Things to Do During Your First Visit to Seoul
Seoul, South Korea. A city on the move, yet steeped in tradition. Beautiful, efficient, energetic, delicious, fascinating and much, much more. There aren’t enough words to describe how fun and cool Seoul is; but, I will most certainly try.
We spent about a week in Seoul on our way to Tokyo, as it’s always been on my must visit list. I’m a huge fan of Korean film, art, and culture, and it did not disappoint. The first thing I will mention is that we went in the beginning of September which was incredibly hot and I was basically a hot sausage waiting to burst at any second, so keep that in mind. Some people deal better with the heat and humidity, but we were sweating profusely the entire time. You’ll still enjoy Seoul regardless of the weather, there is air conditioning everywhere you go, but it can be a bit much when you’re walking around or taking the metro. Here are some things to do during your first visit to Seoul.
There are plenty of amazing hotels in Seoul, it’s considered a luxury mecca across the globe. However, our first go-to is always Airbnb. It just feels nice to be in a space that at least pretends to give you the experience of being a local, even if it’s just a fridge or microwave in the room. We scored and were able to rent an absolutely perfect space in Yongsan-gu. This isn’t a particularly trendy area, but the high rise was connected to the main hub of Seoul Station, which made it the most convenient spot to be. The place was cozy and also in the building was a gym, convenience store and delicious little coffee shop. I would 100% rent this space again, plus the owners have 3 other units. It was hassle free and THE VIEW WAS INSANE.
I love Korean food, but Jason is a little more particular. However, Seoul has every option under the sun. I can’t guarantee that everything will be a culinary delight, but you will at least get an interesting experience, as evidenced by this scrumptious Kiwi Iced tea and “pizza”. It’s important to note that in Korea they use English words more as decorative element and not necessarily to convey a message or information (more on this later). It’s also important to note that this “pizza” was described on the English menu as “deep disk pizza with sweat potato moose”. There was powdered sugar on it. It was basically inedible, but I can’t stop thinking about it even now, so I guess it’s Korean Pizza - 1, Michelle - 0.
Strange pizza aside, every other thing we ate was a delight. The street food was efficient, hello… hot dog on a stick covered in french fries! Their fast food offerings looked quite fresh (check out our McDonald’s experience) and you will never be left without a million options). The ice cream was incredibly kawaii and fun, as evidenced by this sweet little storm cloud soft serve from Remicone. To be completely honest, the cotton candy didn’t stay on, and you’re better off with some of the street vendor’s soft serves, but I couldn’t resist it. Jason was completely unimpressed, but he’s a vanilla ice cream kinda man, and I would eat cement flavored ice cream if it were presented to me.
Another thing that you can’t (obviously) leave without feasting on, is the BBQ. Korean BBQ is my favorite thing ever, and to get to be in Seoul and experience it was so awesome. One place we went to more than once, was Maple Tree House in Itaewon. Known for being a party street, this neighborhood not only has great shopping for all the Korean staples, but it’s also filled with some of the best nightclubs and bars in the world. The Maple Tree House is a fantastic way to start your night out in Seoul. Yes, there are more economic options and this is not all you can eat BBQ, but it’s totally reasonable and worth it.
The meat was of fantastic quality and all the banchan (included side dishes) were so fresh and mouth-watering. My favorite was the short-rib, which I usually wrap up with a ton of kimchi and rice paper or shiso leaf. In the US it’s really unusual to get shiso leaf, but they had it and I inhaled it (not literally, you guys).
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the absolute unparalleled glory of Korean fried chicken. This is controversial, but it’s my favorite type of fried chicken in the whole world. That’s bold, but they just know how to do it perfectly, and from what I understand Kyochon Chicken is the unofficial go-to in Seoul. It’s double fried in rice flour, which makes it light and crispy while also juicy. The double fry makes the crispy layer thick, but not burnt and hard, it’s almost too much, but then they coat it in one of their sauces (garlic, hot, soy, or honey) and then you just realize that you have tasted true perfection. My favorite is honey, the sweet and the salty with the savoriness of the chicken is a perfect balance. Dip that baby into one of the hot sauces and you’ve got yourself a party. Good news, fellow Los Angelians, there is a Kyochon Chicken in Korea Town, and it’s every bit as good as it’s Seoul location. Run, don’t walk.
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There is no shortage of things to do or see in Seoul. We didn’t have enough time to hit everything on our list, but we did try to cast a wide net and see the historical part of Seoul, as well as some of it’s modern (and sometimes hyper-modern) offerings.
No list of Seoul activities would be completed without going to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Gyeonbokgung is the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty and was built in 1395. It was rebuilt in the 19th century after fires destroyed it in the 16th, only to be destroyed again in the early 1900’s by Japanese Imperialists, but it continues to be restored and rebuilt to it’s originally glory.
This palace has a sprawling courtyard, where you can take photos as well as imagine life as a court subject in feudal Korea. If you are so possessed, you can even rent traditional Hanbok and stroll around the palace, endlessly twirling. The first thing I noticed when I got to the palace was location. Flanked by the bustling city, it’s located in Jongno-gu. While standing in the palace, and looking up you can see the modern buildings and electronic billboards. The juxtaposition is really something to behold. I fully entered the palace expecting to move on to the adjacent shopping plaza within an hour or so, not realizing it housed 2 museums, both of which are free with the $3 admission ticket.
We love museums, and always try to find obscure subjects, or at least interesting ones, in whatever country we go to. We discovered that Seoul has a handful of museums or ‘experiences’ that seem to be solely devoted to enhancing your photography, or if we’re being real, devoted to amping your instagram. We went to one of them, the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae, another fabulous area with great shopping and delicious treats. The cost of admission was, in my opinion, completely reasonable, especially since it also gives you access to the Ice Museum as well. We spent a good hour or two in here and did not regret it. Bonus tip, if you are go in the morning (or anytime) and you are feeling homesick for good old American style breakfast treats, there is a spot down the street from the museum that was fun called Travel Maker, American Breakfast Cafe. I would order a double round of the Obama Breakfast right about now, literally and figuratively.
Seoul has many parks and lush gardens, but there was one that immediately caught my eye and stole the show. Seoul Park has a deer garden! Not a beer garden, although i’m sure that would also be fun, but an actual deer feeding area where you can get cups of food and hand feed the deer. Not just any deer either, not some boring (although still beautiful) old brown deer, but the deer that look like cartoon Bambis. The fawns with the literal white spots all over them. That was one of the best experiences I had anywhere. I wasn’t communing with nature or anything, i’m fully aware that these deer were master manipulators and that I was merely a pawn in their snack game. However, I was a willing participant and Jason had to pry me away after buying two cups of food for my new (and only) friends. There is also a bunny area where actual tiny bunnies just hop around outside looking for treats, which is right next an area that is basically an outdoor gym with an elliptical and all sorts of machines. I was having a really great time admiring these little bunnies while watching a Korean man do lunges directly behind them.
Unfortunately, I got really sick half way through one of the days and we opted to stay in for the afternoon and recover. This meant that we didn’t get to go to Garden of the Morning Calm, which I had been fantasizing about. The garden is almost 3 hours away so it’s more of a day trip, which means a little extra effort, but from what I can tell from pictures is otherworldly. The garden looks unreal and every season there is a new wave of flora that transforms the experience, so it’s never a bad season to go in. The winter program looks particularly fantastic.
A trip to Asia would not be complete without documenting and appreciating the blatant copyright infringement. It’s something that you don’t normally see on this side of the world, but it’s pretty amazing and was definitely amusing to us. In Korea (and other countries), they tend to use well known fonts from famous brands, or just combos of words that they may have seen used in other contexts. Think of it as a similar concept to when people use Chinese and Japanese writing for tattoos and decor in the 90’s.
As usual, in travel, sometimes the best intentions and laid plans don’t always happen; you never have enough time, we certainly didn’t. I would love to visit South Korea again and go to Jeju Island, or Busan, and hopefully we will. South Korea was such a beautiful, kind and energetic place and I would encourage anyone to break out of their comfort zone and come visit. Seoul was very good to me and will always have my heart.
Also, a little Korean McDonald’s never hurt anyone…
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