Birthplace of K-pop and launch pad for the Korean Wave of entertainment and culture, Seoul also has a vibrant communal food culture.
And, as a thriving technology hub, the South Korean capital has the fastest internet connections in the world.
Unusual coffee breaks
For centuries, tea was the drink of choice in South Korea, but not any more — at least among the younger generation. Dotting the streets of its capital are cosy coffee houses serving lattes and mochas, alongside some unique themed cafés.
Besides the dog, cat or board-game cafés now common in many global cities, Seoul has cafés themed around Charlie Brown and Lego, for example.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Blind Alley café in the Jung district is home to a clutch of raccoons, while Thanks Nature Cafe in the Mapo district has two sheep who wander round its outdoor area.
A hub for innovation
Home to the headquarters of technology giants Samsung, LG and SK Group, Seoul has received heavy government investment in its innovative start-up ecosystem. The city’s goal is to double the number of start-up support facilities by 2022, and to provide tailored support for 1,600 start-ups a year over the same period.
The country’s largest start-up incubator, Gongdeok-dong-based Seoul Startup Hub, opened in June 2017. Since then it has nurtured more than 600 new businesses, providing them with networking and financial support. The incubator hosts early-development start-ups (less than seven years old) and by June 2018 had attracted investment of more than Won14.5bn ($13.1bn).
Yongsan-gu-based Seoul Global Startup Center has been supporting foreign entrepreneurs since 2016. The incubator provides selected entrepreneurs with up to Won10m of seed funding, with no share of equity.
With the world’s fastest internet connection speeds, South Korea has an internet culture so ubiquitous that it ranks first globally on the UN E-Participation Index and third on the UN E-Government Development Index.
The Seoul Digital Plan 2020, announced in 2016, aims to make the city a leading digital capital by 2020. That includes citizen-driven digital governance and tackling urban challenges with smart technology and the “internet of things”. Since 2017, there has been free WiFi in public spaces citywide — in subway stations and parks, as well as on buses and subway trains.
Communal food culture
Seoul features cuisines from around the world, but the local custom is usually to share one large communal dish and multiple side dishes. A favourite with locals and tourists alike is gogigui (Korean barbecue), where everyone cooks their own meat on a grill in the centre of the table. Practically every other street has a gogigui restaurant.
The soju tent, or pojangmacha (literally “covered wagon”), is another typically Seoul establishment. A cross between a bar and street food stall located outdoors under a tarp tent, the pojangmacha is where young and old gather for inexpensive but delicious food and soju, a spirit often referred to as “Korean vodka”.
It is a popular meeting place in winter, when customers perch on plastic stools and huddle around heaters.
Sweating it out
A popular local pastime is a trip to a jjimjilbang (Korean spa). Based on traditional thermotherapy, jjimjilbangs are said to help people sweat their stress away. The best ones, such as Dragon Hill and Siloam Sauna in the Yongsan district, have hot baths and dry-stone kiln saunas, ice rooms, massage parlours, mineral rooms, nail salons, television rooms and restaurants.
Photographs: Getty Images; Yooran Park; Tanawat Pontchour; Wei-Te Wong/flickr; Alamy Stock Photo