Seoul Searching: The Primer

This is a long and overdue post which I will divide into multiple posts just so it won’t take too long to load.

I had my first trip to Seoul, South Korea last October 22-27, 2013. My boyfriend and I planned it for several months and boy did I read a lot of travel and culture books from the Korean Cultural Center library! I must say, we were able to make the most out of our short visit but we went to so many places and brought home more than 600 photos (which I thought were still quite few). The shutterbug in me just fainted with glee. But that doesn’t mean we’re done with Seoul. Sure, we were satisfied with our time management but we made a pact to go back, the reason which will be clear as this story progresses.

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View of Seoul taken from the N Seoul Tower viewing deck.

Seoul is a great example of a fine mix between modern and traditional. Competing with the skyscrapers are the majestic temples that peppered the Seoul skyline. It makes me envious how much they were able to preserve their culture after the perils of war and technological boom.

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Spot the Rooftop Prince!

Having known this, there were just too many places I wanted to see. I say this because I made the itinerary. It was so detailed that I was able to give information and directions to fellow tourists. I sure glowed with pride when I was able to pull off the look of a Seoulite.

Getting Settled

We arrived at Seoul in the morning of October 22. Tired from flying coach and looking for our hidden guesthouse, we slept from 8am to 1pm. For day 1, we decided to walk around the area surrounding our hostel which was fortunately the upbeat streets of Hongdae.

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I’m no seasoned traveler but I’ve had my fair share of being in places unknown to me. Backstory: I started living by myself at age 16 when I started university in a city unknown and unsafe for me. So how does one adjust to a new place? First thing to do is identify the landmarks nearest your place. It will help you from getting lost.

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On the way to the Heukseok train station from Chung Ang University

For the rest of our first day in Seoul, we met friends based in Seoul, explored Hongdae, and tried one street food after another.

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Path to the Hongdae river side bike trails near Heukseok Station

For the duration of our trip, we were able to go to 10 out of 25 districts in Seoul, and visited more than 10 tourists spots (mostly shrines and museums). Interestingly, we did not go to the popular areas of Insadong and Dongdaemun because we preferred to spend more time in shrines. This may sound very few but we did all that in 2 days that followed.

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How did that happen? It is important to note that even though Seoul is a bustling metropolitan there are certain areas that close up early. I noticed that “early to bed, early to rise” may be the mantra for Korean lifestyle. Yongsan-gu is practically a ghost town around 9pm! Ironically, at this same hour, shops in Dongdaemun and Myeongdong are just about to come alive.

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Tteokbokki. Rice cake rolls and flat fish cake (eumak) in sweet chili sauce.

Preparing your Itinerary

It is unfortunate that we don’t have all the time and finances in the world to just go about spending our time so leisurely. So a budget traveler like me must make plans if I want this trip to be worth it. When doing this, an internet connection would be handy:

  1. List down the places you want to go.
  2. Note their open hours and schedule of activities (ie. changing of the guards, guided tours) and entrance fees.
  3. Decide how much time you’ll spend in each area (allot about 2 hours per shrine/museum and 3 hours for food and shopping district).
  4. Group the places according to district/area.
  5. Bring out a map (you can ‘star’ them on Google Maps!) and plot your places – include your hotel/hostel’s location.
  6. Also plot the nearest train and bus stations (write down bus numbers)
  7. Divide the areas according to the number of days you want to allot exploring these areas.
  8. Start your day from the destination farthest your hotel/hostel and end with the one nearest you. Allot 30 minutes – 1 hour for travelling from one spot to another especially if you prefer going on foot and have the propensity to get lost, stray from the path, or distracted by merchandise. Take note of train bus transfers if you must. However, if you did this step correctly, you’ll mostly be on foot as the next tourist destination is just nearby and walking would be faster than sitting through the traffic.
  9. Be on the dot but don’t let it stop you from staying longer or wandering off if you really want to. Exploration of the unknown is the best thing about travel.
  10. If you have 5 days, allot about 1-2 days with no itinerary. This will allow you to be flexible with your itinerary and go back to places you’ve missed and do extra shopping. Or sit by the riverside and exhale deeply as the sun sets.
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You’ll find the Coffee Prince Cafe along Hongdae!

Leave your Lonely Planet at home

Information is something that is abundant in Seoul. Perhaps due to the rise in tourists, the government and private sectors had the initiative to provide a 24hour English hotline, International Taxis, etc. One need not worry about getting lost because road signs, trains, and bus stations all have English translations or romanizations. The train is most efficient at this as they go graphic about their directions. Train lines are represented by different colors so that even if you can’t see the letters clearly, you’ll know which way is the line transfer.

Maps and cultural guides are available for free at the airport and many districts in Seoul have an Information Center where you can get detailed maps on the area.

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Quirky cafes line the alleys of Hongdae.

Being able to read and speak Hangul helps when you order street food. But worry not, some speak good English and are accustomed to having foreign customers.

This concludes my first day. It was so hard choosing photos that will show different things about Seoul for this post. My next blog post will be a tsunami of photos for our days visiting the shrines. Autumn in Korea is just so beautiful. Perhaps there is a good side to this extremely late post. You might just have enough time to plan and prepare for you own trip this fall!

Patricia

Patricia

Wanderlust, choco-addict, tea-lover, strawberry-monster, camera-wielding, dancing creature of the sea.

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