1 - Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Start your tour with the unmissable landmark that is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The curved, futuristic venue, designed by the late architectural maven Zaha Hadid, is one of the city’s key event and exhibition venues but day-to-day is a hub of creativity. Boutique brands congregate in the Design Market on the first floor, with plenty of quirky modern gifts and gorgeous homeware products to browse, while the Design Lab embodies the spirit of innovation; at 3D printing specialist IOYS, visitors can get scanned and have miniature figurines printed in their own likeness (prices start from about 70,000 won/US$65 for an 8cm figure).
Audio-guided tours of the spaceship-like venue are also available, encompassing the many artworks and the History and Culture Park. For lunch, head to newly opened Hino’s Recipe in the DDP for modern Italian cuisine. The bright, airy restaurant is the brainchild of the CEO of YG Foods (a subsidiary of YG Entertainment, which created K-Pop megastars such as Big Bang).
2 - Ikseon-dong
From the DDP, hop on Subway Line 5 (via the History and Culture Park) to Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station, or a 20-minute taxi ride will take you to Ikseon-dong street. Like its popular neighbour Insa-dong, the area features maze-like streets bearing traditional Korean hanok buildings.
However, while Insa-dong (once famous for antiques and art galleries) is starting to become commercialised with big chains and tacky tourist shops, the up-and-coming Ikseon-dong is an unspoilt cultural gem. Young artists and entrepreneurs have started to repurpose the old working-class area with modern boutique and handicraft stores, but plenty of traditional elements remain, with local restaurants and beautiful teahouses featuring leafy interior courtyards.
3 - Jeongdong Theater
Another quick taxi ride (or Subway Line 1 to City Hall station) will take you to Jeong-dong – the “European Quarter” of Seoul that is still home to many foreign embassies. There’s plenty of history to soak up while wandering the leafy boulevard of Jeongdon-gil, which starts at Daehanmun Gate and skirts Deoksugung Palace. Free, guided walking tours, sponsored by the government, can be booked via Visit Seoul (english.visitseoul.net/walkingtour).
For a more lively cultural immersion, head to Jeongdong Theater. Launched in April, The Palace: Tale of Jang Noksu transports you to the Joseon Dynasty in a 90-minute performance that offers spectacular hanbok costumes, an insight to traditional instruments and dance, creative staging and a compelling story about Jang Noksu, the thief turned slave, turned royal consort. The entire performance is done without words (aside from some brief story settings relayed in four languages on a monitor by the stage). If you want a hands-on experience, there is also the chance to learn how to play the iconic janguu drum at 3pm in the Jeong Dong Maru venue above the theatre.
Show starts at 4pm Tue-Sat; ticket price 40,000-60,000 won (US$37-56);
4 - Seoullo 7017 and food walking tour
After sitting, it’s time to stretch those legs. Head south to City Hall Station to link up with Seoullo 7017 – a new sky park built along a disused 1970s overpass in a similar vein to New York’s Highline. The elevated path has become a leafy trail through the heart of the city bustle, peppered with cafés, gardens and stages for a variety of street performances. Book a food tasting and cultural tour with Gastro Tour Seoul to further elevate the experience.
Guided excursions of Seoullo 7017 take in historical sights such as the old backstreets of Pimatgol and the Yakhyeon Catholic Church, while making regular pit stops to enjoy flavours from Seoul’s history – from traditional kimchi-flavoured pancakes and tteok (rice cakes) to modern Korean fried chicken and beer. Tours cost around US$80 per person for scheduled tours – alternatively you can book custom tours;
5 - La Yeon
Make sure you save space for your final destination. Hop in a cab and head to The Shilla Seoul. Before getting in the lift, see if you can sneak a peek at Yeong Bin Gwan – a gorgeous traditional venue originally used to house foreign VIP guests, but now a wedding favourite.
Otherwise, head up to the 23rd floor to the three-Michelin-starred Korean restaurant La Yeon. The combination of an elegant setting, views stretching out across the city, and beautifully prepared and presented traditional Korean cuisine, is the perfect way to end the day.
Advance booking is necessary; lunch 12-2pm, dinner 6-10pm; dinner set from 160,000 won (US$150); +82 2 2230 3367;