I have always been fond of Korea. Even before I had ever visited the country I knew that I would love it. I find something very interesting about Korean contemporary culture. The history also interests me, but the day-to-day lifestyles of ordinary Koreans is what I have been most interested in. Compared to its more famous neighbours, China and Japan, Korea seems to be forgotten about to an extent, certainly from a European’s perspective (although maybe not by Americans).
My flight from Tokyo-Narita to Seoul Incheon was fairly uneventful, although it’s always nice to fly with Korean Air again. I am always very impressed with the Korean flag carrier. Korean Air’s staff and cabin crew are very professional and represent their country very well. You can always get a taster for a country’s character by the attitude of the flight crew, and I always know I am in safe hands when flying with Korean Air.
I arrived in Korea on a sunny November afternoon. The first thing I did was to book myself a bus ride into Seoul, which was possible due to the tourist counter in the Arrivals hall of Incheon Airport. I had to wait around 30 minutes for the next bus, and I think the price was 12,000KRW, but I cannot remember exactly. The journey into downtown Seoul was around one hour, and while it may be quicker to use the KORAIL train services into the city from the airport, at least on the road you can get a good look at Korean life as you are driven past.
On this occasion, I did not choose in stay in a hostel, but rather a 3 star hotel called the Ibis Ambassador Seoul Myeongdong. I have stayed in Ibis hotels the world over, and have never really been let down. It is a no-frills chain, but most hotels have air-con, free wifi, free drinking water, and very well-trained and courteous staff. What more do you need? The hotel itself is not exactly cheap for a 3 star property, but you are paying for the location. Myeongdong is a hotbed for the young and chic, with plenty of bars and clubs, and a famous night market. It is probably the ultimate hang-out place in Seoul – and the Ibis hotel is right on its doorstep!
In the picture above, you can see the famous Lotte Department Store in the background, and in the foreground the Eulgiro 1 (il)-ga Metro station. The Seoul Metro is a fantastic way to get around the city, and it is very cheap, safe, and clean – unlike what I am used to in London!
Myeongdong as a location is fantastic. On every corner there are quaint cafés, as well as lively bars with loud music. At night, there is a world famous night market and I can assure you that street food is very popular, too. I have a particular penchant for the delicious Kimbap, which looks a little like Japanese sushi rolls, and I cannot get enough of Korean Fried Chicken, which is sold in fast food outlets and bars all over the city (such as KyoChon Chicken). All of this and more is available in Myeongdong. However, there are other districts in Seoul, such as Itaewon, Insadong, Gangnam, and Hongdae, all of which offer a lot to the average traveller, and for me Hongdae in particular was amazing, with its youth culture close to Hongik University.
If you do not want to try some of the more traditional Korean streets foods then a quick pop to a corner shop will allow you to purchase some familiar flavours but with a Korean twist, like the strawberry wafers I found or maybe some kimchi-flavoured Kitkats! One thing about shopping in Korea is that you must remember that they have denominations of 50,000KRW in notes, and up to 500KRW coins. It is sometimes hard to remember exactly how much you are spending when compared to GBP or Singapore Dollar, because in Korea the amounts are so high.
Tourist attractions are aplenty in Seoul. Some of my favourite places were the Cheonggyecheon Stream and Namdaemun Market. Cheonggyecheon is a man-made stream that runs right through Seoul, serving as its artery. It is not really a river, as the stream itself is very shallow for the most part. I must have spent hours walking the Cheonggyecheon and it gave me some good exercise! Much farther down the stream, you can get to Namdaemun Market, which is a traditional Korean market, selling all kinds of goodies, and while it may seem a bit tacky, it is nonetheless a good place to see real Koreans going about their business.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, and Deoksugung Palace were all incredible palaces and depending on the time of year of your visit, you may get to see the palaces in autumn colours, like I did on my visit to Changdeokgung. Probably the most touristy of the palaces is the large Gyeongbokgung, which showcases Korean lifestyles of yesteryear, and this palace also located close to other attractions like Bukchon Hanok Village. Another highlight in Seoul for me was my trip to the AMAZING Seoul Zoo, which is located in the middle of the Seoul Grand Park. I often visit zoos when I am travelling, and as long as the animals are kept in good conditions, then I enjoy the experience. Singapore Zoo is probably the best zoo I have been to, with Taipei Zoo not close behind. I think Seoul Zoo is around the same standard as the one in Taipei, and certainly much better than any I have frequented in China.
It was a shame I had to leave Seoul, but I guess I couldn’t stay forever. I will be going back there shortly to check out a few things I missed last time, such as the DMZ, and the Hwaesong Fortress, as well as climbing Mount Bukhansan. In the mean time, at least I have my photos and videos to remind me of the great times I had and the great people I met whilst searching for my Seoul!