What I love most about my lifestyle out here is how easily I can visit neighbouring countries with their own unique culture. South Korea was one of these places I’d been dying to experience. For a while I’ve been fascinated by Korean culture. The skin care, the clean and environment driven thinking, K dramas! I felt it was now or never to visit.
With the little time and budget I had, it seemed Seoul was a perfect destination to spend my 5 day bank holiday. I figured it was better to tick a tiny bit of Korea off my bucket list in case another chance didn’t arise.
Different from my itinerary posts, I felt it was best to document my Seoul journey in a diary form. I only like to make itineraries on places i’ve been to more than once. And since this is my first time, of course there’s so much more to be done, I’m sure I didn’t even scratch the surface. Although I gave it a good shot!
After a rocky start with delayed flights, finally I made it to Incheon airport, Korea! My taxi driver joked with me that I was the first person he’d picked up that didn’t carry luggage. Referencing the shopping culture of Korea amongst tourists. To which I laughed and said, “I’m not here for shopping”. Oh in hindsight, if only I knew…
Tired and weary, I arrived at my Airbnb in the Jegi Dong area on the outskirts of Seoul. Greeted by my host, a cheerful Korean man called Jay. I was shown around my beautiful home for the next 4 days. So much better than the photos, a super clean ‘English cottage’ styled house with traditional trinket boxes adding a Korean twist. It was strangely nostalgic of my Mums home.
The temperature in Korea was significantly cooler than Hanoi, it was more similar to a British spring, adding to the nostalgia. Having no sense of geography to my embarrassment, I just assumed it would be the same as Vietnam this time. Bringing only a denim jacket and summer dresses, I resorted to wearing a dress under my skirt and top combo for extra warmth the following days.
After an extremely long sleep, waking up close to noon I enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning being greeted by black coffee, corn flakes and the adorable house cat Mary.
As it was so sunny outside, I thought it be a good idea to wonder the Gyeongbokgung palace. The most famous palace in Seoul, having been the home of the royal Josean dynasty. Whilst hopelessly searching for an ATM as well as the palace itself (despite their being clear signs). I came across a cute café called ‘Layered’. Once again I was greeted by this kitsch, almost Cornwall tea shop vibe. The interior aesthetics were so different compared to cafes in Vietnam.
I sat and enjoyed a delicious chocolate brownie and strong lemon tea. One thing I’ve since learned about Korea; the tea is fantastic! If you order lemon and ginger, it isn’t the bog standard dusty tea bag. No, it’s quite literally hot tea with half a lemon and huge chunks of ginger in.
From here I explored the Bukchon village, a historic Korean village preserved to show what urban life was like 600 years ago. It’s a fun novelty to hire the traditional dress – The Hanbok. Everywhere you look, friends and families are dressed up in this bright and pretty attire. I regret not getting dressed up myself but as I was by myself, I felt more conscious and had no one to take fabulous photos of it!
Whilst still searching for the Palace all this time, I came across the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary art (MMCA). One of my own travel traditions is to visit contemporary art galleries in every city I go to. This one did not disappoint. The exhibition topics were very controversial, including the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict as well as gender fluidity and the environment. It seems Korea is not afraid of its art and very open to political issues being expressed. I’ve mentioned before in my Love Letter to Valencia post that my favourite exhibitions are always politically charged. I think art should carry a message and I respect artists a lot for bringing attention to certain subjects.
Finally getting to Gyeongbokgung palace, I wondered around the palace grounds and took in the cheery atmosphere of dressed up tourists and a K pop band playing in the corner.
After the Palace I jumped in a taxi to the stylish area of Gangnam and finished my first day off with some skin care shopping and some ‘oh so amazing’ food. An assortment of spicy octopus, purple rice, kimchi and other dishes I couldn’t name. Costing my around £6 for everything. I love that kimchi is served with every meal here as a free side!
Monday morning, I intended to leave earlier but yet again the bed was so comfy I ended up lying in. Again, welcomed with black coffee from Jay my host, we both sat at the breakfast table and chatted about our cultures as well as Vietnam, the similarities and differences.
Having spent one day in the city it was very clear that Korea is superior in cleanliness. Cleaner than any European city I’ve been to by far with such a militant attitude to recycling. A whole extra room in the house was dedicated to 6 very specific recycling bins. An attitude the rest of the world should be taking. Jay then went on to tell me about his novel belief in ‘House Goblins’. A mysterious being that guards your house, but only if you clean it. Something I will definitely tell my future children.
We discussed Korean people also, I commented on how peaceful the streets were and how polite everyone had been. To which he responded “we are quiet but strong minded”. It turned out that Jay was just as much obsessed with my culture as I was with his. He referenced Harry Potter, being the proud owner of Hermione’s wand which was mantled above the piano. We discussed his time at York University as well as his honeymoon in London. The grass is always greener it seems.
Adding even more charm to this Airbnb experience, whilst getting ready in my room Jay proceeded to play Sam Smith and Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano in the hall. This may sound like an awful and intrusive experience to most people but he was very spectacular at playing and I love listening to the piano. If you follow my Seoul story on Instagram you’ll see…
First call of the day was to head for the Ihwa mural village, a quirky little town resting on a hillside. Known for its colourful street art. One of Seoul’s poorest neighbourhoods resurrected through investing in art projects within the community. Very similarly to some streets in my home town of Bristol.
I was a little disappointed though to find that the goldfish stairs mural had been painted over in grey along with a few other murals. On the whole though it was an interesting street to explore, crammed with independent shops and cafes.
From here I caught a cheap taxi to ‘Common Ground’. A cool set up of blue crates hosting restaurants and yet more independent shops. A little more pricey I think than other areas but I still managed to find a super cheap lunch option. Dumplings! £3 in total for 2 boxes of them. One was gifted to me free of charge from the vendor, which gets extra bonus points from me.
Next on my itinerary was to hit up Seoul tower for sunset. Not having any cash and too impatient to search for an ATM I jumped in another cheap taxi to Seoul tower, or at least the bottom of the hill. Hiking my way up the top to find breath taking views of Seoul city below. One thing that surprised me about Seoul was how mountainous it was. A city built upon cascading hills and peaks. The plaza surrounding the tower hosted some rather expensive restaurants and give shops that I avoided. I spent around 40 minutes just walking around and taking photos in the different hues of the sunset setting over the city.
I then took the bus from Seoul tower to Myeandong, a major shopping area and my final spot of the night. Bright lights and street food vendors lined the streets. A place where shops only sell sheet masks in bulk buys and not singular as I wanted, due to the amount of mass spending that happens here. I munched on street food Kimbap and browsed the countless cosmetic stores before catching the bus home. Not before having a creepy encounter with a strange man, but thats a story for another time!
Today would mark the end of my solo trip and finally I would meet up with a local friend, Clara (Ji Woo). A university student I met whilst travelling Malaysia. But first, meerkats…
The Meerkat cafe was a novel highlight of my trip. When it comes to absurd things, if you can’t find it in Asia then you won’t find it anywhere. The ‘Meerkat Friends’ cafe is one of those absurd places. I know it sounds like a case for RSPCA but the meerkats are looked after very well and you can tell the staff loved their animals. The space they play in is much bigger than some zoo’s that I’ve seen. We were given allotted times to play with the meerkats. The ritual went as followed; we had to remove our shoes before entering the cafe, and also wash our hands before touching the animals. Once our time came for petting the meerkats, we were instructed to sit on the matts provided with blankets to protect us. Surrounded by at least 10 or more meerkats we allowed them to climb on us and investigate their new visitors. It was something very different and worth doing if you’re in Korea.
If I ever return to Seoul and hopefully I will, I’ll head straight to Hongdae. Finally meeting up with Clara and exploring the student hub of Seoul. Cheaper than the rest of Seoul and full of super cool shops. My favourite was a jewellery shop that looked like a dark library with hundreds of tiny cabinets hosting cute and eclectic accessories. I could of spent a fortune! I stocked up on ridiculously cute hair clips and yet more skin care products from Banila & Co. I also passed this very aesthetically pleasing cosmetics shop that had walls and walls of eyeshadows and lipsticks ordered by colour. An organised dream!
Clara showed me many aspects of Korean life from huge Bingsu bowls with chocolate and cheese (didn’t go down well with my taste buds), photo booths and Claw cranes. I still very much suck at that game but I will eventually win a toy one day and it will be the most satisfying moment.
In the evening I went along with my Korean friend Clara (Ji Woo) and her two friends to Itaewon. Another quirky area, popular with students. Away from Korean food we enjoyed a night of pizza and imported beer on a rooftop bar. Although the pizza still couldn’t escape all of Koreas food twists, it came served with a runny egg on top. A common topping for pizza in Korea.
And here my Seoul adventure ends. Looking back on my weekend there are a few things I would have done differently that I think anyone reading this can benefit from.
Firstly, I would have used the bus and tube more. Initially I found it all very daunting because of lack of GPS and latin script, so even if I knew how to say the Korean name, I couldn’t read Korean.
Secondly, I would have 100% picked up internet. Unfortunately because I arrived so late at the airport I couldn’t buy any immediately and then just relied on cafe Wifi. It worked okay for buses but I had to plan my routes very well!
In hindsight my original Taxi driver was right. I should have saved more money and done way more earring and skincare shopping! I’ve cut down my consumption loads in the past year but I can’t break the habit of cute earrings and hair accessories. Skincare, well thats just essential. Korean sheet masks are the best, and in many cases biodegradable.
Lastly, food markets. I missed them! I wanted to witness someone eating the live octopus and take photographs of all the vegetables as I usually do. Alas, it’s something to go back for.
A long journey back to Hanoi followed on Wednesday and here I am now two weeks later reflecting on my time in Korea, wishing I could go back some day. Perhaps I will…
I think 1/3 of this diary is dedicated to Jay and his cat, huge shout out! Be sure to follow my Seoul journey on Instagram and all my future adventures! Thank you for reading x