We love cities. We love taking public transportation and wandering around new streets and people watching and finding new things to eat. So that’s what we did in Seoul. Is this blog getting boring because that’s what we do most everywhere? If yes, sorry, but that’s who we are and what we do.
Getting into Seoul
We arrived via KTX train from Busan and easily found our apartment after a quick trip on one of Seoul’s easy and clean subways. Also note, they are much more accessible than those in Busan. We stayed in Mapodong, a neighborhood that doesn’t really have much written about it, but is pretty central and has access to lots of transportation. We also found out later that it’s known for its Korean BBQ. We had a great view of huge, glittery gold buildings.
Seoul is big!
Seoul is busy and fun and beautiful and really really cool. But it’s also really big and there are a ton of distinct neighborhoods. We tried our best to see and do as much as we could but we definitely could have used more time. And sadly, we didn’t make it to Gangnam as much as we wanted to sing and dance Gangnam Style (full disclosure, we did watch the Gangnam Style video while in Seoul). Here’s what we did do and would recommend…
National Museum of Korea and Yongsan Family Park
The permanent collection of the National Museum is free and has some interesting pieces. The building is pretty cool. But its the surrounding grounds and Yongsan Family Park that make this a must-do. It’s beautiful, especially during Fall when the colors are changing. Note, there is a huge military base north of the museum and it kind of looks like a park on Google maps but it’s impenetrable. Don’t make the same mistake we did (resulting in a really long walk) and just follow directions to the museum.
The Changdeokgung Palace grounds and buildings are impressive, but what makes this place special is its spectacular garden, Huwon (aka Secret Garden). It’s massive and wild and beautiful with so many trees and pagodas and water and paths. It’s a truly lovely place to wander during a crisp Autumn afternoon. Tip: you have to buy a ticket that’s timed with a tour, but you don’t have to join the tour (which is 2 hours). Instead you can wander by yourself.
Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) and surrounding area
So… we actually wouldn’t recommend SeMA unless you’re contemporary art lovers. We’re not. We went because it was free and recommended by our apartment host. We’re glad we went though, because the building is pretty cool (inside and out) and it gave us a chance to walk around the surrounding area.
And there was what we later learned is considered one of the most romantic streets in Seoul – Deoksugung Palace Stone-wall Road. On this fine Fall day, we were surprised to see so many trees wrapped in knit scarves. It was the 2016 Tree Hug and of course we participated.
Seoul has a ton of fantastic and huge markets. We hit two of them: Namdaemun Market and Gwangjang Market. They were bustling and fun with so many things to buy (or just look at, like we did) and so much food to eat (or look at and cower in fear of, like we did).
We happened to be visiting at the start of the annual Lantern Festival. If you find yourself in Seoul at this time, definitely go. Beautiful lanterns telling local stories about Seoul and South Korea are set up all along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which runs through the center of the city. Walking along at water level seeing all the lanterns and reading the stories is lovely and romantic.
Shop at E-Mart
Our apartment was fortuitously located only a couple blocks from the greatest superstore – E-Mart. It’s kind’ve like Walmart, but Korean, so better. Our first night we went and stocked up on groceries and also considered purchasing warmer coats (it was a bit chilly and we’d packed for the Japan and SE Asia climate). They had a wonderful kimchee selection. Sarah’s favorite section of the store was the Pocky display. For those who aren’t familiar, Pocky is a Japanese treat – biscuity sticks dipped in different flavors (chocolate, green tea, strawberry, etc). Oh so delicious.
Eats and Drinks
- Kimchee and all other Korean pickled veg is amazing. Buy it and eat it whenever you can.
- Not as amazing as the Ssiat Hotteok we tried in Busan, but still super delicious were three additional varieties of Hotteok we tasted at the markets we visited. We ate one with vegetables, one with cinnamon honey, and one with a green dough and super rich filling (specific ingredients unknown!). We are now complete Hotteok converts.
- Korean Fried Chicken is utterly delicious. Super crispy but not at all greasy. We got some at a small shop near our apartment. As we were walking by a local waved at us to come in, so we did. And we were so happy we did.
- Though we were staying in the neighborhood known for its Korean BBQ, it was honestly a little intimidating since none of the menus had English and as such types of meat and prices were unknown. Instead, we had our BBQ experience at Maple Tree House. It was a more touristy, more upscale spot, but it was totally delicious. The unlimited accompaniments of two types of salad, kimchee, omelet, mushrooms, and all sorts of herbs were awesome. The meat was tender and delicious (we had two types of pork and beef). The waitresses cook the meat for you if you’re BBQ newbies (like us) and there’s an exhaust pipe sucking up all the smoke off the grill so you don’t smell like BBQ for days after (especially helpful when you’ve packed light to travel the world and have a limited clothing supply).
So five days in Seoul is way too few. We feel like we barely scratched the surface of the city. But that just means we’ll have to return one day!