On the surface; superficial, cold and distant – but beneath the K-POP, conceit, plastic surgery and materialism, lies a deeper and more authentic soul that not only enriches but inspires.
Similar to my Taipei Journal Series, I planned to write seven separate entries while exploring Seoul. As I traversed the city, I was at a complete loss for words. I didn’t know how to digest the colossal culture shock at a reasonable enough pace to start synthesizing material to write. I’ve now had more than a month to think about my experiences and I want to talk in depth about my time in Seoul, South Korea – the good, bad and the darn right weird.
How is the Food in Seoul?
Mmmmmmmm. Korean pork fried dumplings.
Coming from a food mecca like Taipei, Seoul had big shoes to fill. Luckily the street food scene did not leave me disappointed. From Tteokbokki (hot and spicy rice cake) to Kimpab (Korean sushi?), the eats were endless. As cheap and accessible as Taiwan? No — but delicious nonetheless! My all-time favourite area to grab street eats was a tie between Namdemun Market and Myeongdong. Namedemun Market takes a couple blocks up in the centre of Seoul. Boasting large shopping buildings and alleys trimmed with all sorts of vendors, Namdemun took me nearly an entire day to see it all. Although Namedemun is primarily known for its shopping, the centre of the market is lined with food vendors. Myeongdong, on the other hand, is like the Times Square of Seoul — intersecting streets of large shops with cosmetics being the main theme. At around 5pm, the bustling square is home to a massive street food market. Smores ice cream on a stick anybody? How about fresh pork-filled Korean dumplings? Oh, I know…how about Korean Fried Chicken on a stick?
Ultimatley, I felt the passion poured inside every ounce of Korean cooking I had tasted. In one instance, a little Korean auntie came to my table, showed me how to make a ssäm (letteuce wrap) and then fed it to me. She genuinley wanted me to enjoy the food in the way it was meant to be eaten. Or she really just didn’t want me making a fool of myself inside the restaurant. Either way, the sentiment was felt.
With that said, you can find some pretty decent eats if you dine-in. My recommendation is to dine in for lunch only and search for student specials near the universities. Also, you don’t have to tip your server, which saves a lot of extra dough!
Pro Tip: Beer is cheap. You’re Welcome.
Let’s just say, my wallet was crying after my week-long stint in Seoul. Coffee was a huge money burner for me. I usually opted for convenience store canned coffees, just to keep my budget happy. Thinking of workarounds were the best ways to save when visiting Seoul (i.e. street food over dine-in or student sets.) With that said, the cost is still on par with its other big Asian neighbours (i.e. Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore.) Don’t get me wrong, the Korean BBQ I had was delicious and bulgogi bowls always hit the spot, but if you are a solo traveller and are planning to dine-in — especially if you are in the mood for some Korean BBQ — then…
…prepare to pay for two people! WHAT? Yes. At most Korean BBQ establishments, you are required to make a minimum of two orders. The menu’s even say, “minimum 2 people.” If it’s just you, they’ll add on an extra helping of meat, and you are required to pay for it — otherwise, prepare not to be served. Now, I can only speak on behalf of the few restaurants I went to, but even my Korean friends confirmed that this was the case at most KBBQ places. Whenever I went to KBBQ, I spent at least $30 CAD. Whereas if I had someone with me, it would be a mere $15 CAD.
How are the Things to Do in Seoul?
Temples, gardens, palaces, museums, parks, neighbourhoods. Seoul will keep you busy.
Seoul is HUGE! Therefore, at first glance, there is plenty to do and see while in the city. From the mass amount of art galleries to the colossal history museums, you could keep busy for days. But a guy can only take so much art and culture before he needs a pallet cleanser. The pun IS intended. Food is actually a “thing to do” when you are here in Seoul (and yes, I’m backtracking to food.) The number of restaurants that line the street is ridiculous. Past 10PM, students and adults alike head to the bars and get their drink on. And believe me when I say, “Koreans can drink!” If it is a Friday or Saturday, next stop…the club!
If you are the party type and have a heart for night-life, I highly recommend staying in Hongdae (near Hongik University.) Not only did I save money on food, drinks and accommodation, but there are so many bars and clubs to choose from. Hongdae was probably my favourite place in all of Seoul. It had such a youthful spirit and genuine energy about it. If I ever go back to Seoul, I would stay in Hongdae again. On top of the fantastic nightlife and delicious food, shopping seems to be the soul of Seoul (ha-ha). A little materialistic? Sure. But I like a $4 hoody as much as the next guy.
Make sure to bring an empty suitcase, because you are sure to stuff it with clothes, snacks, beauty products, antiques and handmade crafts.
I found the number of things to do to be actually quite limited for those on a budget. Food, drinking, shopping, palaces — all of them can cost a pretty penny. Most nights I didn’t even feel like going out to eat or drink and that limited my nighttime fun. Most museums, galleries and other attractions close well before 9PM. For those who want something exciting to do past that time, you have to get creative, especially if you want to save your money. If you are strapped for time and want to get the most out of a city in a short amount of time, I would choose Seoul as your next destination. And no, that is not a compliment.
I can spin this one into a good thing. The Hanbok. A ‘Hanbok’ is traditional Korean formal wear. In the more historic areas of Seoul, there are shops that rent out Hanboks to locals. The wearer can then enter all local temples and museums for free and take pictures in their Joseon period wears until their time is up. I needed no convincing to try this out (especially since I was looking for things to do.) It cost me about $20 CAD for two hours. Sure I was sweating like a pig, but I did have a hell of time traversing through Bukchon Hanok Village in traditional Korean clothes. Minus a few glares from second-hand embarrassed tourists, this was probably the most interactions with locals I had all trip. I was wearing a traditional Korean garb, taking photos with Korean passerby’s all while walking through a historic village. Weird, yet totally awesome.
How good is the Transportation in Seoul?
The best method of transportation in Seoul is walking. Just kidding! Take the subway…the city is huge!
Busses, Taxis and Subways are:
…I’m going to need to write a full guide on this.
The constant shoving on subways is insane! At some points, the cart was not even full and you had people full-on Rugby tackling you to get off the train. The first couple of times it was bearable, but by the end of the trip, I never wanted to ride Seoul transit ever again.
Did I mention people spitting in the subway cart? Gross.
What are the People of Seoul Like?
Dark & colourful. Grit & spark. Smile & frown. Conceit & sincerity. That’s Seoul for you!
One thing I can say for certain is that the youth of Korea are truly hard working. They show passion, excitement and ambition on their own soil. What was once a war-torn, poor country, is now an upbeat, shiny and modern metropolis. From the small number of interactions I had, I sensed a great deal of pride among the nation. This is something I can respect, but…
…this is also a hard one for me. Anywhere I go, I always try to engage myself with the culture, people, and language. But in Seoul, I found it a little tricky to connect with the people. Whether I was in a shop, restaurant or at the train station, most of my interactions were very hostile. As if the person I was trying to interact with wanted said interaction to be over as soon as possible. I don’t know if it was an ounce of prejudice (as I’ve heard was very common in Korea) or that people just couldn’t bother — regardless, this is when the Korean pride showed its negative side. I even sensed the same sort of hostility between the Korean youth and elders. It felt like two different cultures having a tug of war the entire time.
Whenever I walk through the streets, the atmosphere seems a tad superficial. A whole part of town dedicated to plastic surgery. Fast-fashion at every street corner that puts even H&M to shame. Not to mention, more Instagram-worthy cafes than anyone could ever count. Though when you turn down a small alley, you find a quaint historic village that is all but forgotten. Sometimes it feels like the traditions and history are being covered up by more plastic surgery then the people themselves.
Overall, how was your Trip to Seoul, South Korea?
Gangnam Style of course.
Like any adventure one has, there is a lot to be learned. Travelling is not always going to be as upbeat, happy and luxurious as it looks on your Instagram feed. There will be places that disappoint you and a culture you just don’t mesh with. After getting off the plane and stepping on the tarmac at Incheon International Airport, I knew I was in for a surprise and a surprise is definitely what I got.
Whas Seoul good?
Was Seoul bad?
Was Seoul weird?