My S(e)oul Story | Uncovering Seoul with a Travel Expert

A visit to South Korea may not be on everyone’s list. For me, this city has always held a special place in my heart since it was our temporary home for 12 months. From my first visit, I discovered a country and its people with deep roots in culture and tradition, yet at the same time, they embrace technology and innovation with companies like Samsung, Hyundai and KIA driving the way to the future.

Even though it has been ten years since my last visit, I felt right back at home. There is a rhythm to this city that I cannot explain but works. At the same time, I feel very safe wherever I go. I love the people and their willingness to help a complete stranger even though there is a language barrier; English is not widely spoken, and signs are often only in Korean. Everyone is friendly and very helpful if you, as a foreigner, look somewhat lost or confused. You will soon pick up on the friendly  “annyeonghaseyo” that welcomes you everywhere you go.

Airport Arrival Process 

Arriving in South Korea, you will most likely land at Incheon Airport. Immigration is an easy process; you may need a K-eTA (read requirements and exemptions here) and a completed arrival card. Once you have collected your luggage, I recommend changing some currency at the airport, even though credit/debit card is accepted everywhere. 

Arrival Transport Options

The two best options to get to Seoul Central are a) via Airport Railroad to Seoul Station or b) via airport bus (ask at the counter which bus routing is best suited with a stop located close to your accommodation). Simply follow the signs – at T2 you will find the counters to purchase your tickets in the basement. At T1 – the ticket counters are outside of the terminal just after you have left the arrivals hall. The journey into the city will take approx. 1hr by rail and 1hr 20min by bus depending on the traffic. Private transfer is available but expensive.

Seoul Accommodation

Staying in Seoul you can choose from a range of hotels, from homestays at Bukchon Village to 5-star luxury. There is a huge selection that caters to everyone’s budget. Where to stay in Seoul, Bukchon HomestayBukchon HomestayWhen choosing a hotel, check out where the nearest metro station is located, you will be using the metro a lot to get around. The best areas to stay, in my opinion, are Myeongdong or Gangnam, both have access to markets and plenty of restaurants. Even though I had lived in Gangnam, I prefer Myeongdong as most of the markets are located here with easy access to attractions like the Gyeongbokgung Palace (Seoul’s main royal Palace and the largest of the 5 located within the city), Bukchon Village area and Insadong.

Sightseeing around Seoul

Tip No1: Bring good walking shoes – you will be walking a lot!

Before you start your exploratory journey, I recommend you book yourself on a Seoul City Bus Tour to get a feel for the city. They offer 3 routes: Traditional / Hangang-Jamil / Night View. Your travel agent can pre-book this for you. 

Bukchon Village, Seoul sightseeing.Bukchon VillageTo really understand what makes this city tick you need to learn about the culture and history. I would recommend visits to the DMZ (it’s a full day tour), a combo of Gyeongbokgung Palace for some history followed by a walk through the alleyways of Bukchon village, an area with 600 years of  history dating back to the 14th century (half day tour). Visit the Hanok houses where you can still see some traditional craft. Best to follow the official trail. If you are in need of rest, simply stop at one of the many coffee shops – my favourite is the Queen’s Bakery, which has great coffee and amazing pastries.

Tip No 2: Indulge in the local coffee – Koreans love their coffee and coffee shops. Wherever you go, you will find a place that offers cold brew or espresso-based coffee. Do not forget to specify “hot” or “cold” coffee when ordering. Coffee shops have fun names like “A Twosome Place”, “Angel in Us”, “Tom n Toms Coffee”, but if you are really into your coffee ask Google for the latest quirky coffee spots as new places are constantly opening. If you require non-dairy milk like soy or oat, this is offered mainly at the larger coffee shops, not at the small boutique coffee shops. Monday – Friday coffee shops open at 7:30am, Saturday and Sundays only at 9 or 10am.

Now let’s explore other areas in Seoul.

Tip No 3: – Use the metro systems, only single journey tickets and must be paid in cash. Remember to redeem your deposit of 500WON after every trip at the refund machine.Metro Map

N-Tower, aka Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower – get the shuttle bus from Myeongdong station to the cable car, take a taxi up or walk – this is a landmark with an amazing view. It is a place frequented by young couples in love with its own “proposal staircase”, “bridge of love” and “tunnel of love” – seal the deal by adding your own “Love Lock”.

Tip No 4: Enjoy what the locals enjoy and have a little fun. Ask to take a photo with the locals, they love it. Myeondong Night Market Street Food, Seoul Sightseeing.Myeondong Night Market Street Food

Myeongdong Night Markets – here you can get the best street food in Seoul but will also find some excellent restaurants if street food is not your thing. You can try Tteokbokki (spicy rice noodles), Hotteok (Korean pancake), Korean fried chicken, Mochi, Grilled cheese lobster, Odeng (fish cakes on a stick) or whatever grabs your fancy.

Dongdaemun Markets – Over 30,000 shops, great for fashion and bargains, affordable cosmetics and clothing – must bargain here!

Namdaeum Market – near Namdaemun Gate – offers anything from food to souvenirs – we bought lots of soccer shirts here in very good quality during our son’s soccer phase.

Tip No 5: Take your time wandering through the markets – slowly does it.

Gangnam – This is a hip and vibing place, very modern and clearly geared towards a younger crowd – best to be visited at night time when all the billboards are lit up. If you are lucky enough, you might get to see a K-Pop band perform on one of the street corners. The backstreets offer a range of restaurants and clubs more for the younger crowd.

Food Courts
You cannot go past the amazing food courts in the basement of the Hyundai, Lotte and Shinsegae department stores. I love walking through the aisles for the variety of food options and their displays. They are also great places to grab a bite – food is exceptional and quite reasonably priced. Note: Department stores open at 10am and close at 8pm.

Tip No 6: Try the local food. Don’t be afraid to try something that you are not used to – it is tasty, spicy, and unique. Check out some of the Michelin star restaurants; they could even be just a hole in the wall but offer a great food experience.

Shopping in Korea 
We (my husband and I) are not big fashion shoppers, but some of our interests are rather around electronics, high-end headphones to be precise, vinyl shops, traditional crafts like handmade paper, yarn and art, unique Korean brands and quirky shops some of which use recycled material to create new products. We visited the Apgujeong Rodeo area – the Rodeo Drive of Seoul with a range of high-end shops and fabulous restaurants as well as Kia 360 for the ultimate car experience. Here you simply need to sit and watch for a unique visual experience.

We often get lost in Seoul and seem to discover hidden gems that are not on the tourist map. This is where we have a “home” advantage due to having lived here for a year.  On this trip, we stumbled upon some unique shops, coffee shops, artwork and more. Luckily in Seoul, there is always a metro nearby so you are never really lost.

There are many more areas to explore, but even with the above ones mentioned you will be busy for at least 5-6 days.

Exploring Busan

But Seoul is not South Korea, so hop on a train to Busan. KTX 1st ClassBuy your KTX ticket online via, I do recommend 1st class, but 2nd class if you are on a budget – the train is comfortable and will get you between these two cities in 2.5 hours. All these trains leave from Seoul station with the display clear and easy to read in both English and Korean.

Two areas to stay in Busan a) city centre at the Lotte City Hotel (5*) or b) near Gukje market in a hotel like the GnB Hotel (4*). Some guests will want to stay near Haeundae Beach, the seaside area but it is quite far from the city so I would recommend a day trip rather than staying there. Personally, I would not want to stay here as it is basically a beach surrounded by high-rise buildings.

Even though Busan has a metro system it does not reach all areas. I recommend booking a semi-private day tour to see the important attractions of Busan. Here some of the places we explored:

  1. Nurimaru APEC House – here the APEC conference was held in 2005 as well as ASEAN summit in 2015 in this purpose-built meeting place overlooking the ocean.
  2. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

    Princess Hwangok Mermaid Statue with view of Haeundae Beach – just a short walk from Nurimaru House we find the mermaid Princess Hwangok – legend has it that this mermaid married a Prince and becomes human but missing her underwater homeland longingly sits on the rock holding a topaz. Could have been the inspiration for Disney’s Little Mermaid?

  3. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was built in 1372 – a beautiful seaside temple on top of the cliffs. Check out the Golden Buddha.
  4. Jagalchi Fishmarket – the largest fish market in South Korea – here you can choose your fish/lobster/eel/clams etc and have it cleaned and cooked for you. Most of the fish is caught in the Japan sea with the massive king crabs brought in from Russia.
  5. Gukje Market – one of the larger markets in South Korea. This market dates back to the Korean War where US army items and other goods were collected for the refugees. Today, it is a market that offers everything from fashion, electronics, food and more – it is a busy and lively market, particularly on weekends.
  6. Gamcheon Cultural Village

    Gamcheon Cultural Village ­­­- This was the most amazing and memorable place with a unique history. Our driver/guide grew up in this area and shared his own personal story of hardship and growing up in an area built terrace-style on the side of a mountain with no sanitation or running water at that time. He took us on a journey through the narrow alleyways and up and down steps to show us where he was raised, and how hard it was to carry coal and water up these steep hills. In those days, the houses were made of wood, destructive fires were a common occurrence. From the 30,000 people that used to call this place home only 8000 remain, mainly the seniors, as the youth have moved to the city. These days, the area is supported by the local governments and donations from visitors.

Fun with Locals

Busan, what an amazing place to visit with so many unexpected sites and stories. I am glad to hear that Busan is on the port of call of quite a few cruise lines circumnavigating Japan, as this is the narrowest point between Japan and South Korea. Busan has also been chosen to host the 2030 World Expo which the locals are very proud of. This may have been my first visit to Busan not my last.

After our 10 day visit, I can truly say: South Korea, you did not disappoint. I remember you as a vibrant and unique city, and this has not changed. Now I (we) even added more local experiences to our personal memory bank. I cannot wait to return to explore Jeju Island and the hinterland areas with amazing hiking trails and temple stays.

Thank you for a great time  – 감사합니다 (gamsahabnida).

If I can assist you with your South Korea holiday plans, please get in touch. 

#Seoul #Story #Uncovering #Seoul #Travel #Expert

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