This trip was my first adventure into South Korea and at first glance, the city feels just like any other first-world metropolitan city I’ve visited. The cleanliness and organization of Tokyo, the sky-high buildings like back home in Singapore, beautiful public areas reminiscent of many European capitals, and the crisp clean air of many cities in the Northern hemisphere. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find Seoul ranked amongst the world’s top economic powerhouses.
Arriving in the transition from winter to spring, April felt like the start of the city’s peak season. What struck me the most about Seoul though was not it’s bustling energy or after dark culture, where the city came to life after the sun went down. Rather it was the cultural contradictions which were apparent throughout my encounters in the city.
South Korea is known as one of the world’s most hierarchical, homogenous, and conservative societies. This is a city where following the herd is what’s normal or in fact, what’s expected. A city with an overwhelming preference towards being in a relationship (try to walk anywhere in Seoul without seeing at least ten couples every minute), where people’s sense of style is distinctly similar even when they’re fashioning ‘uncommon’ fashion sense; there seems to be a homogeneous custom to how South Koreans approach everything.
Seoul is a city at the crossroads of trying to find the balance between tradition and globalization. Where the dynamic is about finding the balance between influences from the West and how to make certain aspects of these adopted cultures their own. As we walked about the various areas in the city, I couldn’t help but notice the underlying narrative to Seoul: the acceptance towards a more open-minded way of life versus the grip to preserve a timid conservatism of a more traditional culture. K-pop, Korean cosmetics, and normalizing plastic surgery is what has caught international attention in recent years and is also an appropriate representation of the polarized ideals I encountered in this modern metropolis.
Seoul is a massive city of 25.6 million people, so the list below is by no means an extensive travel recommendation. There was a lot more the city had to offer, but my friend and I chose to roam the city freely with no itinerary other than some recommendations we had from friends. We took Seoul by foot and train a day at a time, and here’s what we managed to see in four nights and five days:
It’s far to get from the airport into the main city, so a cab ride was expensive-- about SGD80/USD 60 one way! I highly recommend taking either the airport to city bus or the train. On my way home I took the airport bus and it was 10,000 Won (about SGD12/ USD9). If you’re planning to take the bus, remember to leave enough cash for the ride. The buses came every 15 minutes. They were very swift in moving through each station and did not tolerate any waiting around.
Gwanghwamun Square (Cultural Site) is where you’ll find the statues of King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty and Admiral Yi Sun-Sin. The admiral is recognized as one of South Korea’s greatest naval commanders from his victory against Japanese warships, at the Battle of Myeongnyang, despite being outnumbered by 120 warships. While King Sejong is credited as one of South Korea’s founding father, as he had a hand in establishing the use of Hangul (Korean language) and establishing Seoul as the country’s capital. Underneath King Sejong’s statue, you’ll find the entrance to a free museum. Amongst the variety of ancient artifacts displayed, I found the original scripts of how King Sejong helped Korea transition away from using Chinese characters into using the Korean language of Hangul the most fascinating.
Gyongbokgung Palace (Cultural Site) is located at the end of the square and is considered the largest of the 5 remaining palaces. This was home to the Joseon Dynasty. On a beautiful day, amongst modern city skylines and the backdrop of beautiful hills, the palace grounds were wonderful to roam around. The traditional architectural design and details of the palace were marvelous to see. I highly recommend making a stop here. Entrance fee: KRW 3,000 (About SGD 4/ USD3).
Cheonggyecheon Stream (Public Area) is a beautiful 11 KM stretch of public space. Stretching through the metropolis of Seoul’s Downtown region, the stream was a beautiful slice of nature in the midst of this concrete jungle. Go for a run or dip your feet in. We spent a wonderful afternoon walking along the water towards the Gyongbokgung Palace. The area surrounding the stream felt like a small park, where locals and tourist gathered to enjoy the beautiful weather that day.
Yoogane Myongdong (Restaurant) is a must if you’re in the area! The restaurant at Jongno-gu is the restaurant’s original location, which has now become a chain throughout the city. It is known for its kimchi fried rice and let me tell you, this was our first meal and it definitely did not disappoint!
Korean Fried Chicken is world famous. We ventured to a few different spots throughout our time in Seoul. Most of the places had similar offerings, so what we ended up looking for was whether they served Kloud Beer, as that was our preferred local beer. The area had the most variety of Korean Fried Chicken, so I recommend looking at the menu and going for the flavors which gets your mouth watering the most.
Gwangjang Market (also known as Kwangjang Market - the sounds of 'G' and 'K' are interchangeable in Korean) is the oldest traditional market in Seoul, which spans a space of 42,000 square meters. You will be able to find a range of low-end to high-quality products here, ranging from traditional silks and garments to ready-made fashion apparel. We didn’t get to see the market during the day, but on our way home one night, we chanced upon this market and was enticed by the smells and crowds enjoying the street food available inside the market.
This market was a highlight! I highly recommend eating here! This was one of the best meals I had in Seoul. The chap chae (Korean stir fried vegetables and glass noodle dish), tteok-bokki (spicy stir fried Korean rice cakes), and the gimbap (basically Korean sushi stuffed with pickled vegetables) were the best I’ve ever had in my entire life.
Note: This was my first time to South Korea, but I’ve grown up dining at Korean restaurants so the dishes I tasted weren’t new but the street food was the best Korean food I’ve ever tasted.
Hongdae/ Hongik University Street
Neighboring a University renowned for its architecture and art departments, Hongdae has a distinctive alternative and creative climate. The moment you step out of the train station, there’s a strong sense of youthful vibrancy and eclectic energy. This is where you will find cheap booze, cheap food, and cheap fashion. It’s also an area where I came into close interaction with what youth and pop-culture is like in Seoul.
The streets were cluttered with student performers and spectators. Different acts performing right next to each other, dishing out their rendition of popular Western music or the latest from K-pop. Singing, dancing, and flashing killer moves and fashion-- while some had larger crowds than others with what seemed to be a solid crew of fans, friends, and followers alike, chanting and cheering them along. Local boutiques ranging from vintage stores, to beautiful local made coats to counterfeit and localized street style accessorized the bustling street side.
The area is one of Seoul’s main shopping districts. There were definitely a lot more tourists here than any of the other areas we visited. The streets were filled with a variety of shops, some local and a lot of international brands ranging from the likes Zara to luxury department stores like Lotte.
If you’re not into touristy areas, this is an area to avoid, but the one winning element about this area, (which a local friend recommended) are the great deals you’ll get for Korean cosmetics. South Korea is renowned for its skincare and Myeong-dong, renowned for its homegrown cosmetic shops, is where you want to go to get your year’s worth of products. Many of the shops cater to tourists and are equipped with some English speaking staff. (Note: Incredibly helpful in a city where most people do not speak English) These stores are also well prepared to give tourists the best deals. From freebies to buy-1-get-1 free type deals, Myeong-dong is what I’ll call Seoul’s skincare tourist haven.
Kong Ho Dong Baekejong (Restaurant) Baekjeong which roughly translated means butcher in Korean is a Korean BBQ spot owned by ex-wrestler and comedian/emcee of the same name. The restaurant is also a well-known spot in Koreatown in Los Angeles. That was where I first dined at this restaurant.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (Cultural Site) is a massive grey modern building designed with slick curves and large concrete structures. Designed by the late and renowned architect Zara Hadid of Samoo Architects and Engineers, The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a representation of Seoul’s effort towards modernization. Sitting in a large open space right at the heart of the district, the building sits in stark contrast to the rest of the architecture in the surrounding areas.
Tip: Make sure to explore the design store inside, which is located at the 2nd floor.
Youth Runway Market, which happens every Friday and Saturday from 8PM-midnight. The market was lined with crafts and products by local designers. The dominant craft of choice was definitely jewelry and to be completely honest, the designs and variety in the designs were a little underwhelming. Many of the jewelry displayed by different sellers looked quite similar.
Accompanying the market is an open air area of food trucks and food vendors, dishing out a more modern take on Korean food culture. The food ranged from fusion local delites to Chinese food, Japanese food, and even cotton candy. There was a variety of drool worthy food to enjoy if you’re looking for a modern casual fare. The only downside was as most of the attendees were students, there was no alcohol on sale.
Tip: Walk down into the mall below to get beers or booze before going to get food.
An area made famous by the viral K-pop song, Gangnam Style, by Korean pop star PSY, the area is known as an upscale, high society and exclusive neighbourhood. The area didn’t look much different to the other areas we walked through, but this was the only area in Seoul where I came in contact with how accepted and casual plastic surgery is in the city. Roaming through the streets towering with skyscrapers and retailers, this was the only area where I saw girls freely roaming the streets with bandages still on their face.
Pro Ganjang Gejang Sinsa was our stop for lunch in Gangnam. This was definitely on the pricey side (unfortunately I forgot to take note of how much it was and I can’t find the receipt I thought I kept), but with booze and side dishes expect to spend over SGD100/USD75. The crab was sweet, fresh, and incredibly tasty. Nothing like anything I’ve tried before and as I am a foodie at heart, it was definitely a culinary experience worth the spend. The texture of the meat is similar to raw salmon but as they only served female blue crab, the raw crab eggs really enhanced the texture and flavor. It’s hard to describe it but I can see how this is an acquired taste I wouldn’t recommend for picky eaters. We ordered some soju and beer, along with seaweed soup and raw blue crab bibimbap (Korean rice and vegetable dish). Both were tremendous accompaniments! The seaweed soup was a combination of salty and savory goodness, while the bibimbap (which is usually served with meat over a hot stone bowl) had a unique and refreshing taste. In terms of experience and flavor, this was definitely my favorite meal!
Garosu-gil Sinsa-dong is a shopping street lined with symmetrical trees, local boutiques, international brands and local cafes alike. Garosu-gil (which means tree-lined street) Sinsa-dong is one of the more renowned shopping streets in Seoul. Expect to spend more than what you spent in other parts of Seoul, as the items in the shops were more upscale compared to the other areas we visited. Beyond shopping, the area was fun to walk around, as it was lined with unique architecture and interesting shop design.
Sitting in one of the back streets in the area is one of the world’s instafamous bakeries. Originating in the United States Mr. Holmes Bakehouse is a bakery iconic for they’re muffin and croissant hybrid known as a cruffin. Catapulting them to instagram fame is their clever use of pink neon signage, which reads “I got baked in Seoul.” Do a quick look on the tagged images of both their San Francisco and Korean Instagram page and you’ll see how iconic their neon signs are. Lured by the bakery’s fame and variety of creative offerings, I went in to try their churros croissant. It was magical, to say the least, and my tastebuds were pleasantly rewarded with a burst of fresh and soft vanilla cream nestled at the center of Mr. Holmes’ wonderfully sugared crispy croissant.
Side note: I had the best cornflake cookie in my life when I had chanced upon the same bakery in Larchmont, Los Angeles, California a few months back. I seem to be fated with this terrific bakery.
An area known for its pubs, bars, and nightlife, this was a side to Seoul that was very different to the other areas we visited. The streets were loud, busy and scattered with locals and tourists alike. Roaming around the main area of Itaewon, there was a range of different places on offer. From Japanese Izakaya's to Irish pubs, to fancy clubs and nicer bars, the streets of Itaewon on a Saturday night was an area of organized chaos, filled with a variety of options to please an array of preferences.
Cakeshop and Contra, which is part of the same establishment, hid on a distant corner in Itaewon. The spot was four floors of gritty vibrancy, starting with a hip hop/garage/grunge room at the basement, to the dark techno room on the second floor, to the classy and quiet lounge above, and a rooftop (which due to the cold weather we did not take a peak at). The whole space was an experience on its own. What you’ll find here is an alternative side to Seoul that’s beyond the mainstream. Walking out and ending our night at about 2AM, the streets of Itaewon was as busy, if not busier than the 9PM crowd.
Overall Seoul was a fun city to explore. It’s a 24-hour city that comes out of its shell once the sun is down, a city full of modern conveniences and rich cultural history, and a city where nights can very easily blend into mornings. It’s a city radiating in a fast paced, heavy drinking, and late night culture, that’s full of stimulation and a place where people can drift into and get lost in. It’s also a city I definitely wouldn’t mind visiting again!