Seoul is so cutting-edge it’s practically science fiction.
If you want a latte made by a robot or a VR headset to read your mind, this is the place to go. And the City of the Future has never been a better destination than right now. Year after year, South Korea tops the Bloomberg Innovation Index and its forward-thinking capital illustrates why. Seoul’s focus on sustainability through technology has produced internationally recognised public transport and e-governance systems. The momentum continues with initiatives to repurpose disused infrastructure as public green space.
For business travellers, it’s hard to imagine how Seoul could be improved. It's been named Best MICE City four years running, with multilingual public facilities and blistering wi-fi making life (and work) easy. Each neighbourhood is also delightfully distinct. Take the three business districts: in central Jongno, skyscrapers share the streets with ancient palaces; south of the Han River, glam Gangnam has the most Michelin mentions in the city; and Yeouido, the finance district, is softened by a snow of cherry blossoms every spring.
Not sure which to choose? Just pick a neighbourhood and start walking. You won’t be disappointed.
Coffee pit stop
Seoul’s coffee culture tends to start late but Locolab is up and running at 8.30am during the week and 11am on weekends. This industrial-chic café makes all its beverage ingredients from scratch, from jammy fruit mixes to hot chocolate bases. Take a cold brew to the rooftop terrace and listen to the bells from nearby Jogyesa Temple.
51 Yulgok-ro 4-gil, Jongno-gu; +82 2 3210 3258
This Sydney institution is part of the cascading terrace of restaurants in D-Tower, with an Art Deco-inspired layout amplifying light and space. Breakfast is 9am to 11am but brunch classics such as Bill’s scrambled eggs and avocado on toast are available all day.
4F D-Tower, 17 Jong-ro 3-gil, Jongno-gu
The Sajik corner of Jongno is crowded with bistros but Sajik-dong Juban stands out for its bold spices and specialty alcohol. The fusion menu pairs international flavours with less well-known Korean rice wines and liquors. Enjoy five-spiced pork ribs at a low courtyard table or take a seat at the bar for an expert tour of the local liquor sampler.
12 Sajik-ro 9ga-gil, Jongno-gu
Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul
A decade after its masterful debut, Pierre Gagnaire à Séoul reopened in 2018 following extensive renovations. The renowned chef continues his legacy of blending fine French dining with high-end Korean ingredients like hanwoo beef and abalone. This harmony is echoed in the décor – the Versailles garden-inspired designs of Olivier Gagnère overlook a sharp skyline and the spire of Namsan Tower. A new lunch menu has business diners in mind, unspooling from the starter to petits fours within an hour. Allow up to two hours for menus with additional courses. The restaurant shares the view from the 35th floor of Lotte Hotel’s Executive Tower with companion establishment Pierre’s Bar.
Level 35, Hotel Lotte, 30 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu
Drinks with clients
This sophisticated cocktail and whiskey bar is hidden away among the alleyways and traditional houses opposite Gyeongbokgung Palace. True to its name, complimentary berry cobbler is served to all customers upon arrival. There’s no menu so rely on founder and cocktail craftsman Robin Yoo to concoct the perfect drop.
16 Sajik-ro 12-gil, Jongno-gu; +82 2 733 6421
1. Take a stroll above the city along Seoullo 7017, a former overpass-turned-sky garden. Open all year round, this 17-metre high, kilometre-long stretch of recreated parkland is scattered with tiny cafés, performance spaces and art exhibitions. At night, fairy-lit trees echo the glittering cityscape.
2. Soothe mind and body in a traditional teahouse. Jeontong Dawon (+82 2 730 6305), a tea garden at the free Kyung-In Museum of Fine Art, serves teas made from fruits and herbs such as ginseng, jujube and the five-flavour omija berry. Each Korean tea variety is associated with a restorative benefit, from boosting immunity to curing hangovers.
3. Sink into the serenity at Geumsunsa, a Buddhist temple specialising in Seon meditation retreats. Overlooking the city centre from Bukhansan Mountain, Geumsunsa offers half-, one-, two-day and overnight programs in relaxing, natural surroundings.
L’Escape is a trip through time to fin de siècle Paris. Designed by Jacques Garcia in the central Jung-gu district, the hotel has 124 deluxe rooms and 80 suites. Appropriately period amenities include a tea salon and library.
Best co-working space
Co-working in Seoul is largely by membership, with a one-month minimum the norm. For brief stays, try Superegg Place, a small, well-appointed, centrally located office. Hot desks are ₩4500 ($5.50) an hour or ₩22,000 ($27) a day. A five-day pass is ₩95,000 ($116).
If you have a couple of hours…
When a 16th-century neighbourhood was unearthed beneath the new Centropolis Building, an unprecedented decision was made to preserve the ruins as a basement exhibit. The resulting and as yet little-known Gongpyeong Historic Sites Museum is the latest branch of the Seoul Museum of History. After exploring the exhibit, visitors can experience a virtual-reality (VR) re-creation of the original neighbourhood.
If you have half a day…
Spend it in futuristic Gangnam, where Korea’s VR craze began. Bend your mind playing games in a VR café or catch an e-sports tournament in the Nexon Arena. To glimpse how this technology will one day enhance our home lives, investigate the interactive exhibition at Samsung d’light.
If you have a day…
Located just 30 kilometres south of Seoul, Suwon is the last walled city in South Korea. The almost six-kilometre stroll along the fortress wall takes in the more than 100-year-old village, Hwaseong Fortress and towering golden Buddha. The city is also famous for hiking, museum-hopping and galbi (barbecued ribs). Enjoy the latter at Kabojung, a rare barbecue restaurant that caters to solo diners.
If you have a weekend…
For a thousand years Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kings. Now the UNESCO Heritage-listed city is known as “the museum without walls”. Only two hours from Seoul by KTX train, Gyeongju’s treasures include ruins, temples and royal tombs all surrounded by a national park. The city is an ideal place to experience the more traditional luxuries. For an overnight stay, the elegant suites at Hwangnamguan offer standard or ondol (heated floor) bedrooms. Yosokkoong restaurant, in a restored 200-year-old house, specialises in classic Korean aristocratic set meals. Don’t be intimidated by the menu – you only have to decide the number of courses.