Before moving to Korea, I made a Bucket List. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying, and I had no idea that I’d be moving from Seoul down to Busan. Of my initial list, I’ve managed to find Seokbulsa (Temple), Busan (obviously…), Gyeongju, The Jindo Sea Parting and the Sea Parting Festival, and next weekend Expat and the City and I will be going to the DMZ! I have yet to visit Jeju Island (the Hawaii of Korea, apparently), I missed the Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival (I could and should have gone, but there’s always next year!), and Sun Cruise has taken a bit of a back seat to all the awesome things I’ve found and added to my list.
On Saturday I participated in a press tour organized by the municipality of Seoul in collaboration with the Korean Food Foundation. Seoul Bloggers and Photographers went for a meet, greet, walking tour of the old city, and lunch. I’m so incredibly honoured to have been invited. We had a wonderful day with a great tour guide and I managed to cross off even more places I had been hoping to visit. Having lived in Korea for a year, I’d like to present Round II of my Bucket List, this edition being all Seoul. As I’ve already managed to visit many of the places on my initial list, I’ll give a little information and/or an opinion on each, and then list the remainder at the end. One thing’s for sure – it’s never a dull time living in Seoul!
Gyeongbokgung (Gyeongbok Palace) is the centre of Seoul. Near City Hall and the majority of the Press Centres, you’ll find starting here is a great way to see a large part of Seoul’s traditional and historic sites in a condensed amount of time. This palace is a great place to visit when you’re feeling stressed or frazzled. It’s also a great date spot! After a great bulgogi lunch at a hole in the wall place around the corner, we wandered over to the palace and waited patiently in a long line for tickets. There were plenty of cute couples in matching traditional Korean attire who would gain free admission to the palace simply for rockin’ a hanbok. After some sake on date number 1, I had suggested (since he was really into exploring the culture of Korea) that we try some on in Insadong. He agreed to it, but we were both pretty happy we didn’t go through with the plan. Even with the fog of looming rain it was pretty hot for May!
We wandered around the pristine grounds for over an hour. I could have easily spent the entire day there as there were a number of places to sit and enjoy the serene environment. If you’re only in Seoul for a couple of days I would absolutely suggest checking out Gyeongbokgung not just because it’s a beautiful place, but also because of its proximity to Namdaemun, Insa-dong, Jogyesa, Bukchon Hanok Village, Dongdaemun, and Myeong-dong. I love to walk around and soak up new cities, so this route was a real treat for me!
I’ve visited Namdaemun a couple of times. The first time was in early February during Seollal (Lunar New Year) when we had dinner at a place called Machos. It was basically Korean-American junk food fusion, and the dishes we shared were unhealthy (and very tasty)! Still, I found there were more fresh vegetables in the dishes than most places here.
Seeing as it was a major holiday, Namdaemun was almost completely empty. It was quiet and serene, but we still had a great time. Fast forward to the beginning of May when I visited once again. This time we had already visited Gyeongbokgung and Insadong. We wandered along on what turned out to be a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon. If you visit Korea you’ll notice there’s a tendency to build up. There are tons of restaurants on higher and higher levels, so there is no shortage of rooftop patios around the city. We spent a nice chunk of time sipping on Premier OB Dunkel (a tasty variation on a relatively cheap Korean beer), talking, and playing darts. I’m horrible at darts, but it’s a really popular game in Korea and I always manage to have fun playing! Namdaemun is full of BBQ spots (galbi [meat – often beef/ steak], samgyeopsal [pork], etc.) and has tons of places for ChiMaek (Chicken and Beer).
There are tons of places to shop, eat, drink, and be merry – there are clubs, noraebangs (singing rooms), and even a flair bartending bar (think “Cocktail”). Namdaemun reminds me a lot of Seomyeon in Busan, then again so does my own neighbourhood of Sincheon!
Once a “neglected waterway hidden by an overpass”, Cheonggyecheon Stream is now a top spot for couples and hopeful romantics. There are twenty-two bridges that cross the stream, allowing for easy access to historical and tourist attractions. According to Visit Korea, there are two tours available and several activities in which to participate:
Tour Course Information
Route 1 (Distance: 2.9 ㎞/Duration: 3 hours)
Cheonggyecheon Plaza – Gwangtonggyo Bridge – Samilgyo Bridge (Jongno, Insadong) – Ogansugyo Bridge (Dongdaemun Fashion Town) – Saebyeokdari (Bridge of Dawn; Gwangjang Market, Bangsan Market) – Supyogyo Bridge
Route 2 (Distance: 2.6 ㎞/Duration: 2.5 hours)
Cheonggyecheon Culture Center – Gosanjagyo Bridge – Dumuldari Bridge – Malgeunnaedari Bridge – Ogansugyo Bridge (Dongdaemun Fashion Town)
* Ecology exploration, hands-on programs run all year round.
* Covered Structure Exploration – Exploration the inside of covered structures at Cheonggyecheon Stream (10 min with guide)
– Venue: 50m from Samilgyo Bridge at Cheonggycheon 2-ga
Reservation Info. for Foreigners
Walking tour (Inquiries: +82-2-397-5908)
Route: Cheonggye Plaza/Cheonggye Culture Center – Ogansugyo Bridge
(Schedule: 3 times daily / Languages: English, Japanese, Chinese)
I haven’t personally taken either of these tours, but I have seen the stream from Dongdaemun as well as from Namdaemun. It is incredibly romantic, and any spot along the stream would make for a great picnic with friends, family, or loved ones. I’d like to take one of these tours before the end of summer, but know that I’ll be headed there for the lantern festival in November as well.
I’ve included the Hangeul writing for Insa-dong as it is a historic cultural area with many hanok restaurants and cafes. Because of its historical significance, all signs must be written in Korean – even 스타박스 (Starbucks)! This delightful area is a great place to rent a hanbok and wander through all the little alleyways and artistic streets. This is the area where I would send you if you asked where to buy souvenirs. There are some fantastic Korean and Indian restaurants (I had a first date at Indoro and we were very pleased with our food). When I went with some gal pals from Busan, we ate little chocolate-filled pastries in the shape of a turd. I kid you not, Korea is obsessed with adorable, animated, poop-shaped things. There’s even a cafe in Insa-dong called the Poop Cafe where you’ll find more than just potty-mouths and toilet-humour.
The girls and I perused the items in the many traditional-style shops, but as I’m not much of a person for knick-knacks I didn’t buy anything. We did, however, try on hanboks in a photo studio for cute Korean memory (in and out in 10 minutes for KRW 5,000 [$5]. Bring cash).
Having recently visited Jogyesa the weekend of the Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday, you may have already checked out my piece on this temple. The festival and parade themselves weren’t all that exciting, but Jogyesa is right in Insa-dong and should not be missed, especially if you’re in town from mid-April to mid-May. The temple grounds are really peaceful and beautiful, and with incense burning and hundreds of lanterns guiding your way, the experience is one I won’t soon forget.
Bukchon Hanok Village
I expected the Bukchon Hanok Village to be a lot more like Jeonju than it actually was. This area is right beside Gyeongbok Palace, and while there are many old-style houses and buildings, you’ll find all the modern stores of Itaewon (nothing big box, but there’s a massive Kiehl’s!).
After the initial shock, I found myself really enjoying the winding streets. It was also a really clean area with tons of trees. I would certainly return for dinner (again, more rooftops!), pie (there’s an entire dessert shop dedicated to tarts and pies), and the smooth tunes from live jazz bar La Clé ).
N Seoul Tower
It’s not as tall as the CN Tower, and it’s lower on my list of priorities, but geographically speaking it belongs in and around here on this list. Seoul Tower opened in 1980. I’ve seen many an instapost of darling couples clicking their love lock and throwing away the key. Cute. Didn’t Paris remove all the lovers padlocks from Pont des Arts recently? As this is a quintessential part of the Seoul skyline, I will need to visit this spot at some point. On the Seoul Press Tour we actually ate at POOM which is not exactly in N Seoul Tower, but it is part of the complex. The service was phoenomenal, the decor and atmosphere were soothing, and the plating of each dish was a work of art. On top of that, the chef was very friendly and chatted with us briefly before we left. If you have friends in from out of town or a particularly special event on the books, head over to POOM. You won’t be disappointed!
Seoul City Wall (Fortress Wall of Seoul)
There are four main mountains which surround the centre of Seoul. Initially constructed in 1396, Seoul City Wall stretches 18.6 km long and is the longest serving city wall of all the walled cities in the world (say that ten times fast!). The wall has (obviously) been rebuilt several times, and parts were even closed off for a period of about 40 years. You can see the reconstructed areas quite easily with the changing shapes of the stones denoting the time period and associated leader. This part of our tour gave me the best views of Seoul I have seen to date, and I would highly recommend heading to the area of Seoul City Wall where you may access the Ihwa Mural Village to may the most of your trip.
Ihwa Mural Village
Much like Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan, Ihwa Mural Village is an area which has been through a major redevelopment project. Nearly 60 artists participated in the restoration, painting and installing art throughout.
Sadly, much like in Gamcheon, the locals have become irritated by the noise and general inconsideration from tourists. Many of the murals (including one particularly remarkable set of painted stairs) have been painted over by the residents. I understand their frustrations, but it’s always devastating to see art destroyed.
Hyehwa Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), and Exit 2. Walk towards Marronnier Park.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (& Seoul Fashion Week)
Seeing Dongdaemun Design Plaza from Seoul City Wall was awe-inspiring. The building designed by Dame Zaha Hadid makes me feel tiny and like I live on a completely different planet (well, that’s not unusual in Seoul, but visit the DDP and you’ll have a bit more of a sense of why I feel like a martian there. It feels like home, even it really shouldn’t…
Seoul Fashion Week was an exciting time! Star, from 87pages.com, and I had planned to see some shows together, and going from seeing the DDP completely empty during the Lunar New Year to bustling with people in all kinds of crazy street styles was a trip. At a sample sale the next week I asked one of the designers if I could be in his Spring/Summer 2017 show. He said yes, but that he wouldn’t pay me (um…OKAY!), so if he’s good on his word you’ll see this waygook walking the Yohanix runway at the DDP in September 2016.
Myeong-dong is a fabulous shopping area especially if you’re on the taller or bigger side of the foreigner scene. As you can see above, they take their Christmas lights seriously and light up the whole area. This area is very similar to Nampo-dong in Busan. There are tons of foreign-friendly shops (there’s an H&M, a Forever21, Zara, Club Monaco, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.), international cuisine (although it’s more Korean than Itaewon), and a beautiful cathedral. I visited Myeong-dong briefly on my first trip to Seoul and in the summer heat there were just too many people for me. At Christmas, it was the perfect time to stroll, window shop, and see the lights.
National Museum of Korea
We visited the National Museum of Korea by mistake our first time, and with possibly the most boring people on the planet. Friends: venture beyond the pre-historic era, I BEG of you!
You’ll find some really interesting artifacts, Korean art and calligraphy, a beautiful pond, a great view of Seoul and Seoul N Tower, and if you’re lucky, the special exhibits building will be open. I’ve visited twice now and am still waiting to get into that second building. Don’t arrive hungry – the “Snack and Bar” is a real disappointment.
We finally visited this beautiful island just outside of Seoul! The setting for one of the most famous Korean Dramas “Winter Sonata”, it’s a perfect place for families, couples, and ajummas trying to recreate the magical of the snowy setting. Check out my visit here!
People love to love and love to hate on Itaewon. My first few times in Itaewon I really didn’t quite “get it”. There are a bunch of stores and pubs along the main drag of Itaewon-ro, but once you head behind the Hamilton Hotel the world kind of opens up. There are a variety of Mexican restaurants (no, Taco Bell is not what I’m talking about [although at 2 AM you’ll be glad it’s there!]) like Coreanos (delicious!) and Vatos (the most overrated restaurant in Seoul).
There are several Thai and Indian spots I’m aching to try as well as tons of Southern BBQ Spots (I’ve visited Manimal a couple of times now. Try the ribs and and pulled pork, avoid the chicken and the brisket), Tiki Bars, Clubs, “Canadian Bars” (Rocky Mountain Tavern is really popular, and there’s a new spot with wicked decor called Canucks. The food? erm…almost, but no), and brasseries. Once you delve into some of the back-alley spots you’ll find superb places like Braii Republic (who knew I liked South African food so much?) and tons of great little Korean shops for cheap and cheerful clothes. My advice? Don’t buy the first thing you like – there are plenty of stores selling the same items. Find your best price and be prepared to walk away if it’s too much. This is a foreigner area, so prices are a bit jacked. Want to know my favourite places on a Saturday night out in the city? Click here.
Hongdae is a must-see for the college-style partier. Apparently during the day it’s a place full of art and music, but I’ve just seen a bunch of drunk people having a great time drinking in the park (no open bottle policy) or wandering into many of the bars and clubs (many with aggressive “no foreigners” policies, which is infuriating). There are tons of restaurants and shops there as well, and I want to explore this University area a lot more (you know, beyond the 2 locations of Thursday Party).
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Lotte World & Lotte World Mall
I went to Lotte World Amusement Park with the gang back in February. Since then, it’s been my favourite complex for shopping (since I can walk there) and groceries. Beyond the foreigner friendly shops (H&M, Zara, Nike, and two or three Adidas shops) there are two LotteMart locations, a Hi-Mart, a Lotte Department Store and Duty Free, and an underground shopping mall with tons of adorable, inexpensive clothes. Personally I find some of the Korean shopkeepers get irritated with foreign shoppers, but just be prepared to pay cash and buy without trying and you’ll be alright. I still have yet to ride the roller-coaster or experience the outdoor amusement park. Interested? Let me know! I live right near the Magic Kingdom. Wait a minute…
Check out a Baseball Game!
My first game in Seoul was actually the Lotte Giants of Busan playing the LG Twins. The Doosan Bears are the big hit here, but they play at the same stadium. Having two teams constantly playing within walking distance makes me very happy. I have a hard time saying “no” to going to a game (and haven’t, yet!).
I haven’t really had a chance to explore too much of Gangnam. Literally meaning “South of the River”, it’s a huge area with tons of mammoths clubs and expensive places to shop. It’s really close to where I live (I can walk to COEX), but I don’t really hang out there much. This summer ‘d like to make a concentrated effort to spent more time seeking out hot spots and living that Gangnam Style life.
Gangnam Style Statue
Speaking of Gangnam Style and COEX, SMT Town, and the surrounding area looks like yet another martian town, and has a number of statues and art installations including the above Gangnam Style statue dedicated to Psy. It actually plays “Gangnam Style”, so if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5 years or especially dig K-Pop this one’s for you!
This was crossed off my list my first weekend actually living in Seoul. After going for a casual walk to get coffee, we realised with could cross the bridge near our apartments on foot. Suddenly I was in Gangnam and everything about my move from Busan to Seoul felt incredibly real. We spent the afternoon wandering around COEX, a fancy underground shopping mall with tons of international food and great signage. That’s where I spotted the sign for Bongeunsa. Knowing that “sa” means “temple”, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was a temple I had Googled weeks prior. Even though it was really dark out we decided to take a peek. It must have been past 8 pm by that point, but the temple was still open. With no entrance fee (I’m sure there was an area for donations, but we didn’t happen upon it) we walked right in and were able to enjoy the beauty of the temple just as lanterns were beginning to go up for Buddha’s birthday. We wandered around uninhibited by other tourists, and climbed up a few hills to check out the sights.
We found the massive Buddha through the trees on a small hill. It was almost as though I was seeing the massive statue from the perspective shown in many Seoul brochures. Having just moved here it’s one of those memories that means a little bit more. I must say, I found it very funny watching Conan O’Brien in Korea. He visits this temple and says it’s high in the mountains. It’s straight up in Gangnam across from the COEX Convention Centre, ladies and gents. No wonder the monk has the latest iPhone!
All the specialty cafés
Back in February we visited a raccoon cafe! Blind Alley was the perfect spot for me to conquer my natural fear as a Torontonian. Beyond raccoons, you’ll find sheep cafés, Lego cafés, Barbie cafés, and Hello Kitty cafés. The one I’m most excited to visit is the Christian Dior Café in Apgujeong. Want to read more? Check it out.
Incheon – Central Park & Songdo
Special mention to Incheon, especially Songdo and Central Park. The newest area of the city just west of Seoul reminds me of a combination of Mississauga (because of the open space and airport), City Place in Toronto (because of the high-rises and modern statues in the park), Hwamyeong in Busan (because of the massive park and style of bridge), and San Diego (because of the massive, swanky outdoor mall). If you need a little time away from the city this is about an hour and a half away by subway. I’m sure there’s a better way to get there (airport express bus, anyone?), but for now the subway will do.
What’s next for The Toronto Seoulcialite?
Olympic Park (I know…I live right next door practically)
Seoul’s hidden Chinatown in Daerim
The War Memorial of Korea
Huwon Secret Garden at Changdeokgung (Palace) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Banpo Bridge & Hangang Floating Island (well, I’d like to have a picnic and watch the light show from the banks of the Han)
Myeongdong Cathedral (you know, to see the inside)
Hiking: Bukhansan and Seoraksan
Namsangol Hanok Village
Leeum, Samseong Museum of Art
Petite France & Seorae Village
What have I missed? Any big suggestions? Leave them in the comments!