If you blinked thrice you might have missed it. Seoul, for the longest time the gawky teenager of Asian capitals, has metamorphosed into a just-this-side-of sophisticated hipster. Three deservedly cocky examples include the deliriously funky “Octopus” – KEB Hana Bank Place 1 – which is as refreshing a take on a corporate headquarters as can be found anywhere; S-Factory in Seongsu-dong, that has morphed a decrepit industrial zone into somewhere to dip into the arts and culture and have a bite to eat – it’s sometimes touted as an Asian Brooklyn, but actually it’s got rather more edge; and the Turkish-designed Robot Science Museum, which is not expected to open until 2022 but is going to be crammed with hi-tech stuff and is – inevitably, you might say – building itself. Presumably it’ll be out of date by the time the first visitors arrive. Where to stay Seoul’s trad-and-tested accom – Lotte, Shilla, Grand Hyatt and so forth – was given a sharp and perhaps well-deserved kick in the pants when Ryse opened in Hongdae, which is usually qualified with the words “the neighbourhood for creative trendsetters”. It is quite forgivable to skate past the 270 or so rooms (about US$165 nightly) and just dive into the public areas, a colourful fandango of dining and entertainment crowned by what’s called the “Print Culture Lounge” (more of an artistic salon than a library). At the other end of just about every possible scale, a 24-hour sleepover at Bongeunsa temple in Gangnam (guaranteed PSY-free) takes in ultra-simple board and lodging and the chance to immerse in Buddhist prayer and practice. Some spa resorts would probably charge an arm and a leg for this type of thing – here it’s US$17 all-in. Where to shop Seoul’s shopping scene shares certain qualities with hypnotism. Drop down into one of the underground malls (more than welcome in sweltering summer/freezing winter) and the lack of natural light, the array of goods and the general hubbub are as immersive as watching a film in 3D with surround sound. Goto is typical of the breed, as is the snappily titled International Arcade Underground Shopping Center. The boom in medical tourism continues to echo louder and louder: about US$7,000 for a facelift. What to eat Young Korean girls used to be warned that if they failed to learn how to make good kimchi , they’d never find a decent husband. Risible as this sounds nowadays, this – there’s only one word for it – distinctive dish of salted and fermented veg (principally cabbage and radish) is perhaps Korea’s best-known contribution to the culinary world and a regular feature at dinner, lunch and – gasp – breakfast. That Michelin issues a guide to Seoul may say more about Michelin than anything else, but at least it’s an indication that Korean food isn’t mired in the depths of traditional recipe books. Browsing the food stalls at the larger markets – Gwangjang, for choice – is a neat dose of entertainment. “Hotteok”, “tteokbokki”, and “odeng” sound so much tastier than “stuffed pancakes”, “spicy rice cakes”, and “fish cakes”. Getting around You pays your money, you takes your choice: flag carrier, or frill free. Cathay Pacific and Korean Air occupy the first category, with a price tag of around US$260 return. Jeju, Asiana and Hong Kong Express sometimes tout seats for as little as US$125, but this can mean flying at antisocial hours. Whatever the price and whether the crew are serving in-flight meals or selling them, it takes three hours plus in either direction. Seoul Metro boasts multilingual signage and announcements, real time arrival apps, heated seats in winter, air-con in summer – it’s utterly, gloriously convenient. The system covers the whole city with very minor gaps, and apart from a hectic evening rush hour (5-8pm) is a breeze to use. The T-money card is a cousin of Hong Kong’s Octopus and works in the metro and on other public transport. And well done whoever thought to give all 700-plus stations numbers rather than just their Korean names! Plus Fortunate travellers might just find themselves caught up in an air raid practice – wailing sirens, piercing whistle blasts, much scurrying for cover, such excitement – though they are only scheduled very occasionally. Anyone doubting that South Korea is still at war with the North – it was only an armistice that was signed in 1953 – can send a wee shiver down their spines with a visit to the demilitarised zone, aka the DMZ. Rehabilitated North Korean defector guides tote the most cred. Reckon on US$10 per hour for a tour that lasts most of the day and includes lunch, transport, a certain amount of not-very-artfully veiled propaganda and very possibly a visit to a souvenir shop. Still, there’s nowhere else quite like the DMZ on the planet.