Retro: South Korea
South Korea surprised us, and in the best way. We went in not really knowing what to expect - I didn’t know much about the culture, but we met such vibrant and friendly people, and in such beautiful places; I hadn’t had much Korean cuisine, but it felt like we never stopped eating; I wasn’t sure what we’d end up doing there for almost two weeks, but we were never, ever bored. Here’s a small compilation of our favorite foods, activities, and places we had the pleasure to experience during our time there, plus a few tips if you’re planning a visit yourself.
Places To Go
A few of our favorite specific attractions we went to in South Korea, that we recommend you check out too!
• Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a traditional Korean village, preserved and maintained to show what it was like as an urban area six hundred years ago. With its winding alleys, hundreds of traditional homes (called hanok), and many men and women walking around in customary Korean dress, it’s a traditional and quaint glimpse back in time. (It’s also near Gyeongbok Palace, which is another spot you’ll likely want to check out too.) It’s very important to remember that while the village is a tourist attraction, it’s also a functioning residential area, with local people trying to go about their daily lives. You may seem some signs telling tourists to stay out, but if you enter quietly and remain respectful, it’s totally fine and well worth the visit.
• Busan. Busan is South Korea’s second most populous city, a beautiful metropolis by the sea (and my favorite city we stayed in). It’s known for tranquil, expansive beaches, relaxing hot spring resorts, and a bustling urban nightlife. There is also a famous temple in the north-eastern portion of Busan - Haedong Yonggusa. It’s built right into the shoreline, in the rocks and next to the sea, which is rare for Korean temples - you’ll usually find them nestled into the mountains. The bullet train to Busan from Seoul is about two and a half hours, so it’s best to make Busan a weekend trip at least.
• Gyeongju. Another day-trip from Seoul, and a beautiful area for history-lovers. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, which ruled most of the Korean Peninsula for almost a thousand years, so it’s filled with cultural and archeological sites. Often referred to as a “museum without walls”, the area houses temples, ruins, historical villages, and a really informative museum about the history.
• Myeong-dong shopping area. This is one of the main commercial areas in Seoul, it’s a bustling area packed with stores, restaurants, and people. We spent a long time walking around, window-shopping and people-watching. I bought a couple of cheap face masks (South Korea is also known for their skin-care products, and there seemed to be about ten beauty shops in every alley), but most of our money was spent on the street food - this is the area to get your street food! We went to Myeong-dong both in the day and at night, while there is street food at all hours, it definitely picked up in the evening - the vendors came out in hoards after dark.
• The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA). This was probably the coolest thing we did in South Korea, it was just so far out of our comfort zone, and a huge learning experience. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about inter-Korean relations or the political climate in Korea before this, but getting to go that close to the heavily fortified border, see and interact with ROK soldiers and American GIs, and even *technically* step inside North Korea - it was so informative and, honestly, fascinating. In order to see the DMZ, you have to go with a tour guide, who’ll get you into a South Korean military base (where you’ll get a military escort). There are tons of companies to book with online, and if possible, make sure your tour includes the JSA - that’s where you can go into North Korea. These tours can book up months in advance though (we were very lucky and got a last-minute spot), so try to book early. If you’re not able to do a tour, stop into Odusan Unification Observatory - it’s just a short drive outside Seoul, and you can go there yourself.
Things to do
Here is a list of a few of our favorite experiences you can try almost anywhere in South Korea.
• Hiking. Korea is roughly 70% mountains, so it’s easy to find fun and challenging hikes in pretty much any city you visit. Our favorite was a day hike we did in Bukhansan, a mountain range in the northern periphery of Seoul. It was a steep, rocky, uphill climb, but with plenty of different trails so you can pick depending on your difficulty level. The views are amazing, the ultra-urban skyscrapers of Seoul nestled in between tree-covered mountain peaks is a truly unforgettable sight!
• Relax at a Korean spa. These are fun, cheap ways to unwind, with hot pools, cold pools, dry saunas, wet saunas, salt caves, and more. Much like the Japanese onsen, there are public, gender-segregated bathhouses where you’re expected to get fully naked, so make sure you’re comfortable with that (and if you’re not, try it anyway!). There are also mixed-gender dry saunas, where you receive big comfy robes to wear while you sit. Many of these spas are open twenty-four hours, and allow you to stay overnight, so you can settle in for a full day of relaxation.
• Eat street food. Of all the countries I have been in my life, nowhere has had as much street food as South Korea. The foods we sampled, among others, included sweet egg toasts, Korean fried chicken, grilled cheese lobster, fried donuts, blood sausage, pig’s feet, roasted sweet potatoes and pressed squid. I recommend it all, but we noticed three foods in particular that seemed the most ubiquitous - a staple at every stall, and popular with the locals, too: tteokbokki (떡볶이, spicy rice cakes); eomuk (어묵, fish cakes) on a stick, be sure to get a cup of the broth with it; and haemul pajeon (해물파전), seafood scallion pancakes.
• Hang out at a PC bang. PC bangs (PC방, “PC room”), are extremely popular sites for young Koreans, and it was cool to be able to experience that culture on a Friday night. Basically, it’s just a room with a ton of really nice computers set up, with crystal clear monitors and awesome mechanical keyboards, each of them equipped with all the most popular online game clients pre-installed. I definitely would not categorize myself as a gamer; I struggled to remember my old League of Legends account password that I hadn’t logged into in over a year. But, it was so fun to be in that room playing with everyone else - people in there take their games seriously, intense yelling, shouts of joy, or angry scoldings in Korean could always be heard from across the room. You pay by the hour, but it’s cheap - the one we went to seemed to be on the nicer end, and ran us about $1 USD an hour.
Food TO EAT
Mealtimes in South Korea for us usually consisted of amazing foods we’d never heard of before, often followed by a desperate search for water (seriously, they don’t fuck around in Korea - if they say it’s spicy, it will be extremely spicy). Here is a list of some of our favorites.
• Hotteok (호떡, fried sweet or savory pancake/bun). Not really sure what a good translation for these would be, but it’s essentially just fried dough with filling, so what more do I need to say. We had these a couple times, but the best ones were from a small yellow stall in Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul. We had a marinated beef (bulgogi) one, a glass noodle and vegetable (japchae) filled one (which was my personal favorite), and a more traditional, sweet one, filled with brown sugar, honey, and nuts.
• Samgyeopsal (삼겹살, pork belly) Korean barbecue. Korean barbecue is a must, and while there are a variety of meats to choose from, we took Yeung-Jin’s (a new friend we met while hiking outside Seoul) suggestion, and ordered the pork belly. He said the beef wasn’t worth it, because the cow industry in Korea isn’t too large and most beef is imported. (Note: we did eventually try beef Korean barbecue anyway, but Yeung-Jin was right - samgyeopsal is where it’s at). Anyway, the bonus with Korean barbecue is you also get served the famous Korean side-dishes (seriously, even karaoke came with side dishes), about fifteen different bowls of stuff you can eat with your barbecue. The best barbecue we had while in South Korea was at a place called 맛찬들왕소금구이 in Haeundae, Busan.
• Sweet soybean powder. So this is really a Japanese food (there it’s called kinako, きなこ), but we found it much more prevalent in South Korea. It is essentially just roasted soybeans, ground into a fine powder, with sweetener added. It sounds a little weird, but it sort of tastes like peanut butter.
• Gimbap (김밥). Gimbap looks a lot like sushi rolls, and they share many of the same ingredients - usually consisting of dried seaweed, cooked rice, and fillings like eggs, pickled and raw vegetables, ham, kimchi, etc. We found these to be a good breakfast - South Korea doesn’t traditionally have any breakfast foods, they just eat the same things they’d have for lunch/dinner, so this was a lighter alternative when we couldn’t handle something very heavy or spicy first thing in the morning. Similarly, we also had dolsot-bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥), which is basically all those ingredients but in a hot stone bowl (the locals would usually eat this by pouring in absolutely massive amounts of hot sauce, then mixing it up profusely).
We’d never been to South Korea before, so it was a learning experience going in. Here are a few tips we learned while there.
• The bus system is a little more intense than what we were used to back at home, but we caught on real quick. They drive like mad and hold the doors open for about two seconds at each stop, so be up, scanned out, and ready to jump off well before your destination. (We missed our stop the first time!)
• Toilet paper isn’t always in the stalls, we found most of the time it was outside near the paper towels, so you have to grab it on the way in. Don’t learn this one the hard way.
• Google Maps does not provide walking directions in South Korea, due to national security issues, so navigation could be a bit difficult. However, they allow directions in apps run on domestic servers only - we used one called Naver Map to get around.
• You can drink the tap water in South Korea, and we totally did. However, a lot of locals/visitors choose to drink bottled or purified, citing a chemical-y taste and smell. Up to you, but if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing it might make sense to buy a portable water filter beforehand.
South Korea was full of surprises, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. It wasn’t hard quickly to fall in love with such a beautiful and historical place, filled with temples, skyscrapers, lively people, and where a great hike is never far away.