The most wired city in the world – more than 95 per cent of residents have broadband internet – Seoul is a stimulating juxtaposition of futuristic tech and lovingly restored heritage. Named a Unesco City of Design in 2010 for its ‘abundant cultural heritage and creative potential,’ the South Korean capital has lived up to its accolade with modern cultural addresses like the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, and Seoullo 7017. The latter is a 16-metre high, kilometre-long pedestrian path lined with foliage that connects many of the city’s hotels with visitor essentials like Seoul Station and the 10,000-plus vendors at Namdaemun Market.
The shopping enclave of Gangnam will be familiar to many, at least by name, while the buzzing indie music scene centres around Hongdae district on Seoul’s northwestern flank. These are but two of the many surprisingly diverse neighbourhoods in this dynamic city straddling the Han river – read on for standout hotel options in each.
NORTH OF THE RIVER
Four Seasons Hotel Seoul
A business hotel with all the indulgences of a resort
The Canadian luxury group entered the Korean market with the 29-storey Four Seasons Hotel Seoul situated among the government offices and corporate headquarters of the central Jongno-gu District. While Seoul’s shopping options are less accessible here, proximity to the hundreds of historic structures that make up the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace is a plus. Ask to stay in a north-facing room for unobstructed views over the palace, designed according to the principles of feng shui. Floor-to-ceiling windows in all 317 rooms and suites allow natural light to flood the pale wood and creamy textile interiors, just as sunlight fills the two-level atrium lobby, replenished daily with striking floral arrangements. Darker by design is the subterranean speakeasy Charles H, where mixologists are as adept at making craft cocktails as they are at delivering Four Seasons service.
97 Saemunan-ro, Sinmunno 1(il)-ga, Jongno-gu; +82 2 6388 5000
Lotte Hotel Seoul
An old-world address with outstanding restaurants
Inlaid marble floors, gilded ceilings and ornate chandeliers welcome a predominantly business clientele to the Lotte Hotel Seoul. A boutique experience this is not, with 1,015 understated yet generously sized guestrooms and 94 luxurious suites, all recently refreshed in calming neutral hues and polished woods. High-speed internet is complimentary, but do put down those electronics to admire the panorama: Mount Namsan to the south and the South Korea presidential compound known as the Blue House visible from north-facing accommodations. Five gourmet offerings will please any palate, especially the Parisian fare at Pierre Gagnaire à Séoul and upscale Korean fusion dishes at Mugunghwa. Sulwhasoo Spa, a native skincare brand, is a welcome place to unwind after a long day. It’s also easy to indulge between meetings thanks to the Lotte Hotel Seoul’s location within the central business district’s Myeongdong area, famous for its shopping.
30 Eulji-ro, Euljiro 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu; +82 2 771 1000
A meticulously restored historic home with abiding comforts
The northern edge of Seoul features palaces, shrines and Rakkojae Seoul, a historic scholar’s home turned hotel. Its tidy cluster of wing-tipped wooden pavilions is among the hundreds of hanok – traditional Korean courtyard homes dating to the Joseon dynasty – within Bukchon Hanok Village, an actual neighbourhood which now doubles as a centre for Korean cultural immersion. The stylish time capsule was renovated in 2003 by Chung Young-jin, celebrated locally as a designated ‘Living National Treasure’. Adding to the pleasant throwback ambience is a lotus pond and scattering of bamboo and pine trees. Vintage architectural features and antique carved screens give way indoors to four guestrooms which evoke yesteryear in their simplicity while still supplying cushy-as-a-cloud bedding on natural jade ondol (heated) floors. Bathrooms with cedar wood soaking tubs and a firewood heated yellow-mud sauna add to this serenely authentic experience.
49-23, Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu; +82 2 742 3410
The Shilla Seoul
Grande dame within Seoul’s singular, rustic retreat
The Samsung-owned Shilla Seoul is a legendary urban resort hidden behind medieval walls amid private woodlands in a surprisingly central financial district location. Earthen silk textiles and rice paper screens fill its 464 Western- and Korean-style rooms and suites, along with Hungarian goose down bedding and marble bathrooms. One counterbalance to the calm guestrooms is Urban Island, a third-floor tropical beach club, which Seoul’s most affluent treat as a summer-long pool party, complete with moonlight swimming in the elongated pool. Other hotel perks include landscaped jogging paths, a driving range and putting green, and Asia’s first Guerlain Spa. The Korean haute cuisine at La Yeon deserves its trio of Michelin stars. Then there’s Yeong Bin Gwan, a traditional Korean-style building that’s been the wedding venue of choice for celebrities like singer Moon Hee-Jun, actress Ko So-young and actress Jeon Do-yeon.
249 Dongho-ro, Jangchung-dong, Jung-gu; +82 2 2233 3131
For creative types seeking an inspiring work base
Ryse pays homage to the creative industries, starting with its accommodation: room categories have monikers like Creator, Editor and Director, while the suites are named Producer, Artist and Executive Producer. They’re simple in an ultra-hip kind of way: prints for art, retro-designed Bluetooth speakers and complimentary mini bar and face masks (this is Korea, after all). While it may not sound like a business hotel, Ryse does attract a working crowd and tends to resemble a giant co-working space. Ground-floor cafe Tartine bustles with meetings and freelancers tapping at computers, while The Print Culture lounge is a relaxed working space and library. The hotel is fittingly located in Hongdae, an area known as the South Korean capital’s hub for all things arty.
130 Yanghwa-ro, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; +82 2-330-7700
Vista Walkerhill Seoul
A playground of a hotel where timelessness meets trends
An international sensation when it opened as Asia’s first W Hotel in 2004, this hipster hilltop hotel Vista Walkerhill Seoul reinvented itself with a sustainable locavore vibe in 2017, taking inspiration from its lofty, if slightly isolated, location atop Mount Achasan. The all-glass facade means many of the 252 crisp white guestrooms feature wall-length windows over the Han river, which divides the South Korean capital. All accommodations are endowed with little luxuries such as Fragonard bath products and tech toys like NUGU, SK Telecom’s voice-activated AI assistant. Social spaces include Skyard, the fourth-floor outdoor botanical garden with a foot spa, an acupressure walking trail, al fresco bar and yoga platform. There’s even a virtual reality all-ages play zone and a serene library with more than 3,000 titles. W Seoul-Walkerhill’s Woo Bar has been replaced by the more subdued but still cool Re:Bar, poised over the river with an inviting 18-metre-long communal table.
177 Walkerhill-ro, Gwangjang-dong, Gwangjin-gu; +82 2 455 5000
SOUTH OF THE RIVER
Glad Live Gangnam
A hipster hotel that doubles as a gallery and live music club
This formerly drab office has been made over as a sleek destination within Seoul’s most famous neighbourhood. Glad Live Gangnam’s low-lit, velvet-lined lobby confers the first clues to this hotel’s cool quotient. Compact accommodations starting at 270 square feet, with crisp white bedding and chic herringbone wood plank floors, are value options among the 210 white-and-black guestrooms. Travellers with more South Korean won to spare can upgrade to one of two sizeable pool suites that double as private party venues. Anyone is welcome at the rotating exhibitions of contemporary art and design held in the 20th-floor lounge, where musicians often also perform. A statement-making metal mesh staircase leads to the double-height Art Market Dining & Bar serving locavore-leaning dishes by chef Lee Young-moo.
223 Bongeunsa-ro, Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 6177 5000
A dose of high design on a low budget
Gangnam style at a reasonable price, the 18-storey Hotel Cappuccino houses 141 guestrooms, many of them single occupancy yet still boasting a king bed and plenty of amenities. There are also quad rooms with surprisingly restful bunk beds, and an entire floor exclusively for female travellers. Design details here skew cliché – brushed steel, exposed pipes and a concrete palette. Far more innovative is the hotel’s ‘share value’ programme, which donates unused room amenities to local charities while the ‘Angel’ lift tracks the number of rides you take which you can offset with a voluntary donation to a clean-water charity donation upon check-out. Even your pet can pay it forward; stay in the pet-friendly Bark Room and your money supports Seoul’s stray dogs. The photogenic clientele at the ground floor Caffe Cappuccino confirm the cred of this indoor-outdoor year-round hangout. More mingling happens over fusion Korean comfort food at the top-floor Hot Eatsue restaurant and extends up to the rooftop bar for gin cocktails.
155, Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu; +82 2-2038-9500
Park Hyatt Seoul
Monk-inspired minimalism at a nature-infused yet utterly urban escape
Only the smallest eye-level sign announces the Super Potato-designed luxury quarters of Park Hyatt Seoul, located within a slim 24-storey glass tower in the heart of Gangnam. The less-is-more approach continues indoors where locally sourced natural stone and pale oak provide a soothing antidote to the metropolis which in turn illuminates the 185 guestrooms, some of Seoul’s largest, through floor-to-ceiling windows. Enveloping pillow-top mattresses, Korean antiques and expansive bathrooms with soaking bathtubs, rain showers and heated toilet seats are additional perks. At the spa, which extends across the top two floors, massage therapists excel in Korean deep kneads and a heated infinity pool provides an unobstructed skyline view. Below ground, Timber House is a macho vinyl record bar and lounge with a Japanese izakaya menu.
606 Teheran-ro, Daechi-dong; +82 2-2016-1234
Sky-high sanctuaries for those who appreciate the little luxuries
Lotte World Tower currently stands as the world’s sixth tallest building. Signiel Seoul occupies the 76th to 101st floors, which means incredible views, especially of the sun setting over the Han river. Billed as a vertical city, the tower has redefined the Jamsil area, incorporating the hotel, offices, residences and Lotte World Mall, the largest shopping complex in South Korea. The aesthetic is sleek yet soft, its rooms fitted with neutral blues and rounded corners. There’s no skimping on free amenities – Nespresso machines, Evian water, Diptyque toiletries – and the desks have a panel that accommodates every kind of plug. A spa, gym, two restaurants and multiple bars will help you relax.
300 Olympic-ro, Jamsil 6(yuk)-dong, Songpa-gu; +82 2 3213 1000