‘I really want to go on holiday to South Korea.’ Yeah, we know… sounds weird right? When contemplating making the brain-melting mission of a flight from Europe to Asia most people are looking for white sandy beaches, peaceful, ornate temples and sprawling metropolises buzzing with neon lights. These paired with amazing food and culture are on every travelling agenda. For some reason, outside of Asia, very few people associate South Korea with any of these things. When in fact it boasts impressive examples of each and every one. And if that wasn’t enough, you can even take a trip to the North Korean border and wave across at President Kim. Fun!
Its capital, Seoul, is one of the best cities in Asia and we are championing for it to be added to waaaaaaay more Asia itineraries. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
It’s fun, indie and cool. Each different neighbourhood offering up everything from mouth-watering street food, to independent vintage clothes shops to Karaoke bars drenched in neon light that will keep you partying until the until dawn. The historical sites, sprawling green parks and amazing markets are all huge draws and if nothing else will convince you. How about visiting the legendary K-Pop Mecca of Gangnam.
OK great so you’ve booked flights. Or are you there already? Great… Hopefully, some of these tips and picks will help you maximise your time in Seoul.
Something for the flight:
Check out Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Seoul episode. Especially if you don’t know that much about South Korea, it’s recent history or culture. Bourdain gives a great insight, in the way only he knows how.
Also, watch the Netflix Series Street Food and their episode on Seoul. Detailing the pride, attention to detail and admiration that some of Seoul’s best street food vendors have for the food they lovingly create. A lot of the vendor features you can find at Gwangjang Market… scroll down for more on that.
Get yourself on Spotify and download some Korean made music. K-Pop going global has paved the way for some cooler Korean artists. Meaning that some great music is finally getting some air time in the mainstream, on a global scale. Don’t worry it’s not all PSY and BTS. Korean Hip Hop, electro and funk artists are all thriving and weirdly, Korean is kinda dreamy to listen to.
What to pack?
All your fav hipster essentials, bumbag, velvet scrunchie, giant wire-framed sunglasses. Don’t worry though if you’re lacking these and looking for some Seoul fashion inspiration, head through Itaewon or to Namdaemin Market for some top Korean fashion picks. P.S Seoul is an awesome place to pick up some amazing retro sports gear.
The style of Seoul is ‘Hipster Quirk’ bizarre, quirky, seemingly effortless, androgynous yet effeminate. Everyone looks unapologetic in their cool. Transcending labels, genders, rules. Ooooo Edgy. Love it.
Hot summers (+27 degrees) and cold winters (0 to -6). Pack accordingly. Leave your fleece at home, oh and make sure you leave some space in your case for ALL of the Korean goodies you are likely to want to bring home.
What to do?
Stay in Itaewon. Close to transport links, great food, great bars and lots of cool stuff.
Hit up the food markets, more about those later. Visit some of the ancient, serene temples and palaces. Our favourite is Gyeongbokgung Palace. Catch the guard changing ceremony as this is pretty unique, a huge colourful fanfare with traditional costumes and all sorts.
Clothes, cosmetics and traditional souvenirs. If you are a sucker for a little retail therapy then you most definitely will enjoy all Seoul has to offer. Dongdamen comes alive after dark with endless shops, market stalls, music and food. Mandaemun market has alot of the same sort of stuff on offer as Dongdamen but is a little less touristy and a little more to traditional if Dongdamen is a little much for your senses.
For all your cool souvenirs do some searching around in Insadong. There are also a couple of book shops and art galleries so a great area to wander around. If you are in need of a caffeine fix then there are also some pretty decent coffee shops spotted around too. Lastly, if you are after cosmetics, creams and potions then Myeongdong is where you need to go. All the top Korean brands can be found there. Some great deals about too, keep an eye out for multi-buy offers and don’t be shy if people are offering out free samples. Double-check whatever you’re buying is bleach-free as unfortunately lots of cosmetics contain whitening.
There are some cool museums to check out including The National Museum of Korea and the Military Memorial Museum if you are looking for more ion Korean history both modern and ancient.
Head to a Nanta Theatre performance. This super odd vegetable-based theatre (imagine stomp vs master chef, vs carry on) is one of the more bizarre outings you could choose but an entertaining and unique way to spend a few hours, especially if it is rainy.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza always has a plethora of excellent exhibitions on. The amazing Zaha Hadid designed DDP. The concrete structure almost looks fluid, wrapping around huge exhibition halls and spaces. A beautiful place to get lost.
If you end up partying a little too hard in Itaewon and are suffering from a Soeju induced hangover then definitely take yourself to a jjimjilbang (traditional Korean bathhouse) and embrace the
experience of a seshin (full body scrub). Trust us, you will never feel cleaner in your life than post seshin. Be prepared, it’s a little rough.
Finally, if you still have time then get out of Seoul and off to the DMZ to get a tiny glimpse to South Korea’s not so amicable neighbours.
What to Eat & Where to Drink
Korean cuisine gets nowhere near the attention it should, there is just so much more to it than Gimbap and Kimchi. By the time you leave Seoul you will be Googling your local London Korean restaurant, looking for all these newfound favourites.
Allll of the epic Korean street food. Pitch up, order, eat. Take photos…. eat more. Take more photos. Make sure you head hear hungry. Busy from mid-morning, most stalls shut up shop around 6-7pm.
Things to look out for:
Eat Teokbokki (rice cake in spicy tomato sauce). Try all the different Gimbap (Korean sushi), Mandu (kimchi dumplings), Bindaetteok (fried mung bean pancakes), Naengmyeon (cold noodles), Yukhoe (marinated tartar beef). The braver souls should look for San Nakji (still squirming raw octopus or Soondae (blood sausage).
Wash everything down with a bowl of Makgeolli (Sweet, slightly alcoholic, slightly carbonated and very tangy, fermented rice drink.) It sounds strange, we know, but it is actually pretty tasty.
Korean BBQ is all about sharing. Try to go with locals too, get a crew together. Everyone loves food and is friendly. Make some friends in Iteawon or at K-TV and bond over the flaming hot BBQ Pit that sits in the centre of your table.
All the amazingness comes from the side dishes, try and eat in a local BBQ, the one above is where Anthony Bourdain shot from in Parts Unknown. It is always busy and lots of fun and you simply can’t leave Korea without having some BBQ and Soeju (grape flavour is very, very palatable).
Korean chicken, locally brewed beer and Hip-Hop. Now Nekkid might not quite be your traditional chicken joint but this eatery’s contemporary spin on a Korean classic makes for a great atmosphere and finger-licking good chicken.
Blue 55 sits a loft Itaewon, is a great bar for a view of the suburbs. Great for a sneaky daytime beer on their rooftop terrace, catch some rays and watch the world go by.
A bright red, neon sign meets you at the bottom of the stairs and leads you a treasure trove of thousands of records, a fully stocked bar, a bass-heavy sounds system and awesome DJ’s happy to take requests all night. It is just so good. You will go for one drink and stay all night.
Enjoy! Team Nonchalant xx