It was a little ambitious of me to believe that in five days I could explore Seoul in its entirety. Seoul is a dynamic city comprised of more neighborhoods and markets than any other city I have ever visited. With an incredible rail system, it is easy to get to all corners of the city; however, time was certainly our biggest obstacle. My trip to Korea was spontaneous and a special for many reasons; I was finally meeting up with my best friend after not seeing each other for eleven months. Arber moved to China after graduation to follow his heart and dreams to fully immerse himself in Chinese culture and to further study and develop his Mandarin language skills. Required to make a visa run every three months, one random Tuesday in February I decided I was going to redeem my miles, and using 5/10 days off to to explore a new country with Arber. Accompanying me was John, Arber’s childhood best friend. John had spent the past couple of months backpacking through Southeast Asia and his last hurrah would be this epic week in Seoul. John and I had spent weeks planning his visit, his surprise visit, to see Arber and it was beyond perfect. After screaming, crying and a whole lot of happiness and love we were all reunited in Seoul. Although we had a whole lot of catching up to do, this in no way minimized or limited our time for exploration, adventure and sightseeing. Seoul is an enormous city and there is just so much to see. Naturally, we wanted to conquer it all. And, we did a pretty kick ass job of that. The list of neighborhoods and markets that are appealing, entertaining, and worth a visit is a very long one so let me begin by entertaining you with my top 5:
- Located in the center of Seoul this should be #1 on your list. You may want to visit to buy some Seoul souvenirs; however, I recommend visiting this market on an empty stomach because you will find incredible food. Eliminate the words gross and weird from your vocabulary because everything you try will be extremely DIFFERENT, and delicious. Whether it be live squid, scallion omelets, red bean paste pancakes, kimchi dumplings or minced meat buns, it is all very unique and worth a try. The market began in 1964 and is open six days a week (Sunday is the store-owners rest day).
- This is the most picturesque and memorable areas of Seoul. This area is a center for the arts; craftsman, painters, and poets line the streets to share their love, passion and unique works of art. You could spend an entire day here wandering through the boutique stores and exploring the small alleyways. This neighborhood is the perfect paradox between historic preservation and a modern, contemporary aura.
- Hongdae is known for its urban arts and indie music culture, clubs and entertainment. When you get off of the subway and emerge from underground you will walk directly into a huge market area. I recommend checking out the Hongdae Playground at night. It becomes a hub for street vendors, live music and incredible performers. Around this area is a great nightlife scene, be sure to stop into Joons Bar, Mikes Place, and Hip Hop Bar.
- “Oppa Gangnam style.” Yes, this is the where the song Gangnam style originated from. As you soon you enter Gangnam, you will be greeted with a stage set up for Gangnam style performance. The song will blare, lights will strobe and hopefully tourists will have a fun time being ridiculous. Naturally, we couldn’t come to Gangnam and not dance Gangnam style so it did not takes us long to hop up and give everyone a little show. Gangnam is filled with incredible restaurants (especially Korean BBQ), unique bars and tons of shopping.
- Itaewon is known to be a very expat-friendly neighborhood. The main street in Itaewon is lined with large department stores and the street is filled with small vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs. But if you mosey back into the smaller side streets you will be overtaken by how quaint, romantic and unique this area is. Each street has a different feel; one moment you can feel like you are in a crazy busy Asian city, and then you will be transformed to a small cobblestone French village. There is one restaurant after another that were all swarming with people.
Seoul is filled with dozens of markets and special neighborhoods and this list barely scratches the surface. Other notable markets to check out are Dondaemun, Ewha and the Noryangjin Fish Market. Have fun exploring; there is just so much to see, taste and feel in the heart of Seoul!