Seoul’s 24 hour city offers the latest in fashion, art and culinary delights.
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When thinking of exciting destinations in Asia to explore, Korea is not always first on the list with Beijing and Tokyo dominating vacation lists. However, recent regeneration has seen the South Korean capital transform from a gritty concrete city into a prosperous, high-tech hub of inspiration. With 10 million inhabitants, the city buzzes with 24-hour activity and access to contemporary art, fashion, and food.
A day in Seoul should begin with a trip to Daily Projects, an eight-floor haven in the trendy Cheongdam neighborhood, the Beverly Hills of Seoul. Featuring both local and international brands, Daily Projects not your average department store but more of a cultural complex. Alongside fashion, it has a gallery space that hosts exhibitions and music events as well as a café and a lounge with the latest art and fashion magazines. The store holds events such as open market sales that give up-and-coming designers an opportunity to showcase their work, and is a wonderful place to see the latest trends in Korean fashion. Daily Projects is constantly reinventing itself with new exhibitions and interiors that make it look fresh and new, so you never know what to expect when walking in. Yet, the theme of the store remains consistent — whimsical and edgy pieces from around the world. Spend the morning wandering the floors, where the mirrored walls make the innovative fashion by young designers seem endless.
If you’re searching for some open space to unwind and let the inspiration flow, then head to Cheonggyecheon Stream. This 3.6 mile waterway is just off of Sejongro, the busiest boulevard in Seoul, but you wouldn’t know it as it lies more than 15 feet below street level. Walking just beneath the city, you enter a different world — calm and serene, with stepping-stones, footbridges, and waterfalls. During the rebuild of Seoul after the Korean War, the stream was covered by concrete but was restored as part of the city’s regeneration project, and a great example of waterfront repurposing. The stream begins at Cheonggye Plaza, where special events and concerts are held, and the walkway features temporary art exhibits and installations and a mural that tells the history of the stream, which in turn tells the history of Seoul. During steamy summer days, people congregate along the banks to cool off and it is the perfect place to people-watch, gain some insight into Seoul city-dwellers and take a moment away from the bustling urban landscape.
Seoul has no shortage of places to eat, but Play Pot Restaurant is particularly inspiring for its design aesthetic. Its structure makes reference to pojangmacha – meaning “covered wagon” — the word that refers to the street vendors who are an essential part of Korean food culture. In Play Pot, every aspect of design hints at these food purveyors, with tented stalls, plastic chairs and quick, tasty tapas. Tarpaulin, the material used to cover the stalls, is cleverly implemented in the restaurant, both as a wall covering and on the ceiling to mimic the canopy of the pojangmacha. Potted plants, wooden tables and chairs add to the outdoor-indoor aesthetic. The restaurant offers “boonsik,” small Korean snacks sold as street food – but with a gourmet twist. Play Pot highlights a classic Korean food experience that is accessible and affordable, yet modern and luxurious.
And then there’s the art. To say that the art scene is burgeoning in Seoul, would be an understatement. To be truly inspired, head to Platoon Kunsthalle, a center where creative subcultures are nurtured. The building is made out of 28 stacked cargo containers and promotes itself as a base for creatives, where locals go to participate in various artistic endeavors. Here, you will find exhibitions, music nights, concerts, discussion panels, as well as showcases of underground artists, studio residences and stage performances. On any given day you will find something unique taking place here within Korean art subcultures.
If you’re searching for something even further off the beaten path, head to the alternative gallery Ggooll. Owned by experimental artist Choi Jeang Hwa, the space is a hybrid venue where everyday life and the arts can meet. When you walk into Ggooll there appears to be little separation between gallery and cafe, with both rooms hosting exhibitions and serving coffee. It is a place where people not only come to view art, but to sit, discuss and make art themselves, thus breaking down the boundaries between art, creation and daily rituals. Hosting artist residencies throughout the year, Ggooll gives one a view of Seoul’s experimental side.
Seoul has a round-the-clock nightlife, with many bars and clubs staying open until 6 a.m. But for true inspiration after dark, head to Moon Jar, where modernity and tradition converge. Here, you’ll find a minimalist design aesthetic more suited to the countryside than club land, with a whitewashed interior, wooden tables, and drinks served in metal kettles. While the bar offers traditional sake and soju, it’s devoted to makgeolli, the trendiest, yet most old school of Korean tipples. Makgeolli is a sweet, milky rice wine that was traditionally the drink of farmers and much-derided by the rest of the population. But it has seen a resurgence of late, partly due to government efforts to globalize Korean cuisine, and partly because the new makgeolli is made from recently harvested locally-grown rice, which provides an improvement in quality and taste. It also helps that there is a national trend of well-being in Korea, and makgeolli is purported to be a healthy alternative to beer and hard liquor. At Moon Jar, makgeolli is served in a variety of cocktails, transforming the farmer’s drink into a hip libation. Ending your day here, over makgeolli cocktails, is a perfect way to toast this modern city with a traditional past.
Almost completely decimated by war, South Korea has rebuilt itself over the last 50 years, transforming its capital into one of the world’s powerhouse cities. With 20 percent of the country’s population living there, Seoul has become a vibrant place — and it’s fast-paced nature, while respecting its rich tradition, makes it an inspirational, eye-opening destination.