See Seoul Like You Live There
The quirky megapolis of Seoul is my personal favorite, and for many reasons. If you’re headed there, let me assure you that you have no idea what you’re in for. I mean that in the best possible way too. It is so much more than you see in photos and what tour guides detail about things to see and experience.
Follow me if you will through this quick guide of everything awesome about Seoul. I’ll give you pointers on the sights you won’t want to miss, foods you’ve got to taste, cultural tidbits, fun things locals do, and even a few quick Korean phrases that you can trot out along the way too.
The Sights of Seoul
One thing I love about Seoul (and believe me, there’s so much I love) is how there are places of historic significance woven throughout the city. For example, there are 5 palaces all from the Joseon Dynasty. All of them are easy to access in the city too via public transit. I love Seoul Metro, probably the easiest subway system on the planet (and yes, they have maps in English…grab one!).
If the length of your stay is short, make sure you visit at least one of those palaces. Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the most famous, and you can get out of the subway at the Gwanghwamun Station (line 5) and explore the square there. Stay for the changing of the guards. Or cruise by Changdeokgung Palace when you’re walking through the city (Seoul is extremely walkable) and make sure you sign up for the tour to see the secret garden.
Aside from palaces, you really should spend a day taking the DMZ tour. Trust me on this. It is the closest you will get to North Korea and it’s utterly fascinating. Bonus: your tour includes a tasty Korean meal.
And speaking of food…
Food You Need to Eat in Seoul
Korean dishes you won’t want to miss are bulgogi, a tender marinated beef dish; bibimbap, a mashup of spiciness and vegetables on rice; and Korean barbecue. Everywhere you eat, your meal includes side dishes called banchan. These always include kimchi, the famed fermented spicy cabbage dish that Korea is known for. But they also include little hidden gems like seaweed salad, fermented soybeans, pickles, and all kinds of glorious things.
As if free side dishes isn’t enough, you can ask for refills and they will happily oblige. Just say, “banchan duh juseyo,” and they’ll be brining you more. You’ll have to get their attention by pushing a button at your table. I honestly loved this feature!
Drink makgeoli (Korean rice wine) or soju (Korea’s clear liquor) or even beer along with your meal and you’ll have it made. Don’t forget that street food is also an option, one you shouldn’t miss. My personal favorite was tteokbokki, a chewy rice cake simmered in hot and spicy sauce.
Things to Know About Seoul Culture
I mentioned Seoul is quirky, and this is what made me tumble head over heels for this place. Everything is so adorably cutesy and fun. Go shopping in Insadong, which is a bit touristy, but you shouldn’t miss it. And when you do, you’ll find stores with countless wacky socks. Bring home socks with K-pop bands on them and you’ll have the best souvenirs.
People are friendly and very polite. I once dropped 1,000 won on the subway and an older gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to it. The younger generation as well as the older guys who fought in the war know English pretty well. If you get lost, look for college kids or old men. And in the absence of them, most people are pretty good with charades and a little pantomiming of what you’re looking for can really help.
Fun Things to Do in Seoul Like a Local
If you only stick to the tourist spots, you’ll miss out on a whole portion of Seoul that will amaze you. I urge you to go on your first night (and every night of your stay) to norebang, which means karaoke. Actually, direct translation is ‘singing room.’ It’s not like in the states where you have to suffer through random drunkos serenading the room with “Don’t Stop Believing.” You get your own studio-enhanced room, complete with a button to ring when you want drinks or snacks. Bonus: most places have huge selections of songs in English. Pro tip: go in one of the nicer neighborhoods like Myeongdong, where you’ll likely spend your day shopping (I sure did) and you’ll find some of the best quality singing rooms around.
If you enjoy thrill rides and you want to bask in more cutesiness from Korean culture, take the subway to the Jamsil station and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with Lotte World, one of my favorite places in the city. Kitschy and kooky, it’s like a Korean Disney World and it’s just awesome. Go there!
A little lesser known adventure is visiting the Seoul Children’s Park which has a free zoo, and beautiful gardens. There are theme park rides too, which aren’t free, but walking around is. Buy street food to munch on while you take it all in.
Other things of coolness: riding the trains across the Han River. Take Line 2 running between Dangsan and Hapjeong and you’ll see the National Assembly. You can also get off at Dangsan, Exit 3 and walk along to catch the skyline.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the nightlife too. Hongdae is hip and happening near Hongik University, Gangnam is famed for that song (you know the one) and being upper class, and the expats all hang out in Itaewon.
Quick Korean Lesson
Before I go, here are a few quick Korean phrases to help you out, though keep in mind, Koreans are very nice and a smile is always universal:
– “An-nyeong-ha-se-yo” means “hello.”
– “Ban-gap-sum-ni-da” means “nice to meet you.”
– “Kam-sa-ham-ni-da” means “thank you.”
– “Hwa-jang-shil o-di-ye-yo” means “where is the bathroom?”
And that should do it. Go forth and have a blast exploring the city that became the love of my life!