South Korea 2015: Must See Places When Visiting Seoul

As I write this article on my SOKOR foray, 4 months have already passed, as such, most details of the trip have already become foggy. Therefore I will be focusing on the best sites to go to & trip highlights, instead of a meticulous daily itinerary that I normally do (although I will still be posting the 5 day itinerary in case any reader would need a reference).

Having arrived mid day in Seoul, our chance to roam the city was thus cut by half, so we made use of our limited time to explore ‘Dongdaemun market’ which was near our hotel. To those unfamiliar with Seoul’s transportation infrastructure, do not fret as the rail stations are abundant with maps & tour guides who are English proficient. Dongdaemun market can be traversed readily via the green line, if you follow the station correctly. As expected, Dongdaemun is large, selling literally everything. Blocks upon blocks, it houses hawker stands to specialty stalls to enormous malls, selling silk, clothes, foods stuffs & souvenirs, an oasis for bargain hunters & shoppers.

Tourist guides can be clearly seen anywhere in eye catching red attire :-)
Tourist guides can be clearly seen anywhere in eye catching red attire 🙂

Our party then moved on to ‘Myeongdong’, a shopping district similar to Dongdaemun but selling high end products, so much so that it was consecutively listed as the 9th most expensive shopping street in the world. Upon learning of this in my prior research, I mentally prepared myself to window shop only & avoid temptation.

Our last stop was the ‘N Seoul Tower’. If you have traveled around Asia like me you would know that there is typically one tourist attraction such as this in most cities, which provides a very high view of the entire metropolis (e.g. KL Tower in Malaysia or Taipei 101 in Taiwan). What makes N Seoul different is that it caters more to lovers with its romantic atmosphere & perpetuated superstition about locks below the tower (which makes this trip with 4 other guys much more awkward). Partners hang padlocks in the ‘Locks of Love’ sculptures with their names on it, to symbolize their eternal & undying love for each other. There are a lot of other activities for visitors here, such as cable car rides, restaurants, gift shops, picture taking, & visiting the top most levels for a great view.

The 'Love Locks' at N Seoul Tower
The ‘Love Locks’ at N Seoul Tower
Goofing around 🙂

Dinner was an eye opener for us on Korean dining culture. I have tasted Korean food before in the Philippines & my palette was not unprepared, but our dining etiquette was. We didn’t know that most eating out places serve the meal communally & each diner would have to purchase their own order, unlike here where a party of 5 can buy just 2 to 3 meals & share, in Korea a party of 5 is expected to buy 5 meals & dine communally, so be aware of that.

What can be said on the Korean culinary experience? Authentic Korean food is spicy, but a different kind of spicy from other countries. Indian & Thai food both use curries with different mixes to create heat in their dishes, however Indian cuisine tempers their curry with dairy to lessen the heat while Thai dishes just burn my mouth . Philippine spice is achieved thru the ‘labuyo’ chili, but in Korea’s case their spice is made thru their kimchi. For the uninitiated, kimchi is fermented vegetable (typically napa cabbage or radish) with chili peppers. When you dine in Korea you will always encounter Kimchi. The heat works in our situation since we decided to visit Korea in winter time, maxing out at -10 degrees, so a little heat was a welcomed respite from the biting cold. Korean cuisine is abundant in seafood & vegetables, while meats are thinly sliced and lightly braise or scalded. In summary, Korean food is delicious.

Spicy is an understatement :-)
Spicy is an understatement 🙂

On our second day we decided to visit ‘Everland’. Everland is South Korea’s largest theme park. There are other theme parks in Asia which are more modern than Everland (Universal Studio’s in Singapore or Disneyland in Hong Kong), but at least Everland is less crowded & has a more Asian feel to it than its westernized counterparts. A safari is located inside the park, where only a glass bus separates you from lions, tigers & bears. Another attraction is a 3D show of Psy, for those who are a fan of the Gangnam style fad. Majority of the rides/shows mainly caters to kids, but adults can still get their kicks here if they are young at heart.

At Everland. (from left most) Joe Ledesma, Glenn Pamfilo, Raymund Sanchez, & founder of Astig himself Dennison Uy :-)
At Everland. (from left most) Joe Ledesma, Glenn Pamfilo, Raymund Sanchez, & founder of Astig himself Dennison Uy 🙂
A white tiger in the Everland safari
A white tiger in the Everland safari

After Everland, we went to Gangnam itself, which after the viral YouTube video with a billion hits, became a must see place for everyone going to Seoul. Gangnam did not disappoint, as it was indeed posh, cool & saucy place to visit. Our last stop before we went back to the hotel was ‘Insadong’ where we had a few beers & tried the local spirit, Soju. Insadong was where we were able to first try the street food in SOKOR. The street food fare was as varied as there can be, as there was spicy rice paste like things, sweet salty fried squid, ice cream in tubular corn tortillas, & my personal favorite, the egg pancakes.

Korean street food is as varied as can be
Korean street food is as varied as can be

On the 3rd day, our group decided to split up since half of us wanted to see the North Korean border, while the other half wanted to visit the shrines & castles. For those of you wanting to go to the demilitarized zone border, please note that tours need to be booked beforehand. Also, the amount of what you get to see depends on the current situation, for example during times of high alert, you might not get that close to the border. On good days, you can even go to the tunnels dug up by the North to bypass the wall. I went with the castle/shrine group & our first stop was breakfast at ‘Gwangjang market’. Gwangjang is an entire street of souvenir shops & trade goods, but what’s great about it is the cheap food. It’s not street food either but actual meals, in large portions & very affordable. If you are really curious on what locals eat in their day to day lives, try & eat here. This is also where I bought most of my gifts for home as they sell a lot of Korean sweets my relatives at home like.

Typical fare at Gwangjang. Those dumplings were the size of my fist :-)
Typical fare at Gwangjang. Those dumplings were the size of my fist 🙂

The next point of interest was Jongmyo shrine, a shrine dedicated to the members of the royal family. Entrance fee is affordable at 1,000 won, and the cool, crisp Korean weather makes the walk a relaxing experience. This is my first encounter with feudal Korean architecture, and I can describe it as both simplistic & ornate at the same time. The general setup is rectangular courtyards interspersed with rooms & gilded by large walls with intricate roof tiles, & if you’ve seen one yard, you have seen them all. Despite this repetitiveness in motif, you cannot deny the grandeur of the place for its sheer size & majesty. Another plus is that our next stop was within walking distance, ‘Changdeokgung palace’, which to some koreanovela fans might notice is the setting for the drama ‘Dae Jang Geum’.

Palace & Shrine hopping will be a common practice when visiting Seoul
Palace & Shrine hopping will be a common practice when visiting Seoul

After we had our fill of ancient Korean history lessons, we decided to go to Bukchon Hanok village as a change of pace. What was easily noticeable was that each street was made up of artisanal shops with their own traditional specialty (silk weaving, pottery, handicrafts, that sort of thing). I ended up doing what every tourist does here eventually in Korea, which is to dress up in traditional attire. Although the rental fee for the whole shebang is a bit expensive, it was entirely worth it as you can take your sweet time pretending to be a prince, scholar or noble warrior.

I regret nothing :-)
I regret nothing 🙂

Our day 4 was dedicated to visiting ‘Nami Island’ since our party split up again, where the majority wanted to visit the war memorial museum, & us the latter. The travel time will take awhile depending on where your hotel is at so budget around 3 hours just to be on the safe side. You will have to get to the Gapyeong station of the Gyeongchun line and take a taxi from there. Admission price is around 8,000 won & do not forget to bring your passport as there is an immigration line because curiously enough, Nami island is treated like a separate country! The island itself has wonderful views of the sea, picturesque scenery & charming restaurants for the weary traveler. If you plan to visit, it is said that the best time though is in the spring, where the trees are just beginning to shed their orange leaves. Since it was winter time, the flora was barren, but we were still amazed by how neatly arranged in rows the trees were, as if it was planted by a gardener with OCD. All in all, Nami island is just a park, although a park made famous by Winter Sonata (another Korean drama), scenic landscapes & timeless beauty. There are ice sculpture exhibits & even a museum on music on the island itself. We returned to the city with the sun already down, but we stopped off at Gwangjang market again to try another Korean specialty, Sannakji or live octopus. A dish not for the faint for heart, it is made from chopped up live octopus, seasoned with oil & sesame seeds. The dish is so fresh that you can still see the tentacles wriggling in the plate. For those willing to try, be careful & chew the meat thoroughly for if swallowed whole, the suction cups can stick to your throat & make you choke. The best accompaniment of the dish is beer.

Me in an igloo in Nami island. One of many ice sculptures found here.
Me in an igloo in Nami island. One of many ice sculptures found here.
Yum 🙂

On our last day we returned to see the Gwanghwamun Gate early, because when we previously came it was already closing time (06:00PM). Since it was early, we were treated to the daily presentation of colors by the color guard in traditional Korean military attire. It was a sight to behold, as normally in most countries this is done in modern military attire or camo wear. Doing it old school added a touch of class to the entire affair. Once you enter Gwanghwamun, you will go inside the Gyeongbokgung Palace itself. The largest of the 5 palaces built in the Joseon dynasty, it took us all morning to explore the entire castle. It would take an entire separate article just to go into detail of this place, so let me summarize & tell you that a visit here is a must-do for any Seoul traveler if they want to see ancient Korea. It can be easily accessed via the Gyeongbokgung station & there is a ‘National Folk Museum of Korea’ for enthusiasts of the past, showing replicas of historical objects to provide insight to the daily life of the Korean people.

The guards at the gate 🙂
Gyeongbokgung Palace

Thus ends my Korean sojourn. Suffice it to say, this was one of my most favorite trips of all time. Not just because of its stress free transportation, or deliciously spicy food, or striking scenery & vibrant history, but of the people. South Korea is literally the home of the nicest people I have encountered so far, without exaggeration. Case in point, when we got lost somewhere in the city, there are always good Samaritans who came to our aid despite the language barrier, even going as far as to lead us where to go, despite it being in the opposite direction of where they are going. From all that I have seen & done in Korea, this is what stuck to me the most.