It’s not on the top 10 list of many world travellers, but I quite like Seoul. I’ve only been for weekends – It’s less than 2 hours from Tokyo, so easy to pop over to visit if you are in town.I always have a blast.
My observations of Seoul that may be of some use to you:
- People aren’t as smiley as some other places in the world, but they’re pretty cool folk
- Noone seems to speak any language other than Korean – I’ve tried Japanese, Chinese and French to no avail.Of course it’s fine in hotels and the casinos but if you’re going off the beaten track, bring a phrase book
- Korea is the best country in the world, Korean is the best language in the world with hangeul being the most efficient alphabet in the world. Just ask a local (via the phrase book) and they will tell you these facts! Personally, I admire a bit of patriotism.They are very proud of their unique language and its alphabet, which is apparently very scientific and phonetically consistant.
- If you ask for your dish to be a little spicy it will be blindingly, throat-strippingly, gaggingly hot. Fortunately, Kimchi often comes on the side of a dish but if you are getting another dish and you are, like me, a wimp, ask for spicy sauce on the side. Remember that phrase book
- A smile and good manners, even whilst haggling over ginseng at the markets, will get you everywhere and rudeness and shouting will get you nowhere in Korea. Keeping face is very important.
- Seoul is really safe. Don’t be scared to wander around late at night by yourself
These are the things that draw me to the land of the morning calm:
- Gyoengbokgung Palace. I think it was originally built in the 13th century, but none of those buildings are still around – they were all rebuilt after the Japanese razed them all in 1592. A few buildings were left standing during the Japanese occupation including the Gyeounghoeru Pavilion and the Geunjeongjeon Hall (I think that’s how to spell them!). The Palace is huge, but you can see all the main attractions in 1 day. They have ceremonial guards and getting a picture with them is priceless!
- Bugaksan is a beautiful mountain only a few minutes from the centre of town and it’s much nicer than Namsan, were everyone else goes. You can hike along the old fortress wall through the lovely green forest and get a great view of the city. It can be busy and you’ll need a passport/ID (passport is safest) for security reasons. Haven’t figured out why…
- Bukchon Village is just lovely. It’s right by the Anguk Station on subway line 3 and if full of alleys lined with traditional hanok homes. The number of hanok buildings are disappearing rapidly with each decade so check them out while their still with us.There are lots of cool cafes and galleries in this area of town and I have the most beautiful pictures of Bukchon. One of the amazing restuarants in the area is Wood & Brick. It’s a french restaurant with a patisserie, deli and a gallery. It’s famous for it’s fine lobster ravioli and I love their cakes!
- The DMZ (demilitarised zone) is probably as close to North Korea as most of us will ever get. One can get a good view of the Hermit Kingdom from the observation deck, although I went on a cloudy day so didn’t see any of the guards, checkpoints or anything else interesting. It’s better to go on a tour (on a fine day) and you can see the infiltration tunnels (built by North Korea that were intended for a surprise attack on Seoul) as well as the border and other interesting things.Being an hour or two from the city, you’ll need a half or full day to visit.
- Namdaemun, The Great Southern Gate, was the most beautiful ancient city gate I’ve ever seen. I am so grateful that I had a chance to see it before a lunatic arsonist destroyed it a few years ago. Anyway, it’s being rebuilt and the good news is: the Namdaemun markets are just fine! I love these markets, the food stalls are very exciting and exotic. Exotic for some people – I’m sick of bugs and pig’s heads after so many years in Asia and they are losing their novelty value. There are other great things to eat, by the way.Lots of black market goods and cheap clothes, toys, Korean artwork, electronics and ginseng products. Although this is the oldest market in Seoul, it doesn’t look old and traditional. It’s definitely unique and a fun place even if you aren’t into shopping (again: can’t figure out why you wouldn’t be, but we’re all different…)
- The Westin Chosun, Seoul is an outstanding hotel. It’s not cheap but you do get what you pay for: a lovely room; beautiful pool and spa; Aveda products in the bathroom; a dust free room an ancient pagoda in the garden… breakfast and use of the club lounge of the airline type setup with free sushi, vol-au-vents and champagne in the evening is often included, upgrades are affordable. I’ve had one of the best Chinese meals I’ve ever had at the 1920’s-style Hong Yuan restuarant and the Ninth Gate Grill has a stunning view of the ancient garden with its gates and pagodas.
- Walker Hill Casino in the Sheraton Walker-Hill Hotel is much more glam than the casino in the Hilton and the reason I love this place so is because it’s the ONLY casino I’ve ever walked out of with more money I than I could fit in my handbag. It was only a shoulder bag but still… all the Chinese around me were gasping and one lady rubbed my chips for luck! It hasn’t happened since and probably never will again, but I do hope you have similar luck in Seoul!