their sightseeing itinerary with a visit to this cultural gem. This exquisite example of royal Korean architecture is the oldest palace still in existence from the Joseon Dynasty. At the palace, clients can visit a throne hall, pavilions, a lotus pond and many buildings that surround the palace’s grand garden landscaping. Also located on-site is the National Folk Museum, and the Seoul History Museum is located only a few blocks away.

–Lunch at Korea House
Korea House is a special venue for imparting Korean cultural and culinary heritage to your groups and FIT clients. In addition to its numerous performances and cultural displays throughout the year, the Korea House also operates a traditional restaurant specializing in Royal Cuisine (Jeongsik). Make sure to book your clients for lunch or, if time allows on longer itineraries, even the lavish dinners which often come with a show included. Meals here are more than just food — they are lifetime culinary experiences that will be remembered and cherished.

Afternoon Delights
–Shopping in Itaweon and Insadong
What better way to spend an afternoon after a great meal than with a stroll? The shopping in Seoul provides travelers with many walkable options. The Itaewon district sits in the heart of town, located just a few minutes from Namsan park and the Grand Hyatt. This area is chock-full of history and caters well to foreign visitors thanks, in large part, to the continued U.S. military presence in the neighborhood. Shops here offer everything from souvenirs and knickknacks, to the ever-present custom tailored suit and clothing. A word of perspective: While shoppers will easily find good-quality tailors who are happy to provide them with their own bespoke suit or dress, they will be hard pressed to find the words “deal” or “cheap” used to describe the purchase. As Seoul has prospered and grown into a modern city, it has likewise adopted modern prices. Shoppers should expect to pay relatively about the same here for a custom suit as they would at home in the U.S. or Canada, with a little digging around.

For a missed lunch or a late-afternoon snack, clients should visit a tiny, hidden restaurant simply called the Korean Restaurant in the Hamilton Hotel Itaewon. In my opinion, it offers, arguably, the best bibimbap (a bowl of rice served with vegetables, meat and numerous side dishes) on the planet for less than $10 a person. It’s proof that amazing taste can blend with amazing value.

The Insadong district lies in downtown Seoul, north of Namsan park. Known for antiques and cultural shops, this area boasts quaint stores where merchants can still remember the tradition of customer service with a smile. While traditional Korean handicrafts abound, the most representative are those simply referred to as Korean decorative knots. They range from low-quality machine-made pieces, sold for about $3 to $10 on every corner, to handmade artisanal pieces that incorporate ivory, jade or cinnabar, costing several hundred or several thousand dollars each. Rare masterpieces are available from such veteran artists as Kim Hee-Jin, a renowned expert practitioner of one of Korea’s most intangible cultural symbols.

Korean BBQ using red hot coals, with surrounding side dishes. (c) PRIDE Travel / S. Nathan DePetris

Evening Excursions
–Authentic Korean Barbecue for Dinner
For an authentic Korean barbecue meal, any local will tell you that Samwon Garden is the place to go. Here, hefty iron grills are placed atop glowing wood coals to produce a flavor that no gas flame can ever recreate. If you’ve been challenged with finding a Korean barbecue dining venue for your large groups, you will be amazed at Samwon’s capacity — the restaurant boasts that it can host up to 1,200 diners simultaneously. Alternative itineraries may include a visit for lunch to better enjoy the landscaping that surrounds the restaurant.

–Take in a Show
One of the best shows in town is “Nanta,” an entertainment institution in Seoul since its debut in October 1997. The show has won rave reviews and awards the world over, and is performed nightly in its own dedicated theater. “Nanta” is Seoul’s answer to the Blue Man Group, with a little bit of “Iron Chef” thrown into the mix. During each performance, traditional rhythms are choreographed in a comical and entertaining fashion, and performed utilizing pots, pans, kitchen utensils and even food chopping.

Order a Nightcap at the W
Located close to all the action and considered to be a hub of action and activity in its own right, the W Seoul-Walkerhill encompasses modern chic style and design. Guests need go no further than the W’s lobby and bar to be immersed in a happening and hip atmosphere that only begins to mellows well past midnight. The tempo here is decidedly lounge-like. Suites tastefully push the boundaries of interior design and lobby bathrooms are individualized spheroids that look as if they are about to launch into orbit. To end a busy 24 hours spent in Seoul, there’s no better way to unwind and cap off the night than with a drink — or a stay — at this hotel. www.wseoul.com

Twenty-four hours don’t allow nearly enough time for visitors to fully explore any city, much less one as rich and diverse in its offerings as Seoul. This presents travel professionals with an opportunity to maximize both repeat visits and extend your clients’ length of stay, whether they are traveling onward to other countries in Asia or have chosen South Korea as their main travel destination.

Travel Insider
Marc Kassouf is the owner and CEO of Pride Travel which specializes in catering to the needs of gay and lesbian clientele. Kassouf holds numerous industry certifications, most notably by Cruise Lines International Association, the Travel Institute and various destination visitors bureaus including Korea, Japan and Thailand. He also sits on two board committees of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. Kassouf has traveled to nearly four dozen countries and has sailed on more than 60 cruises.

First published: TravelAge West magazine, January 14, 2011