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To many, Seoul (pronounced ‘so ul’ in Korean) is the land of K-Pop, cutting-edge design and technology obsessed – South Korea boasts the fastest average internet connection in the world! As one of four Asian tigers, South Korea and particularly Seoul is by no means cheap. Truth be told, this dynamic South Korean city has never been on my bucket list destinations until I had the opportunity to spend a few months in Seoul on a work assignment.
When my partner joined me in Seoul, I had assimilated into local life – few weeks into my work assignment at a global multinational company, I knew my way around, frequented a regular coffee joint, shopped and ate where the locals do. Groovy music aside, if you think K-Pop music is a major cringe fest, go anyway without your dancing shoes!
Five reasons why you should visit Seoul:
It is often said that every great city has a river running through it and Seoul is no exception. The Cheonggyecheon stream, which runs through the city center is a distinctive landscape in Seoul. It is approximately 11 km (7 miles) long and runs through downtown Seoul, which connects to the Han River and empties into the Yellow Sea. I was privileged to live in a serviced residence downtown, a mere stone’s throw away from the river – a haven of natural beauty with small waterfalls, fountains and an outdoor theatre lined along beautiful flower paths. Jaunty tune from buskers often waft over amorous couples or families enjoying a stroll or dip in the river. Needless to say, this quickly turned into my favourite spot in the city.
National parks are rarely within a city but for adventurous outdoor fans in Seoul, look no further than Bukhansan National Park which is easily accessible from the city either by subway, bus or taxi. Designated as a national park in 1983, Bukhansan means ‘mountains north of the Han river’ and it serves as a popular national park for over 20 million of residents within the vicinity. We spent one weekend hiking up the park and were delightfully rewarded with sweeping panaromic view of Seoul, its surrounding and beyond. Each season offers a unique insight into the park though it’s often recommended that spring and autumn are beautiful times to visit. Be prepared for a full body workout as the trail is very challenging however it certainly deserves a visit. Click HERE for more information.
If you have a day or two to spare, explore the magic of Nami Island and revel in its beautiful scenery made popular by 2002 drama series Winter Sonata, a phenomenal hit in many Asian countries. Nami Island is a picturesque, tiny half-moon shaped island in Chuncheon, about an hour from Seoul famous for its scenic, tree-lined paths. Getting there is easy, we took a shuttle from downtown Seoul. Click HERE for more information on direct shuttle bus from Seoul.
Seoul is experiencing a cafe boom and the city has more coffee shops per capita than Starbucks’ hometown Seattle. While popular coffee chains are aplenty however be spoilt for choice with an abundance of independent and home grown Korean coffee brands in every retail and commercial district. Bear in mind that Seoul is one of the world’s most expensive coffee capitals (for example, Starbucks in Seoul sells the most expensive tall-sized cup of Americano in the world at 4,100 Won, the equivalent of USD 3.78).
It’s my Korean work colleagues who first introduced me to “jjimdak”, a quintessentially local dish made with chicken and vegetables marinated in ganjang (Korean soy sauce) based spicy sauce, which gives it an Asian piquancy. The dish originated from Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province and my favourite version is cheese jjimdak cooked with mozarella cheese fusion style. If you’re curious as to how jjimdak and cheese could possibly go well together, give it a shot and you will be craving for the satisfying sizzle in no time.
“Chimaek”, a winning combination of fried chicken and beer is a thriving business. Other than K-Pop music, it is South Korea’s latest global export and what’s not to like about simple food – chicken tossed in salt, sugar and spices before being fried twice resulting in succulent, flavour infused chicken that will have you begging for more. Its popularity means chimaek can be found at various establishments on every corner of the street but my favourite joint is one located at the foot of the Bukhansan National Park, which is certainly the place to eat ‘guilt-free’ after hiking.
No trip to South Korea is complete without chowing down on some great Korean barbeque. For premium, high quality meats, we chose Maple Tree House in Samcheongdong, close to where we stayed in downtown Seoul. With a user-friendly website including an English menu, this is a ‘safe’ bet for tourists and this outlet has several branches across the city including Myeongdong, Gangnam and Itaewon. But for a more authentic (and cheaper) experience, we recommend Hongdae, Seoul’s youth culture hub which is the mecca of nightlife, shopping, cafes and urban art. You are spoiled for choice on the streets of Hongdae, which are lined with dozens of barbeque restaurants that will surely tempt your tastebuds!
It’s almost impossible to visit Seoul without some serious shopping. These are some shopping districts to blow your hard-earned money on – Myeongdong Shopping District, Dongdaemun Market, Hongdae, Apgujeong, Gangnam Terminal Underground Shopping, Lotte Department Store Main Branch, Ehwa’s Woman University Shopping Street, Namdaemun, Insadong, Samcheongdong, Changsin-dong Toy Wholesale Market.
Culture and tradition
The most ubiquitous of Korean foods – kimchi is a fermented blend of cabbage, red chilli sauce, garlic and anchovy paste. Kimchi is the icon of Korea, which is considered the soul of Korean cuisine and eaten with every meal, usually on the side. There are over 200 variations of kimchi and each family has its own recipe, passed down through generations, adapted and perfected over time. KImchi making is a communal affair and come autumn, families converge to prepare enormous amount of kimchi to last them through the winter. Good news for health freaks – kimchi is loaded with probiotics and has been associated with weight loss and improved digestion and immunity.
If you love your drinks, you will feel right at home in South Korea. It isn’t about consumption per se, but more of a ritualised activity that provides an opportunity to bond with family, friends and business associates. Soju or rice wine is the world’s best selling alcohol and Korea’s national drink. It is clear-coloured, vodka-like and relatively low in alcohol content but in recent years, fruit-flavoured soju has become a hit with the ladies. Some basic rules – never drink from the bottle, pour drinks for others (you can never serve yourself soju) and always accept your glass with both hands. Cheers or “Geon-bae” as they say in Korean.