While Psy’s catchy song “Gangnam Style” brought the urbanized, Western-influenced region south of the Han River to everyone’s lips across the globe, its counterpart Gangbuk (translating to “north of the river”) is where you’ll find the Seoul’s old city charm, thanks to many of its historic sites. The Gwanghwamun area is the capital’s heart and hub: home to Gyeongbok Palace, embassies, as well as a surprising number of businesses. One of Seoul’s newest hotels, Four Seasons Seoul, is catering to that demographic, but its superb location makes it attractive to visitors seeking out a uniquely Seoul experience. More locals—perhaps seeking reprieve from Gangnam’s flashiness—are spending their leisure time in the soulful neighborhoods north of the river (including Samcheongdong, Hannam-dong, Itaewon and Hongdae).
The Four Seasons Seoul checks off the requirements of a luxury hotel in Asia: ballrooms, an exclusive membership club for locals (with access to sauna, golf, gym and pool), and a number of restaurants and bars primed for special occasions. Its convenient location is a big plus, especially when compared to Seoul’s established and favored luxury hotels like the Shilla (atop a hill that requires taxi and car transport) or W Seoul Walkerhill (far from the city center). A packed day of site-seeing, eating out or business meetings can all be done by foot. And within the hotel are enticing options to appease guests and locals.
Notable about Four Season Seoul’s entry-level rooms: the carpeted floor and white Italian marble bathroom aren’t so Korean, but the high-tech toilet definitely reminds you that you’ve arrived in another continent. The Daelim Bath Smartlet has a wireless remote panel on the wall to control flushing, bidet, drying, etc. By the bed, an iPad is how you swiftly request (or set a time for) turndown service, in-room dining and more. A gigantic carpeted walk-in closet hides all suitcases and shopping bags, while floor-to-ceiling windows let in the light.
While the rooms lean blasé, the service is making notable effort not to be. Aware of how robotic and overly formal the Korean service industry can be, Four Seasons has impressed their concierge here with the importance of being intuitive and attentive. Despite the hotel’s large capacity (317 rooms and suites), they do a remarkable job of making guests feel like they’re one of just a few.
We’re big fans of the pool and 24-hour fitness facility. They’re more substantial than Park Hyatt Seoul’s, with an additional heated vitality pool and panoramic sauna. And, as with most luxury hotels in Korea and Japan, everything from socks, sneakers to even swimsuits can be provided to guests, free of charge.
If you only have one night for dinner at Four Seasons Seoul, Kioku is the hands-down must among its many options. Upon entry, the elegant multi-level Japanese restaurant is an immediate visual stunner, with interiors by designer André Fu. “The key material employed is bamboo—which is used extensively in the wall claddings and the various screen features,” Fu tells CH. “Traditional solid oak with rough cut edges are also introduced in key table tops to portray the essence of nature. The booth seating is perhaps a design conception to echo the overall story of a bamboo theatre—the silhouette of scaffoldings and screenings.”
The ambience transforms in the time between lunch and dinner (thanks to skylights) and under a starry night, the space does feel theatrical, yet peaceful—like having a meal in the middle of a lush bamboo forest. On the mezzanine and upper level are an intimate sake bar and 11-meter-long sushi counter. After you’re done taking photos, a menu filled with fresh ingredients (much of the fish is sourced from Korea’s Jeju Island) awaits. The three different tasting menus do not overlap in courses at all, showing off the versatility of Chef Sawada Kazumi.
Another noteworthy venue beyond Kioku is their “speakeasy” bar, Charles H, located in the basement. The entrance is hidden underneath a staircase, though having a hostess greet you behind the door (while checking seating charts) somewhat undermines the thrill. Inside, it’s spacious and dark, with lush velvet and gold trimmings. Head bartender Chris Lowder has got a lot of stories for you: the seasoned traveler is fluent in Japanese and Chinese (he tells us he’s working on his Korean), was former Bar Manager and Head of Bar Education at NYC hotspot the NoMad Hotel, and has been having a lot of fun incorporating Korean ingredients into his globally themed cocktail menu, like black vinegar, chamwae melon, dried jujube, and Jeju oranges.
Rates start at about 445,000 KRW plus tax per night for their entry level Deluxe Room. Currently Four Seasons Seoul is running multiple promotions online to celebrate their recent opening, including a complimentary third night stay. We recommend obtaining access to the Executive Club Lounge, perhaps the hotel’s best-kept secret, with impressive views, booze and bites.
Charles H bar and lobby image courtesy of Four Seasons Seoul; all other images by Nara Shin