Over President’s Day Weekend in February I took a few extra days off and headed to Seoul, South Korea.
I had never been into Seoul itself, having only transited through the rather impressive Incheon Airport once. Over all I enjoyed Seoul more than I thought I would. I love Korean food and Seoul has no shortage of amazing authentic Korean food to satisfy any craving. Seoul has a very trendy and amazing design and arts scene. The boutique stores here, coffee shops, art and fashion are all very unique and full of character. The city in terms of layout and architecture is extremely similar to Tokyo. Personally I find Seoul to be the slightly ruder and rougher on the edges version of Tokyo, but this has more to do with the difference in cultures and histories more than anything, which I understand and respect. Nonetheless I had a wonderful 3 night stay in this vibrant city.
Getting around Seoul is very easy. Take the subway, you can get your T-Card at the airport express stop or at any convenience store, they dont come with money added so you have to do that on your own, but it’s very cheap. Just keep in mind, that like Japan, the stations are a underground and aboveground maze, but it’s not too hard to navigate, with lots of clear signage. Otherwise it’s Taxi, but most drivers dont speak English and there is no English version of the otherwise convenient Kakao Taxi App. So stick to the subway and walking if you ask me. Both local and express trains run frequently between Incheon Airport and Seoul Station, Gimpo also has rail service.
DAY 1 (Sunday):
- Arrive in Seoul in the late afternoon. Take airport express nonstop to Seoul Station.
- Take taxi to my first two nights accommodation at a Hanok (Korean homestay), or B & B, Bukchonmaru Hanok Guesthouse. Located in the more historic district of Bukchon, which nowadays sees a mix of rebuilt imperial buildings as well as design boutiques and coffee shops, a wonderful hilly area to explore between touring the two main palaces of Seoul. I stayed in a basic standard with share bathroom. It was a basic tiny room with a futon, Korean bean bag pillow and heated floors, towels and sheets and a refillable water jug and cups all provided.
- Dinner at Bukchon Garden, near my guesthouse. It was raining and late and I was extremely tired so I just needed a nearby place for a nice Korean meal, I later discovered that this place was a tad pricey for Seoul, though it was still tasty.
- Returned to my Hanok for much needed rest after no sleeping much on my 13.5 hour flight from Detroit.
Day 2 (Monday):
- Traditional Korean family-style breakfast at my Hanok.
- Depart by subway for Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in order to find and eat Sannakji (Live Octopus), a long time bucket-list adventurous food items of mine. It is essentially baby Octopus sashimi, but the nerves in the tentacles do not die when cut up, so when the plate of chopped up octopus arrives the tentacles are still moving and swimming on your plate, not for the faint of heart. Check out this video of the plate of moving tentacles. Go to the market first, purchase the seafoods you want to eat, I was only there for one item but was coerced into buying more, then take your fresh seafood to a restaurant in the market and have them prepare it for you. At the early hours of the morning only one restaurant was operational but thats ok. NOTE: you pay for your seafood AND for the restaurant to prepare the food. ALSO if you are going to try Sannakji, make sure you chew very thoroughly and ensure the nerves are fully dead otherwise there have been cases of people choking to death when the tentacles grab on to the throat.
- After experiencing my Sannkji tasting, which tasted fine with sesame oil, tasted like calamari, just need to get over the fact that it is moving as you put it in your mouth. I then took the subway to the other side of the city to Cheonggyecheon, the famed river urban renewal project in Seoul. Which I must say would look better at night and in the spring/summer.
- I then walked along the stream to Dongdaemon Design Plaza, designed by the late Zaha Hadid. However, I was disappointed with the area, the building is gorgeous, but besides that there really is nothing there, not enough public things as it’s mostly exhibition halls.
- I then walked to Kwangjang Market, a covered street food market, basically a night market that opens in the morning. It was heavenly. Every type of popular Korean street food can be found here, and all tasted wonderful. NOTE: it’s filled with mainland tourists, but dont be deterred as plenty of locals come here too. The main things to eat here are Bindaetteok (Mung Bean Pancake), Dukkboki (sticky rice cake in chili sauce), Gimbap (a very addicting and delicious Korean sushi), Sundae (Korean Blood Sausage), Japchae (sweet potato noodles with sesame oil) and bibimbap.
- I then took the subway back across town to Gyeongbokgung Palace one of the main palaces in Seoul, which is closed on Tuesday, whereas the other one is closed on Mondays so this all worked out. I recommend getting a package ticket that gives access to all the palaces in Seoul, it is the most affordable and is valid for 3 months and includes tickets to the Secret Garden (see below in Day 3). Most of the palaces were reconstructed as they were burned down during the Japanese occupation. But are nonetheless worth a visit, albeit similar to Chinese palaces but there are still some subtle Korean uniquenesses to these ones. If you time your visit to Gyeonbokgung well you’ll be treated to a drum show at the main gate.
- I then walked back to my homestay’s neighborhood and explored some of the coffeeshops and boutiques. Had coffee at a place called Misfits, and bought some Korean silk ties at Luna Touch. On my way out of the guesthouse to head to dinner, I stopped by Gentle Monster glasses boutique, a very cool designer glasses store, if anything visit for the funky store they have, in Bukchon it is house in a former bathhouse.
- For dinner I headed to Balwoo Gongyang, a 1 Michelin Starred vegan Korean Temple cuisine restaurant. I had just watched the first episode of Chef’s Table season 3 before my trip to Korea and wanted to try Korean Temple Cuisine. While I did know Balwoo served this cuisine, I had no idea it was a full on tasting menu with 1 michelin star. My waitress also happened to be a student of the wonderful nun chef in Chef’s Table. For more details of this eye-opening vegan meal, check out this post: Balwoo Gongyang.
- I then took the subway to Gangnam to hit up one of the many speakeasy-esque bars around the area. I decided to try out B28 a whiskey bar hidden in a basement. It was great as not many people were there on a Monday night. The manager, Ethan was very welcoming and friendly and passionate about Whiskey. They mostly have rare casks here which made it even more worth it. There is a “cover” that is charged when you check-out, but that cover does include a welcome cocktail and amuse-bouche.
- Returned to Bukchon for some sleep.
Day 3 (Tuesday)
- After another tasty family breakfast, I walked to the Changdeokgung Palace, just 5 minutes from my hanok. This palace is slightly smaller but in my opinion nicer than Geongbokgung. The main thing here however is the Secret Garden, which requires a separate ticket and is only accessible with time tours. Unfortunately the English guided tour was at a time that wouldnt work for me so I just tagged along the Korean tour, it was fine, the signs all had English, and having visited other palaces around the world and studied some architecture, I could more or less piece together the puzzle. The Secret Garden was beautiful, and I can imagine even more so in the spring and fall. Well worth your time in Seoul.
- I then bid my hanok a farewell before heading to Myeong Dong to check in to my last nights stay at Lotte L7 MyeongDong hotel. A fun, modern design hotel located right by a subway exit and in the popular MyeongDong district.
- I then took the subway to Gangnam again for lunch at Mingles, voted #15 best in Asia, best in Seoul and awarded 1 michelin star. Much like the more famous Jungsik, Mingles presents modern interpretation of Korean cuisine. I enjoyed my lunch, albeit one or two things that were disappointing, but over all it was good.
- I then took the subway to the expat-heavy area of Itae-Won to check out the Leeum Samsung Art Gallery and Museum. This museum is very worth your time. It’s not tiny nor is it big, it is the perfect size and easily doable in 2-3 hours. Lots of great piece in their permanent collection but the temporary collection of Olafur Eliasson’s The Parliament of Possibilities was the highlight.
- A family-friend of mine then took me around Itae-won. Had some really rich and thick hot chocolate at a nearby coffeeshop.
- I then had a Korean BBQ dinner at Maple Tree, it was delicious with some of the best bulgogi I have had.
- I took the subway and returned to my hotel, had a rooftop bar gin and tonic with toasted rosemary as I took in the night skyline of Seoul before heading off to bed.
Day 4 (Wednesday):
- Woke up and took the subway/ airport express to Incheon for a late morning departure back to Detroit right as it began to snow in Seoul.
- Catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights over Alaska on the plane!