Visiting Korea? Living in Seoul and you feel like being exploratory? Copy everything my family and I did during their stay in here. It was a whirlwind of subway rides, sightseeing, shopping, eating, explaining, and exploring. Everyone in my family has different interests, spiciness-level tolerances, and personalities. But somehow we made it out alive. Next week I join them in Tokyo!
[Sidenote: Most people would recommend traveling throughout the country, because the traditional/outdoorsy side of Korea is wonderful. I would too. But my family likes getting to know a city through-and-through, instead of constantly moving around. So here ya go.]
Insa-dong – 인사동
A neighborhood that was inhabited by poets, artists, and liberal thinkers back in the day, this area is now home to a bevy of traditional tea houses, unique shops, winding, cobblestone roads, and dozens of art galleries. (And lots of tourists, of course.) My dad and I wandered the streets, taking photos and peeking into a few artisan shops. We stumbled upon the Buckchon traditional village, an area perched up on a hill encompassing a small neighborhood of old-style Korean houses, still inhabited by human beings. Amazing views and a nice display of what Seoul used to look like. (And what most of Korea still does look like – including many parts of where I live.) It’s a nice first-stop for visitors like my family: not insanely crowded with an emphasis on the traditional – you won’t find any chain stores or restaurants here. My father’s friend, Chong-Sang, who served as the perfect tour guide during their stay, explained that the store owners in Insa-dong are insistent on keeping the area as homegrown and non-commercialized as possible.
When we returned at night with Chong Sang, he took us to an awesome Buddhist “temple food” restaurant called Baru-gong-yang (Gyeon-ji-dong 71, Chong-ro-gu, Seoul, 02-2031-2081) where we ate lots of delicious vegetarian foods, herbs grown in mountains, and new flavors for everyone. Highly recommend!
We then moseyed over to his favorite tea house, Gwi-chon, created by a famed Korean poet, that is now run by the poet’s niece. The tea was delicious, and the ambiance feels right, and even better if you are sipping on your tea while discussing philosophy with a true Seoulite. (Subway exit: Anguk Station, line 3)
Cheonggyecheon River – 청계천
Almost like a narrow park that slithers throughout the city, the Cheonggyecheon River is a beautiful escape from the noise, crowds, and smells of Seoul – and all you have to do is climb down some stairs. Until 2005, the Cheonggyecheon was more like a sewage system than a river, covered by pavement and city life. Lee Myung Bak, then mayor of Seoul and now South Korea’s president, took on uncovering the Cheonggyecheon as his signature project, creating an awesome green space for Seoul’s inhabitants and visitors.
It reminds me of New York City’s High Line Park – an abandoned elevated train track that is now an elevated park – in myriad ways. Not only do these two parks both posses an overgrown, all-natural aesthetic, but they are both the result of restoring pre-existing urban components into something green and enjoyable for the people. The Cheonggyecheon stretches 5.2 miles starting at Seoul City Hall, and can be accessed at several points throughout the city.
Gyeongbokgung (Palace) – 경복궁
This palace complex is the biggest in Seoul and definitely the most popular amongst tourists. Adjacent to Insa-dong and the head of the Cheonggyecheon, you’re bound to bump into the palace even if by accident. I’m not going to go into the history of it, because I’d basically just be copying this. Just look at the photos. (Subway exit: Gyeongbokgung, line 3)
Gwangjang Market – 광장동
Supposedly the oldest and biggest market in Seoul, specializing in textiles, a friend recommended I take my family for dinner here. It took a little wandering since most of the market was closed for the day, but we finally found the after-work crowd, stuffing their faces with all kinds of Korean street foods. The biggest challenge was in finding a place to sit, and in reassuring my mother that everything would be okay (it was a little “rugged” for her). We finally found some benches, rested our rumps, and indulged in a Korean street food sampler: ddoekbokki (rice cakes with a spicy chili pepper sauce), kimbap (rolls of seaweed with rice, cucumber, spam, radish, carrots, and more), and pajeon (basically a Korean pancake with onion, garlic, and other veggies). I kind of felt like I was tricking them into thinking they were eating some gourmet Korean food, since everyone enjoyed it so much, when in reality these are foods that kids will eat as an after school snack. This is what I love about traveling – genuine excitement from the novel. (Subway stops: Jongno 5-ga, line 1, exit 8 or Euljiro 4-ga, lines 2, 5, exit 4)
Korean War Museum
To be honest, my mom and I were pretty bored after an hour. Tanks and fighter jets just don’t really get me going the same way a traditional tea house or an artisan jewelry shop does. But hey, if wars and battles and fighting is your jam, absolutely check out this museum, located right next to the American military base. Tanks, but no tanks :) (Subway stop: Samgakji, line 6, 4)
Hongdae – 홍대앞
Well, my loyal readers know how I feel about Hongdae. It’s my favorite place in Seoul, hands down. Home to the city’s biggest art university, Hongik, the neighborhood breathes youth and creativity. Kitschy coffee shops, vintage dress stores, handmade leather notebook stands, strange graffiti – my kinda hood. If I were held at gunpoint and forced to compare Hongdae to a neighborhood in NYC, I’d have to say the East Village. We visited the Sang Sang Madang Art Center, which always has a new, interesting exhibit on display and also has the coolest design shop EVER. On Saturday, we hit up the weekly open-air art fair, which happens in the park by the university. You can find amazing handcrafted jewelry, painted sneakers, cheap portrait drawing, and so much more.
At night we ate some delicious galbi (pork rib meat) BBQ at a restaurant I’ve been to several times but have no idea what the name is. We met up with my friends at a makgeolli bar (Korean rice wine) that offers various types of flavored makgeolli, and was definitely the best I’ve ever tasted! Good prices, and you can sit outside. It felt pretty perfect. The bar is called Weolhyang 2 (월향 2호점)
352-23 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu | Map. Check it out! (Thanks, Seoulist!) (Subway stop: Hongik University, line 2)
Myeongdong – 명동
Lights. People. Lights. People. Neon. Neon. Neon. People. As my dad put it, “This is modern Asia.” Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s (many) major shopping districts, with every imaginable type of store: from high-end designer department stores, to niche boutiques, to discount stalls, to chain stores. Anything you’re looking for can be found in this crowds-at-all-hours neighborhood. (Subway stop: Myeong-dong, line 4)
Hangang River Park Biking – 한강
On our final day together in Seoul, we subwayed over to Hangang park, which I explored a few posts back, but only on foot. This time we rented bikes (3,000 won/hour!) and had a lovely time letting the wind rip through our hair for a few hours. (Subway stop: so many. We used Yeouinaru, line 5)
Yeoju – 여주
The family hopped on a bus and headed southeast to my city, Yeoju! They watched me teach, and it was fun to have 3 faces grinning at me from the back of the classroom for 50 minutes. I’ve never had someone I know watch me teach, and it feels weirdly validating. I’m just glad it happened after 9 months, and not on one of my first days where I pretty much stumbled my way through a “lesson.” To my surprise and delight, the vice principal took us all out to dinner, with 3 other teachers! They taught my parents all about the food we were eating, which I could not have done, and inquired about their impressions of Korea. (For more of that, look out for some future guest bloggers.) We visited the Silleuksa temple, and of course drank some soju with the Yeoju crew before they headed back to Seoul.