Places to Love: Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, South Korea is considered one of the greatest success stories of the 20th and 21st Centuries. From architecture to dining traditions, you’ll find the ancient juxtaposed with the modern, and in Seoul, it just works. Seoul thrives on rituals and traditions, all while embracing its place in a fast-changing world. Here’s why Seoul is a place to love.
PLACES AND STORIES TO LOVE
A Charming Neighborhood in a Booming Metropolis
This was my first trip to Seoul, and I had no idea what to expect. Even so, what I experienced in the Yeonnom-Dong neighborhood was beyond my wildest imaginations. I imagined tall skyscrapers, but I honestly felt I’d been whisked away to a charming European village. In the last five years, this area has become a very international-feeling hub. A younger generation of Koreans have traveled the world more than their parents. Here, you’ll see the proof. From bagel shops to Mexican restaurants and a huge selection of coffee shops (fun fact: Seoul is considered one of the best coffee cities in the world), Yeonnom-Dong is simply a lovely place to explore.
A Crash Course in Korean Etiquette
In Korea, there are quite a few rituals and traditions that play into dining. Thankfully, I had US ex-pat Charlie Usher and his wife Soyi to walk me through the process. I learned that age is actually revered here, and if you’re the oldest at the table, you basically get first dibs on everything. We started out our meal with rice wine, which was served to me (as, ahem, the eldest of the three of us) first. When we clinked glasses, Charlie and Soyi held their glasses below mine, as a sign of respect. I also dictated when we got to eat– being the oldest, no one at the table could dig in prior to me. I have to say, this is quite refreshing after spending my entire life in a country obsessed with youthfulness.
IF YOU GO
Charlie and Soyi took me out for traditional banchan, which is essentially many side dishes that you can mix and match. There’s not a lot of rules about how you eat the actual food. Just pair things you like together and enjoy!
Snap a selfie in a royal setting
Welcome to the epicenter of Korean culture. The gates at Gyeongbokgung Palace is quite literally where modern Korea meets historic Korea. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is also commonly referred to as the Northern Palace because its location is furthest north of the five palaces within the city. It’s also the biggest and arguably the most beautiful, which is probably why the king and Queen chose to live here. The other palaces, which are also quite stunning, housed the in-laws and concubines. Much nicer than putting the in-laws on a pullout couch, amiright?
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What may be more interesting than the palace itself is how it’s used as a backdrop for tourist photos. Many people rent traditional dresses in shops throughout the city, then snap a selfie for the total package.
Seoul, South Korea
Step back in time in the Bukchon Hanok Village
For over 600 years, people have lived in Seoul’s village of Bukchon. Just minutes from the Northern Palace, this village drew in aristocrats. The higher their social rank, the higher they lived on the village’s hill. As Korea modernized, high rise living enticed the super-wealthy and away they went.
However, the village remains the city’s hub for traditional art and culture. I met with Choe Eun Gyeong, a master Jogakbo artist. The word “jogak” means pieces, and “bo” refers to a special kind of silk. Jogakbo refers to the textile art that stitches together scraps of expensive leftover silk. And when I say scraps, I mean all the way down to smaller-than-a-dime size bits. There’s a method to every step of the process, from selecting colors, to how you assemble and stitch pieces together. The art is about patience, precision, creativity and instinct, and results in stunning, one of a kind tapestries.
Tradition and Modernism, Harmonized
For the past 40 years, corporate magnate Chun Shin-ilmade made it his personal mission to shine a light on a largely forgotten Korean folk art. In 2015, he opened the Korean Stone Art Museum, showcasing nearly 1,300 stone figurines made in the Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910). These stone statues were traditionally used at the gates of villages as well as in graveyards, intended to ward off evil spirits. The idea is much like a gargoyle, but these sculptures are actually quite serene and happy looking. Bonus: you’ll find one of the best views in Seoul from the museum.
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You’ll notice the figures have unique engravings, which were intended to manifest things like happiness and fertility.
Korean Stone Art Museum
66, Daesagwan-ro 13-gil,
Seoul, 02822, Korea
Seoul’s official start of spring
Nothing declares winter is over like an explosion of blossoming trees. Every spring, 1,700 cherry trees bloom at Yeouido Park’s Spring Flower Festival. The flowers peak around the first or second week of April, along with many other plants. It’s truly a spectacle worth flying half way around the world to behold. In addition to the trees, visitors can enjoy street performances, fireworks, a photo exhibition, and splendid displays of flower decorations.
DID YOU KNOW?
The party doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. At night, the cherry blossoms are lit up with colored lights, with a wide range of street performances and art exhibitions taking place.
Yeouido Spring Flower Festival
the 5 stages of Korean drinking
Okay, I’ll just say it: Koreans love to drink. In fact, there’s a real thing called the Korean Five Stages of Drinking. It’s essentially a bar and food crawl with five different phases. Stage one involves drinking and enjoying barbecue. And stage two? Beer and KFC. No, not the Colonel Sanders kind. Korean Fried Chicken! Blogger Hallie Bradley and friend So Young Shin brought me to Noo Na Hol Dok to enjoy this very important cultural pastime. Unlike gorging yourself on every last bite of fried food (hello, me in college!), Koreans only have a few bites during each stage because they know there’s more food to come.
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The five stages of drinking are not just for students. Business men and women may embark on this alcoholic adventure to impress a client. And if your boss asks you to go out, you have to go and can’t leave. Talk about team building!
Noo Na Hol Dak
Hotel Ibis Ambassador Seoul
Myeong-dong, 78 Namdaemun-ro
Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Tel: +82 2-6361-8353
Bringing K-Pop to the Streets
On to the third stage of drinking! Forget that whole idea that you should stick to one type of alcohol to avoid a hangover. Stage three involves rice wine, served with dried fish and nuts. We found these delicious morsels on one of the busiest and youngest streets in the entire city of Seoul: Hongdae. Surrounded by four universities, there are lots of young people out and about. You’ll find great nightlife, restaurants, bars, pubs and street performers. Specifically, K-Pop performers looking to create a following and maybe discovered by a talent agent. Even if K-Pop isn’t your thing, the energy is electric and so much fun.
Drinking and Singing, a Cultural experience
After a few drinks, it’s inevitable that we end up at a noraebang. These are Seoul’s wildly popular private karaoke rooms. Next thing you know, you’ll be singing a pop song that you’ve never heard before… in Korean. But you know what they say… when in Seoul! There are loads of noraebang in Hongdae, not surprising given the amount of students near by.
Noraebang are ubiquitous in South Korea and are on almost every city block. They’re typically rented by the hour, and run from divey to downright luxurious. Reservations usually aren’t required, so just pick one and belt your heart out.
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Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Teach a Woman to Make Kimchi
One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food. However, sometimes navigating that food scene can be intimidating. I was thrilled to meet Janet Harm, who showed me the basics of Korean market shopping and cooking. Born in Korea, Janet lived in the US for thirty years, where she attended culinary school and then worked as a chef. She’s since moved back to Seoul, encouraging others to learn about Korean markets, ingredients and cooking techniques. Her food tours and cooking classes are highly sought after. Together, we made staples like kimchi, bulgogi, and tofu salad. I love knowing that one thing I’m bringing back from Seoul are the skills to recreate its flavors at home.
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IF YOU GO
Kimchi– a side dish that’s made of fermented vegetables mixed with chili, is Korea’s national dish. You’ll find it at nearly every meal. In fact, Korean homes have a refrigerator specifically designed for kimchi!
Janet’s Cooking Studio
Seoul South Korea
+82 010 3413 3998