I had short trip to Seoul, South Korea last year and although it was my 3rd time in the city it was the first time I had time for sightseeing.
Here's my report:
On the outbound I flew Asiana 747 in First Class from LAX. It was just a couple of days after a major hurricane in Korea and it was the first flight that actually left in time after a week of delays and cancellations. Lucky me!
The First Class cabin is really spacious in the nose of the 747. The seat goes fully flat and it all gives you a very relaxed atmosphere. The flight attendants were extremely friendly – a bit too shy sometimes. I remember liking the appetizers (caviar!) and the main course (beef) not so much. The entertainment system was working well and I had a very fun time. You can even choose from a number of gifts just before landing which I found an interesting idea.
The inbound I flew in Singapore Airlines First Class 777. Singapore Airlines is certainly a great airline and deserves top notch remarks. I had hurt my back in Korea so I was even more sensitive to a good seat. Alas the seat is pretty bad itself – it's wide but does not recline much. It shines though when the bed is made – best bed I have been on. The entertainment system has tons of movies and TV episodes on a huge screen. The flight attendants were superbly qualified and eager to do their job. However they had been let down by the catering department. While I enjoyed the Dom I hardly touched any of the food. The Korean and the Western menu were both barely edible. I had 4 First Class flights with Singapore Airlines since and food was solid to excellent so this was probably just a bad day. But it still left me hungry and dizzy from all the champagne on an empty stomach 🙂
I initially stayed at the Marriott Courtyard Seoul which is a category 4 hotel and I could use my Megabonus certificates. This will change once Marriott's category changes will go into effect. The hotel is excellent and sits atop a busy shopping mall and a subway station. It provides great views over Seoul. The interior design is almost at Hyatt standard – dark and very high quality. I have yet to find a negative review at Flyertalk about this property.
I moved on the W Hotel Walkerhill. It's located a bit outside downtown (10 minute taxi ride to now famous 'Gangnam'). It's modern, clean and should have given me an awesome experience but resented it. The food was crazy overpriced with small grilled chicken salad costing $30 and my bowl of milk was $25 in the morning (I did bring my own muesli!). Many staff members were completely unable to speak any English. At 8 PM we could not find anyone who understood English. In a hotel that charges $300/night and caters to international travelers this is odd. But I admit I'm somehow not a W person – maybe that's it. The hotel management was apologetic and I think they have since started to invest a bit more in recruiting bi-lingual staff.
The Sheraton D-Cube city became my favorite hotel in the city. It's not far from the Courtyard by Marriott Seoul and sits atop another brand-new mall development. Of course there is this double elevator issue where you can easily spend 15 minutes getting down to the subway but the rooms a sparkling new and show a fantastic design. Staff is impeccably friendly and understands English very well. The lounge provides great views of the city and it was just a big joy spending 12 hours in the hotel.
My last stay was at the Sheraton Incheon which sounds really close to the airport but it's a solid 30 minutes bus ride away. This part of town is brand new and finding a bus that would take me there was kind of an adventure but I succeeded eventually.
It's very similar to the Sheraton D-Cube City in style and architecture. There is no mall or subway and the building is no as tall but it has fantastic modern rooms and a great spa area. There are lot's of coffee shops and food options in walking distance.
The most interesting sight was people watching in the subway. Each car was like a rolling scene from a science fiction movie. There is fantastic 4G reception in all trains and people just use their tablet (i.e. not many phones nor iPhones) with an amazing speed and versatility. One (older lady in her 50s) did not speak any English but was able to pull up a digital subway map to explain the way and then she fired up Google Translate on her Samsung tablet all in seconds. Try that in most places outside Silicon Valley back home 🙂
I also went a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) tour which takes you to a former North Korean tunnel under the border and to the (former) border crossing. It's all very touristy as there is no normal border crossing traffic and all you can get is glance at North Korea from miles away. The place is laden with history and skirmishes from the 50's and 60's. My guide was actually not much help (I barely understood him) but I used Wikipedia on my iPhone which had dozens of articles with highly engaging content from that time. It was rally special to see such a place and the aura of 'danger' it exudes.
Changdeokgung Palace was an interesting sight and certainly something n the must-do list. However, like the forbidden city in Beijing, these kind of 'palaces' always leave me looking for the 'interior'. I mean you are stuck wandering through a seemingly endless meandering of courtyards but where on earth is the main house and the kings gold?
I went to numerous malls often not realizing I actually left the subway and suddenly found myself in yet another 'Lotte' mall. But these places are fun – super clean, exotic food and retail items. Shopping seems to be a big part of Seoul life 🙂
Whenever I'm in Seoul I feel that when Chinese cities will 'grow up' that's how they gonna look like. There is smog, but it's not crazy dirty, it's all very modern, but with old temples living in relative harmony. People are somewhat rushed but very friendly. They are shy towards foreigners but eager to help.
I feel very much 'at home' in Seoul and I'm looking forward to my next trip there.