In just a few decades, South Korea transformed itself from one of the world’s poorest countries into a high-tech commercial powerhouse. In its capital Seoul, the reinvention never has stopped. Major development projects constantly refresh this metropolis, which is home to 10 million people. The fast-paced, high-tech city sets both business and cultural trends. The viral dance hit “Gangnam Style” pays tribute to the city’s success with a shout-out to Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam area, which teems with well-dressed young people and the super-rich.
Still, Seoul hasn’t lost its roots. Traditional Korean houses nestle among towering skyscrapers. Fashionable boutiques and posh department stores flank narrow alleys filled with tiny shops selling everything from dried squid to smartphones. The play between new and old also extends to the city’s exciting culinary scene.
Getting to and from the airport
Incheon Airport is about 50 km (31 miles) from downtown Seoul. The Airport Express (A’REX) train is the quickest (43 minutes), cheapest and easiest way to get downtown. For ticket prices, maps and more information, visit A’REX.
Limousine buses stop at various hotels around Seoul. A standard limousine bus trip to downtown costs about 8,000 won (approx US$7.15 at US$1 to 1,115 won). You’ll find ticket booths between most airport gates. For a list of routes and bus schedules, click here.
Taxis are a convenient way to travel if you’re in a hurry or you arrive at the airport after midnight. Unlicensed taxi drivers will approach travelers leaving the airport; you’ll find official taxi stands between gates 4 and 8 after the exit on the first floor. Taxis are metered and will charge about 7,000 won for tolls on the expressway. Read Seoul’s tourism office’s guide to using taxis for some tips on avoiding excessive fares.
Getting around Seoul
Pick up a T-Money Card—a pre-paid top-up card—to use on buses, the subway, limousine buses and even taxis. The card saves you 10% on standard Seoul transit fares. You can add more money to the card at subway stations or at many convenience stores.
Usually, it’s quicker to catch a bus than use the subway. Buses are frequent and run until midnight. Not all stops have signs in English, but the driver will often call them out in English. To help you navigate the buses, consider downloading a smartphone app like SeoulBus.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for luxury accommodation, try the Ritz-Carlton Seoul, 120 Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, 135-907, Seoul; Ph: +82 2 3451 8000, or the Conrad Seoul, 23-1 Yeouido-dong Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul 150-945; Ph: +82 2 6137 7000.
High-end options include JW Marriott Seoul, 176, Sinbanpo-ro,Seocho-gu, Seoul 137-040; Ph: +82 2 6282 6262, or the Courtyard Seoul Times Square, 442 Yeongdeungpo-dong 4-ga, Seoul 150-798, Ph: +82 2 2638 3000.
For midscale accommodation, try the Mercure Seoul Ambassador, Gangnam Sodowe, 642 Yeoksam Dong, Gangnam Gu, Seoul 135 910; Ph: +82 2 2050 6000. And an economy option is the Holiday Inn Seongbuk, 3-1343 Jongam-Dong Seongbuk-Ku, Seoul 136-090; Ph: +82 2 929 2000.
Things to see and do
Seoul is the cultural center of Korea. It boasts several ancient palaces and UNESCO World Gyeongbokgung PalaceHeritage sites; more than 700 museums, including the National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum; and hundreds of performance centers and galleries.
One of the UNESCO sites is the magnificent Gyeongbokgung Palace (closed Tuesdays), where you can learn about Korea’s architectural traditions and court customs. The Palace, positioned at the head of Gwanghwamun Plaza, dates from the late 1300s and has been rebuilt numerous times. Give yourself at least an hour to stroll around the pavilions and halls within the palace’s spacious walled grounds.
Wander through the tiny, history-steeped streets of Bukchon Hanok Village. You’ll glimpse old hanoks (traditional Korean houses) and also find quaint cafés, art galleries and restaurants.
Pick up inexpensive clothing, housewares, jewelry, accessories, toys, food, flowers and more at The Namdaemun Market. Be prepared—it’s huge and seriously crowded. There are thousands of shops in the 30 or so multi-story buildings and sprawl of street stalls. You’ll find plenty of food stalls where you can try mandu gook, a savory dumpling soup, or bindae duk, skillet-fried mung-bean pancakes.
For a serene spot in the middle of the bustling city, visit Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam. Vistors to this Bhuddhist temple can practice Seon meditation as part of a two-day program called Templestay.
Most foreigners who visit Seoul stop by Itaewon, an expat-friendly neighborhood near the main U.S. Army base. It’s crammed with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops selling everything from knock-off antique furniture and pottery to jewelry and tailored suits. One of the most popular clubs in the city, Club Able, is in the basement of Itaewon’s Crown Hotel.
Where to eat
For authentic Korean food with a modern twist, visit Poom. Chef Young Hee Roh’s menus rely on fresh seasonal ingredients, and the restaurant’s mountainside location offers great views over the city. 3F Daewon-jeongsa, B/D 358-17 Huam-dong, Yongsan-gu; Ph: +82 2 777 9007.
If you want local fast food, go to Bibigo. Try the popular in bibimbap: Choose your rice (white, brown or with beans), then add vegetable and protein toppings. Eat it cold in a salad or in a traditional hot stone pot. There are several locations, including Gwanghwamun Officia Building, 1st Floor, Sinmunno 1Ga, Chongro-gu.
Want something a bit different? Go to Vatos Urban Tacos for Korean-influenced Mexican fare. There’s a reason people wait up to three hours for a table on weekends to sample kimchi carnitas and shrimp tacos. Yongsan-gu, Itaewon-dong 181-8 2/F; Ph: +82 2 797 8226.
Noryangjin Fish MarketPick your own fresh seafood and have it cooked for you at Noryangjin Fish Market in Dongjak-gu. It’s open 24 hours and has about 30,000 visitors per day. Use your haggling skills to net a bargain. Then head to one of the restaurants that line the market or ask your seller to recommend one. Your server will cook your fish to order—or suggest the best preparation. At your table, you’ll find sauces, marinades, herbs and vegetables to complement your fish. Expect to pay about 3,000 to 5,000 won per person.
For carnivores, Korean barbecue is a must. Byeokjae Galbi offers organic, melt-in-your-mouth Korean beef. Prices start at around 28,000 won per person at lunch and 36,000 won per person at dinner. 467 Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu; Ph: +82 2 2058 3535.
Whether it’s gold bars from an ATM, camel milk in your cappuccino or a hotel with a US$3 billion price tag, Abu Dhabi is sure to amaze.
Before oil was discovered in the late 1950s, Abu Dhabi was a modest fishing settlement with a declining pearl industry. Powered by petrodollars, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates has transformed into a thriving political, commercial and cultural hub. Futuristic skyscrapers, opulent hotels and sumptuous shopping malls harmonize with quaint souks and traditional mosques.
Leaders of the oil-dependent city are diversifying Abu Dhabi’s economy through financial services and tourism. Developers are prioritizing the construction of museums, convention centers and hotels. The ambitious Saadiyat Island project will house branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums.
Getting to and from the airport
Abu Dhabi International Airport is on the mainland, 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) east of the city; reaching the city center takes about 45 minutes, depending on traffic. Metered taxis and flat-rate limousines are available outside arrival terminals 1 and 2. Limousine rates are listed at the curbside pick-up point. You can get to the town center for 85 United Arab Emirates dirham, or AED (equivalent to about US$23). Public bus No. 901 departs every 40 minutes from all terminals and stops at several locations en route to the city. It’s the cheapest option at AED 3 (80 cents).
Getting around Abu Dhabi
With its well-planned road system, Abu Dhabi is easy to navigate. Taxis are reasonably priced and readily available. You can flag them down or book by phone through the TransAD hotline (Ph: 600 535 353). Trips around the city shouldn’t cost more than 10 AED ($2.70). Nighttime fares can be slightly more. Drivers don’t expect tips but do welcome them.
City buses run around the clock, and a one-way fare will set you back only AED 2 (55 cents). Weekly passes are available for AED 30 (about $8). For up-to-date bus routes and schedules, visit the Department of Transport’s website.
Abu Dhabi has no tram or metro service. Few people cycle or walk to get around; the city is spread out, and in the summer months of June to September it’s sweltering. Temperatures exceed 100 F (38 C), and humidity fluctuates between 80% and 90%. Visitors will feel more comfortable in the winter (December to March), when daily average temperatures are around 68 F (20 C).
Where to stay
For a luxury stay, try Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi, 114304; Ph: +971 2 654 3333, or the Shangri-la Hotel Qaryat Al Beri, Between the Bridges, Abu Dhabi 128881; Ph: +971 2 509 8888.
Upscale options include Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, Hamden Street, Abu Dhabi, 3541; Ph: +971 2 616 6166, or Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, Bainouna Street, Abu Dhabi, 4171; Ph: +971 2 666 6888.
If you’re looking for a midscale option, try Radisson Blu Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, 93725; Ph: +971 2 656 2000. And for an economy option, check out Hotel Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate, Road 34 Gate City, Bain Al Jessrain, Abu Dhabi, 92156; Ph: +971 2 558 9231.
Things to see and do
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque tops most visitors’ agendas; the position is justified. This extravagant work of architecture is the third-largest mosque in the world. It features 82 domes and seven Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and its hand-woven carpet is reputed to be the largest in the world. There’s enough gold and marble to make Louis XIV jealous. The mosque is open daily, with the exception of Friday morning, and has regularly scheduled guided tours.
Once you’ve taken enough pictures to kill your camera battery, head to Heritage Village. The village, in the middle of Abu Dhabi, is a living museum offering a glimpse into the country’s past. See how the Bedouin lived before modern irrigation and agricultural systems. The village is open Sunday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
When temperatures aren’t at their peak, consider a stroll along the Corniche. This manicured promenade stretches for 8 kilometers along the Persian Gulf. You’ll find pedestrian walkwaDune bashingys and cycling paths, lush gardens, an abundance of restaurants and, of course, the beach. Whether you’re marveling at the city’s architecture or taking in a sunset, the Corniche is the perfect place to unwind.
If you’re craving a day trip out of the city, the desert is only a short drive away. Adventure seekers shouldn’t miss out on a dune-bashing safari. Zooming over sand dunes in a desert-adapted (and air-conditioned) sport utility vehicle is an experience to write home about. Most tours include a camel ride, as well as a barbecue dinner under the stars to cap off the day.
Where to eat
Abu Dhabi’s multicultural makeup is reflected by its diverse restaurants. The finest restaurants are in five-star hotels, but these are also the most expensive. Only hotel restaurants have liquor licenses.
The city’s wide selection of Indian restaurants typically offer quality at reasonable prices. Ushna is a prime example; its innovative dishes put a spin on classic north Indian cuisine. Guests can enjoy gourmet courses with vintage wine pairinUshna restaurantgs, scenic views and a relaxed ambiance. Dinner for two comes in around AED 300 ($80). Souk Qaryat Al Beri, Ph: +971 2 558 1769.
Porto Bello, in the Grand Millennium Al Wahda, does a fine job modernizing traditional Italian favorites. Diners will be pleased with the friendly and attentive staff, as well as the elegant and inviting décor. Friday brunch is a special delight with unlimited champagne and a live pianist; it’s priced at AED 395 ($107). Hazza Bin Zayed Street, Al Wahda Complex, Ph: +971 2 443 9999.
Tarbouche Al Basha is a popular Lebanese eatery that prides itself on simplicity and freshness. Hummus connoisseurs won’t be disappointed by the nine variations listed on the menu. For an upgrade in ambiance, asked to be seated on the roof—a terrace garden furnished with carpeted canopies, sofas and a few tables, all lit by lanterns. An average meal costs AED 75 ($20) per person. Al Markaziyah, Ph: +971 2 628 2220.
If you’d likea truly lavish experience, indulge in French contemporary cuisine at Bord Eau in Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri. Paintings of delicate ballerinas, fine white linens and soft lighting set the mood for authentic dishes flown in from France. If it weren’t for the large windows offering picturesque views of the Grand Mosque, you might actually forget you were in the Middle East. Between The Bridges, Ph: +971 2 509 8511.