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Hello friends ! If I had to pick a country that I looove it would be Japan 100%. I am obsessed with it. But what about Seoul which is so often compared to Tokyo ? Are both cities similar ?
As you can imagine, I was fired up to visit South Korea and see for myself !
With my fiancé, we took advantage of our 6 months time in Asia to explore the South Korean capital during a 5 days city trip.
Getting around Seoul
Incheon International Airport is one of the main entrances to the country. It is a big and very contemporary place with excellent connection to the city by train (AREX line) and by bus. We were pleased by the 1-hour train serving the central station “Seoul Station” (and the seats were heated sooo ??).
From Seoul Station, it is very easy to get around the city by metro. The metro will definitely bring you almost anywhere – quite fast – and at an affordable price (from $2 approximately by trip for an adult).
Knowing that, the best deal for you would be to purchase a T-Money or Cashbee card at your arrival. They are available at some stations and at convenience stores (GS25, 7-Eleven, Ministop etc.). They can be used within the entire public transportations system (bus and metro) all around Seoul but also in a good part of the country.
Time saver !
Where to stay ?
I really wanted to stay close to a metro station in order to have an easy access to the city center. Done deal with a small guesthouse located only a few steps away from the Hyehwa Station. This is also the name of the neighbourhood. Very calm, almost zero tourists and quite convenient food wise (supermarkets, restaurants…).
To organise your stay and give you a clear view of all Seoul neighbourhoods, I recommend you to check this post by tripadvisor or this one by myseoulsearching.
What to do / what to see ?
Seoul during winter is one serious matter. Oh no, you are not joking with us in november and december Korea. You are not. We were so COLD. Weather in Japan during the same period – in comparison – was like holidays in the bahamas. OK OK, I may be a little over reacting but the cold defeated us big time.
Here are the main activities we fought the cold for:
Admire the Gyeongbokgung palace (partially free)
The biggest of the 5 palaces of the city (the exterior is free but the visit of the palace costs 3000 won, approx. $2.70). This is a must-see in Seoul. We were in luck to be there on time for the changing of the guard. This ceremony is colorful and very impressive !
See the sunset from the N Seoul Tower
You can access the panoramic view by taking the cable car (round trip costs 8500 won, something like $7). It was very cold that night but the gorgeous 360° city view makes you forget about everything. We loved that place !
Stroll through Insa-dong small streets
This is your must-go neighbourhood to shop some handcrafted souvenirs (so many pretty lacquered boxes and traditional clothing stores).
Take a nice walk along the Cheonggyecheon
Another wonderful place that I recommend during a sunny day. This is a lovely walk in the city along the stream and right next to the buildings. Delightful !
Visit the War Memorial of Korea (free entrance)
Very moving and interesting museum. Not very pretty though. Definitely the best place in the city to learn about the long and intense military history in Korea. This museum is huge and you can easily spend an entire afternoon there !
Enjoy an entire day in a Jjimjilbang (Korean spa)
OMG, it was awesome. To make it short, this is a popular and family place devoted to relaxation. Like a regular spa…with a big twist !
The Korean spa always starts with a good body cleansing. You will leave all of your belongings in a locker – including your clothing and underpants – before heading NAKED to the showers and various therapeutics baths (ladies and gents separated !). Don’t forget to scrub yourself with the provided salt to detox your body.
After bath time, women and men are given some kind of pajamas (same for everyone) to access the mixed part of the spa. Magical place divided in various areas: detox rooms (oxygenated, cold, sauna, charcoal cures, jade cures…), restaurant(s), TV room, games, fitness… You can also play ping pong, watch a movie and spend the night there !
We tried the Siloam Sauna located next to Seoul Station and we only paid around $10 per person for a 12 hours (!) access. A-ma-zing.
Visit the Samsung d’light (free entrance)
This is the showcase of the South Korean well known tech brand. From the outside, it was a little bit weird and seedy (you could find many boards accusing Samsung of the dead and health degradation of many factory employees…).
Once inside, the showcase is very futuristic, customised and interesting. Even more if you are an IPhone owner (as you feel slightly less guilty \o/).
We will be back in Seoul to :
- Visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA) : we did not go for two reasons. First and foremost it was too cold and also the operator we really wanted for the visit was full. If you are interested by this visit, I invite you to book your tickets in advance (not like us). At the time of your reservation, you will need to provide your ID paper.
- Go to a movie theater. We did not expect that but Seoul is famous for the quality and the quantity of its cinemas. Screenings in big sofas (or beds !), in 4D, with catering during the movie, VIP passes…there are so many cool and attractive options ! Unfortunately, the experience was a little bit pricey for us at the time. We will definitely go next time !
Where to shop ?
Shopping wise, you will have lots of choice in Seoul ! I did not find it as overwhelming as it is in Tokyo, but the South Korean capital hold its own.
Here are some of the main shopping areas :
- Myeongdong / Dongdaemun are the best spots for malls such as the famous Lotte Department Store, Shinsegae, Myeong-dong Migliore, Noon Square… You will find there lots of big designers boutiques but also many small and “unknown” brands. Some the of Dongdaemun malls are also open until 5 in the morning, this is crazy !
- Insa-dong, where I have seen beautiful Hanboks (the traditional colorful korean dress) and bought an amazing handmade lacquered box. Perfect place to purchase souvenirs !
- Yongsan is mainly dedicated to geeks ! It is well-known for its huge electronic market and tons of specialized places such as the Gundam Café, video games stores, the Studio Ghibli shop…
- The underground COEX mall (Gangnam-gu area) gathers fashion and beauty stores, restaurants and entertainment mainly for teenagers/young adults. Being protected from the cold is a big plus ! I spent quite some time at the Etude House store which is a super popular korean cosmetic brand in Asia.
How good is the Korean food ?
I am big newbie and certain that I missed many things but I don’t remember being wowed by the taste of Korean food.
The main reason behind that is that I can’t do flaming hot food. And boy, they know their spices. To the point of being unbearable for me to eat and appreciate what’s in my plate.
Other big Korean specialty is octopus and I simply don’t like it (fail #2).
In the end, we did alternate a lot between hot dishes from hell or – in the complete opposite way – very bland food. I felt frustrated many times because there are so many food stands, restaurants…
If you are impossible to feed like me, please note that you will be able to find western/foreign restaurants (although we did not try them so I can’t give you any feedback) !
Credit where credit is due, Korean desserts and baked goods are great ! I particularly love the red beans fritters sold usually on the streets. They are soft, crispy, warm and perfect for cold days. I only regret not having more. YUM.
Seoul in a nutshell
I really liked :
- The royal palace
- Life is quite cheap and many visits are free
- The panoramic view from the N Seoul Tower
- All 7 hours spent at the Korean spa
- Walk along the Cheonggyecheon
- The traditional dresses
- The fritters and other sweets (I am 6 years old guys)
- People are often nice and spontaneously help you
I did not like :
- THE COLD
- The hardcore hot spicy food
- Google map, not working fine in Seoul.
- Many soulless buildings in some neighbourhoods
- The creepy ambiance around the Dongdaemun mall at night (to be fair there was a big protest that day)
- Shopping for clothes (hmmm, the “Penetrate” coat ↑)
- Dangerous traffic, Korean people have a bad drivers reputation
- To struggle to get a seated place in the metro (people are ON FIRE)
- At a tech level, I find Tokyo way more futuristic and appealing.
That’s it for today ! I hope you enjoyed my small Seoul city guide.
Have you also been to South Korea ?
Would you like to go ? If yes, let me know why (maybe to see a BTS concert ?)
Des bisous !