Over the past five years, Seoul has positioned itself as a haven for food, fashion and music right alongside other top Asian markets such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. What’s not to love about a city that embraces meat houses, fried chicken and beer, and coffee… lots of coffee? Seoul’s also got some of the biggest malls in the world and a burgeoning bar scene. If you’re ready for a sample of it all, here’s how to spend 48 hours in the South Korean capital.
Located about one hour from Incheon International Airport, Seoul is a massive city that can be challenging to figure out during a short break, so it’s best to pick a neighborhood and experience it to the fullest. Take a page from the famed K-Pop song and do it Gangnam style.
One of 25 gu (districts) of Seoul, Gangnam is known as the Beverly Hills of Seoul, and there are many hotel options reflecting that comparison.
Check into Park Hyatt Seoul and be swept away by modern luxury. Take the elevator 24 floors up to the sky lobby and get a perspective of the grand scale of the city below. With 185 guest rooms, including 38 suites, and close proximity to chic shopping, dining and drinking, there will definitely be temptation to stay close to this luxurious home base.
The accommodations, which are said to be some of the largest in town, have floor-to-ceiling windows and a palette of ultra-modern Myanmar oak and stone. There are only 10 rooms per floor, so you’ll get primo privacy, too.
After prying yourself away from your incredibly plush beds, get lost for hours in the COEX Mall, right across the street from the hotel. Attached to major exhibition halls and convention centers of the same name, the COEX Mall is the largest underground shopping mall in Asia. It goes on for what feels like miles and is a great sample of the eclectic, saucy and retro ’80s and ’90s fashion vibes that permeate Seoul. There are plenty of stores (Ziozia, One More Night) you have likely never seen before.
After working up an appetite, dig into Seoul’s culinary scene. Chef Akira Back, who has restaurants all over the world — the list includes Las Vegas’ Yellowtail at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Bellagio and Kumi at Mandalay Bay — recently opened the tasting-menu-only Dosa in his native country. Debuted in May 2016, this venture is a true family affair, as Back’s father helped with the networking and financing on the project and his mother’s art proudly hangs in the dining room. The name and philosophy of the restaurant alludes to the concept that, in the long term, you will find your path and become a master.
“It was a big dream of mine to go back home and open something with modern Korean food,” Back says, noting that all of the dishes pay homage to different stages of his life. “It is every single thing from my childhood memories up until now. I use all the Korean herbs. There are two dishes that I would always eat: black bean paste noodle and spicy seafood soup, so I made a xiaolongbao [Shanghai soup dumplings] and filled them with spicy soup for a creative touch.”
After dinner, head to Alice Cheongdam, a Lewis Carroll–inspired lounge. It’s hidden, so look for the white rabbit and follow the signs downstairs to a flower shop. Once inside, you realize that you have actually fallen down the rabbit hole and stumbled upon a cocktail experience like no other. Proceed through the wooden door and into a stately lounge with an aristocratic air. It may look civilized, but behind the bar mad geniuses are at work.
The drinks are made with a series of tools that evoke memories of a high school chemistry class, and they are custom-tailored to the imbiber. Cocktails are served in whimsical glassware such as a crystal sea urchin or a dancing Kung Fu Panda cup. The bar team here is equally charming, headed by Terry Kim and Albert Lee. It’s the kind of bar that is worth the little adventure of finding it.
The recently remodeled Cornerstone Cucina Italiana, located inside the Park Hyatt Seoul, is a great place to begin the new day. Chef Massimiliano Ziano cooks up southern Italian cuisine in massive wood-burning ovens at brunch, which combines multiple hot courses and a buffet. The meal will take several hours, but it will keep you satiated for the day.
And since your day is not only about eating and drinking, depart Gangnam-gu to get a taste of the culture of Seoul. Leeum Samsung Museum in Yongsan-gu showcases both contemporary and traditional art collections. Plan to spend a few hours here learning about Korean art treasures and also enjoying major works from around the world.
Cap off a day of sightseeing with an appointment Conrad Seoul‘s spectacular spa. As with most sanctuaries in Asia, the visit starts with a footbath to remove the stress and debris of the outside world. It is the energetic threshold one most cross to reach a new level of relaxation.
Two must-experience amenities are the Clarins Skincare products used in the spa’s facial treatments and the hydrobath, containing dozens of pressure-powered nozzles aimed at relieving the sore, aching muscles from yesterday’s shopping spree. If 50 minutes isn’t enough, book a two-hour ritual that combines face, body and scalp treatments. If you’re curious about chakra balancing, that is offered here, too.
Conrad Seoul’s 37th-floor restaurant 37 Grill and Bar is a wise dinner option for tomahawk steaks, grilled salmon and 180-degree views of the river while lobby-level lounge Flames is the ideal spot for a post-spa cocktail or coffee. From juice in the mornings to fine wines at nights, there’s always a refresher within reach
The best way to wrap up a short excursion in Seoul is by immediately booking a return trip to explore a completely different part of the city.