According to the news, we’ve never been closer to a North Korean attack on Seoul. If Kim Jong-un did decide to strike, it would obviously be devastating. Two English teachers I met here in Seoul the other day said they’d been sick recently and joked that it was Pyongyang poisoning the tap water. I laughed, a little nervously. Hopefully, they just had some bad kimchi.
While Kim Jong-un approves the completion of another missile and Donald Trump’s small fingers flex over the big red button, in trendy Hongdae, spicy meats are BBQ’d, cosmetics are purchased, and attractive young people stumble out of bars, drunk out of their new double-eyelids on soju and beer.
I really hope South Korea doesn’t get blown up. Because I kind of like it here.
1) Party Gangnam Style
In fact, a lot of people told me I wouldn't like South Korea. That it was miserable and people had to drink themselves into a stupor every weekend to get through it.
Erm, I’m from England. That just sounds like home to me.
A walk through the student area of Hongdae at 1am provided a binge-drinking scene unlike any I’d witnessed in Asia before. No one was in the bars pretending they cared about the taste of alcohol or because they ‘just wanted to dance’.
They had one goal in mind:
I found that totally refreshing. Gangnam is also pretty buzzing for nightlife. For example, you can go to a bar called Pandora and spend 20,000 Won to drink as much as you want, all night.
Do that and your recollection of the evening may end up resembling this video:
2) Go shopping in Myeong-dong
One reason people need to mix shots of rice wine into their lager (a drink called Somek) might be because Korean society supposedly places ridiculous pressure on style and beauty. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for both young men and women to get plastic surgery to improve their looks, such as the aforementioned eyelid procedure.
That may be completely screwed up and superficial, but hey, if you want to visit a dynamic, stylish city full of attractive people, you’ve come to the right place.
In particular, a lot of visitors come to Seoul to buy clothes and cosmetics. And if that’s what you want, go to Myeong-dong. It’s one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world and sees over 2 million people visit daily. You’ll find all the Korean and Western fashion brands that you need.
Plus, there’s lots of great street food such as tornado potatoes, fresh juice and various grilled snacks. I opted for a plate of lobster with cheese, which has to be the most moreish thing I’ve ever eaten outside a branch of H&M. It was expensive at 15,000 Won though, so I guess I’ll have to keep saving up to get my ‘lids done.
3) Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
It’s not all drinking and shopping. I met up with my Korean friend Sue from university and we had a stroll around Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of the main historical sites in the city.
Dating back to 1395, this was the primary royal abode of the Joseon Dynasty and was the city's political and economic center for a couple of hundred years. Until 1592 at least, when the ancestors of my Japanese students came over and burnt it down. In 1867, there was a huge restoration project and it was almost entirely rebuilt, until the Japanese trashed it again during their colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
Now it’s looking magnificent and there isn’t a sushi shop in sight. You should also take exit 2 at Gwanghwamun station and have a look in Gwanghwamun Square at the statue of King Sejong who invented the Korean writing script.
Tickets: Adults, 3000 Won. Juniors/seniors, free
Free guided tours: 10:00 to 16:00
4) Walk around Bukchon Hanok village
This is a neighborhood in the city where large numbers of traditional houses called hanok have been preserved. It’s located in between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeok Palace and is full of picturesque tiny streets and alleyways that you can explore.
Flanked by the palaces, the area was originally the upscale home to the nobility of the Joseon Dynasty. Today, many of the hanok are still inhabited but you’re more likely see coffee shop employees than aristocrats milling about. As well as the numerous restaurants and cafes, lots of painters and artisans have opened galleries and boutiques here, which does give it a certain charm.
It is still a residential area, so upon arrival it’s a little difficult to know where you’re going and what you’re actually looking at, as the hanok are often hidden away behind more modern buildings. Stop by the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center and pick up a map which will give you a 1-2 hour walking route through the highlights of the area, represented by eight traditional views you can enjoy.
5) Get your kimchi on
I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to write about Korean food. Not because the food here isn’t great, but because I initially didn’t have much variety in my diet after I arrived. A lot of what I had was spicy meat, kimchi and cheese.
Don't get me wrong, I like that a lot, but unlike Thai or Japanese food, I felt I had to dig a little deeper here for the subtleties in taste.
As well as overdosing on fermented cabbage and getting your BBQ fix, try these two:
One of my best food experiences was exploring Gwangjang traditional market and snacking on gimbap. Like a sushi roll, this is often meat and vegetable fillings rolling in a seaweed wrap. I had a chat with the owner of one of the market stalls and she let me nibble a few of the other foods she was selling too.
My Airbnb host sent me a pdf map with several local restaurants on. Sadly, the photos she included were of the food, not the restaurants, so they were all bit tricky to find. On my last day, I ended up stumbling into this place in Sinchon, hoping it served something she had recommended.
I got lucky and had a delicious bowl of galbitang, a soup made with beef ribs. This dish alone converted me to Korean food. Whatever it is, I get it now. The flavors definitely seem to be a variation of a theme rather than wide-ranging, but this was very tasty indeed. I guess I'll just have to come back and eat more.
Assuming the country is still here.
Here are the details for the restaurant:
Address: 서울 서대문구 연세로 24
Price: 10,000 Won
Sweets and desserts
These are also super-popular and you’ll see them for sale everywhere. As well as lots of adverts all over the place, such as the one below, that kind of reminded me of this meme.
Did I say there’s a lot of surgically enhanced, good looking people here? This ice cream might describe your reaction upon stepping out of the airport.
I’d be lost without mobile internet to do on-the-go research and find my way around using Google Maps. Phone plans in South Korea are notoriously tricky, but you can pick up an unlimited data SIM card from Incheon International Airport.
I recommend one from Korea Telecom. It cost about 27,000 Won and the booth is by exit 6.
There are various subway apps out there to help you navigate but by far the easiest to use that I tried was KakaoMetro.
KakaoTalk is the messaging app of choice here, by the way, replacing Line, WeChat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for most people.
Cost of travelling in Seoul
A subway ride won't be much over 1,250 Won, a beer is up to 7,000 Won and a local meal is around 10,000 Won.
A dorm room can be had for less than 30,000 Won per night and a basic hotel for about 60,000 Won.
On top of accomodation, I'd have a daily budget of up to 50,000 Won to cover your sightseeing and debauchery. Living costs here are reasonable but Seoul isn't the type of city you want to hit if you're worrying about cash.
FYI: As of September 2017, 10,000 Won = $9 / €7.50 / ¥950. Or a full fucking £7. Thanks, Brexit.
"Hello" = 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo),
"Thank you!" = 감사합니다 (kamsahamnida)
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