No matter where I go in the world, I always make sure that I visit a museum, art gallery, or exhibition of the local culture. I find it is one of the best ways to provide insight to the history of the country, and the sometimes untold narrative of its people.My visit to Seoul was no exception. In between my visit to a Buddhist temple, Seoul Fashion Week, and numerous foodie stop-offs, I made sure to get a sense of the South Korean art scene. I arrived to Seoul on a Friday night, and luckily didn’t have much jet lag, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I had a full day of exploring ahead of me.
I came upon All Me Art Space gallery by accident, which is always the best way to find hidden gems while you’re traveling. Wandering through Insadong neighborhood, I had two things on my tourist “to-do” list: register for my Buddhist templestay and find a famous stamp carver and calligrapher that I had seen on Instagram just days before my trip. After a warm bowl of bibimbap in my belly and my to-do list complete, I aimlessly strolled up the street and found All Me Art Space. Lucky for me, the artist was in the gallery talking to the owner and walked me through his exhibit “Black on White Phantasy”, telling me why he chose the Korean mulberry paper as his medium, and how he came to get his signature black ink for his work.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous fall weather in Seoul, I ventured to another favorite place to see art in South Korea – the Seoul Arts Center. This center is a collection of architecturally stunning museums, galleries, an opera house, an outdoor water display, and manicured gardens that will enchant you at every turn. Plan to spend at least half a day here.
My first stop at Seoul Arts Center was a temporary exhibit featuring the work of French painter Alain Bonnefoit. His delicate designs of the female figure were displayed amongst a backdrop of alluring piano music. Truly sublime! His nudes, with names like Melancolie, Filomana, and Isaura, pushed me into a reflection of my own femaleness, fragility, and fleeting emotions.
Across town, but easily accessible by Seoul’s extensive metro system, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a must-see masterpiece. The chosen site of Seoul Fashion Week, it is the perfect frame for fashion shows that draw the best names from all over the world. Famed architect Zaha Hadid left behind her signature style in Seoul with the structured, yet sensual curves of this massive structure. Hadid, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, has woven her genius into the crevices of this building – the largest 3D amorphous structure in the world. Plan your visit and become enchanted by DDP’s numerous galleries and public sitting areas, with plenty of opportunities to look up in awe!
Adjacent to Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, I hit the art lover’s jackpot. Leaving my favorite jeweler, Tentacle, I wandered down to a neighborhood filled with art galleries. A few of the most memorable: Another Way of Seeing, which is an art lab for the blind, Arario Gallery (not to be confused with Arario Museum across town), and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. As I pored over the descriptions of each piece, I finally understood why governments around the world have a history of censoring, limiting, and sometimes imprisoning artists. Artists push boundaries. They use their art to challenge our thinking. Sometimes the powers that be see them as a threat to “order”. Watching a video of the Okin Collective, winners of the 2018 Korea Artist Prize, one of the artists stated this sentiment succinctly: “The question, ‘Why it is as it is and why do we live this way?’ is, I think, unavoidable.”
So why is it as it is? I was pushed to think about this question further at Arario Museum in Space. Climbing up a gorgeous, yet dungeon-like stairwell, I arrived at Dongwook Lee’s provocative sculptures of tiny nudes. With names like Drive and Hooker, I stared at these small works that scream at you to challenge social constructs. The man strapped to his Mercedes – how many of us are held captive by material goods? Ensnared by shiny objects that distract us from our souls? I literally felt like I was in The Matrix as I walked through this exhibit.
With my brain, body, and soul cracked opened by the art at Arario Museum, I took a moment to sit in their lush garden. The smell of sweet cinnamon wafted from their cafe, Fritz Wonseo, and lured me to stay even longer. As I sat and reflected on my visit, a fellow museum-goer mentioned that he had reservations for Arario’s Michelin star restaurant on the 5th floor, Dining in Space. Ok, so what did Arario Museum not have?!? Besides this French restaurant at the top of this eye-catching building, there is also a Korean restaurant serving traditional royal cuisine, and an Italian brasserie. Wishing I could stay another week so that I could come back and dine at Arario, I immediately texted my dear friend, Jiuhn and thanked her for telling me that there was more than one Arario and to “see them both.” Duly noted!
My friend Jiuhn is the epitome of “cool”. An art consultant by trade, she used to be my English student when I was teaching over 10 years ago. She exudes a demeanor that defines that word, but with no effort. She just is. So it was without a second thought that I followed all of her recommendations on where to see art in South Korea. I had already visited the tourist hot spots, but Jiuhn’s list led me down the hidden path. Quite literally! Finding Piknic at the end of a winding road was a treat. Piknic is a amalgamation of art gallery, outdoor garden, exquisite cafe and wine bar, and event space that is tucked at the end of a small street in Hoehyeon neighborhood. With the bright blue sky above, I sat on their patio and wrote in my journal, thinking about all I had seen on this magical trip to South Korea.
Magical? Yes it was! As I wandered through the immense collection of ancient art at the National Palace Museum of Korea, I was transported to another era in the country’s history. The ornate relics from the Joseon Dynasty mingled with powerful sculptures of dragons, and symbols of longevity like cranes and deer, filled in my understanding of Korean culture. Sitting on the steps of this historic landmark, I was again reminded of why I travel – to understand a little more about this vast world, and the beautiful diversity that it brings.
“How do we know we’re in the right religion?” That was the question I asked the bishop who visited my 5th grade classroom at St. Mary’s Catholic School long ago. Even as a 10-year-old child, I questioned religion – the dogma surrounding it, the proposed path to an eventual salvation, the confines of man-made rules. I don’t remember the bishop’s words, but I remember his body language: a hesitant shift at the podium, a calm, yet confused look on his face, and the cool pace with which he delivered his answer. It was as if he had been asked this question many times before, but was uncomfortable sharing his response with a room full of young children.
So how does one know? What leads people on their spiritual journey? I had the chance to think about these questions while on a visit to Geumsunsa Temple in South Korea. I’m not Buddhist by label. I have a Taoist devotional next to my bed, but not far from it are various healing crystals, a Virgin Mary statue, and beads gifted to me by an indigenous Brazilian shaman. That was the beauty of visiting Geumsunsa; they welcomed everyone no matter your faith or fatherland. We had a diverse group from around the world – Mexico, Hong Kong, France, Germany, and me, repping the United States of America! Tucked away in the mountains outside of Seoul, Geumsunsa is one of the Buddhist temples throughout South Korea that offer what is known as “templestay” visits to foreigners from all over the world. Depending on how much time you have and where your travels take you in South Korea, there’s a templestay to fit every tourist’s itinerary.Upon arriving to Geumsunsa, I already felt at peace. Lush fall foliage, just changing their leaves, enveloped cozy colorful dorms and nearby sitting nooks. After setting up my modest room, I changed into the temple uniform and joined the rest of our group for the beginning of our stay. Sitting amongst the trees and the cool, crisp air was the perfect setting to listen to the monk’s words and simple wisdom. After a ceremonial ringing of the temple bells, our group enjoyed a vegan meal together. We ate in silence, as instructed, and with a renewed focus on my food, I felt satiated and healthy. As I carefully chewed each bite, my mind wandered and my thoughts drifted from the mundane, “why did I get so much rice at the buffet?” to the random, “I wonder if Buddhists have something like Lent?”.
I’ve been on my own spiritual search ever since those early days in Catholic school. While other children knelt with eyes closed, waiting for the bread to turn into the body of Jesus, I peered skeptically at the ceiling, looking for something, or someone to come from the heavens and turn the priest’s unleavened bread into a holy object. Our next activity was a visit to the temple – finally! The monk prepared us for our evening meditation, and the more mentally demanding 108 prostrations that were to follow. I really had no idea what to expect, as the extent of my exploration with Buddhism was reading my “Daily Tao” at bedtime back home. This was a bit more intense.So what is a prostration? I consider it a test of your physical and spiritual stamina in one move – and I truly didn’t think I would be able to do 108 of them. About ten minutes in, I felt fatigued, but the messages that the monk recited for us motivated my mind and body to absorb the meaning behind this physically demanding exercise. Upon finishing, we retreated to our rooms, and it was in this private space that I released all that had passed through me in the temple. I cried cleansing tears and wrote down some of the mantras I recalled, and what they meant for me.
I prostrate in gratitude for all those who made me suffer and helped me to become mature after hard times.
We’ve all cursed at those exes, annoying coworkers, and the guy that cut us off in traffic, or really anyone who has made us suffer! I thought about some of those people and how they helped me to evolve into the person I am today. I felt a renewed sense of gratitude.
I prostrate in gratitude for having my family who shares happy, sad, and challenging moments together.
Hearing the word “family” sent a flood of tears down my face as I thought about my grandfather and father, whose only visits to Asia had been for fighting wars. How lucky I was to be visiting this country on my own terms, with peace and open-mindedness in my heart. I was sad that neither of them had been so lucky to travel here as I had – seeing the beauty of a new culture.
I prostrate as a vow to blow all the jealousy, anger, and frustrations from my mind.
When I first started my company, a close friend told me that “only women with rich husbands or rich dads launch businesses like yours.” Ouch, that hurt! And it did make me angry and jealous for a time – and frustrated that I didn’t have those endless resources as some did. But I became resourceful and resilient, two things that make me an even better business woman today.
I prostrate in repentance for seeing this world as absolute right or wrong.
This led me to reflect on my faith, as something not so rigid, but fluid and evolving. I thought of all the friends I had of differing faiths: Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, Catholic, Jewish, and how at the heart of every religion seemed to be a message of love. Oh how I wished we could all be more accepting of each other and focus on our own spiritual growth, and not what others were doing wrong!
I prostrate as a vow to lead my life with passion.
This is harder than it sounds! I had a flashback to a short time in 2018 when I lost steam and suffered burnout. Life as a passionate entrepreneur was taking a toll! So I got back to basics, and did things to rejuvenate myself like listen to music, exercise more, and take care of my health. Only then could I really feel the passion for my work.
I prostrate as a vow to keep focused and refrain from many distractions.
Cell phone, anyone? To combat this distracting tool, I started setting aside time for Instagram, I shut off all notification banners, and did some other things to manage my use of technology. I admit, it’s a great tool – my favorite meditation app is on my phone! But everything has it limits…
I prostrate as a vow to be free from the ordinary standards that everyone in the world follows.
This was a memorable prostration, quite simply because it was a reminder that I was going in the right direction. My path didn’t need to look like everyone else’s. And it’s okay.
On the flight home from a luxury travel conference in France last year, I read through a pamphlet titled “Luxury Experiences in South Korea”. Flipping through it, I was surprised to find a segment about templestay visits in there. But as I reflected on my own templestay, I thought, yes, it was a true luxury to connect with myself. To connect with others. To connect with my soul. And this luxury is truly priceless.
There are two things everyone must do when traveling: find a place to sleep and eat. While there’s a wide range of options of what you’ll do in between those two critical activities: museums, shopping, hiking, guided tours, fashion shows, and so on, enjoying the local cuisine on your vacation can be some of the best memories of your trip.
I love to eat. And I’m one of those fortunate people that doesn’t have any allergies or food aversions, so I am likely to try a wide range of food while traveling the world. My most recent trip to South Korea was a daily adventure for my taste buds, and although I live in Los Angeles where there is a bustling Koreatown full of delicious Korean BBQ spots, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only had Korean food twice. Luckily, I was able to play catch up in South Korea’s capital. Here’s my list of top places to eat in Seoul, where both daring and discerning diners will leave satiated and smiling.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a proper Korean meal with some local friends who brought me to this Seoul standard for a sumptuous feast. Not knowing the names of most of the dishes, I just followed my hosts’ lead and ate what they ate. I was pleasantly surprised, but my favorite had to be the bibimbap(pictured above), which is like the ultimate Korean comfort food! Paired with berry wine, and a delectable steak appetizer that was like a better version of a lettuce wrap, my stomach was happy. What a way to start my stay in Seoul!
One of the best things about Seoul is its proximity to the rest of Asia, and with that, a wide range of Asian cuisine to enjoy. Make it a point to visit Richmond Dimsum in Itaewon neighborhood, and come hungry. Once you try one of Chef Danny’s Chinese creations, you’ll want to keep sampling more of his masterful menu. My friends and I had a shrimp dish that practically melted in your mouth – I couldn’t believe something could be so good! And then followed by the chef’s signature dumplings, each a different flavor: eggplant, sweet potato, and squid ink – I was in heaven! Another favorite was the shrimp curry. I’m not sure what Chef Danny does to the shrimp, but you’ll never be the same. They are amazing!
While there’s a few of these around town, I stumbled upon the Osulloc adjacent to the Seoul Modern and Contemporary Art Museum. This place was so good, I circled back on my way out of the museum just to try something else on the menu. Wanting some fuel for intense art scoping, I started with a mild green tea(their signature blend) paired with a green tea croque monsieur. Yes you read that right! I wasn’t sure what to expect from my sandwich, but the green bread did not disappoint. Eyeing the other patrons on the way out, I noticed everyone was drinking a sort of milkshake looking thing, which I ordered on my way back after finishing up at MMCA. Paired with a traditional Korean roll cake with matcha-infused cream, I was glad I came back a second time. Try it at least once – you won’t be disappointed!
I also have a sweet tooth, which can be dangerous at times, but I find that it leads me to some of the best discoveries when I travel, which is exactly what happened with Arario. The funny thing is that I had already been to the Arario Gallery on the other side of town and didn’t know that there was a related museum, which is a must-see for art lovers. But before heading into the labyrinth of rooms filled with contemporary art, I found myself drawn to the alluring aroma of coffee and cinnamon from their garden cafe called Fritz. The cinnamon roll filled with a dollop of ice cream was enough for me, but then I found out that they have three other restaurants, one of which was just mentioned in the 2019 Michelin Guide. If you’re a serious foodie, put Arario Museum on your list.
Just down the way from Arario Museum on the way to Gyeongbokgung Palace, is a Thai restaurant that had a small sign advertising that it was the best Thai restaurant in Seoul. I decided to try it, one because I was too tired to search for anything else, and I thought I’d continue on with my sampling of other Asian cuisines given my good experience at Richmond Dimsum. It was so good that I ate here twice. Their pad thai was the best I’ve had, and I’ve had quite a bit back in California! The second time I visited, I’m not sure what I ordered, but it was absolutely amazing(a spicy shrimp dish with very thin noodles). With a crowd of people filling their small upstairs restaurant during the lunch hour, I knew that there was some truth to their sign outside.
Buddhist Temple Stay
Now this isn’t a restaurant, nor will you find it on any “best of” lists besides mine, but the food that I had at the temple stay in Bukhansan National Forest was simply divine. The simplicity of the vegan food and the humble surroundings allowed me to focus on each bite. With a strict rule of no conversation during meals, I found myself focused on my food and its textures and flavors in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. If you’re vegan, you might want to visit a temple just for the food. And if you’re not, well this might make you consider going vegan a few days a week. I felt amazing after the few meals I did have and am hoping to recreate some of these dishes back home.
While I can’t remember every place that my friends took me to eat, I suggest being open-minded when you come to Seoul. Below are photos of a grilled fish dinner that we shared one evening, and a Vietnamese feast that had me drooling over every bite.
And last, but definitely not least is Conrad Seoul. If you don’t have the fortune of staying here, make it a point to head to the south side of Han River and enjoy their award-winning cuisine for at least one meal. Everything from their breakfast buffet to their crown jewel restaurant, 37 Grill and Bar is worth the trip. If you’re a wine lover, make it a point to visit 37 Grill and Bar and enlist the advice of expert sommelier, Nathan Kim. My chef’s tasting menu would not have been complete without his guidance. Read about my full experience here. And if you’re lucky enough to stay at Seoul’s top-ranked hotel, try the bone broth at breakfast. I know it sounds crazy, but I had seconds because that stuff is soooo good!
Enjoy your stay in Seoul and let me know in the comments where some of your favorite eateries are in this amazing city. I definitely plan on coming back and can’t wait to try more of Korea’s diverse dishes!
If you’re in the hospitality business, then you are definitely familiar with the phrase, “the customer is always right”. Those of us in the travel industry know what it means to go above and beyond to please our customers, ensuring that they have an amazing adventure, no matter where their destination takes them.Conrad Seoul has obviously done something right in the minds of discerning customers from all over the world. The team at Conrad Seoul was just awarded “Best Hotel in South Korea” by Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards, an enviable list that highlights the best from around the globe as decided by travelers and industry experts.So what are they doing differently from other luxury properties across South Korea, and in the rest of Asia? Well, I was lucky enough to find out on a recent visit to this world-class property ideally set at the edge of Seoul’s Han river.The most picture perfect welcome that included an assortment of treats arranged in a garden-like design, complete with a replica of my company logo, was a thoughtful surprise. What a welcome! After settling into my luxurious corner suite, of which the Conrad Seoul has 47, with wraparound views of Yeouido Park, Han River, and Seoul glittering in the distance, I decided to uncork the champagne and enjoy this enviable view.Charting my itinerary for the next few days, I was happy to learn that Conrad Seoul is ideally situated for many of the sights I wanted to see in Seoul. Just a short drive or subway ride from Seoul Arts Center, home to an opera house, performing arts center, calligraphy museum, a design museum, and much more, Conrad Seoul is the perfect location for anyone looking to indulge in the city’s lively arts scene.Although I couldn’t imagine leaving this luxurious oasis after looking at the spa menu, I guess my first adventure was going to be to their award-winning spa! Debating between the jet lag treatment and the Conrad signature massage, I decided to go with the latter after hearing the spa attendant’s description of the balm they used for the treatment. Enveloped in a private suite, I waited in peaceful bliss as I enjoyed a healing rooibos tea while the masseuse prepared my foot bath. Soothing all of my soreness away, I melted on to the table for my massage.
How to follow such bliss? A soothing soak back in my suite with a stunning view of Seoul in the distance. Having only been at Conrad Seoul for a short time, it was easy to see why they have earned so many accolades. The prestigious World Travel Awards just presented Conrad Seoul with four awards: Asia’s Leading Lifestyle Hotel 2018, Asia’s Leading Luxury City Hotel 2018, South Korea’s Leading Hotel 2018, and South Korea’s Leading Business Hotel 2018. Wow!What could pull me away from this comfortable suite? A dinner reservation at 37 Grill & Bar, Conrad Seoul’s signature restaurant on their top floor. With so many delicious options to choose from, I decided on the tasting menu accompanied by a selection of wines paired by master sommelier, Nathan Kim. Tucked into my corner table, perfect for a special occasion dinner, proposal, or anniversary celebration, I marveled at the city lights in the distance. As each course appeared, I couldn’t believe that it was so delicious! My favorite? A sumptuous seafood stew that was somehow light, yet decadent and rich at the same time. And the wine pairing was just as spectacular – a Fantini Gran Cuvée Rosé. Kudos to Nathan and the Master Chef!
When Nathan returned to describe the next dish and wine pairing, I asked him how to say “perfect” in Korean. There was no other way to describe this experience! Immersion is always the best language teacher, right? Continuing with an indulgent foie gras, Nathan reappeared to walk me through the rest of the menu. Impressed by his knowledge of wine and spirits, he described the wine that he chose to accompany my next course, a cabernet sauvignon from Joseph Phelps Winery in Napa. The ideal match for this perfect 100-point glass? A local Hanwoo steak, which is known to be some of the best meat on earth. At the end of this magnificent meal, I was satisfied beyond words. From the fresh beet sauce served with the bread to the seasonal mango ice cream, and everything in between, 37 Grill & Bar is the crown jewel at Conrad Seoul. Sipping on my special cocktail prepared by Nathan, which he called the “French Connection” as a nod to the theme of his selections, and his recent business trip, I now knew why Conrad Seoul earned so many awards for Best Hotel in this great city. The next day, my breakfast was just as impressive. With an array of both Eastern and Western breakfast items prepared in their open kitchens, I didn’t know where to start. I headed down their signature staircase, the highest and longest independent spiral staircase in Korea, and decided that I would try out some of the hotel’s other amenities. First up was their indoor golf course. After some generous coaching from Jake, their friendly staff member, I decided to try one of their seven golf courses. Reminded of my lackluster golf swing, I decided to head over to the pool. Set at the perfect temperature, this 25 meter long pool offers a panoramic view of Seoul’s bustling business district, with the glass ceiling offering a view of the stars at night. On my tour with the hotel director, she encouraged me to indulge in a night swim to take advantage of the glittering view of both the pool, set with mosaic tiles, and the Seoul skyline above. Closing out my stay at Conrad Seoul, I met up with a friend at their executive lounge to recap my visit to South Korea’s most dynamic city. Having experienced all that this city has to offer, including Fashion Week, the National Hangeul Museum(my personal favorite!), and an impressive night tour of Deoksugung Palace, I was already eager to return!As we closed up our night, I shared with her the mantra of Conrad Seoul, “Health, luck, and success”. An obvious theme throughout my visit, I was definitely looking forward to sharing this adventure with my clients and colleagues back home. Conrad Seoul has rightfully earned every award, and beyond that has provided me with a unique experience for my first trip to South Korea. There is no other way to experience Seoul!