Seoul has an undeniable energy. You can feel its ebb and flow instantly on arrival. It’s the kind of place that leads you down a seemingly normal, dank alley and just when you think you’re lost, find yourself in the middle of a vibrant nightlife scene. It’s one of the few places I’ve visited where you can stroll for hours through ancient palaces and temples by day and dine in a 5-star restaurant in a posh shopping district by night. The juxtaposition of old world Korea and new is a medal worth pinning to its chest — Seoul’s jambalaya of culture isn’t overwhelming or stark, but comforting and always just right.
If you’re bored in Seoul, it’s your own darn fault. With twenty-five different districts, there’s no shortage of activities to keep yourself occupied. Each part of town offers its own unique selection of shops, pubs, hotels, and attractions– just grab a seat on the subway.
I recently had 36 hours to spare, and since I’m currently living in a Korean city 2 hours south of Seoul, I decided to take advantage of the country’s excellent bus service and feel the buzz for myself.
WHERE TO STAY
A few days before departure, I did some research on where I could sleep for two nights without breaking the bank. Staying in a hostel is a natural choice for more go-with-the-flow travelers, but deciding on a location can be a bit challenging. I decided to narrow my search to Iteawon, an eclectic hodgepodge of a neighborhood that caters to expats and international visitors from all over the globe; and Hongdae — land of college students, hipsters, and anyone else just looking for some no-pressure vibes.
I settled on Hongdae, and one of its highly praised hostels. Mr. Comma is a quaint guesthouse located in between Hongdae’s nightlife scene and a more subdued residential district. Reserving the “family suite” was definitely a good choice, and for $17/night, it paid to have my own bathroom and bed to sleep off the evenings festivities. If you don’t mind a more communal experience, Mr. Comma has larger dorm rooms for the proverbial crashers. You have access to the rooftop patio (a great place to enjoy a cold one before venturing out for the night), cozy common room, full kitchen, and breakfast every morning. The staff is friendly and helpful.
WHAT TO EAT
You can’t turn your head anywhere in the city without glancing at 360 degrees worth of restaurants, coffee shops, bistros, and street food vendor carts. Again, the problem here isn’t finding something to eat, it’s deciding what to eat. When I find myself in the midst of a food conundrum anywhere in South Korea, I head to the nearest pocha, or Korean bar/pub. Mandatory side dishes, known as anju, are served with soju (Korean rice, barley, or wheat wine) and/or beer. While you’ll find traditional Korean dishes like dried squid, nuts, and fish cake in abundance at these places, often times the menu will feature delicious fare like french fries with melted cheese and bits of ham sprinkled on top— cooked to order at your table. Or if you’re feeling more, errrr, adventurous, you could test your grit and chew on some silkworm. An acquired taste, to say the least, these little guys feature subtle notes of cardboard, followed by a dash of dirt. Good thing I had some soju to wash it all down!
Of course Seoul has more restaurant-y restaurants in abundance. Itaewon features cuisine from all over the globe; from Taco Bell and Chicago-style pizza, to Vietnamese banh mi and Indian curry. The nightlife in Itaewon is equally superb. Clubs and bars line its main drags— each with its own flare.
WHAT TO SEE
Visiting Seoul without experiencing Gyeongbokgung Palace is like going to the Vatican and not seeing the Sistine Chapel. Built in 1395, this north Seoul complex not only served the Korean Jeoson dynasty as a home, but also as a place of government. The palace campus has undergone decades of tragedy— in the 19th century it was burned down during war, and rebuilt only to be detroyed again by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century. Despite the atrocities performed to its over 7,500 rooms, much has been done to restore the grand palace to its original glory since then and is now widely considered the most beautiful of the Five Grand Palaces.
I couldn’t help but close my eyes upon entering the grounds through Gwanghwamun gate. To be among such ancient history was a profound experience. It was easy to get lost in the detail of the painted figures, the cracks in the granite steps, and the tranquility of the ponds and pagodas. Gyeonbokgong is magic. It’s a time machine. It’s immortal. The peace that overcame me there even among the hundreds of other tourists was deeply felt and not soon forgotten. Don’t forget your camera, patience, inner history nerd, and a good pair of walking shoes.
WHERE TO PLAY
My favorite thing about Seoul is its authenticity. Being a city that’s not afraid to own itself, Seoul’s businesses are seemingly encouraged to think creatively to draw in patrons. Case in point: Blind Alley raccoon cafe in Sookdae. Yes, I said raccoon cafe. I ordered a latte and within 10 minutes I was in the back “playroom” feeding raccoons and watching them scamper and swing. Most tourists come solely for the animals, but the place really stands on its own as a cozy coffee shop even without the raccoons. Great espresso, pastries, ambience, and service. I was very impressed and will definitely go back next time I’m in town. Tip: call ahead if you really want to experience the animals – they occasionally take time off from indulging us humans.
If you’re not into raccoons, fear not. Seoul is famous for all kinds of themed hang out spots. Cat cafes, dog cafes, a Hello Kitty cafe, an airplane cafe, a ring-making cafe, or you could set up camp at Out-Road, a campsite-themed cafe in Bukgajwa-dong complete with dome tents and Coleman lanterns.
Another great neighborhood to spend a few hours is Bukchon/Hanok Village where traditional Korean housing has been turned into some pretty neat art spaces for studios and galleries and the cobblestone-lined main street is packed with boutiques and cafes.
N Seoul Tower stands majestically over the city like an architectural crown jewel. Commonly known as Namsan Tower, this 236m tall communication and observation tower was built on Namsan Mountain and is the city’s highest point. The 360-degree view at the top is nothing short of spectacular but getting there requires a bit of effort. The three most common modes of travel up the mountain are: cable car, bus, or hoofing it. I elected option three and made the 1.6km trek up endless flights of stairs, catching my breath at each lookout point. I love to hike. I love to be in nature, and certainly the Namsam climb is in the middle of tree-covered mountain complete with trickling creeks and flora and fauna. Exhaustion is inevitable when climbing stairs and I found it comforting that I wasn’t the only one huffing and puffing my way to the top. I began the climb at about 7 in the evening and it took about 45 minutes to finish, just in time for sunset. When I finally reached the observation deck and gazed out the giant glass windows, I looked down at the vast twinkling city below and reflected on my wonderful day. Then two words came to mind: worth it.
In fact, I’d sum up my entire trip in those exact two words. I journeyed through a major world city in a day-and-a-half, and even though I didn’t see even a fraction of what Seoul has to offer, I felt whole and deeply satisfied. And you know what, call me cliche, but Seoul really does have soul.