Yesterday’s find got me reminiscing. If you know me, or at least have read the about me section on this blog, you’ll know I spent some time after college living and working in South Korea. Seoul and the rest of the country have become quite dear to me. The people, the culture, the lifestyle, the food, the experience- the country as a whole remains relatively undiscovered with much to offer. I could go on and on about my time there, but to spare everyone, I won’t. Instead I’ve decided to split parts of my journey in Korea throughout different sections in this blog. I won’t write them all at once, you’ll get little bits and pieces of my time there as you follow me along. Being fairly unknown as a touristic “hot spot” I think I’ll start with an overall intro to the city I used to call home.
Seoul is a smooth 14 hour flight from NYC with nonstop flights departing daily from JFK. Seoul also serves as a major hub for Asian travel, making it an easy destination to reach from many of the continents major cities including Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai. Off the bat, Korea and Seoul will dazzle: Incheon International Airport is continually rated the best in the world. Getting to the heart of the city is a breeze. The A’REX train links the airport to Seoul Station and has two rides available. Express services to the city (every half hour) takes 43 minutes and cost ₩13,300 ($11 USD), while commuter services (every 6 minutes) take 53 minutes and cost ₩3,700 ($3 USD). Airport buses are another solid mode of travel from the airport into Seoul. For around $13 each way the buses travel directly to major area and big hotels in the city. Finally, a private taxi will run you around $40-50 depending on which part of the city you are headed to.
Seoul is a mega city with over 10 million residents dozens of neighborhoods. Getting around, thankfully, could not be easier. Most districts and sights are easily reached via subway. The dozen or so lines are easily distinguished by color and all subway signs are written in both Korean and English. Subway fares are based on the distance traveled, but the shortest ride costs ₩1000 (base charge) plus card deposit ₩500 (refundable if you return the card at designated machines at each station). The base charge roughly covers up to 10 km of the journey and ₩100 is added for every 5 km beyond that. If planning on using the Metro extensively or staying for more than a few weeks, you should consider purchasing a T-money stored value contactless smart card. You can buy this card at most subway stations and many newspaper kiosks near subway entrances, as well as convenience stores. The card itself costs ₩3000 and cash can be charged onto the card as often as you like. Hang onto your card until the end of your trip, as you’ll need it to get out of the stations after each ride.
Deciding which district to call home for your visit can be a confusing feat. Hongdae and Sinchon are the neighborhoods surrounding Yonsei, Sogang, Hong-ik, and Ewha Universities. Known for their nightlife and cafe culture, these areas are great choices for those wanting to mix and mingle with young locals in the bustling cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. When looking for an area to stay in, Hongdae would be my (totally biased) recommendation.
Itaewon is another popular area of the city. US military and other expats are easily spotted here at all hours. Known as the foreigners’ district there are a high number of good international restaurants and bars. If you want to live the life of “luxe Korea” the areas of Apgujeong and Gangman are for you. The “Beverly Hills” of Seoul (and Korea) offers upscale shops and restaurants and is home to the Korean young and fabulous.
Hongdae and Sinchon do not offer much by way of luxury or amenity rich hotel. An area heavily populated with students, locals, and backpackers most of the accommodations here come in the form of guesthouse. One standout hotel if you are looking for something a little more upscale than a shared bathroom situation is the Win Boutique Hotel. This six room B&B offers minimalist design with free Wi-Fi in the heart of Hongdae. If you want to mix and mingle with other young travelers and don’t mind sharing a bathroom the Kimchi Hongdae Hostel and the Hongdae Guesthouse are great places to kick back. In Itaewon the IP Boutique Hotel is cool and quirky. The Sunshine Hotel in Gangnam is a great option for those who have outgrown the backpacker scene but are still looking for something wallet friendly. Nearby, the Imperial Palace and COEX Intercontinental are the ultimate in luxury.
Seoul is not the “bumper sticker” city of Asia. When going to the far east, many head first to China or Japan. Leaving Korea off the itinerary is a major mistake. From Buddhist temples, to palaces, active war zones, markets, and the ultra modern in mega shopping Seoul offers it all. Jogyesa in Insadong is the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. As the chief temple of the Jogye order (the most dominant branch of Buddhism in the country) is it high on the list of importance. During the Lotus Latern festival each May, Jogyesa is home to thousands of the hand crafted lights creating a truly unique experience not to be missed if you are in town. Bongeunsa in the rural outskirts of old Seoul has a rich history and is today the most visited temple in the city. Originally founded in 794 and has been rebuilt several time. Bongeunsa has undergone many repairs and renovations, and is now once again a large, thriving complex. The temple is also a notable tourist destination, offering a temple stay program in which visitors can lead the life of a monk for a few hours.
The ancient seat of Korea’s royalty, Seoul has a number of palaces worth a visit. Gyeongbokgung is Seoul’s grandest Joseon Dynasty-era palace. Easy to get to by subway (metro to Gyeongbokgung or Gwanghwamun) Gyeongbokgung should definitely be on your list. First constructed in 1394 and reconstructed in 1867, it was the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon. The complex is comprised of several main gates, inner and outer courts, pavilions and bridges. The Joseon Palace Museum and Korean Folk Museum are also housed on the grounds.
Changdeokgung also known as Changdeok Palace is set within a large park and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. To get here take the metro line 3 to Anguk station (5 minute walk from here) or line 1, 3, 5 to Jongno-3ga Station. Generally the site can only be visited through a 90 minute guided tour. However, on Thursdays between April and November, you can visit unescorted. It’s much better going around at your own speed, plus you can see more of the palace and grounds than on the tour. An audio guide can be borrowed free of charge. Unlike the other Seoul palace’s Changdeok Palace was built to blend into the ground of the site, instead of impose upon them. The collection of buildings making up the palace are well maintained and house beautiful artwork built into their structures. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Seoul, Changdeok Palace is the perfect place to escape for a few hours.
If you have some time to leave the city proper, a trip to the DMZ is definitely worth while. The Korea Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. Serving as a buffer zone between the North and South, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world. A USO sponsored tour is the best way to visit the zone (a tour with the USO gets you to Panmunjom as well, where many important DMZ sites are found). The tour of Panmunjom itself is guided by United Nations Command military personnel who will take you through to the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Building, the Pagoda at Freedom House, Checkpoint 3 and the Bridge of No Return (the only bridge connecting the North and South). The USO sponsored tour is $70 and reservations can be made here. Numerous other companies in Seoul offer tours to the DMZ but none have the access given to the USO. If you do make the trip, remember to bring your passport and follow the strict dress code guidelines.
Much of the beauty of Seoul is in it’s distinct neighborhoods and their unique character. The best way to get to know the city is to simply go out and explore what each district has to offer.
Other neighborhoods to check out:
Insadong is a popular pedestrian area with many shops and restaurants specializing in “traditional” Korea. Close to many of Seoul’s historical sites it is easy to come here before or after a visit to a temple or palace. While you’re here check out the Cheonggye Stream if you have the chance!
The Myeongdong shopping area is incredible busy and bustling especially on weekends. Thousands of shops ranging from local boutiques to to international brand outlets line the streets. It is a popular area for locals and tourists alike and easily will take up the majority of your day. Bring ample cash: Myeongdong is a shoppers paradise.
Dongdaemun Market is comprised of traditional markets and modern shopping centers. The market has 26 shopping malls situated over 10 blocks, 30,000 speciality shops, and 50,000 manufacturers. At Dongdaemun you can find all sorts of wares, but the specialties of the market are silks, fabrics, clothes and shoes. A number of traditional hole in the wall eateries can also be found. Just look for small restaurants packed with locals along the side streets. With hundreds of options to chose from, if the locals are there you know its good.
Seoul’s performing arts center, Hyehwa, offers many small theaters with live dramatic and comedic performances lining every street. This district is filled with life and street commerce past midnight.
Some things to do:
Go Hiking. Seoulites love to hike and dress the part. The city offers tons of hiking opportunity with the mountains easily accessible by public transport and the trails ranging from easy to to difficult. Bukhansan probably the best hiking opportunities in Seoul. To visit a popular area, take line 1 to Dobongsan station.
Be Amused. Lotte World and Everland are two of Seoul’s great amusement parks. Spend the day enjoying rides, food and music at Korea’s version of Disney.
Relax. Jimjilbangs (tradional Korean spas) are the way of life for many Koreans. The public baths have become a form of popular relaxation. Everything from baths to spa services to overnight stays can be done at jimjilbangs. The baths are split into sections by gender and going au naturale is the mode of choice. There are literally thousands throughout the city. Ask around where you are staying for the best recommendations.
Up Your Cooking Chops. Korea has become somewhat of a culinary destination. Korean cuisine is highly regarded the world over for being healthy and spicy. Learning how to make Korean dishes such as kimchi and bulgogi can be messy, but a lot of fun. Fortunately, there are several cooking institutes throughout Seoul catering to foreign tourists. Some to look in to: O’ngo Food Communications, Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine and Son’s Home.
Belt it Out. Koreans love karaoke and a visit to a noraebong is a MUST. A Korean obsession noraebong’s are packed at all hours and is especially popular as a late night activity. Noraebong’s range from a simple room with screen and microphone to the ultimate in luxury. Food and drinks are served at all. Go with a group of friends and enjoy: an experience like this can only be found here.
Seoul is a world class city worth a visit for those thinking of making a detour to Asia. Check back for more posts on the county. In due time I’ll feel a hankering for the food, lifestyle, and side trips Korea has to offer but this overview is a good start to get your travels going.