As some of you may already know, South Korea is a beautiful country that’s full of good food, outdoor activities, never-ending nightlife, and all the face cosmetics you could ever dream of. After quitting my job in June 2014 in preparation for going to grad school in New Haven, CT, I began to prepare for my trip to Asia and Europe. First on my list was South Korea. I was born in the Bay Area, but both of my parents spent the better parts of their lives in South Korea and I was excited for the opportunity to visit and find some soul in Seoul. Most of all, I was looking forward to seeing my family as most of my relatives are still at the motherland. Here’s a taste of what I did and I hope it gives you inspiration for your next trip!
What to Do When You Go to Korea
Following Korean tradition (or maybe it’s just my mom’s tradition), as a sign of respect to my elders, I stayed with my paternal grandparents in Munsan my first few nights in South Korea. While there, I noticed that it had markedly changed from my last visit 10 years ago. It was no longer farm land, but a bustling town complete with outlets, movie theaters, and plenty of new restaurants. That didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the outdoors though, as I traversed the rice paddies and got nicknamed as a “farmer” by my friends back home. One of my favorite hikes was at Shimhak San. You can see it in the distance in the picture below:
Shoutout to my uncle in the foreground! It is uncanny how much he and my father look alike. As we were doing the hike, he mentioned how he had attempted the hike last year with my dad. “How’d it go?” I asked. “He stopped after the first four steps and then had a smoke.” Yup…sounds like my hiking-adverse dad.
While doing the hike we also came across this Buddha that was buried in the mountain. I was really happy because one of my favorite things about hiking is discovering hidden treasures. It makes me feel like an explorer.
While staying with my grandparents and my uncle, they took me to some of the local restaurants. One of my favorites was this restaurant that specialized in a chicken and mushroom dish. It’s kind of like the Korean verison of hotpot, with a whole chicken, mushrooms, and greens all going into a pot of boiling water, served next to Korean side dishes, or banchan. It was delicious.
After staying at my grandparents’ for a couple of days, it was time to shift venues and pop in to my aunt’s place in Ilsan! She has two kids who were 14 and 12 at the time. The last I saw them, they were either in diapers or playing with barbies. They were so big now! It was so cute because after I left, my cousin would text me saying “Nuna [older sister], when are you visiting us? Can’t you visit us one more time?” He pulled on my heartstrings and I know that one day, he’s going to be a heartbreaker.
After staying at my aunt’s for a couple of days, we went on a big family trip with my maternal side of the family to Chuncheon. In Chuncheon, we went to Jade Garden, a luscious area filled with gardens and European style architecture that afforded views like this:
After exploring the gardens and having our own mini photo shoot, we stopped by a local restaurant for the local favorite, spicy chicken ribs. Grilling it directly over the flame, paired with moonshine made by my aunt (which I was now allowed to drink), it was a truly satisfying meal.
The next day, we went out to the water and did this! It’s called fly fish, and it might be hard to tell, but my cousin and I are actually lying on top of the yellow inflatable. The driver of the boat would speed up so quickly that we would come up off the ground and soar through the skies. We held onto the boat using handles on the sides. It was both terrifying and fun and I would 100% do it again.
We also spent some time doing land activities. One of the popular activities to do in the area is to ride railcars. You can pedal these rail cars on abandoned rail road tracks and enjoy a view of the country side at the same time.
After this, it was time to say goodbye to my maternal family and meet up with Jennifer, one of my friends from college. What I realized though was how nice it was to be surrounded by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Being separated by the Pacific Ocean, we only rarely were able to meet up, but I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to do so.
My friend Jennifer lived in Gangnam district of Seoul (popularized by Psy’s Gangnam style) and it became home base for the next week. One of the places unique to South Korea, or perhaps Asia, is their dog cafes. I missed my dog Hyori (also named after a Korean pop star Hyori) and was looking forward to being surrounded by some furry friends.
As you can tell, I was pretty excited to be there. The cafe also serves as a doggy day care, so throughout our visit we could see young professionals dropping off their dogs and grabbing a coffee or boba to go.
Another place that got me excited was the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. It is a huge palace and the complex can take a couple hours to visit. One of my favorite places inside the palace was the garden because it was shady and it was extremely hot outside. There are frequent tours and the guides also speak English! I highly recommend this to anyone visiting Seoul for the first time, as it’s a good way to immerse yourself in the history of South Korea with the convenience of remaining in Seoul.
The architecture in the complex was gorgeous and it was fun to think about how ages ago, these same halls and pathways were walked on by the leaders of the country. Maybe one day that will be you?
Another popular tourist spot we visited was Namsan Tower. This is the highest point in Seoul and it is also popular with couples due to their love lock fence, which holds the same basic concept as the lock bridges in France. To get to the Tower, you have the option of either hiking, taking the bus, or taking a cab. My friend and I opted for a cab, but the driver ended up taking us to the wrong entrance and we still had to hike a mile uphill to get here. Since it was super hot, it was less than ideal, but we got a couple of beers along the way and it was great.
You can also see plenty of lock trees. This is super popular among couples but you can also see tons of friends placing their locks on the trees too. If you don’t have a lock, don’t worry. You can purchase locks at stores located within Namsan Tower.
The fog almost reminded me of Karl the Fog in San Francisco. It was a taste of home away from home. While you’re at the Tower, you also have a pretty great view of the city below.
Another thing about Seoul that’s so great is THE FOOD. There is plenty of good food, from traditional Korean food to Dominoes. I would ask my aunt to order Dominoes and she thought I was crazy because I could have it in America but I’m telling you, it’s way better there!
Here is an example of the type of food you can get in Seoul. We discovered this restaurant while wandering the streets of Itaewon, a district that’s home to many expats. These prawns in soy sauce were phenomenal and its saltiness and sweetness perfectly complemented the egg and rice dish. As someone who eats egg, rice, and soy sauce way too often, this was the bougie version of my every day meal.
In addition to eating super well, I also visited Lotte World with my friend. Lotte World is located in Seoul and is like Korea’s Disneyland. I remember going here as a kid and it is also well known as the location for many heartfelt moments in Korean dramas, like Stairway to Heaven.
There are plenty of rides and plenty of “view points” for good pictures. The park is both indoors and outdoors, so even if it’s rainy outside you can still enjoy the indoor park.
After adventuring all day, you might want to rest up at night or you might want to go out. Like a lot of other Asian countries, nightlife in Korea seems to never end. Public drunkenness is quite normal and Koreans even developed a popular drink which you take before drinking alcohol to prevent hangovers. If you’re looking to go out, there are plenty of clubs in Gangnam, Hongdae, and Itaewon in Seoul. If clubbing’s not really your cup of tea, you can also go karaoke. There’s a huge range of karaoke bars, from your high class bars complete with slippers upon entry to your room to your more casual bars. You can also hang out at one of the many bars. Along with the drinking comes drunchies and there are plenty of street food carts to satisfy your needs. They sell deep fried goodness in the forms of tempura or something like this corn dog:
As for transportation in Seoul, it’s pretty great because the buses and subway are well-connected, allowing you to traverse pretty much anywhere in the city. Outside of Seoul, the buses and subway are less frequent and you might have to rely more heavily on a car. What’s great though, is that because the 2012 Summer Olympics were held in Korea, many transit signs were updated to include English translations. Even if you don’t speak Korean, you will be able to travel through Seoul quite easily. Many Koreans also grow up speaking English and with an increase of foreigners visiting the country or teaching English, there is a greater acceptance of tourists.
I hope that this article was able to showcase the variety of activities available to you if you choose to visit South Korea. No matter what your interests are, whether it’s exploring the outdoors, learning more about Korean tradition and history, eating, drinking, or going out, you can find a little bit of everything here.
Have you been to South Korea? If so, what have you done?? We’d love to know so feel free to share in the comments below!