october 2019

In October, I went to Seoul on a whim. It was tacked onto a last minute trip to Taiwan, flights booked just a couple weeks before leaving. There was an unexpected change in life plans, and this trip was running away at its best.

Korea was never a place that I was dying to visit. I was never a Korean culture fanatic (or, any culture fanatic for that matter). I’ve always been agnostic to it. But I do have a lot of Korean friends, who convinced me I’d really enjoy Seoul. After all, it’s another Asian metropolis. And we know how much I love those.

I hit the point where I need an escape from an escape. Taiwan has always been my default, because it’s easy, because it’s home. But sometimes, you need something new, something foreign, a refreshing breath from the baggage that comes with the familiar. Seoul fit the bill. Just a short flight away, not too expensive, easy to fill a few days with minimal planning.

Although I tend to like long trips where you can really get to know a place, there is something nice about short trips. To me, they’re less stressful because they come with fewer expectations. I don’t expect to do a ton, I don’t try to plan a ton. I adopt a “whatever happens, happens” mentality and just try to soak in what I can and look forward to a second visit.

I’m not sure what I was expecting with Seoul, but I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would. Not that I didn’t think I’d like it, I just really like it. Something about the city just feels so livable. Like you’re inserted into the city’s routine, no one thing specifically, but the everyday rhythm pulls you in. It just seems like such a fun place to live.

Three and a half days was hardly enough to explore the sprawling city, but at least it gave enough of an orientation to have a better plan for next time. Next time, I plan to do a lot more shopping.

We stayed at a little studio in a big building right by Seoul Station. It was super easy to get to from Gimpo airport, in fact, we made it from plane to room without even seeing the sky, thanks to the vast underground network connecting the stations and buildings. But the best part is this view. One entire wall is made up of windows overlooking the city, so you don’t feel boxed in, even when living in a box perched high above the streets.

Like any good city, Seoul has  a set of palaces. Gyeongbokgung is perhaps the most popular. Like any Asian travel destination, there were dozens of tour buses parked along the entrance, and tour guides with their little flags. Inside, more selfie sticks than you can count. And so many women dressed in colorful rental hanboks, making their own k-dream photoshoots.

Once you get past all the photoshoots in the main courtyard, you can appreciate the motifs of the architecture against the brisk autumn landscape, a breath a fresh air from the bustle of the city.

Tucked between two palaces is the most picturesque neighborhood in Seoul. Bukchon Hanok Village is pristinely preserved, and maintains a remarkable level of serenity despite the tourists. In fact, they have people stationed at various intersections with signs asking you to keep quiet. It’s kind of endearing actually. 

Wandering up and down the steep narrow streets, I had two thoughts. First, it’s crazy that these are actually homes and not a movie set. Second, their parking jobs are very impressive. 

There are dozens of traditional tea shops and dining spaces hidden in the houses. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if you’re exploring or trespassing… 

Also, these views? Worth the climb. 

On the other side of the village? Another palace. This one a little less crowded, a little more serene. With sprawling grounds. Gardens, they call it. But as the adorable walking tour guide explained, there are no flowers, so don’t look for them. 

It used to be that you had to follow a tour guide in order to walk through the gardens, but they now allow you to explore at your own pace, so long as you enter with a guide at the given time interval. Which is nice, because at least you don’t have to travel with a pack of 50+ people at all times and can find your own peace.

Something about the greens & reds that are so complementary. 

Somehow, it’s a seamless transition from palaces of the past to the ultra-modern city life. The more I think about it, the funnier it is that Americans think we’re the center of the world. Europeans kind of realize how they’re lacking in the tech department, and then Asians are just killing it in tech life.

when in doubt, if in asia, duck into a department store

Myeongdong is tourist central. As in, I heard more Chinese than I did Korean walking through these streets. It is convenient though, all the generic commercial goods that are “must-buys” in Korea are within a couple blocks of each other. In fact, there are a lot of repeats even on a single block. 

Then there’s the street food. Clouds of smoke billowing from the vendors’ grills, serving up things in skewers and cups and bags late into the night. Do people sleep? 

If late nights of studying in Ktown have taught me anything, it’s that Koreans love coffee. There seems to be an endless supply of aesthetic coffee shops around Seoul. Hell, even the chain stores are very nicely designed. 

Anthracite Coffee Roasters is an industrial chic cafe with a few different locations around Seoul. How many Starbucks, Coffee Beans and Cafebenes did we pass before getting here? A lot. But you know I’d take a wild detour for coffee.

Because I’m a sucker for sleek architecture, Dongdaemun Design Plaza was a must visit. It reminds me a little of LA’s Disney Concert Hall, and a lot of Kaohsing’s Weiwuying National Center for the Arts. Of course, I did not realize it was fashion week, so was surprised to find a bunch of photographers loitering, and influencers dressed to impress wandering around the plaza as they ran through fashion show rehearsals in the morning.

Also accidentally walked through a market that seemingly specializes in grilled fish, in the midst of the fast fashion industry.

I always thought Gangnam would be a lot more hectic. Like Korea’s version of Shibuya. Just a ton of people, crazy intersections, at all hours. But it was actually rather peaceful. If anything, it felt more like Beverly Hills than Shibuya. Plenty of tourists leisurely shopping, a stark contrast from the bustle of Myeongdong.

No shortage of cute cafes and windows.

Also spotted my favorite SF pastries, an outpost of b.patisserie. In fact, Seoul seems to be a sister to SF the way Tokyo is to LA, with some of SF’s best having locations here too. 

picked up some new sunnies @ Gentle Monster, which felt more like a sleek art gallery than a retail store.

in fact, as I was leaving, I almost tripped over a performance artist, painted grey, crouching by the entrance (a precarious spot imo).

Apparently luxury fashion houses also do food in Seoul. Dior Café is a girly dream, with all the pretty embellishments that bait in hordes of women. Cafe Madang on the other hand, is an understated dining room literally in the basement of Maison Hermès. Sure it’s not as obnoxiously luxe, but worth it to avoid the Instagram gang. Also surprisingly reasonably priced.

pretty architecture

pretty interiors (srsly look at this bookstore in the middle of a sprawling shopping complex connected to a station)

But of course, what trip to Korea is complete without some soju? 

see also

snapshots from tokyo
a guide to taiwanese convenience stores