Don’t let the media freak you out about going to Seoul. True that it’s in quite close proximity to North Korea, I never once felt worried about the 38th parallel. In fact, I got a chance to see it up close. More on that in a moment.
For those first venturing to Asia, Seoul is an easy place to stop. It’s incredibly modern, vivid, intriguing and robust with history tucked into a massive metropolis with a quirky, funky vibe. That’s exactly why I fell in love with it. I loved it so much, I named one of my children Seoul. That should tell you all you need to know right there.
Still, you’re probably hoping for some quick tips for your visit to Seoul. So here is my best advice to first-timers heading to my favorite place on the planet.
1st Tip: The Seoul Metro is awesome
My favorite mode of transport while living in Seoul was the subway. It is a vast and efficient system that makes getting to just about any place a breeze. It took me a while to get more comfortable using the buses, and taxis are fantastic for practicing your Korean. If you’re only staying a short while, get your destinations printed out in Korean to make it easier to communicate with your driver. Most hotels can help you with that.
2nd Tip: Try the street food
Underground in the subway stations, you’ll find great little places to grab something on the go from familiar waffles to fish cakes (a must-try!). You’ll find them above ground too. Seoul is a city full of snackers so you’ll be in good company.
3rd Tip: Shop underground
Shopping in Seoul is amazing. It’s a worldwide fashion destination. When I lived there, I discovered the best fashion and style trends before my friends back home in the states ever heard of them. Seoul is definitely a shopper’s paradise. Above ground, you could spend all day wandering around Myeongdong or famed Dongdaemun, but if you want to score some amazing deals, check out the underground shops in the bigger subway stations. My personal favorite was the Goto Mall in the Gangnam Terminal of the subway station.
4th Tip: Choose a “western” hotel
When I first visited Seoul, my brother was living and working there. I had the pleasure of staying in his amazingly cool apartment on the 38th floor of a building overlooking downtown. My parents who I’d traveled there with stayed at the Grand Hyatt. If my brother’s apartment wasn’t so awesome, I’d have been more jealous, but getting to spend time at the Grand Hyatt was a real treat. I realize not everyone has that kind of budget, but staying in a Western-style hotel means that you have a devoted staff that speaks fluent English and can help you make arrangements should your flight be changed, help you get to the places you want to see, and make you feel like royalty while you’re in town.
5th Tip: Make sure you go to norebang
Norebang is what the Koreans call karaoke. It literally translates to “singing room.” Unlike in the West though, you get a private room to sing in with your friends where the push of a button summons the staff who will be happy to bring you beer, wine, liquor, and any snacks you order. You can find norebang everywhere in the city and at any budget. The nicer places are best and worth the extra cost.
6th Tip: See the sights
I realize that’s a bit vague, but Seoul has five grand palaces tucked in between all the modern hullabaloo and you should at very least see one of them. When you’re short on time in Seoul, I recommend linking up with a tour to try to see as much as possible. Again, this is why Western-style hotels are best because they can help you join reputable tour groups that match your interests from seeing museums and shopping to going to the top of the N Seoul Tower to visiting Lotte World, a Korean version of the Magic Kingdom (Jamsil Station, exit 4). We took one to the DMZ and it is still one of the best memories of my first time in Seoul.
Still have more time to play in Seoul? Then I recommend Seoul Children’s Park, which most tourists don’t know about. Once you live in the city and you discover this gem though, you’ll find yourself frequenting the place because it’s mostly-free entertainment. The grounds are beautiful and it is home to a zoo (free!) and an amusement park which requires no entrance fee and only nominal charges for tickets to the rides.
7th Tip: Catch a show
Another thing I absolutely loved my first time in Seoul was going to see a theater performance. I saw Nanta, a non-verbal performance that was so hilarious, I went to see it again once I had moved there. Both times, I laughed myself half to death.
8th Tip: Eat and drink Korean-style
One of the best ways to really get acquainted with a place is to eat and drink like the people that call it home. What I loved most about Seoul was that a night out began with eating and drinking at one restaurant and then migrating to several others throughout the course of the evening. It’s very typical to start out at a Korean BBQ place where you get to barbecue your own meats in the center of your table. It goes great with beer and soju, a strong Korean liquor.
After that, you might find yourself at a place with pajeon, a type of savory pancake, where you’ll drink makgeolli, a Korean rice wine. After that, it could be a fried chicken place for a pitcher of beer and some of the best fried chicken you’ve had (take that Colonel Sanders!). If you still have energy after that, head to Hongdae (the big college part of town) or Itaewon (where the expats hang out) where most of the clubs are to dance all that food off.
But it’s not all nighttime feasting here. In fact, Seoul’s cafes will keep you warm in the frigid winters. There’s one on every corner and you’ll have a favorite on every block if you stay there long enough. Miss home? There’s Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts too, but trying one of the Korean ones is so much more fun!
Go to Seoul and you won’t be sorry. You’ll never be bored of things to do or see, new foods to try, snacks with hilarious names, and meeting new people that will really change your life in so many amazing ways.