Last week, I visited Seoul, South Korea for four days. This was my first time in Asia outside of Japan, and I really enjoyed my experience. If Tokyo is the New York of Asia, then Seoul feels to me like the Chicago of Asia. Like NYC and the Windy City, both Tokyo and Seoul are major metropolises, but most people think to visit Tokyo first before even considering Seoul. However, after my experience, and given the sad crises that Japan is currently facing, I would definitely add Seoul to the top of anyone’s list as a place to visit. I hope to visit again before my time in Japan ends. Four days was certainly not enough to see all that Seoul and the rest of Korea has to offer. In no particular order, here are my top 5 reasons to visit Seoul.
1. THE ENERGY
More than 10 million people call Seoul home, and I felt their presence almost everywhere I walked. Streets were jam-packed with young urban professionals dressed impeccably on their way to work, cafes were full of people-watchers taking a break from life’s stresses and couples strolled around romantic hidden gardens. Although I tried my best to see as many sights as possible, I also enjoyed simply sitting in a coffee shop sipping tea while those around me chatted about their day. In addition, the Koreans I met were extremely kind to me, much like the Japanese have been to me during my travels in Japan. The manager of our hostel took me and my friend Jenson out for traditional Korean food when her shift ended. I enjoyed talking to her about literature and Korean culture, and I hope to keep in touch. Others kindly told us directions if were lost and helped us navigate the subway. It certainly would have helped to speak a little Korean, but getting around using only English was fairly easy.
2. THE FOOD
I indulged in some Western food (mainly scrumptious sandwiches) since I can’t get much of that in my area of Japan, but the Korean food I did try was delicious. Kimchi (spiced cabbage) is probably the most popular dish and is served with every meal. We also ate spicy chicken and Korean barbecue. You cook the meat yourself on a big grill on your table, similar to the yakiniku style in Japan. However, be warned that Korean food is SPICY. I downed more water during one meal than I normally do in a day.
3. THE DMZ TOUR
My friend Jenson and I took a half-day tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an area dividing South Korea from North Korea. This zone was created after the civil war in 1953 and is called “the most heavily armed border in the world.” Despite this, it is a safe area to visit and very popular with tourists. Our hostel organized the tour for us, so we followed a group of about 30 others to the zone. It took about an hour to get there by bus and our trip included touring tunnels built by North Korea for an invasion, viewing North Korea with telescopes from a guarded observatory and touring Dorasan train station, which once connected Seoul to Pyongyang and Sinuiju in North Korea. Visiting these places was a sad reminder that Korea is still divided, and it was also somewhat troubling peeking into a country so cut-off from the rest of the world. Our tour guide was a former activist who was extremely knowledgeable about the topic and wasn’t afraid to speak about her hope for unification one day.
4. THE TRANSPORTATION
The subway system in Seoul is excellent and I am sorry to say that it puts Chicago’s El to shame. We went everywhere in the city via subway. The map looks complicated at first but there will be almost no need for you to take taxis if you keep a pocket map handy.
5. THE SCENERY & ARCHITECTURE
Most of the palaces and gardens in Seoul won’t be anything special for those who have traveled around Japan or China, but visiting at least one of Seoul’s famed gardens and palaces/temples will still be worth your time for the atmosphere and to learn more about Korean history and culture. Jenson and I caught the changing of the guard outside of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The costumes the men and women wore (including fake beards for the men) were extremely ornate and colorful. I also recommend a tour of the Biwon/Secret Garden behind Changdeok Palace. The garden can only be toured with a guide. Beyond the temples and gardens, Seoul also has some pretty interesting modern sculptures and architecture.