Find a person who’s been to Korea and ask them what’s the best thing about it: the chances are that you’ll get one of three replies: the people, the food or – perhaps less seriously – soju (Korean rice wine).

National Museum of Korea: Iron Buddha © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
National Museum of Korea: Iron Buddha
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

They’re certainly right about the people: Koreans are incredibly warm, with an immensely charming way of making you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. It seemed to apply to everyone: business acquaintances, the man on the subway asking about UK politics and telling us about his years of travel to the West, the lady in the clothes shop in Namdaemun market, who proudly showed off her collection of foreign banknotes and was thrilled when I contributed a new English fiver. Oddly, the warmth doesn’t always come with openness: people want to hear about you but don’t necessarily talk much about themselves. Whether this is because they think you won’t be interested or whether it’s a self-preservation method learnt during decades of life in a police state, I can’t say. 

As for the food, Korean barbecue is justly famous. For someone like me who is congenitally incapable of operating a charcoal grill, the circular metal tray of perfectly glowing charcoal lumps makes an awesome sight, deposited into the specially provided slot in your table. Actually, what makes Korean barbecue special isn’t so much the meat – good though it is – but the side dishes: the array of thinly shredded vegetables, pickles and (of course) the notorious kimchi – cabbage preserved in garlic and chili. I don’t particularly like kimchi on its own, but put it together with a thin slice of barbecued beef and wrap it in a lettuce leaf and you get something really delicious. I’m also a fan of bibimbap, shredded vegetables cooked with rice in a hot pot: some quite unprepossessing places turn out to make food that is sumptuously tasty as well as nutritious and healthy – I lost weight in my four days in Seoul despite eating my fill and more. The Korean tradition is to eat the rice or noodles as a separate course after the main meat and vegetable courses: generally, these were so plentiful that I never quite got round to the carbs.

Myeongdong at night © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Myeongdong at night
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

People enthuse about the street food in Seoul, and the area to go for this is Myeongdong. Guides to Seoul often say that such an such an area is worth visiting, but then get very vague on what you’re actually going to see or do there. Myeongdong is a case in point: what you’re going to do is to mill around, take in the vibe and buy food from one of the two zillion street stalls. Whether you’re after ice cream, barbecued lobster tails, egg on toast, croissants, chicken or pork kebabs or dozens of Korean items, you’ll find them in Myeongdong and you’ll find the place simply bursting with energy at all hours of the day – especially so at night. (By the way, sit-down restaurants close early in Seoul, many of them taking last orders at 9pm or even before).

Myeongdong: cosmetics ads © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Myeongdong: cosmetics ads
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Much of the retail in Myeongdong is stuff you’d expect – clothes, shoes, bags, food – but there’s one surprise for the foreigner: the preponderance of skin care and cosmetics shops. The Koreans are gigantically into face masks and make-up – for both men and women. One in every three shops, it feels like, is a cosmetics outlet, while the subway and roadsides are festooned with giant posters of perfectly smooth faces which are impressive if only for the quality of photography. The boy band is a big thing in Korea, with impossibly pretty lads adorning posters, calendars, album covers or T-shirts.

Gangnam KB building © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Gangnam KB building
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

South of the river in Gangnam and Jamsil, the retail scene is different: here, we’re in Brand territory with a capital B. Just outside Gangnam Station in a forest of skyscrapers is Samsung D’light, where the company shows some of its many electronic products in a way that’s slightly tacky but still impressive – the 102” UHD screen, by the way, is extraordinary, and will set you back a cool 35 million won, presumably a snip if you’re planning a home cinema club for the whole of your extended family. The Lotte World Mall, at the base of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 123-story Lotte Tower, is a case in point: the mall is several hundred metres long, wide enough for some very deep stores on both sides – multiplied by seven floors, all occupied by ritzy brands (everyone you’ve ever heard of from Europe, plus plenty of local). It’s so much bigger than any single shopping mall I’ve ever seen that it’s difficult to get the feel across in writing, and utterly impossible to photograph. On the eighth floor, at one end, is the vineyard-styled 2,000 seat Lotte Concert Hall, an up to the minute box-in-a-box construction by the same acousticians as the new Philharmonie de Paris, with somewhat brighter but equally impressive acoustics. Across town, Kumho Art Hall has a lovely 400 seat chamber hall, whose acoustics are exceptionally clear but even brighter (at least, without an audience). The Seoul Arts Center is the other large symphony hall – we didn’t get a chance to see inside. All three host serious international performers as well as many home grown musicians.

Pastel Records at Hoehyeon Shopping Center © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Pastel Records at Hoehyeon Shopping Center
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Other areas of the city host more down-to-earth markets: Yongsam Electronics Market, reputedly the largest in Asia, is packed with small pile-em-high retail outlets, including a surprising number of old-style Hi Fi shops piled floor to ceiling with loudspeakers. Namdaemon Market is a cluster of textile, clothing and leather outlets: prices are low; quality varies from tatty to excellent. Lots of the subway stations are linked to underground markets: Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center has an extraordinary number of shops packed with old vinyl, including rows of boxed sets of Beethoven, Brahms and more.

What none of this gets across is the sheer energy of the place. The reason you don’t have to be told what to do in a particular area is that there are tons of places where it’s fun just to hang out and absorb the street life, either walking around or sitting in a café. The Koreans have embraced French café culture in a big way: chains like Paris Croissant and Paris Baguette are uniquitous, with quality of croissants and other viennoiserie that you wouldn’t complain about on the Champs-Elysées (the coffee quality is more intermittent).

Geongbokgung: Throne Room © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Geongbokgung: Throne Room
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Korea has plenty of ancient history. The problem is that most of its artefacts got obliterated, mainly by the Japanese, in the course of major invasions/occupations in the 16th and 20th centuries. As a result, much of what you see is reconstructed, so you just have to get over that and accept that it’s been done accurately and that the history is well worth while. For example, the Koreans invented moveable type printing four centuries before Gutenberg (sadly, the religious authorities stopped its mass use), while the Hangul script, which dates from King Sejong in the 15th century, is a miraculous invention, allowing people to learn to write Korean in a tiny fraction of the time that it takes to learn Chinese or Japanese kanji. Sejong seems to have been a truly heroic figure – a highly educated philosopher king firmly within the Confucian ideal (many of the later “neo-Confucian” kings, sadly, were more focused on the regal authority aspect of the Confucian system than on the duties owned by the monarch to his people). Anyway, Seoul has plenty of palaces, shrines and museums where you can go and find some of this out for yourself: Gyeongbokgung, with its associated National Folk Museum of Korea, is a good place to start.

We came in August, which isn’t necessarily the best choice: it can get very hot and humid, and (of course) the main concert seasons aren’t on. By the look of the photos, late October / early November is the time to come, when it’s cool and the maple trees in Changdeokgung and Huwon, its famous Secret Garden, turn to a vibrant scarlet.

By the way, soju doesn’t make it into my personal “top three best things in Korea”, but is definitely worth a try. The 5,000 won a bottle variety was decidedly forgettable; but the posh restaurant in Myeongdong (complete with Korean traditional music in your private room) served us some 22,000 won stuff that was really very lovely. I might update this when we’ve drunk the bottle we bought at the airport…