Ideas for fun trip to South Korea?
January 4, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about taking a trip to South Korea. Can you help me with trip suggestions? Details within!

Here's a bit about how I enjoy traveling:

I like being able to do a couple of the standard touristy things but also being to get to places that are off the beaten path/ non-touristy (night markets, street food, or cafes that cater to locals). I like a slightly upscale hotel (neither a five star hotel nor a hostel) - basically clean, wifi, no bed bugs - just a place I can decompress from the long flight. I like being able to walk to things or having access to mass transit. I like taking off with a map and getting a little lost for the day. I'm not a big shopper and I don't like malls. I don't drink a lot, but I'd probably like to try soju once, especially if it was a local hole-in-the-wall rather than a glitzy club. I love bulgogi. I like independent coffee shops. If there's a great movie theater with English subtitles, I might like to try that.

With that in mind, here are a couple questions:

1) Where should I stay in Seoul (area/hotel)?

2) Here are my possible touristy things, based upon recommendations from previous questions:

Go to a Doosan Bears game
Visit the Namdaemun Market
USO tour of the DMZ
Visit the Seoul Zoo
Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace

What would you add or cut from that list?

3) What off-the-beaten path things would you recommend?

4) If possible, I'd like to take a train to see a bit of rural Korea outside of Seoul. Where would you recommend?

Thanks for any ideas you can provide!
posted by bluecore to Travel & Transportation around Seoul, South Korea (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For 4), I guess it depends on how long you want to go but I did a day trip from Seoul to Gyeongyu and that was pretty fun, its about 2.5 hrs by bullet train each way. I has a guide, so they arranged transportation on the other end.
It was the capital of Silla, one of the three ancient capitals of Korea. It has a few more original building than Seoul, since it was not as heavily damaged in the occupation and civil war periods of the twentieth century, so if you're into historical stuff I thought it was nice (and quite different scenery from Seoul).

I thought the USO DMZ tour was good but it eats up another full day.
For night wandering, the area around Hongdae is pretty lively.

I really enjoyed Seoul/Korea, have fun!
posted by wildcrdj at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2014

I went with my mom and stayed on Post at Yongsan at the Dragon Hill there, so I can't help with a hotel.

I did enjoy the Natural History Museum, which is near the palace. We went as part of a tour, and since a lot of the things aren't in English, it was helpful to have someone to explain what we were looking at. I especially loved the part of the museum that focused on what life was like in early Korea. The issue with tours is that you'll always be herded to some enterprise for commerce. Our tour went to a Ginseng shop. The Chinese doctors on our tour loaded up, Mom and I cooled our heels. Another time it was an Amethyst shop.

The mall/department stores aren't really like the shops in the west. They're stalls where different vendors sell different things. We hung out in Itaewan. Lots of English, lots of "Faulex" and other counterfeit-type goods. It's fun to walk around, especially if you like Hello Kitty, but at the end of the day, there aren't many bargains.

We went to Osan to my mother's tailor and had some clothing made. It was shipped home to me about 2 weeks later in Florida. We also bought a metric-shit-ton of leather goods, also shipped home from the Air Force Base.

So my usable piece of information is to see the Natural History Museum along with the palace.

I really liked Korea, I found that the folks in Seoul really liked Americans, and that's refreshing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2014

I went to Korea last winter - came to Busan on a boat from Japan, then went to Gyeongju, Jeonju, and finally Seoul.

In Seoul, I stayed in Insadong, which is kind of touristy, but it's conveniently located for the interesting historical sites in Seoul like Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, and the Jongmyo shrine. Be aware that the Jongmyo shrine requires you to go on a guided tour ( I really dislike tours, although in the case of Jongmyo it was worth it to learn more about the historical context because there's not much to actually look at).

You might like Bukchon; it's in the same area, and it has a lot of traditional Korean houses and an artsy vibe to it. There's a lot of independent coffee shops and that type of thing around there. Even if you don't stay there, it's worth a walk around to see the traditional architecture.

I did the DMZ tour and I'm not sure it was really "worth it"; it takes a half day and you spend most of the time traveling to and from the site and eating lunch, with maybe a half hour outside at the actual Joint Security Area - and of course you can't walk around or freely take pictures.

My favorite experience in Korea was probably going to a spa or "jjimjjilbang." You go in, get a locker for your clothes, take a shower, then sit in various communal bath pools (gender segregated of course). After you're done bathing, you put on the spa clothes they give you (basically a t-shirt and shorts) and go up to the mixed gender area, where they have sauna rooms, restaurants, and sitting areas with a TV. Some spas even have a movie room, internet cafe, and arcade. There are also sleeping rooms (a lot of people use the spa as a cheap alternative to a hotel, if they're in the city late and the trains stop running for example). It feels like a big clubhouse where everyone sits on the (nicely heated) floor! I went to Siloam Sauna (near Seoul Station) and Dragonhill Spa (near Yongsan), both are quite big and very used to foreign guests.

On the top floor of the electronics mall in Yongsan, you can watch a professional Starcraft match. No tickets needed, just walk in whenever (they might not always have a match on). Maybe only interesting for a few minutes, but the spectacle of the big stage and jumpsuit-wearing players in deep concentration is an experience.

The Suwon city walls are a nice experience; you can ride there by subway/commuter rail from Seoul. You can walk around the entire old city on the walls, and there is a great kalbi restaurant midway, making it a good day trip from Seoul.

You can climb mount Namsan for great views of Seoul, or take the cable car up.

I didn't really like Gyeongju itself very much (and while I am a huge ancient ruins buff, the Gyeongju sites were rather boring in my opinion), but there is a village nearby called Yangdong. You can get there by bus. I went around sunset, in winter, and there were pretty much no other tourists around. It felt quite rural and traditional. There's also the Bulguksa temple nearby.

Jeonju is a nice little town, although somewhat touristy, and has the most famous bibimbap in Korea.
posted by pravit at 1:27 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

First, I would recommend letting go of your feelings about being "off the beaten path" and wanting things that "cater to locals". Seoul is crawling with English teachers and other foreigners, who in many ways are super-long-term tourists. All of the paths are beaten, and most stores have English signage. I don't think you have to worry about the authenticity of your experience, but be prepared for the fact that modern-day Seoul is a fairly Westernized place (but in an interesting way!).

Sorry to disagree with Ruthless Bunny, but the malls/department stores are exactly like those in the west. Itaewon does not have any department stores, so I'm not sure what you're basing that on. Even if you don't like shopping, in the basement of every department store you'll find a food court and a supermarket, which can be really fun to explore.

Soju, fyi, can be bought for a dollar at any convenience store-- in bottle or juice box form. You can get it at just about any restaurant and it's typically enjoyed in shot form. In my opinion the appeal is more about the experience-- getting drunk with friends/coworkers-- than the actual taste.

Seoul has a LOT of independent coffee shops, many of the "decadent flavored latte" variety, but also many that care about sourcing interesting beans, hand-drip, etc. If you search around you should be able to find some specific recommendations.
posted by acidic at 1:44 PM on January 4, 2014

I would take Ruthless Bunny's Seoul travel advice with a grain of salt, as it's very dated, and also focused on servicemen's experiences of Korea, which can differ considerably from those of even regular tourists.

These days Koreans go to Itaewon for the restaurants (especially ethnic ones) and the nightlife. As acidic says, Seoul is not the kind of place to go looking for "off the beaten path" things that "cater to locals". Okay, there are some places like that I can think of my family and I go to, but they are in residential neighborhoods that I don't think is worth the time and detour during a brief visit.

The Hongdae area has some interesting hole-in-the-wall restaurants, cafes, and depending on when you go you could catch some live bands at the clubs there.

I've enjoyed Gyeongbok Palace and wandering around the Bukchon area near Gyeongbok Palace (it's very nostalgic for me because my elementary school was in that area). Don't forget to eat Ginseng Chicken soup at Tosokchon while you're there. Line usually goes around the block but it moves very fast.

You could venture out to Gangnam (in the expansive, "South of the Han River" sense), and visit COEX Mall, wander about the Garosugil area, and check out Bongeunsa temple.
posted by needled at 2:24 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

That reminds me that Dongdaemun has an interesting "Central Asian town" with restaurants and shops run by immigrants from Mongolia and ex-USSR Central Asian states. I had an excellent meal at an Uzbek restaurant there. The malls around Dongdaemun can be kind of interesting. Some of them are typical Western-style malls but other ones sell wholesale clothing or have individual retailers selling their own stuff. In the latter kind some of the sellers can be very pushy (especially in men's clothing for some reason?), but it's all in good spirit.
posted by pravit at 2:52 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Last year my partner and I took the 7 day, 6 night bus tour of South Korea. The loop begins and ends in Seoul and circumnavigates the peninsula. The $1,400 includes all expenses: Bus, hotels, meals, and admission at all stops (parks, museums and historical sites), and so it is cheaper than making a similar trip independently.

The tour was designed for Seoulites who would otherwise be unlikely to travel the countryside outside of the usual tourist destinations. As a consequence there's a greater emphasis on historical sites and temple parks than you would expect from a tour pitched to westerners. The food tends to be a mix of American-style hot table buffets in the hotels and regional Korean specialties for lunches and dinners. For some Americans, some of the meals might be too adventurous; even if bibimbop in the home of bibimbop (Jeonju) is similar to what you can find in the U.S., dining could still be a challenge if you consider the strong fish flavor of the local kimchee to be overpowering.

There are shorter, more economical tours (3 and 5 day, if I recall) but you join or leave the 7 day tour bus at arbitrary points rather than join a separate 3 or 5 day tour that traces the same route with fewer stops.
posted by ardgedee at 3:33 PM on January 4, 2014

Definitely go to Insadong, and explore the side streets that branch off it. Check out a traditional tea house if you find one - they're wonderful. Hongdae might be worth wandering around for an hour or two as well. If you really want something a little off the beaten track, I'd recommend a Templestay program though it may not be feasible, given the length of your visit.
posted by peppermind at 4:15 PM on January 4, 2014

First and foremost: I would think long and hard about spending a whole day of your farflung Korean adventure at a zoo. Seoul Grand Park is fine, but ultimately it's just a zoo in another country. The interesting animals are all almost from places like Africa and Australia*, as you might expect, and you can easily check out the zebras, rhinos, lions, et. al at various outlets back home (links US-centric) with much less opportunity cost.

My suggestion for your off-the-beaten path item is the Samcheong Hanok Village, which is a collection of traditional houses built on a hill in northern Seoul and which wasn't overrun with westerners when I visited. There are various independent installations showing traditional art, lifestyles, etc. that I enjoyed checking out one afternoon. It's a rare peaceful place amidst the bustle of Seoul.

You mentioned watching a movie. You might be interested in seeing out a 4-D movie, in which you wear 3-D glasses, the seats rumble, fans blow and you're occasionally sprayed with mist. 4-D made last summer's odious Pacific Rim almost watchable for me.

You'll have a harder time finding a Korean movie with English subtitles, however, but one option for this is a DVD bang: a private movie room where you can watch a projected DVD from a bed. You can pick out a Korean classic like Old Boy and have them turn on the English subtitles and get some culture that way. (Beware though, teenagers - and, ahem, some adults - do use these rooms in the way you'd think they would.)

Seconding the jjimjilbang, which was an exciting experience when I first got here. One of my friends raves about the king-of-all-jjimjilbangs in Yongsan. I've not yet had the pleasure but that might be worth investigating.

As for coffee shops: Hongdae would be a good place to chill in a funky cafe. It's a university district with lots of bohemians and counterculture types, so there are a bunch of these places. There are also dog- and cat-cafes where you can get an overpriced coffee and pet the house animals. Then, of course, there's this.

Soju is extremely easy to find: almost any proper (sitdown, table service) restaurant will have it. It's not really a glitzy club kinda drink, it's a retiree-needs-something-to-do-with-the-afternoon kinda drink.

Definitely see a baseball game, as it's a much different experience than it is back home. Whereas American baseball fans are mere spectators, fandom in Korea is more tribal and akin to English Soccer (but without the violence). There's lots of singing, call-and-answer cheering and thundersticks. In addition to the Bears, Seoul also has the LG Twins (who share Jamsil Stadium with the Bears) and my beloved Nexen Heroes, who you should probably think about rooting for instead.

Feel free to shoot me an memail; I'm living in Korea now and would be happy to answer any questions you have to the best of my ability.

*this guy nonwithstanding
posted by charlemangy at 7:23 PM on January 4, 2014

Visit one of the Buddhist temples. Go to any city outside of Seoul. Gwanju, Daejeon, Daegu, Busan, or others. Consider Jeju. Don't worry about getting those most authentic experience. It's a very modern country and a large amount of young people have experience living outside the country. You can easily find some traditional villages and spent a night or two in them.
posted by andendau at 7:55 PM on January 4, 2014

Please, please, please, go to the Teddy Bear Museum at the N Seoul Tower. It's so much better than a museum showing you teddy bears - it has dioramas of ancient and modern Korea all depicted with moving bears.

Acidic is right; even if you don't like shopping, the department stores are fascinating, if only for the food courts. We ate at Lotte, but I'm sure Shinsegae has a fabulous food court, too.

We stayed at the IP Boutique Hotel in Itaewon and thought it was terrific. It was clean, the rates were reasonable and the bed was nice and comfy. It's located near the subway station, which made it very easy to get anywhere we wanted to go.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Wet Hen at 5:03 AM on January 5, 2014

Ack! I also meant to suggest the Museum of Chicken Art. Sadly, we didn't get to go. We tried on our last day, but they'd changed locations and we didn't have time to get to the new location once we'd showed up at the old one. But it seemed like it would be such fun!
posted by Wet Hen at 5:07 AM on January 5, 2014

Someone mentioned the COEX mall, this has the Kimchi museum! Which is a rather small museum and will only take 30min-1hr, but if you're a big kimchi person like me, it's worth a visit if you're in the area.

I also just liked walking around the area of Gangnam station - this is the futuristic, neon lights everywhere Seoul.

Have a good trip!
posted by pravit at 7:45 AM on January 5, 2014

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