A whale exhibit precedes the ascent to South Korea’s tallest restaurant. The spacious 123F Lounge is located 555 meters (1,820 feet) above ground in Seoul on the top floor of the Lotte World Tower. According to its official website, the tower is the tallest structure in the nation and the sixth tallest structure in the entire planet.
However, it turns out that getting to the restaurant requires more than just stepping on and off an elevator; the entire process can easily take up to an hour.
After buying an entry ticket 27,000 Korean won (roughly $20) for adults, and 24,000 won ($18) for children visitors enter a waiting hall, awash in blue light as whales swim across a giant screen on the ceiling.
Before a confusing succession of chambers with whale themes, there are a number of other rooms, some offering opportunity for professional photography and others showcasing the building materials used to construct the tower.
There are two lengthy corridors, one illuminated in a deep blue hue with whales swimming alongside you on wall-length screens, and the other with LED ceiling panels spinning through vibrant mosaic patterns in stark contrast to the black and white whale photographs on the walls.
The atmosphere underwater is enhanced by vaguely whale-sounding cries. In another chamber, painted whales look to be in mid-flight and are floating in the air like false clouds.
(I later learn this is all part of a temporary exhibition celebrating the work of whale photographer Jang Nam-won.)
Many whales later, you finally reach the elevator, which takes a minute to travel up to the Seoul Sky observatory, traveling at 10 meters per second.
Stepping out, visitors are guided to sit in a dark room as a video, apparently an artistic rendering of the history of Seoul and the Lotte World Tower, plays before the screen splits into two giant panels, slowly lifting like a curtain to reveal the breathtaking view of Seoul through floor-to-ceiling windows.
The observatory spans multiple floors, with giant windows that allow a sweeping 360-degree view of the metropolis. One can spot the iconic N Seoul Tower perched on Namsan mountain, bridges stretching across the river, parks and sports stadiums and even the rides at the nearby Lotte World theme park.
Each floor offers different attractions, such as small cafes on the 119th and 122th floors. There’s the Sky Deck on the 118th floor, with a glass floor that lets you see all 478 meters (1,568 feet) between your shoes and the street far below. There’s the Sky Terrace on the 120th floor, an outdoor balcony with a perfect view of the winding Han River.
After the appropriate amount of ooh-ing and aah-ing, you finally reach the lounge on the 123rd floor.
The restaurant is both spacious and cozy, with cushy chairs and lamps on each table. Windows make up an entire wall, stretching up to the high ceiling to flood the space with warm light during sunset. A free viewfinder allows you to zoom in on the landscape.
The menu is on the pricey side by Korean standards $28 for a beef stew, $19 for tomato spaghetti and $18 for a Caesar salad but we took our time, watching the sun dip beneath the horizon, briefly turning the sky fiery orange.
The restaurant also offers pizza, sandwiches, steak and appetizers including a cheese selection.
The view was just as stunning in the dark, the city a grid of light spread out before us.
Though the 123F Lounge is a perfect spot for a romantic dinner or special date, there were also families with children and young adult friend groups when we visited. The lounge can also be rented for special events such as wedding receptions and product launches.
The Lotte World Tower is located in the Jamsil neighborhood of Seoul’s southeastern Songpa-gu district. It’s open all week, though hours depend on the day, and is accessible by subway, bus or private vehicle.