Seoul - city hallSeoul, South Korea, has been blasted from obscurity to notoriety in just a few months, largely on the back of singer PSY and his fun, viral hit “Gangnam Style”.

Meanwhile, Lonely Planet has just nominated South Korea as one of the world’s Top 10 countries to visit in 2013. So I was really excited to visit Seoul recently but didn’t know what to expect.

I had asked a friend who used to regularly travel there what it was like and he said: “There’s lots of concrete”. I had also anticipated haze or pollution in the way of many large Asian cities but found neither expectation was met. Seoul was a surprise to me. The air was clear as a Sydney spring day, while the city was clean and well-designed, a mix of  new office towers and older admin building, stone and glass.

Seoul - main boulevardeIn the central city area the eye is forever drawn to the surrounding hills, which encircle, frame and define Seoul. Lots of concrete? Yes, but nature is very much, and surprisingly so, in evidence. Here are a few notes and images from my time there.

People: healthy, well-fed and dressed – happy and polite. Some stunning women, stylish… One man spent 20 or 30 minutes with me the night I arrived helping me locate the hotel I’d booked, which was new and, while centrally located, somewhat off the beaten track. Without him I was lost, literally. The kids are the cutest you’ve ever seen, especially when they are 5/6 years old and holding hands, male/female, double file as they tour the palace complex as part of a a school excursion.

Palace: The palace complex is Seoul’s main tourist attraction. Close to the City Hall, the area I stayed, it is worth seeing. Protected by a couple of high wooded hills, and reached via a broad, impressive boulevard, there are colourfully clothed guards outside, and sprawling grounds inside. There are many buildings inside and it’s worth spending some time there but the palaces are not the stuff of western fairytales. They are uniquely Asian and quite different – wooden and bare inside.

Shopping: Not my bag but excellent, I am told, especially for clothes.  Impressive department stores such as Lotte and Shinsegae sell everything. All Seoul - guarding the palacemajor brands there. Best areas Myeongdong and Gangnam.

Food: Limited in choice but plentiful and good quality. The traditional dish is strips of beef barbecued over coals  at your table. Every Seoul - fruit and veg sellerimaginable cut. The beef is proudly home-grown and heavily marbled. Raw food is also popular. I saw restaurants promoting raw beef, pork, seafood and duck. Each was a single meat specialist, very specific. Vegetable are limited, basic greens the go. Many noodle restaurants.

Juice bars and cafes: There are lots of juice bars throughout the CBD. They are great value. Apart from the usual offerings – orange, pineapple etc – they all all served strawberry juice, which I tried for the first time. It was very nice and the same price as standard selections. Lot of cafes, too. Most are locally owned and well-run, more on the US model than Italian. But much better coffee than, say, Starbucks.

Namsan Park: First morning in Seoul left my hotel in a tightly packed neighbourhood and headed up the hill. Buildings cheek by jowl, narrow Seoul - Namsan park greenerywinding road, I walked by a large, crumbling apartment building outside which an old lady was getting her hair cut in the street, with another waiting for her turn. Community service?

The road then gave way to shrubs and ultimately a forest, oak and maple, I think, part of beautiful Namsan Park, a completely unexpected green oasis that encircles a peak overlooking downtown Seoul. It’s really pretty, multiple shades of green with bursts of flower colour. Great public infrastructure; roads, trails, a public gym. Even a natural spring.

Roads and traffic: Excellent road system. Freeways everywhere and within easy access of the CBD. Still, traffic jams up during the morning and afternoon peaks, which are long because Koreans workers put in the hours…. There are also lots of narrow streets, some so thin they cannot fit a car, and this is where the bars and restaurants can be found. Lots of them, and fun.

Seoul - back streetsHotels: I stayed in two properties and liked them both for different reasons. N Four Seasons I booked myself through Booking.com and cost 165,000 Korean Won. Small, stylish and in an interesting area. Decent breakfast and pleasant, modern eating area. Staff friendly, professional with good English skills. Did I say rooms were small?

The second hotel was the Lotte Hotel Seoul, which was booked on my behalf. The 10th floor room was good but not cheap, I think around $250. One jarring note was an old scratched table. Breakfast was excellent, the design, colours and layout impeccable. Very aesthetic. I also ate lunch at the Lotte’s high end French restaurant. The food was beautifully presented but I did not enjoy the flavours of most dishes.

Airport: Incheon Airport, about an hour from town, is busy and seems to be having difficulty coping with traffic. I spent a lot of time in queues entering and leaving the country. Getting out was a nightmare;  90 minutes of bureaucracy before boarding the flight.

Taxis and buses: Taxis are excellent value. Drivers seem knowledgeable and courteous. Buses extremely good. It cost just 10,000 won from the airport to city.

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