Seoul touting its food, fashion, more


Myeongdong, one of the shopping areas in Seoul.After circling the same block in Seoul's Gangnam district three times in bumper-to-bumper traffic, my impatient companion demanded to know why. "I'm trying to find the Rodeo Street sign for you," our tour guide said sheepishly.

South Koreans are so proud of Seoul's upscale boutiques, K-pop (Korean pop) music scene and gourmet restaurants they sometimes try too hard to impress visitors.

We didn't find the street sign, but we hopped out of the van so we could experience the shops ourselves.

That was the point, actually, of a recent five-day trip to South Korea. My Australian companion and I were part of a group of journalists invited by the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) to explore Seoul.

The KTO is aggressively touting this frenetic city of about 12 million and forests of high-rise towers as a worthy alternative to Tokyo and Shanghai. The KTO also is trying to quell visitor fears about North Korea's missile installations, just 30 miles from Seoul.

With Psy, the "Gangnam Style" singer whose music video went viral, as its spokesman, the KTO wants everyone to know there's just too much to do in Seoul to worry about Kim Jong Un's next move.

Take shopping, for example. The variety and volume of Seoul's retail industry is dizzying. Countless tiny stalls in street markets like Namdaemun sell everything from cheap curios to clothing, leather goods, eyeglasses, cosmetics and electronics. Overlooking this bazaar, the city's oldest, is a Shinesgae department store with 11 floors of high fashion, a gourmet grocery in the basement and a Starbucks on top.

All the high-end, international designers like Prada and Jimmy Choo have shops in trendy Gangnam.

Near Rodeo Street (yes, it was named after Hollywood's Rodeo Drive), the boutiques display one-of-a-kind outfits by Korea's up-and-coming designers.

Traditional art galleries, craft shops and antique stores draw throngs of visitors to Insadong-gil, whose streets are pedestrians-only on weekends.

the ubiquitous kimchi.The fabric shops and clothing stores in chaotic Dongdaemun market stay open until dawn.

Many of the city's top clubs and entertainment venues also rock all night with live techno music. The city's miniskirted young women and smartly dressed young men seem to party as hard as they work for the many high-tech firms.

South Koreans are also proud of their cuisine. In Seoul, kimchi (pickled cabbage and other vegetables) is served in nearly every restaurant, no matter the cuisine, and has its own museum in Gangnam.

We sampled smashed steak and bibimbap (rice and vegetables) at Modern Babsan, owned by Psy's mother and tucked into a quiet alley off tree-lined Garosu-gil. We cooked our own beef at a tabletop grill at Saemaeul, a tiny traditional barbecue restaurant near the city's new, futuristic-looking City Hall.

As for defining attractions, Seoul's offerings are subtle, varied and numerous.

The wide Han River divides the city into north and south sections; parks and hike-and-bike trails meander along its banks offering a green reprieve from the concrete. One of the 24 bridges across the Han is lighted nightly in myriad colors.

The needle-like N Seoul Tower is worth visiting on a clear day — or after dark, when the city is a mass of white lights. Visitors can walk or take a cable car to the base, then an elevator to the top for panoramic views.

Trails wind through the well-groomed gardens of nearby Namsan Park, popular with joggers and power walkers.

The changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Gyeonghuigung, the main palace in northern Seoul.Northern Seoul is home to most of the city's traditional attractions, including three royal palaces. The changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Gyeonghuigung, the main palace, is every bit as theatrical as that at London's Buckingham Palace.

It's possible at the Namsangol Hanok Village to see how the capital city looked before it had a skyline.

One-story hanoks, or houses, built of dark wood, with sloped tile roofs, climb the quiet, steep alleys of one of the city's few remaining historical areas.

With assorted military hardware out front, the Korean War Memorial & Museum in Itaewon is a massive and moving tribute to a war often forgotten outside Korea.

The city also has several prestigious museums, including the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, whose modern facade is as striking as some of the artwork assembled by the founder of the Korea-based electronics giant.


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