Getting lost has long been Quarter-life Vices’ theme when it comes to travel. Sure, we check what places are worth going but we never really strictly plan our days with a well mapped-out itinerary. This philosophy has proved well for us so far but how about getting lost in sub-zero temperatures? It could be a bad idea. Images of hypothermia and frostbite (an ear falling out, perhaps?) comes to mind. There’s also the dowdy and plain ugly winter style for the novice cold-weather fashionista (puff-jackets with pom-pom bonnets? Or how about jeans with white cross-trainers?) Yes, it is so bad an idea that you want to forget about it. But the lure of extremely-low promo air fares and the beauty of a foreign land we’ve never been to has such a strong force that a bad idea could become a crazy one. And you know, crazy ideas have the potential of being the most fun. And who doesn’t like fun? So here we are, starting 2012 with a c-c-cold winter in Seoul and a bit of Nami (which is even colder but we’re already on that road of crazy so what the heck, right?)
To let you know how cold it was in Seoul during our stay, a quick look at the weather forecast on our phones provides the fact: -10°C or -8°, or -3° and one Thursday afternoon we got lucky: 0° Celsius! (yay, we could finally get that one layer of thick clothing off!) So, bundled up in a down jacket with a fur-lined hood and a bonnet with pom-poms dangling on the sides of my ear (two things I swore I would never wear but here we are), I braved the Seoul winter with P and T to be able to tell you that the term “dead of winter” does not apply to a city as vibrant and enigmatic as Seoul.
The T-Money is your ticket (or key, or card whichever term you may want) to getting around Seoul. You can use it for their extremely vast subway system, buses and even taxis. You can even use it for locker rentals found on subway stations. T-Money is sold on convenience stores like Family Mart around Seoul and also on vending machines on the many subway stations across the city. The card costs KRW2,500 and you have to load it depending on the amount you want. Reloading can be done on convenience stores as well as in reloading machines on subway stations.
The Tourist Attraction: Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main seat of government of the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 to 1910. It is the grandest and most beautiful of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. During the Japanese invasion and subsequent colonial rule, the Palace became neglected and nearly destroyed. But a restoration in 1990 brought back the palace grounds to its glory and is to this day one of the major cultural destinations in South Korea. Aside from the architecture of the buildings on the palace grounds, one of the attractions in Gyeongbokgung Palace is the Changing of Guards Ceremony which is held on the grounds everyday from 10am to 3pm by the hour. After the ceremony, you can do the tourist-y thing and pose for photos with the serious-looking guardsmen in front of the gate for free. Entrance to the palace grounds is at KRW3,000 and the ticket is also valid for entry to the nearby National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea.
Take Exit 5 of Gyeongbokgung Station on Seoul Subway Line #3
The Tastefully Quaint neighborhood: Samcheong-dong
Quaint shops, boutiques and art galleries fill the spaces in between Hanoks and tributary alleys of Samcheong-dong. A harmonious and seamless blend of the old and new, a walk farther into the back alleys of this neighborhood is recommended where you may find a pretty cafe or a chic art gallery nestled within the well-maintained Hanoks. If shopping is your thing, plenty of boutiques with attractive displays will surely enchant you to take a look inside for their sophisticated and well-designed wares.
If you are coming from Gyeongbokgung Palace, you can walk along the left-side wall of Gyeongbokgung until you reach the first three-way intersection where Samcheongdong starts (which is what we did). Alternatively, you can take exits 1,2 & 3 of Anguk Station on Seoul Subway Line 3.
The Crafty Artisan Neighborhood: Insa-dong
Whereas Samcheong-dong is sophisticated, Insa-dong is its folksy cousin. The tree-lined street of Insa-dong Avenue evokes a nostalgic atmosphere that welcomes a leisurely walk along the shops selling various traditional, hand-crafted wares. Insa-dong was once a place for study of artists and painters during the Joseon Dynasty. To this day, artists and craftsmen have continued Insa-dong’s artistic and cultural history by setting up shops where you can find traditional Korean art works and folk crafts. Yet on the center of this neighborhood is the hip Ssamzie-gil where modern and charming hand-made arts and crafts reflect a younger aesthetic. Weekends in Insa-dong are particularly busy where the once leisurely pace becomes lively with street peddlers and street performances.
Getting There: Take the exit 6 on Anguk Station of Seoul Subway Line 3.
The crazy shopping district: Myeong-dong
|24×7 shopping at Myeong dong|
Shopping districts and markets are aplenty in Seoul: there’s the large-scale, traditional markets of Nandaemun, the cheap-fashion finds at Dongdaemun and the loudest, glitziest of them all, Myeong dong district. As one ascends from the subway station of Myeong dong, noise creeps in and along with the people descending with Uniqlo or Face Shop paper bags on hand, you are certain that you have arrived at a wasteland. H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Forever21, Nike, etc. name it, Myeong dong probably has it– twice or three times over. Beauty stores like Face Shop, Skin Food has more than one store scattered around Myeong dong and big name brands have set-up flagship stores here. Its big, its bold and in-your-face. Better hold tight to your credit card, people. It could max out faster than you can say BB cream.
Euljiro 1-ga Station on Seoul Subway Line 2 or Myeongdong Station on Seoul Subway Line 4.
The Tower of Romance: Seoul N Tower
If Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York, the Empire State Building, Seoul has the N Seoul Tower. Like its western counterparts, the Seoul N Tower has been the backdrop of many a romantic scene in dramas and movies. Our timing was probably right (or wrong, depending on how you see it) since it was nearing Valentine’s Day and true enough, couples came in droves (I am not kidding you– we were probably the only single people there) to do some serious PDA with the Seoul skyline as their background. After making-out, they profess their love for one another by writing on the love blocks that they put on the wall for display or chaining-up “love locks” to er, maybe “seal” their love for one another? I know, super cheesy. But for un-coupled and even coupled, “cheese-allergic” people, N Tower also houses a revolving restaurant (rotates every 48 minutes)and, lest we forget with all the sugary things going-on–a viewing deck that gives you stunning views of Seoul especially at night.
Take Subway Line 4 to Myeong Dong Station and get out of Exit 4 to the memorial plaza of No 3 Tunnel. You will see the Namsan Ormi Elevator which you can take for free to the parking lot of Namsan cable Car. (Of course, we only found out about this after walking climbing upstairs to the Namsan Cable Car area since we took an alternative route. I did say fun, right? So unless you are training for a boxing match a la Pacman, take the lifts.)
The über cool University Town: Hongdae (Hongik University Area)
University towns are the living ground of youth culture. Its probably true anywhere else in the world and it is very much true in Hongdae. There are about four universities near the area: Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University, Sogang University and Hongik University. Sure, there’s some academic atmosphere hovering just above it but its young crowd pulsates with energy and vivacity and this is evident with the street art, shops, restaurants and cafes scattered around the area. Cheap meals can be found here (student budget, anyone?) as well as off-the-radar spaces that provides the needs of the younger set: hip fashion finds, music, art, books and coffee (a combination that has nurtured many generations of college students). During summer (meaning, not when we were there), a “free market” is held at the Hongik university area where artists display and sell their artworks. Also, every last Friday of the month, Club Day is held in which a KRW15,000 pass will get you in about 10 independent music clubs around the area. Now, that’s some serious bar-hopping. You got to love college.
Getting There: Take Exit 6 on the Hongik University Station of Seoul subway Line 2.
The Quiet Spot in the City: Cheonggyecheon Stream
Just below the hustle and bustle of central Seoul lies the calmness of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. The water of the stream comes from the mountains of Namsan, Inwangsan and Bugaksan where they gather together at Cheonggyecheon before reaching the Han River. Seoulites come here to jog, chat or just enjoy some down time to refresh their minds from the city rush. At night, especially during summer and spring season, beautiful lighting illuminates the fountains and sculptures along the stream creating a very picturesque scene ideal for long walks and, if you are among the many couples we have seen around Seoul (it could have been because it was also near Valentine’s Day. Or maybe Seoul is becoming the “city of love” in Asia, i don’t know), a perfect background for your romantic date night.
Being in central Seoul, Cheonggyecheon Stream is accessible to many subway stations: City Hall, Dongdaemun, Jonggak, Jongno 3-ga, Sinseol dong on Line 1; City Hall, Euljiro 1-ga, Euljiro 4-ga, Sindang on Line 2; Jongno 3-ga on Line 3; Dongdaemun History Park on Line 4; and Gwanghwamun on Line 5. It would be really hard for you to miss it. (if ever you do and I know you, I would forever tease you about it. Really.)
The Ritzy Department Store: Shinsegae
|Photo via Korea Tourism Org website|
If you are ready to spend some serious money, make Shinsegae a must-stop. It has a very high-end department store that houses exclusive, luxury brands– some I have never even heard of. It also has a supermarket and food hall at the basement for ridiculously expensive but fresh and delicious treats. Lunchtime will find the basement filled with executives and young professionals dressed to the nines while queuing for pretty french macarons at KRW3,000 a piece (expensive, yes. But are they delicious? Actually, yes!). But aside from the shopping, Shinsegae does have some interesting history: its location is where Korea’s first department store, the Japanese Misreukkosi Department Store used to be in the 1930s.
Take Exit 7 of Hoehyon station on Seoul Subway Line 4. The exit is directly connected to Shinsegae.
We also went outside Seoul because -8°C won’t do, it has to be -13°C ….
The Romantic Island: Naminara Republic (Nami Island)
(Cue in, “Winter Sonata” theme). Its easy to see why people have fallen in love with Nami. Perhaps, “Winter Sonata” has something to do with it but a trip to Nami Island, even to those who are not fans of the koreanovela, will surely captivate you. Pine tree-lined footpaths, cooler temperatures and a seemingly slow and leisurely passing of time conjure up a certain formula that can only, uhm, warm your heart. Yes, it is cheesy sometimes what with the statue of that koreanovela couple available for your shameless photo-op and various “love” and heart themes among the many art installations and images found on the island. But you cannot deny that the place is charming and idyllic even if you are just walking by yourself with the many couples HHWW around you. You might think that you probably should not go here if you’re single but that only applies if you’re Bridget Jones and your next episode is “Bridget Jones’ Nami”. Otherwise, the place is fantastic and entrance to the island still counts everyone else as one person (no discounts for couples? The horror!).
We were presented with two options to get to Nami Island: take the subway or take the tour bus. After weighing the two options, we opted for the tour bus which is more convenient and surprisingly, not that expensive. If you would want to take the tour bus, reservations should be made at the Insa-dong office of Naminara Republic (located on the 3rd floor of Gallery Sang Bldg. along Insa-dong Avenue, right across Starbucks coffee). Tickets costs KRW21,000/person which includes the bus fare, ferry ticket to the island and entrance fee to Nami. The bus leaves at 9:00AM everyday in front of Pagoda Park (Topgol Park) in Insa-dong (take exit 1 or 3 of Jonggak Station on Seoul Subway Line 1) and departs from Nami wharf at 4PM.
Seoul during winter may be extremely cold and going around at times may seem like you are doing altitude training but its vibrancy and sights reward you not only with stunning photos but also exceptionally warm and fuzzy memories. Oops, did I just say I feel fuzzy? Damn, those koreanovelas are getting to me! 🙂
**We also got warm by eating lots of hot, delicious Korean food. Watch out for our entry on the upcoming post!**