By Michelle Ng
Seoul, the capital of Korea and all things Kpop and Kdrama – in other words, the city was my personal heaven. In an ideal world, I would have spent a week slowly taking my time to explore the vibrant nightlife and eat my way through all the night markets. Unfortunately, I was only in the city for a weekend which didn’t leave much time for sightseeing or much shopping. With only one free day, I was on a mission to enjoy the city as much as possible, and managed to squeeze in a visit to the palace and a rowdy night with plenty of photo ops in between. Get a good pair of shoes because this one day itinerary involves a lot of walking.
10am – feast on braised cutlassfish at Namdaemun Market
Seoul isn’t really for the morning people, which suits me to a T. The markets often become livelier later in the day, but you’re at Namdaemun Market for their braised cutlassfish stew (galchi jorim).
The Namdaemun Market is massive, and it can be easy to get lost. There are specific streets that sells certain items, and you’ll be able to find anything from cameras to bedding and jewelry. There’s also a street dedicated to Military Clothing, which you can stop by just for sake of looking.
After looking around, head over to the Fish & Stew Street (pick up a map at the Tourist Center or see this map), which is a small alley lined with many shops all selling the same fishy dish. If you’re taking the train, alight at Hoehyeon Station (Line 4) and take Exit 5. Turn right out of the exit, and walk down the main road. Take the fourth alley to your left, and follow your nose to the restaurants. Queues start forming really early, but they move pretty quickly.
Two of the most famous restaurants’ walls are plastered with pictures with celebrities and famous variety shows that have visited. Truth be told, all the restaurants look the same and smell amazing, so I just picked the one with the shortest queue.
The braised cutlassfish (galchi jorim) is a must-try, as is the claypot egg (gyeran-jjim). You can also get kimchi and tofu stew as a side. I also ordered a bottle of makgeolli because the refreshing rice drink complements the spicy cutlass fish stew.
12pm – walk through Myeongdong towards Gyeongbok Goong
You can take the train to Gyeongbok Goong, but you would have to transfer trains and you’ll miss out on the bustling streets of Myeongdong. If you see everyone holding a cup of coffee striding down the street and want in, get a cup from Angel-in-us Coffee, Paik’s Coffee or (my new found favourite) Mammoth Coffee, all of which you’ll pass by on the way to the palace.
Muslims who want authentic Korean food can stop by Busan Jib, a halal restaurant run by two Korean ahjummas who serves up delicious kimchi. Busan Jib is right smack in the middle of the Myeongdong shopping district, but is hidden down one of smaller alleys. Right opposite the restaurant is a graffiti wall that reminds us of Hosier Lane in Melbourne – stop by for a photo.
Once you’re past the main shopping area, head to the Lotte Duty Free Shopping Mall for the Star Avenue if you’re a huge Kpop fan. Star Avenue is like the Korean version of Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame, and Kpop groups and actors have cast their handprint on the walls. Right now, there’s TWICE, BTS, and GOT7 lining the walls. Touch your hand to the handprint whilst thinking of how you’re indirectly hi-fiving them and watch them appear on the screen for a video message. It’s almost like you just conjured them out of nowhere, and (I hate to admit it but) I spent way too much time trying to find all my favourite singers.
1. Hot Hazelnut Macchiato from Mammoth Coffee
2. Mammoth Coffee’s shopfront
3. Photo op: graffiti wall opposite Busan Jib
4. Bibimbap and tteokbokki from Busan Jib
5. Star Avenue at Lotte Duty Free (image from Lotte)
Continue on towards Cheonggyeon-ro, where you’ll pass by the Cheonggyecheon Stream (another photo op, which looks best during spring and autumn). Walk adjacent to the stream until you reach Sejong-daero, then walk towards Gwanghwamun (the outermost gate of the Gyeongbok Goong) and you’re here! You’ll know when you’re near because you’ll see foreigners dressed in hanbok all headed the same way.
1pm – explore Gyeongbok Goong, hanbok optional
Snap a photo of Gwanghwamun from across the road. If you stuck to the schedule and arrived at 1pm, you’ll be in time for the Gwanghwamun Gate Guard-on-Duty Performance. You have to make sure that you cross the road and are directly in front of the gate by 1 because you wouldn’t be able to see much from across the road. People actually wait around just for the change of guard.
There’s another Sumungun (Gatekeeper) Military Training that happens at 1.35pm, so make sure you don’t loiter around and get your tickets to the palace to catch the display.
TIP: if you wear a hanbok, you can enter the palace for free
Entry is only 3,000 won for adults, which is pretty reasonable for a stroll around the palace grounds and some nice shots, especially during spring and autumn when the foliage is out in full force. Otherwise, you can walk round the outside of the palace to the Bukchon Hanok Village after taking the customary tourist shots at the gate.
As the biggest and grandest palace in Seoul, be prepared to battle crowds even if you go on an off-peak day. Just remember to be polite whilst asking someone to move because chances are you guys all came for the photos.
It’s quite easy to navigate as everyone moves through the palace in the same direction. Keep to the left after Hyangwon-jeong, so that you eventually make one round to the National Folk Museum. There are some cherry blossom trees here that are absolutely gorgeous during spring, which I skipped because there were too many people queuing up for photos. Continue along the path, keeping to your right because there’s an exit there which will lead you to the next attraction. (Here’s a map in case you’re more of a visual person)
2. Guard outside Gwanghwamun
3. View of Mount Bugaksan in the yard just past Heungnyemun (turn left once you pass the gates)
4. Cherry blossoms during spring
7. Dong-gung’s vicinity
8. Dong-gung’s vicinity
3pm – more photo ops at Bukchon Hanok Village
When you come out of the side entrance of Gyeongbok Goong, you should find yourself opposite the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Cross the road and go down Bukchon-ro 5-gil. There’s a tourist center, where you can stop to pick up a map that will guide you through the Bukchon Hanok Village. At the main road Bukchon-ro, turn left. Go up Bukchon-ro-11 gil, and you’ll find yourself at the heart of the Bukchon Hanok Village. If you get lost, just follow everyone wearing a hanbok because chances are that they are heading the same way too.
The Bukchon Hanok Village is a cluster of traditional houses that people actually stay in, so you would see signs everywhere asking you to keep your noise level down. The village is on a hill, so avoid heels. Most of the houses on the main road (Bukchon-ro 11-gil) have been converted into guesthouses and cafes, where you can pick up souvenirs too. Take the Bukchon-ro 5na-gil road down; you should be heading back downhill.
5pm – shop local designers at Insadong
At the end of Bukchon-ro 5na-gil, cross the road and continue walking down Yulgok-ro 3-gil. The road will take you through Deoksung Girls High School. During spring and autumn, the trees in this area makes for a good shot. Continue following the road and you’ll find yourself in Insadong.
The main Insadong road is lined with all the typical stores that you can find in Myeongdong, so head to Ssamziegil. The shopping mall has a trick-eye museum and tons of shops selling quirky jewelry and clothes from local designers. There’s also a caricature shop on the first floor where you can get a portrait done in 15 minutes. If you’re hungry, get a poop bread for 1,000 won that is served nice and piping hot, with plenty of red bean filling.
1. Outside Ssamziegil in Insadong
2. Teahouse on Bukchon-ro
3. Poop Bread (똥빵): 1,000 won for one. Comes with different fillings
4. Inside of Ssamziegil
7pm – back to the food carts in Myeongdong and more shopping
Walk back down to Myeongdong for dinner when all the street carts are in business. There are plenty of carts all offering the same fare, so you can wander around and pick from the carts that looks better. Jazz up your tteokbokki by adding cheese (not all tteokbokki carts have this – so ask before you buy!). Our tteokbokki ahjumma even refilled our bowl for free, although the second round didn’t have cheese. Most of the food carts start closing from 9.30pm onwards, but the shopping carts tend to stay out a little later. If you see a tented food stall, make sure that they have a menu display with prices before ordering because they tend to overcharge otherwise.
If you’re ending your night here, do a little shopping. Myeongdong doesn’t need much explanation – everyone knows that it’s the main shopping area with all the best restaurants and shops. I found that even brands like Fila or innisfree that are available in Singapore carried different collections, including limited edition items like these collectible Pokemon sneakers and exclusive makeup collabs like THEFACESHOP x Apeach line that you can’t get anywhere else.
1. Gyeran Bbang – an entire egg in a piece of bread, topped with sunflower seeds and almonds
2. Hotteok – pancake with brown sugar filling
3. Tteokbokki – spicy rice cakes (get it with cheese)
10pm – all about the Itaewon freedom
End your night in Itaewon. Itaewon is known as the foreigner district, and I was greeted by restaurants and nightclubs that had a more international vibe compared to Hongdae and Gangnam when I stepped out of the train station. The clubs in Itaewon tend to spin more hip-hop and trap, which is something different to your usual house music at Octagon in Gangnam.
The main thing that got me really excited about visiting Korea aside from cherry blossom season is that drinking is so cheap here, even in pubs and clubs. Paying $5 for soju at a bar was nothing compared to the $18++ I would have to fork out in Singapore. Buying soju and beer in convenience stores is even cheaper – one bottle only costs about 1,600 won on average. Even my bottle of water cost more (just saying). Cass beer and Hite beer are good, and you definitely have to try the flavoured soju. There are all sorts of flavours like white wine, blueberry, peach and pomegranate that taste worlds better than the normal soju. I would recommend the apple soju because it tastes like super sweet, alcoholic apple juice.
1. Flavoured soju – blueberry, apple, and pomegranate soju
3. The pizza counter next to the VIP area in Fountain; a slice of pizza from 3,000 – 4,000 won. Free entry to Fountain
Instead of sitting in a pub, buy a couple of bottles and take a stroll around Itaewon to soak in the night vibes whilst taking a swig straight out of the bottle. There aren’t any restrictions or laws against drinking out of a bottle on the streets! Make a stop at Fountain, a Roman-inspired nightclub that has a fountain in the middle of the dance floor and looks like the inside of a castle. Fountain is free entry (but no sweatpants), and is decked out with arcades, darts and even sells pizza out of a hole in the wall. I went in just to look around, and was intrigued to see people chilling at tables with whiskey and boxes of takeout pizza that came out of said hole in the wall.
End your night in Cakeshop, a small underground club that plays all sorts of hip-hop and trap. There isn’t any cake being sold, but the club is known to host popular artists and producers – my friend spent 15 minutes wondering if a guy in a beanie was Teddy. There’s a bag/ coat drop on the right of the entrance to Cakeshop, so you can drop any shopping you did there for 5,000 won. Other famous clubs in the area are Venue and Soap.
All images taken on the Fujifilm X-T2. Thanks to Fujifilm for hooking us up with our travel gear! If you’re interested in trying out the X-T2 for yourself, you can head to the Fujifilm Studio at Suntec City.