April Hutchinson takes in super views, tranquil temples and ancient palaces in South Korea’s capital
Chances are that after a few days’ business in frenetic Seoul, you’ll be ready for some peace and quiet, so start with a visit to the Bongeunsa Temple with its giant Buddha looking down over the bustle of the Gangnam district. You can reach it by subway, which is cheap, clean and easy to use with colour-coded and numbered lines – take number seven to Cheongdam then walk from exit two. You will feel the day’s strains fade away as you enter the leafy temple complex and look up at all the Buddhist prayer flags pinned overhead, fluttering in the breeze. Free to enter, it is usually open from 4am to 9pm. Visit bongeun.org
COEX and Cheongdam
Back to reality and a walk across the street from the temple is COEX, home to a huge conference centre and hotels such as the super-stylish Park Hyatt and the Intercontinental, as well as Korea’s largest aquarium, a 16-theatre Megabox cinema and the largest underground shopping mall in Asia. Stop at Bandi and Luni’s for a large range of English-language books and magazines. The mall is also home to well-known fashion brands from American Apparel to Zara, as well as local labels and plenty of stores high on the cute-factor for Korean take-homes. Open around 10am-10pm daily; coex.co.kr/eng
If malls aren’t your thing, jump in a cab (cheap and clean but ask your hotel to write place names for you in Korean, just in case) or walk the few blocks up to Apgujeong, a cool area of the city with quirky boutiques and cafes. Next door is the Cheongdam district, which is anchored by the Galleria Department Store as well as being home to glitzy flagships from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Prada.
Head north to the historic and greener side of the river and one of the city’s key palace complexes (seven stops on the subway from Apgujeong to Jongno-3-ga, or a 20-minute cab ride). You can only visit the UNESCO-listed Changdeokgung by guided tour – English-speaking ones take place at 11.30am and 2.30pm each day, so remember to factor this in.
Seen as the quintessential example of ancient Korean architecture, the palace is also home to the biwon, or “secret garden”, which adds a fantastic, Zen-like element to the experience. You can visit the Changdeokgung, Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine in the districts of Jongno-gu and Jung-gu on one ticket for 10,000 won (£5). Closed Mondays. Visit eng.cdg.go.kr
N Seoul Tower
It’s a 15-minute taxi ride from the palace to the N Seoul Tower, where you can enjoy great 360-degree views. The tower sits atop Namsan, the city’s central mountain, and the vistas from its third-floor observatory are stunning, down to the river and across Seoul’s skyscrapers and palaces. There are also slick eateries inside. Open daily 10am-11pm; entry is 7,000 won (£4); nseoultower.net
Leeum museum of art
A quick taxi ride away, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art’s collection is housed in three buildings designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, and includes a Rodin gallery, Korean and international art. Open 10.30am-6pm Tues-Sun; entry is 10,000 won (£5); leeum.samsungfoundation.org. Nearby is the new Banyan Tree Club and Spa, where you can end the day at the 360 Wine bar. Visit banyantree.com
Seoul is only about 40km from the North Korean border, so if you have the time, take the one-day tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) for a fascinating insight into the conflict, albeit from the South Korean point of view. Security is strict and there are rules for behaviour and dress code.