I’ve just returned, travelling at 270 km/h, from a 4-day weekend in Seoul – Korea’s capital city and home to half its population. 25 million people live in Seoul Capital Area, making it feel worlds away from the port city of Busan I, and only 3 million others, call home. Busan is very big, of course, but differences were apparent immediately, from the moment I set foot out Seoul Station. Seoul, like many huge cities, gives off a ‘cool’ vibe.
Getting to my cute little guest house was the first challenge I faced – all 25 million people seemed to be taking taxis at the very time I wanted to ride in one. The queue at the taxi rank on both sides of the station was at least 60 people long, and wasn’t moving very fast. Frustrated, I decided it actually wasn’t a long walk to where I was staying, so I’d give it a shot. Even more frustrated, and with a heavy bag, I admitted defeat and stood on a street corner, along with those in the same boat, praying for a taxi to come past. They did indeed come past, but two turned me down before I managed to get one. One was a co-taxi, which I assume means I should have shared with others, and the other simply wouldn’t pick me up on that side of the street. Charming.
Happily, I was finally picked up, and at my guest house I was pleased to find myself in a traditional Hanok-style house, complete with under-floor heating and futon-style mattress – as people used to sleep on in days gone by. Very comfy it was too. In the morning, I ventured out to meet friends. Surrounding me were houses from a typical travel guide…exactly what you picture when you think of this area in Asia. Situated right next to the palace, the Hanok houses can feel a little like stepping back in time, and at 9am in the morning, there was virtually no-one to spoil the tiny streets by whipping out a selfie stick. The very few people I saw were dressed in Hanbok – Korean traditional costume, allowing them to get into the palace and certain areas for free, while looking beautiful doing so.
Our first stop was Namsan tower, which (clue is in the name) towers over Seoul, slap bang in the middle of it on one of the many mountains in the city. The highest point in Seoul, it is a slice of nature in a huge metropolis. We climbed to the top to find beautiful views of different parts of the city, and the famous love locks placed around the tower itself. Lovers have left padlocks on fences and metal bars surrounding the structure for years, a symbol of longevity for the relationship. We were left wondering how many of those loved-up couples were still together now.
Thursday was a national holiday (Children’s Day), and the government had granted us all an extra day off on Friday, so many families were making the most of it. We made our way around the famous palace buildings, and headed down to Itaewon for a spot of dinner. Itaewon is the foreigners’ district, and while it has a trendy vibe, it is, as you might imagine from the name, full of foreigners like me. Yuck. Itaewon boasts cuisine from all around the world – Spain to Singapore, Ethiopia to my little old England. Variety is not lacking there, but tables certainly were. With no space for us, we settled on a standard pub, and paid through the nose for fairly standard fodder. Itaewon would most certainly be the district I would try to avoid as much as possible if I were living in Seoul – perhaps the nightlife is its upside.
The next day, met with drizzle, I headed to Myeongdong, which I’d heard was the beauty district. Not a day goes by where I don’t read about a new cream or lotion that I now am in need of, because it will fix a problem I didn’t even know I had – so I had to go check it out. K-beauty is big business. People have beautiful skin here, and it’s easy to see why when you see the amount of lotions and potions they have available to slap on their wrinkle-free faces. Before I came to Korea, I simply cleansed and moisturised. Now, I:
- Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
- Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
- Apply serum/emulsion targeting specific needs skin may have. Mine is for redness, so I slap on a liquorice-based serum that is supposed to do wonders.
- Use mask (twice a week).
- Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
- Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
- Use facial mist to top up moisture in face throughout the day.
I’m not even completing the ten-step skincare routine that many swear by, but I’m almost there, and I’ve got to say that my skin feels amazing. Beauty shopping is addictive, and worth it. I feel like every won I chuck in the direction of these shops is well-spent, but I’m struggling to find my limit. Strolling around Myeongdong, I could see that I wasn’t alone. The obsession must be strong enough with others too, as what other reason would there be for 7 Nature Republic stores on the same block? Nearly every shop I went in to thrusted free samples onto me. I walked away with snail treatment face masks galore. My debit card suffered, but my happiness certainly didn’t, and that’s all that matters (honest).
The rain meant we didn’t explore too much further in the day, but rather hit up Gangnam for a night on the tiles. It can be strange to go drinking in Korea – many places won’t let you order just drinks, and insist you eat there too. If you’ve already been out for dinner, this can be quite frustrating, and leads to endless walking until a suitable PLEASE LET US ONLY DRINK HERE venue can be found. It’s either that or street soju. Gangnam is pricey, as we found through going to a 30,000 won (€25) entry-fee club, where drinks were 15,000 a pop. Luckily, we were on the guest list, meaning we could enjoy the music, dancing, and irritating handsy Russian lads for free.
The final day arrived – and it was a day packed with sightseeing after the lazy rainy day we’d had the day before. First stop was Changdeokgung Palace, which boasted a secret garden tour. We strolled in the beautiful gardens, selfie-stick free for the most part, and saw stunning buildings galore, which the king once made his home. He even had a special pagoda for drinking games, so he sounded like a pretty cool guy to us. We later indulged in more culture at the Yeong Deung Hoe lotus lantern festival, where lights danced in the night sky, honouring Buddha’s birth. Parades were held through the city, with many carrying beautifully-designed lanterns in shapes such as lighthouses, lotuses, fish, and even the Korean alphabet. Lantern dragons roared through the streets, elephants trumpeted, and birds soared. Women in traditional headdresses stunned us with their beauty. The vibe was carefree, happy, and welcoming. It was certainly a great way to end our weekend in the capital.
Tourism in Seoul is big – but still not as big as many cities in the rest of Asia. It is a shame in some ways, as it means many do not rate Korea as a place worth visiting, when it most certainly is. Seoul, and the rest of the country, has lots to offer. On the other hand, it means culture and everyday life are relatively untouched, and are not sold at a price, as they are in many other countries to visiting tourists. I will certainly be making the trip to Seoul again, to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city, and bask in its cool-ness.