SEOUL, the capital of South Korea. A futuristic metropolis, where skyscrapers and kpop meet royal palaces and street markets.
In just 50 years since the Korean War, Seoul has become the world’s 10th-most economically powerful city and second-largest metropolitan area.
For me, Seoul felt like stepping into a parallel universe where London didn’t exist. Having spent most of my life in London, it’s easy to think that you are living in the centre of the universe. But I was wrong; the people of Seoul have their own pop culture, fashion, identity, and they don’t care so much about the Western world. The megacity is one of East Asia’s major culture-defining capitals along with Tokyo, Taipei, and Beijing.
I stumbled across the possibility of venturing to South Korea when I Googled “the world’s fastest internet speed.” I guess that’s a good enough reason as any to visit a country when your travels are paid for by work you do online. But South Korea boasts a multitude of reasons why you should visit, not just including how quickly you can scroll through your Instagram feed.
I truly believe that Seoul will become an increasingly popular tourist destination amongst Western travellers in the near future, as it already is by the Eastern world.
Getting to the city from the airport is easy, just hop on either the non-stop or multiple stop train.
Data sim cards aren’t cheap but coverage is brilliant. Upon arrival, I purchased an unlimited data sim for 1 month. It cost me ₩70,000 (~£50). It may sound expensive but it was worth it to be connected anywhere I went with unlimited data. Especially when keeping in touch with my digital marketing clients back home.
WHERE TO STAY
Seoul (for tourists) is basically divided into four main areas of interest; Hongdae (where I stayed and home of the hipsters), Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam, upmarket and where the celebs hangout), Itaweon (expat and military central), and Myeongdong (shopping and business district).
I could write an entire blog post on where to stay in Seoul. Instead, I would definitely recommend staying in Hongdae if you are a 20-something, looking to experience Seoul’s youth culture and just about everything else, packed into an area small enough to walk around.
Itaweon is also a good place to stay for nightlife that is more geared towards foreigners. It’s less of an authentic Seoul experience but you will definitely feel more “at home”.
After travelling within Southeast Asia, Hongdae felt refreshing. Wide and clean streets that are quiet during the day with large green parks to explore. For the first time since living in Europe, I felt comfortably anonymous. There’s no-one shouting at you for a tuk-tuk ride, to buy xyz, to have a “good time” or anything else. Korea is a world apart from the traditional backpacker routes.
I found Airbnb to be significantly more affordable than hotels in Seoul. I got myself a tiny studio apartment in the centre of Hongdae for £600. Pretty good for 1 month since even single room hotels in the local area can cost upwards of £20 per night.
Although for short stays, I’d definitely recommend checking out hostels too. For working travellers, everywhere has good internet so there’s no need to be concerned about finding a base to work from.
THINGS TO DO IN SEOUL
There’s so much to do in Seoul that I almost didn’t write this blog post for fear that even my 1 month spent in Seoul was nowhere near enough time to truly appreciate everything that goes on.
It isn’t. But I’m going to try anyway because, without a guide, Seoul can be a confusing city to explore.
- Get yourself to a bang
- Download Maps.Me
- Take an excursion to the DMZ
- Bukchon Hanok Village
- Hike the city walls
- Gwanghwamun Plaza
- Four royal palaces
- Walk aimlessly with a camera
GET YOURSELF TO A BANG
To understand Seoul, you’ll need to understand “bang culture”.
Most Koreans live with other family members, even in adulthood. So they’ve had to come up with creative concepts to enjoy privacy with friends or by themselves.
The term “bang” (방), literally means “room”. And in Seoul, there’s a room for everything. From jjimjilbang (Korean spas), PCbang (internet cafes), DVD room (DVDbang – also famed for not watching movies), noraebang (karaoke room – can be found everywhere in Seoul), peulseubang (PlayStation room), and of course the multibang (you can guess what’s in these rooms).
With Korean secrecy on high alert, Google Maps is blocked from operating in its entirety in Seoul.
Fortunately, Maps.Me works just as well but you’ll find that not everything is listed in English so it does take some getting used to!
TAKE AN EXCURSION TO THE DMZ
Half day tours start at around $42 USD.
If you are staying in a hostel or hotel, they will be able to help you book the right tour for you.
You can peer through a viewing platform and come back home with a story that you looked at North Korea in the REAL.
BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE
A “hanok” is a traditional Korean house and the Bukchon Hanok Village is unsurprisingly full of them. Go here if you want to transport yourself to what Korea was like, a few hundred years ago.
Walking around Bukchon can be a romantic experience for couples, or you can find enjoyment in a solo photography adventure. There’s plenty of cute cafes and restaurants but due to their location, they can be on the pricier side.
HIKE THE CITY WALLS
No matter how long you have in Seoul, I would recommend this to anyone who is able.
The wall measures 18.6km long and there are a number of different trails that suit varied levels of ability and interests around the city.
I chose the mountain trail and was rewarded with amazing views of Seoul’s skyline.
No trip to Seoul is complete without taking a photo with King Sejong the Great.
Gwanghwamun Plaza also serves as a great meeting point for those who want to explore Gyeongbokgung palace and the surrounding areas.
FOUR ROYAL PALACES
Take your pick from four royal palaces of Seoul, built in the Joseon dynasty.
- Gyeongbokgung (main palace)
Admission is free for those who wear traditional Korean dresses! It always makes for a better photo so be sure to grab your free rental from the stalls surrounding the palaces.
Is it just me, or does the entry to Gyeongbokgung remind you of an epic movie scene, like something from Star Wars?
WALK AIMLESSLY WITH A CAMERA
This is my favourite thing to do when I visit a new city.
As a travel blogger, I should probably tell you to do your research, read blog posts and create an itinerary. But walking aimlessly with no plan and no expectations is much more rewarding.
There’s something about this city. When you visit a palace in Seoul, it’s like stepping through time. When you walk through the streets, there’s so much going on that the locals hardly notice you. The homegrown fashion scene and pop culture are so strong and unique that it’s like a parallel universe where Western influences don’t exist.
I love the anonymity of living in a big city again and I feel more relaxed being back in a milder climate than sitting on a beach in sweltering heat.
What kind of traveller are you, city breaks or tropical beaches?