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South Korea’s capital of Seoul has enjoyed years in the spotlight as a global business, technology and industrial hub.
However, interesting retail, wellness and food trends have recently come out of Bukchon Hanok Village (a traditional Korean village and tourist attraction tucked behind the landmark Gyeongbok Palace); the shopping district of Sinsa-dong in Gangnam; and centrally located Myeongdong. These developments are redefining the city as a bustling and trendy Asian urban getaway on equal footing with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
EatReservations are necessary at the cozy and popular Mingles. Owner and chef Kang Min-gu updates the old school hanjeongsik (a full-course, set meal) by uniting Korean ingredients with Japanese and European techniques. He achieves miracles such as ravioli crafted from cabbage and potato and sweet potato topped with grilled sea bream.
Vatos urban tacos’ Sinsa-dong location, meanwhile, draws crowds with a menu splicing the childhood Mexican favorites of its Korean-American founders armed with their mothers’ recipes. Fans range from young professionals and club kids to former Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert, who clamor for best-sellers such as galbi short rib tacos, kimchi carnitas fries and makgeollita, an alcoholic beverage made with makgeolli (Korean rice ale).
SleepL7 Myeongdong by Lotte Hotels is a lively suggestion for young couples, professional clients or simply the young at heart. Appealing features include the funky art gallery feel of its lobby and lounge (including a vending machine with amenities and souvenirs), minimalist-chic guestrooms, rooftop bar and complimentary foot spa. Staffers are nicely attuned to L7’s trend-seeking clientele, readily able to help first-time guests navigate the city or advise more experienced Seoul visitors about not-yet-discovered hot spots.
PlayWith their mellower, homegrown brand of chic, Sinsa-dong and Bukchon Hanok Village offer perfect antidotes to Seoul’s many mega malls. Sinsa-dong’s Garosu-gil (tree-lined street) has a preppy SoHo/New York City sensibility, while Bukchon’s winding streets have a bohemian vibe similar to Southern California’s Venice Beach or Santa Monica neighborhoods. Both are refreshingly free of big designer salons and nondescript souvenir shops.
Creative travelers can sign up for workshops at Bukchon’s Hanok Experience Space, located in the UNESCO-designated residential section a few blocks from the shopping areas. Clients can partake in projects to create a one-of-a-kind keepsake, from intricate mother-of-pearl inlay and embroidery to paper-doll-making, gold-leaf gilding and basket weaving.