South Korea was not necessarily on our list of can’t miss destinations but hey, money talks. Honestly￼￼, we had never contemplated this destination but with our daughter’s fledgling benefits it was one of the few locations for free travel that would get us out of the country and to the region of Southeast Asia we love to travel to. It only made sense to us that as long as we were landing there we might as well break up the fly time and spend a few days discovering Seoul.
At take off I perused the flight plan on my in seat personal screen and saw the flying distance set for a whopping 5200 miles. If we were capable of traveling to this destination via a road trip, moving at an average speed of 70 mph, it would take us about 74 hours. Instead, thanks to Delta and our daughter who has gifted us flight perks we fondly refer to as #AshAir, we made it in about 12 hours with average speeds of 425mph. Care was good aboard flight DL199. We started with hot towels and bottled water and then moved to biscottis, cheese nips and drinks (alcohol or non). In what seemed like no time at all we were ordering a full meal from a selection of three, one Korean style, one American style and one Vegetarian Pasta plate. My rosemary baked boneless chicken breast with mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots was quite flavorful. The glass of red wine I requested as my beverage was a nice easy drinker. I would not have been disappointed in my selections at a moderately priced diner let alone for a free in flight meal. Appetizer of a couple medium chilled shrimp, a light salad, dinner roll and blond brownie for dessert had me all set for awhile. There was little to no turbulence during the flight. I caught up on some writing and watched a couple movies and ate a nice little serving of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream ice cream (Yum!) which was our next service with drinks offered again as well. With only a short time left before we would land in Seoul we were served breakfast as well although it was early evening as we landed in this country. Juice, breakfast burrito, Greek yogurt and a drink of choice were enough offerings to make me know I would be over stuffed. I passed in favor of comfort except for the juice. Twelve hours might seem overbearing for fly time but the last four years we’ve survived 17-20 hours plus layovers making our way from the west coast of the USA to enjoy Thailand. This was a piece of cake.
Landing at Incheon International we easily made our way through the customs and immigration process without issue. Travel from Incheon into Seoul is a significant distance and is most economically and rapidly achieved via the high speed airport rail (AREX) into Seoul Station. The cost came in at 17000 Won (Korean currency) for the two of us which equates to about $8 American each and the ride was just under an hour. A taxi ride comparatively would have taken longer because of traffic and with the meter ticking would have come in at about $50. Accessing the ticketing and the train were easily managed with signs in English leading from the luggage carousel. Bag storage was simple on the train, car and seats were assigned, WiFi and restrooms were available. From Seoul station we walked out the door to the taxi line and were swiftly and easily dropped in front of Mayplace Hotel Dongdaemun, our home for the next three nights. That taxi ride came in just under $7 American.
Settling our belongings into our twin bed, very tiny but immaculate room we headed out into our neighborhood to begin to absorb this new culture. Immediately we observed that most businesses were still open at 9pm and would be staying open later, even with our arrival being a weekday. In the case of bars and some eateries they would be available 24 hours a day. Street vendors were also scattered along the sidewalks. We immediately observed that Koreans like their coffee more than even Seattle! Every block contained a few coffee houses (Starbucks included) scattered on either side of the street, some with seating, some with take out only and as we wondered we saw they were enjoyed until very late hours. We discovered the Cheonggyecheon stream that runs through the city and made our way through the alleys of the wholesale clothing market, Pyounghwa Fashion Town, which was still quite active after 10pm. We noted immediately ￼the cleanliness of all areas we walked, a fact we reiterated several times during our stay. For a city of such a large population of over 11 million, it was quite amazing. We decided we needed to relax a bit as well as take in some sustenance before making our way back to the hotel to get enough sleep to move right on past any jet lag. We stopped at a spot advertising Chicken and Beer. We realized over the next couple days that this was possibly the second most popular type of food and beverage establishment we came across in this city. Chicken fried up nice and crispy with toasted garlic or sesame or soy or other house specialty preparations served with fries and Kimchi, the accompaniment to every Korean meal. We ordered local Cass beer to accompany our midnight snack. Gratuities are not expected in this culture and everything we read led us to believe they could also be perceived as offensive but after a life in the service industry we just cannot bypass this American tradition and it is always well received with appropriate gestures and smiles. From this first meal out until our last interaction we did not find a lot of English spoken in this country and not very many menus in English but that factor of ‘”we are all humans” left us with little problem getting along just fine. On our flight out of the country a young man seated next to us explained the pride of the culture. He explained that if they do not excel at something they will not do it in order to save embarrassment. For many, speaking English falls into this category.
We are not fanatics or sidetracked easily by tourist sites. We typically prefer simply sinking into a new location by walking and falling into something worth discovering but with only three days we decided to dedicate ourselves to at least a couple can’t misses of this city. We started with the palaces of Seoul which were built during the Joseon dynasty so they were built in the late 1300’s to early 1400’s. On this first day we visited Changgyeonggung. The grounds of this palace reminded me of Central Park from the respect of expansive nature, pristinely sitting in the midst of the metropolis. Again, we were in amazement of the cleanliness of the areas we walked. A kitschy aspect to a visit to the palaces is renting original garb known as a hanbok. Anyone wearing the dress is admitted free. It actually added to the fun of the atmosphere although we did not opt to partake.
painting with the moon, sun and five mountains displayed behind it. Walking the grounds you could literally feel the presence of the history.
Neighborhoods with different names and different business purposes exist in Seoul as they do in all large cities. After this days palace visit we went for a traditional lunch at Insadong House in the Insadong neighborhood. This area of Seoul is quaint with a Main Street closed to anything but foot traffic with alleyways branching from it. They are lined with eateries, traditional tea houses and shops selling locally hand made goods making for a terrific spot to grab souvenirs. Lunch was interesting. We ordered one beef dish and one chicken dish that were of course accompanied by kimchi. It was at this meal we began to believe we are not fans of Korean cuisine but we didn’t exactly hate it either. A miss for us in this neighborhood was actually going to a traditional tea house. I’ve read much about the varieties offered and the traditions exemplified. Maybe next time 😉
The following day we started out by wondering our own neighborhood taking in the buzz of textiles being moved into warehouses and boxes of finished product being shuffled out to be shipped. Coffee shops by the stream had caught our attention on our first night in the city so we made our way that direction. We had breakfast at another popular style restaurant serving toast and coffee. A variety of toasts are offered cooked in a panini style. We enjoyed egg and cheese and were presently surprised by the jam stuffed in the center of the sandwich oozing with creamy cheese.
Once fortified we were off to visit our second palace at Gyeongbokgung. We had timed our arrival to coincide with the changing of the guard but were disappointed to find it would not happen on this day due to a special event. Later we felt lucky as the celebration brought us great entertainment of traditional dance, music and theatrical performance.
The Bukchon Hanok Village sits adjacent to this palace. We wandered these cobblestone streets admiring the original architecture of the culture after our palace visit.
Korean bbq is high on the list of local eating styles and we took the recommendation of a spot just around the corner from our hotel for this evenings respite. Hanwoo beef (consisting of fatty, heavy marbling similar to Kobe or Wagyu) originated in this area and was served as ribeye and short ribs on the meal we ordered. The meat did not disappoint us, it was melt in your mouth delicious. The large variety of kimchi and side dishes was replenished any time we consumed it. The potato salad was super tasty with the addition of apple and cucumber. I had read of the tradition of drinking Soju so we tried it out with this dinner as well paired with local beers Hite and Terra. Soju definitely packs a punch which is exactly what the culture consumes it for!
Hongdae was our destination after dinner. Known for being a center of nightlife (for the young, but hey you’re only as old as you feel, right?), we did not want to miss it. It did not disappoint with street performers and some of the largest crowds we saw in the city.
The final day in Seoul we started with a more traditional American style breakfast and then wandered the streets of Myeongdong known for its shopping, especially for Korean cosmetic brands and international clothing brands at incredible prices. North Seoul Tower was another spot on the can’t miss list so we walked to the Namsan dong (name for neighborhood in Korea), stopped for a coffee and waved down a taxi to get us to the base of the tower. The lines for the cable car to the top were extremely long and the skies were overcast so we opted for climbing the stairs to the first landing where we could overlook the city and take a leisurely walk through the grounds of the Namsan library. Again we noted the extreme cleanliness we encountered in all areas of the city.