It was a whirlwind March. In a span of 18 days, I took 6 flights for a combined 18 hours 50 minutes and 6,788 miles spent in planes. Between classes and travel, I didn’t have much of a chance to share my past couple trips with you. So here’s a recap of my weekend in Seoul, South Korea.
I left Hong Kong on a Thursday evening and returned early Monday morning, giving me three full days to explore Seoul. The trip was uncharted territory for me in more ways than one, since it was my first overnight travel of any sort spent alone. I hadn’t so much as spent a night in Columbus or Pittsburgh alone, much less a whole weekend in another city in another country over a thousand miles from anyone I knew. As it turns out, traveling alone is incredible. While I was in Seoul, I stayed so busy you’d probably get bored if I detailed everything, so this (still long) article will skip over lots of details. Like I plan to do for all my trips, I’ll be writing articles that dig more into the little details about culture, customs, coffee, K-Pop, and things of that nature. Culturally, Korea is quite robust, but that’s for another day.
Anyhow, the trip started with a one-hour plane delay, so I landed at Incheon’s airport around 9 p.m. Korean time (an hour ahead of Hong Kong). Incheon is Seoul’s neighboring city, so I hopped on the train from the airport to Seoul, which took about an hour, then took another train from Seoul Station to my hostel in Itaewon, near the middle of the city. I finally checked in around 11:30 p.m. and headed straight for a shower and to bed.
The Seoul-Incheon metropolitan area is the fifth most populated in the world, Seoul itself is one of the top-20 most populated cities and is one of the world’s top ten most visited cities by tourists. As such, important signs were in Korean, Chinese, Japanese and English, making both the airport and subway systems easy to navigate. The massive Seoul-Incheon subway system has so many jumbled lines and stops that it’s dizzying, but the system’s app makes switching lines a breeze. Trumpet fanfare announces the arrival of every train, and all announcements are given in the aforementioned four languages. An in-train jingle plays if the next stop is an interchange, and each car contains several maps. As daunting as the colorful web looks, the system does everything it can to simplify travel.
I began Friday by grabbing breakfast at a local coffee chain and headed for Myeongdong, a shopping district in the middle of Seoul. I had a blast at the tourist highlight, spending way longer there than I planned. The main shopping area was off the main road in a jumbled set of alleys and smaller streets. Here, I found a wide variety of shops, from the country’s largest Uniqlo (a clothing chain) down to street vendors selling kimchi dumplings, fried chicken and more. Most shops were blasting either K-Pop or Western music from their speakers, providing a lively soundscape from PSY to Ed Sheeran.
While in Myeongdong, I visited a “meerkat cafe,” which was basically an indoor play area for meerkats, wallabies, cats and a sneaky raccoon. (Korea uses the word “cafe” pretty liberally to mean an indoor leisure space). Playing with the animals was pretty fun; one of the meerkats even climbed up my back and perched on my head for a while. Afterward, I spent an hour in a VR cafe, snagged some fried chicken with Korean BBQ sauce for lunch and bought some completely unlicensed Gangnam Style and Korean flag socks for about $1 per pair. From what I can tell, funky pop-culture socks seem to be popular souvenirs in Seoul, which fit into luggage quite conveniently.
Then I took the subway to Gwangjang market, a covered outdoor marketplace established in 1905. Aside from shops selling tourist knick-knacks, it’s also a hub for fabrics, bedding and local foods. Skipping past the popular cooked entrail dishes, I bought a mung bean pancake, or bindaetteok. It’s made of mung beans mashed into a batter, mixed with vegetables, then pan-fried. At first bite, the savory food shot into my top-five favorite Asian foods. It’s hard to pinpoint what it tastes similar to, but the closest approximation might be a fried zucchini patty. Even that comparison isn’t quite accurate, but the bottom line is that the bindaetteok was fantastic, though the grease from the stall left me smelling like fried food all weekend.
Next up was Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a blob-like structure that housed artists and start-ups for various tech products, household goods, foods and more. Think of it like a hipster indoor craft show with everyone showing off their trendy goods. Aside from the neat architecture of the DDP itself, I loved the consolidation of innovators inside. I stopped into a small museum talking about the history and archeological discoveries of the Dongdaemun district, followed by a quick visit to Heunginjimun Gate. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), visitors to the capital would enter through one of the four city gates. This one was the east gate, the main structure of which was built in 1869 and has since been renovated.
By this time, it was getting dark, so I took a bus up Mt. Namsan, which I consider the dead center of Seoul. It seems a nice place to hike, but I didn’t, given time constraints. Atop Mt. Namsan is N Seoul Tower, a broadcast spire similar to the Seattle Space Needle. Its observation deck offers the highest, most central view of Seoul, making the ~$10 entry fee totally worth it. To compare the view with that of Chicago’s Sears/Willis tower, the skyscraper-laden bulk of Seoul appears more expansive than Chicago. First, Chicago is set up in a neat grid that’s easy to digest, but Seoul has a winding, meandering layout that causes your eyes to drift along the horizon like you’re studying a complex artwork. Second, while Chicago has more skyscrapers than Seoul, they’re mostly clustered in a small area, making the outskirts unimpressive, while Seoul’s skyscrapers are spread out far across the city (including the world’s fifth-tallest building, roughly four air miles away from Namsan). There’s just a lot to take in, and Seoul at night is breathtaking, despite the awful glare from all the shops and restaurants on the deck. As a bonus, each window panel had stickers showing distances to other cities, reminding me just how far from everything else I was, which was kinda cool.
The day’s last stop was a highly-rated, upscale Korean BBQ restaurant near my hostel. At about $25, it ended up being the most expensive meal I’ve ever bought (hey, I’m usually a pretty cheap dude). I ordered marinated pork raised on the Korean island of Jeju with a side of bibimbap, a Korean rice dish I found mediocre. I wouldn’t have ordered it if the menu indicated the pork chop would also come with a salad, stew, kimchi and a host of condiments. Oh well. Other than the bibimbap, the meal was fantastic; the server cooked the pork on a bed of coals on my table, which gave it just the right amount of smokiness. The kimchi stew was also delicious, like a spicy tomato/vegetable soup hybrid that I’d love to have again. At the end of the meal, the server brought a small cup of plum juice, which I thought was a nice touch.
Saturday, I started the day at Isaac Toast, a South Korean breakfast chain with its name derived from the Biblical story of Isaac. Religion aside, the breakfast sandwiches were so good that I went back for breakfast on Sunday. I’m a sucker for a good breakfast sandwich, something I hadn’t had since I left the U.S., and it hit the spot. I think one of the secrets is the sweet Korean BBQ sauce, a theme on a lot of the foods I ate that weekend.
After breakfast, I went to Namsan Hanok Village, which featured replicas of traditional Joseon-era homes, complete with furnishings based on each family’s occupation and social status. Tucked in the village was a time capsule buried in 1994 to commemorate Seoul’s 600th anniversary that will be dug up on its Millennial in 2394.
I spent the rest of the afternoon palace-hopping. Seoul has a long history of rulers and conflicts, particularly with Japanese invaders. As a result, there are several palace sites throughout the city of varying ages. Most were burnt down or reappropriated by the Japanese at various points, meaning many buildings had to be partially renovated or completely replicated since the 1800s. But there are a few places where 400+ year-old buildings still stand.
While I won’t detail all the palaces I visited, they were breathtaking thanks to their sheer sizes, meticulous designs, colors, groundskeeping, and of course, the history. Various signs and tour guides made the palaces come to life, explaining what each section was used for. This open courtyard was where the king met with officials, that pagoda is where he went to clear his mind, that building was the royal kitchen, and so on. It was so easy to imagine what standing in any given spot would have been like hundreds of years ago, no reenactment necessary. The city and its palaces were constructed based on the idea of geomancy, which means they were built in harmony with the land based on ideas of divinity. I don’t necessarily believe in the religion or superstition behind it, but I did feel that there was something special about these places: Even now, surrounded by skyscrapers, the designs and layouts just felt right. Natural. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say I felt bliss in the presence of such rich history and design.
Inside one palace was a Secret Garden where the royal family went to get away from the hustle and bustle of royal life. The weather was still hovering in the 40s Fahrenheit during my trip, so the garden wasn’t in bloom. But again, I can imagine how peaceful and beautiful it would have been and still is when in season.
That evening, I went west to Seoul e-Stadium to catch my first professional e-sports event. It’s no secret among gamers that South Korea is the apex of gaming. In December 2005, the city built the world’s first stadium specifically for e-sports, which has since been replaced by a much larger, 20-story facility. Korean teams dominate the world stage in almost every popular game, and gaming is a major part of Korean pop culture. I even saw a framed image in the subway dedicated to two of the city’s most famous players. I couldn’t pass up the chance to catch a match, especially for only ~$4.
That evening’s game was League of Legends, a highly popular PC game that I admittedly know little about. When I got to the arena, the first match had already concluded, and the winning team was having a meet-and-greet with fans. I took a selfie with one of the players, which was cool. If I remember correctly, the team either clinched a playoff spot or raised its odds so high with the win that it was almost guaranteed. I went upstairs to my match, got some free chicken nuggets from one of the team’s sponsors, and settled in for about three hours of gaming.
The set was filled with red and blue neon lights, high-def screens, soundproof glass boxes for the teams, balcony boxes for the commentators (called “casters”) and lot of cameras. I’d never been on a live set before, so seeing the production from the audience was interesting. My only issue was that while both English and Korean casters were on-set, only the Korean ones were being piped through the speakers, naturally. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I was familiar with the game, but I needed the commentary to understand what was going on. Luckily, I connected to the Wi-Fi and listened to the English casters on the live online broadcast. Unfortunately, the chicken-giving underdogs, the bbq Olivers, fell 2-1 to the favored KT Rolster. The experience was awesome, though, and it’s certainly something I’d like to do again.
Sunday began with a trip to another palace that I hadn’t gotten to visit Saturday, followed by a trip to the National Museum of Korea, one of the world’s largest. Massive is an understatement. I made quick time through the first floor of the main hall dedicated to a chronological history of Korea, and even that took a solid two hours. The free museum has two more floors above, plus a separate hall for temporary exhibits. Wild.
That afternoon, I made my way to Gangnam district, the subject of the insanely viral music video that turned my attention to Korean pop culture for the first time. To be honest, Seoul wouldn’t have been on my travel radar if not for that video, so going to Gangnam was a pilgrimage of sorts. As I popped out of the station, it started to rain for the only time during my trip, so I didn’t stay in the area long, but it’s basically a place for business offices and high-end shopping. Gangnam Station features a quirky subterranean mall, which turned out to sell almost exclusively female clothing and cosmetics.
Next stop was Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Olympics. I didn’t go to Pyeongchang this year, so seeing Seoul’s park was a nice consolation, especially since it had a display dedicated to this year’s games. The highlight was the World Peace Gate, a large structure at the park’s entrance. Inside the main visitor pavilion was a sculpture surrounded by rocks from each participating country, surrounded yet again by all the participants’ flags. The main message of the display was for everyone to put aside differences, get along and work on building peaceful relations, something that rings just as true in 2018 as it did 30 years ago.
My last stop was an internet cafe, or “PC Bang.” with a few hours to kill before my flight, I needed to get off my feet and out of the rain. The cafe was basically a room filled with about 100 top-tier gaming PCs where you swiped into one of the computers and played for as long as you wanted. An on-screen ticker showed how much you’d be charged, and you could spend your time eating, drinking, playing, or even just browsing the web. I played some Overwatch and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds for about two hours, which cost me less than $4. It was a neat environment, being surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language, but all spoke the same silent language of gaming. All the game menus were in Korean, but I’ve played enough of both titles to be able to navigate them blindfolded. Aside from that, the only downside was that the room got quite toasty. Gaming PCs reach internal temperatures of anywhere from 140-200 degrees Fahrenheit, and all that heat has to get blown out eventually. Still, it was fun.
At about 10:30, I made my way to the subway, took the train to Seoul Station, got on the airport express train to Incheon, made it to the airport around midnight, sprawled out on some chairs until the check-in desk opened at 2 a.m., went through security, crashed on a couch in the lounge until 4 a.m., boarded my flight, landed around 8 a.m. Hong Kong time, took a bus to campus, napped from 10:30-noon, and still functioned properly in both of my classes. I call that a win.
In all, I see why Seoul is such a popular tourist destination: I could have easily spent a full week there. In Singapore and Hualien, Taiwan, the weekend trips were sufficient to take in what they had to offer. But I look back at Seoul and see a lot of places I would’ve explored more deeply if I had a full week. I could’ve spent a day in the national museum, hiked Mount Namsan, walked through Olympic Park, done some shopping in Gangnam, explored the Digital Media City, etc. Seoul is chock full of things to do and is a place I would love to visit again.
Whether you’re a fan of pop culture, history, food or even some nature, Seoul and its surrounding area has plenty to offer, and I highly recommend it.