My Trip to South Korea: Seoul Part 1
As promised, I wanted to share some of the photos I took from my trip to South Korea, in hopes that it may also be useful / interesting to some of you. I'll begin with a few highlights from Seoul and do further posts on Busan and other specific sites. I spent a total of nine days in South Korea, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and overall it's a destination I'd recommend to anyone (and especially drama lovers). Just don't expect to run into a celebrity :P
I'm going to list out specific advice on traveling at the end of this post, and as always you can ask me questions in the comments. The rest of this post will pretty much just be photos of my favorite parts from the trip.
Let's start with the outdoor markets. All of these photos are from Gwangjang market, which is the oldest traditional market in Seoul, and known primarily for the food. Seriously guys, the food was amazing and so cheap. I only wish I could have eaten every meal there. I had also visited Namdaemun market, and will say Gwangjang was far more impressive if you're looking for eats.
Soondae and deokbokki were everywhere, and quite tasty. They're featured in dramas for a reason!
The guy above was insanely popular - his line had at least 30 people in it at all times! It appeared to be some sort of red-bean filled fried bun, which must have been delightful given how long the queue was.
This was a photo taken by someone else in our group. I had done some reading ahead of time on the street food in Korea, and read that silk worms were a "popular" choice. Yet I don't believe that, because I literally could not find a single silk worm stand, and am rather disappointed that apparently there was some there, sneakily hid away. Don't judge, but I really wanted to try it!
The market also had some stalls with clothes, ginseng, and snacks, but of course the main attraction is the food.
A trip to Seoul is of course incomplete without visiting Namsan tower, which appears to be the destination for couples. Which is really saying something, because the entire city feels like a hub for young couples. Everywhere we went there were young (teenage to early 20s) couples strolling around, in disproportionately high masses. I don't recall seeing any older couples and relatively few single people around. So you might ask, are Korean dramas merely art imitating life, or is it life imitating art as young love is encouraged by all the dramas on-air?
It's quite a trek from the parking lot up to the actual tower, but you do get spectacular views of the city along the way.
Here's the area that greets you at the top of the climb.
You go up this separate platform on the side of the tower to the love locks area. The entire fence is covered up with locks.
And here's a close-up of them all. We put our own locks up for fun, and noticed the area's so full that you had to attach new locks to existing locks rather than to the fence itself. I know they disallowed locks on the bridge in Paris due to weight concerns, and considering this is up on a platform, I'm wondering if the same issue might apply here eventually?
Up next is the Korean Folk Village, which is located about a 30 minute drive outside of Seoul. We went with a tour guide for this. Apparently this is where they shoot many historical dramas, including Sungkyunkwan and The Moon that Embraces the Sun. They had random cardboard cutouts of these drama posters all over the place.
All of the buildings are authentic, and you have everything from nobleman's quarters to jail cells. My Korean friends all scoffed at this place though, noting that it's a big tourist trap. Many had never even been here before!
Anyways, I thought it was quite nice. They also put on shows like the below in the morning, around 10-11AM. I found it a nice and rather peaceful place.
That's it for part 1! Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more from Seoul, Busan, and a dedicated food porn post (just because :).
My travel and shopping tips for Seoul, South Korea:
- Getting from the airport to the city: There are plenty of public transit methods to reach the airport without having to resort to taxi (easily the most costly option, probably about $80-100 from airport to hotel). I think the most cost-effective way to get from Incheon to the city is the subway/rail, though don't quote me on this since we ended up taking one of the numbered buses that stop every hour in front of the airport (cost is 10,000 won per person using cash, just pay onboard). If you're staying at one of the major hotels, it might be more convenient (though costly at about 16,000 won) to take the KAL Limousine shuttle bus directly there. Supposedly you can get a discount on the ticket if you fly in on Korean Air.
- Download the Tripcase Seoul app: What's great about this is you can pull up all the materials without internet. We loved the mini-tours they gave, and tried out most of the places on the City art tour (though we still can't figure out where Picasso Street is).
- On SIM cards: I've generally heard very poor reviews about getting these from the airport. My friend got one and but it wound up being incompatible with his phone, creating the hassle of having to exchange it in the city. Apparently they have terrible service and also a no refund policy, so unless you're urgently expecting emails I would stay away. While free wifi is not as prevalent as I'd hoped in Seoul, it's definitely around, especially in local cafes. You'll be fine without imo, as long as you preload Google map areas ahead and use Tripcase.
- Seoul is extremely hilly: Plan ahead with good shoes and don't overpack, because there's a chance your Airbnb / hostel will be located right at the top of a hill (as ours was) and you'll have some vigorous walking.
- On taking taxis: They have been known to try to overcharge foreigners, though I personally never had an issue, even alone late at night. Just make sure the driver turns on the meter once you're inside (there'll be an electronic screen at the front, which should start at 3,000 won). There is a 20% surcharge from midnight to 4AM, so be aware of that. Overall though, I felt the cost of taxis was lower than in the U.S., making it a fair transit option. However, be warned that evening traffic (around 5-7PM) is horrible in the city and you're probably better off going by subway in those times.
- On taking the subway: Generally very straightforward, but expect them to be packed at pretty much all hours. We didn't bother with getting one of the transit cards because we only went by rail a few times. The transit cards have a nonrefundable deposit and give you a 10% discount off each ride. Don't confuse this with the 500 won refundable deposit you pay and immediately get back for each single-use ticket. Essentially, the city is very green and reuses the single-use passes. When you buy a ticket, it adds the 500 won (separately called out) to your fare. You just return the plastic pass at a machine once you're at your destination, and it'll give you back a 500 won coin immediately. Straightforward and very green, which I respect.
- Try to learn basic Korean phrases, and Mandarin is useful: Hardly anyone speaks English, which makes it quite difficult to get around. By contrast, you'll find a number of Mandarin translators, especially in the shopping centers due to the volume of Chinese visitors.
- On using credit cards: Pretty much all venues (and I think cabs, though I used cash to be safe) accept credit cards. Visa and Mastercard are the best (and Lotte Duty Free gives a 5% purchase discount if you use Visa). I had a Discover which has no fees, and almost all vendors also accepted this (though you may need to point to the Diner's Club International logo, since the latter brand is better known). Given this, I don't recommend exchanging more than $50 of cash for street food / cabs, unless you plan to do lots of shopping .
- On exchanging money: Bring cash if you want to exchange, as this way you can avoid the $5 per transaction ATM fee. Also, if you're exchanging a lot, I recommend you just do the exchange in the city. Foreign exchange centers are almost everywhere in popular districts like Myeongdong, and they open 7 days a week (I exchanged on a Sat). The airport rate was 4% off the market rate, and at that point you're better off incurring a 3% charge on your card. For example: The airport posted an exchange of 1081 won / USD. I went inside a small foreign exchange center, negotiated a little (you should do that too!) and ended up with 1130 won / USD. Not a big enough difference to warrant the hassle if you only exchange a little bit, but just keep that in mind.
- On Duty Free Shopping: Bring your passport or a scan of it when you go to the stores. We went to Lotte Department store, and I think floors 9-11 are all duty-free. They were packed with Chinese tourists, especially on the cosmetics floor. The way the duty-free area works is the prices are already converted to USD and exclude taxes, etc. So you just pay the sticker price. They will usually quote you your home currency (yuan, USD, etc.) but make sure you check the exchange rate they're using to see if it may be better to just pay in won. You end up saving about 5%-10% or so in my calculations, but note the selection of products is more limited than at normal free-standing stores. Also note almost the same brands are available inside the airport (at Shila), so you can just wait for that to avoid having to carry the stuff around until you leave.
If you shop at a non-duty-free shop, you can qualify for a refund at the airport if you spend over 30,000 won in a day. I did this in the other non-duty-free floors of Lotte, and essentially they charge you the full price with tax, then you bring that receipt down for processing on floor 1 of the store. They issue a receipt for your refund, and you can either use their automatic machines there to get a credit card refund (which I wish I'd done), or you wait until you get to the airport and have it processed there.
At the airport, there's a customs counter outside security (ask your airline) with machines and people processing the refund. You get in line (which can be very long and can take an hour), get another receipt, then go through security and pick up your cash refund in won at another area by Gate 28. All in all, it was a hassle and if you can avoid it I highly recommend that.
My impression is that Seoul is a very safe city, even late at night, and you'll manage to figure things out once you're there so don't worry too much. Let me know if you have questions!