My wife and I recently spent eight days in Seoul, Korea over the New Year period. Here is perhaps an 'alternative' and quirky overview of all that we experienced in the city and what went in to making it one of our best trips ever.
Part one of the trip report was all about the weather, our accommodation in the heart of the city, coffee shop culture and the Korean people themselves. Part two was about getting around Seoul on the excellent public transportation system and shopping.
Here is the third and final part of my trip report and it focuses on possibly the two most important aspects of any holiday - eating out and things to see and do.
Food, glorious food!
As I mentioned before, there are an awful lot of Thai tourists in Seoul and go on any Thai travel-related forum and the main discussion point is usually food - in particular, streetfood!
Now Thais know a thing or two about streetfood, but Seoul's footpath chow has a BIG reputation. It didn't take us long to see why. In the more heavily-populated areas. streetfood is everywhere you look. The Thais love it, the local Koreans love it (particularly the younger generation) - and we couldn't get enough of it!
It's said that if you are in town for just a short holiday, there is no need to set foot in a Korean restaurant at all. You can survive quite nicely on streetfood alone. And while I'm sure many budget travellers do just that, the streetfood in Seoul actually isn't that cheap. It's appreciably more expensive than in Bangkok, but you do get heartier portions and the quality is on another level altogether.
My wife's favourite footpath nibble was the jumbo-size chicken satay, cooked to perfection on a charcoal grill. The expression 'melt in your mouth' didn't do it justice. I had never tasted meat so succulent and so full of flavor. But at the equivalent of 80 baht a stick, certainly not cheap. Fortunately a couple of sticks was all you needed for a full belly.
My own streetfood favourite - and health freaks should look away now - was the deep-fried potato scallop. That alone is bad enough if you're a calorie counter, but just to make sure you get the full 'grease and fat' overdose, once cooked, the scallop is rolled in chips until it resembles a caveman's club. Then the whole thing is covered in a great big dollop of tomato sauce. All that remains is for you to find a quiet doorway, where you can enjoy your midnight snack in peace without putting most of it down your best sweater.
While we were in the Insadong suburb of the city, we noticed a largish queue of both locals and foreigners had formed at one particular stall. Whatever they were making - it had to be good!
Again, something from the deep-fat fryer, this was a crispy pancake with a liquidy filling that tasted of cinnamon. Not unpleasant at all - but oh boy was that filling hot!
We didn't limit ourselves to streetfood though during our stay. We were intent on trying a few of the local restaurants because neither of us had much experience with eating Korean food.
There are plenty of local restaurants to choose from and they are all very reasonably priced. Two people can eat well for 500-600 baht (with a drink each) All you need to do is wander around the side-streets to find them.
Choosing a restaurant isn't difficult because more often than not, the restaurant owner or a member of staff will choose the restaurant for you. The moment you start perusing a menu outside, a member of staff appears. They are never pushy or aggressive, they just know that you probably need help and guidance. And they do a fine job. I was always impressed with their 'salesmanship'. They will explain the different Korean dishes to you and highlight any special set menu packages (often menus are not written in English) And all the restaurant staff we encountered were so friendly and pleasant.
We generally ate in three distinct types of local restaurant. The first was what I would call 'a set menu place' where you would be served a selection of perhaps a dozen different dishes including the ubiquitous kimchi (some of the dishes we liked and some we didn't) Then there were the more a la carte joints which would often specialize in one dish, be it a sizzling hot plate of spicy beef with assorted vegetables or a hot pot of seafood covered in cheese. Finally - and very popular with locals - were the 'beer and chicken' restaurants. As the name suggests, you would be served a chicken platter with a variety of chicken wings and drumsticks cooked in different ways and that acted as 'finger food' to accompany your ice cold glasses of draft beer.
Things to see and do in Seoul
When my wife told colleagues that we were doing eight days in Seoul, they were surprised, bordering on flabbergasted. Those who had been to Korea before all said the same thing - "you will struggle to fill four days in Seoul let alone EIGHT. There really isn't that much to do"
Well I'm still not sure if these people went to the same city and lord knows what they do in the name of research, but we managed to fill the time effortlessly. In fact there was so much we just didn't have time to see.
I recently wrote a blog on the topic of 'doing cities by numbers' - the idea that when you travel to a new place as a tourist, you make a list of all the must-sees and dutifully tick them off one by one. It's something I've become tired of doing because very often the most popular attractions can be a huge let-down. And this was very much the case with The Gyeongbokgung Palace. I hate to trot out that tired old line of 'you've seen one temple, you've seen them all' but it really was nothing special. Throw a few hundred Chinese tourists into the mix, all being shepherded along by their flag-waving tour group leader, and you're destined for a somewhat forgettable experience.
Top of the list of things to do in Seoul - at least according to Trip Advisor - is the War Memorial and Museum. And this certainly didn't disappoint. Rather foolishly, we left this until our last full day in Seoul and with still a number of things to see, we were forced to cover the museum at breakneck speed and certainly didn't give it the time or respect it deserved.
Before I go any further, can I just give a hearty pat on the back to the South Korean government for making all their museums free to enter. None of that dual-pricing bullshit that's so prevalant in Thailand. The museums are all free. Fantastic!
At the War Museum, you could easily spend an hour or two just wandering about outside, admiring the impressive war memorial and posing for photos amid the extensive display of tanks, jeeps, planes and all manner of military transportation and weaponry. I'm no war buff but show me a man who doesn't enjoy getting behind an anti-aircraft gun and imagining himself shooting down a few enemy drones.
You then need at least another couple of hours to walk around the museum building. There are sound and light shows, interactive displays, wax models showing off historical military uniforms through the ages, three-dimensional battle fields, etc, etc. I couldn't have been more impressed. There was an awful lot of pride in this museum - and rightly so.
A fun place to visit - and a great way to pass an hour - was Seoul's Seeing Eye Museum. It's a collection of small scale, two and three dimensional displays that you literally step into to create photographic illusions. You can dance with a movie star, be eaten alive by a shark, escape a rampaging flood or be part of a fairy story. You get the picture. The Seeing Eye Museum is much more enjoyable if you have an outgoing personality and you don't mind making a prat of yourself while other folks wait for their turn to make a prat of themselves.
Without doubt the highlight of our trip to Seoul was The Seodaemun Prison - built to house Korean prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation. How this place doesn't even make Trip Advisor's Top 20 things to do in Seoul is too baffling for me to contemplate. The place was just incredible.
We couldn't have chosen a better day to do the prison. A light covering of snow, sub-zero temperatures and hardly a leaf on the trees - it was about as bleak as it gets and it created a perfect atmosphere. The ghosts of the past were all around you from the desperate isolation of the exercise yard to the interrogation and torture rooms and the cells where thousands of prisoners died of frostbite during the freezing winter months. It was an unforgettable and moving experience. Please don't miss Seodaemun Prison if you get the opportunity to go to Seoul.
We both gave Seoul 10/10 for an overall holiday experience. Friendly people, lots to see and do, great food, easy to get around, plenty of shops - and everything great value for money. We can't wait to return!