How do we do a megacity like Seoul justice? Certainly an 18 hour layover isn’t going to cut it. And that’s a big reason why I’ve returned to visit Seoul properly.
Accompanied by 19 new and returning monsooners, all of us touched down in ICN airport to begin our South Korean adventure. Even if your passport doesn’t need a visa to enter South Korea, you’ll still have to register online and ahead on the relatively new Korea Electronic Travel Authorization program. Keep in mind that link there is the ONLY one you should use; all others are scam sites and re-sellers looking to make an unnecessary commission off of you. It takes about a few hours for them to approve your application.
Once you arrive, I recommend taking their robust one hour public transportation on the Airport Railroad into Seoul instead of an expensive cab. And to use public transportation in South Korea, you’ll need to obtain a T-Money card at any kiosk or convenience store; from the airport I bought mine at an airport convenience store (they accept credit cards) right next to where you get out after baggage claims and before leaving arrivals, withdrew local won/cash from an ATM by currency exchange, and loaded my card with said cash (they do not accept credit cards) downstairs at a kiosk before reaching airport railroad platform.
We then kicked things off by settling in at our accommodations in Hongdae at 2 villas right next door to each other and a welcome dinner at Geonggiwa Spare Ribs BBQ:
The next morning we had to wake up bright and early at a ghastly 5am for a 5:50am pickup by our DMZ tour group as they were informed by the military that they would be limiting admission to the DMZ (and we didn’t want to get there too late after tickets would sell out!): Full blogpost on our first official day in South Korea.
The next and our second day of the trip would be our first full day exploring Seoul. With the help of the Korean navigation app Naver, which you have to first download and register an account with, we hopped on the subway for Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Unfortunately Google Maps does NOT work in South Korea as it’s officially still at war with North Korea and does not want sensitive information be made public on something like Google Maps.
From Hongdae we arrived 30 minutes later to begin our epic day of walking at Gwanghwamun Plaza, a public space with roots in longtime Korean history and where its royal administrative buildings would intersect. This gives it its nickname the Street of Six Ministries.
While in the square you can find the immense statues of Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Joseon Dynasty and King Sejong the Great of Joseon.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in 1395, lies just a 5 minute walk north of the square. It also happened to be culture day, which occurs on the last Wednesday of each month and therefore meant FREE ADMISSION.
We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to catch the changing of the guard ceremony at 10am. An afternoon ceremony takes place at 2pm.
The palace grounds here, like Beijing’s Forbidden City, is sprawling. We spent up to an hour and a half here and felt like we could’ve stayed the whole day.
Feeling famished, however, a few dodged the lines around the block at Tosokchon Samgyetang (about a 10 minute walk west from the palace) and booked a room early at 11am for our group .
They’re renowned for their rejuvenating chicken giseng stew:
After 45 minutes of bliss (these soups come out fast!), we walked back through Gyeongbokgung Palace and exited east for a 15 minute walk to Jogyesa Temple, the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
The building dates back to the late 14th century and became the order’s chief temple in 1936, playing a leading role in the current state of Seon Buddhism in South Korea.
From the temple we then walked 10 minutes further for a stroll and shopping along Insadong Culture Street, known historically for its antiques but now is an eclectic pedestrian mall patronized for its arts & crafts shopping and street food.
From cookies in 500 flavors to kkultarae/dragon beard treats to face masks on sale, it was hard not to stop and keep walking.
We continued northeast from Insadong for a 20 minute climb uphill to reach the evocative Bukchon Hanok Village, where hundreds of houses dating back to the Joseong dynasty have been preserved to show what old Korea used to look like.
Then retracing our steps back, we took a mid-day coffee and tea break at E-chae café:
After resting our weary feet for an hour at the café, some of us pressed onwards for a 10 minute walk to Changdeoggung Palace, the second of Seoul’s five grand palaces and also the second royal villa to be built after Gyeongbokgung.
If you’re not yet palace’d out at this point, consider booking a separate ticket for a timed tour of the secret garden here (not included as a free admission on culture days):
At this point, I made a decision to take an impromptu unplanned one hour detour to visit Starfield Library for the “instagram library” that was constructed within the Starfield COEX mall in the Gangnam district.
Yes, I’m basic… because sometimes I need the visual confirmation that there are places out there that look better in photos than they do in real life (which this one did):
As other folks of saner minds in our group were given the option to stick around Insadong and Changdeoggung, we all eventually reunited for sunset at the Namsan Seoul Tower located on the top of Namsan Mountain Park. This is where you get your views of Seoul.
To get to Namsan Tower without a hike, you have to walk through all the shops of Myeon-dong to reach the inclined elevator, then purchase tickets for the cable car, walk up a bit of stairs, and then purchase another set of tickets to take the elevator to the observation deck.
Gotta press that phone or camera lens real close to the smudgy observation deck glass to get a clear photo if you’re coming here for night views:
And don’t miss peeing with a view before you leave…
From the tower we then retraced our steps back to Myeong-dong and took Bus 143 northeast 6 stops to the food stalls of Gwangjang Market for a casual dinner at 9pm.
As much as we tried to split up for a free for all, we eventually ended up at Kalguksu’s Stall 70 anyway; Stall 70 was recently made famous on Netflix’s show Street Food for her Korean Handmade Noodles. She’s also known here as “Netflix lady.”
As overwhelmed as she was when 21 of us sat down with her, Kalguksu seemed so happy we were all there for her food that we took a group photo together afterwards!
After 25,000 steps and 13 hours of exploring Seoul, the 5 of us retired early and headed back to Hongdae while the 14 remaining walked off our dinner along Cheonggyecheon: Seoul’s 11km long modern public space and massive urban renewal project trying to revive the historic stream here before it was covered by infrastructure of a rapid post-war development.
Eventually 12 of us went all the way west to Avenue of Youth where we kicked back at Deoyeon Bar & Lounge for cocktails, tea, and shisha (and one of the last places in Seoul you can do all that while sitting and relaxing on the floor!). After we were kicked out at closing (1am), we hailed 3 cabs to take us back to Hongdae.
To round off this epic blogpost on Seoul, I can’t miss out on what we did yesterday after returning at 4pm from our tour of the DMZ, first with replenishing our weary and empty stomachs with pork bone gamjatang at a nearby slurp shop.
Then we took the subway to Yeouido Park for a half an hour walk through and around South Korea’s famous cherry blossoms:
This is also where you can walk down to the banks of the Han river for the quintessential K-drama practice of making ramyeon outside a mini market on a barge, and slurping it by the river.
It make take some more time for me to realize how nice a place this was to enjoy a sunset, but it’s hitting me now how perfect everything seemed when standing here.
Noticing Noryangjin Fish Market at the southeast corner of the park, we then took a quick subway ride there afterwards for dinner where I reunited with Kelly Joo from our Japan trip of 2017!
This fish market is you can pick out any of the live seafood being sold wholesale and they’ll take you to a connected restaurant upstairs to prepare it as a meal.
By this point we were all fading from a combination of jetlag, a 5am wake up call, and a loooong day at both the DMZ and Seoul. I felt bad that Kelly was seeing us in this zombified state but she promised to give us another chance next week while we were in Jeju. We then said our goodbyes and hopped back on the subway and retired at 11pm for bed.
Next stop: Busan!
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- At time of posting in Seoul, South Korea, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear