✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
I’ll be blunt. We’re eating our way through Seoul, unable to pass whatever’s being fried or boiled or grilled at the next street vendor. I could lie and say we’re focused on the museums and historical sights of this massive city, and taking in the modern culture (and odd American exports). That’s all happening, but only between meals. And snacks. And meal-snacks.
A lot of that is thanks to the incredibly friendly people who keep pointing us in the right direction. Locals regularly walk right up to us — personal space, they care not! — if we look remotely lost or confused (so, every day). That’s surprising for a city this large, dense and cosmopolitan.
Seoul is home to nearly 11 million people, all packed into about 233 hilly square miles. Think of New York City, add about 2 million people and take away 75 square miles. (Include Seoul’s metro area and the population balloons to 25 million, almost half of South Korea’s population.)
It’s a bustling city with towering buildings and shopping centers seemingly atop every subway stop (and there are a ton of subway stops). There’s a steady stream of people on almost every sidewalk and subway platform. Food is everywhere, from Korean barbecue restaurants and open-air markets to vendors selling vegetables and fruits in alleys. Or just someone sitting at a street corner selling herbs (or purses or socks or paintings).
In other words, Seoul is dense. But it doesn’t really feel that way. I don’t feel especially rushed or in anyone’s way (and I’m always in someone’s way … ask Jan). Maybe that’s because I lived in Chicago, similar in train and sidewalk jostling. Or because the train system here is clean and so efficient (it can take you everywhere, easily and cheaply). Or maybe, again, it’s because locals are so friendly, so we never feel like total outsiders.
Another surprise are the quiet reprieves, from the sprawling Olympic Park and the Cheonggyecheon Riverwalk (more on both below) and most every cafe. Among our favorite: a dimly lit bar, two stories above a bar-filled street below, playing only vinyl records of 1960’s-70’s soul and rock music.
But first: The food!
We didn’t eat anything we didn’t want to eat again. Even the burritos — don’t judge me! — were great in Itaewon. The area has a ton of English and seems geared toward expats, especially U.S. military personnel, or locals looking for American or European food.
But our favorite meal was at the sprawling Wang Jang street market, on the northeast side of the city. Fried veggie pancakes, fresh dumplings and rice wine (that we sipped out of a bowl after watching how other people did it) cost less than $10 U.S. It took us about 10 minutes to eat because no breathing was involved. (It’s the photo below of, um, empty plates). Had it not been so far from our hostel, I would’ve gone back every day.
This is also where we learned that, when locals are taking your photo and saying “hot, hot,” what they’re trying to say is “heart.” As in, cross your thumb and index finger to make what looks like a small heart. At the time, the jolly lady taking our photo just showed us the hand gesture while saying “hot, hot.” We thought, “Yeah, I guess it’s pretty hot outside.” About an hour later, another woman handed us a rice crispy treat-ish thing shaped like a heart, saying “hot, hot.” Traveler epiphany! They mean heaRRRt! As in, I heart South Korea. And we do!
Focus! On the Food
I digress … the takeout fried chicken was great, which we ate on a park bench while being stalked by two feral cats.
And of course, go to a Korean barbecue restaurant. The waiter must’ve spotted my expandable dress because he dropped off a pile of meat that could’ve fed six people. The only thing hotter than the no-safety-coating metal box under the table holding the coals (hello, thrice burned knee caps!) was the kimchi. It hurt my ears it was so spicy. But I didn’t care.
Such restaurants are most everywhere. We went to one in Itaewon because (being honest here) we were tired, weren’t catching on to the local language like we did in Japan, and we weren’t sure on local etiquette for cooking the meat (Google was not helpful). We succumbed to being tourists and wanted to be near some English in case we needed to ask dumb questions.
Don’t skip the street vendors, especially the meat skewers. Cheap, spicy, full of flavor. Zero stomach issues later. We had them in both the Myeongdong shopping district and in the posh Gangnam neighborhood.
No Gangnam Style
Buy nothing else in the Gangnam district, though. Definitely go to see the stores — some of which look like modern art museums — as well as for the people watching and to be bombarded with ads for plastic surgery.
Even the seemingly makeshift shops in the underground subway station are overpriced. The same shoes and shirts and dresses are all cheaper in other neighborhoods, and a lot of the stores above ground are American or European. So unless you love shopping, hold on to your money here.
There also seems to maybe be more selfie taking with expensive sunglasses than actual buying of expensive sunglasses. So Jan joined in. Here’s his take: “When in Gangnam, I got some new glasses and Erin got a Ferrari. She’s also considering a little nip tuck after seeing all the plastic surgery ads. #gangnamstyle “
If you need a break from all the crowds, visit Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Summer Olympics. It’s a sprawling area in the Bangi-dong neighborhood with large gardens, steep hills and open, well-manicured space between the stadiums.
The park is home to the Mongchontoseong Fortress, basically a walking path atop the remains of earthen fortifications from the Baekje Period. It’s a steep walk and provides great views between trees of the city below. The sculpture park is a tad dated but interesting, with amusingly descriptions (most along the lines of “This represents life!”)
We went on a weekday, and it was nearly empty, save for a group of cyclists and other meandering walkers. (A bonus: It has an entire stadium for handball!) But food options are limited. Only one cafe was open, and the options along the streets near the main entrance seemed to all be coffee shops. There are a few vending machines with water and other beverages, so pack a lunch.
There’s also the small Mongchon Museum of History, which seemed to be focused on excavation work in the park. There was very little English, and several displays geared toward children, so you can probably skip it. It took us about 20 minutes to go through, looking at everything, but it was pretty hot inside (so not a place to cool off with air conditioning).
Also take a stroll down the 7-mile riverwalk alongside the Cheonggyecheon, a stream that flows through the middle of Seoul. There’s great graffiti art along the stone walls, along with more formal historical art representing Korea’s past and the river’s history. (One plaque lightly brushes on the fact that many vendors were tossed out of the area during the redevelopment project.)
We saw at least two cranes hunting for fish in the river, which caught everyone’s camera attention. There are also areas where you can sit and put your feet in the water, which is great if you’ve been walking non-stop. Restaurants and shops abound on the streets above.
We read that protests are common in the area, and we came across two the day we went. Lots of police, though they didn’t seem too concerned … a few were napping.
The hostel (mistake)
It was cheap! But, we should’ve spent more money on accommodations rather than stay at YaKorea Dongdaemun Hostel in Jongno-gu, especially given we were in Seoul for six days. (We didn’t, um, look at its social media page before booking … that would’ve been a clue.)
If you’re just looking for an inexpensive place to sleep that’s close to a major subway line — and will be eating out for all meals — it could work. All the employees are super friendly, offered to help us book tours or translate. It just wasn’t the place for us.
We had a private room and bathroom, but both were tiny and barren: the room had single bunkbeds, a tiny corner table and one chair. The hostel’s shared kitchen was tiny, with a small sink and a two-burner hotplate, and in the only common area. This being shared by a hostel that easily had a couple dozen rooms.
We also learned the hard way — around 3 a.m. the first night — that it seems to house travelers with guitars and a penchant for loud, jovial singing.
Gah, almost forgot about the odd American exports! The strangest by far being a $640 statue of Sharon Stone, prominently displayed at an electronics store. Think about that: $640! Chicago, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina … you’re also here. Kind of.
That’s an odd note to end the post. But maybe a good lead-in to our next experience: visiting the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the area along the South Korea-North Korea border. It is, oddly, a tourist site — complete with commemorative chocolates and a Popeye’s restaurant near barbed-wire fences and armed soldiers. Stay tuned.