When I was planning my Korea trip, I have tons of things that I wanna try based on the K-dramas that I have watched; go to a Jjimjilbang (Korean spa), eat at a Pojangmacha (street stall), bike around Nami Island, drink soju, and the list goes on. I had so much in mind that I don’t even know if I will be able to squeeze them during my stay.
I planned to stay in Busan majority of my Korea trip, but unfortunately, there was a terrible flash flood day before I depart which made me cancel the transit. I did not stress myself about it since it is something that I no longer have control of. Instead, I researched what my plan B should be.
THINGS TO TRY ON YOUR FIRST VISIT IN SEOUL
1. VISIT TONGIN MARKET
Tongin Market was recommended to me by a friend who is based in Seoul. She said I should visit the place and try out the local foods, aside from that she mentioned something about “coins” which I did not get at first. I was so curious about it so I decided to go.
There are quite a few street markets that I have visited in Seoul, but one of my favorites is Tongin Market. The small arcade-style market is packed to the rafters with all kinds of wonderful traditional Korean street foods. The market is a short walk away from Gyeongbuk Palace, so its the ideal place to stop for lunch after wandering the palace. What is unique about this place? You cannot buy any food with the Korean Won, but instead, you need to exchange your wons into old coins. You can exchange 5000 won for a collection of coins and a lunch box for your food then walk to each of the stores and choose the food that entices you.
I have tried a lot of foods a the market but my favorite would be the YEONGEUN JORIM. This sweet, savory and crunchy braised lotus fruit is just so delicious and also good for the health since it high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Nonetheless, you need to try all of the food they have.
2. GET A SNAP FROM A PHOTO BOOTH
I love taking photos but I never really printed pictures that I had taken from any of my trips since everything can be stored and viewed online now. But, I also thought that I should have a hard copy of the memories that I had on my travels and put them on a journal, or simply just have it as a souvenir, something that I can look back to when I get older. So I thought, why not find a photo booth where I can take selfies. HAHA! It isn’t just fun but also a cheap souvenir for any tip.
You can see a lot of photo booths in Seoul, they are mostly located in subway stations. However, these are the ones that are commonly used for passport, job application, or photos that have a basic background. So, I roamed around Hongdae and luckily found a booth that is what I exactly am looking for. This photo booth let visitors experience the retro charm and fun of the old-fashioned photo booth. The booths are self-serve, easy and cheap. Just step into the booth, choose from several filter and color options. In just a few minutes, a complete photo strip with 4 images will be ready.
I love the outcome! It makes me remember all the fun times I had in Seoul. Whenever I look into this photo, it gives me a flashback of how I walked around Hongdae to find it. I even gave up! But the moment that I did, I found it and it was not just one but I found 2 booths.
3. READ A BOOK AT THE COEX LIBRARY
Coex Mall has a massive library that consists roughly around 50,000 books and the first library to be inside a mall in Seoul. Their purpose of opening the library is to provide a place for serenity, light in the busy life or just a place to relax and read books. The library is a perfect antidote to the stressful and hectic malls. Its interior also added a relaxing vibe to it.
It felt like Christmas when I entered this huge library. I don’t know, maybe the color of the walls, how the books were arranged or there’s just too many Christmas lights decorated on the shelves. The library was a haven for me since I love reading books. I started getting hooked into fictions when I was in high school with the influence of my grandma who gave me all her Nancy Drew collection.
I sat upstairs to get a better view of the whole library and it was even more gorgeous up there. Whoever’s idea is it to put the library inside the mall has won it. It was such a refreshing view especially if you had a stressful day.
4. CHIMAEK BY THE HAN RIVER
Drinking culture in South Korea is a big part of their life, and it seems like everyone drinks. “CHIMAEK” as it is one of the staples of modern Korean eating Chimaek simply means chicken and beer. CHI came from the word “Korean Chicken” and MEK came from “Maekju” which means beer. Drinking alcohol is what most Koreans do to socialize, especially during events like important holidays, celebrations or just even after work on a Friday night. Korea is also on top of the game when it comes to fried chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Philippine’s Jollibee chicken but the fried chicken that I had tried in Seoul was probably the best. Crispy and juicy are too underrated to describe it. The impressive crispiness and lack of grease were the best things about it.
Me and my friends, who are living in Seoul, decided to go to Han River and have a picnic one night. The place was kind of familiar since I have seen a lot of K-drama scenes in this location. It was chilly which was perfect for a cold beer and a box of good chicken. We sat in the oddest spot I could imagine but with good company, it felt like everything was perfect. I can’t even remember the last time that I went to a picnic party since there aren’t many venues to do it in the city that I live in. The breeze of the night and view of the city lights were so relaxing after a long day of walking. Let me just reiterate how flavorful and crunchy the chicken was, something that you should not miss trying aside from the Samgyeopsal. Beer and chicken are now my favorite pair during drinking sessions.
5. HAVE SOMAEK AND PLAY GAMES
Another popular drink that I had tried in Korea was SOMAEK, a mixture of Beer (mek) and Soju. Soju is almost the way of life in Korea. In fact, I would describe Soju as their national liquor cos it is prominently in every Korean everyday life. Okay, ‘everyday’ seems too much but you get what I mean. I did not know about Somaek until a Korean-Filipina friend introduced the drink to us. You see, Koreans like drinking and there was never a dull drinking session with them cos they also have drinking games. Yes, a game. Not a hide and seek kind of game, but a game made for drinking.
Gail (the Korean-Filipina) ordered for us, I did not bother to ask what are we having since I am only there to socialize. Her mom, who’s a Filipina, let her meet Filipinos traveling in Seoul so she can converse and improve her English. Also, in this way, she can learn a bit about the Filipino culture since she has been living in Korea her whole life and only been to the Philippines once. The drinks were served and I was a bit confused that we have beers and soju. Are we drinking all these at once? Gail started pouring soju into the shot glass, placed chopsticks on the beer mug and told us we’ll play a game. Whoever will drop the shot glass with soju in the beer will drink it. We had played few games until we finished our drinks. It was a fun and cool experience.
6. WATCH STREET PERFORMANCES IN HONGDAE
During my stay in Seoul, I was always hanging out in Hongdae since it was only about 15 minutes walk from Hapjeong, the area where I stayed. You can see a little of everything in Hongdae; there are nice restaurants, cozy coffee shops, clothing stores, bars, you don’t even need to go anywhere anymore. But these are not the reason why I love Hongdae but because of the youthful ambiance and positive vibe this place has. It’s safe to say that this is my favorite corner in Seoul.
Hongdae is brimming with the young, artistic, and creative who flock there because of the local art focused university, Hongik University. And what happens when a large concentration of artists’ gather together? Well, obviously, great street performances! I have seen how Hongdae change at night. When the day is about to turn dark, you can see people, mostly students, prepare for their own little show. Some may be fixing their microphones, others would be setting up their little stage or just listening to the mix of music that they will play for the night’s show. You can see buskers lined up, you don’t even know who to watch anymore. Here you can enjoy singing performances, dance presentations, and even comedy shows. It is really like a buffet of talents almost every night, but mostly Friday and Saturday nights. You can see the crowd gathered around each performing group, like how they are rooting for their favorite artist. And these are quality performances. They practice their routines and prepare before they perform. Based on what I read in an article, some of them have are eventually being hired by entertainment agencies.
7. EAT AT A POJANGMACHA
Most of the things that I wanna do in Korea are ideas from the K-dramas that I have seen. Some of the K-pop fans would attend a concert of their idols while others would visit the location of the drama they’ve have been following, and me? I just wanna eat all the good stuff that I have seen in each series. I mean, who wouldn’t? Whenever I watch K-drama, I tend to crave Korean foods which always leads me to go for a Samgyeopsal or Bibimbap. Some restaurants in Manila even do deliveries now which makes it more convenient cos I can eat Kimbap while binge watching.
Pojangmacha is a small tent, can be on wheels, or street stalls that sell a variety of street foods. Exciting, right? Well, it is not just that. Pojangmacha is also a place where you can drink. No, we’re not talking about fruit juice here but you know, alcohol. People would come here to socialize with friends after a day of work or just cos it’s a Friday night. You can see a lot of these in Korea which means finding one isn’t that hard. Foods are really good and cheap. I prefer eating here than in a fancy restaurant. I am a big believer that local and authentic foods are best experienced when they are sold on the street. And having to dine in a Pojangmacha would give you a sense of belongingness. They open that door for you to experience how is it like living in their country which for me is amazing.
8. ENJOY THE CITY VIEW AT NAKSAN PARK
Naksan Park was never part of my plan, I don’t even know it ever existed. However, I accidentally came across it while roaming around the Ihwa Murals. I have been walking, up and down the stairs, tired when I saw a bench. Without second thoughts, I walked up to that bench so I can rest cos it has been a crazy leg day for me. If you don’t know, this area consists of many stairs. Imagine Greece or Portugal, you know those gorgeous alleyways with a lot of stairs, that’s how this area looked like. When I reached the bench, I was surprised with what I saw cos it was a 360 view of Seoul.
Naksan Park is not the biggest park, but it offers a view of Seoul’s skyline that does not match other parks in Seoul. It is far more intimate and less crowded than other attractions such as Namsan Tower. The park is the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. I bought my dose of coffee and sat there until sunset. It was stunning! I could only imagine how the view would look like at night, the light of the buildings that make the whole city glow. Wish I could stay until night time to take more photos but I have to go meet some friends for dinner.
9. ATTEND THE SECRET GARDEN TOUR
I was so intrigued with the “SECRET GARDEN” cos I have never heard of it until a friend recommended that I add it on my palace tour. Out of curiosity, I went and pre-booked the tour online. Secret Garden is a lush park behind the Changdeokgung Palace. Don’t be confused, there’s a separate tour for it inside the palace and they follow a strict time schedule on when the tour starts.
Secret Garden has a different atmosphere inside. Who would have thought that there is a forest setup in the middle of a big city like Seoul? It is nothing but nature in a bustling city. As we enter the garden, I felt like I was visiting the time when permission still needs to be obtained from the king to enter this secret place. It was so silent inside, you can’t even hear any vehicular sound. All I heard was the guide telling us the story of the place and the hum of the birds flying from one tree to the other. I have only seen this kind of setup in some movies. It was so peaceful, it felt like I was living in the old era.
10. GO SHOPPING NEAR EHWA UNIVERSITY
But of course, shopping should also be on the list. If there is a place on earth where fashion is a big thing, that’s probably Korea. Their fashion sense has evolved throughout the years with the great inspiration from the westerns. They have maintained a style that has been acknowledged and influenced the worldwide trends. No wonder Seoul has the hottest fashion trend in the whole of Asia. Everyone on the street seems to be always on their best look. Like how the saying goes, “dress every day like you would see your worst enemy”.
If you are looking into visiting Ehwa University, I highly suggest taking a detour to the shops near the university. Okay, just to be clear, you won’t shop inside the University, but it is outside. There is a number of street stalls and also designer shops in the area. The fashion street offers trendy and affordable stuff to fill your shopping bag. From bags to shoes, to blouses, beachwear to office wear, they got you covered. It was a ladies’ haven! I’m guilty that I have overspent on shopping here but I can’t complain cos I came home happy with all the stuff that I got, aside from the unforgettable memories that Korea had let me experience, of course.
If you are still looking for more fun things to try while in Korea, here’s a few more to add on the list.
- Buy face masks in Myeongdong.
- Wear hanbok.
- Chill in Seoul’s Cafes for your Instagram.
- Stay at a Temple.
- Hike Bukhansan National Park.
- Eat at night markets.
- Stay overnight at a Korean traditional bathhouse or jjimjil bang.
- Try Kimchi.
- Bike in Nami Island.
- Befriend a Local.