We were both a little apprehensive to visit South Korea after hearing all the news of escalated tensions in the region over the last few months, but the day of our flight arrived and we decided to go! We only had a week to spend in the country, so we decided to base ourselves in Seoul and to take day trips to different places in the region.
- Map Apps – While traveling the world one of our favorite tools for navigation has been to download and use offline Maps. This has allowed us to find our way around unfamiliar areas, even without WiFi or data on our phones. Unfortunately for security reasons, South Korea does not allow updated maps to be exported, which meant the only maps we could find were those that were grossly out-of-date.
- The Cold! – South Korea is COLLLLDDDDD this time of year. We knew that it would be colder than Taiwan; however, we had no idea that it would be in the teens (Fahrenheit), even during the middle of the day. This led to some really frigid sight seeing days, which included frequent pit stops into stores and restaurants to warm back up.
- Gas Masks – While it would not be too shocking to see medical or emergency equipment in other cities around the world, we were amazed at the amount of gas masks that were available in subways and other public areas.
- Food – We LOVE Asian food, and South Korean cuisine proved to be no exception! We tried Korean BBQ, Kimchi, Soju, as well as a multitude of different dumplings and soups (perfect for the freezing temperatures!). One thing we did not expect, however, was that eating out of 7-11 became a temporary staple in our diet as they were EVERYWHERE and offered cost-conscious meals enjoyed by both tourist and local alike (seriously, the number of locals eating here was truly astounding).
- Welcome – We arrived in Seoul late at night and were lucky enough to catch one of the last long haul trains into the heart of the city. We knew the metro shut down around 1:00 AM, but the closer we could get to our hotel via public transportation the less expensive it would be. When we reached the Seoul main station, we decided to chance it and see if we could make it all the way to our final destination. Unfortunately, as we sprinted for our last transfer train we arrived just in time to watch it pull out with us still scrambling down the steps to the platform. As we rose to the surface of the city, we realized just how cold it really was outside as we rifled through our bag for additional layers to put on. We were hoping to catch a taxi, but literally every one that zoomed by was already in use. So, we did the only thing that we could do which was trying to navigate the last few miles to our hotel using our GPS and its out-of-date map of Seoul. Nonetheless, after wandering around the icy streets for an hour or two we finally made it to our hotel where we promptly passed out at around 3:00 in the morning. While this was definitely a long night, it proved to be a quite memorable and beautiful walk.
- Royal Palaces – There are two main palaces to visit in Seoul: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. While they were built at different times and have different styles, they are both quite large and very impressive. One also includes extensive gardens which are suppose to be spectacular, but as we were visiting in the dead of winter we opted not to visit the garden. One of our favorite things about our visit to these palaces was the number of the visitors who dressed up in traditional Korean garb in order to take the best pictures that they could possibly take. This gave our visit an authentic and unique cultural feel.
- Traditional Korean Residences – In between our visit to the palaces we made a quick detour into an older neighborhood where nobles used to live. Today you can still walk through the streets and see the traditional style Korean houses. Unfortunately, most are private residences and not open to the public (still really cool to see from the outside though!)
- Crazy Cafes – Seoul is known for having cafes with some crazy gimmicks to get people in the door. With temperatures in the teens, it did not take much convincing to spend a few hours in a few of these. Some of the more popular of these cafes allow visitors to make their own jewelry, play with legos, or interact with various (and sometimes exotic) animals such as sheep, owls, raccoons, puppies, or cats. Right down the street from where we were staying was a Cat Cafe which we visited (we were interested in the raccoon and sheep cafes, but they were a bit out of the way). Here we enjoyed sipping on coffee, watching the various passerbys outside, and observing the other locals in the cafe playing with/harassing the cats.
- City Wall – Part of the city wall and gates which were built during the Joseon Dynasty can still be seen around the town. It is impressive to see a fortress wall of this magnitude in the middle of a thriving city.
- Markets – Our guest house just happened to be in the middle of the Insa-Dong shopping district, which is one of the most popular shopping districts in Korea. This was a great place to stay as we were near a number of attractions, as well as multiple shops and restaurants. We were amazed that despite how cold it was out, there was always a large number of people here (as well as at other markets we visited) buying various goods as long as the market was open. We found that the goods offered at these markets ranged from various household wares (for locals), to cheap/tacky knickknacks for tourists.
- North Korean Border – One of the most interesting day trips we took was to the various museums and sites right along the border between North and South Korea. During our tour we saw many things, but the below are among the most memorable. The first was a bombed out train from the Korean war that was found in what is now the DMZ, and hauled back to the South Korean side of the border. We also went up to an observatory where we could see DMZ and the North Korean city of Kaesong in the distance. Kaesong was actually a South Korean city before the war, but when the dust settled it ended up just inside North Korean territory. (in the below picture you can see the DMZ. The cleared land on the far side is North Korea.) From our vantage point of the city we could actually hear North Korean propaganda music blaring from nearby guard stations. For our final stop, we were able to enter one of tunnels that North Korean has dug under South Korea. It was interesting to see these tunnels first hand and get a feel for the area. It is also possible to visit the military buildings right on the border where certain military meetings between the two countries take place, however, this was closed during our visit due to heightened tensions during the week we visited.
- War Memorial Museum – This museum is huge and provides a history of many of the wars in Korea’s past (from ancient times up to the most recent). We were most interested in the Korean war, which was covered in great detail, as this still clearly has great relevance to current affairs. Andy’s favorite part was the large amount of rockets, tanks, airplanes, and ships on display. We found the visit to be quite educational and worth a few hour stop.
- Olympic Park – Seoul was home to the 1988 Summer Olympics. The Olympic Park still houses many of the different sporting complexes, sculptures, and green areas from this time. We could tell that even on an extremely cold day the park is still in use. In addition to the 1988 Olympic Remnants, we also noticed all of the signs around the city for the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea. We can not wait to watch!
- Gangnam District – You may have heard of the Gangnam district in Seoul from the famous music video Gangnam Style which was popular a few years back. If you haven’t seen the music video, look it up. This video is a perfect example of the Korean Pop-culture (K-Pop) that has taken both Korea, and the world by storm. Being such a large part of the culture, we looked into going to a K-pop concert. Unfortunately we did not see any during our stay, but we did read that Koreans (typically a quiet and reserved people) become the most fan-crazed people on the planet during these shows. While we were not able to see one of these concerts, we were able to get a taste of the culture via a street in Gangnam which features K-pop bears lining both sides (its kind of like the Hollywood Stars). We were able to find our favorite stars, Girls Generation and Psy (singer of Gangnam Style). The district of Gangnam itself was quite impressive with historical sites and malls that seemed to go on forever!
While we were sad to see our week in South Korea go by SO quickly, we were excited to see all that Japan had to offer (and get somewhere a bit warmer).