We officially checked off another continent on our bucket list – Asia! For those of you counting, that makes four. With a new year of vacation time and family in Seoul, we started hunting for bargain flights. After the 2018 Winter Olympics concluded, we noticed a dip in prices and pulled the trigger on our next international adventure. It was a long flight, but totally worth it to spent two weeks exploring two countries in south east Asia (click here to read about Thailand). Best of all, we were blessed to have family living in Seoul who graciously offered to be our hosts and tour guides!
Seoul is huge, coming in as the fifth biggest metropolitan in the world. The city sprawls out a great distance encircling several large hills with stunning viewpoints. We didn’t notice a distinct downtown skyline, but there were high-rise apartments and office buildings everywhere. Samsung, LG, and other various tech companies have a visible presence throughout the city. Due to the size of Seoul, it took nearly an hour to get anywhere. The subway was safe, cheap, and convenient but a bit tricky at first, so we were thankful to have our local guides. Visiting in spring, we had many beautiful days but also noticed a decline in air quality as South Korea is known to receive a lot of pollution from China in spring. Thankfully that did not put a damper on our vacation and we enjoyed seeing many different sights around Seoul and tasted some amazing food! The language barrier did not impact us very often as many signs and menus have English descriptions and/or pictures. The people we encountered were all polite and willing to try to understand us. Seoul was a great introduction to Asia!
Day 1 – Itaewon, Insadong, and Gyeongbokgung Palace
Our first full day in South Korea began with a car ride to the neighborhood Itaewon. Here we meandered around narrow streets and alleyways in search of a place for lunch. Each of the restaurants had menus on the streets with all kinds of food from Mexican to Italian and even American, but we were set on trying our first Korean meal. We chose a place with tasty looking Korean Barbecue and we were not disappointed. Although we’d never eaten Korean before, we quickly discovered that we like it! Korean BBQ is served family style with large portions cooked on the table right in front of you. With help from our family, we ordered two different bowls of Bibim-Bap and a beef Bulgogi. The meal came with several small side dishes such as Kimchi. The meal was topped off with a delicious sweet plum tea. It was all very satisfying and a wonderful introduction to Korean food.
After lunch we took the subway to Insadong and walked to the Buddhist temple Jogyesa. There were many workers in the courtyard hanging lanterns in preparation for Buddha’s birthday in May. We took numerous pictures of the beautiful architecture and peaked inside the temple to see the large golden Buddhas. Then we walked to the nearby Insadong shopping district and couldn’t resist checking out the poop café! Inside the café, everything was bathroom themed as you would imagine. You could sit on a poop shaped pillow while you drank your coffee from a toilet mug. We indulged in a drink and a poop shaped chocolate bread while we giggled and openly discussed poop as one would do in such a place.
Next we made our way to Gyeongbokgung Palace and bought tickets for 3,000 won (about $3 USD). The palace was much larger than we anticipated and we spent over an hour walking around the grounds looking at ancient buildings. We missed the changing of the guard but that just gives us one of many reasons to revisit in the future. After Gyeongbokgung we walked to the courthouse district to see the “I Seoul U” sign before riding the subway back to where we were staying.
Day 2 – Namhansanseong and Baseball Game
On day two, our hosts drove us to Namhansanseong to do some light hiking and take in the fortress views. First, we walked toward the North Gate and then followed the fortress wall to a lookout peak with views of the mountains and sprawling cityscape. Although the sky was clear and sunny above us, the city looked hazy due to pollution – the air quality rating was low-moderate for the day. Within the fortress walls, we stopped to admire a small Buddhist temple which was hidden in the serene forest.
Later that evening we navigated the subway system to attend a professional Korean baseball game of the Doosan Bears vs. the Kia Tigers. We had heard that baseball in Korea was popular, but we still didn’t quite know what to expect. It was a blast! The stands were packed with energetic fans and it was very segregated between the home team and the away team. When the Bears were up to bat, we had cheerleaders that lead our entire section in loud chants with accompanying hand gestures. Then when the Tigers were up, the energy and chants would switch to their half of the stadium. We did not understand the chants because they were in Korean except for the words “home run” which always made us smile. The comedic highlight of the evening was a dance-cam segment in which they scanned the crowd for enthusiastic fans and Alison got put on the jumbotron for her portrayal of the sprinkler dance!
Day 3 – N Seoul Tower and Myeongdong
Another subway ride brought us to the base of Namsan Mountain, and a short walk took us to the N Seoul Tower cable car. There are paths to hike all the way up the mountain, but we chose to ride the cable car since it was a long walk and such a warm day (80F). At the top of the hill, we walked around the base of the tower and observed brilliant views of the city below. Despite the crowds all around Seoul, this location felt the most touristy of those we visited. We decided not to go up the tower itself because it was an additional 10,000 won per person and we were getting hungry and excited for street food in Myeongdong. Thus, we rode the cable car back down and went in search of tasty treats.
Once in the streets of Myeongdong, our sense of smell took charge. Countless street vendors lined the pedestrian streets which were packed with hungry people. We tried egg bread, fried octopus on a stick, gimbap (like sushi), deep-fried rice cake/crab/hot dog on a stick, fish cake, a hotteok (fried pancake filled with cinnamon sugar), and finally fish shaped honey bread filled with ice cream. It was all absolutely amazing and we’re already wanting to go back for more! As we were walking around Myeongdong we saw a sign for a cat café which we immediately got excited about. We paid 10,000 won per person to enter the café including a drink. Inside the café there were about 40 cats lounging and wandering around for cat lovers to enjoy. Certain cats had different colored collars if you were not allowed to feed them or pet them, but most of cats seemed very friendly and lovable.
We had lamb Korean BBQ for dinner and also tried soju. It’s pungent alcohol flavor makes it tough to drink straight, so a popular alternative is adding the soju to light beer in order to make it tolerable. Combing the beer (maekju) with the soju even has its own name, somaek.
Day 4 – Lotte Tower and Hongdae
Lotte Tower is the 5th tallest building in the world and rumored to have been built on a sinkhole. On our last full day in Seoul, we traveled to see it up close. It was pretty expensive to go all the way to the top, so we wandered around the Lotte Mall instead and walked around the nearby lake.
Following lunch, we took a rather long subway ride from Lotte to Hongdae. This area has countless shops and themed cafés, and it is very popular with young adults. Our first stop was the meerkat café. Similar to the cat café, we paid 10,000 won entry fee but this time didn’t get a drink. Here they had wallabies, a raccoon, and dozens of meerkats. The meerkats were so small and quick that they had to be contained in a separate glass area. We had to wait in line to enter the meerkat container and then got to sit with them for about 10 minutes. While it was cool to see and play with these animals up close, we thought this café felt too much like a petting zoo and not as “natural” as the cat café. The other café we visited in Hongdae was caFACE which was located inside the trick-eye museum. As you might imagine from the name, this café prints an edible picture of your face on your coffee! We were impressed with how photogenic we are on foam – haha! It was so cool!
That night, our hosts took us out to one last dinner in Korea. It was a delectable bulgogi stew and pork belly BBQ. A fabulous way to finish our trip!