Seoul was a glaring omission in my visited cities of Asia list. I had long been saving Seoul as a stop-over city as Incheon Airport is a popular hub between Asia and North America. I wasn’t planning to go until I found a good flight deal from Hanoi, which coincided with a visa run from Vietnam.
I had eight days to explore the city and still feel like I missed a lot of things. You’re never going to see everything, so I don’t mind that feeling.
As usual with my notes on a city, this isn’t a “ten things to do in” listicle. These are my observations from my week of wandering around the city.
Searching for Old Seoul
When exploring a city for the first time I’ll make my way to the oldest sites first and go from there. Seoul is mostly a modern city with only fragments of old Seoul remaining. I see old photos of Seoul and wonder what might have been if some of these buildings still remained. Fortunately the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul still survive.
For old neighbourhoods the hilly Bukchon Hanok Village will give you a glimpse of what old Seoul was like.
Seoul’s reclaimed highway success story
Old stuff is cool, but I’m also about urban regeneration. My trip was fortunately timed as the Seoullo Skygarden had recently opened. This walkway is an old flyover at Seoul station that is now a pedestrian walkway. It is an idea that New York has successfully managed, but not London
And the world’s best urban regeneration project?
My favourite place to walk was along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which is one of the best examples of urban regeneration I have seen anywhere. This stream was paved over and covered with an elevated highway, and now it has been reclaimed as a walking path. I booked accommodation near here for three nights so I was able to walk along here daily while I was there.
Read more about these two urban regeneration projects here.
War Memorial of Korea
To get a better understanding of modern Korea I recommend a visit to the War Memorial of Korea.
At the entrance of the memorial is a statue of two brothers that have been separated by north and south, and are reunited on the battlefield.
The memorial grounds has an impressive collection of military hardware from the war era, with a B52D Stratofortress Bomber being a highlight.
As a reminder of the danger that South Korea still faces, there is a replica of a patrol boat that was sunk by North Korean forces in 2002.
Wandering around the memorial I was struck with how little I knew about the war. For example I didn’t know that the north occupied Seoul for 3 months in 1950.
With my limited Korean War knowledge having been filtered through a US lens, coming here you will see that this is a civil war that is still not resolved. Unlike the Vietnam War, which is the American War in Vietnam, this is very much a Korean war.
Seoul is prepared for the worst
With the country still technically at war, and with Seoul only 55km from the DMZ, the city is ready for the worst case scenario. Underground metro stations double as war bunkers, which are marked with “shelter” signs.
There is emergency gear everywhere underground, for war or civil disasters.
In some phone boxes there are defibrillation units. With public phones becoming obsolete, perhaps all old boxes could be repurposed for emergency stations like this.
Depending on how you measure it, Seoul has one of the biggest metro networks in the world. Some lists say it’s the biggest, while others put it in the top 5 if not including other lines that form part of the greater Seoul transport network. Either way, there are 21 lines represented on the metro map, and it is a huge network.
Seoul reminded me of my Taipei trip, where the metro is clean and efficient, and there are toilets inside and outside the paid ticket areas. With the metro practically everywhere it’s comforting to know you could be out and about and not have to worry about where the nearest toilet is.
Another touch of a civilised society is free drinking water inside the metro.
The ticketing system is a bit of a mixed bag. The T-money money card is easy to use and can be found everywhere, but the ticket machines only accept cash. The machines that must have been ahead of their time when they came out are now outdated in their payment methods.
One thing that is not outdated is the availability of wifi in the stations and on the trains. There are wifi boxes in all the carriages, so you can be deep underground and still be connected.
One for my Singaporean friends
I was in Singapore recently so this was fresh on my mind. Singapore doesn’t allow food or drink onboard their metro system. Singapore is also famous for banning the sale of chewing gum. I wonder what a Singaporean would think when not only can you buy food and drink on the station platforms, but you can also buy chewing gum in the station.
For my week in Seoul I was most looking forward to eating Korean food. After an overnight flight and eating a breakfast of coffeeshop pastries at the airport, I was ready to eat some real food when I arrived. I got lucky and stumbled into a lunchtime place near my guesthouse, which was the perfect introduction to South Korean food.
The place was filled with office workers and the meal was about $6USD. I got a chili pork dish served in a hot stone bowl. I was soon to discover that kimchi is served with everything.
Most kimchi is cabbage or radish, though some places offer a variation using other vegetables. As long as it is a salted and fermented vegetable side dish then it passes as kimchi. A simple bowl of soup is usually presented as well, and a big container of water is provided without asking. Having all the extras as standard, and ordinary water without any pressure to buy a drink felt like a such a civilised food culture.
The food I was familiar with is Korean-style BBQ, which can be found everywhere. I went to an all-you-can-eat place which was about $11USD. They brought out so much food that I was wondering how do I leave the meat without being rude. When I was half way through bbqing my meat someone came over and put the rest of the meat on the grill. I guess I’m eating it all now.
The BBQ is great experience, but it’s a better meal if you are with friends.
A Korean food I had never had before is Bibimbap, which means “mixed rice” in Korean. I like seeing how every Asian culture presents the simple rice meal. In Vietnam “com tam” (broken rice) is the standard lunch dish which includes rice and a selection of meat and vegetables.
With bibimbap a bowl of rice is served with a variety of vegetables that are thoughtfully arranged in a visually appealing manor. An egg or meat is additional. You are supposed to stir the vegetables into the rice before eating. The first time I ordered this I didn’t, and the resident grandmother of the house came and stirred it for me. A grandma in Vietnam once did this when I wasn’t eating banh xeo in the correct manor, so this made me smile to think that it is a common act.
For a light meal I enjoyed topuki, which a form of rice cake in a spicy sauce.
Having lived in Asia for many years I have become proficient at using chopsticks, yet I have always struggled with the metal chopsticks that are preferred by South Korea. I’m happy to report that I mastered (or at least was able to pick up food) by the end of the week.
One thing I didn’t try was san-nakji, which is writhing pieces of long-arm octopus served raw. Even though the octopus is dead, the nervous system keeps the arms/legs flailing after they have been chopped up. Like the BBQ, it seemed better as an experience to share with friends. The dish is famous at the Noryangjin fish market, though I’m guessing that this place with a pictogram of a dancing octopus also serves it.
Have you ever visited somewhere on a pop-cultural pilgrimage to pay homage to a song, only to find there is nothing there to connect you to the song? You will not have that problem in Gangnam.
One of the few things I knew about Seoul was that there is a neighbourhood south of the river called Gangnam where rich people who want to be seen hang out. I knew this from the song Gangnam Style by Psy, who was making fun of such people. Proving that bad publicity is also good publicity, Gangnam has embraced this song that has made them famous.
At the COEX Mall (a convention and exhibition centre) there is a bonze monument of the signature dance move.
It turned out that the week I was in Seoul was to be the last week that Gangnam Style was the most watched Youtube video of all time. While records are made to be broken, what will never change is that Gangnam Style became the first video to crack the magical one billion views mark, and that it changed how music is polled. At the Gangnam Style monument there is an information screen where you can watch the film clip on Youtube (you have to press play, so it is not on autoplay racking up more views).
Such is the cultural impact of that song there are two monuments to it. The other monument is at the busy intersection at Gangnam Station. There is a little dance stage where you can show off your best Gangnam dance moves.
South Korean Pop Culture
Beyond Gangnam Style, it would be safe to assume that most people in the west wouldn’t know much else about Korean pop culture. In Asia though it is a different story. Korean TV shows are a huge hit in Southeast Asia, as are the manufactured girl and boy bands.
Thankfully one aspect of boy band culture that hasn’t exported out of the country is the bowl cut.
This is the prevailing hairdo of 2017 for the male youth of Seoul. I’m sure will look like what mullets look like to us when we see pictures of rock stars from the eighties.
Coffee shop wars
I don’t think ever seen so many cafes as there are in Seoul, which is surely not sustainable. There are many chains here which can be found in Southeast Asia, including Tom N Toms, Holly’s, Paris Baguette, and Caffe Bene. Add to the mix the international heavyweights like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and the countless amount of local chains that are vying to become the next breakout franchise success.
I tried to seek out as many independent cafes while I was there, but I would need more time if I was to compile a comprehensive list. In the end I ended up frequenting places that were close to where I was staying. Near my apartment in Gangnam I enjoyed 10000 Lab Coffee, which also wins the prize of “Best Coffee Shop Logo in Seoul”.
The best coffee I had was at Noah’s Roasting, Myeongdong branch.
Korean ATM’s look like 80’s video game consoles
It took me a few times to work out how to operate these beasts.
And some ATM’s accept Bitcoin accounts
These ATM’s in 7/11 offer the option of withdrawing from local Bitcoin accounts.
Sign of the times
An appropriate sign in the Republic of Samsung.
The Drag Queen of Namdaemun Market
At Namdaemun Market I saw a scrum of ladies huddled around a pile of clothes, while all other venders nearby were empty. Crowds attract crowds, and when I came to have a look I found this vendor dressed up in his own inventory. A sales and marketing genius!
In Korea, Kakao is your friend
As you travel around Asia you will collect messenging apps that are popular in each country. Apart from Whatsapp and Viber which are the most used everywhere, these are other popular apps:
China = Wechat
Vietnam = Zalo
Thailand = Line
And in South Korea there is Kakao. I visited the Kakao store in Gangnam just to see what a messenging app store looks like.
Line is also popular in South Korea and they have their own store as well. I’m familiar with the characters of Line from my Thai friends, and here there is a world of Kakao characters where people were queueing up for selfies with.
Smoking is treated as the health hazard that it is
I saw these smoking boxes in public areas, which I can see becoming more common in a future where smoking is eventually phased out.
The world coolest mall library
At Starfield COEX (near the Gangnam monument) there is a library inside the mall.
I first thought it was a bookstore, but on closer inspection it is an actual library and people were there reading actual books, with hardly a mobile device in sight.
The Lotte Empire
Another Korean brand I didn’t know I knew was Lotte, which I knew from the Lotteria fast food chain.
Lotte was founded by a Korean in Japan in 1948 and is now headquartered in Seoul. The Lotte World Tower opened in April, 2017, and at 555 metres is the 5th tallest building in the world.