As befits a city of its size and stature, Seoul presents a broad range of accommodation choices to visitors, from towering luxury properties where the rates are as elevated as the levels of refinement to hostels and humble backstreet inns. The capital has an abundance of beds vying for guests, so unless there’s a major international event going on finding somewhere to stay is never a problem, though a first choice may not always be available.
The healthy competition keeps hotel operators on their toes. Even cheaper rooms are usually clean and comfortable, and many come with little perks like Internet-enabled PCs and mineral water dispensers. At the top end, of course, the amenities get much more impressive. Seoul’s four- and five-star hotels will typically have multiple restaurants, fitness centers, pools, and other conveniences on the premises.
Inevitably, the best hotels have congregated where business travelers usually need to be—the City Hall area north of the Han River and the Gangnam area south of it, where many offices and corporate headquarters are located.
Cheaper guesthouses catering to foreign travelers are clustered in the Insa-dong and Hongik University areas, which are popular with tourists and conveniently located near major sights and entertainment districts. The Itaewon area also has a number of hotels but lacks quality accommodations considering how heavily visited it is.
Traditionally, Seoul has had a shortage of tourist-friendly accommodations in the mid-tier—hotels tend to either be very cheap or very expensive, with not a lot in between. The properties that are probably closest to filling this gap are the ubiquitous motels (yeogwan), which can be found nearly everywhere but are particularly prolific around nightlife centers and train stations.
More refined yeogwan are usually what’s referred to as “love hotels,” geared towards couples enjoying trysts. Though the concept may sound a tad sordid, most love hotels are anything but, and many boast the kind of in-room facilities you’d find in a four- or five-star property—Jacuzzis, massive flat-screen TVs, and the like—at far lower prices. These can be a good option for budget travelers, but few have English-speaking staff and some are reluctant to accept bookings of longer than a night or two.
While some properties offer ondol (Korean-style rooms with bedding on the floor), in general there’s little to distinguish the city’s hotels from their counterparts in other countries, and most lack local flavor. It’s thus a welcome development that more guesthouses incorporating traditional architecture and aesthetics are popping up, especially in the Insa-dong and Samcheong-dong area, where a number of hanok (old-style homes) have been converted into accommodations. These are highly recommended to anyone willing to sacrifice a few conveniences for the sake of a cultural experience.
Choosing a Hotel
Inexpensive taxis and excellent public transit make getting around Seoul a breeze most of the time, but it’s still advisable to choose a hotel in or close to the area where you plan on being the most—the less time spent in traffic or trying to push your way onto crowded rush hour trains, the better. For those in town on business, this usually means City Hall or Gangnam, while those out for a cultural experience should consider properties in Insa-dong or Samcheong-dong.
Anyone wanting to explore Seoul’s nightlife to the fullest should head straight for the Sinchon/Hongik University or Itaewon areas. If facilities and fluent English-language service are a priority it’s safest to stick with the larger hotels and international chains, but those who can make do without either will enjoy some substantial savings.
Also keep in mind that hotel’s rack (non-discounted) rates don’t, and shouldn’t, apply in most cases. Booking via discount accommodation websites such as http://koreahotels.net or http://agoda.com can result in substantial savings, and many hotels themselves offer special rates for rooms reserved online. It also never hurts to ask a hotel directly for a discount, especially in non-peak periods.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition