As part of my quest to make it to every country around the world, my latest trip was to Asia. In particular – Seoul, Singapore, Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) and Bali (Indonesia).
Although it is similar to other major cities, the culture and food make Seoul a great place to visit. The locals are obsessed with food and eating, and if you drink coffee, you’ll be in heaven. In shopping areas, there are at least 2 coffee shops per block. Rather than going out boozing, people are content with meeting up with some friends and chilling at coffee shops.
Oh and also, people tend to care about their appearances. I won’t get into the plastic surgery, but even when going out shopping, everyone is dressed really well.
Just a couple of notes if you plan to visit:
After landing in Incheon Airport, I would highly recommend renting a smartphone. I know some people enjoy being lost and exploring new cities, but if you’re only visiting for a few days and trying to fit in all of the sites, a smartphone definitely comes in handy. You can rent a smartphone at various kiosks in the airport, and it only costs $8 per day to rent plus about $0.50/min for local calls, $0.64/min for International calls, $0.04 for local texts and $0.13 for International texts. It’s pretty cheap, and I found myself using the map/gps multiple times throughout the trip.
From the airport, take the Deluxe KAL Bus which will (most likely) take you to your hotel. The bus costs $25 (30,000 won) and takes about an hour with traffic (45 minutes without traffic).
WHAT TO DO?
Gyongbuk Palace - The royal palace on the north side of Seoul. As with any historical site, you really have to read up on it or go on a tour. I would say it’s definitely more for history buffs.
Insadong - Outside Gyongbuk Palace lies Insadong, a somewhat touristy area with various shops selling local crafts, gift shops and street food vendors.
Sinsa-dong Garosugil - A mix of New York City’s Soho and Greenwich village – A tree-lined street filled with small clothing shops, restaurants and of course cafes. It’s a good area to walk around at night too.
Dongdemun - More of a wholesaler shop. Similar to NYC street markets, with many vendors selling the same items.
Myongdong - Huge outdoor shopping area, but with larger merchants/brands
Itaewon - Ex-pat central. Lots of restaurants, bars, and shops with “large” sizes for Americans
Nanta - Entertaining show mixing cooking with comedy. Lively and gets the crowd involved, bringing people on stage.
Seoul tower - A bit disappointing. You get a good view, but Seoul doesn’t have the skyline of an NYC or HK. Plus you need 2 tickets to get to the top (tram up the mountain then up the tower) and tons of lines. 90% of my time at the tower was spent waiting on lines.
DMZ tour through USO - Didn’t make it here, but heard the best tour is through the USO. And make sure to go to the Joint Security Area (JSA), where South Korean and North Korean soldiers have staring contests watch each other.
WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT?
Food in Seoul is pretty amazing, and with any major city, options range from food carts and stalls to expensive restaurants. If you want whatever the locals are eating, head to KwangJang Market (shown below). Here you’ll find a bunch of food stalls selling everything from fresh seafood to pancakes and dumplings.
Most busy areas will have some sort of street food. I grabbed some grilled octopus while in Myongdong, but couldn’t bring myself to get the french fry-covered hot dogs (shown below).
One last place to mention: Vatos Tacos in Itaewon - A Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant serving up some mean kimchi fries. People go nuts over it, but if you’re from NYC, it’s similar to Korilla or any of the other Korean/Mexican fusion trucks.
And remember: Tipping is not customary, and get up and pay at counter so you don’t look lazy. Or because they don’t normally bring the check to your table.