A friend of mine was getting married in Hong Kong in September, so I decided to go on a trip with my parents and visit Fukuoka (Japan). A reasonably priced, 1-stop Star Alliance outbound option from San Francisco to Fukuoka was on United Airlines routed through Seoul, Korea. While the shortest layover in Seoul could have been 3 hours on this itinerary, I opted for a 36-hour layover at no extra cost instead.
It has been years since I’ve traveled to a new country by myself, so I was quite excited about this leg of the trip.
United Airlines itinerary
For many people, particularly Asian tourists, Korea is destination for shopping for apparel and cosmetics, so places like Dongtaemun would be where they spend most time. Given I am not really a shopping person, I didn’t spend much time in this area.
Here are the top 5 things I enjoyed the most in my day and a half in Seoul:
1) Visit the traditional areas of Gyeongbokgung, Samcheong-dong and Insa-dong
These few areas are within walking distance, thus made sense to knock out all at once if times allows.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in the late 1300s. The style of the palace appears heavily influenced by Chinese architecture, but in a slightly more modest color scheme. The palace features gardens, pavilions and quarters which used to be where the emperor works, resides and meets with his officials. The palace isn’t huge though so I spent only about 45 minutes there.
Gyeongbokgung Palace — Exterior
Samcheongdong Bukchon Hanok Village
2) Have a ton of beef soups
Beef soups are extremely popular in Korea. While the soup have a few variations, the broth is cooked with beef bones and parts for hours and hours. Oftentimes, a generous (basically unlimited) amount of scallion and kimchi are available on your table, along with salt (to be added to soup), soy sauce (as a dipping sauce for the meat) and other seasoning at your disposal. Soups are often served with a bowl of rice to make a complete meal.
Here are the three variations I had:
Gomtang — Beef soup with very tender brisket at Hadongkwan (하동관 / 河東館) in Myeongdong (12,000₩ — 25,000₩ depending on the type of meat)
Haejangguk — Korean hangover soup with tripes and pork blood (in jelly form) from Cheongjinok (청진옥 / 清進岳) (10,000₩ — 12,000₩)
Seoleongtang — Milky, creamy soups made by moderately boiling (rather than simmering) beef leg bones from Sinseon Seolnongtang (신선설농탕 / 神仙雪濃湯) (7,000₩ — 10,000₩). My favorite soup out of the three! While opening 24/7, this restaurant is extremely popular (particularly among Japanese tourists, for some reason) so expect to line up for a quite bit. I went at 6:45am in the morning so there was no wait, but a line was already forming at 7am on a weekday!
3) Get street food
Korean has a huge street food culture. The streets of busy areas in Seoul (such as Myeongdong) are lined with rows of vendor carts selling quick bits and dishes to be enjoyed immediately. For someone visiting Korea for the first, the sight of so many options presented all at once is already a feast for the eyes.
Some of the Korea favorites are spicy rice cakes (Tteokbokki), fish cakes (Odeng) and Korean pancake (hotteok).
My take on this is: If you don’t know what they are, just try them! Street food in Seoul is a wonderful way to experience the culture.
Vendor adding a Korean barbecue sauce to my chicken skewer
Korean popcorn chicken
Jajangmyeon (a noodle dish topped with a thick sauce made of black soybean paste
Korean sausage (a couple of them had rice cake as fillings)
4) People watching in Hangang park food trucks (only on Fri/Sat)
Hangang is a huge people’s park located by Hangang river, only a few minutes away from the Yeouinaru Station on subway line 5. At dusk, groups of people picnic in the area with snacks, soju and games, while enjoying the view of the skyline across the river.
Strolling down the park with sea breeze was incredibly relaxing in the evening, thanks to a cooler temperature brought about by the rain in the morning on the day of.
People picnicking by Hangang river
From March until October, the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market takes place every Fridays and Saturdays in Hangang Park, featuring over 100 food trucks with plenty of both Korean and international options, along with vendors selling crafts and accessories and live performers.
Crowds at the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market
Tiny food truck with a lot of people working…
Live performance in Hangang river
5) Visit Gwangjang market
As Korea’s first market, Gwangjan market continues to be an exciting place to see and eat. The market is huge with multiple entrances, sectioned by product types such as groceries, textile and fashion etc. In the evening, the night food market scene is made up of hundreds of food stalls feature more street food options that you can imagine. People here were friendly and inviting, but not pushy.
Gwangjang market — no shortage of food stalls to fill up your belly!
Gwangjang market — stall selling kimchi and other preserved products
Gwangjang market — food stalls selling tteokbokki (rice cake) and odeng (fish cake)
Overall I enjoyed my short stay in Seoul. While I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do, I thought 2-3 days would be the perfect amount of time to spend in Seoul for a non-shopper like myself.
If I ever get to swing by Seoul in the future, I would want to be interested in trying jimjilbang (Korea dry sauna — Conan O’Brien has a really funny video here) and have a tour at the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the border of North Korea and South Korea.