It is hard to believe that it has been a whole 2 years since our toes first touched down on the Korean peninsula. In that strange and mysterious way that time has of expanding and contracting it has felt simultaneously much longer, yet somehow contained in the blink of an eye. I love those beginning days in a new place when everything is just a series of impressions. Finding the local market, a cute coffee shop, or the best place to to buy a lightbulb are all fantastically huge moments of discovery. Even the way the air smells is something to get excited about. Nothing feels connected, existing only as a colourful handful of snapshots that you try to link together in hopes that you will be able to find your way back tomorrow.
It was springtime when we first arrived in the town that we would end up calling home. I remember cherry blossoms floating on the breeze like giant snowflakes. Bent-backed old ladies wearing floral print cacophonies picking lettuce and green onions from the tiny gardens that inhabit every bit of open space between buildings and up along the sidewalks. Elegant white egrets standing ankle deep in a rice field. The smell of sesame oil and kimchi saturating the air. It seems like yesterday that I grilled long strips of pork belly (samgyeopsal) at my table for the first time. How I carefully took the perfectly charred meat with a hunk of garlic, a dollop of ssamjang, and wrapped it up in a bright green perilla leaf for a bite that was savoury, sweet and bitter all at once.
And then there was Seoul. Although I grew up a country girl in a small town with just a few stoplights, I have spent a large portion of my life gleefully pounding the pavement in some of the world’s best cities. I have lived in Manhattan, Chicago and London, and I have come to believe that I have cultivated a pinch or two of street smarts, and a natural ability to meander my way around the urban jungle with some sort of grace. (It is, of course entirely possible that I am completely delusional!) However, when we first got off the train in Seoul- or rather pushed off (something that I still haven’t gotten used to) nothing could have prepared me for how overwhelmed I would feel. It had nothing to do with the foreign-ness of the language (in reality, a huge percentage of the signs, menus, and information bits are in English) but it had everything to with the disorienting hordes of humans. Streams… no, rivers of people- the majority of them nose deep in their cell phones- formed a dense and almost impenetrable flow. On our very first day in Seoul we took the train from Gangnam where we were staying, up to the Bukchon/Gyeogbokgun/Insadong area. We wound our way through the maze of streets, growing more confused with every turn. We got lost amongst the distinctive roofs of the hanok village, grew frustrated by the fact that window shopping our way through the boutique-filled Samcheong-dong area felt impossible, and in the midst of all that somehow missed the palace altogether. We had literally been swept away by the crowds. Swept past windows filled with paintbrushes, teapots, hanji paper, oodles of hip cafes, and carts selling corn dogs that would blow your mind (double dipped and studded with french fries?!) Somehow we were able to step out of the swirl for a moment- just long enough to be partially resuscitated by a couple of gyeranbbang: a lightly sweet griddle cake topped with an egg. It was to become one of my most favourite and sought after Korean street foods. With that little bite we found the strength to press on through that first weekend of wandering. Then, one day when I wasn’t even really paying attention it all came together. The unknown became familiar. The crowds seemed to recede into a manageable hum. There were new favourite things to do and see and eat… and eat… and eat…
Below is a little list of some of the things to do and places to eat in Seoul that we came to love during our 2 years in South Korea. There are so many more that I could have been included, but I tried to contain myself… (Something that is always a challenge!) Consider it a nice starting point that represents the flavour of the city, something that will hopefully kickstart your own city wandering.
(In no particular order of favouritness)
Jjukkumi alley: Spicy stir fried baby octopus… So delicious! While 나정순할매쭈꾸미 (Grandma Na Jeong-sun’s Jjukkumi)might be the oldest on the block, we ate at Yongdudong Jjukkumi where they served a lovely curry dipping sauce with the octopus. Read more about our jjimjilbang and jjukkumi experience here
Mapo Jeon Daepo: One of my favourite BBQ restaurants in Seoul. Cement floors, and a grill embedded into a large metal barrel… classic. Spots like these are difficult to find in the big city (they are easier to come by in the smaller towns.) Go for the galmegisal! It comes with an egg moat! This restaurant just also happens to be the spot where Anthony Bourdain got drunk and had dinner with a few salarymen during his Seoul ‘No Reservations’ episode.
Majang Meat Market: One of the oldest food alleys in the city (established over 40 years ago), a trip to Majang Meat Market is not only a feast for the senses, but one of the most fun places to gobble up choice pieces of high quality Korean meat. Visit one of the many butcher shops to have your dinner sliced up and packaged before being led to an on site restaurants to grill up your goodies. Hands down the best beef we ate in Korea… it does come at a price, though… Expect to spend between 70,000- 80,000 won for a dinner for 2. Prices depend on what meat you choose + a 5,000won/ person sit down fee that comes with an assortment of kimchi.
Namdaemun Market: A crazy labyrinth of shops and restaurants. My favourite place to go eat dak kalguksu 닭칼국수 (check out the restaurant on the corner near gate 4) or try your hand at navigating Kalguksu Alley
Bukchon Son Mandu: Korean style dumplings… what more do I need to say?
도도& (Do Do& Cafe): Address 인사동 · 서울시 종로구 관훈동 192-35 A lovely little spot overlooking the busy Insadong-gil. Try the iced lemon tea and the roasted rice cakes with honey. (Make your way down Insadong-gil until you see the stands where kkultarae is being made…도도& is right across the street on the 2nd floor)
커피방앗간: A super cute artsy coffee shop… on the southern edge of the trendy Samcheong-dong hood. You will often find an artist drawing chariactures of patrons for 1,000won each. Click here for a map
Thanks Nature Cafe: Forget about cat cafes… visit a sheep cafe! While the sheep aren’t actually wandering around the coffee shop while you caffeinate (they are in a little petting pen), it still counts among one of those ‘only in Korea’ events.
Dragon Hill jjimjilbang: kilns, a room filled with healing salts, various mineral baths… the perfect place to visit on rainy days, cold days, or if you just need a day to recharge. Jjimjilbangs are a big part of Korean culture, and Dragon Hill makes it really accessible for foreigners to enjoy.
Bike ride the Han River: my favourite way to spend the day in Seoul when I am not eating. Stellar city views… Bike rentals run about 3,000won/ 1 hour. Bring an ID to leave at the rental kiosk. My favourite starting point is near Ichon Station….Click here for a map of all rental spots along the Han.
Mullae Art Village: Wander through a series of narrow walkways filled with magical bits of hidden street art, hip cafes, art galleries, welding shops, and a handful of cool restaurants and boutiques. An up-and-coming art neighbourhood that is off the tourist track
Bukchon Hanok Village: Feel like you have gone back in time as you stroll though the tradional syle Korean houses (hanok) on your way to the boutique studded Samcheong-dong neighbourhood
Samcheong-dong and Insa-dong Neighbourhoods: Samcheong-dong is filled with hip little shops, cafes, and restaurants… from here wander down into the more touristy area of Insa-dong where the street are lined with souvenirs. Nestled between some of the tacky fodder are lovely art shops (I bought some beautifully block prints here). I specifically like Insa-dong for its tea shops (great place to buy Korean green tea grown in Boseong and Hadong), hanji paper … and because you can sample all the best Korean street foods in one place! (gyeranbbang, bungeoppang, dak ggochi to name a few)
Gyeongbokgun Palace: my favourite of all the 5 palaces in Seoul
National Museum of Korea: A well curated selection of Korean artifacts… Free to the public!
If you want to travel around the penninsula for food:
The best dolsot bibimbap is definitely found in Jeonju… I highly recommend that you take the trip if you are able to. No other dolsot bibimbap that I had in Seoul (or in our town of Dongducheon) even came close, and therefore I didn’t even make a recommendation. However, the cold style bibimbap at Gwangjang Market is a pretty classic example that you should try not to miss!
(And yes… I know that my Seoul list is missing a few of my favourite Korean dishes, but I lived in Dongducheon and happily did most of my eating there. I would love to recommend a few of my favourite spots should you find yourself north of the city!)
This guide is now available on GPSMyCIty… a new travel app that maps out all the cool spots described in my Wander Guide! See all the sights in one handy downloadable map, and get travel routes so that you can explore at your own pace. Click here to Wander Seoul…