They call Korea the Land of Morning Calm, but in Seoul it can feel anything but. The city is a sprawling futuristic landscape of glass towers, neon lights and luxury shopping malls, populated by millions. Markets are open all night, along with sloppy karaoke bars, wholesale shopping complexes and 24-hour saunas for rebalancing your chi.
1. The Ballsy Business
Hotel Park Hyatt Seoul
The best hotel in the city is the Park Hyatt Seoul, a Zen-like antidote to the video-game-worthy antics in the surrounding Gangnam neighborhood. The traditional hotel build is inverted here: The lobby is on the top floor, 24 stories up. Instead of a penthouse, it has an indoor infinity pool and sophisticated lobby lounge—both with insane views of the city.
2. Art Brag Leeum
Samsung Museum of Art
With so much branding in commerce-obsessed Seoul, it’s hard to keep track of what’s what. Samsung and Hyundai dominate the naming game, but don’t let that deter you from the institution at hand: The Leeum, is Korea’s premier art museum. The complex of buildings (including a black concrete box by Rem Koolhaas) houses an impressive collection of Korean art, both old-world and brand-new. Caffeinate at nearby Kafé Nordic, a bright yellow burst of Scandinavian design sensibility.
3. Blood on Your Hands
Noryangjin Fish Market
It helps if a local can haggle on your behalf at Noryangjin, a badass fish market where little ladies in big rain boots manhandle exotic sea creatures. Use your best charades gestures to negotiate for king crab and salmon. A runner picks up your bounty and delivers it to the casual eatery upstairs, where you sit on the floor and wait for lunch to be prepared—sushi, sashimi and steamed crab with scissors (butcher as you please). Just when you think you’re done, carcasses are cleared from the table, thrown into a pot and brought back to you as a bubbling fish stew. Tears of joy and spicy heat ensue. Order another round of ice-cold beer.
4. Shake Your Martini Maker
The Shilla Lounge
A heavy liquor tax makes imported booze wildly expensive, so make sure there’s an element of showmanship and spectacle to every cocktail you order. At Seoul’s somewhat tucked-away grand-dame Shilla hotel, the ingredients for a perfect martini are wheeled over to your seating area on a bar cart. A beautiful mixologist then very slowly and precisely measures, shakes or stirs the hell out of your gin and vermouth. It’s well worth the price tag.
5. Night Crawl
Gwangjang Market is the best place to overindulge on pork and soju while making friends with drunk old men. Ajummas (hardworking Korean women) lord over the gritty makeshift stalls heaped with saucy meats, noodles and vegetables. Pull up a seat and point to mung bean pancakes, steamed dumplings, rice cakes and gimbap (addictive cigar-shaped sushi rolls stuffed with vegetables and meats).
Luxury Noraebang and Ellui
At some point in the evening, only two things seem reasonable: being the frontman of your own karaoke band at Luxury, a multi-story noraebang (singing room) that appears to have been designed by a coke-addled decorator from Vegas, or hitting Ellui (D), a.k.a. Asia Multiplex Club, where bands, DJs, bar-top dancers, strobe lights and bizarro-world celebrities fight for your attention. In over-the-top Seoul, the proper decision is: Do both.