South Korea’s busy capital is now the hot-bed for the latest in fashion, luxury goods and technology. Explore this enchanting destination with Urbandesi, Garima as she clues you into what’s happening in one of the world’s most wired cities.
Annyeonghaseyo! Let me start by telling you how I ended up in South Korea in the first place.
In early February, I embarked on a three-month work assignment to Seoul – South Korea’s largest metropolis and its capital city. As I enthusiastically packed my newly bought winter clothing and got ready to brave the sub-zero temperatures in Seoul, I wondered what Seoul would have in store for me. Having heard enough about Seoul’s rise as the ‘Capital of Cool’, with its beautiful scenery, robust infrastructure, high speed internet connectivity, dynamic fashion scene, K-Pop bands and Korean beauty brands, I was naturally excited.
Home to over half of all South Koreans, Seoul is situated on the Han River and surrounded by mountain ranges, lending natural beauty to the landscape. It has been an ancient capital and continues to preserve its historic monuments which are popular tourist sites now. The surrounding cities of Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and Gwangju are easily accessible through road or through the excellent train network of KORAIL. These are just some of the factors that have contributed towards making Seoul one of the 10 most visited cities in the world.
After a 7-hour flight, followed by an hour’s drive from Incheon airport, I reached the company-provided accommodation in Sinchon, located in the heart of the capital. As luck would have it, the accommodation had easy access to the best of Seoul’s markets. Soon I found steadfast travel buddies in my colleagues, who later became close friends, and together we enthusiastically explored every nook and corner of Seoul.
Here is my list of the 9 most recommended things to do in Seoul:
1) Catch the Flower Festivals in spring
Come spring, the whole of South Korea is paved with flowers. Every street and side walk dons the colours of spring. Be it the white of the sakuras, the brilliant pink of the azaleas or the sunshine yellow of the canola flowers, there is a flower festival for each. These flower festivals draw thousands of tourists every year, who come holding on to their selfie sticks and DSLRs and enjoy the enticing street food, great ambience, and street performances, besides the flowers. We visited the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, which was nothing short of a fairytale come true. The canola fields actually reminded us of the SRK and Kajol starrer DDLJ.
2) Go crazy, shopping at Myeongdong, Gangnam, Dongdaemun Markets
Myeongdong is my favourite place in Seoul. The Myeongdong market is teeming with Korean high-fashion clothing, famous make-up houses and skin care brands (who delightfully give you free samples for just walking into the store), and amazing street food.
For tourists looking for bargains, I recommend the network of underground markets at City Hall and Myeongdong, where I bought the cutest pairs of socks by dozens, as gifts for family and friends. Gangnam shopping district has the best of brands and designer labels to choose from, while Dongdaemun is a 24×7 wholesale retailer market.
When you’re tired from all the shopping, take a break and indulge in delightful melt-in-the-mouth egg cakes, gooey strawberry sweets, delicious bean-paste soups, filling pumpkin stew or the popular Hotteok – Korean pancakes, crispy on the outside and with a sugar syrup filled interior. Meat eaters will probably love the chicken skewers dripping with the goodness of home-made sauce, or the spicy grilled cuttlefish. Dare to try the extra-spicy Tteokbokki – made from soft rice cake, fish cake, and sweet red chili sauce; or go with a light and simple fish cake soup. Myeongdong has street food for every taste palette.
3) Have a gastronomical adventure
No discussion on Korea would be complete without the mention of Korean food, especially Kimchi. Don’t be surprised if kind passers-by who willingly stop to take pictures for you, shout ‘kimchi’ instead of the regular ‘say cheese’ before photographs. Apart from the classic cabbage kimchi, radish or cucumber or any other vegetable which is pickled and seasoned can pass off as Kimchi. No Korean meal is complete without a generous helping of this national food addiction.
One of my favourite dishes from the Korean table is Dakgalbi, which is a red pepper sauce based chicken stew that is cooked in front of the diners by mixing the ingredients over a burner. Another signature Korean dish worth trying is Bibimbap, which is essentially rice mixed with veggies and the meat of choice. If you’re vegetarian, be quick to say “no gogi” before you order a dish. Round up the food with Soju, the local rice wine of Korea. Or mix this in true Korean style with beer to make the lethal Soju Bomb. Makgeolli, another variant of rice wine, is also extremely popular.
Add to these dishes, the aforementioned street food, and Seoul can be a gastronomical delight.
4) Visit the Hawaii of South Korea, aka Jeju Island
Jeju is an island of volcanic origin which is beautiful beyond description. Jeju, in words of our local guide, is famous for three things – wind, stone (volcanic rocks typical to Jeju) and women (sea diver women called haneyo, who can hold their breath underwater for more than 20 minutes and hunt for seafood). Main attractions of Jeju include Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls, Seogwipo, Jungmun Daepo Coast, along with several museums and parks.
5) Take a lesson in modern history, visit an active war zone
South Korea has a painful history of separation and repeat infiltration attempts from its neighbour, North Korea. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a heavily guarded area between North and South Korea, one of the few places in the world where the tension is palpable as they are in a constant state of war. Observatories are built at a height to allow tourists to take a rare look through long range telescope into the bordering village of North Korea, a country distanced from the rest of the world.
6) Transport yourself to the Joseon era
A visit to Seoul would be incomplete without making a trip to the grand palaces of the Joseon dynasty. The Gyeongbokgung Palace is the biggest of them all and is highly prized for its aesthetic quality. A beautiful pavilion in the middle of a lake is perhaps the most striking feature of this majestic palace. The Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony, with the guards’ traditional costumes, entertains tourists every day and is the perfect photo opportunity. For a truly memorable experience, visit the palace decked in traditional Korean Hanbok.
7) Take in the best of nature with some hiking
Hiking might as well be called the national hobby of South Korea. On a glorious day, both young and old rush to the mountains to get their hiking fix. Seoraksan National Park near the city of Sokcho is best known for its autumn colours, but is open for tourists all year round and has a different facet to present in each season. The park has natural formations and waterfalls and can harbour winters for longer than the rest of Korea, they are therefore called the ‘White Mountains’. We climbed the famous Ulsanbawi rock formation which can only be accessed through a steep climb of approximately 800 steps. An excruciating workout, but the view is worth it!
8) Enjoy the snow before it melts
If you happen to catch the winters in Seoul, skiing is a no brainer. Skiing in Seoul – among the white pines in the glorious resorts surrounding the city, or in resorts up north which have snow for longer durations – is an unparalleled experience. The skiing season in Korea starts from early December and continues until spring. We spent one adventurous Saturday afternoon enjoying end-of-season skiing in Jisan Forest Ski Resort, located just 40 minutes from Seoul by road. Skiing gear is provided in nearby rental stores for a deposit and first timers can benefit from professional safety training. Post the skiing, you can also enjoy a hot spring bath in the vicinity of the resort.
9) Indulge in Korean make-up and skincare
It will not be a hyperbole to say that Korean beauty and skin care products have taken the world cosmetic markets by storm, and looks like this trend is here to stay. Unlike the regular skincare routine of cleansing-toning-moisturizing, the Korean beauty routine has around 10 steps. Some of the best brands are Dr Jart+, Tony Moly, Banila Co., The Face Shop, Innisfree, Laneige, Holika Holika, Skinfood, Missha, Etude House, Iope, Clio.
These products are gentle on skin, innovative in their packaging, and most importantly work like a charm. The Korean look is natural and soft, and these products blend in to give the youthful and blemish-free look that is every woman’s dream. Cushion Compacts have taken the make-up game to a new level. They are easy to use, just pat-pat and go remedy and very popular. Lip tint is another make-up product that the pretty Korean ladies swear by. Face masks make great gifts to get back home for your aunts, sisters and friends! Pssstt…head to the Lotte Department store for the best bargains.
With its effective public transport and high speed internet connectivity (most cafes have free wifi) Seoul is also easy to navigate. Intercity bullet trains are superfast and punctual, though advance booking is recommended during public holidays and lunar break. Seoul Metro offers complete network coverage and a T-money card works everywhere in buses & trains. So bring out your holiday planner and book your dates for a Seoul adventure.
Kamsahamnida (Thank You)!