Exploring Korea - Don't Worry, We Stayed South
When mapping out the grand itinerary before we left home, we had Korea in mind but didn't necessarily know what it offered as a tourist destination. We knew it would make geographical sense to go after China and before Japan, the final leg of our journey. Luckily we didn't make any changes because we ended up having a great time in Seoul. It offered history due to the Korean War and current conflicts with North Korea, an interesting shopping and fashion culture and an amazing food scene.
Arriving in modern Seoul was a breath of fresh air (literally) after being in China for nearly a month. The locals were dressed fashionably, many people spoke English and everything was so clean. Factoring that in with no squatter toilets, we felt like we were practically living a pampered lifestyle. We booked an Air BnB in the Hongdae neighborhood, a great part of town that is near a few local universities. Just like any good area in America that is near a large student population, Hongdae was near good transportation and had plentiful eating and drinking establishments. Seoul is a very spread out city so even with a nice subway and bus system, it can still take a while to get from point A to B. We definitely would recommend this part of town if you are ever visiting Seoul and want to be able to walk to dinner and drinks from your place.
Our first day there we went on a crazy exploration to many of the different shopping areas throughout Seoul. Our first stop was the Myeondong shopping district, which had store after store selling different beauty and cosmetic products offering all types of items. We had been told ahead of time that Korea was very into their face lotions and skin products but were surprised at how store after store was trying to get us in to show their version of a facemask, hand cream and more. In addition to beauty items there was plenty of shopping for shoes, clothing, and knick-knacks. Steph was on overload with all the different options and we decided to come back another day to do the actual purchasing.
We moved onwards to explore the next area, this one being the Namdaemun Market. We walked through the huge open air outdoor market that was basically like an outdoor department store. The market is also home to a food alley that we were on the search for and after a few wrong turns, we finally found this alley filled with noodle and rice goodness. There were around twelve vendors, six on each side and each vendor was run by a nice lady trying to get you to sit at their stand. Each vendor is selling their version of noodle soup and bibimbap along with a variety of great sides. Throughout Korea the side dishes were a continuous highlight, every meal we ate included different sides such as kimchi, veggies or pickles. Our meal was delicious and cheap and got us amped for all the upcoming Korean food over the next week.
After taking some time to unwind we headed over to explore Hongdae and see the neighborhood we’d be living in for the next week. Every which way were different restaurants, many Korean BBQ joints, lots of snack places selling items such as churros, kebabs and pastries and a wide variety of Korean Fried Chicken and Beer locations. We are very familiar with how delicious Korean Fried Chicken is thanks to the delicious “Crisp” being near our old apartment. From what we were told though is that while it’s always been a popular dish in Seoul, the whole phenomenon of a place designed exclusively for beer and chicken has really taken off in the past few years, leading to a number of new places opening up all around town. Just like small plates around Chicago, if it’s the hot thing all the restaurateurs want to be part of the trend. We found a place highly recommended on TripAdvisor and had a great meal of chicken, beer, fries and the Korean liquor Soju. A clear booze but milder than a Vodka, Soju is everywhere around Seoul. Locals drink it straight, over ice or even mix it with beer. The original version isn’t too bad but they also have fruit flavors that are pretty darn tasty and you have to watch out or you’ll have too many before you know it.
The next day brought more exploring of all the shopping areas. Apgujeong's Rodeo Drive had all the glitzy stores you might imagine on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. We made our way to the Galleria West Mall which had one of the more amazing food courts we’ve ever seen filled with a wide range of items from noodles to high end chocolates and champagne. It reminded Steph a bit of the food hall in the basement of Harrods Department store in London where she studied abroad. Next was the Sinsa Station area in Gangnam which was filled with boutiques and cafes. It definitely had a trendy and hip vibe and we grabbed some lunch at a great café that offered salads and sandwiches. It was such a nice feeling to order something fresh and tasty and know it would be safe to eat!
Once we finished our meal we headed over to the CoEx Mall to complete our shopping sightseeing portion of the day. A massive indoor mall which had your standard shops and food court options but it also really prided itself on a place to relax with different indoor “courtyards” with art pieces and sculptures throughout.
We ended our day with a delicious Korean BBQ dinner. Each table had an individual grill and we grilled up our meats, a big slab of pork belly along with some bulgogi right in front of us. Add in some soju and sides of kimchi and coleslaw and we were good to go.
After having a great time biking in Xi’an we wanted to go for another ride. Steph found a rental shop located right on the Hangang River. It was a perfect day for a ride with the river on our right and perfect biking and running paths. It was the perfect activity to see some of the scenery of Seoul and burn off all the soju and snacks we had downed over the past couple of days.
Of course no trip to a county in Asia would be complete without visiting temples, shrines and gardens. Across from the CoEx Mall was the Bongeunsa Temple. This was a beautiful piece of land situated right in the heart of the city. Free of charge, we highly recommend going to see the big Buddha, and different picturesque views combining religious history with a modern city in the background.
Another stop was to the Changdeokgung Palace along with a tour of the Secret Garden. We were hesitant at first about the tour, as it was slightly raining and a full ninety minutes long. The only way to access the secret garden though was by doing the tour and it was very informative, as we learned about the Joseon dynasty and some history about Korea. Another palace we enjoyed was the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace. Located on beautiful grounds in the northern part of Seoul, this is where the Joseon lived as far back as the 1300s. This palace was much larger than the previous two we visited and had some really pretty cobblestone paths.
We were able to book another free walking tour, similar to ones we had taken in Melbourne and Hoi An. This tour was led by a nice retired man and he led us through the Bukchon Hanok Village. This was a great historical tour of the neighborhood where we saw different homes, schools and architecture.
Later that day we headed over to the MMCA, the modern art museum in Seoul. Here were some truly wonky and out there exhibits, ranging from an installation titled “Paranoid”, to little naked troll statuettes that had the face of the artist. In addition, was some great photography about the history of fashion in Korea and different collections of local artists displaying the changes of Seoul throughout the decades.
The Korean War Museum was required viewing for personal reasons as Stephanie’s grandfather was a member of MASH during the war. Outside the museum is a great memorial, filled with different statues and warplanes, tanks, helicopters and more. We randomly arrived right in time, an English led tour was due to begin in just a few minutes. The museum was massive, multiple floors documenting Korea before, during and after the war. It had interactive exhibits that made it feel like you were in the cold winters of Korea and a hall paying gratitude towards the countries that assisted Korea during the war. After Vietnam, it felt good to be in a war museum where the country was happy in regards to the U.S. involvement.
The remainder of our trip was filled with more great sightseeing, lots of eating and even a bit of awkward nudity. We did a great hike up to the Namsan park which once on top provided fantastic views, a mall and an entire area devoted to love. There are big hearts on display and the locals show their devotion to one another by placing colorful locks along the fences. Where did this idea come from? A popular Korean TV show of course! They write their names on the locks and attach them, theoretically to remain there forever. There were thousands of locks and it was a really neat visual scene.
We also made a stop at the Noryangjin fish market and a trendy international part of town called Itaewon. Our final Korean activity was a trip to a local spa. This is a very common activity, where locals and tourists can buy daily passes and spend one hour there or even rent a bed for the night. At the beginning the men and women separate, disrobe in the locker room and then there are around ten different types of steam rooms, massage tubs, cold tubs, and charcoal baths. I’m fairly certain we were the only Westerner’s in the spa area. After you’re finished with the tubs, there were four more floors, some devoted to working out, others for dining and one floor had over fourteen different formentation rooms. You would go in and just lie down in the rooms. Some were very hot, others had salt in them, one even had thousands of little black pellet balls that you just sunk yourself into. It was a fun way to do something different and feel like a local!
What about Korea though will we remember the most? It was the delicious food! Some of the highlights were the battered on the spot corn dogs, chicken galbi fried rice cooked in front of you, and pork cutlets served with delicious sauces, ranging from Korean ranch to fruit flavors such as strawberry and banana. We loved the Tteokbokki, a popular Korean snack made of soft rice cake (almost noodle-like) and served in a spicy and sweet sauce, we snacked on this from multiple food carts around the city. We even realized that a breakfast spot we liked on the first day, had a location just around the corner from us and their Bulgalbi MVP became our morning ritual. Go to Isaac Toast for breakfast when in Seoul and don't forget to eat as much fried chicken as you can! We went to three different places during our eight days there, each had a different take and the only part of us that regretted it was our waistline! All in all, Seoul is a really enjoyable city to visit; we recommend you bring extra luggage in order to bring home all your cosmetics and a large enough appetite to do all the Korean food justice!