I spent around two weeks in South Korea between the 22nd December and the 5th January. Although we only split our time between Seoul and Busan, it was incredibly enjoyable and we ate so much amazing food! The time spent in South Korea was a bit of a relaxing buffer for us between the hectic two weeks in Hong Kong and China, and soon to be busy month in Japan. Although we didn’t get around to doing as much as I’d hope, I’m really glad I got to enjoy the time we had there!
We landed in Seoul late on a Tuesday night after our flight from Beijing had been delayed for 45 minutes (probably due to poor visibility from the smog). After catching the train from Incheon International Airport and navigating the streets of Jongno-dong, we arrived at our hostel after 1 am. It doesn’t come as a surprise that our first day in Seoul consisted of, well… sleeping. When we did eventually get out, we were overwhelmed at the sheer amount of food around us; from restaurants to cafes, and even street food! Since we were (almost literally) just next door to Sungkyunkwan University, all of the food was really cheap as well! The rest of the day involved a trip to Gangyeon Techno Mart so I could check out cameras after my (mis)adventure in Pingyao. I didn’t end up buying anything, but we got to see how gigantic the store was. A few hours later we were back in Jongno and eating some delicious Korean-styled fried chicken. The next day, Christmas Eve, marked our first in trying street food. We bought breakfast from a street vendor before heading out to stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream; a restored water-way in central Seoul. It was an interesting experience walking below road-level and having fish and ducks in the stream beside us. I really want to go back and experience it again in Spring or Summer. Part way through our walk we climbed up and explored Gwangjang Market. The cart-food section was packed and chaotic, so we bought some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes) and went back down by the stream to eat (something that earnt us a lot of strange looks). After snacking we continued on to the Cheonggyecheon Plaza which was decked out in Christmas decorations and a live choir! There was also a lot more food to try! When we eventually got back to the hostel, one of my friends and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens at a local cinema.
Christmas Day was a quite one for us, we explored the nearby Sungkyunkwan University, first established in 1398. We also had a bit of a walk around the residential streets before heading out for a Korean BBQ lunch. The food was delicious, but the staff acted in a way that very much reminded us we had no idea what we were doing. Regardless, it was a good meal. Afterwards we explored some of the shops in the area, including Daiso! And then, as a Christmas miracle, we experienced our first snow fall of the trip, late Christmas night! It wasn’t much, but considering some of us had never experienced it before, it was amazing!
We spent the next two days exploring the same place; Gyeongbokgung Palace! Well, technically we also visited the National Palace Museum of Korea on the first day with half of the palace, and then the second half of the palace and the National Folk Museum on the second day. Pretty much all of the information was in English, and was very interesting, so we learnt a lot about the country’s history. While Gyeongbokgung Palace isn’t as large as China’s Forbidden City, there seemed to be more buildings, and more of the workings of the palace were revealed (e.g. we got to visit the Sojubang, where the meals for the royal family were prepared). We tried some interesting food over the course of these two days; steak and cheese rice burgers from BonGousse, which fell apart as soon as we started eating them, but were delicious regardless, and a dosirak (“Korean lunchbox”) from Miss Lee Cafe. The dosirak was very interesting; it was essential a metal box with egg, rice, seaweed, kimchi, and spam, and the idea was to put the lid on it and shake it so all the ingredients mixed before eating!
We went back to the area around Gyeonbokgung Palace for a third time, but not to visit the palace. In fact, we wanted to explore the Bukchon Hanok Village, a residential area with traditional houses. My main reason for visiting was actually to find the hanok that was used for the exterior of “Sanggojae” in the drama Personal Preference, but I also wanted to check out the area. We managed to find it, and we also spent some time soaking in the sunlight and taking in the view from the Bukchon Observatory. However, we did have to continue on, because we wanted to squeeze in a visit to Bau House… a dog cafe! We walked in to the central area of the cafe where there were easily twenty dogs running around, napping, playing, or just watching what was going on. The dogs ranged in size from Chihuahuas and Daschshunds to a giant Alaskan Malamute and (I think) a Great Pyrenees. We bought snacks for them and they went insane. I really adore dogs, and since I was missing my own mutts, it felt great to just be surrounded by so many different types and personalities. The dogs were obviously well looked and after and greatly loved by the workers, and the cafe was extremely clean (although there was dog hair everywhere, but that’s to be expected!). There were other people who had bought their own dogs to socialise, and adding two puppies to the mix meant that everyone was entertained as they all played. We stayed here for a few hours (and I could have happily stayed longer!), but we did have to get a move on to the last stop for the day… N Seoul Tower on Namsan Mountain. The tower marks the geographical centre of Seoul, so we had 360° of the city stretched out before us. The views were amazing (even in the toilets!) and I couldn’t believe just how large the city is!
Our last full day in Seoul was actually… not spent in Seoul. We had booked through the desk of our hostel to go on a snowboarding tour. We caught the bus very very early to join a tour group with twenty nine other English speakers and four Chinese speakers; everyone else was skiing while we chose to snowboard. After getting decked out in brightly coloured clothes from the rental place, we headed out to practice. One of us had done it before, and he did our best to teach us what he knew, since the tour guide was focusing more on the skiers. I had a lot of fun but gave up after 30-40 minutes (my ankle and knee injuries made it a nightmare), but the other two did really well. The more experienced of us went up onto the slopes, while us girls decided we would have more fun eating, watching the pros, and playing in the snow, and left to do that for the next couple of hours. Once back at our room, we went out for bulgogi for dinner and it was amazing (one of the best meals we had in Korea). I don’t know the name of the restaurant, because it was only a little one around the corner from our hostel, but if I ever go back to Seoul I will certainly find it again!
We caught the KTX (high-speed train) to get from Seoul to Busan on the 30th of December… it travelled up to speeds of 273 km/h (170 mph)! No wonder it only took as two and a half hours to get to Busan Station. Apart from a slight mishap with bags being left behind on the train (and quickly recovered), we were soon settling into our hostel in Nampo-dong. We decided to head out for something to eat and discovered that just across the road was a whole stretch of food markets.However, we opted for a delicious serving of dak galbi with cheese and ramyeon (ramen). We then explored BIFF (Busan Inernational Film Festival) Square and the Gwangbuk-dong Cultural and Fashion Street, which was all decked out in Christmas decorations, before calling it a night, returning to the hostel, and meeting Mango, the hostel cat.
The next day was New Year’s Eve, and we spent the majority of it at Busan Tower. We spent the morning finding the tower, taking in the scenery around us, and exploring around Yongdusan Park. We then went back down to the food markets, pigged out on all types of snacks, and slowly made our way through the streets to get to the giant Lotte Mall. Because we had seen the roof of it from Busan Tower, we knew that there were gardens and other interesting things, so we caught the elevator up. It was dark by this stage, so we were able to appreciate a night view of Busan! We called back in for a couple of ours before heading back out to Yongdusan Park and the base of the tower for New Year’s celebrations, which included live singers, lots of balloons, confetti, the tolling of the bell, and an amazing fireworks display! Happy 2016!
There were a couple of days in Busan where did nothing but shop, eat, and explore the streets around us. New Year’s Day was one of them. On these days we found Gukje Markets, discovered the weird stock in Art Box and Boda, and were continuously amazed by the number of people in the markets and the variety of street food!
Our next full day of adventure was when we decided to head over to the Gamcheon Culture Village. This area was once a multi-cultural slum but was brightened up in the early 2000s to the bright community you see today. We walked there from Toseong Station because the bus driver refused to take anyone else on the full bus! Fortunately, there were others who seemed to know where to go, so we followed them. Once inside the village, we bought a map which had a stamp trail on it. Following the trail, we managed to see a fair chuck of the brightly coloured village, and visited a few public art exhibitions as well!
Our last adventure in Busan involved visiting the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, one of the few ocean-side Buddhist temples in Korea (most are found in the mountains). We first went and explored along the water’s edge, which was lined with cairns. We also spent some time relaxing down on the rocks, before heading into the actual temple. Although it was under renovation, there was still a lot to see. We eventually headed back into Haeundae where we decided to visit the famous Haeundae Beach. We ended up staying and watching the sunset which was super pretty! For dinner we had Korean fried chicken, which trumped the chicken we had in Seoul!
Our final day in Busan simply consisted of getting to the airport… but that meant that the highly anticipated epic month in Japan was just about to start!
Our time in South Korea was pretty relaxed; there was a lot more eating and shopping than there was sight-seeing and exploring. However, that doesn’t at all mean our time there was any less enjoyable! I really want to return to both Seoul and Busan for some more exploration… and more food!
WANT TO VISIT SOUTH KOREA?
If it isn’t already obvious, South Korea is a good place to eat. From formal restaurants to street food, there is so much delicious variety that you’ll be in foodie heaven! Make sure to try a bit of everything, but, if you’re a sook when it comes to spicy food like me, watch out!
If you’re in Seoul, I think that Gyeonbokgung Palace and its associated museums are a must. All of the information is in English, there’s a lot to explore, and it’s all very interesting! Plus the museums and palace will take you from pre-historic Korea right up to the modern age!
If you’re in Busan, Busan Tower is a great place to get amazing views of this densely populated city, and its proximity to shopping and food means you can easily plan a day in the area! Haeundae Beach is also pretty in any weather (and not too cold to visit in winter), and the surrounding Haeundae area is a fun area.
I really like both the areas and the hostels themselves that we stayed at in South Korea. In Seoul we stayed at the Backpackers INSIDE Seoul Hostel. The staff were really friendly and helpful, and the rooms were really nice. Being located right at the doorstep of so many food options made it even better!
In Busan, we stayed at the Busan Popcorn Hostel (Nampo). The staff here were also friendly, and the rooms were immaculately cleaned everyday. The location was perfect for eating and shopping, and, as a bonus for you cat lovers, the hostel cat Mango was absolutely gorgeous! (If you’re not a cat person, don’t worry, because she only pays you attention if you pay her attention; there’s also none of her hair anywhere).
Although lacking the easiness and elegance of Beijing, Seoul has a very good railway system. It is a little complicated though, so make sure you have a copy of the network maps handy at all times. Busan’s train system is less developed, but still pretty reliable. One thing we noticed is that a lot of the stations are pretty close to each other, and you can pretty much walk from station to station in the massive underground malls (at least in Nampo-dong where we were staying).
South Korea is also known for its good train system in between cities. There are many high-speed trains running throughout the day, and you can simply walk into the station and book your ticket on the day (although be aware that more popular times will fill up earlier).
I really found South Korea to be a safe place. There’s probably no need to be any more cautious here than what you are in your home country.