48 hours in: Seoul
The arrival of Spring blooms make the South Korean capital|an enticing prospect for travellers, says Susan Griffith.
Why go now?
The avenue of cherry trees in Yeouido Park should still be in glorious bloom for the next few weeks. This weekend sees the annual parade and elaborate rituals converging on Jongmyo Royal Shrine to commemorate the ancestors. Whenever time you visit Seoul, its people will be welcoming and sociable.
Korean Air (tel: 020 7495 8641; koreanair.com) has recently started flying three times weekly from Gatwick to Seoul, in addition to its daily flight from Heathrow. Asiana (tel: 020 7304 9900; flyasiana.com) also flies from Heathrow.
Gleaming Incheon airport is connected by express train (arex.or.kr) to Seoul Station for Won13,800 (£8) in 43 minutes. Luxury buses run to a wide range of city locations for W15,000 (£9) in just over an hour.
Get your bearings
The wide, brown Hangang River bisects the city, with areas of interest mainly on the north side. Anguk metro station is within walking distance of the picturesque neighbourhoods of Bukchon and Insadong with their traditional restaurants, shops, galleries and winding alleys.
English signposting on the efficient underground system (smrt.co.kr) makes it easy to master with a map and a pre-paid T-Money card, costing a basic W2,500 (£1.50), which you then load with as much credit as you like. Most single journeys cost W1,050 (60p), so an initial investment of W12,000 (£7) buys 10 trips.
The Korea Tourism Organisation HQ is near Cheonggye Plaza (tel: 00 82 2 729 949 7499; visitkorea.or.kr; daily 9am-8pm). In addition, neighbourhood information kiosks and roving guides distribute maps and information in tourist areas.
One of the most appealing family-run hanok guesthouses is Tea Guesthouse (tel: 00 82 2 3675 9877; teaguesthouse.com) in Bukchon, the district that has preserved many hanoks. Guest rooms open off a peaceful courtyard garden and feature traditional underfloor heating. Doubles for W100,000 (£60) come with a networked laptop and breakfast (Korean or Western) served in your room.
Seoul families such as the cordial Kang family in suburban Buam-dong offer home-stay hospitality through the Korea Tourism Organisation (tel: 00 82 2 729 9460;visitkorea.or.kr). Prices for homestays range from W50,000 to W70,000 (£30-£42) per person, including breakfast.
For a quirky hotel in the international area of Itaewon, IP Boutique Hotel (tel:|00 82 2 3702 8000; ipboutiquehotel.com) features swings suspended from the lobby ceiling and 12 floors of stylishly decorated rooms. The walk-UP rate for a double room excluding breakfast is W265,000 (£150), though lower prices are available through sites such as agoda.com.
A walk in the park
Seoul is lucky to have a mountain in its middle, draped by parkland. Walking up Namsan Hill either from Myeongdong or Itaewon takes less than an hour and beats paying the inflated price for a two-minute cable car ride. You can deviate on to tracks through the trees before joining the road to Seoul Tower, one of the city's landmarks.
Take a view
The spacious plaza surrounding Seoul Tower is a hive of photographic, romantic and picnicking activity. The views north and south are especially delightful from dusk onwards. Afterwards, descend by bus (02, 03 or 05).
For a less obvious vantage point, head for a hillside park in the suburb of Buamdong. From Yoon Dong-ju Hill, named after a revered poet, you can admire the 14th-century fortress walls snaking around the hillside, as well as a vista of downtown Seoul.
Lunch on the run
A shopping district teeming with upmarket stores is not the obvious location for so many greasy fast-food outlets, but Myeongdong’s street market is full of surprises. Spiral shapes seem particularly popular, either as a single potato fried and threaded on a stick, or in ice cream cones that are over a foot high.
On pedestrianised Insadong-gil you can watch bakers transforming a lump of hard fermented honey into angel-hair sweetmeat called dragon's beard.
From the spiral walkway of the Ssamziegil centre you can look down on artisans' workshops. Wall-mounted terminals allow you to snap a photo and email it to a friend for free.
The best preserved of Seoul's five great palaces of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) is Changdeokgung just east of Bukchon.
Mythical animals crouch along the roof ridges to frighten off evil spirits. The extensive woodland behind, known as the Secret Garden, encompasses the royal library and a stream. You can visit only on a tour, which take place in English at 10.30am and 2.30pm Tuesday-Sunday (tel: 00 82 2 762 8262; eng.cdg. go.kr); palace admission is W3,000 (£1.80) or W8,000 (£4.80) with the garden.
To furnish the palace in your imagination, visit the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Itaewon (tel: 00 82 2 2014 6900; leeum.org) where celadon and porcelain from the Joseon period and earlier are beautifully displayed. The museum opens 10.30am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday (W10,000/£6).
The best way to enjoy the Hangang River is from a bridge-end bar. At the Café-Bar Gureum at Dongjak Bridge, seats along the windows give views of the dramatic light shows projected on the buildings on the new floating islands.
Dining with the locals
The people-watching rewards are nearly as great as the culinary ones in Gwangjang Market. Locals slide into humble benches around stalls where pajeon (seafood pancakes) and bindaetteok (vegetable fritters) are cooked. A meal costs less than £5 including a 750ml bottle of makgeolli (rice wine).
For exquisite vegetarian food, the courtyard restaurant Sanchon in Insadong (tel: 00 82 2 735 0312; sanchon.com) is ideal. Fried kelp and dishes with burdock predate the Noma craze by decades. A set dinner costs W59,400 (£36).
Sunday morning: go to church
The only accessible Buddhist temple in the city centre is Jogyesa near Insadong. Anyone can slip in (shoeless) to watch the graceful and purposeful observances pursued by the worshippers of the three giant gold Buddha statues. The repeated standing, kneeling and bowing make some look as though they are at an exercise class. At intervals a monk with a microphone leads a hypnotic chant prefaced by the gentle striking of a drum, reliably at 6am and 6pm.
Out to brunch
Seoul is so heavily Americanised that brunch options abound, especially in the expatriate neighbourhood of Itaewon. Suji’s at the western end of Itaewon-ro is classier than most (2/F, 34-16 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; tel: 00 82 2 797 3698; sujis.net). As you eat your blow-out scrambled eggs, delicious homemade sausage, home fries plus French toast, blueberry topping and maple syrup (for 14,000W/£8.40), you can browse a selection of arty magazines. The all-day brunch is available throughout weekend opening hours of 9am-4pm.
Take a hike
A sunken river flows 11km from the city centre to the river. Pedestrians stroll on both sides of what not long ago was concreted over as a freeway, enjoying a waterfall, stepping stones, wildlife and a light show. Cheonggyecheon (or the stream) is a triumph of urban regeneration.
Take a ride
Cycle paths link a series of riverside parks, and hiring a fixed-gear bike from one of the Hangang rental kiosks is hassle-free. You just pay W3,000 (£1.80) up front for the first hour, leave some ID as a deposit and pedal off past boys fishing and lovers strolling.
Icing on the cake
A fascination with secretive neighbour North Korea can be partly assuaged by visiting the Demilitarized Zone (or “DMZee”, as the guides pronounce it). Widely advertised half- and full-day tours with many operators herd groups to well-worn destinations, including the Third Tunnel of Aggression discovered in 1978 and ghostly Dorasan railway station, where the destination sign Pyongyang is for the benefit of tourist photos only. Both VIP Travel (vvip travel.com) and Seoul City Tour (seoulcity tour.net) charge W46,000 (£27) for half-day tours.