When you land at Seoul Incheon Airport you quickly think one of a couple thoughts. A) Holy sh*t I’m in the future or B) (if coming from Tokyo like I did) holy sh*t, I’m still in the future. This is not an airport; this is a transit hub out of a Philip K. Dick short story. The tagline for the airport is “Beyond Expectation” and that is about as spot on as Disney World’s motto. When you exit through baggage claim you might see 4 Koreans on a stage performing their best Pavarotti impression like we did…in an airport! This is when your hidden patriotic doubts start to creep up on you and you think to yourself, “is America f*cked?” The answer is the unfortunate maybe, but you do not fully realize it until you are in your car on the way from the airport to the city of Seoul, about an hour away.
You have now left the airport and you have now entered The Matrix. Even at night you see skylines of buildings in all directions as you cruise down the smoothest highways you could ever imagine. In an entire week in Asia I don’t remember seeing or feeling one pothole. The highways are not highways, they are superhighways, perfectly lit, 5, 6, 7 lanes wide, and meticulously kept up. People go to Asia and come back with all of these stories like, “oh my G-d the food, oh you wouldn’t believe the shopping, or oh my I felt so tall…” and while I am obviously guilty of the same, the number one thing that struck me about Tokyo and Seoul was the quiet, the cleanliness, and the infrastructure. Yes, the infrastructure. It made me wonder if John Boehner and the Republican leaders have EVER been to Asia? If they have maybe they wouldn’t be so against The New New Deal that our country so desperately needs. I have never seen infrastructure like this, the roads, and especially the bridges are impeccable. This is in addition to the world’s highest fiber-optic broadband penetration, which accounts for the fastest Internet speeds imaginable. So if they can move faster online and offline, in a race to the future who do you think is going to win? My fellow Americans, let’s take note.
So, I went all the way to South Korea and just looked at the bridges. Jk, Jk.
We stayed in Gangnam because like any Ugly American, all we knew about Seoul was from what Psy told us. Not really though. Gangnam is a subsection of Seoul, which means “South of the River” meaning the Han River. One reason for so many bridges is to go back and forth across the river. Gangnam is not like what you and the billion other people saw on YouTube, and actually Gangnam only appears for a few frames in the music video. Gangnam is the upscale area, that is true, but it is home to some of the most spectacular (and insert any other grandiose adjective here you want none of them will do it justice until you see it) shopping in the world. It also is the entertainment capital of South Korea and K-Pop so unbeknownst to our Western eyes you will probably see a bunch of celebrities that you will have no idea are celebrities. This happened to us at Grill5Taco and thankfully we had a knowledgeable local to point the actor out to us.
The shopping deserves special note. Enter the Hyundai Mall and you walk into what you think might be Eataly, only to go up a few floors and realize you are in a more organized Barney’s. Walk down the street and go into 10 Corso Como of Milan fame. Now, outside of Dover Street Market Ginza, this is the most exceptional shopping experience I have ever seen. The attention to detail is exquisite, but only fitting for the curation of clothing, books, and accessories you will find here. Again Kanye lyrics started singing in my head…What’s that jacket, Margiela?…and that’s when I realized I wasn’t on 5th Avenue anymore. This was big boy shopping, next level stuff, the evolution of shopping, extremely well-curated, extreme attention to detail and experience, and a peaceful quiet for you to focus on where you should spend lots and lots of your money. And the perfect appetizer to the entrée across the street, The Galleria, arguably the finest collection of shopping in a mall I have ever seen. It is like Bal Harbour, if Bal Harbour was injected with OCD-like cleanliness and quiet steroids. In addition, Seoul has a number of custom tailor shops where you can pickup custom suits and dress shirts for a fraction of the price of a store bought shirt in the States. (I will have to get back to you on this recommendation as it takes a couple weeks for them to get delivered and thus mine have not yet arrived).
There are a number of other activities to take in, of course. Go see the Gyeongbokgung Palace – one of the royal palaces because you should do something cultural other than shopping. From there, you are only a short walk to Bukchon Village which is a series of unique, windy little hilly roads. Hop in a cab and head over to Insadong like we did and make sure you go to Koong for the famous dumplings and walk outside and watch any number of the little stands take a brick of honey and turn it into a fine hair-like candy. You will no doubt have Korean Barbeque while in town, but go easy on it since they seem to eat a lot and you don’t want to get the “meat sweats” that D kept complaining of while the recent non-red-meat eater ingested the mass amounts of sirloin that was served to us. And you have to try the Bibimbap somewhere, it was my first time (and maybe my new favorite word) and it is really good, although after you realize its basically fried rice that you sort of get to make yourself.
If you can, stay at the Ritz Carlton in Gangnam which is one of the top five hotels I have ever stayed in, more akin to a cruise ship with multiple restaurants, has a country club worthy spa (I wish I belonged to a country club like this), and a couple Picasso’s in the lobby.
Seoul, which means “Capital City” and is officially named “Seoul Special City” is often overlooked by its better-known counterparts, but is actually the world’s second largest metropolitan area with over 25 million people. But with the size, infrastructure, innovation, entertainment industry, and headquarters of companies like Samsung, there is no doubt that Seoul will become top of mind for more Westerners in the future. In fact, the government is actually actively trying to capitalize on the success of “Gangnam Style” to attract more Western tourists to the city. So next time you are traveling through Asia make sure you stop by Seoul – it’s a cultural awakening and an amazing experience.