One Week in Seoul
I never imagined myself visiting South Korea but I’m so grateful that it served as my gateway to experiencing Asia for the first time.
Having heard stories from Brandon’s visit to Beijing a few years ago, I was nervously anticipating seaweed for breakfast and holes in the floor in place of toilets. But Seoul turned out to be much more westernized than I had imagined. Many places offer menus with English and you can usually find someone who speaks it as well. Most importantly, the toilets are above ground, porcelain and typically very clean. :)
Where We Stayed
If it’s one thing I learned about Korean culture during my time there it’s that they LOVE to shop. Our hotel, the InterContinental Grand Seoul Parnas, was situated in the metropolitan Gangnam District directly above the largest underground shopping center in all of Asia, the Coex Mall.
I spent the first couple of days exploring the enormous mall and was impressed by how stylish and well dressed the women are. I felt like there was a minimalist aesthetic to their style which I personally adore. I could have easily maxed out my credit card in that mall. The prices, however, are not cheap even by California standards so I forced myself to resist the temptation.
Another thing I gathered within just a few days was that vegetarianism is not popular among Koreans. The mall had a ton of different cuisines to choose from, but virtually everything had meat, especially pork.
You want a bowl of noodles? It’s made with pork broth.
You want an egg salad sandwich? It’s layered with slices of ham.
You want a burrito? How about some bits of ham in there too?
The options at their “cultural” restaurants were really strange too. Even the pizzas had all kinds of unusual toppings that I had never heard of.
I was only able to find a handful of things that I could actually eat but one of my favorites was the Sizzling Stone Bibimbap at the Hyundai Department Store. All of the produce was super fresh and the chili paste was delicious.
Another thing I loved was the fresh kiwi juice. They had it at several different places and I drank it almost every day we were there.
Where We Ate
Our main reason for visiting Seoul was so that Brandon could attend a conference for work, but we were fortunate to have a few days to get out and explore the area outside of Gangnam.
I was in awe of how big and developed the city is. There’s no distinct downtown area; almost everywhere has high rise buildings that give it a “big city” feel. The only part that we found to have more of an authentic traditional feel was Insadong, which was my personal favorite.
We went to Insadong for dinner at Sanchon, a buddhist restaurant that serves vegetarian food, and it was such a cool experience.
They have you take your shoes off and wash your hands when you first walk in. Then you literally sit on the floor to eat dinner. The setting was very peaceful and tranquil.
The food was also good but there were so many courses that I lost count. Plus no one explained to us what we were eating or how to eat it, so it was a little overwhelming. But I would still say it’s worth it for the overall experience.
After we ate we explored the surrounding streets that were lined with restaurants and shops offering a nice selection of handmade local goods. If you’re ever in Seoul and want to pick up a few thoughtful souvenirs, this is the place to go.
Also, be sure to stop at the green tea store while you’re in Insadong. I don’t know the name but they have everything green tea you can imagine and it’s amazing!
The Plant Cafe
It took us forever to find this place but once we did, it was so worth it. Plant Cafe is run by a food blogger and, as if that wasn’t reason enough for me to want to visit, the menu selection is amazing to boot.
I went for a lentil veggie burrito bowl and Brandon had a tempeh rainbow veggie wrap, both of which were incredible. Then we finished off with a slice of pumpkin gingerbread and chocolate peanut butter cake…ugh, it was SO freaking good. Had it been closer to our hotel, I would have definitely eaten there every day.
I highly recommend visiting Plant Cafe if you’re ever in Seoul!
This cafe is in Hongdae which had a very youthful feel, thanks to the nearby university. There are a ton of cute coffee shops and cafes but we ultimately landed at Cafe Sukkara for dinner. We had some kind of soup and chickpea salad with whole grain bread which was pretty good. I wasn’t blown away by it but it felt nice to have something healthy!
Where We Played
Gwanjang Market is one of the oldest and largest traditional markets in South Korea with more 5,000 shops. I had read this was the spot to try Bindaetteok, or Korean Mung Bean Pancakes so we decided to check it out.
I really enjoyed experiencing Korean culture here but I don’t think it’s somewhere I would go back to. The scent of raw meat and fermenting kimchi in a closed, non-air conditioned environment combined with hot humid weather was not ideal. It also made the greasy pancake hard for me to eat. But if you’re not easily deterred by dead animal parts and it’s a cool day then it might be more enjoyable for you!
This is Seoul’s most popular shopping district and feels similar to that of Times Square in New York City. It’s loud, busy, and crowded but still interesting to experience for a few hours. If nothing else, you’ll walk away with a few free face sheet mask samples.
North Seoul Tower
The North Seoul Tower is 236 meters tall and marks the highest location in Seoul. It’s surrounded by the lush green Namsan Park which has a ton of stair cases leading to the top of the tower.
The park is about a 15 minute walk from Myeondong so we made our way over from there. Then it took us about an hour to ascend the 1.6 km to the top, with time to stop and take pictures along the way. We were both soaked in sweat by the time we got there but the views of the city were worth it.
Also, just like the Eiffel Tower, you can leave a lock behind with your name on it. We didn’t because Brandon thinks it’s cliche. Boo.
I’m usually averse to taking tours when I travel but considering I was on my own for a few days and I couldn’t speak the native language, I thought this was a good time to make an exception.
One of the tours I signed up for was a Buddhist Temple Stay at Myogaska Temple. The day began with us changing into temple clothes (you’ll see below- it looks like a prison suit) then taking a tour of the temple which was breathtaking. Then we made prayer beads which required us to do 108 prostrations (or a full body bow), one for every single bead. By the end we were all exhausted! We definitely had to earn those beads.
After that we had a delicious buffet style vegetarian lunch, meditated and then finished the day with a traditional tea ceremony. Overall it was such a cool experience!
Ongo Cooking Class
One thing I knew I absolutely had to do while I was in Korea was take a cooking class. I was worried how that would work with me being a vegetarian but I lucked out when I came across Ongo which thankfully caters to a variety of diets.
We spent the afternoon learning how to make kimchi and bulgogi which was so much fun. I made my bulgogi with Korean “rice cakes” instead of beef. The rice cakes were interesting but let’s just say that I wouldn’t cook with them at home. I did love learning more about Korean BBQ though. I already recreated it at home using mushrooms and tofu and it turned out delicious. Keep an eye out for that recipe soon!
Visiting the palaces in Korea are an absolute must! I took a tour of Gyeongbokgung Palace and thoroughly enjoyed it. Our tour guide was very informative and funny too.
He described Korea as a little shrimp between two big whales: China and Japan. He said their native flower represents their perseverance for sustaining themselves for the past 5,000 years.
There were a ton of interesting tidbits that we learned throughout the day and I highly recommend taking a tour if you get the chance to visit.
P.S. I made a video too! Please note that my videography skills are a work in progress. :)