Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
My original return home was booked out of Hong Kong, but when I skipped my flight in February and had to rebook a flight to the US I decided to consider alternative options for the final stop of my self-care sabbatical. Seoul was the first place that came to mind, followed by Shanghai. Seoul seemed more intriguing, frankly, and I was already picturing myself stuffing my face with Korean food for three days. And so it was that I would plan my trip home via a few days in Seoul.
Getting to Seoul from Bali was also not nearly as easy as I thought it would be. Sure, it was cheaper than going to Shanghai, but I had to stop in Kuala Lumpur for a few hours and then hop on a redeye to Seoul where I would arrive around 8am local time (after leaving my hotel in Ubud around 3pm). It was a long trip. And on Air Asia which has quite possibly the worst leg room I’ve ever encountered. Fortunately, I had no seatmates on either leg of my trip! Small wins!
I also had NO IDEA how far Incheon Airport is from the city center. Spoiler: IT TAKES AWHILE. After doing a bit of research while sipping a much-needed coffee at the airport, I figured out that the best route to my hotel would be via one of the airport buses. I pushed some buttons on a kiosk touchscreen and had a ticket for a bus that was actually not the route that I wanted but would still get me quite close to my hotel. Fine. Whatever. I had just spent $12 on this ticket and I was not turning back. I was far too tired to deal with any of this!
Good news – that bus was super comfortable and nearly empty. Just three of us on the bus! I closed my eyes a bit until we got closer to the city where I would actually have to pay attention to approximately where I needed to get off this bus. My offline Google Maps were not working. I was fumbling a bit. You would think after 10 months of travel this would get easier but…
I made it to my hotel. I took a much-needed shower, chugged some coffee, and got myself out for the afternoon. I needed Korean food asap. I needed to walk around and explore this city. And for the next 2.5 days, I just ate and walked. (And shopped a bit too!)
Seoul was not exactly what I imagined. In my head, I pictured another bustling Asian city like Hong Kong or Bangkok or Saigon (or what I imagined Tokyo would be like). But it was not quite that at all. My hotel, which was across from the City Hall, looked out over office buildings and toward the Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the distance, mountains covered the horizon. It was clean. Orderly. Wide city streets full of mid-size vehicles. No honking. Modern buses (quite different from Bangkok). A clean subway system shuttled people around underground (much like Hong Kong).
Was I in Denver? What was this place? (Sidenote: I have been to Denver just one time for work, in 2008, so this office buildings meet mountains view is all I really remember)
My first stop, naturally, was Gwangjiang Market and I was so ready to stuff my face with all of the delicious food I had read about before arriving in Seoul (and I also hoped to check out the noodle lady from Netflix’s Street Food show). The market was bustling and loud and steamy – it was exactly what I was hoping for – but this place felt like an anomaly in this otherwise orderly, clean and modern city.
I found a few dishes to start: mayak gimbap (rice rolls) and tteokbokki (rice cakes in spicy sauce). And then, as I walked by the Noodle Lady’s stand for the second time, I spied an empty chair. Even though I was STUFFED, I managed to order a bowl of her famous knife-cut noodles and eat all of it. I had a lot of walking in my future!
That evening, I made my way to Myeongdong Market which was a bit more of the Asian city vibe that I had been looking for since arriving in Seoul. Street vendors parked in front of beauty stores and clothing shops. Korean sheet masks on sale everywhere you turned. Since I’d filled up at lunch, I didn’t really eat anything at the market but did get some beauty products to take home.
And then I made my way home for an early night because I was finally staying in a nice hotel again (Chase Points!) and couldn’t wait to snuggle up in my large and comfy bed (in the hotel robe of course).
The rest of my time in Seoul was more of the same – eating and wandering and sightseeing and being surprised that this city was not at all what I had expected. Maybe I wasn’t visiting the right parts of town. Maybe I was missing something? Or maybe I just had the completely wrong idea about Seoul before arriving. I’d wanted it to be some sort of Korean Hong Kong and it was definitely not that. But it made for an interesting final stop in Asia, feeling a bit more like the US than I expected and yet totally foreign in that I saw far fewer Westerners here than in any of the other big Asian cities (and far less English spoken too).
Things to Do
If you are into history: check out Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace. Honestly, you could skip one and see the other if you are short on time or don’t need to see tons of palaces. I really liked Changdeokgung Palace because it has these beautiful gardens to visit (though you can only visit as part of a guided tour – there are only 3-4 English tours per day). I loathe large guided tours so this was a bit of a bummer – the tour is about 90 minutes long and I loved getting to see the gardens but really could have done without this massive group. If you want to see the changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace, it happens at 11a and 2p.
Namsan Park – This place is massive! And it’s not quite like other city parks I have visited. Entrances to the park are few and far between – if you know your way around you can probably take some of these little side paths to exit the park but I had no idea where I was going so just wandered around for a while. You can visit Namsan Tower at the top of the park – I skipped this though and just enjoyed the views from walking around the park (I arrived a little before sunset which was perfect)
Visit Jogysea Temple and Bongeunsa Temple – Both beautifully decorated and lovely to explore for a bit (even for someone who had seen A LOT of temples in the past 7 months!)
Wander around Insadong for some shopping, food, and Instagram shots. Check out Bukchon Hanok Village for more Instagramming. You will see many people (Korean and not) dressed in costumes while you are at the palaces and around Bukchon Village. It’s primarily women and girls wearing hanbok, a traditional dress established a very, very long time ago.
Take a tour of the DMZ – I skipped this since I had limited time in Seoul, but you can take a half-day trip out to the DMZ through many tour operators.
Eat all of the Korean Food! (I didn’t realize how much I love Korean food until I arrived in Seoul and couldn’t stop eating)
There are night markets throughout the city which are a great place to try various types of food. Portions are generally pretty small so good for snacking & sharing.
Gwangjiang Market – A must stop for any foodie in Seoul. You can try all of the local dishes here. It’s loud and cheap and steamy and wonderful. Try the tteokbokki, bindaeduk (mung bean cakes), kimchi dumplings, noodles, and more. I saw someone eating fresh seafood that looked incredible and had slight food envy as I munched on my greasy mung bean pancake.
In Itaewon – Try Mr. Ahn’s for a clever dining experience. There is no English menu so let the servers explain everything and then order a few dishes based on whatever they recommend. And get the makgeolli (rice wine) – since I was alone I had a tasting of four different rice wines which was a nice way to try it without spending a lot of money. This was my “splurge” meal of my time in Seoul and yet it only cost about $42.
Eat some bibimbap! I had some at Gojung (in Myeongdong) which was really tasty and filling. Also recommended: Jangkkoma.
- Gaesong Koong for dumpling soup. And three kinds of kimchi to try. The dumplings are HUGE and delicious. Great place to visit after a trip to one of the palaces.
- Cafe Bora – Come here for the purple sweet potato ice cream which will look great on Instagram (and is a nice treat).
More dishes to try (and where to find them):
- Samgyetang (roasted chicken) – Tosokchon
- Korean BBQ – Mapo Jeong Daepo, Sutbul Mapo
- Bulgogi – Hanok Jip
- Glass noodles – Jirisan
- Buda jjigae (spicy sausage stew) – Tartine Seoul
- Pork belly BBQ — Black Pig
- Vegan food – Sanchon, Sulbing
- Jjukkumi (mini-octopus) – Jjukkumi Alley in Yongdu-dong (best place is Na Jong-sun Halmae Jjukkumi) – It’s a bit further out from the city center and really wish I had made it over there!
- Kalguksu (hand-cut wheat flour noodles served in a hot, savory broth) – Myeongdong Kyoja
Getting There & Around: Seoul is easy to get to from the US and you can find direct routes to major US cities such as San Francisco, LA, NY, and Chicago. Of course, you may also find yourself stuck with a connection in a nearby Asian city depending on which airline you are flying and how much you are willing to pay. Suggest taking public transport from the airport to the city – it will be cheaper and easier! There are the buses I mentioned as well as two subway lines that go directly into the city. Getting back to the airport was easy as my hotel offered a shuttle bus service every 30 minutes.
Getting around Seoul is pretty easy. I used public transportation most of the time – you can buy a T Money card which you can fill up and use to pay for bus and train rides. I bought mine at a convenience shop at the airport – 4K won to purchase the card. Bus and train routes were relatively easy to figure out and made it easy to sightsee. There are also lots of little underground shopping centers which you can walk through to avoid having to cross the wide city streets where, at some intersections, pedestrian crossing is prohibited.
Where to Stay
For a first-time visitor to Seoul, I would suggest staying around Insadong / Myeongdong area. This puts you close to many of the sights and shopping, as well as some of the popular night markets. However, as much as I liked the location for ease of getting around, I found it a bit lacking in personality. I stayed at The Plaza Hotel which is just one of many business hotels in the area (Jung-gu neighborhood). The hotel was fantastic (and has a great fitness center & swimming pool), but there is no real vibe around here. I would definitely stay in a different part of town (like Itaewon) next time. I was just happy for a nice hotel secured through some Chase Points 🙂
If you are seeking more of a neighborhood vibe (or hostel accommodations), check out Itaewon (restaurants, shops, and bars) or Hongdae (university area). For a totally different experience, stay in Gangnam which is home to many luxury hotels and high-end shops.
More tips on where to stay in Seoul