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Global Connections

Seoul: The city that never sleeps

  • Seoul is cosmopolitan, hectic and exciting, CNNGo contributor Gregory Curley says
  • The city is the World Design Capital this year
  • Markets, historic palaces and innovative design projects are just some of the city's highlights

South Korea is one of the countries we're featuring on Global Connections, a segment on CNN's Connect the World that takes very different countries and asks you to find the connections.

(CNN) -- Work hard, play hard. In Seoul, it's easy to do both.

The city's metro area is home to roughly 20 million residents, whose penchant for working long hours has helped transform the country into an economic power in the last half-century.

When the capital city's residents need a break, there's a host of options open to them. Seoul is bursting with cultural events, a buzzing nightlife and lively eating spots.

The once-grim industrial megacity is looking towards the future -- an ambitious urban regeneration drive has helped it earn the designation of World Design Capital this year -- but the rich cultural heritage of its past is also at your fingertips.

Frequent CNNGo contributor Gregory Curley has lived in Seoul since 2002. He didn't intend to stay for more than a year, but eight years on, he's still transfixed. He revealed what life is like in the city.

CNN: What's the vibe like?

Gregory Curley: It's very cosmopolitan. It's very large and very fast paced. It's hectic but exciting at the same time, and extremely dynamic. It actually never sleeps. I really mean that. It's not that things never seem to shut down, there's always something happening.

CNN: What are your favorite districts?

GC: Bukchon -- for the area's numerous traditional hanok homes. Insadong -- for its cozy tea houses and abundant traditional knick-knack shops. Namdaemun and Noryangjin Market -- the former boasting a huge outdoor sprawl of every imaginable good and the latter being one of Korea's largest fish markets. Garosugil -- great tree-lined street replete with shops and Euro-style cafes and restaurants.

CNN: What are some other highlights?

GC: The five grand palaces are a must-see. They give you an idea of the historical side of Korea and what life was like thousands of years ago.

Namsan Mountain is very scenic. It's a great place to grab great views of the city. There's a cable car that runs right to the top of the mountain. It's especially beautiful during fall. At the base of the mountain there's also a nice traditional folk village called Namsangol.

CNN: Where and what do you like to eat?

GC: Because I love markets I would have to say Gwangjang Market, which is a huge, outdoor market. You can literally get anything there.

My favorite dish is a spicy chicken dish called dak tori tang. It's fantastic. But also a huge favorite of mine is Korean barbeque.

Food has a very important place in Korean culture -- not only in the manner in which it is prepared, but also in the way it is consumed. Restaurants are social playgrounds. I have many memories of being huddled around a table cooking marinated meats and drinking soju amongst friends.

CNN: Seoul is undergoing some major design changes. Do you have a favorite public space?

GC: With regard to design, there's definitely a lot happening now. The Digital City is going to be opening up soon. Songdo near Incheon Airport is quite amazing, too.

CNN: Do you have any favorite or lasting memories?

GC: My friend was one of the organizers of the Pentaport Rock Festival. Amazing time. And quite possibly one of my fondest memories in Korea.

CNN: Where do you like to go to get away?

GC: Exploring the country outside of Seoul is a great way to get to the heart of Korean culture. If you drive straight east from Seoul you reach Donghae, which is quite picturesque. The area's great for seafood and swimming.

My favorite beach along the east coast is Naksan Beach (in the north, just south of Donghae) and Chilpo Beach (in the south, just north of Pohang). Donghae is great because it has that coastal charm -- a very laid back atmosphere with friendly folk and fantastic seafood.

Have you been to Seoul or do you live there? Share your tips in the comments section below.