There There: Seoul, S. Korea Travel Guide

Apgujeong, Seoul street crossing Seoul, South Korea Traveling through this megacity is like looking into a kaleidoscope. It gives you this dazzling view of colorful changing patterns and a sense of random chaos. But stripped down, it’s made up of the same elements shining brightly, but differently, with a collective penchant for harmony.

What makes SEOUL so exciting is that it has something in store for everyone. I mean really, FOR EVERYONE.

Foodies, history buffs, tech geeks, k-pop fanatics, indie hipsters, outdoor junkies, nature lovers, city slickers, fashionistas, mall rats, alley cats, cheapskates, luxury travelers, culture vultures, artsy people, daysleepers, early birds, the children, and the child-at-heart.

*Scroll down the page to download a sample itinerary and budget breakdown.

Myeongdong, Seoul shopping district

You can climb Bugaksan in your trek shoes then party in heels at a posh Gangnam club on the same day. Or spend a lazy afternoon marveling at Joseon dynasty architecture while you recover from an adrenalin-filled trip to Everland (a popular theme park) the day before.

There are plenty of things to do here 24/7 (yes, even past midnight!) that even if you spend 12 days Seoul searching like me, you’d still end up wanting more.

Some of these managed to escape the blank space - blinking cursor territory and became actual posts:
Biking along the Han River
Art overload at Heyri Art Village
DMZ Tour and stepping foot on N. Korean soil
Lazy afternoon at a cat cafe
Seoul neighborhoods you'd want to get lost in

But while the sights and activities make SEOUL interesting, it is in those idle moments that you pick up on its intriguing parts.

Cheonggyecheon Stream Seoul

The mural tells of a Joseon king’s 6,000-man caravan walking along Cheonggyecheon’s banks. Thousands of years later, people still walk this same path.

Most wired country – not just in terms of technology, but more so when it comes to their social DNA. People watching, I wonder how it’s like to be an individual in a society with such a strong shared identity. How much of the ‘I’ is shaped by the ‘we’? This shared culture seems to be everyone’s compass, and to be in the midst of it even for just a short while was definitely interesting – and most fun.

So I guess for this guide I’ll try to cover a bit of both: tips on how to navigate the landscape and the culture. Just enough information to kickstart your travel plans, but not taking away from you the joy and confusion of it all.

Annyeonghaseyo Seoul!

Mornings and Airports

flights, visas, and airports

Incheon International Airport is the gateway to Seoul. You can book flights with Cebu Pacific or Air Asia for as low as Php 4,000 if you chance upon a good seat sale offer. There are four seasons to choose from when deciding on the timing of your visit. Of course, if you’re from the tropics like me, summer (June – August) is the least attractive. For the likes of us, it’s jacket weather we look forward to: spring cherry blossoms are usually expected in early April, leaves start to change color in September, while December kicks off the winter season.

TIP: Certain festivals are associated with the each of the seasons. You might want to check their schedules beforehand to see if there’s one you’d like to catch. Click here for a listing of festivals in Seoul area, and here for the rest of South Korea.

Man at the Lotus Lantern Festival at Seoul's Jogyesa Temple

The Lotus Lantern Festival is a month-long celebration held in spring to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Here, a man holds a lantern at the Jogye-sa temple after the Lotus Lantern Parade where hundred thousands of these glowers lit up the main streets of downtown Seoul. They say you can make a wish for each lantern you hang. But in case you don’t have one, the big tree in the background is a wishing tree. I saw people hugging it, whispering their heart’s desires.

For Filipinos, a visa is a requirement to travel to South Korea. But don’t fret. It is (still) generally easy to apply for one, and not to mention, free. No appearance required nor interviews. All you need to do is to submit the requirements (or have someone drop them off) at the Korean embassy located in McKinley/C5 area. Make sure though to read and follow all the instructions to avoid delay. You can view the requirements here.

CULTURE TIDBIT #1 Don’t just fly, arrive in style. In Korea, there’s this thing called AIRPORT FASHION, and it’s a big deal. Buy into it or not, all I can say is – at least Manila is just a 4-hour flight to Seoul.

A river runs through it

Yeouido Hangang Park Seoul

The Han River: It bisects the capital – Gangbuk (north of the river) and Gangnam (south of the river) style. Gangnam may be more popular because of the song, but it is actually the newer part of Seoul characterized by its wealth, gloss, and trendy places. Gangbuk, on the other hand, is home to the historical, music, and arts districts of Seoul, where majority of the city’s tourist attractions are also located.

where to stay

When picking out accommodations in Seoul, personally it’s a toss between Myeongdong and Hongdae. Myeongdong is central to all the tourist attractions – the palaces, night markets, the N Seoul Tower, and department stores. It’s the best place to stay if it’s convenience you’re after. But if it’s a neighborhood with a vibe kind of thing you’re looking for, Hongdae is your district. (Read more about Hongdae here.)

As for what type of accommodation to book, hostels and guesthouses will already give you a nice comfortable stay. Both offer private rooms (with private bathrooms) in case dorm-type accommodations are not your thing.

There are also the more interesting alternatives: hanok-style (traditional Korean homes) guesthouses and Buddhist temple-stay options for the culture vultures, and a home stay option for those who want to be hosted by a local.

CULTURE TIDBIT #2 The Han River is the heart of Seoul. It has lain witness to Seoul’s glorious times and darkest moments. These days, people cross its bridges or find solace in its banks; the river silently taking in the city and its people’s everyday hustle and humdrum.

getting around

I ❤ Seoul’s Subway System!!! It’s very cheap, efficient, and gets you everywhere. Pretty easy to navigate especially if you download the Seoul Metro App (for iPhone, for Android). There are various types of transport cards (read about it here), and while the M-Pass is the one being packaged for tourists, I’m voting against it and insist that you purchase the Seoul City Pass Plus instead. Why? Simply because you are not joining the Amazing Race, and it’s quite unlikely that you’ll use up the 20 train/bus rides for the day.

TIP: Know your subway exit points. Navigating the subway lines are easy, the exit points are the tricky part. It will save you a lot of time and energy if you know which exit you’re supposed to go. Especially for the main stations, you might end up walking an extra couple of hundred meters if you make a mistake. Trust me, you don’t want this to happen to you too often during your trip. You need your leg power for better things.

There’s a special bus for tourists called the Seoul City Tour Bus – a hop on/hop off bus service circulating the main tourist sites in and around Seoul. Didn’t avail of this option so I couldn’t really comment much about it, but it seems like a good deal for those who want to maximize the city in a day.

CULTURE TIDBIT #3 You are free to talk in subways. But priority seats are taken seriously. Don’t even dare!

Maps

get a map then get lost

Get a map before leaving Incheon airport. Once you’re out and about, get the local map from each of the district’s tourism office. Popular tourist districts like Myeongdong, Insadong, Hongdae, Itaewon, etc. have one. Be on the lookout for maps with discount coupons to local non-verbal productions (Nanta, Bboy, Fantastick, etc). They are super entertaining – not just the show, but the experience of sitting with a Korean live audience.

TIP: Feel free to walk, wander, and get lost in Seoul, but know that your legs and feet are in for a real challenge. Seoul lies on hilly terrain that walking around can be considered a cardio workout. Pace yourself well.

From the show, "Ballerina Who Loved a B-boy"

From the show, “Ballerina Who Loved a B-boy”.

get connected

There are 10,000 free public wifi zones in Seoul. Soooo amazing!!! Most establishments also give free wifi access to their customers, but if it’s a dedicated connection you need, pocket wifi rental is available at the airport (or in your hostel/guesthouse, maybe).

 TIP: Check receipts for wifi passwords.

CULTURE TIDBIT #4 Bridge the language barrier by learning a few basic words and phrases you’ll need during your stay:
–  Annyeong haseyo means Hello!
–  Jogiyo means Excuse me.
–  Kamsamnida means Thank you.
–  Ne/Aniyo/Eodi means Yes/No/Where

Eat your kimchi

Unlimited banchan (Seoul travel)

Side dishes (banchan) are Korean dining staples, served for free in restaurants. There are many types, but of course, the constant is none other than Korea’s national dish – kimchi.

food, drinks, and alcohol

When it comes to food and travel, I’m usually more of the kunsanma type – “kung saan maabutan”, which is why it was a good thing that almost everywhere in Seoul, there’s always a good mix of food choices depending how you want to dine (street food, fast food, or resto/cafe dining) or on what kind of food you want to eat (Korean, other Asian, or western cuisine).

On the days that I traveled solo, I mainly stuck to eating at street stalls and convenience stores. I was really addicted to those spicy popcorn chicken with tteokbokki and fish cakes and was just alternating them most of the time. Not big on desserts, but there were a lot of options for sweet tooths too.

I guess by now you must’ve realized that I’m not a foodie (ha!), so let’s leave to the experts the lowdown on Seoul street food, shall we? Here’s a pretty extensive list. The same goes for restaurant recommendations (haha!). Not much else I can contribute except for this tip:

TIP: On top of the side dishes, expect huge servings when eating at a Korean restaurant. Keep this mind as you order, else you’ll end up feeling really bloated with a ton of leftover food. Also, don’t ask for the check. Pay the bill at the cashier on your way out.

Seoul Street Food

Blame it on the a-a-aa-aalcohol… Korea is also the land of soju. I had plans of getting really drunk in Seoul but aaahhh my friends weren’t interested. Well at the very least, since we were staying at Hongdae and all, I still got to witness public displays of drunkenness Koreans are (in)famous for. I was really curious how bottomless the standard pit is in this corner of the world.

TIP: Besides soju, there’s this other Korean drink called makgeolli. It’s a cloudy white rice-fermented drink with a mild tangy taste. Alcohol content is just at 6-8%, compared to soju’s 20-30%, just right for a light buzz. Yum!

CULTURE TIDBIT #5 Social etiquette is very much imbibed in their culture that drinking customs are as complicated as a tea ceremony.

Plan out your logistical nightmare

Belle of the Boulevard

so little time, so much to do

Now the exciting part – getting your head swimming planning the itinerary. It really depends on how much time you have, your budget, your interests (or common interests if traveling with a group), your travel style, and your non-negotiables.

Here’s a copy of my itinerary (w/ expense breakdown).
Download the file here.

As a background, I spent the first 6 days traveling solo, and then from Day 7 onwards, I traveled with friends. I was pretty loose following the itinerary when I was in solo mode, which was intentional on my part, but for the latter part, I’d say we kept to it 80% of the time. For the expenses, I didn’t go over my budget of Php 35K (inclusive of food, accommodation, tours, incidentals, and a few cosmetics shopping). And just in case you missed it, scroll up the page to see links to my Seoul trip highlights.

TIP: Korea’s Tourism Marketing is as efficient as its wifi connection. You can find loads of information already just by visiting their website. Click here for Seoul’s Tourism Website, and here for Korea’s Tourism website. Alternatively, you can also download Rough Guide’s Seoul Travel E-book by clicking here.

CULTURE TIDBIT #6 Koreans are lauded for their efficiency at everything, and it’s obviously brought about by their obsession for standards. It seems like to them anything worth doing is worth doing extremely well, but at the same time, whatever’s not up to par is somehow frowned upon. This characteristic makes the fabric of their everyday lives, manifests itself in so many ways.
Admirable, ridiculous, and scary all at the same time.

For the rest of this section, I’ll share a few more things that worked (and didn’t work) during my stay, and tips I wish someone told me/warned me about.

Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gwanghwamun is the main and largest gate of Gyeongbokgung, the palace of Joseon kings. Everyday except Tuesdays, a changing of the guards ceremony takes place, every hour between 10 AM and 3 PM.

the best things in life are free

Talk about prowess in delighting its tourists. There are quite a number of things/places you can do/visit for free:

  • Admission is free to some of Seoul’s top museums.
  • For outdoor enthusiasts: climb Bugaksan, go for a walk in one of the public parks, watch the light show at the Banpo Bridge.
  • Watch busker musicians and street performances in Hongdae and Sinchon
  • Watch the changing of the guards at Gwanghwamun
  • Visit the campuses of Seoul’s top universities
  • Avail of the free walking tours offered by the tourism office. (You need to reserve your slot online.)

TIP: Should you avail of the free walking tour, you might consider bringing a small token from home to give your tour guide. They will really appreciate this kind gesture because…

CULTURE TIDBIT #7 Koreans have a strong sharing culture, a trait that most likely has spun off from their strong collective mindset. They often refer to this as jeong – something akin to random acts of kindness.

N Seoul Tower

selling the drama

One of Korea’s most popular exports is the K-drama. Its popularity had become so stellar that film locations scattered in and around Seoul have become legit tourist attractions. N Seoul Tower (including the cable car and love locks), Petit France, and Nami Island are the top of mind, but for those who are in the hunt for more spots, you might find this link interesting.

TIP: “Land of the Morning Calm” is one of Korea’s nicknames. If you’re planning to include Nami and/or Petit France as one of your stops, let me confuse you a bit more by adding another option. “Garden of Morning Calm” may be the least famous of the 3 main attractions in Gapyeong area, but in no way the least gorgeous. It’s the oldest privately owned garden in the country with over 5,000 species of plants spread over a 35,000 sq. m. of nature. You’re sure to find your own piece of haven here.

CULTURE TIDBIT #8 Keep calm and avoid the drama. Koreans are known for their nationalism. And for the unassuming outsider, it’s by instinct that we make comparisons between them and their neighbor to the east. Probably best to keep those comments to yourself because theirs is a saga of a very complicated relationship we know little about.

skipping rocks

choose your battles

Already overwhelmed? Good. That means a lot is in store for you. As with any other trip to any new destination, always be grateful for the options but accept that you can’t have everything. Day and night, old and new, nature and concrete, low key and mainstream – all these are at your disposal. It’s tempting to squeeze in everything into your itinerary, but if it were up to me, I’d rather you choose your battles.

TIP: Pace yourself well, it’s not a race.

I like sightseeing, but it’s way better when I begin to understand them. I have an obsession with context and it has probably bored half (or more than half) the people who came to this page. So if at this point you’re still indulging me and reading this, thank you. Maybe we’re the same kind. :)

Anyway, that’s about everything I can share about Seoul. The rest is for you to discover. But let me end with this last culture tidbit – one that I most like them for:

CULTURE TIDBIT #9 They are crazy about love. In particular, the person, the family, the fellowmen, and the country they love. Saranghaeyo!

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