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  S E O U L   C I T Y   G U I D E

Taking a Break With a Whole Lot of Seoul

Seoul Illustration for TIME by Mariko Jesse


By SHIRLEY BRADY

The former hermit kingdom is coming out of its shell in a big way. In the spirit of the friendship cruises now ferrying South Koreans to the North, and the soccer diplomacy bringing South Koreans and Japanese together to host the 2002 World Cup, the government in Seoul has introduced a number of tourist-enticing measures that make a trip to the capital more tempting than ever.

Visitors from more than 150 countries can now enter South Korea for 30 days without a visa--twice the previous permit-free limit. The government is also expanding the number of outlets selling duty-free goods from 13 to 500, and it's hiring and training additional tourist-industry workers with language skills. Starting July 1, tax refunds on consumer goods will be given at Korean airports, a move sure to please travelers who tend to lose receipts by the time they've returned home.

Seoul is also trying to help guests find their bearings. The city is revamping its confusing system of road signs and addresses, the cause of much head-scratching by visitors. It has also installed an interactive kiosk at the tourist-information center at City Hall; at the touch of a button you can obtain maps and info on restaurants and hotels. If you still need help getting around, hail one of the Goodwill Guide Taxis--look for a sticker on the rear door--that feature free guidebooks, maps, a direct phone line to a local tourist-info center and a multilingual driver to steer you in the right direction.

But first, you need a destination. Begin your tour in high style at the Toksugung Palace. Although the smallest of the city's historic palaces, the picturesque spot is home to traditional performances of martial arts and royal wedding ceremonies. The Unhyongung Palace, meanwhile, offers on Sundays a program of music, dance, storytelling (called pansori) and folk songs.

Koreans are the Irish of Asia, they often say, because they love to croon a tune, dance a jig and make merry. If you want to understand how the locals' gift of gab originated, catch a show at one of the many centers for Korean dance and music. Popular venues include the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, Chongdong Theater and Korea House, where you can also enjoy classic meals. The Seoul Nori Madang at Sokchon Lake Park is Korea's only permanent open-air theater for the traditional arts, offering free performances of pongsan talchuum mask dances and other cultural treats.

Families with children to keep happy may prefer the modern amusements at the Lotte World and Everland theme parks. Kids of all ages also tend to be fascinated by Seoul's vibrant street life. Wander along Taehangno, the city's main arts and culture street, or the Insadong area for antiques, great dining and cozy teahouses. And don't miss the markets: Changanpyong for antiques; Kyongdong for traditional medicine; Noyrangjin for fresh seafood; Yongsan for electronics; Hwanghakdong for second-hand treasures; and Namdaemun and Tongdaemun for everything else. Shoppers should also peruse Doosan Tower and Migliore malls (open until 5 a.m. daily), the Myongdong fashion district, Itaewon for souvenirs, Shinchon for a taste of youth culture and Apkujongdong, a trendy street of upmarket shops and eateries.

Apkujongdong is also home to Xian, a minimalist eatery that has been winning kudos for its French-Asian dishes and killer kimchi. The Prince at the Hyatt Regency is also renowned for its French menu (and fantastic river view), while Il Ponte at the Hilton International is acclaimed for Italian fare. For memorable Chinese food, book a table at the Hotel Shilla's Palsun or the Hilton's Taipan. The chefs at the Hyatt's Akasaka do a great floorshow and a terrific teppanyaki.

But of course, you've come for Korean cuisine. Sokparang and Jihwaja both offer lavish royal menus (from different eras), while Sok Ran serves up home-style cooking and hospitality. Uraeok is bulgogi (marinated barbecued beef) heaven, while veggie-lovers must try Sanchon in Insadong. At some point you'll likely be offered a glass of soju or tongdongju, two popular and highly potent rice wines. Go easy, and don't say we didn't warn you.

Music buffs should check out the local and foreign swingers at All That Jazz or Just Blues. Other hip nightspots include the Cult Bar in Itaewon, J.J. Mahoney's at the Hyatt Regency and O'Kim's Irish pub at the Westin. All will help you wind down after a long day of touring--or just get the night started.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul


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