We didn’t know quite what to expect from South Korea but we really rather enjoyed it! It has the cleanliness and modernity of Japan at a fraction of the price and the people are super friendly, to the point where randoms would occasionally strike up short conversations with us on the subway or (outside of Seoul) call out hello from the other side of the street. And after Beijing it was so orderly and quiet (not to mention the significant improvement in air quality).
We only had a little over a week (18-26 October) and spent most of it in Seoul, with a couple of days in Daejeon and Busan on our way down to catch an overnight ferry to Japan. We could have happily spent longer! It would have been great to get out to Jeju Island, to see more of the country’s many national parks, or just delved deeper into Seoul and Busan.
10 great things to do in Seoul:
- Explore cool areas such as Myeong-dong, Hongdae and Insa-Dong. Myeong-dong is full of restaurants, bars and shops and is particularly lively at night. Hongdae is the area around Hongik University and good for cheap eats and a youthful studenty vibe. Insa-Dong is probably the busiest area we went to and full of interesting street food snacks, shops and stalls selling handicrafts, and occasionally live street performers.
- Namsan Tower. You can take a cable car up to the base of the tower and pay again to ride up the tower itself, but if you’re feeling energetic you can save money by walking up to the base where you’ll get a pretty decent view without even having to fork out for the tower.
- Five Grand Palaces. If you’re short on time try to visit the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace. You can only enter as part of a guided tour and there are a limited number in English so it would be best to go in the morning to secure a place. (We missed out!)
- Museums and architecture. There are some fascinating examples of modern architecture in Seoul but you can combine it with some meatier culture by visiting one of its many museums, some of which are worth visiting just to marvel at the architecture alone.
- Gwangjang Market. A huge traditional Korean market full of food stalls on the ground floor and silk and satin goods on the second floor.
- Dongdaemun shopping area. If you’re in the mood for some clothes shopping you could easily spend a whole day exploring the floors of the multiple shopping centres on Jangchungdan-ro near the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park metro. (It’s unbranded stuff, but that’s the only kind I’m interested in.)
- Dolsot bibimbap. The best kind, served in a hot stone bowl so raw egg cooks when you stir everything together and the rice goes crispy towards the end.
- Korean BBQ. They’re everywhere in Seoul but there are some all-you-can-eat ones (the best kind!) around Hongik University where you can eat as much barbequed meat, seafood and vegetables as you like for around ₩12000 per person.
- Unusual street food. Different areas offer different types of stalls – if you spot something you’d like to try grab it while you can because you might not come across it again. Some of the more interesting ones we saw were hotdogs plastered in crinkle cut chips, spiral crisps and pastries filled with soft serve icecream.
- Demilitarised Zone half day trip. A variety of companies offer tours to the DMZ, we just picked one at the tourist information office. It’s quite a sobering experience. It’s actually very touristy and the whole idea that people are profiting from visitors going to see it is quite surreal, but I definitely recommend it. Some companies offer full day trips that also include a visit to the Joint Security Area on the actual border at Panmunjom but you’ll need to book one of those at least four days in advance and submit a copy of your passport – there’s also a very strict dress code.
Seoul tip: some of the metro subway stop names are very similar, make sure you’re heading towards the right one!
We chose to stay in Daejeon because it was close to Songnisan National Park and a nice halfway point between Seoul and Busan. The park was particularly beautiful when we visited as the autumn leaves were out in full colour. There are different hiking routes available and they are pretty serious hikes – I may have scoffed at the people with hiking poles when we started out but I’m sure they were laughing at us later on when it got tougher. Just inside the park entrance you can also visit a 7th century Buddhist temple complex called Beopjusa. Its features include an impressive 33 metre tall golden plated bronze statue of Buddha and Palsangjeon, one of the only two wooden pagodas left in South Korea.
With not even a full day in Busan we barely scratched the surface of what there is to do and see. The main thing we did manage to fit in was to visit Jagalchi Fish Market, which I highly recommend. There are three different fish markets in the area: dried, fresh and live. The live fish section is on the first floor of a multi story building and is as fascinating as (if not even more so) than an actual aquarium. We have no idea what half the things in there were! They had mussels ten times the size of normal mussels, strange fat worm like-like things, tanks stuffed full of octopus, striped fish, flat fish, squid that would have jumped out of their containers onto the floor if there wasn’t a clear lid keeping them in, and more besides. You can eat many of these things as super fresh sashimi on the second floor (even the strange fat worms).