We only got to stay in Seoul for two days, but the city was so irresistible that we just had to try to squeeze in as much of the sights as we could (tired feet and sleep be d*mned). When our hostel manager learned of how much we covered in a day, he couldn’t believe it. Well, our feet couldn’t believe it either, but we really enjoyed the sights so Seoul was well worth the effort 🙂
The evening of our arrival, we walked around Hongik University area, which is known for its clubs and hangout places. We had dinner in a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant, where we had delicious grilled pork that we wrapped in leaves and added with different types of side dishes (Korea is ‘best in side dish’, as my friend remarked). We also tried their beer (which we did not like) but their traditional rice wine, makkoli, tasted way better. We walked around the area and saw a lot of clubs and drinking places. We also noticed several drunk/wasted people, which made things much more interesting. We eventually settled in a British(?) pub where we had imported beer (because Korean beer was really not to our liking) until the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, armed with a map and some instructions from the hostel manager, we embarked on our mission to see as much of Seoul as we could in a day. At about 10:30 in the morning, we took the train to Anguk station and walked a block to get to our first stop: the Changdeokgung Palace and Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the second palace after Gyeongbokgung and was the seat of government for some hundred years. The admission fees to the palace (3,000 KRW or ~2.6 USD) and the garden (5,000 KRW or ~4.4 USD) come with scheduled guided tours in several languages. When we arrived, there was an ‘English Secret Garden Tour’ scheduled to start in 15 minutes so we decided to take that one. The bad thing was that we couldn’t enter the garden without paying for the entrance to the palace so we had to pay 8,000 KRW for our admission. Anyway, we went straight to the garden to line up for the English tour. Our tour guide, dressed in a simplified hanbok (traditional Korean costume), told us about the Secret Garden’s history while leading us to different garden pavilions. The tour included some uphill climbs, which contributed to the fun 🙂 The guide pointed out a number of structures built for Korean royalty, such as the libraries and the rest areas. I felt that the architecture was similar to the Japanese and Chinese, but somehow uniquely Korean (if that makes sense). But more than the unique pavilions, I enjoyed the feel of the centuries-old trees with the bird calls. Aside from the interesting history of Changdeokgung Secret Garden, I was really impressed with how they preserved the old forest of the garden while the area around the palace were urbanized.
After the 1.5-hour tour/hike of the Secret Garden, we had lunch at the first Korean restaurant that we chanced upon. They were serving octopus bibimbap, which was very, very, very spicy. I chose the non-spicy one and was very happy, while my friends had their tongues tortured 😉 It was a very good Korean lunch.
In the heat of the early afternoon sun, we then walked the alleys of the traditional Bukchon Hanok Village, a cultural center between the two main palaces in Seoul.
The term bukchon means northern and hanok means traditional house, so the area essentially consists of traditional Korean houses (said to be originally for court officials and royal families), museums and workshops to experience traditional Korean arts and crafts.We just walked around and admired the houses, but did not bother trying the activities (embroidery, knot-tying, woodwork, etc). We also saw a few stores selling K-pop novelty items (too bad I don’t know any of the Korean pop stars).
Next, we checked out Insadong-gil, across the street from Bukchon Hanok Village. It’s a street full of Korean souvenirs, from ceramics and furniture to keychains and fridge magnets. There are also cafes and street food carts lining the streets. Insadong is your typical souvenir street.
The next destination was our favorite: Cheonggyecheon Stream. From Insadong, the map indicated it was a couple of blocks away. We made our way to the busy streets and took photos of the amusing architecture, then we saw it: a stream in the middle of the street lined with tall buildings. It was a very clean stream too. We were amazed at how clean it was considering that it’s located in the country’s downtown area (but perhaps it’s not fair to compare it to my country hehe).
We noticed a lot of locals under the bridges, taking advantage of the shade and the cool feel of the air beside the stream. There were families with kids playing in the water and couples enjoying their dates. We took a rest from all the walking and dipped our tired feet in the cool stream. The stream was really a refreshing break for us.
We then proceeded to the Seoul Plaza. It was a famous site for demonstrations and since it was Labor Day, there was a very big demonstration. The atmosphere was a little bit tense because of the big crowd, so we just passed by the plaza quickly, but not before taking a good look at the modern Seoul City Hall.
We continued to walk through Myeongdong, their famous shopping district, famous for large malls such as Lotte. Since we did not really have much time, we skipped the shopping and went straight for the Namsan Cable Car Station that would take us to N Seoul Tower. The N Seoul Tower is a communication tower located in Mount Namsan, which offers a good view of the city.There we admired the view of Seoul and enjoyed looking at the thousands of heart-shaped locks put by hopeful lovers on the railings.
The place was full of couples in matching outfits, so we surmised that it was a popular dating place. The tower has restaurants and museums (teddy bear museum, that is) but we did not bother to visit them as we were very tired. We just went down and took the bus then subway to go back to our hostel.
The next morning was our tour of the Demilitarized Zone (which I will write about in a separate entry). In the afternoon, we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace (it was closed the previous day) because we could not miss the grandest Royal Palace, could we? We arrived there a little before 4 pm and were just in time for the last changing of the guard for that day. Honestly, we just felt a little sorry for the guards, they were very tired and sleepy! After the ceremony, we proceeded to tour the palace grounds. The palace structures were very regal, and the architecture was very interesting.
Our very short visit to Seoul was tiring but very fruitful. We really enjoyed this very interesting city. On our way to the airport, Seoul bid us goodbye with one of the most beautiful sunsets, seen from our train. I would definitely like to go back again and see all of the other attractions that Seoul has to offer.