While Seoul does not seem to have any well-known buildings or sights, with about 10 million inhabitants, there are many different areas to explore, each of which with its distinctive own character. The cities masters to draw you in with its harmonious co-existence of old and new, green hilltops among skyscrapers, perfect public transportation system and broad choice of delicious foods. Here I am going to list a few of the areas worth visiting when you are in Seoul, apart from the notorious major palaces.
Old, young and new: Bukchon, Hongdae and Gangnam
Seoul has so many different faces. One of the most charming ones you can find in Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a village in traditional Korean style houses (Hanok) with a long history, located between Gyeongbok Palace and Changdeok Palace (Metro stop Anguk). The village is full of small artshops, galleries and restaurants, and has a very modern, artsy flair despite its traditional architecture. An absolute treasure is the little shop “Serene Candle“, selling handmade soy candles, some decorated with a wild colourful flower handpicked from the Korean mountains, which make a cute souvenir.
Another favourite of mine was the area around Hongik University, referred to as Hongdae (abbreviation of Hongik Daehakgyo, Hongik University). The area is full of indie scene cafes and bars, independent clothing and vintage shops, and streetart from Hongik University’s art students. Saturday afternoon there is a students’ craft market, “Free Market”, held on ‘Hongdae Playground’, that is in front of the main gate of Hongik University (Sundays too, the it is called “Hope Market).
I am sure you remember the song “Gangnam Style”. It is because of that song, that I really wanted to see the area of Seoul it was dedicated to. And I was quite positively surprised! It is when you arrive in Gangnam that you fully understand the scale of the city. Five-lane roads lined with skyscrapers so high your neck bends backwards to see the top of them. Nevertheless, pedestrian lanes are separated from the street through a line of trees, so you become oblivious of the traffic right next to you. Turn into one of the side streets and you may find small storey buildings and absolute peace. Certainly worth a visit!
From top left to right bottom: (1) Bukchon Hanok Village (2) Gangnam (3) Hongdae (4) Gangnam.
As in many other Asian countries, streetfood is quite popular in South Korea. So besides having the typical Korean dishes such as Bulgogi and Bibimbap in restaurants, where they are served with the traditional array of side dishes, most notably the omnipresent kimchi, you should make it part of your travel agenda to try as many different streetfoods as possible. Different to other Asian countries, there is not really a need to be worried about food quality or hygiene, which makes it truly an experience not to be missed. And believe me, there are so many options, you will never be able to try all of them in a short time.
Where can you find streetfood? Well, almost everywhere. The greatest selection you will probably find at the markets (e.g. Namdaemun Market but famous is also Gwangjang Market). However, even in Myeongdong, a popular high street shopping area, is plastered with food stalls. Furthermore, individual stalls may be even found in front of large office building. If you are still cautious about buying food in the street, you may also try the food court in the lower ground of Shinsegae Department Store instead, where you can also find some street food dishes, next to several main dishes.
So what should you definitely try? Well, I quite liked Tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy red pepper paste Sauce), mungbean pancakes, mini Gimbak (seaweed-covered rice rolls with different fillings), sweet potatoe sticks, and I can never say no to fried vegetables. In addition to that, if you are a declared ice-scream lover like me, make sure to try some of the so-called “snow-flake” ice-cream deserts, and to get an ice-cream rose (go to Milky Bee in Myeongdong).
If you want to learn more about typical Korean streetfoods, a great source information is this website: www.seoulistic.com.
From top left to the bottom right: (1) Sweet potatoe sticks (2) Fish cakes (3) Fresh fish at Fish Market (4) Rose Ice-cream from Milky Bee.
Taking a break from city-life: hikes and temples
When you do a lot of sightseeing in a huge, bustling city like Seoul, sometimes you want to take a break and recharge your batteries. You wouldn’t think so, but this is quite easily done in Seoul. One option is to visit a temple or palace and to take your time to do so, the other one is to go for a hike on one of the nearby mountains. I found the Bungeunsa Temple in Samseong-dong one of the most calming places I have ever visited. Although being located amidst several skyscrapers, once you enter the temple grounds, you immediately feel the serenity of the place, and it will slow you down as well. Another wonderful walk to escape the city jungle is through the Secret Garden, which is adjacent to the Changdeokgung Palace (you enter via Changdeokgung Palace and need to get a special ticket, also beware that tours only take place at certain hours a day).
If you would prefer to do some physical exercise, you could take the about 1-1,5 hour hike up Namsam hill to arrive at the N Seoul Tower and enjoy a great view over the City. It is particularly popular to go there for the sunset, and especially for young couples who leave padlocks as tokens of their love. Another option (less crowded), is a hike on Mount Inwangsan. Here you should wear proper shoes as the way up to Seon-bawi, the sacred “Immortal Rocks”, a natural stone altar, which is said to be Korea’s most worshipped rock, is quite steep at times. Also, if you intend to take the longer route to arrive at the old Seoul city wall, you should be prepared to bring water and snacks, especially during the hot summer time. A shorter route but also quite rewarding is back down from the rocks and follow the road to the right, and you will arrive at one of these traditional resting pavillions, from which you have a wonderful view over Seoul.
Now, did you become interested in visiting Seoul? Mission accomplished 🙂