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South Korean pop music — commonly referred to as “K-pop” — is a worldwide phenomenon. A recent report from “Forbes,” in fact, credited the genre for the continued strength of South Korea’s music industry, which experienced an impressive 17.9% surge in revenue in 2018.
Considering K-pop’s growing popularity, it’s no surprise that Seoul, the genre’s birthplace and the capital of South Korea, is square one for travelers looking to indulge their musical passions.
Any K-pop tour of Seoul must include ample time in Gangnam, a decidedly modern neighborhood accentuated by soaring skyscrapers. Getting there was a fast and easy Metro ride from my hotel, Park Hotel Yeongdeungpo Seoul, which is a new property with lots of modern amenities and attractive room rates and located in a neighborhood that’s a delightfully relaxed contrast to bustling Gangnam to the East.
As soon as I exited the Metro station, I saw two giant golden hands in front of the Coex Convention and Exhibition Center and Starfield Coex Mall. The massive metal sculpture pays tribute to “Gangnam Style,” the 2012 hit song by South Korean singer Psy that helped rank K-pop on the international charts.
(Full disclosure: I didn’t know much about K-pop before my visit to Seoul. But even I couldn’t miss the city’s largest public work of art dedicated to the genre. Today, it’s a well-known spot for selfies and for travelers and locals alike to recreate the hand gestures from Psy’s well-known music video.)
Just a few steps away is an even larger K-pop attraction: SmTown Coex Artium, a six-floor complex run by SM Entertainment Group, a company that produces K-pop talent such as Super Junior, Exo and TVXQ.
The facility includes a variety of areas, some of which are free to visit, including two gift shops that sell everything from T-shirts and iPhone cases to snacks emblazoned with photos and names of top-selling groups. An admission fee provides access to the on-site museum — which showcases memorabilia from various groups — and Korea’s first hologram theater, a venue that could be the next best thing for visitors who are unable to catch a live performance by a popular group.
At the complex’s cafe, visitors can refuel with ice cream and other sweets, but if the branded treats at SmTown aren’t enough sustenance, consider a stop at the appropriately named Just Kpop Entertainment Restaurant, which is — you guessed it — a restaurant with entertainment focused on K-pop. Dinner is the most festive time to visit, when patrons order from a menu of Korean and international dishes while enjoying the talents of live DJs and K-pop performers.
Another must-see site is K-Star Road, a street that — according to local tourism authorities — is to K-pop fans what Abbey Road is to enthusiasts of The Beatles. (After all, some people have called the K-pop group BTS “The Beatles of the 21st century.”) The strip is lined with what are (supposedly) some of the preferred shops for musicians and performers, and there are recording studios in the neighborhood, too. Visitors can stop at the nearby Gangnam tourist information center to pick up a free guidebook that points out the top businesses, as well as places to eat, drink and perhaps spot a celebrity.
The most photographed attractions on K-Star Road are the Gangnamdol, a series of colorful, cartoon-like statues that resemble teddy bears and are each painted to represent a different K-pop group.
Visitors can buy their own miniature version of the sculptures at Gangnamdol Haus, a small shop on the sidewalk. The figures are cute enough to charm people who don’t know the first thing about K-pop.
While a handful of local tour companies offer excursions that focus exclusively on K-pop culture, those outings tend to be expensive and require a minimum number of participants. Since most of the sites associated with K-pop tourism are easily accessible, independent exploring is relatively easy — even for travelers who don’t speak Korean. - Seoul’s Metro system is clean, efficient and inexpensive, and it’s often faster than a taxi or tour bus when hopping among the biggest K-pop attractions. - Another alternative is the Seoul City Tour Bus, which has an “Around Gangnam” route that stops near most attractions, with a hop-on, hop-off service.