My journey to Seoul was a hybrid adventure. I say that because I was visiting my friend Nancy, but for eight hours a day, I was on my own to explore. While she was working, I was determined to see and do as much as I could. Armed with please, thank you, how much, hello, and goodbye, I navigated the subway and saw Seoul like a champ.
Commuting, Communicating, and Connectivity
Thanks to years of navigating the New York and Philly subways, it was pretty easy to get around the city. With the Subway Korea app and just some quick research before leaving home, I discovered Seoul’s food scene, shopping, and cultural attractions.
Did I mention that most of Seoul offers free WIFI? The actual city has its own in tourist spots, but almost every cafe and subway station has it. What isn’t free can easily be accessed with a pre-paid card that can be purchased at 7-11. I did not buy an international SIM card, instead I used Google Hangouts and FaceTime to call my mom and boyfriend. The popular app Kakao is what I use to communicate with Nancy, and wherever I went, I noticed the familiar “Uh-oh” notification.
The only drawback to getting around Seoul with just WIFI is, since I could not read street signs, I would end up stumbling around before bumping into my destination. If I were home, I could just connect to my GPS. A bonus in tourist areas, however, is the presence of tour guides. They wear red hats and carry maps, and there are booths that look like newspaper stands with a police officer who usually speaks English.
Foods to Try
There are so many good food options that I dedicated an entire post to just that. I loved that kimchi came with every meal, and in many areas, there were chicken stands on every corner. Who would’ve thought that Korea would be known for its fried chicken.
On my very first day, I ventured out on a quest to find ramen. After walking over 45 minutes, there were no pictures of noodles, and all of the signs were written in Korean. I finally gave up, and I decided to find chicken. I decided on a place that had a dancing chicken on the sign and teenage girls inside eating.
The woman who spoke no English said “Chicken?” I nodded, and she served me a cup full of sweet and spicy chicken pieces with “fish cake” pieces. I am not sure what the fish cake consisted of, but in Korea, you will eat quite a few of them. They come in udon noodles, and on the street, they are sold by themselves, They remind me of chewy, flour-based pillows. Notice the white bits in with the chicken? That’s them.
Barbecue is also a necessity,and not just any, but pork belly is a must try. Prior to coming, I had little interest in eating what appeared to be fatty pieces of bacon.
Street food. Enough said.
What to Do
My first day on my own was a disaster. That night, however, Nancy rescued me. We ventured to Bukchon Hanok Village for my first taste of culture. These beautiful hills were covered with traditional homes. They are still occupied, and the residents did not seem to mind too much if anyone sat on their stoops to take photos. Many of them host visitors, giving them lodging and food. Once you start ascending, some homes offer you great views for a small fee (and they include coffee or tea).
Hongdae is also great for buying art and jewelry, and a great visual for budding and experienced photographers.
My confidence soared the second day, and I rode the train to find more culture. Upon exiting the subway, I walked one hundred yards right to the glorious Gyeongbokgung Palace. Talk about accessibility.
I was also amazed at the 3,000 wan price tag to visit the palace, and the Palace Museum (right next to the subway) is free.
No trip would be complete for me if there were no boat rides. My foursome rode a ferry down the Hangang River and got an amazing view of the city skyline.
Seoul is known for its themed cafes-Hello Kitty, KPop, and even a sheep cafe. After stumbling around Myeongdong for an hour, I realized that I would only have time for the cat cafe. After removing my shoes, paying 8,000 wan for a latte, and sanitizing my hands, it was on.
I decided to visit one more palace, and I chose Deoksugung Palace, right off of the City Hall train stops. Upon exiting the train, I was hit with such a pleasant aroma. As I entered the grounds, I saw that the fragrance came from the abundance of trees and flowers. This palace was smaller, had more shade, and easier to navigate that Gyeongbokung.
Each neighborhood in Seoul can satiate a different type of shopper. Yeouido has a shopping mall with Korean stores, as well as brands like H&M and Zara. Myeongdong is the Korean Time Square, complete with souvenir shops and street vendors. At night, the food vendors smell up the neighborhood.
My favorite shopping section was Hongdae. I asked my friend Joy to find me the SoHo of Seoul, and this was her recommendation. She was spot on. This college neighborhood had street performers, a wide variety of food, and small store front boutiques-exactly what I wanted.
Itaewan was also attractive because of its consignment and thrift shops. This like Hongdae, is a good section for hipsters.
A drawback to shopping in Korea is the one size fits all clothing that a lot of stores sell. Many stores don’t let you try on clothes, either. I had to overlook a lot of those stores because, when I could try on items, the top half of me fit, but my arms were a little too long (I’m 5’6). I refused to even try on any bottoms. I did discover a gorgeous periwinkle dress (gotta wait for it. I want to dress it up right before I show it) by a Korean brand. A woman helped me into it, and even gave me heels to try with it. My dress was 50,000 wan, which is about $48. Not bad at all.
Jongno-ga 5 has the best indoor flea market. Ignore the factory appearance, there is gold inside those walls. Remember my Vespa shirt? My favorite flea market find. There are a lot of American goods, but if you are into vintage skirts and dresses, there are thousands. Bring your best haggling skills here, it will be worth it.
Myeongdong is another big shopping area. It is the Korean version of Time Square, lit up by beauty stores and souvenir shops.
For those who like Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, Gangnam is the place to be. Posh restaurants and $100,000 cars are easy indicators. Just like New York, right outside of the ritzy area are more lowkey shops, like CoCo Ichibanya– a curry chain plating up curry that reminds one of the beach. This is the only section in Gangnam where you are allowed to be an American: