Having travelled extensively across Asia on my previous travels, and fallen in love with their non materialistic, “carpe diem” approach to life, my decision to backpack around South Korea, somewhere mysterious and less frequently explored by the backpacker community was a no-brainer,
I have always been fascinated by what is different, and I was eager to discover what South Korea had to offer – and more importantly, why only 100,000 British nationals – the majority of whom are business travellers, visit this intriguing country each year.
If like me, you’re tired of the well trodden backpacker routes of Asia (Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam/Laos anyone?) and want to really immerse yourself in a country’s culture and “live like a local” then South Korea is the perfect place to do so.
Though I planned on spending only a couple of days there, I ended up staying in Seoul for two weeks, falling in love with the city and the personalities of its different neighbourhoods.
Anguk and Gyeongbokgung stations act as great starting points to access the sites of Northern Seoul – within walking distance to Bukchon, it is also home to Gyeongbokgung palace – the main palace of the Josean dynasty, where you can see the fascinating changing of the guards ceremony each day at 11am. Don’t miss the adjoining folk museum which is free entry and displays a history of Korea through the ages.
If you’re not too palace’d out after that, nearby Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO world heritage site with its expansive grounds is home to a very beautiful “secret garden” adored by the Josean Emporer, and the palatial grounds are better preserved than those at Gyeongbukgung. (Note – you are not permitted to walk around the secret garden alone. English tours depart hourly but book up quickly so I recommend getting your time slot early, and then perhaps exploring Bukchon if you have a few hours to wait)
The nearby Gwanghwamun square is often home to free concerts and events – a great opportunity to try traditional street foods and enjoy traditional or current live music.
Access via Subway Line 3 – Exit Anguk or Gyeongbokgung stations.
Bukchon Hanok Village
The Bukchon Hanok village reminded me of an Asian equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village, or London’s Covent Garden – full of quirky boutiques selling one off clothing pieces, eccentric accessories and of course, coffee shops (the coffee shop culture has taken off big time in Seoul and there are many themed and cutesy places to grab a cuppa Joe).
Get lost in the twisty streets and passageways and be transported back in time to a 600 year old Seoul.
Bukchon Hanok Village is home to many Hanoks, Korean traditional houses. (In case you didn’t pick that up by it’s name – duh!) – if you do not have the opportunity to stay in one, many also double as a restaurant in the day time.
Access via Subway Line 3 – Exit Anguk or Gyeongbokgung stations.
What Happens in Hongdae, stays in Hongdae…
Hongdae is essentially the hip student district of Seoul. Bars and eateries here are cheap and cheerful with the majority open until the early hours of the morning – The subway stops around 11pm in Seoul and taxis are expensive (by local standards), and often refuse to take you to your destination if you are not staying in a hubbub where they are likely to get a return fare… so it is typical for people to stay out for the night in Seoul – not just popping out for a couple of drinks! Party the night away with a bottle or two of soju (questionable stuff – but you must try it!) in the local clubs or of course, as this is Asia… Karaoke!
Hongdae park is an interesting stopping point – children’s swing sets and play area by day, popular social drinking haunt by night.
Access via Subway Line 2 – Hongik University Station
I’m seeing my Therapist…My Retail Therapist – Myeongdong and Insadong
Insadong is a great place to pick up souvenirs with its many stores selling traditional wares, antiques and art pieces. The streets here are lined with many tea rooms which could be a good stopping point if you are eager to try out a traditional tea ceremony – these places can be very busy however and a little pricier as it is such a touristy district. If you have chance to visit a major temple during your stay in Korea, these often offer the same for free, and then you can enjoy your tea in a much more majestic setting.
Accessible via Metro line 1 – Anguk Station Exit 3
Myeongdong is the main high street shopping strip of Seoul home to big name stores such as Forever 21, Topshop and Uniqlo.
For those who don’t know, the cosmetics market is HUGE in Korea, particularly for skin care products and face masks. You will note that every other store in Myeongdong is a beauty store (I recommend Etude House – very cute packaging! And Innis Free – great natural products). Even upon just browsing the various stores, you can stack up a bag full of free samples!
Namsan Mountain – The Heart of Seoul
Okay I’ll be honest with you, most major cities have this kind of thing, and often when I travel I sneer at doing “tourist” activities but if you’re into your beautiful views, Namsan is your place. Seated atop Namsan Mountain’s peak, N tower offers beautiful 360 degree views of the City. A popular place for lovers and teenage Koreans on their first dates, “lock in” your love – a bit like a Korean Pont des Arts.
Observatory admission is 10,000 Won per person (about 8 bucks/£6)
Easiest Route – Subway Line 4, Exit 3 Myeongdong Station is a short walk to getting the Namsan cable car to the tower.
Oppa Gangnam Style! (Oh… and Apgujeong)
The fashionista’s mecca, Apgujeong is home to many upscale boutiques and brand name stores and is referred to as Seoul’s “Rodeo Drive”.
If you’re not after a slice of retail therapy, there are also cocktail bars and high end restaurants to be found in these neighbourhoods if you are looking for a classier alternative for your evening entertainment.
For Apgujeong Rodeo, take Subway Line 3 to Apgujeong Station, Exit 2.
For Gangnam, take Subway Line 2 to Gangnam Station – The metro station has an underground shopping mall selling some great current trend fashion items and shoes (I know, I know, it seems scabby buying your clothes at the metro station but trust me..)
Those Pesky Foreigners – Itaewon
Previously home to the US army base in Seoul, the American presence has never really left this area and it is now, as my Korean friends so lovingly referred to it – “the foreigner district” – if you’re feeling a little homesick, you can find Irish pubs (is there anywhere you can’t find them?!), American style dive bars, and restaurants here offering a variety of World cuisines.
Backpacker hostels and budget accommodation can be found easily here so it is a good central place to stay if you are on a budget and eager to meet other travellers.
Access via Subway Line 6 – Itaewon Station
Artsy Fartsy – Dongdaemun
Seoul is a very artsy city and this could not be more evident in any other area than it is in Dong Daemun district.
The DDP (DongDaemun Design Plaza) is free entry and features ever changing exhibitions of local and renowned artists and designers alike. On the ground floor, you will find a plethora of local designers selling beautiful handmade craft products.
The adjoining Doota Fashion Mall is one of the most unique in Seoul –exhibiting fashion items from local Designers and Seoul Boutique owners selected via Seoul’s “Doota Venture Designer Conference” this is a great place to find a beautiful piece that you cannot buy anywhere else.
You will also find a floor dedicated to International Designer brands.
If a bargain is more what you’re looking for, the DongDaemun 24 hour markets consist of sprawling food markets, low cost clothing markets, and streets dedicated to second hand books.
Dubbed the largest shopping area in Asia, you don’t want to miss a visit here.
Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station – Metro Lines 2, 4 and 5