After the cold wind disappeared, temperatures went back to what felt like “just a normal” November autumn day (vs. +/-0C on the first day) and I decided to forever ban Seoul taxi drivers, I really started to enjoy Seoul.
Really in love I probably only fell with the traditional part of Seoul – the area of Jongno-Gu, where the traditional Bukchon Hanok village is located and small, cobblestone streets wind up the hill, giving you a splendid view over the “past and future” of one of Asia’s most interesting and diverse cities. The area has plenty of nice, small, individual boutiques (beware – this part of Korea is definitively not cheap), which are just waiting to be explored. In nearly every street you will find jewelry and handicraft shops, cafes, teahouses and galleries (I was very positively surprised by Korean contemporary art and nearly bought a painting I fell in love with would not it have been for the freight and shipping :-)).
Some might dismissively call Jongno-Gu “artificial” and I cannot deny that for a split second “Disneyland” came into my mind as for the first time the Gyeongbokgung palace came into sight – everything seems to be too perfectly set up to be real. But if you allow yourself to be absorbed by the traditional world of Korea and dive into it you might soon take a different stance and warmly call it cozy and inviting; a journey to past times, where contemporary mixes with traditional, modern Korean design with old handicraft, and Korean discipline with love to detail.
I might do the remaining parts of Seoul injustice, by focusing this travel entry purely on the Jongno-Gu area and I am sure that Seoul has much more of offer, but either I (i) went to the wrong places in Sinsa-dong and Gangnam-Gu – thanks to an unhelpful map and plenty of even more unhelpful taxi drivers- or (ii) just have to accept that the diffusely located consumption temples, located on 4-lane wide main roads, with lots of blinking neon advertising boards are just not “my cup of tea” (on top of this I found the really dark and quiet side-roads in darkness quite uninviting). Or was “modern Seoul” just not what I was looking for? Sometimes we are selective in our perception depending on our state of mind when travelling…. And perhaps because it is Christmas soon I was looking for some tradition and peacefulness :-).
On my second day I woke up with a horrible migraine thanks to the cold weather the first day and the rather unpleasant experience of Sinsa-dong and Gangnam-Gu the evening before. I so much wished my flight back to Hong Kong (btw – I am located in Hong Kong right now so expect an update with HK tips soon) would be at 8.00am rather than 8.00pm! But – what rather came as a surprise – by afternoon, sitting in the Gallery Café (see below) and enjoying the beautiful view over the hundreds of hanok houses’ roofs in the setting sun, while eating a delicious layered crêpe cake – I wished I could stay for at least another day. I am very happy I changed my initially so well thought trough “how-to-see-most-of-Seoul-in-36h” plan, which would have foreseen a visit of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and Dorsa Park (again, located within the part of Seoul, which I did not became a fan of), and instead just strolled around the Cheonggya Stream (where Seoul’s famous annual lantern festival is currently taking place) and Jongno-Gu again. And– without any time pressure to tick off my list of places and palaces to see (like on the first day) – I even more enjoyed lingering through the narrow streets.
I would like to thank my really welcoming host of the Ohbuk Guesthouse, who was really caring and helpful (not only did he wait for one hour on Friday night in the cold to ensure I would eventually find the rather hidden away Hanok-style guesthouse in an alleyway after getting lost (or should I rather say after my taxi driver simply dumped me without directions?? This was actually the first time of my trip, when I felt that I should rather be out with my friends in Hong Kong than standing at -5C in a pitch black, totally deserted street at 1.00am in the morning), he also provided homemade breakfast and drew me a lovely map with directions of the area, so I would not get lost again).
Kamsa-Hanida for a truly interesting experience. Would I come back? Probably yes; one day maybe with my children as I think Seoul is a city you should have seen at least once in your life.
A little bit on “do’s and don’ts”
- Do not make too many plans before coming. “Go with the flow” and take time to discover the different areas; rather do less and come back again if you want to get a good feeling for the city (rushing through Jongno-Gu as I falsely did on the first day, is a shame)
- Go in late autumn (Oct/Nov) when the Japanese maple trees are displaying their most beautiful red color. I believe this is what you call the “Indian Summer” of Asia. Make sure though you take enough warm cloth (including scarf, gloves, wooly and a waaaarm jacket – it is no pleasure otherwise)
- Charge you camera well at night to be prepared for the next day
- If you want to visit the secret garden of the Changdeokgung palace (which I highly recommend) book tickets in advance over the tourism side if there is no availability for an English tour go for the Korean one; this is more about seeing the beautiful nature than listening to your guide)
- Plan your arrival better than I did, especially when you arrive late night. I would recommend taking a pre-booked car from the airport. Taking the train at night is not much faster and only brings you to Seoul station where queues for a taxi can be extensive (and there is no guarantee that if you finally manage to get a taxi, the driver will make an effort to understand you and/or will know where to go even though you printed out a map for him and have the address written in Korean with you!!)
- Do not expect local restaurants, especially in the Jongno-Gu area, to be open past 9.00pm. Dinner is rather early at around 7.00pm here
- Be polite and take off your shoes when entering local restaurants or guesthouses and you see there are shoes already lining up outside (this is not a “show-off” of tradition; it is a sign of good manners even nowadays in some local places)
- Even though you are really impressed by the palaces and hanok houses – in the benefit of your friends who have to pretend they are interested in all the pictures you bring home – make a selection on max. 50 out of the 300 you are most likely to take
- Take time to visit both palaces – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung – they are “same same but different”, with the latter one being named UNSECO world heritage site due to its beautiful “flow” with nature
- Do not expect Seoul to be cheap (even though there are local market/outlets where you can make good bargains). Seoul in general is pretty adhering to Western prices when it comes to food (if it is not street food) and handicraft
- If you look for something nice to bring home I recommend milk tea from O’sulloc (see below) or nice ceramics from the Pâtisserie (see below)
- Buy a pre-paid SIM card or simply accept expensive roaming while in Seoul. It is absolutely worth it in order to have access to google maps (a lesson learned!)
- Bring sufficient cash (even though larger places all accept credit card, the smaller shops and markets are still cash-driven)
- Do not get disturbed by the many tourists with their “selfie sticks”; even though Asia might be on the forefront when it comes to penetration of selfie stick per tourist– I am sure it won’t be long and selfie sticks will become as natural as the tourists themselves in most metropolitan cities
Where to drink & eat
Wood and Brick (Bukshon-ro-5-gil) – nice “New York” style patisserie, just the right place to warm up, get some pastry and a Latte after visiting some art galleries in Jongno-Gu
Café LN Luden Loquen Space (27-1 Hwadong, little side road to Bukchon-ro-5) – get a traditional Korean cup of tea and try the black porridge (in case you are a porridge lover) before starting your tour of the Bukchon Hanok village. Located in a small hanok house this café offers a small boutique with modern handicraft and has a nice little open courtyard – when you come round Christmas time Café LN is lovely decorated and plays Christmas songs (nearly felt like being home!)
The Gallery Café (Bukchon-ro-11-gil) – the perfect spot to enjoy a breath taking view over the roof tops of the hanok houses and catching a glimpse of the N-Seoul Tower in the far distance. The layered crêpe cake comes in various flavors and is a nice addition to the view. Inside the café you can find changing exhibition of local Korean artists
O’sulloc (Isa-dong-gil, Isa-dong) – this is the modern version of a Korean teahouse. It has several outlets across the city and seems to be very popular with the local younger crowd. It is famous for its milk tea and green tee desserts. Try the hot Jegu Tangerine Milk Tea if you are coming during the cold season or one of their many iced blended teas during summer
Gaeseong Traditional Dumpling House (30-11 Gwanhun-dong) – I rather dropped in by chance after looking for something to warm me up after a freezing tour in the secret gardens of the Changdeokgung palace and on my way to Insa-dong to look at some handicraft stores. I found the dumplings quite tasty and consider the local crowd to be a good sign. You can choose between doing it Korean style by taking a seat on the floor or just taking a normal table. Even though I liked the Dumpling House I suspect there are many small, local good places around in the area – so just pick one and try; on the opposite side of the Dumpling House you will find a little courtyard with galleries and a nice traditional tea house
Do Ga Hun (Art Gallery Street) – Unfortunately I only found this hidden away restaurant/wine bar shortly before I had to leave Seoul. It is located behind the Art Cube gallery on Art Gallery Street and belongs to the gallery itself. It looks like a nice, bit more upscale place, to have lunch after visiting the Gyeongbokgung palace or go for a glas of wine early evening. Also nice outside terrace (in case you come during a warmer season than I did)
Top Cloud Bar (1-1 Jong-ro-2-ga, Jung-gu) – located on the 33rd floor of the Jongno Tower (a giant metal-glass construct being nestled in-between the cobblestone streets of Insa-dong and Seoul’s modern financial district) this rather upscale restaurant provides you with a stunning 360 degree view on the city. I would recommend early dinner during sun-set so you get the benefit of both: the city during daylight and at night
Lobby Lounge at Grand Hyatt – this was warmly recommended to me by a friend for its nice view. Unfortunately due to my change in plans on day 2 I did not get a chance to convince myself about the view. According to my initially planned itinerary I would have combined a visit of the Leeum Samsung Museum with lunch or tea at the Lobby Lounge
Where to shop
I am sure you will explore a lot of nice little stores yourself while strolling around Jongno-Gu so I do not want to take the fun of exploring and discovering away from you by naming too many stores. If you walk along Bukchon-ro-5-ga-gil, Samcheongdong-gil, Bukchon-ro-11-gil and venture once in a while into further little side roads you will find plenty of the little stores and cafés.
Pâtisserie – Even though the sign clearly advertises their home made macarons this shop became my favorite for ceramics. It has much less pieces on display than the traditional handicraft stores but offers work of one designer (Deep Cobald), who has translated traditional ceramic work into modern/creative style. I ended up buying lovely presents for my friends here* (* @ H, O, S & K please ignore the last sentence in case you did not receive your Christmas presents yet)
O’sulloc – nicely boxed tea – a good place to buy some presents (I recommend the milk tea) to bring home (Samcheongdong-gil and Isa-dong-gil)
Tchai Kim –this from now on will be my most favorite local Korean designer. I met her in person in her little white store (that rather reminded me to Scandinavia than Asia) and she has simply been lovely with so much attention to detail. Though you might find it hard to wear the really Korean style pieces, if you are a little selective and brave to combine you will find pieces to take home and wear in everyday life. Now sitting on the plane back to Hong Kong I dearly regret not to have bought the lovely cream colored quilted jacket (being rational (e.g. reminding myself to the fact that I have already far too many extraordinary pieces in my wardrobe) is not always a good thing….)
9 Owl Vintage (Samcheong-ro) – selected antique nice jewelry pieces (the fashion itself I found less interesting)
Tong-in – this handicraft store in Insa-dong was recommended to me in case I was looking for handicraft of good quality. Though on the ground floor you indeed might find some nice traditional style souvenirs to bring home, don’t be shocked about the prices a porcelain or ceramic bowl can have when you get to the 2nd or 3rd floor. A bowl I considered “quite nice” revealed to be as much as €750….and this was on the cheap side compared to the vases standing next to it
Art galleries (i.e. Art Gallery Street) – as mentioned before there are plenty. If you are a true art lover you might want to do some research before going to Seoul; in case you are already there chat to a few gallerists to enquire which exhibitions are where on display. The real local artists, who are by no means uninteresting, you might rather find spontaneously. But to name a few: Art Cube, Kukje and Hyundai Galleries, 313 Art Project, Gahoedong 60.
Where to stay
When it comes to hotels, I am very happy that I decided against a five start chain hotel and went for a hanok (traditional, old Korean houses) home stay. First of all it gives you the true Korean experiences – meaning shoes are strictly forbidden inside the house, you are sleeping on thin mattress on the heated floor, and the lovely wooden rooms are centered around an open courtyard – secondly the haonok houses tend to be very conveniently located in Jongno-Gu.
Ohbuk Guesthouse – As basic as the Ohbuk Guesthouse might be – it provided a warm welcome and is simply perfectly located to explore the palaces and Jongno-Gu area. Provided you are not suffering from a migraine like I did you are most likely not spending a lot of your time in the guesthouse anyhow as are out exploring the area :-)
Bukchon Guesthouse – Even though I have not tried it, it seems to be widely recommended among the basic guesthouses. The location is a bit more vivid than that of Ohbuk Guesthouse
For a more luxurious hanok stay book yourself in at Rak Ko Jae or Chi Woon Jung. For more information on (more upscale) traditional hanok stays visit www.korea.net.
Rak Ko Jae (98 Gye-dong, Jongno-gu) – this guesthouse is set in an impeccable restored 140-year old hanok house just in the centre of Jongno-gu. Tranquility and attention to detail will be the first adjectives coming into your mind when entering through the gate (well protecting the view to the inside) into the well set courtyard, surrounded by sliding Korean paper doors. This is probably as close as it gets to a luxurious boutique hotel located in a hanok house. Ps: nevertheless expect sleeping traditional Korean style with mattresses on the floor
Chi Woon Jung (39 Bukchon-ro 11ga-gil) – this hanok guesthouse has a contemporary legacy attached to it, by being the home of Korean’s former president Lee Myung-bak. Located in the middle of the Bukchon Hanok Village, it provides you a splendid view over the remarkable rooftops of the many hanok houses. Major renovation work conducted has transformed the traditional hanok house into a symbiosis of traditional and modern comfort
And if you really cannot do without all the comfort and amenities of Western style hotels (and I by all means do not blame you for this) try the Park Hyatt in Gangnam-Gu, which bears the handwriting signature of Tokyo-based architects Super Potato with its clean lines and cool combination of oaked wood and dark stone. As a nice add-on it offers splendid views over the city.