Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, has something for everyone and if you have a few days to a week you can easily be educated and entertained without breaking the bank. What more could you want from a city than great food, shopping, culture and a nightlife that has no limits?
Take a stroll through the Insadong traditional market in the heart of Seoul. It is a playground of art galleries, souvenir, fashion shops, traditional tea houses, bars and restaurants. Often you will see artists, fortune tellers and musicians lining the street (which is closed to traffic) and the atmosphere is peaceful and relaxed.
If you can go during the week you will avoid the crowds. There are several beautiful temples within walking distance including Yogseya Temple which is also known as Buddhist Street. Many shops stock temple products including candles, lanterns, books and monks robes. Store owners don’t mind if tourists buy souvenirs from here but it is nice to make a small donation which goes to local temples as the markup on products is minimal.
One thing about the Insadong area is it is falling victim to commercialism. The government has rules in place regarding issues such as building heights and the kinds of business allowed on the main street of Insadong but adjourning streets now have Starbucks, McDonalds and other big chains. And this has shut out many of the small vendors that occupied the side streets because they couldn’t afford the rents on the main street. For this reason it is worth visiting the artistic and historical area that could look totally different next time you visit Korea.
Some other tourist attractions that are worth visiting include Seoul Tower for a scenic walk up the mountain and amazing views of the city on a clear day. The Korea War Memorial Museum with a vast outdoor collection of vintage airplanes and tanks, Seoul Racecourse, Everland Amusement Park, Seodaemun Prison which is now a museum and Seoul Grand Park which includes a zoo with toilets designed so you can see the giraffes while you use the facilities – unique but strange!
Food lovers will be in heaven in Korea. Generally the food is tasty, healthy and unlike any other country’s cuisine. Must try dishes include samgypsal (barbecued pork), bibimbap (rice and vegetables), jajangmyon (glass noodles and vegetables with a black sauce), mandoo (dumplings), samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) and ojingadobap (very spicy squid, vegetables and rice).
If you are feeling adventurous and very hungry you could try bosintang (dog). Most Westerns get squeamish at the thought and it has been a very controversial issue in the media but you might have to try it if your motto is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Dog meat is often eaten in the summer months and Koreans claim it balances body heat and energy levels. For sure it is an acquired taste as is kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage eaten with almost every meal including breakfast).
Most Koreans speak at least some English, especially the younger generation. If you get really stuck and need a translator head to the nearest pharmacy as pharmacists are required to study English as part of their training.
Transportation is cheap and convenient. There are extensive bus, subway and train systems running from early morning until around midnight and taxis are very cheap too. And it all continues to run during public holidays.
The nightlife in Seoul starts early and ends late too. There are bars to be found everywhere and socializing is an important part of Korean culture. In summer months Koreans like to go out because it is too hot to sleep and in winter when the snow is falling and below temperatures are normal, drinking is considered a way to keep warm. Nightclubs generally have a cover charge but you often get a free drink. If night clubbing is your scene head to Hongdae to party with a young university crowd or to Apujongto hit the dance floor with Seoul’s wealthy youth and beautiful expat model types. The music scene is growing and the city is attracting more big-name DJs and artists Other popular evening entertainment venues are karaoke singing rooms, jazz bars and traditional soju bars Soju isa Korean spirit made from rice or sweet potato and it is extremely potent. It is often served as straight shots and sometimes mixed with juice and served in fruit. Beware of the soju. It can be the cause of an early night if you have to much too soon or a late night if you just have too much soju-fueled fun.
A visit to a Korean sauna can be a cultural experience as well as a relaxing retreat. Most saunas are separated into sections for men and women but some are coed. There are showers, warm, hot and cold pools, steam saunas and resting areas where you are welcome to nap for hours on end. For about $10 you can get a exfoliating massage which will take about an hour. Don’t be surprised if a Korean asks you to scrub their back as this is considered as normal as helping someone by offering to open a door.