Kimchi Country: My Time in Seoul
Seoul became a very special place for me. Travelers from the Western World will find amazing cultural, topographical, architectural and technological differences in Seoul. The city has over 10 million residents and a population density nearly twice that of New York. The transit in the city is unbelievably efficient. The food is inexpensive and delicious. The people are kind and live like night owls. The landscape is something to be in awe of. Technology is far more intertwined in their everyday life.
I’m going to recount my trip to Seoul, South Korea from about a year ago. My girlfriend, her brother (Tony) and I took a leap of faith into the unknown city of Seoul to experience food, culture, and k-pop. If you never considered visiting Korea, I hope this post changes your mind.
What to Expect Once You Arrive to Seoul
After you go through immigration and all that fun stuff, you’ll take a few escalators to their subway transit system. You could either take the direct train from Incheon Airport to Seoul or the regular train which has multiple stops. I’d definitely recommend taking the direct train ride, as it is about 45 minutes already. I could only imagine how long the other train ride is.
While waiting for your train, you’ll notice vending machines with new and foreign treats. Like Japan, South Korea employs vending machines as a way to offer a variety of interesting drinks and snacks. You’ll find weird cans of coffee, lemonade flavored soda beverages and my favorite: Pocari Sweat. I’d recommend grabbing one before boarding the train ride.
When you get to Seoul Station from Incheon, you’ll begin climbing what seems like 3 flights of escalators. The train between Incheon and Seoul is deep underground. Once you get to the top, you’ll be greeted with stores and hundreds (maybe thousands) of Koreans bustling about. Something interesting to note: Koreans are always running around in Seoul Station like they’re late. You’ll see what I mean once you arrive.
Staying in Seoul
Maria, Tony and I decided to stay in a neighborhood called Jung-gu. It’s fairly close to Seoul Station and we were able to hop onto the transit very quickly. We opted for this AirBnB since the prices were unbeatable and the hospitality we received was unrivaled. Our host, Seon, waited for us (even though our flight was delayed) and gave us a brief tour of the place. Seon even left post-it notes around the apartment to let us know what each button does. If it weren’t for that, we would’ve needed to use Google Translate or something similar. She is exactly what you’d want in an AirBnB host.
Although I work for a Travel Startup specifically for airline employees, I can’t help but admire the tools AirBnB supplies their users with. I was able to stay in contact with Seon and she was able to provide us with helpful tidbits of information on where to go and what to see.
Getting Around in Seoul
The subway system in Seoul is hands down one of the easiest and efficient transit systems in the world. The train employs a color-coded line system, multi-lingual support, and comfortable seating. Each train stop is only about 5-10 minutes apart. What’s more, trains pass by every 5-10 minutes so you’ll never have to wait very long to hop on. Also, the transit is very cheap. You can expect to pay only a few bucks a day to get around the entire city.
I wouldn’t recommend taking a Taxi. Although Taxies are available, they’re virtually unnecessary. If you were to take a cab ride, opt for an Uber as the service has become prevalent throughout the country.
Seoul as a whole is very walkable. The terrain is a little different from what I’ve experienced in Miami and Texas but still very doable. You’ll find people walk miles every day as a part of their life. To give you an idea, our group walked about 45 miles during our entire stay in Korea over the span of 9 days.
Food in Seoul
So one thing to note: Koreans don’t have the concept of breakfast. If you’re like me and love breakfast, you’ll be surprised to find there are no breakfast joints in Korea. Koreans eat rice and soup-like dishes during the early hours. If not rice or soup, you’ll get to enjoy Korean sweet bread which is simply amazing. I will note you could find a few places that serve western influenced breakfast but it is pretty rare to find.
Regarding the food as a whole, Korea does it right. You’ll find many delicious fermented dishes when served Banchan; which are small dishes of food served along with cooked rice in Korean cuisine. The barbecue is delicious but expensive when compared to other dishes.
I can’t tell you one specific dish that stood out to us. We ate delicious street food from sweet to savory. Dinners consisted of several delicious beef and pork based meats or stews. Whether it was beef bulgogi or kimchi jjigae, we were greeted with mind blowing entrees.
In Korea, it is commonplace to pair your meals with Soju—a rice, wheat or barley based clear alcoholic beverage. You typically drink Soju in shot format, very similar to sake. However, Soju is always served cool and with the purpose to unify a group. In Korea, you will never drink Soju alone.
Places to visit in Seoul
When visiting Seoul, you have to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace. Gyeongbokgung was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, built in 1395. The sheer size of the complex is mind-numbing. Inside, you’ll see sleeping quarters for the royal family and servants. Behind the walls of the palace, you’ll quickly see Bukhansan, Seoul’s largest mountain. You’ll want to spend 1-2 hours here for sure.Another great place around the premise of Gyeongbokgung is the National Folk Museum. Here, you’ll learn how the Korean people lived from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon dynasty. You’ll also get to see sample households of Korean people throughout history to exemplify the increase in quality of life given their economic boom.
Lastly, you cannot leave Seoul without visiting the Bukchon Hanok Village. Bukchon is a traditional village preserved to show the 600-year old urban conditions. The village sits on top of various steep mountains, so you’ll need to get ready for a bit of a hike. You’ll definitely want to take a good panoramic shot of the city since you’ll be able to see much of the land.
Nightlife in Seoul
If all else, the single greatest feature of Seoul is the nightlife. At night, the city turns into a neon forest of lights and energetic patrons looking for things to do, eat and see.During the first few nights, we decided to get lost in Seoul. This meant aimlessly walking towards neon signs and Korean calligraphy with inviting pictures of food or drink. As to be expected, we hopped from bar to bar drinking Cass (Korean beer) and Soju. We stopped by various Korean and American influenced bars to get a feel for the city.
On one of our last nights in Seoul (once we returned from Jeonju and Busan), we read up on this place called Pandora in Gangnam. Yelp and Trip Advisor said it was the go-to lounge to pregame before going to the night clubs. Since it was only about 8PM, we figured this would be a great spot to visit before heading to the nightclub.
Pandora: Definitely Check It Out
Pandora wasn’t very easy to get to. It was situated between buildings and had an opaque entrance. We originally followed directions that took us two stories underground to a door that said something along the lines of “this side is closed”.
Once we found our way to the main entrance, we were impressed. For a cover charge of about 10,000 Won ($9 USD), we were granted all-you-can-drink bands. Inside, there were pool tables, darts, basketball hoops and hand hockey machines. Before you get to the bar, there is this 10-foot plaque that lists all available drinks from lowest in ABV to highest in ABV. The strongest drink there was called “Adios Mother Fucker”.
In the bar we had some drinks, listened to some Korean house music and took in the environment. There were VIP tables for guys who wanted to buy bottles and have private rooms (I don’t understand why you’d do that if it’s all you can drink). There was a designated “smoking room” where patrons would sit and smoke—a very common practice in Korea.
After Pandora, we went to a 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of Soju. 7-Eleven in Asian countries is the go-to spot for anything you’ll ever need: diapers, snacks, whiskey, etc. We bought a bottle of Soju for about $1USD and then went to the nearest night club. Inside the nightclub, there were hundreds of people jamming to the music. The sound and light systems were something I’ve never seen before. Really good stuff.
Final Thoughts about Seoul
This will not be my last trip to Seoul or South Korea. Seoul is incredibly energetic and large, you could spend months there without ever getting bored. Between the interesting social norms, beautiful architecture and rowdy nightlife—Seoul gives travelers a little bit of everything you’d ever want to experience.