Seoul – A whole other world

Seoul, Korea – in one word…. Fantastic!

We really didn’t know what to expect as this region of Asia was foreign to both of us. Having arrived at Incheon airport we immediately realised that we were gonna fall in love with Korea. The immigration process was super easy, we were given our 90 day visas and off we went to discover this magical place. Following our research we knew we needed to catch the 6002 bus from the airport and that it would drop us off near our hotel. We paid 10,000 Won which is 7.50 each one way. The bus ride took over an hour, which is something we love as it gives us the opportunity to scan the area and understand our surroundings…..and more often than not you’ll also see some places to visit later along the way…of which we noted down …Looking out and taking as much in as possible we could immediately see how developed Seoul actually is as a city and trust me we weren’t wrong once we had the opportunity to delve a little deeper.

Where we stayed…

We chose the Grid Inn as our lodging’s for our stay……and what a great choice that turned out to be!! The hotel was immaculate, the staff were super friendly and the best part being that we were in the centre of all the action. Once again a super quick check-in process (super efficient are the Koreans) and up we went to our room, which was neat and compact but we loved it, so cozy and clean, with everything you’d need for a comfortable stay. This also included an emergency zip-line kit to help you escape via the window in case of fire or some other equally urgent ‘get out of the building via the window’ predicament. Rather less dramatic but all the more critical (while travelling) was the availability of a washing machine and dryer in the basement of the hotel, this was free to use by hotel residents which came in very handy indeed. Breakfast was also included in the price (60 per night) and consisted of either the Continental with bread/toast, cereals, jams, cheese, ham and eggs upon request with of course tea, coffee and juices or of course the local breakfast of various noodle dishes if preferred.

Where we went..

Bukchon Hanok Village

This was one of the highlights of our trip, its literally a 10 minute walk from the centre of town, upon entering you feel that you are being taken back in time. Hanok village is home to hundreds of traditional houses. Yes it can be a bit touristy and due to the volume of visitors the locals have grown somewhat fed up of people looking into their homes and stopping to take photographs and as you can imagine, as they stop in groups, the noise levels also increase so for this reason you need to be very respectful. There were alleys upon alleys of traditional homes and we wondered through for hours in awe of it’s stunning beauty and it’s history, we both fell in love with this place. Besides the beautiful homes there are cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses to explore. We were happy roaming the alley ways taking photos but also respecting people’s privacy. We also had the rather bizarre experience of groups of local teenagers wanting to take selfies with us, this happened 2 or 3 times and we started to feel like a celebrity couple. We surmised that it was our ‘Mediterranean’ look that made it a novelty for them……Mick suggested it may be his smoldering pop star good looks……I helped him realise that….no……it more than likely wasn’t that at all……

Even though Hanok village is home to many people, in order for the residents to enjoy some peace from roaming tourists there are set ‘visiting times’ of between 10 am to 5 pm Monday – Saturday. Obviously you could walk through any time before and after these times but this is generally frowned upon by the residents and as a visitor it is disrespectful to do so.

DMZ- Demilitarized Zone…

This was something that Mick really wanted to do and to be honest it was interesting but very sad at the same time, but it’s a part of the long and bloody history of Korea so it makes sense to see this part of the country. As Cypriots we also understand the difficulty of living in a divided country so we were able to find comparisons between the Koreans and our own lives. We booked through Viator with a company called SEOUL CITY TOUR CO. LTD. The tour was informative and professional we were picked up from our hotel and dropped off in the city when the tour was done. This was a half day tour that took us through Imjingak Park – Freedom Bridge – The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel – DMZ Theater / Exhibition Hall – Dora Observatory – Dorasan Station – Unification Village Pass by – Ginseng Center and then back to the city. The place that interested me the most was Dorasan Station, built to connect citizens between North and South Korea but now only serves tourists with only one platform in use that no longer continue into the North. The other platforms directs you toward North Korea some 205 km away, however no train is ever used on that side due to the instability of the area, something that makes you realise how much is still to be resolved in this decades old stand off between North and South.

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, otherwise known as the Tunnel of Aggression, was also very interesting. It is one of many tunnels built by the North in order to enter undetected into the South. This tunnel in particular was discovered following explosions used below ground during it’s excavation were felt above ground and was swiftly shut down by the United Nation peace keeping force. The tunnel is 1,635 meters long and you need lot’s of stamina to walk the entire length of the tunnel especially with the steep ascent back to the top. You are required to wear a hard hat due to safety reasons from the low ceiling, upon reaching a certain point within the tunnel and are forced to walk with slightly bent knees in order to be able to proceed. Mobile phones and cameras are forbidden in order to keep people moving along as people stopping every few meters for a snap would create grid lock!! So you are obliged to leave all electronic devices in a locker provided for you. The end of the tunnel indicates that you are now within the UN demilitarized zone where, for reasons of ‘safety’ there is a live bomb….yes indeed, a live, fully armed explosive. I know this sounds scary but this is to protect South Korea if the North ever decides to attack. It would set off the device in order to obliterate the surrounding rock therefore completely destroying the tunnel. North Korea methods of attack included digging many of these underground tunnels so the South take every precaution to keep their citizens safe and being prepared to destroy these tunnels in one such precaution. We paid 40 each for this eye-opening day trip, you must remember to bring your passport otherwise you will be denied access.

Myeong- Dong Street..

This was our favorite street in Seoul, Mick and I were there practically every night. The vibe, atmosphere, shopping, food was absolutely incredible. Every evening from 6 pm till midnight there was an abundance of street food stalls dotted around serving everything you could imagine. There is something for everyone whether you are looking for Korean or western food it is available here. We stuck to Korean food although some might find it a touch spicy we loved it and it was super cheap too…..a meal could easily cost less that €5. If you are looking for skin care products then this is the place to buy it, there were rows and rows of shops selling all sorts of different products.

I will mention that Korean girls/woman have porcelain skin, I don’t think I saw anyone with bad skin, apparently they keep a strict regime and this is embedded in them from a young age. Even if you are not into skin care just go for the food and the atmosphere… its such a buzz!! There are also cafes and restaurants if you don’t fancy street food or just prefer to be seated. Us personally, during our stay in Seoul we only visited two restaurants….of which I will talk about a bit later……but that’s how good the street food is!!

N Seoul Tower..

 N Seoul Tower was also a place that we wanted to see, it sits 480 meters above sea level and is best to visit on a clear day or night.  We took the shuttle bus No. 5 from Myeong Dong station the bus runs every 15 minutes and it took about 30 minutes to get to the tower. There was luscious parks along the way, if you feel adventurous and you are able to, you can walk to the tower but it’s all up-hill and can be quite tiring. The bus cost us 1200 Won (€1). Transport in Seoul is very efficient and buses always run on time. We were dropped off near the tower and we managed to see one of the most beautiful sunsets ever!! After taking heaps of pics we decided to make our way to the top. The entry fee was 10,000 Won (€8) per person. The ride to the observatory tower  was via a super fast lift and we were whisked up to the peak in a matter of seconds. The view was amazing and you could see the whole of Seoul and beyond, this place was so busy…obviously everyone had had the same idea as us. There were binoculars available for everyone which was great and also signs on every pane of glass indicated the distance to all different countries of the world from Seoul. There was a souvenir shop and cafe but everything cost double so if you aren’t really looking for anything its best to get it from a market. There were restaurants too but you can imagine the prices….yeah….a bit steep so we gave it a miss. As a first timer in Seoul I would recommend visiting the tower though as the views over the city are breathtaking, especially at night or during sunset hours.

Starfield Library / Coex Mall… 

When we travel we don’t really spend much time in Malls but it was a rainy Saturday morning and I really wanted to see Seoul’s famous Starfield Library. The train ride was easy and it took about half an hour to get to the mall which was located in the Gang-nam area. The mall itself was huge and stunning with many shops, cafes and restaurants to keep anyone busy and entertained. The main attraction was the library of course and personally I haven’t seen a more beautiful library than this one. The amount and variety of books would leave anyone speechless and the way in which they are displayed with huge towering shelves with their intertwined staircases is a sight to behold. The place was buzzing with hordes of people reading, studying, taking selfies with everyone being mesmerized by this stunning place. There are over 50,000 books available, as you would expect, the majority of them are in Korean but there was tons of English and other foreign language books and magazines too….although the books are not available as in a conventional library and cannot be removed from the premises. There was a really fancy cafe on the second floor and being a foody I must mention that the cakes looked absolutely amazing, but, unfortunately for me there was no seating available and we missed out…..but if you are in the area don’t forget to check it out this place….it is magnificent!

Cheonggyecheon Stream..

This is such a pretty stream that runs through Seoul, it is approximately 10 km long and is a beautiful place to take a stroll during the evening. The stream was reintroduced to Seoul following a decision to bring more nature and beautification to the city. It had almost dried up but a complete regeneration of the stream and surrounding areas brought it back to life and has since become very popular place for tourists and locals.

Hongdae

Hongdae is an area of the city famed for it’s indie music style culture and it’s urban arts and definitely has the ‘university town’ fell about it. It was such a buzz, to the point that we didn’t expect. To see such massive crowds everywhere with all the youngsters out and about enjoying all this great part of the city has to offer. What I liked about this area was the different street performances scattered about and in some cases almost over-lapping one another on the main walk called Hongik University Street….you need to check this place out!! We walked around looking at the different performers, some being rather quite good some…….but some others maybe not so but we admired the fact that they were all out enjoying themselves and giving it a good go…….to be fair, it was no different to Karaoke……just …….well…..outside in the open in front of big crowds of gawping onlookers. Mick and I literally couldn’t drag ourselves away and I don’t think we laughed so much during this trip than during our night in Hongdae. There are also lots of shops, cafes and of course lots of street food….to keep you fueled up

Insadong

Insadong was a gorgeous place full of traditional Korean food, street food, gorgeous tea houses and cafes. If you would like to buy some traditional little trinkets then this would be the place to go. During the evening there were a few street performers but I must note that after 9.30 pm the area seems to quieten down quite significantly, we found this strange as the rest of Seoul to be very lively. During the day though the place is buzzing. If you are into art galleries then Insadong is full of these too, this is not something that we are into but we thought they were cool to mention for anyone that is. Ssamji-gil was a small shopping mall in the centre of Insadong, this place was so beautifully decorated. There is approximately 70 shops that sold anything from Arts and Crafts, souvenirs or traditional Korean trinkets. Be sure to visit this gorgeous place it was my favorite. 

Gyeongbokgung Palace 

Gyeongbokgung Palace, is one of the most iconic sights in all of Korea thanks to its long and storied history. You will need a few hours to see the different sectors of the palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace is so interesting because it offers a glimpse into a part of Korea that probably isn’t going to come back– its royal past. There are traditions and food and dress that still exist today and that is why you will see lots of students dressed in the traditional attire and they are happy to give you a tour of the palace. Entry is very cheap, with an entrance fee of 3000 won (2.50) for adults and 1500 won (1.25) for kids. Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place at the top of every hour from 11:00 to 15:00.

Osegyehyang restaurant..

I wanted to try this vegan restaurant while in Seoul so one rainy night we decided to visit after reading great reviews. The only thing that I didn’t read was that the restaurant closed at 8.30 pm. The restaurant was in Insadong area and as mentioned previously everything shuts pretty early. We got there at 8 pm and we just about made it there in time as they were still serving and receiving last orders…. although some hard stares from the elderly owner and her lack of English made us feel somewhat unwelcome just before closing, so we figured we had missed out and made our way back out to the narrow lane…. only to have her chase us down in the rain to tell us, in rather patchy English to come back. To be honest once we were hurriedly shown to our table and given menus we did feel quite rushed but they gave us some time to select our meals and the service was okay. Once we were served our food, the waitress kept looking over as she wanted us to hurry up…luckily we weren’t the only customers there and the others looked rather relaxed so we followed their flow. The food was yummy and it was all vegan and rather delicious. The decor was a mish-mash of Arabic/Korean/Japanese styles with low tables and floor cushions as seats. I am sure if we weren’t so rushed we would have enjoyed the experience much more but we still recommend this place very highly indeed.

Cookbooks

Cookbooks cafe is near the Bukchon Hanok village and must be, without a doubt, the cutest cafe that I have ever had the privilege of visiting. If you are into books and specifically cook books then this is the place for you. We had Korean tea and sat back and relaxed with a few books, it was bliss. As mentioned previously we didn’t visit many restaurants, but cafes are everywhere in Seoul, the coffee scene is massive and if you need your caffeine fix then you won’t need to  walk far from pretty much anywhere in order to get it. There were quirky cafes, animal cafes, the usual international brands too but Cookbooks was our type of place and it is a must visit if in the area……it is stunning!!

Useful Information 

Scattered around Seoul are numerous Tourist Information Centers where you will be greeted by  wonderfully helpful staff who speak perfect English. We got lost and wanted to find a specific cafe in the Hanok area and they were so accommodating even if their field of knowledge was more geared to places of local historic significance, museums and palaces. They will help you with anything you may need. Also to exchange money we went to a bank on the first day, but near the main center there are currency exchange booths you just need to show your Id. There train system and bus system is second to none so getting around the city is a breeze. Buses leave constantly to and from the airport and a very efficient. Koreans in general are very quiet people and they don’t like to raise their voices so as foreigners its best to avoid any confrontation.

In a nutshell will definitely be going back to Seoul, absolutely we were there almost a week and felt that we hardly scratch the surface on this magnificent place. If you are thinking of going don’t hesitate, its amazing.

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