We spent the first week of October in Seoul for the holiday break. The main holiday was Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), which usually gives kids three days off school, but this year due to the lunar calendar it fell on a week that already had two other major holidays meaning we got the entire week off! This was a great time to explore Seoul because most people leave the city to spend time at home with their families (like Thanksgiving in the U.S.). So we booked a hotel in Seoul and took off for the week!
We chose a hotel, Morning Sky, that was technically located in Myeong-dong, but was really somewhat in-between neighborhoods, at the intersection of Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, and Jongno. This meant that it was a bit off the beaten path and in a rather quiet location (definitely not in Myeong-dong), which for us was perfect. It was also located between several of the main subway lines which was great for getting to other locations in the city. The room was clean and the staff was friendly. I would definitely recommend this hotel. One downside is that there aren’t a lot of dining options in the immediate area, but in Seoul you’re never too far from food (and if you walk about 15 minutes from the hotel you’ll find yourself at an amazing food market that is cheap and open late)!
Morning Sky Hotel
Our first day in Seoul started off with a uniquely Korean experience. Luckily for us, Morning Sky Hotel is located right across from Jungbu Dried Seafood Market; a must-see! A must-see, you ask, really? Yes! And that is coming from me, a vegetarian who has never been fond of seafood (even pre-vegetarianism). This market is just another one of those amazing Korean experiences that will enrich your understanding and appreciation of the culture. Once again, there is nothing like this market that I am aware of back in the States, although I am reminded of the fish markets in Seattle and other cities, but as far as I know those focus on live (or fresh) fish, not dried fish. Yes, at this market you can find dried sea creatures of all kinds. Try some if you’re interested, but if not it is still very interesting (and eye-opening) to just walk through and see all of the different snack items that you never would have even thought existed.
After a quick trip through this market to see what it was all about, we met friends for dinner at another nearby market: Gwangjang Market. Gwangjang was the first permanent market in Korea, and is home to hundreds of shops, restaurants, and food stalls. The market is contained in several interconnected buildings, but the best part, in my opinion, is the covered street that runs between these buildings. Shops and stalls filled with clothing, fabrics, snacks, and kitchenware line the street, and food stalls cooking all kinds of delicious snacks set up shop in the middle. The market is known for its nokdoo-jon (mung bean pancake), which is served with slices of onion in soy sauce and is delicious! This market is yet another must-see spot in Seoul.
Veggies are piled high at this make-your-own-bibimbap stall! Bibimbap is one of my favorite Korean dishes consisting of rice, various thinly sliced vegetables (typically carrots, fern bracken, Shiitake mushrooms, soybean sprouts, spinach, zucchini, seaweed, and radish), spicy gochujang sauce, and a fried egg on top. Some people put beef in there as well but I don’t know why; you really don’t need it. Bibimbap is best when served in a hot stone (dolsot) bowl, which we happened to pick up at this market so we can make bibimbap at home!
Row after row of food carts. Do you see the stacks of mung bean pancakes on the right?
We ate well that night, snacking on mung bean pancakes, tteokbokki (stir-fried soft rice cakes in spicy sauce), japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with veggies), and kimbap (Korean version of sushi; ‘kim’ means seaweed and ‘bap’ means rice). This market is a great place for vegetarians to experience traditional Korean food. It is usually VERY difficult to be vegetarian when dining out in Korea. Koreans love meat. And they usually chop it up into really thin pieces and put it on everything so that even if you’re ok with picking around the meat if you have to you really can’t. This obsession with meat is a vestige of the Korean War. Before and during the war meat was extremely expensive and hard to come by so it was considered a luxury. After the war, meat became much more affordable so Koreans took full advantage, and this desire for meat has stuck around. But as I’ve been told by many Korean friends, traditional Korean food is lots of vegetables. Whereas most restaurants today will add meat to these traditional dishes, this market serves the authentic traditional versions (bibimbap without beef, kimbap without ham or crab, tteokbokki without fish cakes, and veggie-only japchae)! This authenticity is not 100%, so best to ask before ordering (which can be an ordeal itself, but one best discussed in another post).
After getting our fill of traditional Korean dishes, we headed to Myeong-dong. Remember when I said our hotel was in a quiet area off the beaten path, not really in Myeong-dong? Here is how I know. This is Myeongdong:
The streets are actually quite tame in this photo because of the rain. Myeong-dong is the complete opposite of quiet and off the beaten path. It is always full of flashing lights and people. It is yet another one of Seoul’s major shopping areas and a great after dinner location (shops are open late). This is more of the type of shopping area you might find in the U.S., with large brand-name stores lining the streets, but the U.S. does not have anything quite of this magnitude (think of a non-touristy Times Square set in more narrow streets so the masses of people are even closer together). With the flashing neon signs, shopkeepers with megaphones shouting deals, people in all kinds of costumes handing out flyers, and the general electric atmosphere that lasts well into the night, Myeong-dong is truly an experience.
We may have stopped in the MLB store. Licensing in other countries is not as strict as in the U.S. so they are able to make an endless variety of different designs here, and they do.
We also managed to find a really awesome tea shop (I love tea). We had tea and bing-su (a Korean shaved ice dessert) at Osulloc, a tea shop from Jeju Island in Korea. I tried the Jeju tangerine tea (tangerines from Jeju, known as kyul here, are the best)! Brad ordered a traditional green tea and red bean bing-su, and our friends tried Jeju tangerine tea floats that looked delicious!
After a day filled with Korean food and shopping, the next day we decided to visit one of Seoul’s five palaces: Changdeokgung. Changdeokgung was the second royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), built in 1405. Changdeokgung, along with the other royal palaces in Seoul, was destroyed during the Japanese invaision in the 1590s, but it was rebuilt in 1610 and from that time it served as the main royal palace for about 270 years. As with many things in Korea, the royal family was essentially destroyed or overtaken by Japan. In 1910, the Korean emperor signed over his empire to Imperial Japan, and the Korean royal family essentially became Japanese nobility and moved to Japan. There are still some descendants around in Korea today, but they live as normal citizens.
Changdeokgung palace is known for its Secret Garden, a large and beautiful garden where the royals came to relax and escape, and where they entertained with outdoor events and banquets. To give you an idea of its scale, the Secret Garden takes up more than 60% of the land that Changdeokgung palace occupies. This is not your mother’s vegetable garden. With various pavilions, lotus ponds, and streams nestled in the valleys of the rolling landscape, one could easily spend an afternoon strolling through the garden discovering the natural beauty over every hill.
To visit the Secret Garden you must have a separate ticket corresponding to a timed entry, and you will be led around by a knowledgeable guide who will tell you about the various aspects of the garden. We had to wait until the afternoon for our tour, so we left the palace for lunch. We found a great little cafe nearby, taking its name from the palace, where we had our first somewhat American-style food since our move to Korea this summer.
I would highly recommend adding a tour of the Secret Garden to your trip to Changdeokgung (and if you need lunch I definitely recommend Cafe Secret Garden). We had a great time!
To end the day we met up with a friend of mine for dinner. She took us to a locally known area that recently became the hip new area for restaurants, cafes, and bars. Apparently in Seoul the hip area changes every few months, and restaurants and cafes pop up and disappear faster than you can visit them! Luckily, we managed to find this one and ate at an adorable Thai restaurant and then went to hang out at a cute little bar. If you make it in time the area is hidden down a little side street near the Jongno 3-ga station.
This was the perfect end to a wonderful day, and beginning to our trip! Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will explore an ancient shrine, a mountain festival, ancient artifacts, international cuisine, and more!