(Or: how to see more than the average internet tourist)
27/12/2013 - 17/01/2014 -1 °C
This post is cross-posted on my personal blog: Anonymous of Holland
Websites with travel tips about Seoul, capital of South Korea, are a dime a dozen. The city is a huge tourist hotspot, and many tourists don't even make it outside of its all-encompassing territory, so it's no wonder you can find thousands of websites telling you what to do there after about a second on Google. What you will quickly find though, is that most of these websites recommend the same 10-15 things, and after checking about 10 of them, you'd start to wonder if Seoul really has as much to offer as those traveling websites are telling you.
Have no fear though, since I'm here to share with you the things that those websites don't. You won't catch me talking about palaces or markets for too long, and neither will I tell you to 'try the bibimbap' or 'eat kimchi'. Because I know you're not retarded and you already know these things. So let's go a little deeper than the average traveling site, go a little bit off of the beaten path and have a good time experiencing a more 'casual' Korea, shall we?
Seoul has its own Comiket called Comic World, which is hosted once a month in SETEC, in the Gangnam district of the city. If you're into anime at all, it's definitely worth a visit. Being a copy of Comiket, it's less of a convention and more of a giant fan-market, but in spite of the lack of activities you'll easily be able to spend a day there browsing all the awesome fanmade goods and gawking at the beautiful costumes and their often equally beautiful wearers. If you're into guys kissing other guys, then you're especially in luck, since it seems Seoul is bustling with repressed fujoshi who can't wait to get their monthly dose of Loki kissing Thor or Spock kissing Captain Kirk (from the 2009 reboot, of course, not Shatner). As a result, I'd say about 70% of everything there is aimed at girls, with more than a dozen circles concentrating solely on some obscure football anime or drawing pictures of Batman making out with Iron Man. Aside from that smut though, there's a lot of gems to be found, and most of the sellers will be very surprised and honored to see a foreigner show an interest in their work. It seems this convention is not well known among foreigners yet, so you'll still get those precious '아...외국인다' comments that they think you can't understand.
Looking for electronics?
While I totally understand the thought that Samsung, LG or even Japanese brand stuff 'Should be cheaper here', it really, really isn't. Why? I have absolutely no idea. My girlfriend and I once theorized that perhaps it's because Koreans think laptops, mobile phones and other electronics are so important that they don't mind paying disproportionate amounts of money for them.
Almost everything in Korea is cheaper than it is in Europe (and, thus, cheaper than in the US), but electronics are a sad exception. A Galaxy S4 will set you back about 6-700,000 won, which is about €450 (slightly more than the current price in the Netherlands). I'm not saying you shouldn't visit Yongsan or the always awesome Techno Mart, but don't expect to find an amazing deal there.
I know, you don't have to hide it, many people looking for 'Seoul travel tips' online are actually Kpop fans looking to find good places to buy their plastic crack. Well, I've got ya covered! While everyone knows about the CD stores in the Myeondong underground and on the streets of that shopping Mecca, did you know that you can get your precious EXO, SNSD, TVXQ and other good-sounding abbreviations CDs at a mere quarter of the price AND find some old out of print singles of your favorite idols at a second hand CD store like the Bookoff in Sinchon?
Their selection is mostly Japanese, but it includes enough Korean CDs to keep you busy for a while and make your wallet cry in shame.
While their products are technically used, every single CD and DVD I've bought there was in pristine condition, and some new releases that were still costing ₩23,000 at Hot Tracks were available for a much more attractive ₩7,000 at this place.
There's a reason you'll be able to find any number of websites and blog talking about 'which food you must try while in Korea'; Korea is the land of amazing food and on top of that the stuff is also unbelievably cheap. Why sit around at home and cook for yourself when you can go out and have a professionally prepared meal starting at half the price of your ingredients?
There's plenty of 'must try' lists for you out there, so I'm not going to bore you with another one. Instead, I'm going to give you two single ROCK SOLID recommendations.
The first is 닭잡는파로 (I won't try to translate it, because Google comes up with 'Faro Kill A Chicken' and I'm pretty sure that's not exactly right!), located in Sinchon, and it's basically the most awesome place I've ate at in all the time I've been in Korea. And I ate out almost every day for like 4 months! Prices are reasonable, service is great and the food is simply divine. If you love meat, you owe this place a visit! Unlike other restaurants that ship you off with one mediocre sauce to dip your meat in, this place gives you four (with free refills of course) and unlike other places where the meat is usually kind of bland (and will have you reaching for that one sauce pretty quickly), the meat here is perfectly marinated and prepared.
But don't take my word for it, nor my crappy pictures, check out these two Korean blogs where you can even watch a gif of some girl eating there for whatever reason. Silly Koreans.
The second restaurant that I want to tell you about is 더 후라이팬 (The Frypan). It's a franchise, so there's more than one of them, but I only experienced the one in Sangsu.
Before you start complaining about me only recommending 'non-traditional/non-Korean food', let me tell you this: There's about a million amazing places to eat in every street of Seoul. Throw a rock and you're bound to hit a restaurant that serves Kimchi Chigae, Bibimbap, Jaeyuktopbap, Bulgogi, Samgyupsal, etc. I can't recommend any of them because there's so many high quality ones, and most of the ones that aren't remarkably bad are about as good as the others. Fried chicken though, now there's something you should definitely have when you're in Korea and that I can make a recommendation for. There's plenty of fried chicken restaurants as well, and many of them are awesome, but The Frypan is especially so.
When I was there this time, I had the '잭 치킨' (Jack Chicken) which had a marinade based on Jack Daniels Whiskey. Yes, you can have whiskey-flavored fried chicken in Korea. Isn't this place wonderful?
Check out the pictures at this Korean foodie's blog, and definitely drop by when you have a chance.
Shopping Tip 2
An absolute must on any tourist's shopping list should be cute socks. They cost less than a pack of gum and are available in hundreds of intriguing designs, most of which violate international copyright laws without even batting an eye. Hongdae used to be a good area to shop for these essential Korean goods, but this year I noticed you'll pay at least twice as much for only a fraction of the selection there, so if you're serious about cute socks, head over to the district where everything cute naturally gathers: Ewha. One pair of socks will cost you 1,000 won (don't be fooled by those 'SALE ₩1,500' signs in other districts), there's dozens of little stands and shops to buy them at and while you're treating your feet, you can also treat your eyes looking at all the cute girls (or their cute boyfriends, if you're into that sort of thing) shopping in the cutest place in Seoul.
And while we're on the subject of cute things: Korea is the capital of cuteness. Stores like Kosney , Kyobo or Artbox sell the most amazing stationary, pens, notebooks and anything else you can imagine that will make you d'awww harder than pictures of cute cats on the internet. And it's okay to splurge a little on these kinds of things because hey, you're going to be using them like every day, right?
Everyone knows about the free museum near Gyeonbokgung Palace, but everyone who's been there can tell you about how boring it is. King Sejong's Story, underneath Gwanghwamun Square, is slightly more interesting (and also free) but right around the corner there's some museums that are are much worthy of your hard-pressed time. Pay a visit to the Seoul Museum of History, or the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History instead, and you won't be disappointed. Not only will you be able to see some of those fascinating rocks that they have in the National Palace Museum, but you can also learn more about the rise, fall and rebuilding of Seoul, more recent history, and enjoy lots of interactive exhibitions.
As for the number one must visit museum though: visit the War Memorial of Korea. It is not only a memorial for the millions who died in the wars fought over Korea, but also an absolutely huge museum where you can learn fascinating things about those wars. If you can only visit one museum before you leave, make sure it's this one. It will leave you breathless and awed.
And if, after all of that, you still don't feel humbled enough, walk by Seodeamun Prison in Dongnimmun - an internment camp where the Japanese 're-educated' Korean intellectuals and freedom fighters during their occupation.
Visiting all four of these musea will assure you will never think of the Japanese happily ever again (or at least until you see another Ghibli film), and is sure to make a lasting impression.
Best of all, all of them (except for Seodaemun, that one costs a whopping 3,000 won) are free to enter and enjoy, so you have no excuses this time!
Kpop Tip 2
Instead of spending 4-12,000 won on a poorly printed bootleg '12 cut poster set' like a Taiwanese tourist, consider taking a look at a second hand bookstore - for 2,000 won you could own a fashion magazine with dozens of high quality pictures of your favorite idols. Magazines like Elle, Ceci, Vogue or W Korea go for about €30 on ebay after shipping, but this used book store on the way to Sinchon from Hongdae sells them at 2,000 won (or €1,40) a pop. And better yet, you get to browse through every single one of them before buying so you can see exactly if what you want is in there.
I ended up with about 8 of them, and at a price of 16,000 won I think I got all that I wanted and more.
Although it might seem daunting, it's usually better to walk into a really 'Korean looking' place for lunch than going for the obvious foreigner friendly franchise restaurants or modern establishments. While you might have a little more difficulty ordering, you'll find that the prices are about half of what you'd pay elsewhere (for one lunch (which is a full meal in Korea), my average spending is about 5,000 won) and you'll be fuller than full because of the Korean sized portions you'll be served.
It's always a good idea to write down some foods you know you'll like (or absolutely won't like), or better yet learn to read what's on the menu. The 아줌마 will be impressed by your Korean and will treat you extra nicely. If all else fails, just point at some pictures that are bound to be on the walls.
Nerd Tip 2
Hongdae is not a particularly amazing place for a nerd to hang out (it's too hip and full of people who enjoy going clubbing) but there's two stores hidden there that will be of interest for the foreign nerd.
The first is Young Jin Book Store - an artbook store that sells American, Korean and Japanese art books at amazing prices (well, if you're used to European prices that is). Most books are priced even lower than USD = KRW conversion, which is insane, and their selection is respectable. You'll find it by going out of Exit 9 of the Hongdae subway station, taking a left into the main street and taking a second left at the first opportunity, passing the Burger King. The store is about a hundred meters into the street. With its big blue sign, you probably won't miss it. It does seem to close at seemingly random times though, so if you can't find it, it might be because they closed the shutters.
The second store is actually hidden, and I only found it because I was bored and saw some anime pictures pasted up over some stairs going down under street level. It's called Book Sae Tong and it's a pretty large manga and artbook store. It's just slightly further down the road of YJ Books, so you should be able to find it. Look for a weird looking glass construction on the left side of the street.
Inside you'll find a huge selection of Korean language manga, and original Korean manhwa. They have a very small American comic book selection, but their art book selection is slightly better. Prices are much higher than at YJ Books though, so only go here for the manga.
I managed to find this amazing gem while browsing around there this time:
Feeling Like A Rich Guy Tip
For our last tip, I have something that I didn't know about until my girlfriend told me: Horse betting is legal in Korea and you can totally go there and pretend to be a rich guy! Entry costs only 1,000 won and bets can be made starting at 100 won (yes, that is the price of literally nothing I can think of) up to 100,000 won. Horse races are exciting and the feeling of sitting in the bleachers with hundreds of other people (mostly 아저씨s) who bet money as well makes you feel like you're at that point in the movie where everything is riding on that one horse crossing the finishing line in a super close photo-finish.
I'd never bet on anything before in my life, so this was a totally interesting experience for me.
So there you have it; the few useful things I've learned during my time in Seoul that can be of use to the occasional traveler. I'm sure there's plenty of other useful tips to be had, so if you have any don't be afraid to share.