On Thursday 21st January we set off on the first leg of our 2016 winter vacation Asia trip, flying from Shanghai to Seoul. I really didn’t know what to expect from this city, but, since returning from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, many of my friends and family have asked me what my favourite city was, and without skipping a beat I will always respond with Seoul. To begin with, Seoul is beautiful.
As we flew into Seoul it was night time, and I was immediately struck by how pretty it looked, twinkling out as far as the eye could see, interwoven roads creating a labyrinth stretching across the ocean. Mountainous terrain framed the shot, with the river creating a sense of symmetry winding through the island. We were captivated looking at it, until Q said quietly, ‘wow, it’s so beautiful.’ Our first impressions of Seoul were very, very good. It seemed to have its own understated beauty, in which the colourful lights were perfectly balanced by the darkness of small residential areas and mountain villages.
The beautiful view caused us to forget that as we stepped off the plane, we were to be greeted somewhat more harshly by an outside temperature of -9C. As someone who has only ever moved from the middling temperatures of the UK to the warm climate of Shanghai, I really had no idea how to begin to imagine what it would feel like. It felt cold. Very, very, cold.
After arriving, we found our way to the aptly titled ‘Dream Guesthouse’, which really was everything we could’ve asked for in a hostel. The lady at the front desk was extremely helpful in showing us around and orientating us within the local area, the hostel itself was amazingly clean; the dorm was cosy and warm (yay!), complete with heated flooring and thick, soft blankets and pillows. The hostel was located in the centre of Seoul, just 30 seconds walk from Hoehyeon metro station; a necessity we hadn’t considered but were exceptionally grateful for in the extreme cold. The hostel also boasts a very homely DIY breakfast service included for all guests, with frying pans and electric hobs set up in the kitchen for eggs, bread and jam laid out next to toasters, alongside unlimited tea, coffee and juice. It was a really beautiful and homely hostel, perfectly reflecting the charm of the city.
For our first evening we headed just one stop away on the metro to Myeondong (we could have walked but as I’ve previously stated it was COLD). Myeondong is affectionately known as the Times Square of Seoul, but to be honest I think this is doing a disservice to the true ambience of it. As you step off the metro you are hit by bright lights, and rows and rows of stalls selling glorious smelling street food; a beautiful assault on the senses. On the first of what became, on my part, three visits to Myeondong, we wandered up and down, buzzing for our next few days in Seoul. Myeondong is busy and vibrant, however, as with most of Seoul, has a sense of sophisticated calm and chicness about it.
On our first full day in Seoul, we were up in the cold bright and early to view the changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace. The Palace was the first royal Palace of the Joseon Dynasty and now serves as the largest and grandest of the 5 Grand Palaces of Seoul. At 10 in the morning, the guards marched on display for at least 30 minutes against the unbelievable backdrop of Bukaksan Mountain. The fact that we didn’t mind that we were stood outside in -10C says more than I ever could about just how captivating the ceremony was.
After leaving the Palace grounds we took a very cold but sunny walk straight down from the Palace gates to Gwanghwamun Square, to view the two statues of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and Sejong the Great. We carried on our walk to Cheonggyecheon Stream, a small, beautiful and graceful haven of fountains and waterfalls. This includes the Paiseokdam wishing wells on either side of the stream, in which passersby can throw coins for charity and make a wish. The wells are made up of 8 different stones from each of South Korea’s 8 provinces. Walking from the Palace to the stream we enjoyed the fresh chill in the crisp and unpolluted air, and had to keep pinching ourselves at just how blue the sky could be. It couldn’t have felt any further from our crazy Shanghai.
Mount Namsan and N Seoul Tower
After eating lunch in the hipster district of Itowen, we took the rickety bus up the side of Mount Namsan, winding slowly round and round as we were treated to breathtaking views across the whole of Seoul. Snowcapped Mountains in the distance framed the city beneath us, and against the blue skies and lush, forest scenery around us, it was truly stunning. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we stepped off the bus to see the N Seoul Tower in front of us, up what looked like, just a short slope. We learnt we shouldn’t have taken this lightly though as it was actually quite a steep and very long slope, even after the bus ride! Also, it was freezing. We hadn’t thought through the fact that in an already frozen city, heading up to the top of a mountain would mean absolutely extreme temperatures of -16 degrees without factoring in any wind chill.
Nevertheless the view was worth it, and we got to the top of the slope and bought our couple’s combo (not joking) to the top of the N Seoul Tower. This included a large popcorn and drink to share for only 1000 Korean Won extra (55p), very, very worth it! We took the lift to the top of the tower and enjoyed our popcorn whilst watching the sun set slowly across Seoul.
King Gojing Observatory
Only open since 2013, the little known, yet free to enter, 13th floor observatory in the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Seosomun Building 1 was one of the best hidden gems of our entire Asia trip. We started our final full day in Seoul at the observatory, enjoying our coffees in the café with a view across neighbouring Jeong-dong. The signs in the observatory informed us that Jeongdong was the place where coffee was first introduced to the Koreans, and so it seemed very fitting! It was -12 outside but the café was cosy, and the freezing temperatures treated us to a bright blue sky and clear air. From the observatory you can see the nearby Deoksugang Palace and City Hall, where we were able to watch people on the ice rink in front of the gates. We sat for ages watching the very few tourists wandering in and out of the palace walls, and the cars and taxis juxtaposing this slow tranquility by whizzing down the central freeway. I couldn’t recommend this place enough for a coffee and a view- there was no one around, it was quiet, and free!
Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village is a traditional Korean village located in the centre of Seoul, close to Anguk station. It has been carefully preserved for over 600 years, and unlike other ‘traditional’ villages found in Asia, it is still very much a residential neighbourhood. Charming and beautiful, it was fascinating to be able to see such an authentic piece of both Seoul’s history and present. Whilst exploring the narrow streets we stumbled upon a sign stating ‘observatory 3000 won’ and thought we didn’t have much to lose by splashing out the £1.70 entrance fee. Greeted by a nice gentlemen and his son on the 3rd floor of a residential building, we were offered a coffee in a paper cup and told to spend as long as we liked enjoying the view from under the glass-covered balcony. From the 3rd floor vantage point you are given an excellent view of the sea of traditional rooftops, surrounded by hanok houses on all sides. Bukchon Hanok Village was one of our ‘must sees’ on our trip to Seoul, and really treated us to an experience of traditional Korean culture, all from within the centre of the city.
The War Memorial of Korea
After Bukchon Hanok Village, I ventured off on my own to spend the afternoon wandering around the hauntingly fascinating War Memorial of Korea. As I walked up to the museum, the first thing I was confronted by was the imposing and expressive monument, The Statue of Brothers. The monument depicts the moment a South Korean officer met his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, and they embraced on the battlefield. The statue is said to express love, reconciliation and forgiveness. Within the museum itself, the first room introduces you to South Korea’s history with a powerful video depicting the caption ‘freedom is not free.’ As you move through the rooms the museum is both poignant and educational, with a beautiful memorial fountain in the centre surrounded by candles.
I spent a few hours at the museum and surrounding memorial monuments, and left at the perfect time to head across the river on the metro to meet Q for dinner. As the train came up over ground to cross the water, I was dazzled by an amazing view of the bridge and the city landscape on either side, under the orange sky and setting sun.
On our final night in Seoul I met Q in the Korean-pop infamous, Gangnam, for a fun night enjoying traditional Korean fried chicken and beer, before we continued our travels onwards to Japan the following morning.
Seoul teeters on the edge of becoming a fast paced metropolitan city, yet is content in its own calmness, offering a harmonious balance between the city and its people. It is busy, yet still understanding and peaceful. You get the sense that Seoul really has time for its residents and visitors. Sophisticated, vibrant and calm; I would recommend Seoul to anyone.