WHY GO NOW?
The 21st century is surging ahead just 30 miles from the final Cold War frontline. The sprawling capital of South Korea is in cultural overdrive: music, theatre and even soap opera from Seoul are reaching a wider audience in China, Japan and elsewhere. The city of 10 million people is more welcoming and accessible than ever to foreign visitors.
You can fly non-stop from London Heathrow on Asiana (020-7514 0201; www. flyasiana.com) or Korean Air (020-7495 3377; www. koreanair.eu.com). Connecting services are available on Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8800; www. cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong, China Eastern via Shanghai (020-7935 2676; www. ce-air.com) or Emirates (0870 243 2222; www. emirates.com) via Dubai.
The main airport, Incheon, is 31 miles west of Seoul. Express buses run frequently to Seoul, with a flat fare of 7,000 won (W7,000 or £3.50), although the charge on some lines is W12,000 (£6). For most visitors a good route is 601 to City Hall (1). Alternatively, a cab can cost as little as W20,000 (£10) direct to your hotel, but make sure you get a regular taxi rather than the more expensive luxury version.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Seoul can seem bafflingly large, but most of the places of interest are in a manageable area. The city has a beautiful setting, with tower blocks jostling for space with hills, and the Hangang river flowing through it. Most visitors stay on the north bank, particularly in Insadong and Itaewon.
A fast, reliable and cheap (W800/40p) subway system (00 82 2 621 12200; www. smrt.co.kr) connects almost everywhere in the city. Taxis are inexpensive (W5,000/£2.50 buys a three-mile ride), but drivers rarely speak English: it helps to have your destination written in Korean characters.
The massive Lotte Hotel (2), right at the city centre (00 82 2 771 1000; www.hotel.lotte.co.kr), has every mod con, including some rooms with internet terminals. Doubles start at W471,900 (£236), with an extra W24,000 (£12) for breakfast. If you cannot bear to be without an ice rink, bowling alley and billiard hall nearby, opt for Lotte World (3) (00 82 2 419 7000; www. lottehotel.co.kr), built south-west of the centre to house Terry Wogan and other luminaries for the 1988 Olympics. Doubles from W264,000 (£132); breakfast is W27,800 (£13.90).
As a budget option, Seoul Backpackers (4) has been around longer than most (00 82 2 3672 1972; www. seoulback packers.com). Doubles are W37,000 (£18.50); breakfast is included.
TAKE A HIKE
Seoul is not in general a city for walking - but Hi Seoul Greeters (00 82 2 3707 9453) will provide free English-speaking guides for short walks in the city centre. You need to book online, three days ahead, at www. visitseoul.net. For an eye-opening stroll through Korea's modern history, try the Jeong-dong walk, which takes you past a number of historical locations as well as Seokjojeon, the first western-style building in the city.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Wherever you are staying in Seoul, you will probably find yourself returning to the Insadong area - and in particular the street known as Insadonggi, running north-west from Tapgol Park (5), which has lots of reasonably priced eating places. But for a taste of North Korea, try Sadongmyeonok (6) (00 82 2 725 1211), and order naengmyeon, a strange, cold noodle soup, or mandu, a variety of meat dumpling.
Korea's cultural shrine is the royal palace of Gyeongbokgung (7) (00 82 2 779 5310; www.ocp.go.kr), a vast yet sublime complex of wooden gates, pavilions and ceremonial halls. It opens 9am-6pm daily (except Tuesday, 9am to 7pm) from May to October, until 6pm in March and April, and until 5pm from November to February. Admission is W3,000 (£1.50). The National Museum of Korea (8), which was once located inside the grounds of the palace, is relocating to new premises at 168 Yongsan-dong, in the Yongsan district (00 82 2 2077 9000; www.museum.go.kr), where it will reopen in October.
You could spend a year shopping in Seoul and barely scratch the retail opportunities. Westerners argue about the best markets. Dongdaemun (9) is as close as the Far East gets to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; Gyeongdong (10) is smaller and more upmarket, with traditional Korean herbal medicines on sale. You should also explore the food hall in the basement of the Lotte department store (11), to be staggered by the sheer diversity of the Korean diet. Anyone with an interest in gadgets of the audio and visual varieties will love the Yongsan Electronics market (12), which has four floors of devices either unobtainable in Britain or at much lower prices - typically one-third off.
The drink of choice is OB, the acronym for Oriental Brewery. Most of the more atmospheric places are stylised European venues - German, British or Irish. In Itaewon, on the main street that runs through the district, try the Seoul Pub (13) (00 82 2 793 6666) not far from the Itaewon metro station, which at least serves local nibbles.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Staying in Itaewon, but moving a block to the north and then another block to the east, the Galbi restaurant (14) (00 82 2 797 1474) is an excellent place to try galbi - beef ribs - or bulgogi, thin strips of marinated beef. With either, you have to try the pungent kimchi: spicy, fermented cabbage that may wreak havoc with your digestion.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
From Dongnimmum Subway station (15), walk north up Mount Geumhwasan to the Guksdagang shamanist shrine - a tranquil, fascinating place to encounter a hidden side to the, er, soul of the capital. Even though it is close to the centre, the shrine refreshes the spirit with a mixture of natural and man-made symbols. You will find it just beyond the Bongwonsa Temple, a colourful, if commercialised, Buddhist complex whose main building was constructed without using any nails.
OUT TO BRUNCH
For an antidote to the previous night's kimchi, there are plenty of Western restaurants in Seoul. A good choice is Italonia (16) on Itaewon Dong (00 82 2 795 7300), where you can indulge in plausible Italian cuisine at reasonable prices. Salads, pasta, seafood and a long list of other dishes are all served in pleasant surroundings.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Seoul has a surprising number of green spaces - but the most pleasantly scented is the Namsan Botanical Garden (17) (00 82 2 753 2651) part of the larger Namsan Park, which occupies a vast space in the centre of the city. The Botanical Garden is the first of its kind in Korea, and has an extensive collection of plants. It opens daily from 9am-6pm, and admission costs W300 (£0.15).
TAKE A VIEW
From here, you are close to the base of the Seoul Tower (18), which gives the best perspective on a city that seems to expand by the day. Built in 1980 as a television tower, it is nearly 140m tall and has become the landmark that defines the skyline o f Seoul. On a clear day, you should be able to make out North Korea from the viewing area. The tower opens daily from 9.30am-11.30pm, until 10.30pm from November to February, and admission costs W2,000 (£1).
TAKE A RIDE
The world's strangest railway runs 34 miles north-west from Seoul station (19) to Dorasan - a station on the brink of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. Three trains run there each day, for a fare of just W1,400 (£0.70). Optimistically, the platform points to Pyongyang, 128 miles further on.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
If you can find a cab, take it to the viewpoint over the DMZ - although a more certain way to get there is on a tour organised from Seoul, like the ones organised by Tour2Korea.com . This is run by the Korean National Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters at 40 Cheongyecheonno (00 82 2 729 9497; www.knto.or.kr) (20). Be suitably impressed by the biggest flagpole in the world, on the North Korean side. They'll keep the red flag flying there until the whole preposterous pack of cards collapses. dsvf jhshjfda jhfbsd fsd fjhv fv jhvaf
WHY GO NOW?