We are ready and enthusiastic to discover a new country: South Korea! This will be the most eastern place on earth we have been to so far.
At Seoul Station we change metro line and after 3 stops reach the neighbourhood where we will stay in the next days: Insa-dong. We booked Fully Hong Insadong Hostel, after reading its nice reviews online. Prices for accommodation in Seoul are quite expensive comparing Asian average, starting from 20-25$/night if you stay out of town, from 50$ up in the city. Also, dorm beds in hostel are rarely under 15$, you can check for offers here. It isn’t even peak season now, being July, Korean summer is very wet and humid (we will get 2 out of 4 days of rain). At Fully Hong Hostel the awesome staff makes the difference, they are very friendly and kind to let us check in at 10am, so we can recover some sleep we lost on the plane and get ready to hit the city in the afternoon.
DAY 1 – INSADONG & MYEONGDONG STREET MARKET
A few steps out and we are immediately attracted by one of the many Korean street food options: fried hot dogs, also known as Kogo. For 1.500KRW you can get one Kogo and cover it with any sauce you like.
We reach the buzzing main street of Insadong, an art&culture area, very colourful and interesting. Walking by we stop at Jogyesa Temple where we get an impression of Korean Buddhism (not the main country’s religion, which in fact is Catholicism).
Diving into the very heart of the city, we encounter the cool Cheonggyecheon Stream, a once forgotten dirty water flow that has recently been renovated into a beautiful and green canal, featuring also small waterfalls, stone-bridges, brilliant murals on its side: a really peaceful area in the middle of Seoul.
Proceeding towards Myeong-dong neighbourhood, we pass by the City Hall and the Public Library. After seeing Myeong-dong Cathedral, one of the most important symbol of Catholicism in Korea, people start coming out of work, filling pubs and restaurants: while there’s a variety of street-food attracting tourists, locals opt mainly for bbq restaurants or chicken&beer places. Myeongdong street market has so much to offer, we can’t help but taste some street-food, including dumplings, egg-bread (Gyeran-ppang), teriyaki octopus, grilled shrimps, sweet potatoes, from 2.000 to 5.000KRW each.
First days in new countries may be overwhelming, but we are thrilled at the same time to see so many new things around us; we decide to walk all the way back to the hostel, for a total of more than 10km covered in our first day. Our legs are tired and so we imitate the locals who like to dip their feet in the cold waters of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. It’s really therapeutic and a great feeling! Right before reaching the hostel, another typical take-away food catches our sight, and so we have a tasty ham-cheese-egg toast to end the day.
DAY 2 – ROYAL PALACES AND HANOK VILLAGE
Our second day is dedicated to Korean traditions: firstly in the morning, we visit Changyeonggung Palace, the 2nd biggest in Seoul but nowadays the most beautiful and best kept, having been restored after being under Japanese control and later destructed during the Korean War in the early 50’s. The solemn gates, several huge council halls and pavilions convey a mixed sense of charm and fear, which was actually the original aim.
But the cherry on top of this palace is given by the Secret Gardens: a private extended area built upon special request of King Taejong, which provided a resting place for the royal family members. The Secret Gardens are still amazingly looked after today. Only guided groups of maximum 100 people are allowed every hour, not to make it overcrowded and to keep its solemnity. Of the 100 tickets available, 50 are bookable in loco, and 50 online on the official tourism website where we booked ours (just reserve the tickets online, pay&collect them at the booths). We recommend the combo ticket for 10.000KRW, which includes all the main palaces and the Secret Garden visit.
Visiting Seoul in summertime is perhaps the worst season, let’s say less beautiful. In spring and autumn, flowers and trees sparkle endless colours and shades on every corner of the gardens, plus you could see the typical lotuses blooming, other than hundreds of lovely maple trees; whereas in winter Seoul gets covered in snow too, making the palaces even more scenic. In the summer everything is green, there’s a lot of humidity, as a matter of fact it starts raining the moment we step into the Secret Garden. Don’t get us wrong, the view is rewarding too, actually the sound of the rain drops on the leaves makes it very charming.
After Changyeonggung Palace, we walk up to Bukchon Hanok Village, an area where many old traditional houses have been saved and restored. Clearly, living in one of these houses nowadays is expensive, luxury cars are parked around, this neighbourhood is similar to a private zone, which is very good for us visitors to enjoy the silence among these nice characteristic buildings.
In the afternoon, we head towards the biggest Palace: Gyeongbokgung. It is way more crowded and busier than Changyeonggung, which makes it less appreciable. The palace covers a huge area, unfortunately it’s still raining.
Also, visiting the two main palaces in the same day may be a little bit overwhelming, there’s a lot of walking to do in both. At the end of the day we are actually exhausted, we really crave more meat for dinner! Tonight we will eat at a typical Korean bbq restaurant, where lamb skewers will be our main dish: glorious.
DAY 3 – UNIVERSITY AREA & RIVERSIDE
On our 3rd day, on Sunday, we pay visit to Dongdaemun area, going eastwards from our location. After a quick walk through the Sunday market we get to Seoul DDP, Dongdaemun Design Plaza: it’s a vast square that has been filled with a large modern and futuristic infrastructure, featuring some art&design exhibitions, museums, and various attractions, something very different and peculiar.
At noon, we take the metro and hop off at Ewha Womans University, the biggest female university in the world: the area is very nice, green, clean and spacious, being Sunday there are no classes.
We are now close to Hongik, which is the university and most young-oriented neighbourhood of Seoul. We stop here for a delicious beef-cubes and rice based lunch again, and then wonder around the quirky shops and cafés that fill the surroundings.
The cafés compete against each other for customers, offering bizarre themed designs, mostly about animals and pets, so we get to walk by Racoon café, Sheep café, Merkat coffee, plus many Cat-cafés, by far the most popular.
We decide to go on the riverside for sunset (along Han river, same name as Da Nang river). Both river banks extend for several km, and are nicely thought for citizens, providing long sidewalks, cycle paths, benches, playgrounds, water fountains. The weather is not by our side, it’s lightly raining, many young boys and girls gather under the bridges for improvised pic-nics. It seems to be a habit for Seoul citizens to come with family or friends on the riverside with their own tents, and day camping (at least we hope they don’t stay for the night), it’s a curious hobby but it makes its sense in such a wide metropolis, where getting out of town could cost you hours of traveling. We see many elderly men fishing, while we keep on walking looking for Banpodaegyo Bridge where a water show is supposed to take place.
Together with a big crowd we wait for almost an hour but nothing happens, so we walk away, hungry for dinner. We change neighbourhood one more time, Seoul is incredibly extended, as we head to Itaewon: it’s kind of an expat area, a huge melting pot that we didn’t expect: we eat a Turkish kebab in a restaurant while we get served by two guys from Uzbekistan, the customers are mostly afro-americans, Russians and Koreans. Walking around we see different flags of probably the most common nations of immigrants, and we notice flags of Russia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, USA, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
On our way back to the hostel, we have a sweet ice cream cone as dessert: Seoul ice creams are also a thing, in here the challenge for the tallest cone is always on!
DAY 4 – SEOUL TOWER AND GANGNAM NEIGHBOURHOOD
In the morning we reach Namdaemun, with its mighty gate and crowded market, where we buy some souvenirs.
From Myeongdong station, we get on the shuttle bus that rounds Namsan neighbourhood, a hilly side topped by the iconic Seoul Tower on its peak. From up here, it is possible to appreciate a 360° view of the endless size of South Korea’s capital city. We do not go up to the top of the tower itself, it is quite foggy and cloudy up there; still the view it’s already decent from the hilltop. We relax for a few minutes but then rain starts to fall and we take the bus back down to the city.
After lunch, we decide to go all the way to the other side of the river again, up to Gangnam, the area that became famous worldwide thanks to Korean pop singer Psy: it’s a financial-business centre with many tall modern buildings.
One of the top rated is the Coex, the biggest underground shopping mall in the world, where you can also find a majestic library, an aquarium and a casino. Later on, we move to the heart of Gangnam (which is still 3 metro stops away, to give you an idea of distances). It’s 6pm and people has finished their work days, the metro is busiest than ever.
We eat barbecue pork in a local restaurant for dinner. The night is still very young for us today, due to our Seoul-Da Nang flight taking off at 7am, we must get to the airport by 5am, but the first trains don’t run before 5.15 and take about one hour, we would never make it on time. There are some night buses, but still we would need to wake up in the middle of the night at 3am to catch them (night express buses cost around 10-15$, 1h30). We ended up deciding to early check out and spend the night at the airport. So, we head back once more to Myeongdong, to walk along Cheonggyecheon Stream back to the hostel one last time. We take a shower and pack, leaving our hostel around 11pm. Last trains run until midnight towards the airport.
The airport wasn’t such a bad idea eventually, we found some comfy couches and slept a good 4 hours, surely better than on the plane. We look for postcards but don’t find any around, so if you need them make sure you buy them in Seoul, they are not so popular.
- Fully Hong Insadong Hostel, Seoul: great location close to metro station, helpful and friendly staff; dorms and private rooms;
- Search hotel deals in Seoul;
- Cheap hostels in Seoul.
- Da Nang, Vietnam – Seoul, Korea, return flight: 160$/person, 4h30;
- Incheon Airport to Seoul, Arex express train: 10.000KRW, 35mins;
- Incheon Airport to Seoul station, metro: 4.000KRW (with T-Money card), 1h;
- T-Money rechargeable card: 10.000KRW, single fares from 1.500KRW, includes metro, trains and buses;
- Money exchange: 300USD=335.000KRW;
- ATM withdrawal: 250.000KRW=190€;
- Royal Palaces + Secret Garden, combo ticket: 10.000KRW/person;
- Seoul Tower: 9.000KRW/person.