Bonjour and welcome back to a Tour d’Origine post! This is the second-to-last post in the series, and I’ll be taking you to Seoul, South Korea. This was probably my favorite part of my post-grad Asia trip by far. But more importantly, it was the first time I ever traveled alone to a foreign country where I do not speak a single word of the language. Mildly anxious was an understatement. Luckily for me, I had 8 friends who were in Seoul at the moment and four of them graciously took me around the three days.
Since my trip was only three days long, we jam packed our schedules with about 3 different neighborhoods each day. Put on your walking shoes, it’s going to be a fun one!
I hopped off the plan in Incheon with a dream in my cardigan…and headed straight to change into a hanbok! FUN FACT: if you rent a hanbok for 2 hours ($15 USD), you can visit the Gyeongbokgung Palace for free! I think the ticket price is about the same, but the photos and experience is one-of-a-kind. Two of my sorority sisters (and they’re a big/little pair, #vom) picked me up from my hotel and we headed to lunch in the more historical neighborhood of Seoul where there are multiple historic sites.
If you know anything about Asian cultures and food, you know that the best food are served in streetside shops. Usually the less polished the restaurant looks, the better the delicacies. For my first (very sunny) meal in Seoul, my friends and I had a delicious meal of different little dumplings, wontons, and appetizers with homemade kimchi. This meal costed each of us $6 USD and was one of the best I had. (Great. Now my mouth is watering as I type.) Asian food that is not sushi definitely wins for the least photogenic yet most delicious!
NOTE: All pictures were taken from my iPhone 7 from my non-blogger friends, as this trip predated me upgrading to a Canon Rebel T7i camera. If anything’s meh or crooked, just take it as an artistic ~flare~ to the photo hahah!
After our lunch, we headed to a hanbok rental shop by the palace and picked out our outfits before frolicking (and yes, I do mean frolicking) through the gates. The palace is very large and sits in the center of Seoul in front of a mountain range. It was once home to the kings of Korea. Walking in, I immediately felt an air of peace in the palace grounds. There weren’t too many visitors that day, making it a pleasurable walk through the palace. I think one of the greatest moments of this day was seeing the Korean girls and boys running around in traditional hanboks. It really brought a beautiful ancient aura to the place and helped me feel more immersed in Korean culture.
There were tons of girls in hanboks taking cute photos as well, making me feel less touristy. The sunlight was hitting the walkways on the outside of the palace perfectly, so we rotated for the perfect photo spot with different groups of people. Wearing a hanbok definitely helped transport me back into time as if I was one of the royals living in Gyeongbokgung and made me feel like a Korean princess for two hours. Out of all the Asian traditional clothes I’ve tried before (qipao, kimono), this one was probably the easiest to eat in but POOFY and itchiest to stay in. Part of me think it has to do with the tulle of the rental shop but I’m not complaining that much considering it covers up all the love handles I grew on my Asia trip.
Unfortunately, I didn’t purchase an audio tour guide and am sadly unable to tell you all the historical facts of Gyeonbokgung. However, there are a few things my beautiful personal tour guides (my friends lol) shared with me! The first one is that the stone path you just see below that ran down the center of the palace grounds from building to building were for the royal family. All other visitors or residents of the palace must walk around it.
Next, this first photo is of the throne where the king sat. The phone under it is most likely the throne his wife, the queen, sat in. The king’s building stood directly in front of the queen’s. The architecture and colors in the ceilings are very intricate and resemble colors from nature. For example, the red resembles red wood and the green look like the green of trees on the mountains. I’m not sure if there is a significance in color to the nature surrounding the palace, but it was a beautiful design nonetheless.
The queen’s building is below. Notice that the paint in the queen’s building was much duller. I’m not sure if this was because they have not repainted lately or what, but it seems like the original color was not as vibrant as the king’s. This does make sense, as you’ll notice in many cultures the king always was more powerful than the queen.
In the next few photos, you’ll see a beautiful courtyard, open building, and pond that is usually filled with cute boats. This is most likely the building the royals used for events, parties, and banquets. The openness of it allows fresh air and light to come in. It also incorporates the beautiful natural landscape around the palace into the event.
That’s all for the tour of Gyeongbokgung! Outside the main gates lies the hustle bustle of the ever-growing South Korean city and a strip of statues where I’ll be taking you to next.
Outside the gates of Gyeongbokgung is a stone path that commemorates a Korean naval commander, Yi Sun-Sin, and one of the most liked Korean kings, King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet. The general, Yi Sun-Sin, is famous for helping Korea win an epic naval battle against the Japanese. The Japanese had twice the amount of ships and manpower, but he was able to bring Korea to victory while dying in the battle with his brilliant strategies. His last words were a request: to never let the Japanese know he died in battle.
Korean culture and language actually stems from Chinese roots. You’ll notice that in many of ancient Korean architecture. I learned a few words on my trip and noticed a few similarities as well. The Korean language has many different phonetic sounds that can be found across all languages. Apparently, if you can speak Korean, you supposedly can learn and speak any other language with less of a foreign accent better than others can! I’m not sure how true that is in the grander picture, but as far as I know the Koreans I’m friends with definitely are able to overcome linguistic differences when learning new languages very well.
If you’ve ever seen Korean words, you’ll notice that they are often made up of one to three sections of shapes and dashes. These are actually Korean phonetics, the ABCs of Korean! I thought that was so interesting and awesome, considering Chinese characters are just one picture, one character, one sound. If you forget it, you can kind of see if you recognize parts of it that mean something. Otherwise, you’re pretty screwed. If you’re Taiwanese like me and learn traditional Chinese and not simplified Chinese, you will understand this pain. King Sejong, the king who created the Korean alphabet, was quite brilliant for creating a language with words pieced together by phonetics to help increase literacy and document Korean history. I inserted a picture of the statue commemorating him below. What you don’t know is that there is actually a whole exhibit underground for you to learn about the history of the Korean alphabet. Unfortunately, my phone died and I didn’t get more photos of the exhibit, but you will get the general gist of it. Check it out!
After returning our hanboks, we took a break in Insadong at a Osulloc Tea café. There, the three of us had bingsu, shaved ice with fruit and other toppings, and cold beverages. We ordered the milk tea flavored shaved ice, as it was a classic favorite. Osulluc is one of the many tea brands that serves tea from Jeju Island, a beautiful island off the coast of South Korea that is filled with natural ingredients that benefit your body and skin as well black pigs with the juiciest Korean BBQ meat (we will get back to this later).
This street in Insadong has cute little shops and a larger shopping center called Sssamziegil. It’s a large 4 story retail center that sells clothes, art, & home goods and more all around an open, central courtyard with beautiful decor hanging from it. A lot of things are handmade, making them very unique and special purchases.
The next stop for my first day, and yes we’re still on the first day, was one of the more romantic places in Seoul called the Namsam Tower. In many Asian countries, dating is a huge part of the culture. It is common for Koreans to not date around but just hop from one boyfriend to the next, which explains the copious amounts of couples we saw everywhere and at Namsam Tower.
Who needs a boyfriend when you have your girlfriends, right? So, we took a cable car up to the tower to visit the tower and put our names on a lock because friendship > relationships (lol #stillsingle). Being the sorority girls we are, we signed a blue heart lock and put something related to our sorority on the lock before locking it away on the wall that faces the city. If you’re ever in Seoul and by the wall of locks under the Namsam Tower, look for it ;). Then, we headed up to see Seoul from all corners in the tower. I love seeing cities from high above. It makes them less intimidating, and it also shows how beautiful each city is built. The best part is seeing all the beautiful city lights light up the city at night. It brings a breathtaking view that you can’t quite put into words.
The last stop for the night was a traditional and historical bar in Gangnam, the district you probably heard enough about from Psy back in 2012. Gangnam is known for being more “bougie” due to its upscale buildings, great nightlife, and fantastic shopping. Personally, I thought it was the greatest place for me to live and go home to at night. The liveliness and great window shopping helped me forget that I was probably lost and had no cell data to check where I was going. All jokes aside, this is a great place to stay on your trip because everything is at your fingertips!
We sat down in this bar that was very retro and true to its historical decor and history. The seating arrangement was on wooden benches and tables. Here we enjoyed a midnight snack called anju with our drinks. Just like how you drink sake bomb by dropping sake shots into beer, you drink soju, or Korean vodka, by pouring it into beer! Now don’t get me wrong, I much rather drink a bottle of soju alone because its fruitiness is just quite delicious and soju drunk is the best. But the first day a long one, so we went for the lighter option of beer with soju and some anju! We ordered spicy rice cake, or tteokbokki, with many different vegetables and rice noodles, much like japchae, inside. It was so delicious and satisfied every late night craving I had.
If you thought day one in Seoul was jam-packed, my second day was on a whole new level of busy. We went to Hongdae, Itaewon, and a world famous nightclub in Gangnam by my hotel called Octagon. Hongdae is near universities, making it full of all the attractions 20-something year olds love! There’s markets, shopping, food carts, and a fun trick-eye museum. We had lunch at a hip ramen bar with probably the spiciest kimchi I’ve ever had before we explored the different beauty brands stores, such as Etude House and Banila Co, as well as different skincare stores like Nature Republic, Innisfree, and TonyMoly. There were also great little coffee places and dessert places around the neighborhood as well. This definitely makes my top 3 places I visited in Seoul.
Art Box is one of the coolest stationary stores I’ve been to. Asia is notorious for their adorable stores that sell stationary, trinkets, travel accessories, and random stuff you didn’t know you wanted or needed until you saw it. They have the cutest notebooks and keychains including tons of Kakao Friends and Line Friends merchandise! (Kakao and Line are two apps that are used in Korea and other Asian countries. Think of it as another WeChat or WhatsApp with some Facebook like qualities except Kakao and Line come with cute character stickers and themes. We use Line in Taiwan.)
The store spanned another room, but you kind of get the idea from just the front layout. There were too many people by the time I wanted to snap shots of other merchandise. Afterwards, we headed to get an afternoon pick-me-up. This cute little coffee came from a hole in the wall, much like many of the best Asian food places. We also passed by this stand that was making delicious and cute desserts on a stick! I forgot what they were (sugar or starch) but the figures were so adorable that I had to show you all!
Note that if you’re ever confused about what to do in an area, there are always two tour guides camped out somewhere in red uniforms with an I for information on it. One always speaks Mandarin Chinese and the other always speaks English. Helpful, right?
Afterwards, we browsed the streets some more and headed into the beauty shops. Etude House is one of the most famous makeup stores. They sell all sorts of products from skincare to beauty to tools to body sprays and hair care. They’re most famous for their makeup though, especially lipstick and eye makeup. One of the coolest things you can do is choose a cute lipstick cover and a lipstick shade and put it together, creating your custom lippie!
The custom lipstick I chose was a pink flamingo. The shade is a sheer cherry red. I often go very heavy on the lips or choose a nude red or nude mauve shade. I figured I dive into the kbeauty trend of glossy and cute lips instead of the very matte and very thick Western lippie trend. Honestly, I love the formula and for $8USD (it was on sale, originally $14) it was a great deal!
There were a few other beauty stores too which I browsed but didn’t find anything. Some you may have heard of, such as Skinfood! They have awesome products, and I’m definitely going to try their egg white masks. Dumb me could not bring more than a carry on luggage to Seoul because it was too hefty for me to travel alone with, so I didn’t buy nearly as much as I wanted to. Thank the heavens for Amazon and online purchases!
I purchased two packs of 10 masks at Nature Republic because they were having a promotion AND buy one get one free sale. Steal, right? Normally, a pack of 10 sheet masks is much more expensive than what I paid.
Afterwards, my friend and I roamed the rest of the streets of Hongdae and enjoyed the little stores of phone cases and fast fashion. It reminded me a lot of Taipei, but much more open, cleaner, laid back, and fun! (I’ll get into the heat and crowdedness of Taipei in my last Tour d’Origine post.)
Our last stop in Hongdae was the little sitting area outside the Trick Eye Museum. Tickets to see the inside of the museum were $18 USD which we decided was not worth it. The area outside the museum gave us a good enough sneak peek of what was inside though! The one thing I wish I got to see inside was a giant sushi you could pretend you’re eating if you take a photo at the right angle. We all know I’m OBSESSED and addicted to sushi, so that was a sacrifice I had to make… *sigh*
Later, we headed to a neighborhood called Itaewon to browse the Korean drug store, Olive & Young, visit the Line Friends store, and grab dinner. Itaewon is known as one of the more multicultural neighborhoods in Seoul because it’s where a lot of the American soldiers are based. Walking down the streets, I saw so many different people because it’s home to so many expats.
The neighborhood has one very cute area you can access through multiple alleyways off the main street. This area is pedestrian only and filled with bars, karaoke places, and restaurants. One of the restaurants, the one we went to, is owned by the first Korean celebrity to come out. It served Thai and Korean cuisine and was one of the best meals I had this trip.
Let’s start off with Olive & Young, the drugstore! This is where I explored the aisles full of face masks from all different brands. I also purchased a foundation by Clio to try out. Currently, I’m using it and loving it! It’s so light and SPF 50, which means I don’t have to worry about sun damage. It also matches my skin’s undertone perfectly. I also bought undereye patches and feet masks here, which I am planning on trying out very soon. My friend said it does a great job of softening your foot’s skin and callouses. While I don’t have many issues with my feet, I’m excited for them to be baby-butt soft!
Next stop was the Line Friends Store. Like I mentioned earlier, Line is an app that many people in Asia use to communicate and share photos and link. Think of it as a GroupMe meets Facebook! The best part is the tons of cute stickers they have of each of their characters, which they call “friends,” for you to use. Brown is the main character and a large brown bear with no facial expression. His girlfriend is a white bunny named Cony and their friend Sally is a little bird. My favorite character and spirit animal is Choco, Brown’s little sister. She’s a fashionista with an attitude and a killer Instagram (check it out here). I got a cute headband with her face on it for when I remove my makeup or use a face mask. We will get to visit her adorable house upstairs after a tour of the first floor which is her brother Brown’s home.
Brown’s home had an interactive corner where you could record a short video and send it to yourself or someone. It was so cute and you could see different Line friends in the screen with you. I have no idea why I didn’t send the video to myself, but there’s a copy of it somewhere in my parents’ inbox. I had a lot of questions that night about why I was in a cartoon video… Probably should have explained it to them earlier that I was in the Line Friends Store.
Adorable right? They had tons of merchandise featuring the characters which I was dying to all purchase. Thankfully, I was on a budget and avoided from over-indulging. Now, let’s head upstairs to see Choco’s place! On the way up, we pass by Sally’s little house under Cony’s room. As you can see, Sally is the moodier character while Cony is very bubbly and excitable. We’ll also see Jessica, a cute and friendly cat, and Moon, the bald guy who loves to gossip. We’ll also meet Leonard, a cute frog who loves to eat, and Edward, a little worm and Brown’s good friend James, the flirt. See if you can spot them all!
ISN’T SHE ADORABLE?? Ugh. I love her so much I only use her stickers on Line. I think my relatives are sick of seeing her pop up on their screens, whoops! After an hour, I finally dragged myself out of the store and headed to dinner. Remember that little area of great bars and restaurants in Itaewon which I mentioned earlier? Well I’m taking you there now! First we’ll browse through the streets before we head into the Thai/Korean restaurant owned by My Hong, the prominent openly gay Korean celebrity.
The restaurant was so cute and cozy. The food was also high quality and up to the standards of a restaurant owned by a celebrity. See the red soup, yes soup, that my noodles are in? That was the greatest spicy noodle dish I have ever inhaled in my life. Yes, inhaled because I was that hungry and it was that good. (I inhaled all the food on this trip because it was just that good.) The flavors of the soup brought out the natural flavors of the seafood and soaked into the vegetables to give them a great zest in every bite. Although the soup combined with a pitcher of soju cocktail definitely set my stomach lining on fire, it was worth every savory and spicy bite.
The soju cocktail was a mix of peach soju and fruit juices. The beauty of soju is that there were probably three bottles worth in the pitcher but it just tasted like pure juice. It was so tropical and fruity, I didn’t even realize I was buzzed until three drinks in. Whoops.
After dinner, we headed back to get ready for Octagon! We played a fun drinking game which involves twisting the cap of the soju bottle into a long rod. Then, you pass the cap and each person has to flick it. Whoever flicks it off is safe but everyone else has to drink. I don’t know if it’s strategy or beginner’s luck, but I’ve won every single time. 😉
We were all rushing to get our table that night. As a result, I was silly and forgot to take photos with everyone outside the club that night, other than a few blurred selfies, but I managed to get a few foggy shots of inside. Octagon three stories tall with the first and second floor being a huge EDM concert stage with tables and the third floor serving as a hiphop room. Personally, I liked the hiphop room vibes more despite the fact that this club is ranked #5 on the world’s top 100 DJ clubs. If you plan on going clubbing in Korea, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:
- The drinking culture is SO FUN but includes many rounds! You’ll go through round one at dinner, round two after dinner, round three at the pregame, round four, five, maybe six at the club, probably even nap at your table at some point, wake up for seven and then head out for 4am munchies before the subways reopen. CARBLOAD my friends. And PACE yourself.
- Smoking is a huge part of the nightlife! If you’re not a smoker, just a heads up that you will be surrounded by cigarette smoke in many areas. From all my non-smoker friends and myself to you: it’s very hard to resist a drunk cigarette in Korea…you’ve been warned!
I woke up the last day surprisingly not hung over, but very dehydrated and reeking of cigarettes and sweat. Not a fun combo. The last day was a little less busy, but I spent it with two different friends. One was a good friend from camp 7 years ago and the other was one of my closest guy friends from college.
I headed off with my first friend to Myeongdong, a very fun and upbeat neighborhood bustling with ALL the shopping and dessert places. I know that you hear me say this a lot, but this neighborhood was much more populated than Hongdae and had larger stores and three times as many street carts of food and snacks. My friend’s family owns one of the nationally treasured restaurants here and I was blessed enough to get the royal treatment of a delicious meal of noodles and their famous dumplings and kimchi served to us upstairs in her family’s private office. There were so many people in the restaurant that I didn’t get to snap a good photo, but I found a few images on Google for you. The restaurant, Myeongdong Kyoja, is famous for its noodles and dumplings. They only serve four special dishes:
- Kalguksu (noodle soup)
- Mandu (dumplings)
- Bibim guksu (spicy noodles)
- Kongguksu (noodles in cold soybean broth)
We had kalguksu and mandu. I swear the food got better in Seoul every day. I had to do everything to stop myself from inhaling that entire tray of food and my friend’s portions as well.
Both of the dishes were memorably delicious! The broth of the noodle was thick but harmonized perfectly with the taste of the wontons and seasoning. It was both light and flavorful, making it the perfect combination for my taste buds. But let’s talk about that kimchi. Fun fact, her mother’s kimchi recipe is a hit amongst pregnant Korean woman. To be honest, it’s a hit to me as a non-pregnant non-Korean woman, so I think it’s fair to say it’s just a hit in general. Her kimchi has a different type of heat and the flavor is very distinct. I have no idea how she does it, but I am very honored and thankful to have tried it as it tops any other kimchi dish I’ve ever tested. If you’re in Seoul, you absolutely HAVE to go to Myeongdong Kyoja as it is a famous national classic and treasure that you cannot miss out on!
After lunch, I met up with my other friend and got more bingsu! Funny, because we were both supposed to be on a diet but… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ In the next stream of photos, you’ll see the dessert cafe we went to and the streets of Myeongdong. I think this might have been my favorite neighborhood (did I say that about all the other ones already?) because I loved how many busy it was and how I got to see all aspects of Korean culture in the stores and on the street stands. The street food here was INSANELY aromatic and I was extremely mad at myself for eating so much at lunch and at the dessert café because all I wanted was tako (octopus) on a stick… *sigh* While the place was clean and modern, there were so many traditional restaurants tucked away that it allowed me to feel less guilty about diving headfirst into shopping the entire trip.
Second to last stop in Seoul was Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Dongdaemun is by the east door of the city. What does that mean? Well, Seoul used to be surrounded by a fort with eight doors, four of them the main gates. We saw the north gate by Gyeongbokgung Palace, but sadly the west and south gates no longer exist. The west and southwest gate was torn down during the Japanese colonial period, and the south gate was set on fire by an arsonist in 2008 and is in the process of being restored. All the other gates have also been restored or are in the process of restoration. The only gates that still stand as is are the north and east gate. Lucky you, because I’m taking you to the east gate now!
The design plaza has tons of art exhibits and vendors who sell technology or cool design pieces. That sounds lame and complete unspecific, but you’ll see what I mean through the photos. The plaza is also home to many stores, pop up designer shops, flea market, and a Pixar exhibit. I also got to visit the Kakao Friends store (the other app) inside and see their characters. They were also so cute! (Not as cute as Choco, of course.)
The last few photos were of the delicious trail of food trucks that come to sell famous street food in the plaza and the East Gate, Dongdaemun. While the original structure stands, they’re currently restoring the base to make sure it stays as strong as the north gate. This area was very clean and modern full of great architecture. The plaza itself, as you have seen above, was designed beautifully. It seems that this structure, round and like an egg/bubble with smooth arcs inside as if you’re living in-between Swiss cheese holes, is very popular lately! I love it, as I like seeing a room with no hard edges, and will be taking you to another building like this in my last Tour d’Origine post.
The rest of my trip to Seoul was just more food, more anju, more soju, and more good company. We hopped on the subway (which by the way is one of the nicest, cleanest, safest, and most modern metro systems I have ever used) back to Gangnam for classic Korean BBQ. I think I ate a two person serving of Jeju black pig pork belly that night (which is probably over 1000 calories).
As you scroll down, you’ll see that the proper way to enjoy a deliciously crispy pork belly fat BBQ is to cut it up in to pieces and wrap it in a large piece of lettuce with kimchi and rice. You eat that entire thing in one bite, so train your jaws because if you have a small mouth like me, this is a struggle! Despite how full we were, in true best friend fashion we went for more food (anju) later that night with another round of soju (no beer this time).
But first, we headed towards a cute Jamaican themed hookah bar!
This hookah place was beautiful. It seemed to be inspired by both Jamaican culture and Marrekech as the lights and tapestry remind me of Morocco but the cocktail flavors and music were very much Caribbean. Interesting. We happened to go when a punk-rock band was performing which was probably the worst thing for my ears and my full stomach to sit through, as the vibrations soared through the little hookah café and had me SHOOK. LITERALLY. We left after a while to a small bar where we ordered a large fruit bowl (to try and balance out the heavy meat we ate) and each had a bottle of delicious peach soju.
The next morning, I was up quite early for my flight. Before I left, I made sure to grab a pack of these delicious gummies. If you’ve ever had this yogurt culture drink, it’s a bit sour and sweet and supposedly helpful for your digestive system. The brand played off the popularity of these drinks and made it into a sweeter gummy form. While it was a little too sweet for my liking, I loved being able to enjoy my favorite sour and sweet yogurt without having to drink it, so it was the best snack I could munch on as I waited to board my flight back to Taiwan.
Seoul, you have a huge piece of my heart. I can’t wait to come back one day, visit more neighborhoods, and even venture to Jeju Island. Thank you to all my beautiful friends for taking me under their wing and showing me places that tourists wouldn’t know about. I’m forever grateful for all your help and not leaving me lost in translation these three days! For the rest of you mes chéries, put Seoul on your travel bucket list. I promise you its worth a trip overseas. I’m going to go do some burpees to burn off these love handles that are still here a month later. Bisou, bisou…