Last week may not have been the best week to visit Korea (which was during the height of the North-South kerfuffle), but Seoul is definitely the right place to visit. Seoul nearly didn’t make the cut when I was putting together my itinerary, and it would have been a huge mistake to skip it.
While the situation there has now been resolved, at least for the time being, it did mean that my DMZ tour was cancelled due to “increased tension at the border,” but other than that, there was no sign of any disturbance whatsoever in Seoul. Even without having been, I would still feel confident recommending this tour (the one run by the U.S.O. seems to be the most consistently highly rated), as it is always billed as the thing to do in Seoul and a solid first-hand introduction to the ongoing conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
I will talk first about what I loved most in Seoul: the food. Eating in Seoul will be heavenly for some and nightmarish for others. Do you love barbecue beef, fried food, and beer? Do you think dessert should be enjoyed thrice daily? Then Seoul is the city for you. I loved every minute of it. My general stance on eating is pro-dessert, anti-vegetable, and Seoulites delivered.
My first encounter with the Seoul food scene was walking through Myeongdong, an area where you’ll find lost of cheap shopping, lots of canoodling teenagers, and lots of fried food.
There’s a perpetual smell of fried oil throughout most of Myeongdong that is somehow not as gross as it sounds, and you’ll find everything from fried shrimp, to bubbling, spicy fish cakes, to fresh orange juice and churros (churros are HUGE in Seoul). I first enjoyed one of these excellent potato numbers known as the “tornado potato,” which is like a cross between a potato chip and a French fry, served on a stick with various flavored powders that are about as gross as the flavorings you can get on your popcorn at the movie theater, but delicious.
The fish cakes are also worth noting, which taste like chewy rice cakes in some very spicy sauce (it’s really quite good, despite that uninspired description), and you can wash it all down with some soft serve ice cream inside a crunchy churro and call it a meal. Seoul gets it.
Barbecue beef is the slightly classier thing to eat in Seoul and you’ll find this signature offering at every price point. There is a “downside” to enjoying bulgogi (which literally means “fire meat,” though it’s not spicy) as a solo traveler in Seoul, which is that it’s often served only in a portion for two people. Personally, I saw this as an advantage, but it can be a bit embarrassing when a spread like this shows up when you’re expecting a casual lunch.
But, oh, the dessert. People of Seoul, how do you do it? I am a card-carrying dessert lover and the possibilities are endless. Ice cream, shakes, snow cones, waffles, fried waffles, bubble tea, cupcakes, pastries, buns, endless candy options, crepes, churros, Korean desserts of varying weirdness, all can be had in Seoul, and often several at once. Sometimes you’ll get dessert even when you don’t order it.
If you’re a sophisticated gourmand and/or someone who would like a proper meal every once in a while, Seoul is, of course, a huge city with lots of high-end food options and plenty that has never seen the inside of a deep fryer or a candy wrapper. Traditional Korean cuisine can range from dirt cheap to very expensive, so you’ll be able to partake in local food culture without resorting to eating a fried potato on the sidewalk, but the latter is much more fun. My last night in Seoul, I was so worried about having everything one more time that I ate an entire meal’s worth of street food before popping into a barbecue joint for a bulgogi dinner (of course, it was a portion for two people).
Seoul suffers from much the same affliction that Japan does; though they both have very old cultures and strong ties to their ancient histories, almost nothing is really that old because they, along with the Chinese, with an assist from the Americans, have spent the last 200-300 years destroying each other’s stuff. In that sense, it can be hard to find evidence of traditional Korean culture in Seoul, but Samcheongdong is the lone holdout.
Start at the Changdeokgung palace, one of Seoul’s “Five Grand Palaces” from the Joseon Dynasty that ruled for 500 years, before heading up into the neighborhood in the surrounding hills. Come prepared for steep hills, but if you get there earlier enough, you’ll have the place to yourself. Weirdly, I think all these streets filled with lookie-loos are still mainly private residences, but this neighborhood is a small window into old Korea, and you’ll see some traditional houses as well as shops selling both modern boutique-y items and Korean crafts.
Though the historic sites in Seoul are squashed between modern buildings, the city does a great job preserving its historic temples and palaces, so even though you might see a McDonald’s across the street from the Gyeongbokgung, the biggest of the city’s five palaces, you won’t find a Starbucks inside the walls, and I was pleasantly surprised by how peaceful the palace grounds were even late on a weekend afternoon. I had to laugh at this though:
I frankly have no idea what this whole thing was about, but I stumbled across this parade outside Deoksugung (yet another of the five palaces) on my first afternoon in Seoul. It felt like a wonderful throwback and a look at a more traditional side of Korean culture, but the concluding march past the Dunkin Donuts didn’t allow for much nostalgia.
I only came to appreciate this about Seoul once I left, but compared to Shanghai, where you can see Western influences every time you turn around, Korea was wonderfully free of colonial remnants. This is obviously in part due to the two countries’ respective histories, but in Seoul, I felt like I really understood at least part of Korean culture, whereas in Shanghai it can be hard to see China not through the lens of (French) colonial influences.
Shopping in Seoul is, not surprisingly, one of the city’s main activities and you’ll find everything from crowded, run-down street stalls selling all kinds of crap, to the fanciest stores you’ve ever seen. Truly, these places show up the best of Madison Avenue. Seoul department stores and malls are refreshingly free of Western designer labels for the most part, so a spin through Shinsegae or the ultra-chic, quirky Doota! is a great way to get a glimpse of Korean high fashion, which can be interesting even for the non-sartorially inclined set.
I liked Seoul so much more than Tokyo because you could get out of the city, and I did. Bukhansan National Park is less than an hour by public transportation and you will feel like you’ve landed in a sleepy mountain hours from the city. Everything I’d read online led me to believe that hiking here was challenging, but doable, so I showed up in my meager tennis shoes with a purse to find groups of Koreans fully decked out in rainbow-colored hiking gear (this is apparently a popular thing in Korea) with walking sticks, packed lunches, and heavy-duty hiking shoes. As native Coloradans often do, I wrote off all these people as having no idea what a “real” mountain is and set off.
Two and a half hours later, I could be found pulling myself up to the top on sheer rock face using the metal railing (there for guidance, not stability) because my shoes had no traction, and I practically passed out at the summit from the last mile of near-vertical assent up a “trail” that was basically just a pile of rocks. So needless to say, the very friendly and well-equipped Koreans (who insisted on taking the below picture) got the last laugh.
For the average loser such as myself, Bukhansan will kick your ass, but it will be worth it. Though views of the city aren’t fantastic due to fog and smog, standing on the summit is still damn impressive and the craggy peaks offer some pretty unique scenery.
Finally, I have to put in a word for Nanta. This is the longest running show in Seoul and it’s basically what would happen if the Blue Man Group performed at Benihana, with a guest appearance from the cast of Drumline. Beyond that, Nanta is hard to describe and while it’s not short on silliness, it’s a good laugh if you go with it (unlike the utterly joyless Russians in front of me, who clearly were expecting something a bit more substantial). There is audience participation, depending on how you feel about that. I got the dreaded/coveted opportunity to go on stage to participate in the dumpling challenge, which is about as ridiculous as it sounds. My team did win, as a side note, you guys can feel free to be impressed. Below is the complimentary, hi-def photo they gave me after the show as proof of our victory.
Part of makes Seoul so interesting, but also very uncanny, is just how similar it can feel to the U.S. (and in many ways, nicer). The self-explanatory and worthwhile War Memorial of Korea, with its white marbled expanse, looks like it could be in the middle of the National Mall and the now-immortalized Gangnam could be the cool kids’ neighborhood in any cosmopolitan city.
Another interesting neighborhood in Seoul is Itaewon, a must-visit and must-leave-quickly neighborhood. The area is near the U.S. military base and known for its huge expat presence and shops selling cheap, bespoke suits. While seeing Mexican restaurants in Korea can be entertaining for a minute, and you’ll find some delicious bulgogi here at Maple Tree, you’ll soon totally lose track of the amazing city you’re in amongst the Nike stores and KFC’s. Everyone will tell you Itaewon is the place to go after dark, but don’t. The whole area is basically a giant frat party for American military personnel and you might as well have gone to South Beach for spring break.
In the way that I felt lost in Tokyo, I felt I really got to know Seoul, which is a place with a lot of character and I would say, knowing what I know now, the perfect big Asian city to start in. Of course, thousands of little things make Seoul a place entirely different from anywhere else, but a first-time visitor here won’t feel completely out of his element.
I don’t think you can ever really know a country by visiting its huge, international city. Can you really know the U.S. if you’ve only been to Manhattan? In that sense, I haven’t really seen Korea, but Seoul was fantastic and I’m wondering why it isn’t a more popular destination among Westerners. For a city of its size, I found it to be very affordable and easily navigable for non-Korean speakers.
Quick side-bar: I’ve been talking a lot about the prevalence of English/lack thereof so far on my trip in Asia, and I just want to drive home what is, I hope, the obvious point that I don’t in any way think this makes one place better than another. As Americans, we’re very lucky that we can get away with being monoglots when we travel, and I certainly don’t think any country has an obligation to cater to the English-speaking world with bilingual signs, menus, information, etc.
That said, as a tourist, I’ve found it helpful to know what to expect language-wise and how to effectively pick restaurants, navigate a city, etc. without any local language skills. I’m going to be so bold as to guess that most of you reading this don’t speak Japanese or Korean (or Chinese or Thai or any other Asian language), so I’m simply passing along what my experience has been in these countries as an English speaker, but that is by no means a commentary on a place’s worth.
Anyway, because I’m so behind, I’m leaving Shanghai very soon and will post again about my time here once I get to my next stop, Xi’an.