The Cheonggyecheon stream
Photography by Robert Koehler
I WAKE IN MY aptly named “Wonderful Room” of egg-shaped chairs and pebble rugs to a panoramic view across the broad Han River. From here, the skyscrapers of southern Seoul stand bewitching against the mountain backdrop. But for today, my taste is for some modern tradition around Myeong-dong.

This old neighborhood became a mecca for fashion in the 1970s as Seoul flourished with modern boutiques when its economy­ began to take off. Ambling around its crowded­ and mazelike streets, I get my first sense of the sheer buoyancy that pervades the zeitgeist of this city.

Myeong-dong is viewed as the most influential shopping area in the city. For a brand to be taken seriously, it must be represented here. I elbow past all manner of international­ tourists outside the area’s giant department stores, like Lotte and Shinsegae. While luxury brands from all over the world once ruled in these shopping behemoths, today, South Korean cosmetic and fashion names dominate the shelves while domestic giants E.Land, MIXXO and Spao rival global fast-fashion brands like H&M and UNIQLO.
Insa-dong, embellished for spring
Yonhap News Agency/Corbis

Orbiting around Myeong-dong’s labyrinth of commerce, I see several of Seoul’s significant sights, including a shopping haven of a different sort, Namdaemun Market, South Korea’s oldest and largest bazaar. In this warren of stalls and rowdy shopkeepers, I feel like I’m strolling into a live barometer for the city’s wealth and well-being, as I pass traditional medicine peddlers and toy traders, stopping for some savory soup (mandu gook) with dumplings to fuel me for the rest of the day.

Standing proud and defiant outside the market is Namdaemun itself, one of the eight mammoth gateways that formerly dotted Seoul’s fortress walls. The first designated National Treasure of Korea, the ­pagoda-style, 700-year-old fortification ­succumbed to arson in 2008 but is already back on display in its fully restored glory.

At the other end of the spectrum and just a short hop from the ancient gate, my first glimpse of the snazzy side of Seoul comes via architect Yoo Kerl, whose curvaceous, glass new Seoul City Hall looks like it melted around the imposing brick original (which, in actuality, has metamorphosed into Seoul Metropolitan Library). The inside of Kerl’s creation contains its own biological wonder of a vertical garden that acts as natural humidifier inside the crystal-like edifice.

This entirely walkable geographical center of Seoul does have one ride well worth perching on: the Mount Namsan cable car. This sky tram offers a spectacular view of the city while climbing to its destination at the N Seoul Tower, which contains floors of varied entertainment. Nearly 500 meters above sea level, I find myself surrounded by cuddly stuffed animals decked out in all manner of traditional garb, which the tower’s Teddy Bear Museum uses to tell the story of the city from past to future.

But perhaps Seoul’s melding of old and new is best summed up over dinner at Si Hwa Dam, an extraordinary dining ­experience that combines poetry, history and fine South Korean cuisine in the setting of its own ­museumlike complex. Each impeccably created dish is presented like a work of art, with titles like “When Snow Falls in the Mountain Village” and “Plate of Blowing Wind.” It’s truly a shame to spoil the ex­quisitely presented fresh and healthful dishes by actually consuming them, but when it tastes as delightful as the sautéed kimchi with squid-ink spaghetti, it’s hard to know what will linger in my memory longer — the flavor or the vision.

Rabindranath Tagore — a Bengali­ who became the first non-European Nobel Prize winner for literature for his 1912 poems Gitanjali: Song Offerings — once called South Korea the “land of morning calm.” It’s a sentiment that permeates Gangnam’s most iconic hotel, the Park Hyatt, whose sheet-glass facade faces Teheran-ro, the central thoroughfare of Seoul’s glitzy south-of-the-river playground for the rich and famous.

Built from near nothing in just a few dec­ades, the skyscrapers and malls in Gangnam represent the economic miracle of a nation that has seen brands like Samsung, Hyundai and LG become world leaders. And with such vibrancy, it’s attracted the best and worst excesses of modern South Korea to one hub, where creative artists and pop idols churned out by music factories live side by side, and new designer boutiques on the charming gingko-tree-lined Garosu-gil do battle with mansionlike luxury-brand stores on Rodeo Street (named in honor of Beverly Hills, ­Calif.’s Rodeo Drive).