Saturday, December 3, 2016

Holiday Week in Seoul!

Wandering the back streets of Insadong

(Note: I wrote this last winter and then didn't get around to finishing it. 2016 was a very busy year for me, so not a lot of blogging happened. I'm getting caught up on it now, starting with finishing and uploading some of these old ones.)

Many foreigners come to teach in Korea because they like the culture, or the food, or the language, or the good salaries and benefits most schools offer... but nobody comes here expecting to get much vacation time. The sad reality of working in places like Japan or Korea is that many jobs only offer at best 2 weeks of holiday a year. 

This year Anna and I have only about 10 days of vacation, not including national holidays, so we have to use them wisely. For our winter vacation, we tried to pack in as much fun and traveling as possible into about 7 days. We spent a weekend exploring Busan, which I described in the last few posts, and then went up to Seoul for 3 days.

Food and nightlife in Itaewon

It was our first time staying in Seoul, and we got a hostel in Itaewon called Philstay. Itaewon is a fun place to stay, since it has great nightlife and is famous for being the most international area of Seoul. The streets are packed with foreign food, bars offering microbrews, and loads of foreign tourists. We had a lot of fun going out at night in Itaewon and discovered some cool places like the Smokey Saloon that had good American style burgers and the Sherlock Holmes theme bar which was quiet and a little overpriced, but had fun cocktails inspired by the characters from the BBC Sherlock series.

Great American burgers at Smokey Saloon

Enjoying cocktails at the Sherlock Holmes bar

The Philstay hostel was fine and had a great location, but otherwise wasn't a very interesting place to stay. It was much more similar to a motel than a hostel, which was disappointing because we were hoping to meet other people there that we could go out with. That said, it was clean, had a decent self-serve breakfast provided and was pretty quiet at night.

In Itaewon, you can also find the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which had an interesting collection of mostly Korean art, including a lot of traditional pottery, calligraphy and paintings, plus an extensive modern art collection that was quite good. The building itself was also an attraction, with really unique architecture. Near the museum, you can also find a lot of good Japanese restaurants where the Japanese business people like to go for lunch when in Seoul.

In the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Itaewon

We did most of our sight-seeing in the Insadong area. "Dong" by the way means a district or neighborhood in Korean, so if you travel here you will hear it a lot (you can stop giggling now). Insadong is where you will find a lot of the main Seoul tourist attractions, in terms of historic and cultural places.

We visited Gyeongbokgung Palace and arrived just in time to catch the changing of the guards ceremony. It involved a lot of guys performing a historical reenactment of the old ceremony, with big drums, flashy costumes and banners. Also a lot of fake goatees.

The palace was enormous, with so many old temples, houses and parks to walk through that you could easily spend hours there. We had fun exploring and getting lost in the little alleys between historic buildings. There was also a beautiful pagoda with a lovely view of the mountain behind it. Next to the palace is a temple complex and a folklore museum that I wanted to see, but I didn't have enough time after wandering through the palace for so long.

Close to the palace is a fantastic modern art museum. It's huge, the exhibits we saw were really interesting and we loved it. There was a really good mix of Korean artists and international artists which I enjoyed. It's definitely worth a visit if you have an interest in modern art.

Another fun thing to do in Insadong is wander up the hill into the old-fashioned neighborhood that overlooks the palace. You can see some traditional houses and there are nice views of the city, including the palace and Seoul Tower.

You can also find the Trick Eye Museum in Insadong, which is popular with tourists. I'd recommend doing it with at least three people, so you can take group photos. We did it just the two of us and it was still a lot of fun, but you end up with just a lot of solo photos. Unless you bring a selfie-stick, which is a low I haven't hit yet.

I guess she's no Indiana Jones...

In the Seoul Trick Eye Museum

There's a famous shopping center in Insadong, right next to the Trick Eye Museum. It has a lot of fun shops if you're looking for souvenirs, some cute (expensive) cafes, a funky spot on the roof where you and your partner can make a little wooden sign professing your undying love for each other, and perhaps best of all, a shop that sells poo-shaped たい焼き taiyaki / 붕어빵 bungeoppang (a little pastry filled with custard or sweet beans that's normally in the shape of a fish, a popular street food in both Japan and Korea.)

A fun spot to spend all your hard-earned money in Insadong

Want to ensure that your love lasts forever? Buy this plastic card!!

Get your poo-shaped pastries here 

While I'm on the subject of 붕어빵 bungeoppang, if you visit Korea, you need to try the frozen ice cream version of it which is in pretty much every supermarket and convenience store in the country. It's cheap and amazing. The flower shaped version is even better, since it has a thin layer of mochi (rice cake) between the red bean and the ice cream.

Delicious, delicious frozen bungeoppang (photo credit: Wikipedia)

My final recommendation is to wander into the back streets as much as possible, and see where the Koreans go to eat. We found a great traditional restaurant that way and ate some amazing pajeon (Korean pancake). You might need some basic Korean skills to do this, but if you're determined you could probably manage it even with very little Korean (creative hand gesturing can work wonders when traveling.)

Haemul Pajeon (해물파전), Korean seafood pancake

Doenjang Jjigae (된장 찌개), fermented soybean stew

That was our winter break in Seoul - basically hopping from restaurant to cafe to museum to restaurant again. Seoul is a lot of fun, with so many distinct neighborhoods, historical places and great back-street food to discover. There will definitely be more posts to come on my other Seoul adventures.

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