My first weekend in Seoul, I couldn’t wait to see what this city had to offer. Thaddeus was ready with a full itinerary of things to do. All in all we covered about 26 miles of the city on foot, ate a lot of great food and saw a lot of great Seoul sites!
So put on your walking shoes and tag along as I recall my first weekend in Seoul!
Friday night was our first Galbi House (or Korean BBQ) experience. When Thaddeus got out of work, we again wandered the streets of Itaweon and found a traditional Galbi restaurant. Galbi restaurants in Korea have a grill at the table and a ventilation system coming from the ceiling. You cook your BBQ right at your table. We again had a traditional shoes-off, floor-level seating experience, although not all Korea restaurants are like this.
Korean BBQ is seasoned with a marinade comprised of ingredients including sugar, soy sauce and garlic. The marinade makes for a sweet, delicious and extremely tender meat that will cook quickly. There are various kinds and styles of meat you can order to cook. The meat is also served with several styles of lettuce for wrapping, several styles of kimchi and various other side dishes.
The restaurant we chose was not located on the main streets of Itaweon, which generally cater to English speakers. Our waitress did not speak English so we improvised and ordered by pointing to pictures, which were on a menu on the wall, and by doing hand gestures for the rest of the night. It worked out fine and everything was delicious.
Saturday we started the day off at one of the large markets in Seoul called Dongdaemun Market. It is located in Dongdaemun district surrounding the subway station of the same name. The market is broken into five major districts, A-D. Yes, it is that massive! The market contains 30,000 specialty stores, 50,000 manufacturers, 26 shopping malls and is spread out among 10 entire blocks. Today it is often referred to as the “night market” because it is open all night. Originally, the market only operated from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The market is zoned, so like items are in the same area. Dongdaemun sells everything imaginable from clothing to pharmaceutical supplies. We particularly enjoyed the food stalls that were in the market. They are also “zoned” so like foods are in the same area. They sell a huge variety of foods including blood sausage, Korean pancakes, silkworm larva, raw fish (sashimi), tripe, dumplings, soup, bean porridge and much more! There are also a large variety of different kinds of Korean restaurants and street food here.
The food stall area was the most congested place I have been to in Korea thus far. (Keep in mind it was a Saturday and it is not always like this.) During several points, if I stopped at all, I was pushed or bumped from behind. It was not impossible, but somewhat difficult, to find a place to sit at one of these restaurant stalls.
For lunch we settled on a dumpling and Korean noodle soup stall. It was very difficult to make a food choice with SO many options. Thaddeus had knife-cut noodles in his soup. The woman manning the stall rolled out dough and then cut the noodles with a knife before cooking them in the broth of the soup. I had rice cakes in my soup. They were small circular cakes that are a traditional food in Korea. Our soups were the same, other than that, and had clear broth and cabbage in it. There were also large dumplings in the soup and it of course came with the traditional Korean side dieshes. The portions were absolutely HUGE and impossible to finish. It cost less than $5.00 per meal.
After stuffed ourselves we continued walking through the city and made our way to the Cheongy-Cheong river, an unearth urban renewal river walk through the downtown. Floats lined the river to celebrate a “Reenactment of King Sejong’s son’s umbilical cord saving ceremony”- as stated by a flyer a nice man gave us. A replica pot, that held the king’s son’s umbilical cord, was on the street next to the river.
As we continued walking, the “Friendship Festival” was also occurring nearby. Stands were set up with food and cultural demonstrations from around the world. We were weren’t ready to eat again, but I did try a hibiscus tea from the Sudan. It was pretty good. I also tried some herbal healing tea from Korea. It was not so good. World Vision Korea was also at the Friendship Festival. They were hosting their own event called “Love Loaf” where people could fill up bread loaf-shaped piggy banks with coins for hunger. Children were playing in the piggy banks that were piled together just like it was a ball pit. People were also throwing thousands of coins into a pool sized container. It was a pretty unique site to see!
Our next stop was Gyeonbukgung Palace. The palace was originally built in 1395, but burned down several times, since that period. It is the largest palace of five that were built in Seoul by the Joseon Dynasty.
The palace is MASSIVE. I would estimate that it goes on for what seemed like a half of a mile or more. On the day we visited the palace, they had just restored the east wall, and there were many events occurring. There was a live orchestra in front of the palace, and people were lined in and around the area in traditional costumes doing reenactments. Thaddeus’ favorite reenactment of the day was a turtle ship (Geobukseon the world’s first armored warship used by the famous Korean Admiral Yi, Sun, Shin to repel the invading Japanese during the 16th Century Imjin War) that actors moved around on the outside of the palace.
Behind the palace is the Korea Folk Museum. Because of the day’s celebrations, it was free to go into the museum and palace! The Folk Museum was rather small. As many of you may know, Korea lacks many of their artifacts because they were stolen by the Japanese on multiple occasions throughout history.
Nonetheless, in true Korean fashion, the museum was very technologically advanced and filled with many great videos about Korea and cultural displays. I especially enjoyed the models of folk houses, eating utensils, and different kinds of kimchi.
Our final stop of the day was Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. It was my favorite. Buddah’s birthday is approaching on May 17th. The weekend prior, Seoul hosts the Lantern Parade and Flower Festival to celebrate his life.
People at the temple were holding Korean character (hangul) lanterns to prepare for the event. Lanterns were strung up throughout the temple. The entire area was very peaceful. I found it very interesting to enter the temple (taking my shoes off first of course) and seeing the golden Buddha, fruit and rice sacrifices and people praying.
At this point we decided to finally call it a day after some amazing sightseeing, lots of walking and great eating!
Sunday was children’s day in Korea and also another very special international holiday – OUR first anniversary!! We attended an International Baptist church located in our district. There were a great amount of Children’s Day festivities occurring at church, and each age group came up and sang a song. It was very cute.
Following church Thaddeus wanted to celebrate our anniversary by going to a restaurant called Petra, which serves Middle Eastern food. I tried falafel for the first time.
Following lunch we headed to I-Park Mall. I-Park is one of the biggest shopping malls in Korea. You can purchase anything imaginable in this mall and do countless activities. I-Park houses a 4-D movie theater, soccer stadium, and mini-golf course and even has an entire floor of wedding halls! There are also many great restaurants, of course. It wouldn’t be in Korea if there wasn’t food.
We had a great time strolling around and window shopping in the mall. Again all items were zoned to different floors and sections. I bought a much needed blow dryer and had a fun time trying to communicate with the salesmen and have them show me the different options and features. One of my favorite things about the mall was, in several locations, they had adorable puppies for sale in little glass cubes on pedi-stools with hot pink litter box papers. The displays were pretty wild to see and really made me want a puppy for a brief moment.
I-Park was also celebrating Children’s Day and had a huge display in the courtyard of the mall, complete with giant inflatable Spongebobs and lots of fun activities for kids.
After we checked out the mall, we went into the basement where E-Mart is located. It is a large Korean grocery store. Since it was a Sunday, the store was packed! It was our first visit to a large grocery store. Throughout the aisles were sales people with speakers, yelling about what they were selling, and offering samples. It was like nothing you would ever see in America! We had a fun time trying some local groceries and making some food purchases.
After stocking up on Korean groceries, we made the long walk home stopping at the Korean War Memorial, and then walking through the Yongsan American Army base. I must mention that some of this walking is voluntary. As we can take the subway to most places for a trip that generally cost around a dollar. Taxis are also extremely cheap, but we enjoy sightseeing when we have the time and when the weather is nice. And with that said, Springtime is beautiful here. We’ve had days full of sunshine in the 70’s It was a wonderful weekend!