Seoul Searching- 6 days in the South Korean capital
First, I want to address the questions that I got asked 5,684,521 times: “WHY in the heck are you going to Korea? WHAT is there to do there?”
Have you ever watched a show on tv or seen a destination featured in one of those countless travel videos uploaded to Facebook and just said to yourself “I WANT TO GO THERE!”? Of course you have! It happens to me every single day! Well, this time instead of just saying I want to go there, I picked up the phone one day during work, called my mom and told her let’s go! Three months later- we were having the time of our lives in Korea!
I started seeing Korea more and learning about the interesting culture when I started watching some Kdramas over the summer. Although it’s not always the most accurate portrayal of a city and it’s people, I love watching foreign shows and seeing different cultures, customs and learning a few words. I wouldn’t say that I decided to go to Korea because I started watching some soaps, but it definitely did help fuel my desire to go there.
Another reason why I chose Korea was because I wanted something DIFFERENT. Europe is beautiful, but it all begins to look similar at some point. I knew I wanted an Asian adventure and this seemed like a great place to start- AND IT WAS! Seoul was such a cool city. This was probably my favorite trip by far. It would be easy to just say “there are no words to describe it”, but I am going to attempt to do just that.
To address the second question of “WHAT is there to do there?” Read the rest of the post to find out!
Korea is freaking HUGE. Seoul is also a very large city and you truly feel it’s enormity when you are walking in it and especially by using public transportation to get from place to place. With only 6 days to travel, we were limited in what we could see and so we decided to stay in Seoul (with a day trip that was not too far away). There is so much to see and do in Seoul. Among all the tourist attractions, I think my favorite parts of the trip was when we just got to hang out in cute little coffee shops with the locals and shop alongside them in all the humongous malls. At the end of the trip we really wished that we had a few more days! We wanted to visit Busan, a beautiful port town, and Jeju Island, but there was simply not enough time. Each city is a few hours drive or train EACH WAY from Seoul, so just getting to another city takes most of the day. If you plan to see other cities beside Seoul, I would plan for a longer trip.
Koreans seem to be tourists in their own cities. The only places where there were obvious tourists were at the palaces, but it was balanced out by the crowds of Koreans who were there as well. It was pretty funny to see Koreans renting out hanboks (traditional Korean outfits that they wore hundreds of years ago) and taking millions of photos with their selfie sticks. They wanted to get in on the touristy stuff as much as we did. It was refreshing to see so many locals enjoying their own tourist spots. Perhaps we came earlier than the regular tourist season, but there was no overwhelming feeling of tourism there.The reason why I bring this up is because English is not as circulated there. I think it’s a common belief that in most developed countries, English is basically known by everyone. This was definitely NOT the case in Korea. Maybe the reason for this is that Korea does not get enough American or English tourists for the language to be widespread. This is not to say that NO ONE spoke English, just that many of the people we came across did not speak english (or at least were too shy to speak in English). But guess what- IT DIDN’T MATTER! WHY? Read the next point to find out. But, I should point out that all the signs (metro, stores, tourists spots etc.) had english writing or translation- so at least we knew where we were going (every once in awhile).
Koreans & Cultural Differences:
KOREANS ARE SOME OF THE NICEST PEOPLE I HAVE EVER MET. Really and truly. Their kindness and politeness was such a pleasant culture shock. This was the reason why it simply does not matter that many Koreans don’t speak English, because their kindness and willingness to help you transcends the language barrier. EVERY DAY throughout the trip there was someone who would help us find where we need to go- whether we asked for help or not. All you have to do is look a little lost (aka “resting lost face”) and someone will come up and try to be of help to you. This rule applied to so many people- even people who were in a rush, elders, young people, shopkeepers and cafe workers. Once in awhile we got lucky and would get someone who speaks English pretty well- but honestly in today’s modern age, all you need to do is pull up an address or a place on your phone and say “oh-dio? (where is…?)
One of the most obvious cultural differences is the the way people are greeted in Korea. When you walk into a store or restaurant you are immediately greeted and acknowledged. A slight bow of the head is the most common greeting.
Another interesting cultural difference that I would like to mention is that I found Koreans to be very non-pushy. This was definitely a nice surprise. We would go into shop and walk around and no one makes would ever be pushy towards us or make us feel pressured to buy anything. This general characteristic applied to most things during our stay. People would not be pushing each other to get onto the train or to get into elevators, everyone was quite calm and relaxed, and would always be considerate of others. There was even a special spot on the train for pregnant women, elderly and disabled and no one would sit in those seats unless they fell into that category.
Getting Around if you don’t know any Korean:
Luckily, I had some previous knowledge of the language, to a limited extent. It was definitely helpful in getting around in Korea. You can learn some common phrases here that will help you if you decide to travel there. One tool that is always helpful when traveling to a different country is Google translate. If you don’t have internet you can always download it before you go and can use it offline. You can learn how to do that here. It’s also always recommended to have the addresses of places you want to go in Korean because that is the best way to help others figure out where you are going. Google translate and google maps is a godsend– but it can take up a lot of your phone battery, so it’s always smart to carry some portable charging device that you can use when you run out of juice. The public transportation in Korea is superb and very accessible- especially for non-Korean speakers. All the signs were listed in English and workers at the train station were fluent in English and very helpful. The subway system is timely and VERY clean.
If you’ve read my Seattle and Spain posts then you probably have figured out that I am a big fan of city passes. We decided to try it in Seoul and honestly I would not really recommend it unless you are there for a very short amount of time. The pass expires in 24 hours from the moment of first use. I did not feel it was all that worth it (although it was not that expensive, around $30). Some of the attractions on the pass felt like a waste of time. From what I understood, it is a relatively new pass (it came out about a year ago) and perhaps that is why they haven’t got it all figured out just yet. The card is also a T-money card and you can put money on it to use for public transportation and even some taxis. The pass does give you access into all the palaces. You can check out the details here. I think one of the best attractions was the entrance to Namsan Tower. It was really beautiful to see at night. The area is really cute- there a few restaurants and cafes around. It is a couple hotspot- couples go there and buy locks and lock them around the fence that surrounds the area. You have to take a cable car up to Namsam (which is NOT included in the Seoul pass), but the ticket to the top of Namsan is included.
The 5 Palaces:
There are 5 royal palaces in Seoul. We thought we would want to go to all of them, but after going to the second one we realized they are all very similar to one another and decided to pass on the rest. We went to the two main ones: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, both beautiful and very large. Plan to spend a few hours here. Gyeongbokgung has the royal changing of the guards ceremony every hour or so. You can check times for that here. You can buy a pass that lets you into all the palaces for about 10 bucks and the Seoul pass gives you access into all the palaces as well. If you would like to rent a hanbok or other traditional Korean outfits, there are a number of rental shops very close by. They rent them out by the hour- I believe I paid $20 for a 2 hour rental. I think my favorite part of visiting the palaces was seeing how they so uniquely fit into the city. It was so cool to see beautiful and ancient landmarks against an urban backdrop.
Spring in Korea:
We left for our trip on the last few days of March and stayed through the first week of April. Although we did get some rain on the trip, I think it was a good time to go. I was so happy we were there in time for cherry blossom season! It was so beautiful to see many of the parks and palaces covered with budding blossoms. It’s funny how in other cities rain does not melt people like it does in LA. Koreans go about their daily lives in the rain, so we followed suit. But, if I would do it again I would have chosen to go a week or two later than when we had so that we could still catch the cherry blossoms but maybe skip some of the rain.