Getting to South Korea was a long flight all the way from Chile, the flight transit in New Zealand which in itself was a twelve-hour flight, then after a few hours in Auckland it was another twelve hours to Seoul.
We arrived in Seoul at night and right from the start I could see we were in a very modern and well functioning country. Just getting through the airport and onto a bus going to the city was fast and efficient. The airport bus was clean, spacious and had WiFi and only took us about an hour to our hotel, where the bus dropped us right outside. Our hotel was in Gangnam and was close to Gangnam Square. The hotel was great and was also equipped with a small little kitchen, however it seemed that our options for buying food were not great, we did not see any large supermarkets close to us, and the only thing around were little mini markets which sold mostly instant noodles and some types of mystery meats on a stick, as a vegan I was for sure passing on this.
After a night of much-needed sleep, I woke up in the morning and wanted to explore the local area. I took a walk around the area close to the hotel to get an idea of the location and soak up some of the sights and sounds of the city. Then going down into the metro we bought a T-Money card, these cards are available in all the subway stations and make it super easy to pay for the metro as well as allowing you to pay for buses, taxies and even allows you to buy some items in shops and restaurants, so efficient. We made our way to Myeong-dong which is one of the main shopping streets in Seoul, it was really packed with a lot of activity going on, but that can only be expected in a city of over ten million people. Aini (my wife) saw a sign for a cat café, she is crazy for cats so this was our first port of call. The café was in a small building on the top floor and seem to be a part of an organisation that supported cat welfare. Going to the café you pay an entrance fee which also gives you a free hot drink. It seemed to be a friendly run place and there were a number of cat lovers coming to check out the place and hang out with the cats. After this, we just walked around the streets again just to soak up the sights and feel the city, but it did not take long and we had become lost, but this was not a bad thing as it took us down some small back streets allowing us to see some quirky little places on the way. After some time we came across an information kiosk where we tried to get some orientation and work out how to get back to where we were staying.
On the second day, our plan was to buy the Hop-on, hop-off bus to give us some orientation of the city, and we spent most of the day riding these and getting an idea about some of the different neighbourhoods in the city. The city was far bigger then we expected so we quickly discovered even though we were spending a week in the city we would only see some small portions of it. After finishing one of the bus lines we jumped off near the city hall and went to the Insa-dong area to look for some lunch, this was a very pleasant area with lots of small little stores selling various quirky items, this was definitely the cool hipster area of the city. On route, we also discovered the Chenggyecheon stream that runs through the northern part of the city, which is really pleasant and a real escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. After lunch, we rode the buses again and did not get back to our hotel until about eight o’clock. So yes, far bigger than we expected.
The next day I walked about the Hanok village in Bukchon which is a traditional and picturesque part right in the heart of the city. However, the residence of the home seemed to be in real conflict with their promotion. Just Google image Seoul and chances are this area is one of the first images you will see. Residence seemed to be in protest about this with signs around the village in multiple languages telling tourists they are not welcome. In contrast to this, there are a number of local businesses in the area that rent traditional costumes to tourists, to the village is full of people walking around in these costumes trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. Also if you rent these costumes it gives you free access to some sights like the palace which was my next destination. The palace is beautiful and took a few hours to get around, also a real barging at only 3,000 won ($3). This was the same for all the museums and places of interest, they are either free or very cheap, a real plus. While walking around the palace I also got the chance to watch a traditional music performance and found a small traditional tearoom that serves tea, this was a real treat, the tea ceremony will cost you 5,000 won ($5) per person, but if you like this kind of thing then it is worth it.
On the next couple of days, we went to see some of the Confucius and Buddhist temples in the city. It just so happened that while we were their residence of the city was celebrating Buddha’s birthday, so their temples were alive with action and a bunch of ceremonies taking place, which we were allowed to sit down and take part in. I would say from all the temples my favourite was Bongeunsa which is in Gangnam.
Additionally the day before leaving we took a tour to the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone), which is one of the most dangerous and fortified borders in the world dividing North and South Korea. We were picked up in the morning and taken by bus to three locations with a guide. As you cross into the DMZ you are taken to three locations, the first shows you the end of the train line in South Korea and how the line is set up and ready for reunification. The second was to one of the tunnels discovered by the South Korean military, which were created by North Korea in a suspected plan of invasion, and the last is to an observatory station where you can see two villages on both sides of the border as well as a glimpse of North Koreas third largest city Kaesŏng. Sadly the tour did not take us to the Joint Security Area like I thought. These are the famous blue huts that you see anytime there are images of this border. If you come to Korea and are hoping to see this, this tour takes a month to plan and requires special permission from the UN. Follow here to read my reflection on Korea and the border.
All in all, Seoul is an incredible, modern, large and well functioning city, you can easily spend a week here and the different neighbourhoods cater to different crowds, so do your homework before you come.