We got into Seoul and made it to our apartment next to the Mapo station. The apartment was pretty spacious and clean but didn’t have any internet which really put a damper on our research. We realized how dependent we were on internet and we went into a little bit of internet withdrawal during our stay but managed to get our fix by going to a Starbucks across the street.
Japan was really expensive so I remember asking Diem if Korea was cheaper but she said that it was about the same price. I’m kind of glad that she told me that because I was pleasantly surprised that Korea is much more affordable than Japan. There are a lot of Korean restaurants in Japan but we were saving all our Korean food for Korea. We were craving Korean BBQ and there were a number of BBQ spots next to our apartment and we just picked one. The place was really good and it was nice and refreshing to get the all the banchan and the BBQ pork and beef we got was delicious.
The next day we went to Gwanghwamun Square and saw the King Sejong monument, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Kyobo bookstore. I think this area should be the first stop on anyone’s initial visit to Seoul because there are so many cool things in close vicinity to each other. Gyeongbokgung Palace is the former seat of the Power and is next door to the Blue House (the President’s residence) and the US embassy. The Palace is pretty striking at the end of Seoul’s main boulevard with the mountains in the background. The Palace was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times and is closed on Tuesday. Underneath the King Sejong monument is a museum that details the history of the King and has cool futuristic television and electronic interactive displays. As we were walking around we stumbled upon Cheonggyecheon Stream which is a 5.8-km (3.6-mile) stream. While it's just off Sejongro, one of the busiest boulevards in Seoul, Cheonggyecheon is remarkably quiet because the stream is more than 15 ft. below street level and feels a little like a dugout. You can take an organized walking tour (register online in advance) or stroll alone. It's very serene with small waterfalls, and nearly two dozen overhead bridges. There are also a number of museums lining the main street leading up to the palace.
For lunch we walked down Insadong Street which had a lot of restaurants and shops. Insadong is less than a 10 minute walk from the Gyeongbokgung Palace and is a popular tourist area. The streets and narrow back alleys are lined with art galleries, wooden tea houses, restaurants, cafes, and small shops selling arts and crafts. After lunch we went into the Kimchi Museum, which was cool to learn the history and process. We got some free tastings and they also gave us some free Kimchi bags to take home. The streets were pretty crowded with people and vendors. I was really tempted to get some ice cream or shaved ice but I stayed strong. We were tired and it was starting to get a little rainy so we headed back.
The next morning I went for a run along the Han River. There is a great path along the river bank and there are some good workout stations every couple of miles along with great views of the city, especially The 63 Building, officially the Hanhwa 63 City. The 63 Building is a huge gold skyscraper on Yeouido island overlooking the Han River in Seoul.
After my run we went to Myeong-dong Cathedral then up a cable ropeway to N Seoul Tower. The tower itself isn’t too large but it’s on top of the Mount Namsan which has some beautiful views of the city where you really realize just how huge Seoul is. The balconies at the top around N Seoul Tower are covered in locks, which seems to be the trend nowadays in a number of cities (e.g., Prague and Paris Lover’s Bridges). Since the tower was opened to the public in 1980, it has become a resting place for the citizens of Seoul. The tower also has a state of the art LED light show at night which is cool to watch. We took the ropeway back down and made our way to the Korea War Memorial which has a museum and a number of statues, monuments, and old fighter planes and warships. The museum houses approximately 33,000 artifacts with about 10,000 on display at indoor and outside exhibition halls. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go inside the Museum which details the history of the Korean War but the exterior of the Memorial is really worth seeing. My favorite monuments were the Statue of Brothers and the main War Memorial monument pictured below. Located on the old site of Army Headquarters, the War Memorial was built to commemorate actors and victims in the wars which led to the modern nation state. The museum is free but separate exhibitions may have extra fees.
The next day we went to lunch at a banchan restaurant. We had high hopes because we had seen pictures of meals that covered huge tables including over 30 little dishes. We were a little disappointed though because we only got 19 dishes and they weren’t very good. Afterwards, we went to a Line Friends store and got ice cream. Line Friends are little cartoons that are associated with the Social Networking Mobile App LINE (like a What’s App or Viber). Line was developed in a subsidiary of the Korean Internet search giant Naver and is huge in Asia but hasn’t really caught on in the US. Afterwards, we went to the Design and Cultural Center and walked around. Turns out it’s really just a mall selling stuff but the architecture of the building is pretty spectacular and modern.
Next we went to Olympic Park, a pretty huge area of Seoul that had a number of stadiums, huge parks with different sculptures, nice monuments and the Olympic torch. Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics and the park still looked in good shape even though it wasn’t too crowded. These were the last Olympic Games for two of the world's sport powers, the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games but North Korea boycotted these Olympics. Looking back at the final medal count, I was surprised that the US finished third, behind the USSR and East Germany. Visiting the Olympic Park got me really pumped for this year’s Olympics. Even with all the issues happening in Rio, there are always memorable moments in every Olympics that I really look forward to. Next we went to get all-you-can-eat BBQ which is always good. We couldn’t find the place Diem originally researched but the place we ate at was pretty tasty anyway.
It was raining the next day in Seoul so we went to lunch at this bulgogi ramen shop. It was really spicy and not very good, probably our first bad meal of the honeymoon. Next, we went to the Korean Folk Museum next to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. There was a really interesting statue in front of the Folk Museum. Apparently, this is a game malttukbakgi, where there are two teams. Team A has one person stand up against the wall and the rest of the team have all their heads up in someone else’s butt/crotch area (thus the sort of perverted part) to form what looks like a big ol’ horse or human centipede. Team B then jumps up onto the human horse one by one, each jumping with as much force as possible. If anyone from any team falls to the floor, that team loses. If everyone stays up, then the person against the wall and the person in front will play a game of gawibawibo (rock, scissor, paper) to determine the winner. Even after knowing that, it still looks pretty inappropriate. We got lucky with timing because we got inside the Folk Museum right when they were doing an English guided tour. It was cool to learn about how Korean people lived day to day long ago. As we were leaving the museum, there were spurts of hard rain so we took shelter at a churro and ice cream shop and then made our way back home.
One of the big attractions in South Korea is a tour of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. We took the DMZ Tour from Koridoor Tours. I liked the tour, but we didn’t get to go the Joint Security Area (JSA) where you can step foot in North Korea. The JSA has a limited number of people that can go there each day so those tours fill up quick. If you want to do the JSA make sure to book early because the first available spot for us was 5 weeks out. Even without the JSA, we saw a lot of cool stuff on the DMZ tour, including the Dora Observatory and the 3rd Tunnel. We got back and went to National Museum of Korea, which was free and included a lot of Korean Artifacts. I was hoping it would go into the history of Korea a little more but the building itself is impressive. It’s huge with tall ceilings and a striking design. We had to pack for our bus ride to Busan the next morning so we just headed back.
Seoul was actually a nice surprise for me. We had heard some mixed reviews and we were really worried that it was going to be really hot like Taiwan. The weather was actually really nice despite some rain. The food was really good and not too expensive and the city is a really great mix of traditional Korean culture and the modern technology developed and on display around Seoul.
Check out the full gallery of our Seoul adventures here: Seoul, Korea.