We arrived at Incheon airport in Seoul in the evening, then took the express train to Seoul station and checked into our Airbnb. It took 40 minutes and cost about $8 per person. The train was super nice, with assigned seats and free wifi.
Then we headed out to meet our friends for dinner. We were pretty exhausted from traveling, so we didn't stay out too late. I'm not even sure what we ate since our friends ordered for us, but it was good. Some kind of spicy soup with egg, kimchi, rice, and a bit of soju.
We went to the Korean war memorial. There were exhibits both about the Korean war and also just military history in the area. There's so much I didn't know or understand about the Korean War conflict and the history and adversity that South Korea has faced in general. I especially enjoyed the part of the exhibit about the United Nations and its big decision to send troops from around the world to Korea. They had letters, resolutions, and other memorabilia on display from the very early UN days, which I found fascinating as a person who was really involved in Model UN in high school. The grounds were beautiful, with a large fountain/moat type thing, and we fed fish and watched them swim around lotus flowers.
After sleeping off a bit of jetlag back in our apartment, we headed out to Myeong-dong for the night market. The train station at Myeong-dong had a huge underground shopping area. The market was bustling with a sort of upscale outdoor mall feel. We tried some street food, which was all amazing: egg bread, kimchi sushi rolls, chive pancake, ice cream, fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. We rounded off the night by going to a cat cafe.
We headed up to the north part of Seoul, where our first stop was Gyeongbokgung palace. There, we explored the incredible palace grounds, watched the "changing of the guards" ceremony, saw lots of people dressed up in traditional Korean clothing, and enjoyed the mountain views.
Next, we went to the Bukchon Hanok Village area. We got some bibimbap for lunch and then stopped at a tea room with a rooftop terrace and enjoyed the view over the village and its traditional rooftops.
We booked a little "airbnb experience" for a traditional indigo dying class at someone's house in the village. We met him outside in his yard, where he taught us about indigo, showed us how he grew it and then fermented it to create the pigment. Then we tied up some scarves made of eucalyptus fibers and dyed them in the indigo. It was really cool. Next time I'd book a couple more craft classes, like traditional painting or pottery (there are lots of them on Airbnb experiences).
Next, we went to Namdaemun market, another street market. This one had tons of inexpensive clothes and socks and stuff like that. I noticed a lot of Korean women wearing linen wide leg pants which I really liked, so I bought a couple pairs! It seemed that there were more locals there rather than tourists.
We walked up to Seoul tower and wanted to ride the gondola up to the top, but the line was so long and we were exhausted, so we just grabbed some pizza for dinner and headed back to home base to crash.
We went to Jogyesa temple, one of the main Buddhist temples in Korea. It was stunning and peaceful. We were there very early so the grounds were quiet with a few people worshipping. We weren't supposed to take pictures inside the Dharma hall, but there were huge incredible golden Buddha statues inside. We walked around, admiring the gardens and all the intricate paintings on the buildings.
Then we walked through Insadong, with its traditional shops and restaurants, all the way to Gwangjang market. Gwangjang market was pretty much all food (or maybe that was just the area that we explored). We saw people fermenting and grinding mung beans to make pancakes, making dumplings from scratch, heaping bibimbap components into huge piles to serve to customers, all kinds of dried fish and candy and snacks for sale. Everything was fresh and delicious. Our favorite was the fried mung bean cake, which was crispy like a huge hash brown, with bean sprouts and chives inside.
That night we went to the Myeong-dong night market again just to hang out and walk around. (It was nice and close to our apartment.) We got more street food and almost did karaoke but decided it might not be as fun with only two people so we went to another cat cafe, haha. We also got a box of those sugar-spun candies with nuts in them, and I really wish we bought more! They were delicious.
We went to the National Museum of Korea. The grounds/gardens were beautiful and the exhibits were amazing. We looked at prehistoric artifacts, pieces of ancient pottery, traditional paintings and calligraphy, Buddhist sculptures. The gift shop was also a highlight; it had lots of fun things to look at and it was all reasonably priced. We definitely stuck out as tourists at the museum. There were lots of kids who really wanted to talk to us in English, and we were happy to say hello.
We grabbed a final bibimbap lunch, then we took the express train back to the airport and flew home. We didn't get the "pods" this time, and we had to lay over in Minneapolis, so we were absolutely dead tired by the time we made it home. But we made it!
Some tips/general observations:
- we chose to stay near Seoul station because it was very central. but honestly the trains are all really easy to navigate once you get the hang of it, so next time I'd probably choose to stay somewhere where there was more going on.
- the public transit is the best I have ever seen in any city in my life. easy to navigate, extensive, reliable, clean and well maintained stations and trains, just incredible.
- carry cash! go to the exchange at the airport and just take out as much cash as you think you'll need. don't count on places accepting credit card.
- food is pretty affordable! for example, you can get a delicious bibimbap meal with all the side dishes for only $6-9.
- finding vegetarian food wasn't an easy task, and we probably only got away with it because we also are pretty okay with eating fish -- almost everything has at least fish sauce in it. look for: vegetable bibimbap, kimchi dumplings, kimchi kimbap (seaweed/rice rolls), fried mung bean cakes, egg bread (street food). sometimes we got really hungry and ended up just getting mcdonalds egg mcmuffins without the ham. /shrug
- if you don't like spicy food you might have a bad time! almost everything is spicy
- if you DO like spicy food, you'll be in heaven
- the train stations have big lockers for your bags if you need to store them for a day of exploring! this was SO NICE. we used one for our last day after checking out of our airbnb and it only cost about $5 to store our carry-ons for the day.