DOWNTOWN CIRCLE: The building in the lower right-hand corner of this photo, by architect Daniel Libeskind, is dominated by a 203-foot ring
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It’s here, more than anywhere in this city, that you realize that Seoul’s moment is now. At few times in any city’s history are all eyes fixed on it because of its rapid economic growth and political importance at the same time, while its various cultural components — food, fashion, entertainment — are at their most cutting edge and distinct. The feeling is comparable to the Swinging Sixties–era London, perhaps, or Yuppie-era New York.

Insa-dong's commercial market
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The wave of K-pop, television dramas and movies that has washed through Asia in recent years emerged from areas like Apgujeong, a district in Gangnam, where there are plans to create an entire K-pop street in honor of the artist-management companies based there. “We get so many fans just hoping for a glimpse of their favorite stars that we decided to invite them in and create a space for them,” says KJ Lee, owner of Cube Cafe, which sits directly under Cube Entertainment’s Cube Studio.

The result of a fiercely competitive society and lack of taboos on the practice of plastic surgery means that while strolling through Sinsa-dong, another part of Gangnam, I pass multiple before-and-after posters advertising the ubiquitous clinics in the area that now number more than 100. The preening youth can be watched from terraced cafés along Garosu-gil, an avenue that emulates London’s Carnaby Street and at whose end I find a hearty lunch of Korean-style barbecue with a twist.

Gaehwaok, like nearly all Korean food, is all about meat. Yet it’s a modern and healthy bulgogi restaurant where vegetables are free; the beef is cooked in fire; the dongchimi (radish) soup is the best in town; and while you tuck in with golden-brass cutlery, waiters serve complementary wines — or if you prefer, you can bring your own to this classy yet inexpensive 24-hour dining space.

South Korean cuisine is keen to become as world-renowned as Chinese and Japanese fare, and thanks to its core ingredient, ­kimchi — fermented veggies and seasoning — it certainly has a distinct taste. There’s even a museum in Seoul dedicated to the spicy, cabbage-heavy food called the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum. The seemingly simple dish turns out to have a history that’d make most genealogists swoon. Referenced in ancient Chinese poetry, kimchi was adopted by the Three Kingdoms of Korea but inherited its distinctive spice from invading Japanese who had acquired red chilies from European traders coming from the Americas.

The quirky museum sits underground in the airy and, frankly, bewildering COEX Mall, Asia’s largest shoppers’ paradise located­ in Samseong-dong that comprises some 85,000 square meters of space for Seoul’s nouveau riche to browse. While there, I wander into Samsung’s space for the future, an exhibition area known as D’light, in which South Korea’s most internationally successful electronics giant showcases its latest products as well as interactive exhibitions for the digitally devoted. It’s here that the driving force of Seoul’s destiny captures the dreams and hopes of a generation, a modern palace of riches that may not outlive the splendor of Gyeongbokgung but that symbolizes the new Seoul, south of the river.

A night in glitzy Gangnam isn’t complete without a venture into one of its megaclubs, where Seoul’s brash and well-brushed males mingle with coy ladies as social-climbers and curious onlookers dine, drink and dance in private seating areas reserved for the new elite. In keeping with Gangnam’s ­überconfidence, one such club, Ellui, humbly calls itself “The Finest Venue Ever.” As I step down into its cavernous chambers, I see staff members climb atop bars to serve chicly attired armies of youths gathered in party rooms that resemble capacious ­catwalks. The energy of optimism, affluence and explicit sassiness is electric.

In here, Seoul’s style, brazen and fearless, is on full display. Places like this embody a 21st-century South Korean spirit that doesn’t feel like just another stage but a source of the next South Korean wave of creativity that is sure to make a splash around the world. 

Tokyo-based American Way contributor Robert ­Michael Poole is the performing-arts chief editor for Artinfo.com.



American Airlines now operates daily flights from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Visit aa.com to book a flight.