After traveling in South America for 6 months, Seoul was our first introduction to the Asian leg of our trip, and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to start. Seoul has everything we city dwellers love: good food, an excellent transit system, and a great combination of old and new that begs you to wander the streets for hours. So we braced ourself against the weather (average 30-40ºF during the day, a huge change from 95ºF in the Galapagos) and spent two weeks exploring the incredible place.
One of the things that led to our endless exploring was the difference between each neighborhood. This reminded me of San Francisco a bit, in that we could get off a subway stop and walk for 30 minutes passing three different “micro” neighborhoods on the way. There were neighborhoods obviously meant for tourists, others with heavy expat influences, and lots of places that seemed totally untouched by the influx of westerners.
We based ourselves in Iteawon, the expat/millennial tourist neighborhood full of pancake houses and quaint wine bars, and in our adventuring we shopped with the fancy people in Gangnam, ate all the street food in at the Namdaemun Market and explored temples and strolled with cute families down tree lined streets in Jeokseon-Dong. We made an effort to see as much of the city as we could, and I am proud to say we were able to cover a lot of ground in our two weeks there.
The Metro is Seriously Fabulous
I could wax poetic about the Seoul metro all day. The system will forever be the one I compare all other metro systems against. I’ve been to New York, Chicago, Paris, London, not to mention all of the Bay Area systems- MUNI, BART, Cal-Train, and none of these even come close to the well organized, well labeled, perfectly timed Seoul metro system. We were afraid before arriving that we would have some trouble doing day to day things like using the metro because we don’t speak or read Korean, but the system goes out of its way to accommodate tourists by announcing and displaying on a screen every stop in not only Korean and English, but also in Chinese.
What really takes the system above and beyond atmospheric touches. The stations play theme music to indicate when the the trains are arriving, which is different depending on the train’s direction. They also have TV screens above every door that don’t play advertisements, but quirky (usually animated) info-videos about train and station safety. I couldn’t get enough.
Important to note- the infomercials also played safety videos about escaping in the case of heavy smoke or fire. The stations are also equipped with gas masks at every level. It was shocking to notice and important to consider a city that has lived under threat of their neighbors to the north for so long that these safety considerations are not just practical but essential.
Surprisingly Suburb Sized Roads
We were surprised by just how car oriented Seoul is. We expected the impressive metro system to be a result of small, crowded streets but in the majority of the city that’s not the case. The city had an influx of people and cars in the late 70s that led to major infrastructure projects including massive 6 lane roads, elevated freeways, and new bridges. Since then the city has worked to push citizens towards the metro, without purposefully punishing drivers by taking away road space to face cars to sit in traffic for ages. With smart planning on major thoroughfares the government would say traffic is perfectly manageable (locals might disagree, as traffic can be heavy during peak times).
This was one downside as pedestrians, instead of being able to cross the street at the intersections, we often instead had to use a pedestrian bridge or tunnel that made crossing easier, and safer, but severely limited where we could walk.
This really is a theme in any city outside of the US that I need to get used to. As an American, I forget most cities are older than the Declaration of Independence but I still get taken off guard sometimes by just how much history is wrapped up in a place.
Korea is a bit of an underdog country, one that has been invaded by the Japanese or at war with itself for much of its existence and the historical buildings reflect that struggle. Ancient buildings have been torn down and rebuilt multiple times as the city continues to grow up around these historical sites. Remnants of city gates are surrounded by major roadways and small temples sit in the shadow of skyscrapers. It was wild to stand on the grounds of the former palace and look around at the modern city that was built around it.
Informative and Approachable Museums
In addition to the temples we visited, we also made time to see both the Korean War Museum and the National Museum of Korea which were both super informative. The museums we visited in Seoul share a unique characteristic with Jeff’s other favorite museums in London, free admission. This makes visiting museums so much more care-free. Go any time, if we don’t finish it, or we get tired, hungry, or whatever, we can go back any day without paying again.
The Korean War Museum was particularly notable with a wide variety of interactive exhibits inside explaining the history leading to the war and honoring the fallen soldiers from across the world. Many of the presentations were somewhat juvenile so we took a tour and our knowledgeable guide provided us with more insight than we would have gotten from the exhibits alone. The museum is also home to a huge outdoor exhibit of planes, tanks, boats, and other motorized vehicles. My Dad is an airplane enthusiast, so it was fun to be able to read about and look inside about 30 different planes that he could surely name without batting an eye.
The National Museum of Korea was recommended to us by a man we met at the Olympics who claimed it was his favorite history museum in all of Asia. It didn’t quite compare to the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City in terms of content or depth of information but it was a thorough overview for two people who knew embarrassingly little about the country.
I walked away from both with a much deeper understanding of the many phases of Korean history and how it has gotten to where it is today.
I hate to say it, I didn’t love the food in South America. The street food was very meat heavy and severely lacking in veggies as a vegetarian who actually likes vegetables it was tough to dig all the cheap options other seem to love. Not to mention, for the most part in the places we visited we found most of the lower end restaurants geared towards western tourists without a lot in the way of local cuisine.
In Korea I was thrilled to discover neither of these things were true. The street food was abundant in non-meat options including two of my favorite things, rice cakes and savory pancakes. For a bit higher end meals its as never hard to find a vegetarian version of a rice or noodle bowl that was decadent AND full of healthy stuff.
And lets take a minute for Korean treats and snacks. We couldn’t get enough mini chocolate filled cookies, waffles shaped like fish, red bean ice cream sandwiches, not to mention one the abundance of one of my favorite drinks- soju. To say we ate often and well in Korea is an understatement.
I would definitely go back
My first impression of Seoul is that I absolutely love it. A city I would visit again in a heartbeat and if life happened to lead me to leaving there I wouldn’t mind one bit. I highly recommend a visit and if you do go, please take me with you.
As always, thanks for reading.