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Trip Report TRIP REPORT: Seoul, South Korea (9 days)

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Korea Trip Report


I had a hard time finding really helpful, practical information for a visit to Seoul and the surrounding areas. So, this trip report will focus on those aspects, as there is more than enough to see, depending on whether you’re into art, history, architecture, culture, food, or crafts…

Basics / Getting around:
• T-money card – this is a multi-purpose card that can be purchased at most convenience stores or in the subway, and then topped up with money. Then, it acts as both a subway card and can also be used to pay for taxis. This is incredibly useful as it saves time digging for small change.
• Subway – the subway is well marked, as everyone says, and is wide-reaching. It’s cheap and easy and clean! So, if you have some long distances to go around Seoul, it may be worth taking the subway most of the way and then catching a taxi when you’re in the right vicinity.
• Taxis – incredibly cheap and plentiful, this is the easiest way to get around, especially if you’re two or more people. That said, even with the orange “international” taxis don’t expect English. It’s very hard to communicate where you want to go, even with maps. The best thing I can suggest is to be sure you have the name of the place you want to go written in Korean characters. Most guidebooks have this, or use Google when you’re on wifi and have the right address on your phone for when you get in.
• Groovy Map – by far one of the best laminated local maps, with solid recommendations for places to eat. http://www.groovymap.com/
• Directions – Per the note above about difficulty communicating when getting around, if there are places you KNOW you want to go when in Korea, print out the details in Korean before you arrive, and have them handy to show drivers or locals when you need to find your way.
• Addresses – or lack thereof. There are no real addresses in Korea, so if you have places mapped on Google, and you arrive at the spot and can’t find it, just ask a local. Chances are you’re close, but addresses don’t map well online.
• Google Translate – if you have mobile access when on wifi, Google Translate was a lifesaver. It came to the rescue when asking if a dish was spicy, whether we could go to another temple, or getting even the basics across.
• Renting a driver – if you want to go farther afield, especially with 3-4 people, it’s economical to rent a car and driver. After much searching, we used Jumbo Taxi, which was arranged for us by the Concierge at the Westin Chosun. Even though they had said the driver would speak English, it was limited at best, and I still had to use Google translate to get around. This site has the best details on cab companies: http://www.korea4expats.com/article-seoul-cab-rates.html


Hotel:
We stayed at a rather modest Hotel Kuk Do (Best Western) but it was clean and comfortable. And, as for location, while there were few restaurants directly in walking distance, it was one or two subway stops away from all the best things to see in the city, from palaces to shopping, and a short cab ride from fabulous areas to eat and wander (like bukchon). Note that there is still little English at the desk and the concierge wasn’t able to be really helpful apart from the basics.
http://book.bestwestern.com/bestwestern/KR/Seoul-hotels/BEST-WESTERN-PREMIER-Hotel-Kukdo/Hotel-Overview.do?propertyCode=99512

Palaces:
A highlight was definitely seeing 4 of the 5 palaces in the city. The best thing to do is buy the integrated ticket which includes all 5 of them and the Secret Garden, and then spend the $.50 at each palace for the little write up in English. We joined a couple of English tours on the grounds, but with the brochure, it was easy to meander at our own pace. One note: the Secret Garden does have quite a bit of walking up and down some steep inclines – so if you’re traveling with people who have knee or back problems, consider doing just half of this.
Check times for the changing of the guard at a couple of palaces, worth a gander.
And be sure to check which days they’re closed, as not all palaces are closed on the same days.

Namsan tower:
The tower is take it or leave it, but there is something festive about how much hubbub is happening there. It’s very much a place that locals enjoy, and it can be nice to get the full view of Seoul at the start to orient oneself. Note that there are often lines to board the cable car to get up the mountain and also to get into the tower elevator itself.

Museums:
I won’t repeat what all the guides say about museums, other than it’s a pleasure that most of them are free, with beautiful grounds. It makes it easier to pop in and out without pressure to spend hours if you’re not in the mood.

DMZ USO tour:
We did a half-day tour, but note that the half-day is NOT to JSA and the site of the armistice…so, ask carefully what’s included in any tour you sign up for. The 3rd tunnel is fascinating but it is VERY steep and low, so if you have knee or back issues, this may not be for you. It’s definitely strenuous. Also, be sure to clarify dress code depending on tour type, as formal clothing is only required if you’re going to the JSA, and the tunnel effort is strenuous enough that you want to wear practical, light clothing if possible. Perhaps consider bringing a change of clothes to leave on the bus. We booked our tour though:
KORIDOOR tours Co., Ltd
Tel (02) 6383-2570 ext. 2 / DSN 724-7003
Calling from overseas +82-2-6383-2570 ext.2 / Fax 749-9246
E-mail bentley@koridoor.co.kr / www.koridoor.co.kr
USO #104, Galwol-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 140-807

Eating:

In general, the guidebooks have good tips on places to eat, depending on your tastes, how adventurous you feel, and your budget. But a few suggestions:

The Bukchon and Samcheondong neighborhoods have nice main streets with tons of great places to eat – in particular:
Noodle Box (pan-Asian noodles, basic but delicious and fun/fast)
Maple Tree House (lovely setting, a bit more upscale but the best version of Korean BBQ)
Samcheonggak (a former presidential palace, this is a cultural spot for a nice dinner)
Myeong-dong is a buzzing maze of street food and high-fashion store with a ton of places to eat – great for dumplings and noodles.
Itaewon is near the military bases and has a large ex-pat community, so this is place to go for non-Korean food…in general, I found it pretty cruddy in terms of vibe, but the restaurants do brisk business and you can find some good ones (like Greek Santorini or Tartine for brunch)

A note on COFFEE – I have never seen so many cafes as here. Multiples on every block and all generally very good. So, coffee-lovers rejoice!

More tips can be found here:
http://www.afar.com/travelers/kaz-brecher/wanderlists/smattering-for-seoul

Day trip:

We took one day trip out of Seoul and hired a car and driver to do this – we spent about 10 hours and could probably have used a couple more. But it was an easy jaunt outside of the city and wonderful to get a different flavor.

Korean Folk Village – this is well documented in most guides and well worth the visit. It’s very pleasant to stroll through, quite large, good food options, and they have performances of some wonderful dances and equestrian styles. I’d say 4 hours at least.

Hwanseong Fortress – this is a massive walled city, and unless you’re up for hiking the whole thing, it’s best to pick a few spots to check out, like the North Gate or the floodgate bridge and river. Then, meander around and take in the vistas. There’s also the palace, but if you’ve seen the ones in Seoul, you may be able to skip this one.

Yongjusa Temple – a farther afield spot of Buddhist practice in the hills. It’s in an odd area, and it’s not as grand as some others, I’m told, but there’s an authenticity to the place that is really refreshing. It’s probably not worth more than a couple of hours unless you plan a temple stay.
http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=776712

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