By Cecille Santillan-Visto

KOREA’s ability to offer new sites and experiences even to returning travelers is one of the main reasons it continues to draw throngs of tourists worldwide. First-timers will be captivated by its palaces, monuments, natural wonders, and shopping districts, while those who come back for a second, third, or fourth visit will find that they can still see the Land of the Morning Calm with fresh eyes — with the same sense of discovery and newness as their initial trip.

In 2017, for instance, Seoul opened at least three new destinations in quick succession. Lotte World Tower, the fifth-tallest skyscraper in the world, opened to the public in April. The tower houses Seoul Sky, the third-highest observation deck in the world, on the 117th to 123rd floors. Meanwhile, Seoullo 7017, an elevated highway transformed into a public park for pedestrians, was inaugurated a month after. Freezing Island, an indoor park with over 200 ice sculptures, commenced operations in July.

On a recent trip my seventh in the last six years — I had the chance to check out Seoul’s latest offerings as well as try some of the top tourist picks. The two days were packed, filling my senses to the brim. The itinerary prepared by the Korea Tourism Organization Manila Office proved that Seoul is definitely worth returning to.

From an informal survey taken during program, the runaway favorite was the opportunity to don a hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, and then taking a tour of the Bukchon Hanok Village and its surrounding areas on board a pedicab. Several Bukchon shops rent out hanbok, complete with headdress and other accessories. They will also provide appropriate hairstyling for the ladies to complement the look. Whether your bucket list includes strolling around the historic city or exploring the cultural areas by a pedicab, doing so while wearing a hanbok will make for better appreciation of Korean culture.

The pedicab ride was more interesting, no small thanks to cyclists of Artee Riders Club. A lady biker — the only one in the group — took us around while sharing that she grew up in the US, that she had a Master’s Degree from an American university, and that she recently returned to Korea to discover her roots.

We moved from the traditional to the modern by trooping to the Grévin Museum, a gallery featuring wax figures of famous personalities. As expected, the exhibition is replete with statues of Hallyu stars such as singers Psy and G-Dragon and actors Lee Min Ho and Kim Soo Hyun. They are in good company with the likenesses of Pope Francis, President Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth, and Tom Cruise. Aside from wax figures, Grévin also has interactive media zones with a flight simulator, casino roulette and a digital lab that allows patrons to make their own wax figures.

Those who fancy performance art should watch The Painters: Hero, a nonverbal performance at the Jongno Theater that features four artists creating several artworks in minutes. Combined with dance, mime and comedy, it was a worthwhile spectacle similar to Nanta, another nonverbal kitchen musical that ran in the Philippines in 2015. It was fun to witness the performers draw celebrities and Korean icons in a snap, keeping the audience glued for the duration of the 80-minute show.

More than a visual feast, the familiarization tour was also a gastronomic delight. In the cooking class conducted by OME Cooking Club, we learned the perfect way to prepare mushroom japchae, Korea’s version of pancit, and spicy chicken stew. The delectable Italian dinner at Ola! at Some Sevit, the huge artificial islands in the middle of the Han River which is a preferred events venue, was a highlight of excursion. The shabu shabu following The Painters was filling but quite healthy.

A trip to Seoul will not be complete without a short detour to the cosmetics shops. For this leg, we went to the flagship store of Sulwhasoo, a premium Korean beauty line. Its posh wellness center in Gangnam has a wide array of makeup and skincare products and even offers value-added services like a spa. In September, there was an exhibit on a popular Korean folklore.

I was most excited to see the new sites, particularly Seoul Sky, which I missed in my visit last spring. For 27,000 Korean Won (roughly P1,200), you gain entrance to the observatory, which is the third-highest in the world and gives a breathtaking, 360-degree view of Seoul. Unlike other viewing decks atop buildings, Lotte World Tower’s Seoul Sky has transparent glass floors which may be daunting to those with acrophobia but the brave are rewarded with an unobstructed view of the busy streets below. The elevator that ferries visitors to the observatory, dubbed the Sky Shuttle, has a four-walled screen that shows the transformation of Seoul and the Han River over the years.

The Seoullo 7017, meantime, used to be the Seoul Station Overpass built in 1970. It was due for demolition but the city decided to convert it this year into a multi-use facility with restaurants, shops and recreational stops. It has art performances at night and is fast becoming a favorite stamping ground of Seoulites.

Meantime, Freezing Island is a good alternative to the Ice Museum of Hongdae. As it was launched barely four months ago, its operators promised the installation of more sculptures and putting up additional pavilions for its customers.

In line with its “I.Seoul.U” tourism campaign, the city is expected to constantly innovate to give its guests unique experiences every single visit, providing a fresh perspective each time.

For more information, contact the Korea Tourism Organization Manila Office at 880-0312, @koreatourismmanila or visit their Facebook page at