One of the greatest things about my teaching experience in South Korea was living in Seoul. Over 10 million people strong, Seoul is an expansive city with much to offer. This was my first time living in a huge metropolis – where endless skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture are brought together with street markets, Buddhist temples and palaces of the past. Seoul brings a unique energy and vibe that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Following are some of the highlights and curiosities I observed during my time in this electric city.
I could write a whole separate post on Korean food, and indeed many have! Korean food by far is one of the highlights of living in Seoul. My favorites were:
Kimchi – A simple yet savory cabbage dish that pairs well with just about anything. If you go to Korea and don’t have some Kimchi, I’m not sure you can say you’ve actually been!
Traditional Korean BBQ – usually with various cuts of pork, you are in charge of cooking this meal. This, and most meals, come with a plethora of all you can eat side dishes, including kimchi! Korean BBQ is always best with Soju, a traditional Korean liquor staple.
Fried chicken – there is something special about how Koreans prepare fried chicken, and it is by far better than fried chicken I’ve had anywhere else. Regularly paired with beer, the combo is known as Chimaek (Chicken + Maekju)
Bibimbap – probably the most recognized dish after Korean barbeque, bibimbap is a rice bowl mixed with sautéed roots, marinated beef, chili paste and a fried egg in a hot stone pot. (Also rumored to be Michael Jackson’s favorite dish!) This is easily made without meat, and still very tasty, being a good option for vegetarians.
Unique Flavors – ranging from coleslaw popcorn to shrimp chips, you can find unique flavors of just about anything. A good place to check out the selections are at the GS25 or CU convenience stores, which actually give the word its meaning – there is one on nearly every corner.
And while not a common food for most, the live octopus is a must try while in Korea. Dipped in sesame oil and salt, it’s an intense culinary experience you won’t get anywhere else! (You can watch my attempt at trying this here)
Public transportation in South Korea is amazing. Using a T-Money card allows you to easily pay for your fare and transfer between subway, bus, and taxi without ever using cash or dealing with change. With minimal walking, the sophisticated metro and bus systems can get you nearly anywhere you need to be.
Paired with apps like CityMapper, Kakao Bus and Subway Korea, which help time and map your routes, I had no problem getting around the initially intimidating city expanse. People are generally orderly and considerate on the transportation, less the occasional instance of groups pushing on to the subway as you are trying to get off. Kept clean, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it seems the public transportation system in Seoul should be a model for cities around the world.
Places to See
With seemingly endless places to go and things to see, some of the best are:
Bukhansan National Park – The best (and only) national park within Seoul’s city limits, Bukhansan’s three towering peaks are punctuated by crystal clear streams, creating a perfect harmony between the mountains and water. The park is very popular with hikers, offering trails suited to every level of experience, from gentle slopes to steep rugged tracks. The ever-changing scenery each season makes it a great place to checkout anytime you visit Korea.
Seoul Tower/Namsan Park – This is one of my favorite landmarks in Seoul, offering some of the best views from all directions atop of Namsan Mountain. I would love starting my days with a hike up to the tower through Namsan Park in the mornings, and enjoy the electric and changing neon glow of the tower at night. The tower also reminds me of connection. Initially built as a general radio wave tower in 1969, connecting TV and radio broadcasting to the greater Seoul area, it now also provides a place for people to symbolize their connections through locks linked together all around its base.
DMZ/JSA – N. Korea Border – by far one of the most interesting places I went during my time in Korea. Most tours offer a good amount of history and insight into the current situation between the divided country, and you can actually feel the tension at the Joint Security Area (JSA) or Panmunjom village, where I was able to stand in North Korea from the north side of the UN peace keeping building. This was a much easier feat than the North Korean soldier faced, who recently escaped over the border to the South.
Temples – Korea has a 1,700-year Buddhist history and more than 900 traditional Buddhist temples, with centuries-old architecture tucked among the country’s numerous mountains. Gagwonsa, Bongeunsa and Haedong Yonggung are notable ones. Most also offer temple stays, where visitors can spend two days experiencing daily monastic life. Programs include tea ceremonies, Buddhist services, zen meditations…and temple uniforms.
Palaces – Gyeongbok Palace is probably Korea’s most famous royal palace. It was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. It’s tough to miss given its location at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, a stone’s throw from the Blue House (the President’s residence) and the U.S embassy.
Shopping – Although I didn’t do much, I got the sense that shopping is on point in South Korea. Claimed to be one of the best and most famous shopping destinations in Asia, South Korea presents a plethora of shopping unique shopping districts. Most recommended are Myeongdong, Dongdaemum Market, Hongdae and Insadong.
Jeju Isand – the Hawaii of Korea! I had the opportunity to check out this beautiful island with my brother during his October visit – it does not disappoint! Jeju is known for its beach resorts and volcanic landscape of craters and cavelike lava tubes. Hallasan Mountain, a dormant volcano, also features hiking trails, a crater lake at the 1,950m summit and nearby Gwaneumsa Temple. It’s a short flight from Seoul and highly recommended!
Korean culture seems to be very much work-hard, play-hard – and coupled with low taxi fares and even lower crime rates, means that Korean nightlife can easily extend into the early morning. In popular areas such as Gangnam, Hongdae, Dongdaemun and Itaewon, bars, cafes, restaurants, spas, shopping centers and fast food chains can be found open any hour of any night. Hongdae attracts university students and a generally younger crowd, while Itaewon caters specifically to Seoul’s expat population.
Two nighttime must do’s while in Korea are a visit to a noraebang and jjimjilbang. Noraebangs are a place for Korea’s version of karaoke. Taken a bit more seriously than a western-style bar karaoke, noraebangs are private rooms, just for you and your friends or coworkers, to play videos with music and lyric captions. You can adjust tempos and tones to find your perfect K-Pop voice – but be warned, singers are given a score at the end of each song!
Jjimjilbangs are traditional Korean spas, quite literally bathhouses, where gender-segregated areas allow you to let it all hang out in various pools, tubs, and saunas. You can also have a full body scrub, where someone removes any and ALL dead skin from your body through vigorous scrubbing (seemed a little too intense for me) before cleaning and grooming yourself back to perfection. Outside of the gender-segregated areas there are coed common areas, where things are more clothed, and you can meet with friends or significant others. Here there are usually various other saunas or healing rooms to experience together. It’s an extremely relaxing Korean experience. Open 24 hours, and for less than $15, a great way to unwind after a long day.
The People and Culture
Confucianism had a major influence in early Korean culture, bringing its defined conservative roles and interactions between men and women, bosses and workers, and the young and old. While the younger generations seem to be more lax around these traditions, they are still evident and expected in much of present Korean society.
Korea is also, well, very Korean. There is not a lot of racial diversity, and you can often find yourself being the only non-Korean looking person around – especially in areas outside of Itaewon/Seoul. And while I think it’s safe to say most Koreans understand far more English than visa-versa, many will not speak it. Luckily the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is said to be among the easiest in the world to learn. I learned the basics in a few hours and was able to sound out most words. Of course, I generally didn’t know what the words meant, but occasionally something spelled in Hangul will sound out the English word – this is especially helpful on menus!
Koreans have a largely independent culture, with surprisingly minimal western pop culture influences. In my opinion they have done a great job at offering a Korean version of anything American. From their own pop stars and movie stars (K-Pop and K-Drama) to their own version of Google and Whatsapp (Naver and Kakao), you can go days without hearing or seeing anything familiarly American. (Except Starbucks, Starbucks are everywhere) Indeed, it looks like it’s actually K-Pop that may be starting to influence America!
This is just a small sampling of what South Korea has to offer. No matter how much I write, or how much of Korean culture becomes global, you’ll still want to make a trip to fully enjoy the inimitability of everything Korean – it’s a truly remarkable place.