Seoul - First Impressions
I have now spent two weeks in Seoul! I have done something new every single day and loved every second of my experiences. I have seen palaces, shopping streets, universities, the DMZ, and so much more. I would like to say that I knew what to expect from a big city like Seoul because I have been to so many others but I was entirely unprepared. The first thing is that it doesn't seem like a big city when you are in it. Honestly, I wasn't sure that I would like Seoul at first because it doesn't give off the big city vibe like London or other European cities. It is quiet and orderly and filled to the brim with little coffee shops, restaurants, and clothing stores. It is kind of magical because there is so much to see and all of it good.
For the first week here my parents were staying with me and so we did a few different tours in Seoul and a tour to the DMZ. I would highly recommend a food tour like we did because we were taken to a few different spots for different kinds of food and drinks which was an excellent introduction to Korean food. We also did a walking tour of the more historic district of Seoul which I had mixed feelings about. On the tour, we toured one of the smaller palaces in Seoul (there are five) and went to a few more historic places nearby. But, I don't think it was a necessary tour other than learning a lot about the palace. I think it is very easy to walk and find the same places we did in the tour on your own and at your pace. But, if you are into being guided to new areas in cities then I would, by all means, recommend a walking tour. The final tour we did was the DMZ. I have some ideological issues with visiting the DMZ as a tourist and so I was not thrilled we were going. On the tour, you go to several different meaningful spots in the DMZ and learn a bit about the history of the border and the Korean War. Personally, I think it is not necessary to visit the DMZ unless you have a keen interest in its history.
The first thing to know about Seoul in August is that it is ungodly hot for the first two weeks and not much better in the latter half of the month. Also, it is hilly. So hilly. Parts of Seoul are flatter, like the area around a few of the palaces. But I live on the side of a mountain at Yonsei and my walk home is brutal so summer in Seoul is definitely not for the faint of heart. The good thing is that there are plenty of ways to escape the heat like underground malls and a fantastic bus and subway system to get you from one air-conditioned place to another. Both the buses and subways are super cheap, and if you're not one for public transport the taxis are also cheap and easy to use. They also have special taxis just for foreigners and Uber is also active in Seoul. If you happen to be in Seoul in August you really need to just brave the heat and go out and do things because there is no chance of waiting out the heat.
FOOD, FOOD, AND MORE FOOD
Just eat. That's all you really have to do when you come to visit - barbecue, bibimbap, dessert, coffee, tea, chicken and beer, flavoured soju - so many choices and so little time. I have yet to have a bad meal here after two weeks and every restaurant offers its own variation on classic dishes so I would recommend that you don't go to the same restaurant twice. I have noticed that the food here is super cheap. I can have a huge meal of barbecue with my roommate and spend about $10 on my half of the bill. Also, street food is a huge part of the culture here and there are a few big food markets scattered throughout the city. Basically, don't be afraid to try anything because I can pretty much guarantee that it will be delicious. I think my favorite part of the food/drink culture in Seoul is the cafe culture. Things are open late in Seoul and cafes are no exception with many of them open until 10 or later. For example, I am writing this post in a coffee shop called Kukka which is both a coffee shop and a flower shop and I am loving it. Around Yonsei, there are hundreds of cafes and dessert shops that I am looking forward to trying. So far, my favorite place to walk, shop, and eat is the Jongno District which is in Northern Seoul and features shops that sell traditional Korean crafts and ceramics.
If it hasn't become obvious by this point, I am in love with Seoul and I can't wait to explore more of the city and find new favorite places.