Visiting East Asia has been on my bucket list for a long time now, and after doing a little research, Seoul looked like it could tick that box for me looking like a vibrant city with a lot of things to do whilst still being calm, clean and commuter friendly (I promise it wasn't just the fact they have cute racoon cafe's). So we made the decision to pick Seoul as the next destination in my series of "You Have To Go Here" blog posts and boy it did not disappoint.
We started our journey at Heathrow excited for our flight as always. I find the day of travel super exciting, it has that waking up on Christmas morning vibe - wanting to open your presents but instead you're just dying to get to your destination. The day of travel actually went pretty smoothly flying with Asiana Airlines but the days prior did not. Our flight with Lufthansa (which we paid a hefty sum to upgrade to premium economy on) was cancelled the day before our flight! This was obviously super stressful but in all fairness to Lufthansa it was due to strikes at our connecting destination, Frankfurt, and they got us straight onto a direct replacement flight meaning we'd only arrive about 2 hours after our scheduled flight when some people weren't able to get there until the day after. The only frustrating thing was not being able to experience our premium economy tickets but we were refunded so I suppose we can't complain too much. That being said after the 11 hour flight we got there safe and sound which is the important thing. Be aware the jet lag is a beast and it took us a while to get over it! The saying "west is best, the east is a beast" is definitely true for jet lag.
Before I get stuck into where to visit in Seoul, let's just go through some golden advice. When you arrive in Seoul there are two things that I really recommend that you do as soon as you get to the airport that will make your stay so much easier and cheaper. The first thing is to rent a WiFi egg. South Korea has extremely fast and affordable internet. Renting a portable WiFi egg ended up costing two of us sharing £1 each per day rather than £6 a day each that our UK service providers would have charged us. The Egg was absolutely fantastic throughout the week, just make sure you charge it overnight and have a portable charger on hand so you don't get lost in the middle of no where with no internet if it runs out of battery.
The second recommendation is that you buy a T-money card, it's effectively an Oyster card. A card you can use to tap in and out of the subway system and also works on buses too. It costs about £3 then you need to load it with money. The T-money card will make your fare cheaper and also stop you from needing to queue at the machine every single time hunting for the correct ticket you need to buy. With the T-money card I was spending about £5 per day on all my travel. Save yourself a lot of time, money and hassle by getting both of these things.
If you want more tips like this, at the bottom of this post I'm going to give you a Seoul cheat sheet with all the apps you'll need as well as pick ups like these two that will make Seoul a piece of cake.
Right, let's get stuck into where to stay and what to do, shall we? We stayed in an apartment through Airbnb which overlooked the Korean equivalent of Disneyland - Lotte World! It was in an area called Jamsil, which is the neighbour of the famous Gangnam area of Seoul. The view we had was stunning and I really enjoyed staying in this area of Seoul, it was peaceful and safe and felt like returning to an actual home away from the more tourist-heavy areas we were sometimes visiting during the day. We rarely travelled more than an hour to get anywhere in the city and we always travelled via the subway. If you want to see a full apartment tour then head over to my Instagram and check out my Seoul highlights - @matt_tapley
At the bottom of this blog post I will put a full itinerary of our entire trip, that way you guys can see exactly what I did, so make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post if you're looking for a full itinerary in list form.
On our first evening we spent the evening getting some Korean style fried chicken and a beer at a restaurant in Jamsil before getting some well earned rest. Our first full day we decided to embrace the jet lag and stay close to home deciding to save the things we thought would be our favourites for another day. So we headed to Starfield Library which is a must for any budding Instagrammer but patience is key because the world and their mother have had the same idea as you so accept this place will be busy. It's located at Coex Mall in Gangnam near a giant statue celebrating the song! After this we headed over to Common Ground which is a series of shipping containers that has been converted into a shopping complex with a lot of cool fashion stores and places to buy cute Korean souvenirs. Common Ground is somewhere that I'd recommend you going to if you are staying near there, if you aren't then perhaps it isn't worth the trip.
Day two for me was a much more interesting day as I felt like we got to experience a lot more of the traditional Korea. We visited two palaces which were extraordinary - Changdeokgung and Changyeokgung which are located in the same place. Walking around the grounds was so interesting with the typical traditional Asian architecture that you might expect. After this we walked through Insa-dong which is a really nice area to do some shopping and stop in a traditional tea house like we did down one of its side streets.
In the afternoon we visited two temples, one of which being a Buddhist temple which you're able to stay in should you wish, followed by heading back into Insa-dong for a quick stop at a cat cafe before dinner at another area that we loved. Ikseon-dong is full of restaurants and fashionable clothing stores all within traditional streets inside small Hanok's (traditional houses) and it was somewhere we returned to on a number of evenings if we were in the area. Both Insa-dong and Ikseon-dong are areas that I'd recommend you try and spend some time visiting.
Our third day was most probably the highlight of the trip. We dressed in traditional Korean outfits and explored the largest Palace in Seoul - Gyeongbokung. The largest 5 palaces in the city allow free entry to anyone dressed in a Hanbok (traditional outfit). I have to say I felt so good walking around the palace dressed up, it was hugely entertaining going into the store and picking out my outfit and then also being able to wear it all day walking around the landmarks just added to the feel of the day. I'd say this is a must do when you come to Seoul. The outfit I chose ended up being the Scholars outfit.
After exploring Gyeongbokung, we visited Bukchon Hanok, this is an area of traditional 14th Century houses that are still lived in today, so despite being a huge tourist destination there are people ensuring that you're being respectful when visiting the residential area. Whilst up in the steep streets we stumbled upon a serene tea house with great views and it was a perfect way to end the traditional part of our day with some iced tea, lemonade and some red bean sweet treats (which I still can't force myself to enjoy).
The final part of our day was spending the evening in Hongdae which is another cool part of the city, very vibrant with a lot going on and I believe it's a university area so it's filled with students. It's a great place to grab some food or a few beers or in our case STROKE SOME RACOONS! In this cafe there are a variety of dogs and racoons in a nice large space with each other for company, we wanted to make sure that if we did any animal cafe's that they would be well maintained and pleasant environments for the animals and they all seemed very happy which made us feel the same way. The dogs and racoons can walk around in the area and say hi to you or be fed by you but all the humans tend to let the animals do their own thing, letting the animals initiate most of the contact (you're not allowed to pick any up). I have to say the racoons were so sweet and I'd love to have more experiences of these little guys. Don't have anything in your pockets as their inquisitive nature means they will try and steal it from you!
The next day we visited Greem Cafe which is a 2D cafe which is a really interesting place to pop into, and there are an abundance of coffee shops in the surrounding area of Hongik. After this we visited the main shopping area of Seoul, Myeongdong. We soon realised that Seoul and South Korea are huge on a few things beauty culture, fashion and cute culture (I'll explain cute culture later). In Myeongdong you are surrounded by all three of these. It has hustle and bustle of the sort of thing you might see in a Hollywood movie with food venders, flashing neon advertising and people everywhere, it's fantastic. We headed over to Kwangjang market for some street food to try something called Mungbean pancake. This place is super traditional and the pancake was actually really good, it's basically a mixture between a hash brown and a pancake and it works well. I really enjoyed visiting this market just to experience the vibe but if you're looking for variety of food then the street food markets in Myeongdong in the evenings are your best bet.
We began our final full day at Leeum Samsung museum which I'd recommend checking out, it has a mixture of modern art as well as traditional Korean museum pieces. It was raining during the morning so it was the perfect activity to hide away from the weather and also had some pretty cool photo opportunities if that's something you like to look out for.
We then decided to fully embrace South Korea's "cute culture" as I'm going to call it. The obsession with cuteness here is real, there are little Shibe phone cases and hoodies everywhere, every single piece of food or company product has a cute mascot on it and there's a shop on every corner called Artbox with just everything you could want. It's a little strange at first because obviously it isn't the case here in England but I loved it and it was actually exactly what I hoped it would be like. So we spent the afternoon hunting down a cute phone case (we were too picky and never found the exact one's we wanted), I had to then drag myself away from a hoodie with a Shibe on it because I wasn't allowed to try it on (it was a street vendor so I understood) and then finally headed to the Line friends store. I still haven't worked out exactly what the Line friends actually are, whether they're a cartoon or just mascots for the city or fashion statements or what. But they have a huge flagship store with life size characters and scenes. Even typing this out now it sounds kind of lame but trust me when you're in Seoul it just feels normal and extremely cute and you can't do anything else than embrace it!
To end our trip we finished with one of our favourite things to do whilst travelling... EAT. I haven't really spoken a great deal about the food yet but it was great, you need to be aware of a few things first though. Their version of spicy is not ours! When we ordered Daksgalbi (one of my favourite Korean dishes consisting of chicken, melted cheese and noodles in a giant skillet) we asked for mild and we had runny noses and burning mouths after a few bites (it was still super tasty). Another thing you need to be prepared for in Seoul is that it is not an English speaking country - big shock, I know. There are not English options on most menu's so try and find a menu with pictures, do a little research into where you want to eat online or be brave and just go for it! Hongdae and Ikseon-dong were our go to food areas with Myeongdong being the best choice for streetfood.
Our journey home was a nightmare, there's no other way to say it. Our flight was delayed due to school exams, yep, school exams! All flights because the exams were too important. Part of me thought - "fair play" for putting education so high up their priority list, then the other 99% of me thought "hang on I'm going to miss my damn connecting flight", which we did. So after the most bizarre delay ever, we missed our connection in Munich meaning we had to get on a flight to Vienna and then pretty much beat Mo Farah's PB from plane to gate to catch our flight back to London. Oh, and neither of our bags made it with us so they had a little adventure and arrived back the next day without us. Eventful to say the least.
Despite two stressful journeys the trip was so, so worth it and I'd implore you to try and visit Seoul! Travel is so good for the Seoul (get it?... it's a pun) and it broadens your horizons when it comes to food, different cultures, history and so much more. So having the opportunity to travel is something I am so grateful for and will continue to do as long as I am able to.
Seoul Cheat sheet
Disclaimer/Anzeige: This blog post was part of a gifted collaboration with Airbnb. All the views expressed in this post are genuine are my own.