One year ago today, I was in Seoul, South Korea. We spent three days in total there last winter. We were heading to Bali to celebrate my birthday (Hey! Happy Birthday to me!). Now, while I admit that geography is not my strong suit, I will also admit to not being able to pass up a good seat sale. Air Canada, our national airline, was celebrating its new route to Seoul, South Korea and was offering a seat sale.
We left Toronto before noon and landed in Seoul around 4 pm the next day. The first impression of Incheon airport? It is massive! It is also extremely well organized. A walk to a train and then a train to immigration, and a few short steps to baggage claim. The airport boasts a 0.01% lost baggage rate!
Getting around this city of over 10.29 million people (if you count Seoul Capital area, there are 25.6 million people) is remarkably efficient. From the airport, there are two trains that take you into town. The express train which goes to Seoul Station in 45 minutes and the regular subway that takes roughly 1 hour. The subway map is a thing of beauty. Seriously, Toronto, listen up, this is what a subway system should look like! The subway stations also have their different exits numbered and marked. (For our hotel, we were told to take exit 7, which resulted in us having to walk one short block to the hotel.) Note: With that many people living in the city, car traffic is a nightmare. The transit system really is the better way to get around.
I’m not sure exactly what my thoughts were on Seoul prior to going – I wasn’t expecting the unbelievably modern, high tech city that we found. There are brand new high rise buildings everywhere. The major city roads are six lanes each way.
The city is super clean, which is remarkable given the number of people. (Washroom-phobic North Americans take note, the public washrooms available everywhere are clean, extremely well-maintained and free.)
While the weather ended up being much colder than was originally forecast (we packed for a range between 8C and -4C, but found ourselves with temperatures that ranged from -15C to -10C), the abundance of tea and coffee houses gave us plenty of spots to warm up. I will point out that the coffee shops have their own unique style – they range from cat cafes to Hello Kitty to Miss Lee. (Miss Lee is the “Korean Cafe for Dates and Written Dreams”. It is also supposedly a good spot to see Korean celebrities.)
Three days were not enough to see and do everything. If you are going to Seoul, here are some things to put on your to-see list!
We stayed at the brand new Four Seasons hotel, which was absolutely stunning and well-located. It’s near the subway, thus allowing us to avoid the absolute crazy traffic – we could walk to the Royal Palace and many other sites. One of our favourite aspects of the hotel is that it is home to the very secret speakeasy, the Charles H bar.
One of our first spots was to tour was the Royal Palace (Gyeongbokgung Palace), the largest of the five grand palaces, built in 1395 (read more about it three weeks from now, February 14).
We, by chance, arrived just before the changing of the guard ceremony. The guards march in and then undergo inspection.
While we were there, we met two high school students, Jeongeun and Sandy, who were giving tours. We walked around the Palace with them for a few hours listening to the history of the Palace and talking to them about their lives in Seoul.
The Jogyesa Buddhist Temple with its steel warriors standing watch was established in 1395, but it’s the 1938-built Daeungjeon Hall at the temple which holds the Sakyamuni Buddha. This is the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Here you can also see the seven-story pagoda.
Insadong is where craft and art lovers will want to stroll to check out the various stores, modern galleries and tea houses. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the street was dominated by “Dohwawon”, a place of study for painters. The main street (Insadong-gil) radiates alleys that head off into the district. The area is the centre point for traditional Korean culture and crafts as well as items that can only be purchased in Korea. At one time, it was the largest market for antiques and artwork.
It was cold, so we took advantage of the many restaurants to warm up with big bowls of noodle soup. (It doesn’t matter what you order, you get a side of kimchi!)
In the Insadong area, there is a giant, multi-level mall, Ssamzigil, where the stores on each level are connected by a spiral walkway of ramps. It is referred to as a “special Insadong within Insadong”. If you walk up the ramps, past all the little stores (70 in total) which sit side-by-side you will reach the Sky Garden. There’s everything from hugely expensive china, ceramics and art, to stores selling novelty items.
While in one of the stores, we came across a little purse. We asked the sales clerk “why is the cat in a banana”? Her reply? “I don’t know, I’m only part-time”. I guess only to full-time employees are all the secrets revealed! If you go to Seoul, and you find a full-time clerk, please find out the answer for us!
We took the subway out to the Eastern Palace and Secret Garden (Changdeokgung Palace). For 270 years, this palace was favoured by the Joseon Dynasty Kings and government. Built in 1405, it was damaged by the Japanese invasion (1592), but has managed to retain many of its original features. The reason that the gardens are so beautifully-constructed and well maintained? The Palace and gardens were built on Feng Shui principles. Touring the gardens, you can see the Donhwamun Gate (1412), a two-story wooden pavilion, and the Geumcheongyo Bridge (the oldest surviving bridge in Seoul from 1411). The gardens consist of lotus ponds, pavilions, landscaped gardens, flower beds and water features. To take full advantage of this beautiful spot, please take one of the many daily organized tours. I’d love to go back in warmer weather and see the gardens in all their glory. (Although we were quite often told “how lucky we were to see it in the snow”.)
We walked to the nearby Cheonggyecheon Stream which is not only very scenic, but has a massive ceramic tile mural and (at some points) piped-in music. The mural depicts the journey of King Jeongjoy (the 22nd Joseon monarch) who accompanied his mother, Queen Hyegyeonggung Honsag, in 1795 to visit the tomb of his father at Husaseong (now Suwon). The procession included 1,779 people and 779 horses departing from Changdeokgung Palace and crossing Gwangtonggyo Bridge to Hwaseong. The tiles are based on the sketches that were commissioned by the King upon his return and are considered to be of great historical value both as a painting and a documentary of the royal court.
For food lovers, we explored Gwangjang Market (previously Dongdaemun Market) and I even made a new friend who decided to jump in next to me. We were sitting at a bench eating lunch when a man came up and dumped a live octopus into the empty tank right next to me. Pull up a seat, the more the merrier!
The food stalls are housed in Korea’s oldest covered market and offer lots of choices for things to eat and things to buy. What may be the national dish of South Korea, kimchi, is front and center! You can see kimchi lovingly being made. Fun fact on kimchi: you can not take it in your carry-on bag if you are flying out of Incheon airport. There are big signs in the airport specifically telling you that kimchi is a forbidden carry-on item. If you really want to take it back, you have to pack it in your checked luggage.
Korean Barbecue is hot in Toronto right now and we explored the birthplace of Korean BBQ by doing the Ultimate Korean Barbecue Night with Ken. Ken is the same guy who toured Anthony Bourdain around when he wanted to try Korean BBQ (Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown: South Korea). There was another stop on the tour with various pancakes and then late-night karaoke singing, but that might have to be another blog post!
We also ate at Woo Lae Oak and slurped the famous naengmyeon (cold – like icy-cold – buckwheat noodles) that have been served since 1946. The restaurant is still family run! It was a little strange eating cold noodles when it was so cold outside, but they were delicious. They had the BEST kimchi at Woo Lae Oak!
We couldn’t pass up trying what must be the national drink: soju! This fermented alcoholic beverage is sold everywhere! You can walk into the 7-11 and buy it in all its varieties. Traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley, its alcohol content varies from about 16.8% to 53% alcohol by volume. This old-school beverage recently got an update and now comes in “flavoured” soju varieties: blueberry, pomegranate, grapefruit and peach, to name but a few. Soju is traditionally consumed in shots, neat. It is poor form to pour your own and poor form to let your neighbour sit with an empty glass! (Now you know how the above-mentioned karaoke singing came about!). Missing soju? You can buy it at the LCBO in Ontario.
The only disappointment of our trip our dinner at Gaon, which was recently awarded three Michelin stars. The meal and experience were not worthy of one star, let alone three. We would NOT recommend spending the money to go to this (extremely difficult to find) Gangnam restaurant.
The country of South Korea is getting ready to host their second Olympics in the city of PyeongChang (please don’t confuse this with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea) next month. If you’re planning on heading over, go a few days early and do some Seoul searching of your own. I know that we will be back for further contemplation.