After a year or so of pining over enchanting images of South Korea on the net, I finally got the chance to visit Seoul for the first time this month. Although it was only a short trip (boo you, work), I completely fell in love with the place, and found it to be the most vibrant and charismatic city I’ve visited so far. Even the metro stations are high spirited – they play a little victory song whenever a train pulls up to the platform ready to depart! But really, it’s so cute and it gets you super excited that the train has arrived! When first planning the trip, we didn’t have a clue what to do – we only really knew Seoul for shopping and eating – but after some research, we came up with some great itinerary fillers, and Seoul is full of fantastic little surprises on every street.
We arrived early hours to Incheon Airport at around 6am after taking the midnight flight from Hong Kong. Our hotel was located in the infamous Gangnam district (강남구/ thanks PSY / yes I did sing Gangnam Style the whole time), which was easy enough reach by metro. It takes around 1 hour from Incheon Airport to Seoul main station on one line with no changes. It definitely wasn’t the most comfortable option, as their were lots of elderly passengers, meaning we had to stand up for the majority of the journey, and we had to change lines a few times to get to our hotel from Seoul station. Changing stations in Korea isn’t an easy job, either, as you have to walk quite a distance, and often with a lot of stairs on the way. But it beats taking the taxis – which raise prices of over ₩50,000 – or the buses, which can be kinda confusing as a tourist. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to check-in to the hotel until after 3pm (groan), which meant we took an impromptu (and free – more info on hotel below) mini-bus trip to Myeongdong (명동) for shopping and a Korean BBQ lunch.
The boys (of course) spotted a sign opposite the restaurant, advertising the Korea Shooting Club (명동 실탄 사격장), where you can hire a gun for target practices, so we went to check that out. They add up the scores of your shots, and let you keep the targets as a souvenir. After the trip, I found out that the members of Big Bang are also frequent visitors, so I freaked out a little bit that I breathed the same air as them / maybe sat on the same sofa (maybe not)(probably not) as them.
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market (노량진 수산시장)
Feeling for some delicious seafood, we took an evening trip to Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. Here, you can roam the many aisles of the fresh fish market, choose your own seafood, and take it to one of the restaurants where they will prepare a meal for you with the seafood you’ve just bought. The best dish we had was the “live” squid – not technically alive; the squid is cut up, and the nerves are still active, and the suckers still work and the legs still move. When you pick it up, it will try to wriggle away from your chopsticks, and the suckers will stick to the inside of your mouth. Most foreigners will probably struggle to eat this (I did!), but it tastes great – even if I did have nightmares of it still moving around in my stomach and coming out of my poo still moving – eurgh!!! This experience was great, and most of the restaurants still have the traditional seating arrangements of sitting on cushions on the floor around a low table – which is fun for the first ten minutes, then you start to get leg cramp, etc.. Expect to leave smelling of fish, so don’t make big plans to go anywhere afterwards!
The Korean Jjimjjilbang (찜질방)
If you are visiting Korea or Japan for what might be your first and last time, male or female, you must check out their equivalents of spas. The Korean equivalent is called a jjimjilbang (찜질방). These are AMAZING places. We went to the Dragon Hill Spa located in Yongsan (용산구), which costs only ₩13,000 (approximately $100HKD or £10GBP) entry. They give you some clothes to get changed into, a couple of towels and a personal key, which will give you access to a locker and enable you to pay for extra services inside the spa. Oh, and just a forewarning, you will see loads of naked people and will probably get more than an eyeful of things you never wanted to see in your life… Moving on, they have private sex-separated sections where you are welcome to walk around naked, but they also have a unisex floor where you are required to wear the uniform they give you. So these places are usually multi-storey, and have a tonne of different facilities, including Sauna Rooms of different heats (all signed hot, medium, warm), and even an ice room. They also have a communal area where you can basically just sit and chill with your friends (some people will even sleep there), which even has a mini-store to buy food & drink, facemasks and other healthcare goods. We tried the traditional 1000 year old tea eggs (I’d seen it on TV once and wouldn’t stop raving about it), but they didn’t turn out to be so great. They’re basically eggs that have been boiled in different teas – these ones were super dry and we didn’t like them, but hey, you have to make an effort to experience the culture, right?! ‘-.-
Aside from the sauna rooms, Jjimjjilbangs also have different swimming pools and baths. In the female section of Dragon Hill spa, there are variety of different hot baths, where they infuse the water with different herbal remedies, flower petals and teas, which are beautiful. They also offer extra services such as massages, acupuncture and special scrubs, which you have to pay extra for. One we found super “interesting” was a herbal treatment, where you sit (naked) on a chair with a hole in the middle, and they burn different herbs / tea leaves underneath you, so basically the steam goes into your ‘system’. It’s supposed to be good for treating period pains and various digestive problems. Here’s a cute picture of us playing on the Japanese arcade game in the communal room downstairs. (Some kind local ladies helped us to make our towels this stylish).
On day 2, we ate brunch at a traditional Korean Chicken Ginseng soup Michellin Star restaurant, Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌 삼계탕), which is named the best ginseng chicken in Seoul. Koreans love this dish, as it’s supposed to be the ultimate health food for strength and long life. It’s supposed to be best eaten during Summer time for replenishment. The soup is great, and very easy to eat. The nicest part is that they stuff the chicken with all kinds of treats: rice, nuts, seeds, dates, so you pick up little surprises on the way. They also give you a giant bucket of kimchi to go with the meal, as well as ginseng tea, and have the traditional floor seating.
We then had a wander around the National Palaces, and watched the guard changing ceremony, which is a fun activity that takes place everyday except Tuesdays, 3 times a day (more information on the official site). The palaces were beautiful, but avoid waiting around for the guided tour – unfortunately the guides don’t speak great English, so you spend more effort trying to figure out what they’re saying than actually learning anything about the place. There, you can also find the National Palace Museum, which is OK for a quick look around at the artifacts, but don’t expect to understand much as, again, there is minimal translation.
That evening, we went for our second Korean BBQ of the trip, with more delicious meat and beer, and headed out to Dongdaemun (동대문) to have a look around popular architectural wonder, the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza). The area is great for shopping, and Carmina and I had a great time trying on all the unique nail polishes & handmade jewelry pieces. We then lived the real Korean dream and went for a midnight run to Korean Fried Chicken restaurant, Chicken Baengi, which we polished off in bed watching Korean dramas – yep, like I said, the real Korean dream!
Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을)
This is a beautiful village district in Seoul which still homes the traditional architecture. You can spend hours wandering around the little narrow streets, finding little craft shops and homes that offer tutorials teaching you how to make traditional Korean pieces, such as bracelets, bookmarks, hairbands and purses. Samcheong-dong (삼청동) homes what is named the best view in Seoul, so make sure you pop there to get a picture and take in the contrast of Seoul’s traditional and modern culture.
This was my absolute favourite part of the trip and a must do activity for girls. Hanboks are the traditional dresses of Korea, composed of a Jeogori (저고리) the cropped, upper garment, and a Chima (치마), the skirt, which is traditionally long and voluminous. You can find plenty of shops and homes in Bukchon village that will let you rent them for the day. We paid ₩25,000 to rent our hanboks, which is pretty pricey (you can rent from other places at ₩7000 up), but our hanboks were all bespoke, hand-stitched pieces, and their boutique has a particularly beautiful setting for taking photos. Our host helped us to pick some traditional colours, plaited our hair and lent us some traditional headbands, too. After our photoshoot, we had a look at some of her more bespoke pieces, which she sells for over hundreds of pounds.
TIPS / FAQs
Do you need to speak Korean?
Honestly, in a word, no, but it would massively enhance your experience if you can. We had no issues getting around as tourists, but as with any place, you should always at least learn how to say “hello” and “thank you”. It came in handy to say “over here / there” for taking taxis. All of the menus we encountered in the tourist areas had English translations. Although you will be able to communicate basic needs, you won’t be able to get into a conversation much deeper than that. It was convenient for us that we could speak Mandarin, and surprisingly so can most of Korea, so for issues like not being able to find the metro ticket machine, asking how spicy the food is, or how big a portion size is, they were able to do so without trouble, but you won’t have that ease in English.
Dormy Inn is located on the same road as Exit 7 of Sinsa 신사 station. It’s a really convenient location, and offers a free mini-bus to guests to Myeongdong and Seoul main station. They have a free tea & coffee bar in the afternoon, and give free cold soba noodles to gets from 7-10 pm. Our double room was a little small, but the twin rooms are a lot more spacious, and most rooms have nice views.
Airline – Jejuair
Jejuair is a budget and pretty basic airline and, like most places in Korea, Kim Soo Hyun’s face (김수현) was just about everywhere as their latest spokesman. The flight was OK considering it was only around 3 hours, but I can’t say I’d use them to do a journey longer than that. They didn’t provide any in-flight food, and their menu for cup noodles and ice cream is outrageously priced. Overall – OK if you don’t mind the basic service – and the flight attendants were nice enough.
Currency & Cash
The official currency of South Korea is the Won, ₩. It was relatively easy to take cash out by ATMs, particularly as I bank with Citibank, I didn’t have any need to change money before the trip. However, if you bank with someone that doesn’t have branches inside Asia, do bring cash with you. It’s a safe place, with very low crime rates compared to the rest of the world.