We arrive to Seoul on a really hot day in the middle of the summer. An acquaintance of ours says right away that it is a mistake and it is unbearably hot (summers can be 40C and very humid), but since it is the only time we can do this trip, we use the opportunity! South Korea is famous for spring blossoms and autumn foliage, as well as plentiful hiking opportunities, so visiting in spring and autumn will probably be a bit easier if you are not a fan of the heat!
Looking for a hotel in Seoul? I stayed in three:
Holiday Inn Incheon Songdo (near the airport, I loved it!)
Somerset Palace Seoul (the location is right next to Gyeongbokgung palace!)
Four Points by Sheraton Namsan (right next to the central station, so superb location!)
Other articles about South Korea:
The City of Future – What to Expect from Seoul?
When I land in Seoul, I am not at all surprised by the accounts of North Korean refugees saying that they felt like coming to the future, and attend a program to help them get accustomed to the life in this metropolis. Encountering the Seoul metro system, I also at first think I might need help – over 300 stations and 22 lines! Without me even asking, someone comes up to me and offers to help – later this happens every time I stand by the metro map – someone comes and offers to help it navigate, even if they barely speak any English! Koreans are extremely helpful, kind and are a pleasure to interact with!
Soon I have the metro system figured out – one ticket is about 1 euro (airport express a bit more expensive – around 3 euros) and 40 cents deposit for the plastic card (you can get it back once you return the card). There are subway lines all across the city, the distances between stops are large and you will most likely need to change the trains to get to where you are going to. A Russian doctor I meet in Seoul later tells me – to get to work, he takes the subway for an hour every day, so you can watch a movie while you are going, one movie a day!
There are screens in the trains as well, but those show information about what to do in the case of emergency. There are emergency supplies at every metro station. Most stations have covered tracks – so noone can fall out. As in many other Asian countries, people wait in line to get inside, according to the arrows drawn on the floor. A few times I encounter issues – the card stops working and I can’t get out, the machine swallows money but doesn’t give the card and so on (yes, I am that lucky – this always happens to me!), but as soon as I ask the station attendant, he immediately helps and all problems are solved! People are extremely helpful here! One might expect that in a 10 million city (26 million, if you count the suburbs), there might be more crowds and chaos, but no, everything is very much in order and according to the plan.
Let’s Live in The Center of the City – But Which One? Where to Stay in Seoul
The city is enormous and we want to live in the center. Turns out, there are a few of those! In the end we decide to stay nearby the 14th century rule palace, which is renovated nowadays –Gyeongbokgung palace, at Somerset Palace Hotel Seoul. We drop off our things at the hotel (those are often in a skyscraper – several floors of the building would be those of a hotel, and the rest would be offices and apartments) and head out to see the palace. The first thing I notice, is that about a third of visitors are wearing beautiful colorful national dress! I remember the film Liberation Day about Slovenian band Laibach performing in North Korea and how the vocalist Mina was wearing one, so I think to myself – maybe I should try one too? There are many hanbok shops in the Bukchon Hanok traditional village, while most visitors are women, I also see a few men wearing the costumes. It is not for any kind of special celebration, just couple friends getting together and taking some nice pictures! And, if you are wearing hanbok, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee to Gyeongbokgung palace!
Hanbok Experience – Where to Rent and How Much Does it Cost
Before renting hanbok, I googled to see if this would not be offensive and is it acceptable for a tourist to do so. Yes, it is acceptable to wear one! It is even promoted as a way to experience Korean culture! You can rent not just the dress, but also various accessories to go along and the costume is available for men as well. Read my detailed article about Hanbok experience here! Rental is not expensive, depending on how fancy is the hanbok, which accessories (and hair, makeup you want) and for how long you will rent it, you might pay anywhere from 15 to 50 euros. Some places even let you try on one for free!
It is very much worth to try on the hanbok and experience how does it feel like to be wearing national dress! I’d love to buy one for myself, prices start from 200 euros and it is best to have one custom made, especially if you are taller, like I am!
Next we head out to The National Folk Museum of Korea. There are two quite different exhibits here at the time of the visit. One is dedicated to the history of the country, about the development of alphabet, national dress and other cultural aspects. Right in the same building, just in a different hall, there is an exhibition about garbage in South Korea!
Why Everyone Should Visit Korea – Shopping in Seoul and The Topic of Poo
South Korea surprised me, but it is also a land of contrasts. Just by looking at statistics, the education and level of life is very high here, but you will see homeless people on the streets, office workers going back home late at night, sometimes, after drinking with colleagues. A local Korean guy told me here that there is a custom that if your boss is inviting you for a drink, you have to go, and you can’t go home before he does. Apparently, it is also customary not to decline drinks. But when I am out in the city with Koreans, noone is forcing me to drink or getting offended when I just have a sip of soju – the traditional drink made of rice (and nowadays – also made of potatoes). I find soju ads surprising – usually a very pretty and very young girl is holding the green bottle in her hands. Advertising is a whole adventure here, and many times the ads feature cartoon heroes! Going shopping is an adventure as well. One of these adventures we head to Huynday shopping mall, a massive 11 story tall establishment. Basement features a supermarket with fancy seafood, cakes in all the colors of the rainbow (or, even colored as the rainbow) and tasty matcha tea ice cream. There are bathrooms with makeup tables, a roof terrace with playground and fancy fur coats, despite it being the middle of the summer and temperatures reaching high 30-ties. If the shopping mall has fancy things, then shopping streets such as Insadong and Meyongdong, you can buy cheap trinkets, most of these seem to be made in China. The hand held ventilators are especially popular this time of the year and are prominently featured on every stand. And people do use them! We see some attached at baby strollers, on dog collars, and even purses.
The second biggest surprise is the topic of poo and bathrooms. By day 3 I am not only used to the smart toilet at my hotel room (I don’t dare to touch the buttons that say oscillating & rhythm wash just yet), but I am starting to think that warm seat is something I might want in my house too. But seeing a poo cafe is something I don’t get used to! You can eat poo shaped cake and drink coffee from a toilet shaped cup there.
What to Eat in South Korea and Is the Food Spicy?
When we go to the first cafe, I realize how little I know about Korean dishes. The first one we try is Bibimbap, and soon the waiter runs to us and says we are eating it wrong – we have rice, Korean carrots, saute vegetables, sprouted corn seeds and some leafs, turns out, we had to mix all of that and not eat separately. Of course, we also try the famous kimchi – a dish from marinated and fermented vegetables, which must be the most well known Korean dish! It is way too spicy for me, and when we eat at the work cafe, my Korean colleagues on one day tell me that they agree – today it is too much even for them and don’t finish their bowl. Also eating customs are interesting – my colleagues tell me they don’t eat at home too often, as you have to prepare too many dishes. In a restaurant they are all served each in a small bowl, but in the work cafe we get one large white tray with several “pockets” where there is space for rice, and for kimchi, and tofu and so on. And you eat that with metal chopsticks.
Is the food spicy? Yes! Extremely so! Not everything, but you can expect a fair share of spices, especially if the dish looks red or brown, I would be careful! We come across a few of those sauces even in well know restaurant chains. This red-brown color warning is also the reason why we don’t try anything at the Gwangjang market, as everything is that color! Here the market seems more of a place to have a meal rather than buy something to cook at home. There are small tables and seats to immediately eat what you have bought. Seeing the many variations of kimchi we laugh that we wouldn’t be surprised if there was kimchi ice cream. Turns out, there is!
Later, walking in the evenings, we also see the popular food trucks where you can try so many different foods! Fried vegetables were good, not spicy at all! Koreans recommend we try the famous Korean BBQ, and the trick is to go to a place that uses real coal and not gas stove. The waiter brings you meat and then you cook it to your liking yourself.
On another evening we come across food festival, it is quite late when we get there, dark too, and yet there are hundreds of people, even families with small children, sampling food from foods trucks. Loud techno music is blasting and two children, about 4 years old are dancing so passionately that it seems the stage was set just for them! Another night, a children’s orchestra is playing here, and while because of the performance we miss seeing the light and fountain show, we enjoy the performance nevertheless. Many people have come here with their own chairs and even tents, enjoying the night to the fullest!
Looking for tips about Seoul, when getting ready for my trip, I came across an article about most unusual animal cafes in the world, and one of those is in Seoul – the meerkat cafe! This also is a place that must be visited – you can read more about my experience here! You can see another animal cafes as well – cat, dog and racoon ones! Had we not known about meerkat cafe in advance, we would have missed it even if we walked right by it, as it is located on the third floor! Finding things in Seoul can be tricky, as Google Maps does not work properly because of the local laws, and local maps only feature local alphabet. But if you get lost – ask locals! They will help!
It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard the famous Gangnam Style by PSY. The song is about the Gangnam neighborhood in Seoul and PSY laughs about the kinds of characters that hang around there – the super stylish people. The literal translation of the name Gangnam is “South of the river”. K-POP culture in Korea is worth a separate travel story, as the impact of this genre continues to grow worldwide. It also turns out that one of the people travelling with us has a BTS fan at home – so we go to K-POP store to find some souvenirs for her. Which is not an easy task, as there are hundreds of items to choose from at every store!
When visiting Gangnam district, we are not there for the fancy stores, instead we head to Bongeunsa temple located there, and is one of the main temples in all of Korea. This Buddhist temple was established in 794, and known with this name after reconstruction in 1498. You can even try what it feels like to be a monk here for a few hours! We only come by to admire the beautiful architecture and enjoy the silence of this place. Surrounded by skyscrapers, it is an oasis for nature fans, as beautiful trees surround the temple and there are many lotus flowers in pots. We drink some clean water from the stream and continue further to another famous object, Namsan tower, which is the second tallest building in the city. It takes us a little while until we pass through security and finally we are there! The sun is setting above the enormous city, and only here one can appreciate how truly enormous it is. Many multi story buildings, which are often apartments and offices at the same time. Here, at the tower, we also enjoy a nice dinner. There is a fixed entrance fee at the restaurant and you can eat as much as you want. The dishes are also more to our tourist taste buds, much less spicy, so we really enjoy it here!
The evening walks in Seoul is something I will always remember. One evening we walk in one of the many centers of the city, by the Cheonggyecheon river. Once fully dried, it has been restored in 2005, just now it flows in the opposite direction. On hot days it is a cool paradise in the city. We walk there from the market to palace and see herons catching fish, people taking pictures of the herons, some walk in the cold stream, some sit at the shore. We follow the river until we reach the street level and a large fountain at a crossroad. This is the perfect summer playground for children! We see how mothers with small children come here, change them into different clothing and then children are running around the fountain, laughing and screaming every time it turns on. I wish I could join them!
On the next day we join a tour to the Demilitarized Zone, an absolute must for anyone who visits Seoul! A more detailed article can be found here. By then we have already moved to another hotel, Four Points by Sheraton Namsan that is located right next to railway station and made our transit early in the morning to Koridoor tours that did our DMZ tour, very easy.
Saying Goodbye to Seoul
The last night before leaving we spend in a “suburb” of Seoul – Incheon with “only” 3 million inhabitants. We stay at yet another skyscraper hotel with fancy toilet and roof terrace restaurant – Holiday Inn Incheon Songdo. Walking in the nearby park we feel like in a cartoon or a picture. The color of the buildings makes it surreal! The grass is incredibly green and here as well people are building tents and enjoying their time outdoors.
We continue walking until we reach the Incheon bridge – the longest cable bridge in Korea. Suddenly, my phone wakes up – “you have reached maximum data per your contract”. What data?! My roaming has been switched off for weeks now! My phone can only be unlocked with a fingerprint, yet now it has awaken and gifted me with a 50 euro data bill. If this was not enough, when we reach the viewpoint, there are so many mosquitoes that one has to “dance” a weird dance of clapping and moving non-stop, as they just won’t stop biting.
Despite the final unpleasantness, my time in Korea has been absolutely wonderful. Seoul has become my favorite city in the world and I hope to return there someday! I never expected to like it this much, but I do, and I could imagine myself living there!
Other articles about South Korea: