It’s time to expand your horizons and forget for a while about Paris, New York and London. And I do love London. I will give you 8 reasons to visit Seoul… now!
First I have to be honest: not so long ago all I knew about this place was that Korea was split into two and the K-Pop was a big thing worldwide. I had always wanted to go to Asia, but Seoul was not in my immediate plans. Until I got the chance to go to a summer course at the University of Seoul (UOS) and I said why not?
After spending a month in Gangnam Style’s home —don’t ever say this to a Korean— , I understood why Seoul has become so big in terms of fashion trends, technology and pop culture.
These are my 8 reasons to visit Seoul:
1. TRADITIONAL AND MODERN
Seoul masterfully mix old and new with a nicely balanced contrast as a result. Among the monumental skyscrapers, there are ancient royal palaces, traditional markets and temples. The market I liked the most was Nundaemun. There is everything from smartphone cases to food only Korean people know about. If you enter the buildings and go to the underground floor, you can try a wide range of Korean products. And nobody will get upset if you don’t buy.
Korea is a world leader when it comes to technology. Being in Seoul is like taking a walk in the future. They have the fastest internet in the world and there is free access almost everywhere, even in the streets (pay attention Berlin).
There are also a lot of electronics stores. There are two main shopping centers that geeks can’t miss: in Yongsam Electronics (Yongsam station) there are more than 3,000 shops with new and second hand gadgets; and Techno Mart (Gangbyeon station) which covers about 9,900 square kilometers. I recommend going with someone who knows a lot about technology or at least speak Korean because products are suspiciously cheap. Samsung and LG are Korean, but it doesn’t mean they are cheaper to buy in Seoul. Another detail: sometimes gadget’s instructions are in Japanese or Korean.
3. NIGHTLIFE (and cheap liquor)
The “city that never sleeps” title should be given to Seoul. Here the party goes every day of the week, until late. Hongdae is well known as the student’s district (check the video). Is full of bars and clubs with free entry. Also you can try Itaewon, the international neighbourhood. In Gangnam, where the beautiful and wealthy people is — although Cheongdam is the it place—, it’s full of cool local clubs to go and check new fashion and plastic surgery trends during day or night time. Here is the famous Octagon electronic club. Saturday tickets cost 10,000 won and usually there is an international DJs playing.
And liquor… Drinking is mandatory in Korea, and it is legal to drink in public. Soju, a Korean favorite that resembles watery-vodka, costs about 1,500 won. Be careful, it leaves a nasty hangover. Sometimes Koreans mix it with beer. They get pretty drunk so it’s very common to see a few of them walking like zombies or even sleeping on the street. But it’s safe, they are in Korea!
If you are into Asian food, you will be in heaven’s paradise. But if you don’t, you can find the typical fast food chains everywhere. There is variety, although fruit and vegetables seemed a bit expensive. Street food is totally reliable. Beware: Koreans like fried and very spicy food. In the streets you can find pojangmacha, bright colored tents with tables where locals can eat chicken feet, kimchi with tofu, fried octopus or dried fish at very accessible prices. Here you can see students, businessmen, tourists, etc. They only accept bills.
Watch out meatlovers: beef in Korea is weird. I’m South American and I know about meat! They have no idea what a great steak is. And the few times I tried beef, I prayed to God hoping that the meat on my plate wasn’t dog. Koreans told me that dog was quite expensive and fancy, so relax.
Bonus: in supermarkets you can sample food for free. And again, nobody will get mad if you don’t buy.
This is another good reason to visit Seoul. Even though is not as cheap as it’s neighbour China, is not as expensive as Tokyo. There are very good and affordable hostels —check in Hongdae— and big meals for about 5,000 won (1 won is about €0.0008/$0.0009). You can find good deals in clothes and accessories in Dongdaemun; and typical Korean products in Nundaemun, the traditional market. Just a few blocks away is Myeongdong where you can find the latests trends in fashion. The best thing for me was the make up stores: you get free face masks even if you don’t buy anything. Korea is famous for it’s beauty products which prices are way better than in the West —at least compared to South America—.
6. PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Seoul is a big city, but you can access every corner with their transport system. The subway has been chosen as the best one in the world: it’s clean, modern and affordable (starting from 1,050 won). You can get a card at any convenient store and they are good for transport and also to buy in those stores. It is advisable to keep your voice low and don’t ever sit in the elderly and pregnant special seats. All signs are both in Korean and English. In summertime there is AC and in winter the seats are heated.
Even though Seoul is surrounded by skyscrapers, markets and shrines, nature is quite important for Koreans. If you feel like trekking, you will find many mountains nearby. UOS is surrounded by tress and there is a hill just next to it and also a small pound with a bridge near the international residence. In the city runs the Han river next to Cheonggyecheon, a 11 km stream where you can walk. Be specially careful with mosquitoes, their bites are horrendous.
In Korean culture stealing is synonym of shame. I didn’t experience it myself, but often my schoolmates left their smartphones somewhere and when they came back, it was there. You cannot enter a store with your wet umbrella, you have to leave it outside. Believe me, nobody will take it.
Furthermore, I never saw a Korean guy giving a dirty look to a girl, even though if they were dressed with tiny shorts and high heels. Nothing. No nasty comments in their ears . Not even late at night nor coming from drunk dudes. It’s just not a thing and I loved it.
So these are my 8 reasons to visit Seoul. There are a few things I didn’t enjoy —like the humid, hot summer—, but it’s a very beautiful, safe and modern city. Still going to Paris?
*1 won is about €0.0008/$0.00009 (september 2015)