First published on 29 Sep 2011. Updated on 29 Sep 2011.
We may have seen too much of travel campaigns proclaiming that it's Visit [insert country name] Year, but perhaps the current country to hold the title is spot on the mark. Here at Time Out, we've been saying Korea is a sleeping giant in Asia for Australian travellers for some time, and given from now until 2012 it's Visit Korea Year, there truly has been no better time to visit.
Of course, no trip to Korea is possible without the insider guides, so here are a few essentials to get you started on Seoul and beyond.
The hip side of Seoul
Since it opened in the mid-noughties, W Seoul - Walkerhill has been one of the chain's finest hotels to be found anywhere in the world. In true W style, the Seoul property has a seriously sexy bar where locals and hip travellers alike flock to every weekend.
With the longest bar in Korea (at a whopping 18 metres), Woobar features interactive displays, chic furniture and cocktails on par with any W hotel in New York. If you're keen on a Martini, good luck choosing from the 40 vodkas on offer - or if wine is more your speed, then you'll find about 200 on the list, including some top Aussie drops. The W Hotel itself is just like the bar - chic, sexy, modern and luxurious. Definitely check-in for a massage at the Away Spa to beat the jetlag from the Sydney flight, or tee up some balls at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Driving Range next door. Don't worry about taking clubs - they can be rented - and the 200-yard range should be long enough, except if you are John Daly. Another highlight of the property is its location - Walkerhill is about a 15-minute drive (traffic notwithstanding) from Seoul's bustling business district, and the W sits amongst 180 acres of parkland. It's quite an oasis, given how busy the city can be.
If you like the bustle, however, then another hotel to eat, drink and stay at is definitely Park Hyatt Seoul. Like the W, this is one of the brand's top hotels in Asia and incredibly popular with both locals and out-of-towners alike. We recommend making a bee-line for the hotel's 23rd-floor bar called Citrus where you can take in the views of the city while nibbling on authentic Korean specialties. Now, this is not a bar featuring international DJs, but it is located right next to the spa treatment rooms - so, here it's about eating and drinking healthy after a seriously good treatment. If you want to get stuck into some sake and beer (a glass in each hand of course), then check out the Timber House - a venue styled after a traditional Korean house with a few extra comforts, such as a long list of whiskies and cocktails. Between Monday and Saturday nights, The Timber House also has a Korean jazz band or a vocalist (yep, think Lost in Translation, but without the views).
The city's hotel scene is set to get sexier in the coming year, with two grand new hotels set to open: Conrad Seoul and Thompson Hotel Seoul. The latter is just a block away from the Park Hyatt and marks the Thompson chain's first foray into Asia after having opened and operated uber-hip hotels in the United States for over a decade. Their Beverly Hills hotel continues to be the city's sexiest hotel in the chic LA suburb, and this new Seoul property will do the same. The Conrad Seoul is a priority for Hilton Worldwide and the group's president for Asia-Pacific, Martin Rinck, told Time Out in March that he has high expectations for the luxury calibre of the property, which he says will be akin to the benchmarking Conrad Tokyo hotel in Shiodome.
W Seoul Walkerhill175 Achaseong-Gil, Gwangjin-Gu, Seoul, South Korea (+82 2 465 2222); Park Hyatt Seoul 995-14 Daechi 3-dong Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea (+82 2 2016 1234)
Locals say a classic highlight of any Seoul visit is to swing by one of its five ancient royal palaces. Featuring traditional Korean architecture, they are a stark contrast to Seoul's ultra-modern office and hotel buildings, and Time Out recommends a stroll through the peaceful grounds of Gyeongbok or Changdeok Palace.
At Insa-dong, the culture-packed street is filled with shops selling antiques, old books, paintings, ceramics, Korean traditional clothes and the like. There are also a number of art galleries and tea houses worth visiting before an absolute must, which is seeing a traditional hanok (house). The easiest option for this is going to Bukchon HanokVillage where you can walk through the past. These houses are a reminder that even in the heart of the urban jungle that is Seoul (with its 10 million population) the slower, simpler ways of old still live on.
Another great way to take in Seoul is by taking a walk along one of the city's many pedestrian walkways. Go to Cheonggyecheon, a stream that was restored and re-opened in 2005, and stroll along the 5.8km track that runs to the Han River.
If you've still got some energy left and you like shopping then you're in trouble! In Seoul you can literally shop all day and all night as department stores and night markets can stay open as late as 5am. Insiders say shop in the trendy areas of Myeongdong (on any given day about 1.5 million people shop here) or swing by Apgujeong (Seoul's version of Rodeo Drive).
Just like Australia, Korea has an obsession with festivals - and that means there is literally something for everyone. From music to food, dance and even mud, Korea's festivals are famous across the globe. From 6-18 April Seoul hosts the Yeouido Spring Flowers Festival starring the country's famous cherry blossom trees along the Han River. A hit with the kids is the Hampyeong Butterfly Festival (23 April-9 May) while the favourite Time Out festival is the Boryeong Mud Festival (11-19 July) on Dae-Cheon Beach in Boreyong City, where things seriously get dirty.
How to get there
Asiana and Korean Air fly daily to Seoul from Sydney on state-of-the-art Boeing 777 aircraft. Qantas also service Seoul via a codeshare agreement with Asiana. Visit Asiana Airlines, Korean Air and Qantas.
Essential Korean info
The Korea Tourism Organisation's Sydney office has a free 235-page full-colour guidebook - essential for anyone visiting Seoul and beyond. Give them a buzz on 02 9251 1717, send an email or visit Korea Tour Guide.