Getting to know Seoul


The South Korean capital has more to offer than kimchi and K-pop. A series of seismic events shook Korea in the 20th century: 35 years of Japanese occupation, division into north and south and, as recently as the 1950s, the Korean War. But Seoul picked itself up and modernisation advanced at a dizzying pace in the second half of the century. Today the glass facades of gleaming skyscrapers overlook the tiled roofs of traditional hanok houses; while world-class cocktail bars rub shoulders with rustic teahouses and shoes-off restaurants.
Often called a city of contrasts, Seoul has been variously characterised by everything from K-pop musicians to Joseon-era palaces. But take a closer look and you'll see much more than just "old versus new".
Dalbitnodeul, Nodeul Island. Designed by local artist group Nameless Architecture, a giant moon-shaped structure called Dalbitnodeul ("Nodeul under the moonlight") has risen over the Han River from Nodeul Island. The installation, featuring an observation deck and breathtaking views of Seoul, will also play host to small-scale concerts and events. It opens to the public from 26 February, the day of the first full moon of the new lunar year.
Korean art is growing in stature and the capital has one of the highest concentrations of private museums in the world. Every big business worth its salt has a museum or gallery that actively collects and supports work by Korean artists new and old. In fact, the major cultural challenge here is that there's too much choice.
Whanki Museum, Buam-dong. This purpose-built museum is dedicated to Korea's most renowned 20th-century artist, Kim Whanki, whose work appears in the collections of the Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York - two cities he called home. Heralded as an early proponent of abstract art, Kim first rose to global prominence at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1963. This prompted his move to New York, where he produced the dot paintings that made him the most sought-after Korean artist at auction to this day. About 2,500 of Kim's works now reside at this museum, which was established by the artist's wife after his death. Nine galleries show a rotating selection of his pieces alongside those by winners of the Prix Whanki art prize and mature artists supported by the Whanki Foundation. Check out the antique stained-glass window in the main building's entrance hall, which was inspired by one of Kim's paintings.
Over the past few years Seoulites have been busy making their capital an attractive place to live and work. It’s a project that’s unfolded at an extraordinary pace, with the city shedding its image as a concrete jungle in favour of reclaimed streams, sky gardens and leafy universities.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Euljiro-dong. Designed by Zaha Hadid, this silver-grey spaceship crash-landed in central Seoul in 2014. A massive cultural complex, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza hosts exhibitions, fashion shows and more.
Hadid’s design – which won a competition held by the government – mirrors the dynamic Dongdaemun area in its free-flowing curves (it’s the world’s largest 3D amorphous building). The cladding is made up of 45,000 aluminium panels, which look different depending on the time of day and year. Drop by at night and you’ll see them glow with the reflection of nearby neon signs.