Of course, in typical rogue fashion, this trip to Seoul was planned about 12 hours in advance when we decided to book a flight. We spent 36 hours on ground, and about 40 hours traveling – but hey, we’d do it again!
Seoul is a city that we visited in the dead of winter, so take heed that a lot of the things we’re going to recommend are going to involve being outside for the least amount of time! As far as cities go, I think I said maybe 200 times “this reminds me so much of Atlanta”, and it totally does. It has the same sprawling feel with dense pockets and huge malls. Unlike Atlanta though, it’s surrounded by tiny shack-like houses built in layers on top of each other, a beautiful sight, but also a clear insight into some of the disparity that occurs in cities throughout the globe!
What to Pack
A light bag: Seoul has lots to do that involves walking around, stairs and is a pretty hilly area. We’d highly recommend something low maintenance to keep your things in. We went with lightweight cross body bags, certainly not a fashion favorite, but easy to keep track of in high volume areas with pickpockets, and won’t weigh you down while trudging up some of those hills!
Closed toe shoes: Especially if you’re planning on walking around the outdoor markets! We found Seoul’s outdoor markets to actually be some of the cleanest and devoid of stray dogs and cats in comparison to others we’ve seen in Asia, however, there was no shortage of people stepping on feet and trash on the ground for your toes to come in contact with.
Sunscreen: It may be a city but the sun still beats down, hard!
A camera with range. There are so many great viewpoints with a vast span of things to see! If you’ve got a camera that’s good for it – take it along!
What to Wear/How to Dress
City clothes! Seoul is a huge city, sprawling with outdoor markets, malls, and cultural activities. Plan to dress as you would in any modern city, maybe leaning toward the conservative side. On a few days we saw people wearing traditional clothing as part of a ceremony or a holy day, but it certainly was far less of the population than those who were wearing normal clothes. We kept it to jeans and sweaters with coats and booties and felt like we didn’t stand out as tourists!
Seoul speaks many languages, but English was pretty low on the list. We actually found French to be a much more popular option when being handed multilingual menus (thank goodness for high school French!). However, as only one of us speaks French, the city wasn’t at all alienating for only speaking English. We found many signs still included English, especially the important ones (like road signs, and airport indications), so it isn’t essential to speak Korean to make it there! Also, a lot of the cab drivers carried language books and would use them to communicate. They’d point at a phrase in the book for us to read that was there in Korean and English. Once we read what they were asking we’d find the phrase to respond with and hand it back! It was really handy and easy! If it’s something that makes you nervous queue up your favorite language app to be ready to have a similar conversation!
Who watches Arrested Development? I had such a fun time saying Anyong after being a fan of the word for so long, and actually remembered it better because of the show! Anyong means hello and we used it quite a bunch along with “Kamsa-Hamnida” which means thank you. People were generally welcoming and excited that we even had these two phrases to bust out, and didn’t expect to be able to hold a conversation with us.
Where to Stay
Check out Neo Seoul Guesthouse! Not only is this place affordable but it’s got wifi, free breakfast and a steam room!
What We Loved
Myeong-Dong is a central shopping area filled with tons of little shops and street carts. It’s like the fun little downtown of Seoul with picture perfect quaintness and food and trinkets you may not find anywhere else on the planet all in one spot! We fell in love with the look of it and all of the rad stuff we took home! Even more exciting? Myeong-Dong has an underground shopping area filled with even more creative and distinct shops. It’s actually how you cross the giant highways that run through Seoul – you go underground instead of crossing the street!
Seoul Tower is definitely a tourist attraction, but also really beautiful and hard to skip.
Be aware, there is an ENORMOUS hill you’ll have to scale to get to
the tower that’s much too steep for the buses to bring you up. They’ll drop you at the bottom and pick you back up at the bottom – so wear shoes you’re ready to climb in! It’s totally worth it however. The top of the tower can see all of Seoul’s sprawling layout and beyond, and there’s a 360 view of the city! There are also some restaurants below the tower where we found really good pizza and kimchee!
Gyeongbokung, or Seoul Palace is absolutely worth seeing. The traditional architecture is gorgeous, colorful, and full of history. They even do palace opening events outside of the palace, if you happen to get there at opening or closing. Men in traditional clothing play drums, dance and chant. Be prepared to be outdoors the whole time and in the sun if you go midday!
Namdaemun is the largest and one of the oldest traditional markets in Korea and should not be missed. The streets are bustling and you can find literally anything there! The earlier in the day you go the quieter it will be, but it picks up in the afternoon with food carts and plenty of people to pack the streets. If you’re going with pals find a way to meet back up if you get separated!
What We Hated
We found it really difficult to get Korean food outside of the malls or markets in Korea. The restaurants ranged from Italian to Sushi, but Korean restaurants in South Korea just didn’t seem to be that popular. However, did you know South Korea is known for their fried chicken? Most people don’t! But if that’s your thing get ready to eat!
Okay, so we generally don’t do this… but this was our one exception because we were freezing our butts off: We bought a hop on – hop off bus ticket at Myeong-Dong and it went to all of the places we wanted to check out with the least amount of walking. The ticket itself was around $18 American dollars, but given that we were able to use it for one full calendar day without restrictions we felt it was worth it. We also rode the South Korean public bus system and found it really easy to navigate. Many of the stops had other language options, including English translations of the major stops! Plan to pay using won coins.
Customs in Public
Don’t spit! We personally find it to be super disrespectful anywhere, but it’s especially frowned upon in South Korea. Beyond that just be on your politest and least body-gross behavior (this isn’t the place to pick your nose in public) and you’ll be fine!
Customs at the Airport
Customs at the airport were breezy and kind to us on the way in and on the way out! Neither of us had any issues at all going in and out as tourists. Also neither of us got Visas ahead of time. We both did Visa on arrival (as always make sure to check your destinations government website about updates and changes to visa procedures just in case!).
It might’ve been the dead of winter, or it may have been a fairly clean city, but we didn’t see any bugs that were really noteworthy. Maybe a few flies here and there, maybe a dead cockroach once that was smooshed in the underground, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect to see in any large city. The bug life felt super clean.
What to Eat?
Expect kimchee. Lots of kimchee. And if you don’t know much about kimchee… well.. It makes you poop. It’s really good for your digestive system, but some people can’t tolerate the strong pickled flavor. Pickled foods are really popular here, so if that’s not your think expect a lot of snacks, and if you eat meat, fried chicken. The food courts in the mall have a surprisingly bountiful selection of a variety of options of traditional and popular Korean dishes. We also found that throughout Seoul people kept food environments safe and clean, and neither of us ended up with any food poisoning or sickness. That being said, remember when you’re buying food on the street it’s always safer to buy things you’ve seen prepared in front of you so you can be sure they were heated to a safe temperature, especially those of you who eat meat!
Fair warning – this one’s a doozy!!! We leaned on coffee super hard to try and make our time productive, but we were still wide awake at 2a and exhausted the rest of the time. If you can stand a trip where you use all of your energy to power you through a weekend like we did, then champ, do your thing! But if it’s a city you feel you need to take in, plan at least one day to be a rest day and adjust to the time zone, or stop through here on a long Asia excursion!