Up until K-pop crossed the mainstream and spawned a whole youth culture in the west, I'm not sure Seoul was at the top of many people's lists. A long way from home, and surrounded by famous cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and Hanoi - Seoul was an afterthought. However, it's recently become the 9th most visited city in the world. I decided to spend a week and find out for myself just what makes Seoul so interesting. You can read by detailed review here, but here's 5 things I loved about Seoul.
5. Haggling at Gwangjang Market
This is as exotic as markets get. It's an old school market selling all sorts of goods, from pots, pans and clothing, to freshly cooked food and souvenirs. Set out (broadly) in a cross shape, the middle of the market is the busiest as you barely have space to move. In the centre of the aisles are food stalls, each packed with people eating things I've never seen (or smelled) before.
The sights, smells and sounds are unlike anything you're likely to come across in the UK and that's not always a good thing.
While I really enjoyed the colourful spices, the smell of freshly cooked food, the intense energy and bright lights - I was less happy to see tanks of fish and octopuses, straddling the boundary of life and death. I saw one octopus repeatedly banging its head on the side of a tank, desperately trying to crawl out, while the bodies of 15-20 octopuses lay on the floor of the tank. Absolutely haunting.
4. Going back in time at the traditional village
The Bukchon Hanok village shows what life in a typical Korean village would have looked like 600 years ago - only this isn't a museum, residents still live here! This means while it's fine to walk around and take photos, guards patrol the streets to make sure no one is making too loud a noise. And if you think that sounds strange, just remember, there are people living here that have their houses photographed 365 days a year.
The village itself, although beautiful, is relatively small, but there is so much to do around the village that it's well worth visiting. Built near the top of a hill, the views of the city are incredible but it's nearby Insa-dong with its teahouses and boutique shops that has really stayed with me.
3. Exploring the five Grand Palaces
Of the five Grand Palaces, I visited three - and of those three, Gyeongbokgung was my favourite.
The palace was built by the Joseon dynasy and dates back to the late 14th century. Built over 40 hectares, I spent the best part of half a day exploring the grounds and seeing the myriad of buildings. The entrance is through the Gwanghwamun Gate, a large gate almost as beautiful as the palace inside. Outside, Royal Guards keep watch performing two 'changing of the guards' ceremonies a day (definitely worth waiting around for). For the equivalent of about £2.50 it's an absolute no-brainer.
Then there's Changdeokgung, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an incredibly beautiful throne room. The footprint of this eastern palace is much smaller, and it was also pretty quiet when I went, which was nice.
Again, the entrance fee is very affordable - but with both palaces, you can get in for free by renting traditional Hanbok clothing!
2. Cooling off by Cheonggyecheon
The circle of life - city edition!
People move to a city that has a small stream. People decide to modernise the city and fill up the stream with concrete. Gentrification occurs, people want a stream.
Cheonggyecheon is a 5 mile stream that runs through the centre of the city and is the calm in the storm of Seoul city centre. Not only is it relaxing and beautiful to walk along, but studies have shown that it has lowered the temperature of its immediate surroundings by almost 2 degrees celsius, a huge amount in the sweltering Seoul summer.
1. Experiencing the madness of a baseball game
I watched the Yankees in New York and enjoyed the laid back, almost cricket like atmosphere. In fact, my article looking at American sports (which you can read here), had my baseball experience as my favourite one.
So if I were to say that baseball in Korea is the opposite of baseball in the States, logic dictates I should hate it.
Korean baseball is insane - in a good way!
The moment they said you can bring your own food and drink into the stadium I knew this was going to be a different sort of experience. A Korean baseball game is about as interactive as a game gets. A male cheerleader leads the crowd to sing songs, helped by a group of female cheerleaders and some very, very large speakers. Everyone seems to get involved, almost to the point of not watching the game. The home and away sections take it in turns to be the loudest and craziest - and I won't lie, pretty much everyone comes off looking crazy here - but it works.
I loved Seoul - more than I expected. Thee's a ton of stuff I missed out on this list that you can read in my detailed review of Seoul here. For Sikhs there are no issues - no one really looked at me twice, and if it did, it was friendly. In fact, for Sikh friendly travel, this is as good as it gets.
It's not the cheapest place in the world, so be prepared to spend some money, but the experience is well worth it. It's cleaner than Bangkok, but crazier than Singapore. It has the modernity of Hong Kong, but with a history that rivals Hanoi. It's this "bit of everything" that makes Seoul very hard to dislike - but it's also something that makes it very hard to stand out.
It shouldn't be the first place to visit in east Asia, and probably not the second or even the third. But it's a place you have to visit at some point - I promise you, it'll be a unique experience.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.