Traveling Guide for First Timers to Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, South Korea is located in the inner part of the Korean peninsula and is a few hour drive to the demilitarized zone (DMC) between North Korea. It is a beautiful metropolitan city and the capital of South Korea. Like most of its Asian neighbours, you can find a mixture of tradtional and modern within the city streets.
Seoul is probably the most technologically advanced city in the world and super traveler friendly. Almost every restaurant and cafe you go to you can get free wifi. If you want free wifi all the time then you can go to one of the airport counters and ask to get a SIM card or rent a machine called EGG which gives you a wifi hotspot.
If you are talking about convenient then Seoul is probably one of the most convenient metropolitan cities you can will find in Asia. The subway, train and bus system covers a large scale making it very easy to access to all the sight-seeing spots.
Airport to city
If you came on an international flight then most likely you will be arriving at Incheon International airport. Now, Incheon airport is actually in a separate city called Incheon city and is no where near Seoul city. However, there are a few possible public transportations that can take you all the way to Seoul city or even directly to the step of your hotel.
1. Limousine Bus
In front of Incheon airport there are many different bus companies with many different buses going to different areas of South Korea. Very similar to the train, there are two versions of the limousine bus: all-stop bus and the express bus. The all-stop stops at all the stops where as the express one stops at major places and hotels. As for pricing the all-stop is cheaper than the express one.
Out of all the ways to get to Seoul city this might be the most expensive way. Although you can travel without needing to interact with other travelers or locals, sometimes there just isn't enough luggage space nor seats. Just a side note that many taxi drivers in Korea do not speak English so it is best to know some Korean or have someone who can speak Korean to help you out.
3. Direct Train
This is probably the best way to get into Seoul city if the buses do not stop at your hotel. It is a non-stop train from Incheon airport all the way to Seoul station and only costs 8000 won. If you have many luggages then I would suggest this route since you will definitely get seats, space to put your luggage and goes all the way to Seoul station in around half an hour.
4. All-Stop Train
If you are on a budget and do not have that many luggages then this route might be good. Since one way from Incheon airport to Seoul station is just 4150 won, but it takes more than an hour to get to Seoul station. If you have time to spare and want to save up on transportation then this is the best way to go.
Transportation around the city
Seoul is a metropolitan city and like any other metropolitan city has a great public transportation system. The city is pretty easy to navigate and the public transportation within the city is also quite traveler friendly and easy to figure out even if you do not speak the local language.
Buses are a really good way to travel around Seoul. There are some places where you cannot access by subway but certainly can by bus. It is also a better way to be able to enjoy the view of the city.
This is probably the most easiest and convenient way to travel around Seoul city. You can nearly go almost anywhere with the subway in Seoul. However, some of the lines are quite far and is a walk from one another, it is definitely easier and cheaper way to navigate around the city. There are subways maps around the stations so do not be afraid of getting lost. If you own a smartphone or any other smart devices then you can download some apps which guides you to the station you need (will be talked about in a later section).
Out of all the ways mentioned so far this is probably the easiest but most expensive way to get from one place to another.
Although some attractions are a bit far from each other, there are some which is pretty close like Namdaemun to Myeongdong. For the closer ones I do recommend walking to save some money on transportation. For the further ones I do not suggest walking because the distance is really far. If you do not mind the distance and want a nice walk while observing the city then it is a good way to explore.
There are a few helpful apps for those visiting Seoul.
1. Subway Korea
This app is probably the bext app out there for the subway system in Seoul city. Not only it can help you navigate the cheapest/fastest route to your destination but also tells you when the last train will be.
2. Korea Tour
Although I only seldomly use this app due to before hand researching of restaurants and tourist attractions, this app can help you and suggest you good restaurants around the area you are in.
3. Google maps
The most useful app you can have nowadays. Not only does it tell you where you are but also tells you the route to get to the destination of your choice! Everytime I get lost I turn on Google maps and I am right back on track!
Many of us know Korean food as spicy and Korean BBQ. This is probably the only stereotypical image most of us who has never been to Korea and know nothing about their culture would think. In reality, Korean cuisine is much more than spicy food and Korean BBQ. Here I will be mainly talking about the dishes which I have had or seen during my recent trip to Seoul.
This is a spicy stew dish with a lot of porkbones. Don't let the bone part scare you because there is plenty of meat stuck to the bones. If you are lucky you might even get some marrow. The spiciness differs from restuarant to restaurant and region to region. This is a must try dish if you don't mind getting yourself a little messy.
This is probably one of the most healthiest dish in Korean cuisine. It is made from boiling a whole chicken stuffed with rice in a gingseng soup with jujube, scallions, garlic and some other spices. Even though it is a hot stew, it is meant to be eaten during the summer because most of the ingredients according to Chinese tradition helps the body to cool down. The soup is very clear and has a clean taste so most people just add salt to their liking. Koreans usually take some of the chicken out and break off the bone then dip it in salt before eating since the chicken been boiling in the soup for a long time and lost most of its flavour.
A very traditional and well-known Korean street food. It is ricecakes boiled and served with a sweet and spicy sauce. The level of spiciness differs from restaurant to restaurant and region to region. The ones you usually have back in the west are the toned down version. Expect the amount of spiciness to increaser while you're in Korea.
This is another very traditional Korean street food. Most of us probably have not heard of or seen this outside of Korea but it is a quite simple snack. It is basically fried dough with brown sugar stuffing.
A very famous comfort food amongst Koreans. It is rice, vegetables (pickled or not), eggs and meat/fish wrapped in toasted dried seaweed. Kimbap is different from sushi because they do not use rice in their vinegar, the seaweed they use is also different but the most notable thing would be the fillings. There is a miniature version called the "mayak gimbap" where it is smaller in size compared to the normal kimbaps and they use fewer ingredients. Since they do not mix the rice with salt and sesame oil, they have a side of yellowish dipping sauce to eat with.
In most Asian cultures, eating congealed blood is part of their heritage and Korea is no exeption. Unlike the kind blood sausage they serve in the U.K, the Korean version adds more ingredients like glutinous rice; soybeans; barley; scallions and more. The texture might be the harder thing to adapt than the taste because it is much more squishy and soft than normal sausages.
This is the more filling version of the jeon (Korean pancake). Unlike the jeon, which is thin, this is a very thick mung bean pancake packed with a lot of ingedients like mung beans, kimchi, pork and other vegetables.
The shikye is a popular traditional Korean drink and it is usually drank during the summer or on a hot sunny day. The drink is made of rice and sometimes pine nuts. The Japanese also have a rice drink called "amazake" but the the making of the drink and the use of ingredients are different. The Japanese version uses fermented rice while the Korean version uses normal cooking rice. The taste of shikye is a little bit sweet but not too sweet like amazake.
These are dumplings/potstickers. The difference between the Japanese gyoza, Chinese dumplings and the Korean mandu usually lies within how thin or thick the outer skin is and the stuffing inside. You can often get these goodies steamed, fried or in a soup.
Korean fried chicken is very popular comfort food in Korea. In fact, they might have the best fried chicken in the world. For sure they are better than those chicken chains like KFC and Popeye's so if you are here in Korea, might as well try it yourself.
This is traditional Korean dish where they cook the chicken and vegetables in a sweet and spicy sauce in front of you. The chicken is cooked till its tender, juicy and moist so you will have no problem savouring the flavour. After the meal you can ask them to use the remaining sauce in the pan to make you fried rice or in Korean Bokkeumbap (cost extra money) if you like. I went for it and it was an amazing experience.
- Other must try food: samgyeopsal, soondubu, kimchi jjigae, jeon, galbi, ramyeong
This is a traditional Korean confectionery and is made of honey and malt. The confectionery is pulled into 16,384 strands of thin strings and then wrapped around crushed nuts and sugar stuffing. Chinese also has a similar candy called dragon's beard thus it looks like dragon beard. In modern day Korea, there are different stuffing than the traditional version of crushed nuts and sugar like chocolate and red bead paste. It makes a delicious snack to buy for yourself or as a souvenir for friends and relatives.
Like many Southeast Asian countries, night market is also a thing in South Korea. You can find many around the city of Seoul. Here, I will be mainly talking about the few which I have had the opportunity to stroll through on my recent trip.
1. Gwangjang Market
The Gwangjang market is located near Dongdaemun and is filled with street food stalls as well as stalls selling vegetable, meat, seafood and other Korean goodies. Most of the street food you can find here are: jeon, bindaetteok, sundae, kimbap, tteokbokki, odeng, bibimbap, mandu and more. This is probably the biggest and most historic market in Seoul and a lot of travelers as well as locals come to this market for a bite to eat. You know that a place is good when even the locals come!
Most notable street food stalls: mayak gimbap, jeon, bindaettoek, mandu, bibimbap, sundae
2. Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun is a market full of not only food but also other things such as textiles, clothing, furniture, spices, and etc. If you are looking for cheap souvenirs then I do recommend this place. Now the food scene here at Namdaemun is different than say Gwangjang and Myeongdong market because the food stalls here are kind of limited. In order to make up for that if you go into some of the alley ways you will find restaurants serving really authentic Korean cuisines like kimchi jjigae, army stew, soondubu, jeon and so on.
Most notable street food stalls: hotteok, gyeranbbang
3. Myeongdong Market
Out of all the markets I have mentioned, the Myeongdong market must be the one that is directed towards tourists the most. In fact most of the things here are a bit overpriced comapred to the other markets. There are more food vendors and some of them sell interesting and unimaginable street food. There are also many drugstores, clothing stores and restaurant around if you want a more comfortable scene to do some shopping and eating.
Most notable street food stalls: grilled lobster, honey ice cream, kulttare, dakggochi
The attractions in Seoul varies from historical and cultural sites to modern architectures.
This is one of the world heritage UNESCO site in South Korea. Gyeongbokgung is the largest palace in Korea and was the main palace to hold the royal family during the Joseon period. Most of the palace has been destroyed during the invasion of the imperial Japanese army but reconstructions of parts of the palace has been started. Remember that the palace ground is actually very wide so make sure you plan enough to time wonder each and every part of it.
This is another world heritage UNESCO site in South Korea. According to history, this is the palace with the most famous and beautiful garden is. Many previous emperors in Korea frequent this place because of that. You can actually visit this secret garden but requires a separate entrance fee and can see only though guided tours. Once the guide tours are booked up for the day then
Myeongdong is one of the more famous shopping area in South Korea. Aside from brand name shops, drugstores and restaurants; there is also a street food scene there. Athought some of the street food stalls are overpriced it is well worth it if you are in this area and want a quick special bite.
Insadong is the area near Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. It has many restaurants and local souvenir shops there. However, what makes it so attracting are the food vendors on the street. They sell a various range of local traditional Korean street food like the hotteok and tteokbokki, just to name a few.
This is the area near the Hongkik University. Since this area is catered towards the younger generation, you will be able to find the latest food and clothing trends here like Forever 21 and other local brands.
This is probably the best night market you can find for street food in Seoul. They have a huge assortment of local traditional street food like mayak gimbap, mandu and sundae, just to name a few. Most of the Korean food vendors and merchants moved here from Namdaemun during the war with Japan so you will find a larger variety of food stalls here.
Namdaemun was where all of the Korean food vendors and merchants gathered before the Japanese invaded Korea. After the invasion, the Koreans move their market from Namdaemun to Dongdaemun. There are various different kinds of stores you can find here ranging from textiles, spice, clothing, souvenir, food, etc. They also sell some of the more famous traditional Korean street food in this area like hotteok, gyeranbbang and so on. If you go into the sheltered alley ways, you will find many more restaurants serving Korean comfort food.
National Folk Museum of Korea
This is a museum about folklore and mythology of Korea. The museum is actually located right beside Gyeongbokgung and there is a passage way to get there from inside the palace. There is a large variety of artifacts and reconstructions of how ancient Korea looked like. If you are interested in ancient Korean history then this is a really good museum to visit because it tells you valuable facts and secrets.
Bukchon Hanok Village
This is a village in the area of Insadong right between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Travelers from around the world like to come here because you can see old traditional Korean style houses. It is also a great place for taking pictures of sceneries and selfies too, especially if you are wearing a hanbok (Korean traditional dress). Although it is free to walk around and take pictures, please remember people do live in this area so do not be too noisy.
Restaurant and food stalls visited:
Hotteok food stall at Insadong
The hotteok as mentioned before is a traditional Korean snack where you can find almost anywhere in Korea. I had the opportunity to try it on my first day in Seoul at Insadong and it was mind blowing. I am sure the way of making and cooking it might be the same wherever you go but the ingredients used and how long they fry it differs from stall to stall and area to area. Therefore you will most likely get a different taste each stall you go to.
Tteokbokki food stall at Gwangjang Market
Tteokbokki is the comfort food of Korea. No matter where you go you will see food stalls and restaurants selling it. The level of spiciness and the type of ricecake use depends on the restaurant and region you are in. Seoul has the more palettable version of the tteokbokki (if you go further down south of the country, it becomes much more spicier). The food stall I went to they used long thin cylinder type of rice cakes and a pretty sweet with just the right amount of spice sauce. If you decide to go to another food stall within this market, you might get a different flavour than what I have had.
Sundae/Soondae food stall at Gwangjang Market
Sundae or soondae is another beloved comfort food in Korea where you can almost find where ever you go. It is made of pig blood, barley, glutinous rice and various different kinds of spices and then made into sausage form. It is usually served alongside other innards and a side of salt for enhancing the taste. Since this is my first time having sundae, I think that depending on the food stall you go to, the texture of the sausage varies. The food stall I went to, their sundae was soft and you can taste the glutinous rice and the casing (intestines) of the sausage clearly. I do not know if there was much blood taste since I grew up in a Chinese household and often order pig's blood while we go drink tea. I would say that it wasn't that bad at this stall and would definitely try again next time I come back to Korea, maybe at a different stall.
Gyeranbban food stall at Namdaemun
Gyeranbban is a famous traditional Korean snack. As mentioned above it is a sweet cake like bread with a hard-boiled egg inside. This food stall is actually very famous and close to the Namdaemun Underground Shopping Centre on Camera street Exit 6 at gate 3. A few steps away from this food stall is a very famous hotteok food stall with long line-ups usually.
Mandu food stall at Gwangjang Market
Mandu is the Korean version of dumplings or potstickers. The difference between the Korean version and the other versions amongst Asia is thickness of the skin and the filling. Some stalls will have more different kinds of mandu to choose from but the one I had there were only 2: pork and chives or kimchi. I got the mixed plate and both were delicious.
Mayak Gimbap food stall at Gwangjang Market
The food stall I went to for mayak gimbap (please refer to the food section for the difference between kimbap and mayak gimbap) was the same one where I got the tteokbokki. I had kimbap before but have never heard of or tried mayak gimbap but tasted really good with the yellow mustardy sauce on the side. If you go to a different stall they might use more or less vegetables. This one as I remembered use two types: carrot and pickled raddish. I will for sure be having this again but at a different stall just to see how different it will be.
Sikhye at Gwangjang Market
Sikhye is a popular traditional Korean rice drink and you can find it through out the markets in Korea. I actually had the luxury to try it at two different stalls; the first one being at the one where I had tteokbokki and mayak gimbap; the second one is near the main entrance of Gwangjang Market close to the Jong-no 5ga station of Line 1. The sikhye at both of the stalls didn't really taste that much different. They both had a very strong taste of diluted rice water, not too sweet and occasionally having a grain or two of rice to chew on. A pretty refreshing drink overall and definitely will have again the next time I am in Korea.
Grilled Cheese at Myeongdong Market
This is one of the new generation of food in Korea. Recently they have a fetish towards cheese and are trying multiple ways to use cheese. This grilled cheese is basically skewered cheese and ricecakes and they finish it by topping it off with condensed milk. If you walk around Myeongdong market you will come upon many stalls with the same name selling the same street food. It was an unusual combination but a great experience. The flavour wasn't bad since you get salty and sweet in the same bite.
Korean Fried Chicken at a food stall in Myeongdong Market
The food stall I went to was near the main entrance of the Myeongdong market. Although not the type of pure fried chicken I wanted to eat, it was the next best one since it was cheaper than eating at a restaurant for only fried chicken which can cost up to 26,000 won. The type of fried chicken they selled here at this stall were boneless. They first deep-fry the chicken and then toss it in a sweet sauce along with some ricecakes. It kind of reminded me of BBQ flavoured popcorn chicken. The chicken pieces were very tender and juicy and the ricecakes were cooked just right. Although everything was covered in the sweet sauce, it wasn't that over powering so you could basicallyl still taste the chicken. It was good enough if you are on a budget because it only costed 5000 won. The next time I visit Korea, I will be visiting one of the famous fried chicken restaurant to get a true taste of Korean fried chicken.
Dak Galbi at Yoogane in Hongdae
I actuall have never had dak-galbi before coming to Korea, so it was something new to me. I ordred 1 person portion of their original dak-galbi and a serving of fried rice afterwards and it was definitely enough. First off they will cook the dak-galbi in front of you. When it's ready they will tell you to eat it and call them over again when you finish. Once you are finished they will help you make your next dish with the remaining sauce and other leftovers in the pan. I ordered fried rice here but there are other things you could order like ricecakes, noodles, white rice, etc. The fried rice I had was pretty amazing since you have the taste of fried rice and dak-galbi together. A taste that my mouth will probably never forget.
Samgyetang at Nonhyeon Samgyetang in Gangnam-gu
Samgyetang is a popular soup dish amongst Koreans and is eaten through out the year because both chicken and gingseng root has a cooling factor which helps to cool your body down if you are over heating. This concept might seem ridiculous to some people but for Chinese and Koreans this is a medical concept wheere people can be too hot or too cold and need to eat corresponsive food in order to balance the body temperature. The samgyetang at this restaurant was extremely good because the soup was very clear, had a clean taste and not over seasoned. Although all the essence of the chicken has been transferred into the soup, it wasn't as dry as I thought it would be. If you dip it in the salt supplied on the side it remoists the chicken and brings out the remaining flavours of it. The rice is inside the soup cooked along with the chicken so if you like porridgy rice then this is a great dish to try. If you find the soup too bland then it is perfectly fine to season it yourself with the salt and pepper shakers at the side of the table (all Koreans do that). They serve the dish on the bland side because of medicinal purposes.
Gamjatang at Somunnan Seongsu Gamjatang near Seongsu station
This is probably the most popular Korean comfort food amongst Koreans. You will find gamjatang places packed at night filled with businessmen, people with families, people with friends and so on. This is also the Korean dish I miss the most. Back in Canada where I am from, I could find this dish at almost any Korean restaurant I go to but since moving to Japan, I have never ever seen any Korean restaurant having this on their menu. The thing that makes this dish so popular is the amount of food you get for the price. You get a spicy stew with a few porkbones with meat, a side of rice and all-you-can-eat side dishes. Overall there was plenty of meat and potatoes in my portion and was quite filling. Although the soup was kind of on the bland side, the meat was very tender (not enough to fall off the bone) and the potatoes were super soft. I will give this restaurant another shot the next time I am in Korea to test the soup since it was only 8000 won.