Heart in Seoul

Amid Ancient Grandeur and Beauty, South Korea's Booming Capital Welcomes a New Kind of Luxury by Ken Scrudato

At Conrad Seoul, dramatic flourishes like the lobby's spiral staircase (seen here) coexist with simple elements, such as the ubiquitous gingko motif.

S omething was missing in Seoul. Yes, the South Korean capital has quickly grown into one of Asia's buzzing new hives of global finance and innovation. Yes, you can come here and discover high-end shopping, fascinating culture, and exquisite local and international dining. But one thing was hard to find.

Unlike other Asian boom cities, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, where the opening of new hotels could barely keep up with demand, the luxury hotel scene in Seoul has been inexplicably quiet in the new millennium. This has left a glaring hole for a hotel that rises to the technological, stylistic, and—perhaps most important—rapidly evolving service requirements of a new generation of globe-trotting business and leisure travelers. Into the breach stepped the new Conrad Seoul, which opened in November.

At Conrad Seoul, dramatic flourishes like the lobby's spiral staircase (seen here) coexist with simple elements, such as the ubiquitous gingko motif.

"Conrad Seoul is really the first true luxury hotel opening in over a decade on the Korean peninsula," says general manager Nils-Arne Schroeder. The mission: Deliver the kind of 21st-century hospitality this country has never seen.

The implications go beyond any one hotel. Conrad Seoul represents something broader—a fresh approach and a new expectation of what modern luxury means. For instance, today's traveler expects unobtrusive service. (If you"ve ever had a bellhop try to take your suitcase from you by force, you can surely relate.) It's also about equipping guests with technology that makes their stay more convenient and provides a level of individuality and independence.

"The generation visiting luxury hotels is extremely young here in Korea," says Schroeder, "and they are looking for something contemporary and new." An example: Conrad Seoul provides the Smart TV system in-room. "It allows the TV in each room to be converted into a computer. You can stream your content from your iPad, iPhone, or Android product onto a plasma TV. No other hotel in Korea has this feature."

Soaring 37 stories into the evergrowing skyline, Conrad Seoul's superb rooms offer sweeping city views (above). Seoul is one of Asia's most glittering metropolises. On many streets (like the one pictured right), neon lights adorn everything—from restaurants and bars to pharmacies and churches—competing for pedestrians" attention and creating a carnivalesque atmosphere.
Soaring 37 stories into the evergrowing skyline, Conrad Seoul's superb rooms offer sweeping city views (left). Seoul is one of Asia's most glittering metropolises. On many streets (like the one pictured above), neon lights adorn everything—from restaurants and bars to pharmacies and churches—competing for pedestrians" attention and creating a carnivalesque atmosphere.

Design and Taste

Aesthetically, expectations have also changed. While so many hotels in American and European cities have been conceived as design statements unto themselves, Asian hotels are only now starting to catch up, having previously favored glitz or familiarity over stylistic innovation. Conrad Seoul, with its sleek, modern design, speaks to this new sensibility.

Here, grand statements are at home. The hotel's dramatic central staircase, for instance, is the tallest of its kind in the country. But little details matter too. Come for a visit and you'll notice the hotel's signature design element—the gingko tree—throughout. (Gingko trees symbolize health, luck, and wealth in South Korea.) The hotel features gingko wood accents in common rooms and public areas, gingko images on the walls, carpets, and chandeliers, and thriving trees outside the building.

After all, a connection to nature and respect for the environment are also part of what a 21st-century traveler demands. Conrad Seoul has responded with, among other things, rooftop solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system.

"The Korean Stock Exchange is literally at our doorstep," says Schroeder. "But we also have the city's largest green space, the Yeouido Park, right next to us. And we're walking distance to the Han River; more than 80 percent of our rooms have a view of it."

A Korean approach reigns at the hotel's restaurants as well. "We're focusing very much on the locals," Schroeder says of the hotel's dining offerings. "Our restaurants and cuisines are made for the local tastes, and we're expecting 80 to 90 percent of the clients in the restaurants to be Seoul residents." An example is 37 Grill & Bar, perched high on the 37th floor, specializing in prime cuts of beef, organic poultry, and fresh seafood. "It has amazing views over the entire capital, and the chef comes to us from the famous Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai."

beef, organic poultry, and fresh seafood. "It has amazing views over the entire capital, and the chef comes to us from the famous Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai."

This is a long way from Dubai. But it's a city every bit as compelling—and now it's ready for a new level.

"We have such a young team," Schroeder says of his hotel staff. "They are really passionate, and they really want to exceed your expectations. What people will take away from a stay with us is that, clearly, there is a new way forward for luxury hotels in Korea."

Seoul is one of Asia's most exciting places to dine. Traditional Korean side dishes, called banchan (right), which include the beloved kimchi, are not to be missed. But international influence abounds in this city. From French bistros and New York–style steakhouses to contemporary Italian (below at Atrio), there are flavors to suit every taste.

The Hottest Spots in Seoul

With All Those New Won Floating Around South Korea's Capital, There's No Shortage Of Chic Places To Spend Them

The Apgujeong district (below, bottom) is chockablock with the boldface Western signifiers of new prosperity: Prada, Hermès, Gucci, Vuitton, and the like line Cheongdam-dong (which means "fashion and art street") in an area not dissimilar to New York's famous Madison Avenue. For culture, head to Daehangno, where you can enjoy the local theater scene and a multitude of restaurants, cafes, and bars. And if you're looking to follow the buzz of Seoul's bright young crowd, they can be found in the restaurants and nightspots of Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong.

Culture

Changdeokgung Palace

110-360 Yulgok-ro 99, Jongno-gu, 02 762 8261, cdg.go.kr
This stunning 15th-century Joseon Dynasty palace (right) was named a UNESCO heritage site in 1997. Its gardens contain more than 50,000 plants and trees.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

747-18 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, 02 2014 6901, leeum.samsungfoundation.org
A fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and modern art collections, this space has hosted high-profile shows with the likes of Mark Rothko and Anish Kapoor.

National Museum of Contemporary Art

Gwangmyeong-ro, Gwacheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, 02 2188 6114, moca.go.kr
Korea's most revered contemporary art museum boasts a permanent collection including works by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Nam June Paik, plus a sculpture garden.

Shopping

Galleria Department Store

494 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu, dept.galleria.co.kr
Renowned as a haven of upscale shopping, it features many of the top international luxury brands (above).

10 Corso Como

79 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, 02 3018 1010, 10corsocomo.com
Imported from Milan in 2008, Carla Sozzani's 10 Corso Como is the chicest fashion address in town.

Seoul Folk Flea Market

109-5 Sinseol-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, 02 2232 3367, pungmul.seoul.go.kr
For a traditional shopping experience, this is the most comprehensive market, with literally hundreds of vendors.

Restaurants

Maple Tree House

31-1 Samcheong-dong, Jongro-gu, 02 730 7461, mapletreehouse.co.kr
Traditional Korean BBQ is offered in a rustic-chic, romantic setting.

Si Wha Dam

5-5 Yongsan-gu, 02 798 3311, siwhadam.com
Every detail is handled with artistic flair at this upscale Korean eatery.

Tadak

412-29 Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, 02 333 6564
The fashionable set gather here for BBQ.

Café Des Arts

Woori Building, 18th floor, Jung-gu 10 Bongnae-dong 1ga, 02 317 8568, cafedesartsseoul.com
Stylish café by day, buzzy bistro by night.

Nightlife

Coffee Bar K

89-20 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, 02 516 1970
One of the top spots in Seoul for a great whiskey.

Once in a Blue Moon

85-1 Chungdam-dong, Kangnamgu, 02 549 5490, onceinabluemoon.co.kr
This upscale, American-style jazz and blues club features a well-cultivated music program.

Top Cloud

1-1 Jongno-ga Jongno-gu, 02 2230 3000, topcloud.co.kr
On top of the Jongno Tower, order a swanky cocktail and enjoy the spectacular view.