Heunginjimun Gate
Photography by Robert Koehler

South Korea has long pulsated with a fiercely independent spirit despite sometimes being overshadowed by the popularity of Tokyo and the emergence of Shanghai. Now, with the small nation’s cultural, technological and culinary exports surging, its capital, SEOUL, is becoming one of Asia’s most intriguing and vibrant cities.

On radiantly grey granite slabs across the gentle slopes of Mount Bugak, I stand facing the grand Guenjeongjeon Hall, the main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung Palace. With a mighty, tiled roof that appears to weigh heavily on its intricately decorated, multicolored wooden structure, dragons and phoenixes on its ridges overlook a courtyard of rank stones that court officials once lined to welcome guests both local and foreign.

While behind the expansive palace grounds lie quietly the city’s fortress walls, behind me sprawls the world’s second-­largest metropolitan area, home to more than 20 million people all caught up in Seoul’s march to the future. But unlike the tumult of Tokyo or the rushed reconstruction of Shanghai, Seoul has seemingly sneaked into pole position as the region’s cultural hot spot.

Bisected by the Han River, which is regularly chosen as Seoul’s most scenic attraction, the beating heart of the city has slowly edged south, so much so that its most posh district, Gangnam (which, taken literally, means south of the river) is today’s courtyard for guests seeking the life of modern royalty.

Steaming spicy soups and stews at Namdaemun Market
For this visitor, the latitudinal north-to-south aggrandizement makes South Korea’s capital a breeze to navigate, not least because of its comprehensive subway network and low-priced cabs. But as I head out of the triple-arched gates of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, it’s by foot that I’m able to bathe in the atmosphere of a Korea-of-old, in the adjacent preserved village of Bukchon Hanok. Here, slender alleyways constructed during the Joseon Dynasty (which ran from the late 14th century to the early 20th century) crisscross a living museum of traditional hanoks, or town houses. Assembled from soil, timber and rock, the weather-resistant residences here once housed wealthy officials from the royal palace. Bukchon Hanok was truly the Gangnam of its day.

A short stroll southeast leads to the mellow, cypress-tree-lined street of Insa-dong, formerly two hamlets named “In” and “Sa,” parted by a natural stream. After the rich and powerful residents departed due to a Japanese invasion in the 16th century, the hanoks here were converted to antique stores that sold the wares left behind. Once the Joseon-era Dowhawon art school opened, Insa-dong cemented its place in the national consciousness as an arcadia for artisans, one that continues to thrive.

The leafy pedestrian avenue runs from the Anguk to the Jonggak metro stations, sheltering a mishmash of nostalgic eateries with names likes School Food and Tea Story, alongside hanji (handmade traditional paper) stores where budding calligraphists and street sellers hawk heirlooms and brass buddhas. The street’s midpoint holds the modern Ssamziegil shopping center, which attempts to bring modern architecture into the historic district. Home to dozens of independent stores selling trinkets, curios and the odd South Korean pop (locally referred to as K-pop) idol souvenir, Ssamziegil lacks the charm of the surrounding lattice-wood facades that decorate the renovated old homes and shops and which are well worth exploration in the back streets and are also a vital hub for a new generation of offbeat creators.

Insa-dong isn’t all art and crafts, though. It also offers a rare taste of the old days via street stalls serving the Korean court cake, kkultarae. These dry, sweet cakes provide me a welcome energy buzz thanks to their honey and malt-sugar mixture, but it is watching the chefs stretch countless fine strands of the cornstarch-covered blend and fill them with nuts and spices that provides the greatest entertainment.

Insa-dong is at its most vibrant on weekends when a platform at its southern tip takes center stage for folk food, games, music and art festivals, most notably the annual Insa Korean Art and Culture Festival, when the brightly woven dress of the Joseon age becomes de rigueur once more.

An evening stroll east from here reveals that Seoul’s efforts to retain its true soul are even now ongoing. The streams and tributaries of this area, part of a vital water and drainage system maintained for centuries, fell into squalor by the 1950s and were eventually paved over. But 10 years ago, highways were removed so as to restore 8.4 kilometers of the east-flowing Cheonggyecheon stream, one block south of Insa-dong’s southern tip, allowing nature to blossom once again in the urban metropolis.

Pathways along the Cheonggyecheon’s green banks flow similarly like streams, leading to illuminated fountains and a ­waterfall at the stream’s source. It’s an ideal romantic spot in the hush of the city that lulls me to the day’s conclusion, and I head for a rest at the flamboyant and welcoming W Seoul hotel, which sits atop Walkerhill like a beacon in Seoul’s east.