Having enjoyed a wonderful couple of weeks in South Korea’s glorious capital this September, I thought I’d share with you some personal highlights of my time there, and recommend some things not to miss should you be fortunate enough to pass a sojourn in the Land of Morning Calm. In no particular order:
I spent many pleasant hours absorbing absorbing the ambience of centuries of history in Seoul’s famous palaces, including the spectacular Gyeongbokgung complex, which houses one of my favourite places in the entire city, the National Palace Museum (which made me quite an aficionado of the Joseun dynasty), along with the unmissable National Folk Museum. Changdeokgung is also delightful, especially if you take the guided Secret Garden tour, as I did – a whimsical treat even on a grey, rainy day! – and Deoksugung, right in the middle of the business district, provides an oasis of peace for busy Seoulites throughout the working week, and is a lovely place to take pause on your travels through the bustling city.
With my continuing chopstick ineptitude, it would be difficult to present myself as a true connoisseur of Korean cuisine. However, undoubtedly one of the pleasures of visiting Seoul is dropping in on one of the many nice (and inexpensive) restaurants you can find on practically every street corner, to sample an authentic Korean lunch. Bibimbap is an essential classic, and, like kimchi, comes in many variants; one of my favourite things to do, though, is to point to something at random on the menu, and see what happens. I did this at a seafood restaurant near Gyeongbukgong, and ended up with a delicious spicy soup with eels – score! (If, like me, you like it hot and spicy, you’ll do just fine in Korea.)
Also not to be missed is the fast food. Now, I can imagine you asking, why go all the way to Korea to eat the same kind of burgers and fried chicken, etcetera, that you can find in any town in Britain? But the truth is that the Korean spin on such dishes is something unique, and often, very special – what I wouldn’t give for one of those Lotteria pulgalbi burgers right now! Oh boy. This brings me to one of the lingering sadnesses of my relationship with Korean cuisine: the spicy chicken wings at chains like Kyochon and BBQ. They are absolutely out of this world . . . but I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that there is something about them that just doesn’t agree with me; I mean, they can really play havoc. However, I have devised a unique four point plan for westerners seeking to responsibly enjoy Korean style spicy fried chicken:
1. Devour at night, washed down with copious maekju (beer).
2. Repent at daybreak.
3. Learn nothing.
4. Repeat (!)
Noraebang with Friends
A staple of the classic Korean night out is the noraebang, or singing room – karaoke Korean style! The difference between the Korean noraebang and the western take on karaoke is that, while in a western joint, you have one performer, or group of performers, singing in front of the entire bar, a Korean noraebang consists of many singing rooms where friends can knock back soju and entertain each other with their vocal talents in relative privacy. My own experience of this very Korean form of entertainment was actually at a multi-room (featuring a virtual noraebang along with computer games and other entertainments) with Korean friends in Daegu. The library of classic rock songs available for selection was vast, and we had a top laugh taking our turns; I was particularly delighted to nail that end section of Sweet Child of Mine. Ah, the performer’s ego never dies . . .
World Cup Museum
Being a crazed football fan, I couldn’t resist a trip to Seoul’s World Cup stadium – purpose built for the tournament they co-hosted with Japan in 2002, with unforgettable results for Guus Hiddink’s mighty Red Devils. The stadium’s museum, though small, is a treat for any serious football fan, featuring a fascinating overview of the history of football in Korea (which goes all the way back to 1882). Unsurprisingly, the triumphs of 2002 form the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition, but there is a full history of the Republic of Korea’s performance in every World Cup they have qualified for, and lots of interactive exhibits to enjoy, and relive some of the great moments in international football history. Also, unlike most of Seoul’s museums, it’s open on Mondays, which is useful to know for planning your holiday.
Being lucky enough to stay at a guest house near Sinchon subway station, I was right in the thick of one of the most happening districts of Seoul, at the nexus of many of its major universities – kind of like the Korean Greenwich Village, if you will. There is stuff going on every night – street performances from musicians and magicians, markets, cute and quirky advertising campaigns – in the pedestrian-friendly areas around the Hongik University subway station, which are always teeming with students come the early evening. And there are all kinds of friendly bars to drop in on. I found my home from home here, for the nights when my Korean friends were busy: Old Music Bar! The name sounded promising for one of my predilections, and the place managed to surpass my expectations. The owner, Mr Kim, has a massive library of vinyl, and impeccable taste, and I was thus able to sup my beer and listen to favourite songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and too many others to mention – pretty much any request I could come up with was catered for (bear in mind, though, he doesn’t like it too heavy, so ask for the ballads). If you like the sound of that, take Exit 9 from Hongik University, and have a walk around. I’m sure you’ll find it – and when you do, say hello to Mr Kim for me.
National War Museum
One of the most sombre, but also one of the most rewarding, trips you can make in Seoul is to the large and impressive National War Museum, which features an extensive history of the tragic Korean war in its permanent exhibitions, and also has detailed and informative exhibits on the Republic of Korea’s involvement in subsequent conflicts, from Vietnam to Somalia and Iraq. One of the most startling experiences that the museum affords to its visitors is the spectacular Incheon landings simulator, which does its best to recreate the sights, sounds, and even smells, that greeted ROK troops on that extraordinary mission – that’ll certainly shake you up! I was also treated to a display of drills from current ROK troops in the large memorial square at the building’s entrance. I recommend concluding your visit to the museum with some moments of silent remembrance, taking in the staggering list of the names of service personnel from South Korea and her allies who lost their lives in the Korean War, displayed on the outer walls of the building overlooking the memorial square.
Korean Folk Village
Near the town of Yongin, accessible by bus from Seoul’s railway station, is an attraction that is enduringly popular with Koreans and foreign tourists alike: the delightful Korean Folk Village, showcasing traditional Korean life and its arts, crafts and entertainments. The village plays host to traditional wedding ceremonies, and many of its buildings can be seen in Korean period dramas. Impressive performances of Korean music and dance, along with a small amusement park, make it a great family day out – and it’s also a very pleasant place to visit with friends and spend a lazy day walking around at leisure, and taking it all in.
This is just an overview – personally skewed according to my own interests – of what a trip to Seoul has to offer, and there are many other places to visit that I could talk about at length. Korea’s National Museum is well worth a visit; vast, and with a huge array of artistic and cultural exhibits relating to Korean and other civilisations, particularly of neighbouring countries. I also very much enjoyed the Seoul History Museum, with its spectacular 3D floor map of the city, which can be viewed from platforms and strolled around over – and there are lots of smaller, quirky museums that you will stumble upon wandering around the city, that are well worth a visit (I enjoyed the Museum of Agriculture, but was disappointed to discover that the Museum of Chicken Art apparently no longer exists!).
I’m definitely not finished with Seoul. Next time, I’m going up the Namsan Tower.