The Seoul of Asia – South Korea

(Photo: Gwanghwamun square Seoul)

Hi everyone, 

(First of all, some photo’s are taken by a really bad and old camera many years ago, so I’m sorry if the quality is not great of a few pictures – I try to use the pics taken with a better camera as much as possible! I made the faces of friends and acquaintances unrecognizable because they don’t have to end up at the internet and become a victim of my hobby 😉 – (All pictures are mine, nothing is sponsored).

In 2009 and 2010 I studied in Seoul at the Sungkyunkwan University. This was such a good time! Getting to know Korea, the Korean people and their culture, as well foreign students from all over the world which taught me all their traditions. Also I know much more about for example the hype around K-pop, doctor fish (which is….many years later populair in Europe), celebrating national festivities, celebrating Halloween, the clubbing scene, karaoke, Korean food, having dinner at any time of the day (and night), cutting food with a scissor, bumping into weird shops (the best one, which unfortunately disappeared, was a 3D ride attraction shop – where you stepped into a moving fake car with 3D glasses on and experienced a virtual rollercoaster of horror scene), Korean Drama series (especially Full House) and many more!

Well, a blogpost about Seoul. Many people don’t know a lot about South-Korea or Seoul and don’t think of Korea as a travel destination like for example Japan or China. Unfortunate because Seoul is a huge metropolis where you can see and do a lot of things. And besides that, Korea is a beautiful country which has a lot to offer besides Seoul. In my opinion –  Seoul is even more modern as Tokyo. Seoul consist of a lot of districts, which all are known for something (a student district, shopping districts, a theater district, art district, clubbing district, fancy district etc.), sticked together and created this enormous city. In Seoul you find history and the future mixed together and it is a city which never sleeps. As I lived here for in total 8 months I got to know this city quite well and lately I noticed more and more people are planning a trip to Korea. Still it’s hard to write down tips for Seoul as places and especially restaurants open up and disappear a couple of weeks later. This city is changing every week – but the main attractions and things you should do (or eat)….it all stays the same. Here’s my to do list if you visit Seoul for the first time!

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(Photo: Me wearing a Hanbok during an activity at the Sungyunkwan University).

Insadong

The neighbourhood of Insadong is a more traditional neighbourhood, and well known for it’s art galleries. I love to stroll around the main street and the hidden small alleys. There are a lot of cute stores and pretty galleries here which you could visit. Don’t forget to make a stop at the shopping complex Ssamzigil – this is a very nice small shopping complex. In Insadong you find a lot of souvenir shops – so if you wish to score some Korean items and souvenirs (MAGNETS), you can buy them here! Also you find a lot of tea shops over here, where you can buy a lot of different teas. I love to buy rose leaf tea or tea made from flowers which pop open if you put them into hot water.

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(Photos: Insadong).

The nicest Korean teahouses are located in this area. I really recommend to visit the ‘bird flying teahouse‘ where real birds freely flying around inside the teahouse. The teahouse is a bit difficult to find and not packed with tourists as it is not a pet themed cafe. Instead it has a traditional (like if the time stood still) and peaceful atmosphere, the staff is very kind and the birds are quiet and not bothering at all. When you find a good spot to sit, the owner will bring you the tea menu. They offer a lot of different Korean herbal teas which all claim to have different health benefits which are also mentioned on the menu. Your tea of choice is served in a traditional cup with a rice snack on the side. If you’d wish to buy some tea from this teahouse, you may do so downstairs at their teashop (called the old tea shop).

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(Photos: The Bird Flying Teahouse).

In this crowded and hectic city, you find a quiet spot at the old Buddhist temple in Insadong (which is rebuild in 1910) called the Jogyesa temple. This is the center of Korean Buddhism. The admission is free and it’s nice to pay the temple a quick visit.

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(Photo: The Jogyesa temple).

If you are in Insadong, don’t forget out to check out the Jogno Tower. There is a restaurant called Top Cloud located at the 33th floor where you could have drinks or dinner while overlooking the city. Especially nice when it’s dark outside. The prices are rather expensive as it is more like a fancy place, so keep that in mind.
If you like a less expensive meal – street food in Korea is very safe to eat (search for the dragon beard candy stand – they make quite a show of it) and also you find a bunch of nice traditional-style restaurants serving Korean food and tons of cute little cafes.

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(Photos: My favourite teashop and more of Insadong).

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The most famous attractions in Seoul are the palaces around the city. Besides Gyeongbokgung palace, you could visit the Changdeokgung palace, the Changgyeonggung palace and the Deoksugung palace, and probably there are even more palaces in Seoul. I’m sorry to say this, but they all look almost the same to me. So if you don’t have a lot of time or if you like to see one of them because one is enough, you should visit the Gyeongbokgung palace. This is the Northern Palace which is surrounded by Mount Bugaksan and Mount Namsan. This was the main palace during the Joseon Dynasty. Besides that it is the prettiest and largest (over 410.000 square meters / 330 buildings with 5792 rooms) palace of Seoul.

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(Photos: Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, inside the palace).

Small history lesson: The Gyeongbokgung palace which name means ‘greatly blessed by heaven’ was built in 1395 in the name of King Tajeong. It served as a home for many Kings, their households and the government of Joseon. During the Japanese invasion around 1592 the palace was destroyed and abandoned for hundreds of years. The palace was reconstructed in 1867, but due to some more trouble with the Japanese followed by the Korean War, the palace was destroyed again. In 1989 the Korean Government decided to restore the palace (yes…. again) and opened 2 museums at the site which are the national folk museum of Korea and the national palace museum of Korea.

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(Photos: More of the Gyeongbokgung Palace).

I like this palace the most because of the Gwanghwamun royal guard changing ceremony (at 10 am and 14 am every day except at tuesdays at the Gwanghwamun gate). During this performance, which is reenacted exactly as it used to be held in the past – including traditional clothes and traditional weapons, you get a glimpse of the old Korea.

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(Photos: The Gwanghwamun royal guard changing ceremony).

If I talk about a glimpse of the old Korea – as the Korean traditions have a strong presence, the city is one of the most modern cities in the world. In front of the palace which is named the Gwanghwamun gate, you find the Gwanghwamun square. This is a large square surrounded by modern high buildings. This square is iconic, for me it is representing the old and new Korea. Probably that is the reason why you find this image over and over again in travel magazines. Imagine a large square surrounded by  modern buildings and with an old Korean Palace and a mountain called mount Bugak at the back. It is a really good photo spot before entering the palace! At the square you find the most iconic statue of Seoul, which is the statue of King Sejong, representing the Joseon Dynasty.

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(Photos: Gwanghwamun square).

My favourite photo spot inside the palace is the Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, which is located on a small artificial island in the middle of a small lake. You are able to reach the pavilion by a wooden bridge. This beautiful sight with this small lake and the small old building in the middle makes it more special to me!

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(Photos: Hyangwonjeong Pavilion).

Visit a Jjimjilbang (Bathhouse / Sauna)

Korean bathhouses or saunas are way different compared to any western style saunas.
I never went to a sauna in Holland because the whole naked thing doesn’t sounds appealing to me. But in Korea it’s a whole next level cultural experience. (and I was persuaded to go – thats why I cannot remember to which jjimjilbang I went – I think Dragon Hill according to my pictures- but I will never forget the experience). First of all the saunas are quite cheap, open 24/7, they are huge, have multiple floor levels with pools, baths, saunas, restaurants and you even have the possibility to sleep here / stay overnight on a mat on the floor (Korean style). If you pay extra you can get massages or a manicure. The bathhouse is a place for Koreans to gather with friends or family or is used as a cheap option to stay overnight in the city.

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(Photos: At the Jjimjilbang).

Myeongdong

Myeongdong is a modern and very busy shopping area where you find all the commercial brands like H&M, Zara, Forever21, Uniqlo, Daiso (I love Daiso!) together with a lot of beauty stores and little boutiques. If you enter the area first thing you see are streets packed with people like if it is Kingsday in Holland, flashy Neon lights, street food and other street carts outside and you hear loud K-Pop music everywhere you go. A great area for shopping!

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(Photos: Crowded Myeongdong).

Namdaemun Market

Close to Myeongdong (walking distance) you find the Namdaemun Market. This is the largest traditional market in Korea (it is huge and you get easily lost…) and here you find a lot of….well everything you can imagine…Whatever you like, you can buy it over here for sure. Clothes, bags, shoes, toys, beauty products, jewellery, glasses, kitchen equipment, food, electronics, souvenirs, you name it! Of course you cannot miss the large amount of food stalls in this area, in case you are hungry!

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(Photos: The Namdaemun market).

Visit a Hanok village or a Korean Folk Village

A Hanok Village is a village with small traditional houses which were built during the Joseon dynasty. The most famous hanok is the Bukchon village in the city itself, but you have more places, centers and musea where you can admire these old houses and villages. You may also consider visiting a Korean Folk Village which can be best described as an outdoor museum and gives you a glimpse of the Korean lifestyle in the past.

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(Photos: Korean Folk Village).

(Ok….probably I like this because I studied over here). If you’d like to see something else, something very old as well. I studied at the Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, located in Hyewha. This is the oldest university of Korea and one of the oldest universities in Asia. There are remainings of some old university buildings left at the university and one of the buildings is even printed on a Korean currency bill.

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(Photos: Old university buildings at the Sungkyunkwan University).

유생복 입고 입실체험하는 외국인 대학생들
【서울=뉴시스】서재훈 기자 = 28일 오전 서울 성균관대학교 국제하계학기에 참가한 외국인대학생들이 유생복(도포+유건) 차림으로 문묘 명륜당을 찾아 양현재(동재)에서 유생체험을 하고 있다. 문묘 명륜당 양현재는 세계에서 가장 오래된 600년의 역사를 가진 기숙사이다. jhseo@newsis.com

(Photo: About this RIDICULOUS photo – made at the old university site during the promo for the start of summerschool –  where I was asked to dress up in traditional clothes for a photo because they could not find anybody who agreed to do this and I had to help blabla – we did not know we showed up in almost every newspaper the next day……).

DMZ Tour

If you are in South-Korea you cannot imagine this country is officially at war with North Korea. If you are planning to go to the military border between North-Korea and South-Korea you have to book this tour in advance. I did this tour twice. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to sign up for the longest tour because it was always fully booked. Despite that, the regular tour (excluding the JSA Area) was very interesting as well. You watch a movie about the war, step into one of the discovered secret tunnels digged by the North-Koreans, have an outlook over North-Korea at the observatory deck, pay a visit at the Freedom bridge which is of course barricaded and visit Dorasan station, which is a railway station which used to connect North- and South-Korea. The two times I visited the DMZ border it was rainy and foggy which made the setting almost mysterious and you really feel the tension. But don’t worry, keep in mind that a lot of DMZ tours are organized every day. It more felt like stepping into a movie set. You should bring your passport with you which will be checked by army personnel inside your tourbus at the DMZ site and you are not allowed to wear ripped jeans, sandals, shirts with offensive sayings etc. Also keep in mind that a lot of excursions do not offer lunch. Bring some snacks and water with you (which you can buy at the supermarket – at every corner in Seoul you find a 7eleven or a family mart).

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(Photos: The DMZ Tour).

Dongdaemun

Dongdaemun is a very popular and busy shopping area in Seoul. It is a huge area with lots of different stores and a lots of shops for retailers. I always preferred to buy clothes and leather bags at one of the department stores. If you like to do some shopping at night, you may do so at the night market starting at 10pm. In Dongdaemun there is a place called the Toy Alley and this is a street where me and my friends bought all the  party items for halloween or ridiculous decoration for themed house parties. This street is quite weird but fun!

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(Photo: Dongdaemun Area).

Walk along the Cheonggyecheon stream

This stream (also very old and also restored) is 11 km long and goes across town from west to east. It starts at the Cheonggye Plaza (‘the’ square where many events take place – and close to this square, the bell ceremony for new years eve takes place as well) and flows into the big Han river. The stream is a peaceful waterway with a path at both sides where Koreans walk around and clear their head, where couples or friends meet, run etc. During the yearly Seoul Lantern Festival the stream changes in a magical place and  hundreds of enormous lanterns are exposed.

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(Photo: The Cheonggyecheon Stream).

Seoul (Namsan) Tower

You find these big towers in a lot of cities and yes ….there is one in Seoul as well. Because this tower is built at the top of a mountain (the Namsan mountain), you spot this tower from actually everywhere in Seoul. This tower is close to the Myeongdong district but in my opinion a bit far to walk. I preferred to take a cab to the cable cars. From there you have the possibility to buy tickets for the observatory deck where you overview the whole city, which is especially nice by night! And of course, if the tower is located in Seoul you find restaurants and shops around. If you are visiting this spot with your boy- or girlfriend you have the possibility to lock your padlock of love onto the railing so your love will hopefully last forever.

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(Photo: The Seoul Tower).

The Fishmarket

The largest fish market of Seoul is really a happening. They offer every kind of fish at this market. Besides spotting the locals buying fish, they have two restaurants where you could order something from the menu or bring your catch from the market to them and they will prepare it for you. This is the place where I ate live squid and sea urchin for the first time (and ate live squid for the last time, I found it not so successful). Try the Korean version of Raw fish / sashimi over here!

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(Photo: Me eating live squid)….
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(Photos: The fishmarket).

Olympic Park

Created for the summer olympics in 1988 – this olympic park is filled with sport stadiums and it is also a place for Koreans to walk around and relax as they have several parks here (the ecopark, the cultural art park and a sports park). I only visited the olympic park for a baseball game which I was invited too and I loved it! The Korean supporters are fantastic so if you have the possibility to attend a game then do so!

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(Photos: Korean Baseball).

Naksan Park / Fortress

Close to my old home in Hyewha you’ll find the Naksan park. This park is also accessible at night and from here you are able to enter the old fortress wall (also built during the Joseon Dynasty), and enjoy the stunning view over the city. By the way it is completely safe if you like to walk around here during the evening in the dark -(Seoul is a very safe city, the criminal activity rates are very low, but I never walked here alone). I prefer this city view over the one the Seoul Tower offers, just because it’s so quiet over here! A must do if you visit Seoul!

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(Photo: City View).

Go clubbing!

Seoul has a great nightlife and clubbing scene. I love the Asian clubbing scene and especially in Seoul. They probably have one of the best clubs in Asia. But there are so many clubs around, it is impossible to visit them all. When I studied in Seoul we partied many days a week. First you have some drinks in a bar with your friends, playing Korean drinking games before you take off to a club. In Seoul you have tons of bars, in almost every street is at least one bar settled. The selection of clubs have probably changed in those couples of years, so I won’t give any advice about which clubs are hot and happening now at the moment. During my study time in Seoul we all went to NB2, Cocoon, Club Volume, Club Mass, Brass Monkey, M2 and I went to a lot of places of which name I can’t even remember. I checked it out on the internet and noticed that NB2 is still popular, so if you like hiphop it is a fun place to go to!

The areas which are best for clubbing are:

  • Hongdae: Hongdae is a great clubbing area with a lot of hiphop clubs where especially younger people and students come to party.
  • Gangnam and Apgujeong: Has I think the biggest and best clubbing area around. These 2 areas are the ‘fancy areas’ – the clubs are techno style, a bit pricier than Hongdae and more upscale.
  • Itaewon: This is the area where a lot of expats live due to the U.S. Army base which is near this area. I do not really like this area but they do have some nice bars and clubs around. At thursday it is ladies night in Itaewon so as a lady you get free drinks and you receive free admission at some places.

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(Photo: Inside a club – I cannot remember which one).

Karaoke! (Noraebang)

Yes…. in Asia they absolutely adore karaoke, also in Korea!! It is so much fun. In Seoul they have a lot of karaoke bars, almost in every street again (just like coffeeshops and bars and beauty stores, you find them e-very-where!!). It has the same concept as in Japan. You rent a karaoke room with your friends – preferably after clubbing and before breakfast. Inside the karaoke room you find 2 or 3 microphones and some instruments and you can order drinks (mostly soju and beer) and snacks! In Hongdae you have a Noraebang in the shape of a barbie dollhouse which looks very funny from the outside.

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(Photo: Karaoke!).

Jump into a photo booth!

This is nothing like the average photo booth I know from home. These are actually good running shops filled with several crazy photo booths used by Koreans who are having lots of fun. The thing is, first you choose some accessories for dressing up like crazy hats or wigs (but this is not mandatory of course). You take several pictures (after you have discussed your poses) inside the photo booth. Than the serious business starts, and that’s editing the pictures. You decorate the pictures with writing, stickers and the other crazy things. Be aware that everything is timed, like choosing your background, taking pictures and the even the decorating process. They just give you a small amount of time so be quick!

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(Photo: Photo booth.

Other activities you could do:

If my list is not long enough for you, here are some other things you could do while visiting and enjoying Seoul. In the mountains you find more buddhist temples. I once was taken to a temple by night and we drank some Makgeolli in a restaurant close by which was a super nice experience, but I have no idea where I went. You even could do a temple stay at some buddhist temples, but I heard you have to do some tasks and work during your stay, so I never joined the students who tried this out. Same with hiking. In Korea you have great hiking routes around the mountains in Seoul. I don’t like hiking (I mention this in almost every blogpost), but If you do, Seoul is a great place to do so!
You could visit the Korea National Museum and the War Museum which are well-known tourist attractions. And last but not least, you could buy tickets for the Nanta show.  It’s easy to understand this cooking/musical/comedy show and is a popular tourist activity. Thats why they even have their own theaters!

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(Photo: Temple visit).
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(Photo: The War Museum).
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(Photo: The Nanta Show).

What to Eat in Korea:

In Seoul restaurants and shops come and go! It’s like the city streets are changing every week. Thats why I don’t recommend any restaurant because I don’t know if they are still there and if they are, maybe next week they are gone! So I will put down a list of dishes you should try if you are in Korea!

  • Korean BBQ – the number one dish in Korea, you find these places everywhere, My favourite dish is Bulgogi Beef!
  • Kimchi which is a side dish;
  • Seafood BBQ – It is the same as Korean BBQ but …I think you night understand this…with seafood.
  • Bibimbap – a bowl with rice, veggies, egg, minced beef and gochujang sauce;
  • Korean Pancake (Pajeon) with Kimchi or Seafood;
  • Mandu (steamed dumplings and I honestly think that Mandu is better than Gyoza). You can choose between kimchi mandu and gogi mandu (pork);
  • Shabu Shabu – the Korean version of hotpot;
  • Patbingsu – a popular ice shaved dessert with fruit, red beans, syrup and condensed milk;
  • Japchae – Korean glassnoodles
  • Tteokbokki – spicy rice cake (which is a typical street food) – and be aware, it is really really spicy!
  • Dakgalbi – a spicy chicken dish with rice cake, sweet potato and veggies;
  • Andong Jjimdak – braised chicken with noodles, veggies and seafood;
  • Soju – the national drink of Korea. Its quite a strong drink so I like to mix it up with juice like mango juice, kiwi juice or strawberry juice.
  • In Seoul you find a lot of Japanese restaurants which offer Tonkatsu and more.

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(Photo: Mandu).
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(Photo: Seafood BBQ)
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(Photo: Shabu Shabu).
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(Photo: Korean BBQ and Beef Bulgogi).
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(Photo: A typical Korean BBQ restaurant).

Hope you liked this post about Seoul! Please like, comment and subscribe. Don’t forget to check out my instagram page misstravelstories. See you next time!

xoxo Chanel

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(Photo: Street in Hyewha).
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(Photo: The effects of drinking Soju).
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(Photo: A street in Seoul).

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