Seoul is one of Asia's best kept secrets as far as a tourist destination goes. It has that "slightly off the beaten path
" quality without seeming like a backwater. Far from being a backwater, Seoul is a city of over ten million people. However, when North Americans think of Asian attractive tourist destinations Seoul is rarely on anyone's A-list. Tokyo
, Hong Kong
, and Bangkok
tend to be the cardinal stops.
The great thing about Seoul is it's the poor (wo)man's Tokyo. It's a modern city of over 10 million but compared to Tokyo, Seoul is a bargain. Food, transportation, museum admission fees, and souvenirs easily cost half of what one would pay in Tokyo. For example, a one way trip on the Tokyo subway would cost you about $2. In Seoul, it's 90 cents (about 900 won). Lunch in Tokyo might run you about $10. In Seoul $5 (5,000 won) would buy you a tight little meal.
Seoul does share one thing price-wise in common with Tokyo, however. Good hotels can be expensive, in the range of $200 per night. There are a range of cheaper alternatives but understand Koreans don't have the same fastidious
attitude towards cleanliness as the Japanese. By way of example, Korean men, being mostly heavy smokers, seem to have no qualms about stopping on stairways leading up to a subway station and horking massive, disgusting loogies
on those stairs. So, ultimately, you'll find cheaper "tourist-class" hotels (in the 90,000/$90 per night range) are be a bit dingy and probably smelling of smoke. But then you're not in Seoul to spend all your time in a hotel now, are you?
Yeah but do I need to speak Korean?
Seoul, being a major world capital of a major international trading nation and the host of the '88 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup
, is geared for the English tourist/businessperson. Subways signs are all in English. Subway maps are in English. The average Seoul citizen is far more fluent in English than the Japanese. Koreans are generally aware that opportunities in Korea are more limited than Japan. If you really want to reach for the brass ring in Korea, you need to speak English/Japanese/Chinese. The level of English fluency is akin to maybe Spanish
fluency in states that ring the Mexican border or French
fluency in English Canada. It's not hard to find someone that can help.
Koreans are very friendly and helpful to tourist. One had to merely look lost (say staring blankly at a subway station map) and within minutes an English-fluent Korean will stop by and offer to help you find your way. I find it's always good to have small gifts to repay these random acts of kindness. Flag pins, patches, exotic American chocolate bar
s, key chains with your flag on it, etc are all great things to give to helpful locals. Before you go to Seoul, crawl through your local dollars store, especially one near your city's tourist area. They're always a source of cheap, cute gifts. Koreans generally like things that imply they have some international experience. An American or Canadian flag keychain they can dangle about is plain cool.
Seoul is an extremely safe city, insofar as crime goes. Women leave their purse on a chair to save a table at a busy Starbucks
and then go stand in line to place their order. Miraculously those purses are still there when they get back! Being a pedestrian
in Seoul is a less safe proposition, however. One must be very careful as a pedestrian as the pedestrian/driver pecking order is reversed. It is your responsibility as a pedestrian to watch out for cars. Motorcyclists frequently use the sidewalks as a way to route around traffic. As a pedestrian, cross intersections while looking both ways, and don't stop looking both ways until you're safely on the other side. When you come to a small alley way, stop or slow down, and check out what's blasting down the alley before you step off the curb. Drivers in Seoul have no problem coming out of blind alleys at top speeds.
White women do find themselves with a small problem, that being attention from older Korean men. There is, or was, a large population of Russian prostitute
s working in Korea and for many Korean men their only dealings with white women are Russian prostitutes. White women may find a large number of Korean men approaching them asking them if they're Russian. Those not in the know don't understand that they're basically being asked if they're prostitutes. Of course there's also problems with being groped on the subway or subway stairs by younger men. In general, Korean men expect their women to be quiet and demure and they have little experience with an enraged white woman screaming in his face for being groped. They'll quickly turn tail and run for it.
What to see
City Hall Tourism Office:
Your first stop in Seoul should be the tourism office at City Hall
. Just walk straight through the big wooden front doors and keep going straight up the stairs. The staff is helpful and fluent in English. Even better there are a number of free computers you can use to get free net access. The office is open 7 days a week, from 9 am to 6 pm. Get off at City Hall station. Take Exit 5.
There are several palaces in Seoul. This is the largest. It is near the Gyeongbokgung
subway station on line 3 or a short walk north from Gwanghwamun station on line 5. Gyeonbokgung Palace his highly reminiscent of scenes from The Last Emperor
. It's kind of a Forbidden City but on a smaller scale. This is definitely one of the cardinal stops on any tour of Seoul. The admission fee is a dirty cheap 1,000 won. Much of the palace grounds are rather rocky but as you head towards the rear of the palace there's some scenic trees and ponds. There's also a large folk museum (free admission with your palace admission) that provides some excellent displays and an overview of Korean history. The palace itself is also something of a lesson on Korea's suffering under its Japanese overlords. Many of the buildings are not originals but reproductions of palaces that stood for hundreds of years until the Japanese burned them to the ground.
War Memorial and Museum:
This place is a military hardware geek's wet dream. Outside of the museum is a huge static display of '50s era American and Soviet tanks, planes, and choppers. Inside you have your customary displays of weapons, from swords to Korean War
hardware and uniforms. It's close to the Samgakji station
on the light blue line or the Noksapyeong station
on the "world cup" brown line.
National Museum of Contemporary Art
Get off at Seoul Grand Park Station
on the Light Blue line. Take exit No.4. The museum is quite a hike through the Grand Park. If you're white, expect to have a lot of kids run up to you and say hello while you make your way to the museum. Admission is about 800 won. Very cheap. But the gallery is quite large and there is quite a lot of art here.
Seoul Museum of Art:
Get off at City Hall Station on the dark blue line/apple green line. Take exit No.1 and walk toward Deoksugung
Palace. The Seoul Museum of Art features more traditional Asian and European works of art. It typically hosts various International traveling art shows. Admission can run about 10,000 won if there's a special show or about 700 won if there is no special show.
Get off at Anguk station
on the orange line. Insa-Dong was a street full of shops selling traditional Korean crafts and antiques although in the last several years it's given over to cheaper tourist stuff like Korean fans, lacquered boxes, and Chinese astrology book marks.
Get off at Anguk station
on the orange line. Changdok
is the best preserved of Seoul's palaces. It was the seat of Korea's royal family until they were all snatched by the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century and carted to Japan for "education". Unlike the rocky Gyeonbokgung palace, these grounds are swathed in trees and water. The grounds are cool and beautiful and smell like a Pacific Northwest
forest. Unfortunately, one is not free to simply wander these grounds. You have to travel with a guided tour. However tempting it is to pitch a blanket under a tree, near some water, and write some poetry, you'll be shoo'd along by the ever present security team and made to follow the guided tour. Admission is 2,300 won which includes the compulsory tour. There are a few English tours but you can tag along with the frequent Korean tours and not miss out on much that isn't explained by the bilingual
Seoul Arts Center:
Get off at Nambu station
on the orange line. Take Exit 5. Walk straight until the road ends at a rocky hill and then hang a right. You'll see the massive arts center down the road. It looks more like a mountain redoubt than a music hall. The center piece, the opera house, is designed to look like a traditional Korean hat. There's always something going on here, Monday to Sunday, from full fledged symphony performances to recitals. Concerts and recitals can run from 10,000 won to 80,000 won. Major concerts featuring world famous soloists, visiting symphonies, or traditional crowd pleasers like the 9th or the Four Season
will usually be sold out. In general it's not too difficult to get same day tickets if you show up an hour before the concert. There's a great musical water fountain complete with video and light show to behold while you wait. There's also a calligraphy museum and art gallery open during the day.
Lotte World: Lotte
World is a small indoor/outdoor amusement park. Although built on rather tight confines, they make efficient use of space. Several of the rides are underground, which lends a certain amount of atmosphere. Many of the rides are surprisingly good. There's a pretty wicked roller coaster, some traditional spin 'n' puke
rides (including one amazing ride that's a combination between a merry-go-round and a sling shot), and a couple "demon drop" type rides (where you're ratcheted up to the top of a high pole and then dropped free-fall style). Avoid the Haunted House
at all costs. I can't stress this enough. The line is long and it's not even a ride. You sit in a dark room and hear some weird sound effects. That's it. It's that hurting. The rest of the rides are comparable to a western theme park although on a slightly smaller scale. You can easily kill the day here. Unlike western theme parks, the food prices are not at extortion levels. What might cost you 4,000 won outside the gates will run 5,000 won in the park. You can easily mow down for about 5,000 won per meal. Lotte World can keep you busy for a whole day and well into the early evening. It's really pretty alright. There are two types of tickets. The 24,000 admission ticket which gets you into the park but no rides. And there's the 30,000 won special pass that gets you into the park and lets you get on all the rides. Since most rides are 4,000 with the cheap ticket, it's crazy not to buy the 30,000 won pass. You'll need to keep the ticket handy, however. You need to show it at each ride gate to board. There are no wrist bands.
Lotte World Folk Museum:
Also part of the Lotte attraction is a folk museum. You don't need to pay for park admission to visit the museum. You can buy a cheaper ticket for just the museum. The folk museum is pretty interesting in itself and worth a visit. Admission is about 4,500 won. The entrance is near the amusement park ticket booth. Look for an elevator leading up to the folk museum
Get off at Seodaemun station
on the purple line. Take Exit 5. Walk past the Starbucks. At the first intersection, cross the road. You'll see a McDonald's at that corner. Go right. Walk for about 5 minutes and you'll see sign/alley leading to the Nanta
theater. The Nanta musical comedy/cooking show is a non-verbal show that can be enjoyed by people of any language, being comprised of mostly music and physical comedy. The cooks/performers beat out a peppy little show using pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards. In the process they manage to prepare and cook a whole meal. You don't actually get to sample any, however. The show is best thought of as Stomp
Get off at Samseung station
. Take Exit 6. Coex
is a sizable underground mall. Korea isn't a big mall culture but Coex is an exception. There are a number of Western restaurants and Korean restaurants and places to drink. There's a large movie theater that usually runs two or three American movies. Other than major summer blockbusters Korea tends to get Hollywood flicks several months after the fact. So if you're a tourist and missed a big movie during its North American run you might be surprised to catch it here. Most American movies are in English with Korea side titles. When you're in Coex, a visit to the Kimchi
Field Museum is good for a giggle. There is also a sizable aquarium
. Entrance fee is a bit pricey, especially when you're used to public palaces and museums with $2 entrance fees. But if you're an aquarium fan, this is the best in Korea, although on a world aquarium scale it comes in at about a 6.9.
Another big mall in Seoul. Get off at Sinyongsan Station
on the light blue line. Take Exit 5. You'll see it to your left at the intersection. Down from the intersection is a train track under pass and tunnel. Space 9
is the big complex to the left of that under pass. Do not, however, use the tunnel/underpass. Space 9 has about 5 floors of computers and other consumer electronics like digital cameras and MP3 players. It has two wings that have restaurants and clothing stores. There's also a large movie theater. To buy tickets at the movie theater you don't actually stand in line. You pick a number and wait for your number to be called and then go to the appropriate wicket. There are a number of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and food court restaurants in Space 9, plus a ubiquitous Lotteria
: Some tourist books identify this as the tallest building in Korea but its been eclipsed by a couple other buildings. However, it has a nice observation deck, giving you a good view of Seoul from its geographic middle on Yeouido Island (referred to as "The Manhattan
of Seoul" but that's a pile of shit). It is the center of the Korean government and the main TV stations are located on this island. There is a very nice water front park that runs the length of the island and well worth checking out during good weather. Get off at Yeouido station
on the purple line. Take exit 5. The building has an Imax
theater and a crappy aquarium worth avoiding. The observation deck fee is 6000 won.
Cool Places to Shop
Many call this Seoul's Ginza
. There are a lot of up market and bargain market clothing shops. There are a lot of young people and this place can get mighty crowded on the weekend. It is fun to walk around and explore. At night you can buy various knock off products, from LV purses to designer watches. Get off at the Myeong Dong station on the light blue line. Get off at Myeong Dong Station
. Take Exit 5. The stairs split to the right and continue straight. Take the stairs to the right. When you come up the stairs turn left (away from the street).
Apgujeong is where Korea's rich kids play and shop. There are a lot of high end clothing stores, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants in this district. Get off at Apgujeong station
on the orange line. Take exit 1. Walk for 10 minutes towards the Galleria Department Store. Look for signs leading you to "Rodeo street
Get off at Sinchon station
. Take Exit 3 or 4 or 8. Sinchon is smack in the middle of three of Seoul's top universities. So there are a lot of restaurants, stores, pubs, and movie theaters. Also walk towards the Ewha University
stop for more of the same, although since its near a woman's university many of the stores are devoted to make up and shoes.
Get off at Dongdaemun Station on the Light Blue/Dark Blue line or Dongdaemun
Stadium Station on the Light Blue/Apple Green/Purple line. If you're looking for a bargain price on local Korean fashions, go here. There are three or four 10 floor buildings that are floor after floor of small clothing kiosks: Doosan Tower, Migliore, and Freya Town are the major ones. Go to the top floor for some restaurants and some great vistas.
There's a 10 floor store devoted to electronic products called Technomart at the Gangbyeon station
on the apple green line. In general you will find Korean electronics not such a great deal. You can buy Korean made mp3 player
s and digital camera
s cheaper in America. The problem is Korea has a high duty
on Japanese electronics. So for the domestic Korean market, Korean merchants can pad the prices for their Korean products. A Korean mp3
player price can be jacked up but kept just below the cost of a Japanese product and still sell.
HyeHwa used to be the home of Seoul's National university. Back in the day, it was the locus of the pro-democracy movement. The university has been moved south but much of the antiestablishment youth and art culture has remained. There are a large number of experimental drama and dance
theaters in the area. Unfortunately, most of the productions are in Korean. However, when the weather turns nice (spring/summer), HyeHwa is great for free live performances day and night, many of which are held in or around Marronnier Park
Get off at Gangnam station. Take Exit 7. There are a number of clothing shops, restaurants, cafes, and the like. Gangnam
is the heart of the south side.
At the western end of Jongno street is Kyobo books and a big statue of this Korean Admiral who invented the turtle ships. Kyobo books is a good place to use the washroom, get English newspapers or books. Northwest is the Sejong art center. Walking east you'll find a lot of restaurants. Around the Jonggak subway station is the Yoongpoong book store with a nice Starbucks in the basement. There's also a funky building called, variously, the Millennium
building or the Samsung
building. Across from that is a bell called the Boshingak bell that is rung every new year. If you keep walking west you eventually come to Tapgol Park
or Pagoda Park where the Korean independence movement began. If you walked north from the park you'd hit Insadong.
Get off at Anguk station
on the orange line. The Starbucks is on your left. Local legend has it that this is the only Starbucks in the world where the Starbucks logo is in another character set (Korean) and not English. This is a nod to its surroundings, in the heart of Insa-dong. This place can get pretty busy, especially with foreigners seeking a frappucino
after a hot afternoon hunting for souvenirs.
Get off at City Hall station
on the apple green/dark blue line. Take Exit 5. Walk past City Hall. The road curves around to the left. Follow the curve. Around the bend you'll see a tourism center for foreigners on your left. Keep going. You'll see a tall office building on your left with a big sign out front showing various scenic Canadian pictures. This building houses the Canadian embassy
plus a Starbucks on the ground floor. It's a rather cavernous Starbucks to boot.
Get off at City Hall station
. Take Exit 7. Walk straight out of the subway
exit. You'll need to walk a couple blocks. It is on your left. Across the street is a set of modern twin office buildings. They are directly across the street from the Starbucks.
Get off at Gangnam station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 7. At the top of the stairs head straight. It's not too far of a walk on your right. This is primarily a second floor Starbucks with a small street-level entrance. There's a small take-out kiosk on the ground floor but you should head up to the second floor to order your beverage. It's rather cavernous on the second floor with a long bar window side, great for people watching
Get off at Gwanghwamun
on the Purple line. Take Exit 7. It's right next to the Sejong Center
and Kyobo Books. It offers a great view of the big assed Admiral statue and any demonstrations making their way to the American embassy.
Get off at Gyeonbokgung station
on the orange line. Across from the western wing of the Gyeonbokgung palace.
Get off at HyeHwa station
on the light blue line. Take Exit 2. At the top of the stairs make a u-turn (go in the opposite direction you were heading up the stairs). You'll see a KFC
on your right. Keep walking and you'll soon see a two-level Starbucks on your right. This is a very pleasant Starbucks. It can get busy at night, notably on Friday/Saturday, and your odds of finding a table are slim to none.
Get off at Jamsil station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 7. At the top of the stairs head straight. It's about a five minute walk on your right. You'll see it in the main floor of an office tower. It's a small, open café
Get off at Jonggak station
on the Dark Blue line. There's a Starbucks in the Yoongpoong book store which connects to the subway station. Also the take Exit 2. There's a Starbucks on the main floor of the Korea First Bank building.
Get off at Myeong Dong Station
on the light blue line. Take Exit 5. The stairs split to the right and continue straight. Take the stairs to the right. When you come up the stairs turn left (away from the street). It's a short walk and you'll see it on your left. This Starbucks is 4 stories tall. For a time, I believe, it was the largest Starbucks in the world.
Get off at Nambu station
on the orange line. Take Exit 3. At the top of the stairs look to your immediate right. It's right there. It's a fairly small Starbucks.
Get off at Samseung station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 6. It's in the COEX
mall complex. You'll emerge from the station into a court yard. On your right you'll see a KFC. Forward is a Movenpick
restaurant. Do not take the first set of doors to your left. Those go into the hotel. Head towards the Movenpick (Bennigan's
is to the right). The mall doors are to the left of the Movenpick. The Starbucks is only a short walk from the top of the stairs. Enter the mall and walk straight. After a while you'll see a Puma store on your left. Take a left at the Puma
store. Starbucks is right around the corner. This location can get very busy on weekends at all hours.
Get off at Sinchon station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 3. You'll walk past a KFC. The Starbucks is recessed back a bit so it's hard to see until you're right in front of it. This is a three floor Starbucks. There's a quasi patio (a row of chairs out front). This Starbucks can get quite busy with university students. Students tend to linger for long periods of time doing their homework.
Get off at Sinchon station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 4. You'll walk past a movie theatre. It's next to an Outback Steakhouse
. The Starbucks is also recessed back a bit so it's also hard to see until you're right in front of it. It's a bit more of a walk but it's usually much less busy. There's a nice long window bar for people watching.
Get off at Sinyongsan Station
on the light blue line. Take Exit 5. Walk to the Yongsan Space 9
electronics mall. You'll see it to your left at the intersection. Down from the intersection is a train track under pass and tunnel. Space 9 is the big complex to the left of that under pass. Do not, however, use the tunnel/underpass. There's a Starbucks on the 6th floor of Space 9 in the "Restaurant Space" venue, same floor as a Popeye's
fried chicken place.
Get off at Yeouido station
on the purple line. Take Exit 3. At the top of the stairs walk straight. Head for the big blue HP
building. Cross the street and go left. You'll see a Kinko's
sign. You'll know the Starbucks cannot be far. Once you get beyond the Kinko's you'll see the Starbucks sign. It's on the ground floor of an office tower. This is a single floor, medium-sized Starbucks. Nothing really jumps out about this Starbucks.
Get off at the Apgujeong station
on the orange line. Take Exit 5. At the top of your stairs look immediately to your left. There she blows. I've found this to be a not-too busy Starbucks. It has two floors (main and basement… stairs leading down are towards the back of the store). There are a couple tables with comfy
Get off at the Konkuk University station
on the apple green line. Take Exit 2. At the bottom of the stairs take a left. It's a bit of a hike from the subway. It's a rare Starbucks that's not located on the ground floor. It occupies the second and third floor of a building. It's above an Olive and Young drugstore
. There's something rather cozy about this Starbucks. The window seats on the second and third floor provide a nice wide view of the street and some trees on a hill. This is the closest Starbucks to Technomart.
The subway has 9 lines. It's quite large, clean (save for the lung butter
you find spewed on the subway and the piles of vomit you find on your walk to the subway), and goes everywhere you need to go (save for the international airport). And as I mentioned above it's quite inexpensive. 900 - 1100 won per trip. Trips are zone based.
Line 1: Dark blue (used to be red but they changed the color for some unknown reason)
Line 2: Apple Green
Line 3: Orange
Line 4: Light Blue
Line 5: Purple
Line 6: Brown
Line 7: Olive Green
Line 8: Pink
Bundang Line: Yellow
Lines 5-9 are the newest and the stations are the most modern in design. The earlier stations weren't designed to handle expanded populations and can get very crowded. Line 2 if probably the most useful as it forms a ring around the city core. Line 1 is mostly run along older heavy rail lines and service is rather weird and unpredictable. Sometimes you get on a train thinking it will go to one station but it only goes as far as another station and then you have to get off and wait for another train to come along and carry you further along the line...
All lines are air conditioned
and the air works quite well. It's not uncommon to actually feel cold in the dead of Seoul's oppressively hot and humid summers (although as someone from Seattle
as of late, anything summer-ish would seem oppressive to me).