The Land of the Morning Calm – 12 Days In South Korea [Part 1 – Seoul]

Seoul
The electric streets of Seoul

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on my trip to Korea. Find part 2 here and part 3 [pending]

Date of trip: 26/Jan/2019 – 7/Feb/2019

In Korea, good things come in threes: K-pop, K-drama, and…cosmetics. Sorry, you’ll catch me saying ‘K-cosmetics’ over my dead, superbly exfoliated body and smooth, baby soft face. But uh I digress, massively.

So here’s the deal. The three things that define Korea unique to The Land of the Morning Calm? Never been a part of any of it. My brushes with K-pop extends as far as having heard Gangnam Style – accidentally and unavoidably – and realising that Big Bang means something very different in Korea than it does to an astrophysicist.

The entirety of my K-drama knowledge is confined to memes about how a romantic subplot could get any more tragic, and skincare? Well, I guess there is the girlfriend.

COEX Mall
Anyone remember that guy, Psy? #gangnamstyle

With this in mind, visiting Korea hasn’t exactly been high up on the priorities list. It doesn’t help that Japan – with six visits to date – is a stone skip away. And while I do love Korean food, Sydney has Strathfield, notwithstanding the natural buff a culture’s food receives in their own country. If you know, you know.

And yet, here we are. There’s a first time for everything. A very belated 안녕하세요!

N Seoul Tower
Love locks on the way up to N Seoul Tower. I wonder how many of these couples are still together?

I originally didn’t intend to blog about this trip, until the requests started trickling in from my Instagram followers. As such, I apologise in advance for the sizable gap between my usual standards and this post in terms of photography. Relatedly, though the posts are already long, they are not exhaustive – I have left out the occasional street eat or random cafe visit. A simple rule: no photos? It didn’t happen. 😛

This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please go here for more information.

All Currency conversions were carried out during drafting (May 2019) and should not be relied upon other than as approximations.

Table of Contents

Items in italics are restaurants/eateries. Unlike earlier blog posts, such as my Hawaii trip, I believe it makes more sense to use the same ordering as how I actually undertook my trip. Hopefully this makes it easier for when you consider your own itinerary, as restaurants and sights/activities are co-located. The trip map below should definitely show you this in a visual way!

Day 0 – Getting there: a flight with Korean Air

Day 1 – Gwanghwamun Square / Gyeongbokgung Palace /
Bukmakggol / Bukchon Hanok Village / Artisan Croissant / Kimchi Museum / Ssamziegil Market / Gaeseong Mandu Koong

Day 2 – Trickeye Museum / Korea House / Namsan Tower / Myeongdong (+street food) / Hongkong Banjum 0410 Plus

Day 3 – Sinseon Seolleongtang / Noryangjin Fish Market (+lunch) / Bonguensa Temple / Starfield Library / Sona Dessert Cafe / Mingles

Trip Map

Day 0 – Getting there: a flight with Korean Air

If you’re used to how-does-the-airline-even-make-money fares between Australia and Japan, prepare yourself. For a country that’s only marginally further, Korea isn’t marginally more expensive. It’s a lot more expensive.

For direct flights, expect to pay above $1000 throughout most of the year, with $700 being a ‘good sale’ fare…likely with a stopover attached. Then again, with nearly 4x as many Aussies hitting up Japan vs South Korea*, competition does what it does: be annoying.

*Around 150k AU visitors to South Korea in 2018, vs over 550k for Japan.

Direct flights are only offered from Australia’s east coast by two carriers: Korean Air, and Asiana. While both are full service airlines, Korean Air’s national carrier status as well as its cool, cool celadon blue hues made it a winner.

Our flight was on an Airbus A380. As seasoned travellers know, this is one of the best planes in service today: comfortable, resistant to turbulence, and as a good a sense of space as you can realistically ask for – yes, even in economy. We took things up a notch, to what Korea Air calls ‘prestige’, though I could do without the obviously classist connotations. For A380s, Korean Air’s business class is on the upper deck, which improves the superjumbo’s already excellent acoustics.

The 11 hour flight was uneventful, other than the flight attendants confusing us for Koreans more often than not. No complaints here – Koreans seemed to comprise the overwhelming majority of passengers.

As far as business class goes, Korean Air’s A380 product is quite dated: the layout (ye olde fashioned 2-2-2), lack of storage options (unless you’re at a window seat), limited seat functions (they do go full flatbed, thankfully) and the overall ‘have seen better days’ wear and tear. That said, it is business, and I’m under no illusion that this is definitively the most comfortable way to get from Sydney to Seoul in one fell swoop.

The return flight was much the same, so I won’t go into it here.

Getting to Seoul from Incheon

Korean Air Business Class
Hello Seoul! Not that you’d know it…

It’s surprising how exhausting a long flight can be, given that all I really did was sit, nap, eat, read, and repeat. With the flight taking off in the wee morning and landing past 6pm, it was straight to the hotel for some R&R, hence ‘day 0’. Now, about the whole ‘getting to Seoul from Incheon’ schmozzle: sure, you can take a cab, and that’s exactly what we did. That was a mistake. Yes, they work, but the AREX train that connects the two is almost just as fast, taking you from Incheon to Seoul Station in less than 45min, while costing 5-6x less. 45min seems like a long time, until you map it and realise Incheon is a wholly different city. Save the 500% mark-up and spend that on some cosmetics (warning: have not personally tried, results may vary). If you do insist on taking a cab, take note: every sedan I came across in Korea had what appears to be a huge gas canister in the trunk, which reduces its effective space by as much as half. If you have two people and two normal suitcases (plus small carry-ons), you may just fit. Add a third person and their luggage? No chance. I was with just my parents and we each had one suitcase + one bag each (3+3), and had to resort to a maxicab. You’ve been warned. One-way AREX train tickets can be bought in advance on Klook for $8.25, or at the airport itself for 9000KRW ($11AUD).

When in Seoul itself, the same advice applies: trains > taxis. As one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world, Seoul’s traffic is…shite. As such, a hotel that’s close to a well-connected train station (you know, say Seoul Station itself) is highly recommended. For us, that was the Millenium Hilton Seoul. While it advertises itself as a five-star property, its dated facade and small-ish (though still decent) rooms meant that four-and-a-half-stars is a more appropriate rating. Good enough: I would be 100% okay staying here again, given the convenience factor and that I’m not a stickler for hotel appointments. Its breakfast buffet – featuring a ton of Korean options – was particularly good. You know when I say this as a foodie that I really mean it – hotels in Asia really do stand out when it comes to food offerings. I only wish I had taken some photos (yeah, standards!)

If hotel comfort and luxury rate highly in your books, consider the Park Hyatt, a newer and much nicer property. You pay for it twice: both in terms of price, and convenience. Well, unless you plan to be at nearby Bongeunsa Temple a lot…

Another Pro-tip coming right at ya: while you can use Google Maps in Korea, navigation is only semi-functional, limited to a subset of public transport (buses, trains, etc.) options. Want to drive (bad idea), walk (good idea) or cycle (ehhh…)? Good luck: they’re greyed out in the app. As walking is kind of important, be sure to have Naver (iOS, Android) downloaded. Its something of a Korean equivalent of Google with questionable UX, but it’ll do the job addressing Google’s navigation deficiencies.

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Day 1 – Gwanghwamun Square / Gyeongbokgung Palace /
Bukmakggol / Bukchon Hanok Village / Artisan Croissant / Kimchi Museum / Ssamziegil Market / Gaeseong Mandu Koong

As a first-timer to anywhere, there’s always the ‘usual list’. Tourist hotspots, temples, palaces, parks, lookouts. Well, guess what?

That’s exactly what we did, and yes, I can almost hear the collective sigh of disappointment. If you’ve come for what is basically two weeks of mukbang, you’ve come to the wrong place. Food is a pretty big part of any destination, but it sure ain’t everything.

Gwanghwamun Square – 광화문광장

Oh you’re still here? Golly, I love you.

Gwanghwamun Square
Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a prominent military figure during the Japanese invasions of Korea

Day 1 started with Gwanghwamun Square, an open, public space which used to be the administrative centre point during Korea’s Joseon period – the longest and most influential dynasty in its history. So it’s a pretty significant place, one which the current Korean government opened up and developed in 2009, adorning it with statues and monuments of important military figures/battles. There were also several museums which, as we were strapped for time, were not able to visit.

Gwanghwamun Square
Statue of King Sejong, widely credited with creating the written Korean language of Hangul!

The square is certainly important, but for most tourists, it’s just the opening salvo into what actually deserves a solid chunk of your day: Gyeongbokgung Palace.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace – 경복궁

Now, before you get all up in my business about the best palace, Seoul has five of note, imaginatively named the Five Grand Palaces. History buffs will have the time of their lives, but the rest of us normals will have to make a few hard choices. Tightening the criteria (and by that, I mean some rudimentary Googling on what’s what in the Seoul palace scene), two – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung – stand out: the former due to being the main royal palace used during the Joseon period, and the latter because it’s the most well-preserved, carrying a UNESCO-listing for that reason. For us, it was a coin flip, and so we ended up at Gyeongbokgung.

There’s plenty to see in the palace itself (we spent a good 2+ hours, which included a free speaking tour that departs on a regular basis), but DON’T MISS THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD CEREMONY. Why did I say that in caps? Well, it’s one of the main reasons to visit Gyeongbokgung to begin with, and is one of the highest-rated attractions in Seoul. AND WE MISSED IT BY ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES. Deep breath.

Gyeongbokgung Palace
Oh well, we did our best

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Bukmakggol – 북막골

Bukmakggol
Like Japan, floor seating is common in Korea. That said, Bukmakggol was one of only a few examples where this was the case

Beef ribs – or kalbi/galbi in Korean – are one of the many ‘must-haves’ for meat eaters. I actually prioritised it above KBBQ (after all, there’s plenty more of the latter than the former in Australia). At Bukmakggol, a self-described purveyor of ‘caveman-style ribs’, kalbi is the only word you need to know. You could do worse to recharge from three hours spent in a Korean palace than with the meatiest ribs I’ve ever seen, braised until fall-off-the-bone tender, and doused in a aromatic, sweet & acidic garlic sauce. Think you’re hungry? Think again. You’ll need friends…

…because you also don’t want to miss out on their second specialty: bossam (Korean-style pork belly) that’s boiled in a spiced broth and then thinly-sliced, eaten with garnishes and rice or lettuce. I guess that’s two words you need to know.

Bukmakggol
Bossam. Juicy, tender and flavourful pork belly. Bukmakggol’s version comes with a metric ton of onion and garlic: bring mints.

If you’re not travelling in a group of at least 3, good luck finishing both dishes. My thoughts are with your arteries.

Bukmakggol
A token serve of pajeon (Korean shallot pancakes) that was utterly unnecessary

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Bukchon Hanok Village

A hanok is a Korean house designed in the Joseon architectural style from around the 14th century. Most cities have well-preserved hanok precincts that people actually live in, and such villages will be familiar to those even casually familiar with Asiatic architecture. Of course you already knew this if K-drama is in any way part of your life: they are a prominent set piece for many TV shows, and boy do the tourists know it. Hanok villages are a top tourist magnet, with people dressed up in hanbok (traditional Korean garb) cluttering a hanok’s streets to such an extent you’d think you were actually back in the Joseon dynasty, if it weren’t for all the camera gear.

Bukchon Hanok Village
A staircase leading up to the Bukchon Hanok Village along Samcheongdong Street.

I’ll be honest, the sheer number of tourists and my familiarity with this style of architecture meant that I didn’t quite have a ball of it. Of course, that’s down to me the problem, as well as being a part of it. If you’re planning on visiting and taking in Seoul’s hanok in its best light (figuratively and literally), arrive early to beat the rush. Think of how pretty a sunrise would be! For what it’s worth, the hanok village in Jeonju [yup, pending] – which is the largest in Korea – has completely won my heart. I’d even recommend saving the hanok experience for it, if Jeonju’s on your itinerary.

Bukchon Hanok Village
Yeah uh….lots of tourists. Indeed, I’m a big part of the problem.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Gyeongbokgung Palace from the hilltops of Bukchon

If you’re only going to be in Seoul, then of course, Bukchon simply one of those ‘I gotta go there’ places.

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Artisan Croissant

A completely accidental find while walking around burning off Bukmakggol-level calories was the appropriately-named Artisan Croissant, where a heavenly, buttery aroma could surely be smelt…if it was summer, perhaps. A place to grab a quick pastry fix.

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Kimchi Museum (Kimchikan) – 김치박물관

I acknowledge that visiting a museum on kimchi is probably one of the most touristy things you could do in Seoul. But to that I say: a pilgrimage to the temple homaging Korea’s most famous food is very appropriate. If there were a museum dedicated to sushi, I’d be booking flights this very moment.

So that sell was excessive and over the top – it’s not that good, and honestly I wouldn’t even opine if you skipped it. You do kind of have to care about kimchi beyond ‘that pickled stuff I always get in a Korean restaurant’. That said, Kimchikan’s facility is surprisingly modern, filled with highly educational (and rather delicious-looking!) exhibits, interactive displays, and sample tastings, all across three(!!!) floors. There is also the opportunity to participate in kimchi making classes, though these weren’t running when I was there. If you’re even slightly curious about the wonders of kimchi, as well as learning about various types you’ve likely never heard of before, this is worth at least some of your time.

You can book tickets to the Kimchi Museum with Klook here for $5.5, which is a discount to the 5000KRW (~$6.05AUD) the Museum itself charges on its website.

If you’re not a fan of kimchi, you’re out of luck. You might say that you’re in…a bit of a pickle. Hurr hurr hurr (I’m not sorry).

Kimchi Museum
Not that I’d ever actually post this to Instagram…

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Ssamziegil Market – 쌈지길

Ssamziegil is a textbook example of mixed-use done right: cafes, art galleries, shops selling all kinds of wares, restaurants and even workshops share four levels designed in such a way that you never have to take a single stair to explore it all. Now, I didn’t come to Korea to shop (strike one), but as far as window shopping goes, it’s been awhile since I’ve had as much fun doing it as I did at Ssamziegil Market.

Ssamziegil Market Insadong
A very knee-friendly market: its design means you can ascend to the top without taking a single stair! Stairs do still exist though

The first floor primarily focuses on eateries…even if one of them serves nothing but shit:

Craft shops dominate the second floor, traditional Korean wares and other misc fashion on the third, with a gallery and cafe at the very top. I was pleasantly surprised when we spent the better part of an hour here. Well worth a look.

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Gaeseong Mandu Koong개성만두 궁

Mandu (or is it mandoo?) are Korean dumplings, filled with pork and chives, and often cabbage/kimchi and/or glass noodles. Their distinguishing characteristic is their size, plump to the point where the amount of filling approaches that of a full-blown meat bun, while retaining a dumpling’s relatively thin skin. Consider it a delicious low-carb alternative, if it makes you feel better breathing in a whole bowl.

The Michelin-listed (good value under 35000KRW, not Michelin-starred) Gaeseong Mandu Koong was established in 1970; Mandu is quite literally its middle name, and it often sells out on busy days. Coming here and not ordering mandu is akin to visiting KFC without intending to order chicken – why are you here? Now, my whole ‘being transparent and all that’ forces me to state that despite having a good meal here, I don’t think they’re deserving of the Michelin hype. As an example, for my Sydney readers who don’t have a Korea trip in the works, The Mandoo in Strathfield is an underrated gem, whose mandu are frickin good and on par with those in Korea.

Gaesong Mandu Koong
Various jeon; really good for a mandu restaurant

The point is, get some plump dumps in your tums. Don’t think too hard about the second word in that rhyming triplet there.

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Day 2 – Trickeye Museum / Korea House / Namsan Tower / Myeongdong (+street food) / Hongkong Banjum 0410 Plus

Trickeye Museum – 서울 트릭아이미술관

3D perspective illusions, augmented reality (AR) and an ice museum are the tricks of the trade Seoul’s Trickeye Museum employ to create what is probably the most fun three hours I’ve had in Seoul.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
Sharknado: the umpteenth sequel you never asked for

If you’ve been to illusion museums before, you know what you’re getting into. However, Trickeye Museum takes it up a notch, with the introduction of AR to many of its existing exhibits bringing the illusions to hilarious life. There’s really no better way to cover this section than show and tell, so I’ll shut up right about now (and yes, all music is overlaid by the Trickeye app itself):

This was only a small, small subset of the stupidity we got up to. Not even a tenth of the entire museum. Sure, you could probably be doing other, more Korean things in Seoul. There is nothing culturally or historically noteworthy about the Trickeye Museum. But the Koreans did create it, and it’s a great way to break up a sightseeing routine by doing something genuinely different but still awesomely fun. After all, that’s how escape rooms got their lift, right?

If you simply don’t have the time for the Trickeye Museum in Seoul, you have two more chances in Busan and Jeju [yes yes, blog posts pending]. For the Seoul branch, adult tickets at the door cost 15000KRW (~$18.5), or $15.15 via Klook. Another Klook affiliate link yes, but I’m genuinely wowed that they almost always undercut official door prices.

Pro-tip: arrive early, and allocate yourself at least two hours. Three, if you can manage it. We were there for 2+, and had to rush at least a third of it. Yeah, Trickeye Museum is fun as 똥. Google the Hangul at your own risk.

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Korea House – 한국의집

Korea House Seoul
Korea House

Kaiseki is the quintessential, apogee experience of traditional Japanese cuisine. Korean court cuisine (Joseon wangjo gungjung eumsik) is the Korean equivalent, and a non-negotiable item for visiting foodies. Look beyond kimchi, KBBQ, noodles and dumplings: Korean court cuisine is literally eating like an emperor. Such is its importance to Korean culture that it is officially recognised by the Korean Government as an intangible cultural property. Not even kimchi is on that list.

Korea House Seoul

Just like Kaiseki, Korean Court Cuisine is highly structured, and arguably just as varied as its Japanese counterpart. A typical menu will span 12 dishes and beyond, with the usual sides and accompaniments. Expect plenty of familiar dishes you may have seen elsewhere, produced and served in a refined way, with plenty of pickled goods along the way. The dishes may come out all at once i.e. ‘bento’ style or one by one, a la degustation. My preference is the latter, as it allows each dish to be enjoyed without distraction, or the high risk of other dishes getting cold.

Korea House Seoul
There will be no splatters here

Founded in 1957, Korea House is the established name specialising in Korean Court Cuisine. Food aside, it has a particular focus on cultural education, operating under the auspices of the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation. As such, the restaurant is (broken) English and Chinese-friendly, and is an excellent starting point for delving into the ins and outs of this centuries-old culinary artform. Naturally, that’s why we ended up here.

Korea House Seoul
Flatlay! I sure don’t do a lot of those these days…

One other thing: if you have the time, try and book in a performance package, which combines a royal banquet with traditional Korean folk dance. Two cultural experiences in one! (Can’t confirm, did not try)

As usual, you can book this one through Klook, though in this particular instance, booking directly with the restaurant will cost roughly the same. For info, we had the flagship Eojin Course at 150,000KRW (~$182AUD), as well as a less luxuriant, but no less filling Cheongu Course, coming in at 88,000 (~$107AUD). Smaller, set style courses are also available for those on a budget.

Eojin Course
Cheongu Course
Korea House Seoul
(Common to both menus) Various fruits, Korean quince punch (really sour/tangy and yet strangely addictive)
Korea House Seoul
If you were to lay it all out…

If you have to make room for one of these, ditch something else like KBBQ. Good versions of the latter are a dime a dozen in Sydney. Where are you going to find a Korean emperor’s feast down under?

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Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower) – N서울타워

Big hill, top of Seoul, et cetera. Visiting observation decks is another peak cliché (see what I did ther-nvm), but something I try and do at least once for major cities. As one of the most populous metro areas in the world, to see it from every direction nearly 500 metres above ground (the mountain’s 262m elevation combined with the observation deck’s 236m height) is the only way to take in the soul of Seoul.

An adult entry ticket to the observation deck comes in at 10,000KRW (~$12.14AUD) at the door, or $7.15 if pre-purchased via, you guessed it – Klook (the consistent undercutting is pretty scary). A no-brainer…unless you have vertigo.

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Myeongdong – 명동

I am not a shopper (strike two). Not at home, not abroad. If I buy something, it’s usually out of necessity. And of course, food & travel.

Myeongdong
The crowd is easily the worst thing about Myeongdong, but as usual you gotta do what you gotta do

But even a disinterested tourist like yours truly cannot avoid Myeongdong. Firstly, there would be the wrath of She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) for who, as you can imagine, shopping is not negotiable. Secondly, To shoebox Myeongdong as a mere shopping district for the image-conscious is high order trivialisation, ignoring the plethora of street food that lines the district’s streets. Few neighbourhoods have the kind of energy as exuded by the throngs passing through Myeongdong.

The point is, if visiting Seoul, Myeongdong is an automatically ticked box.

While the SWMBO was busy making the most of the afternoon (at around 2-3 hours, I really mean most) ticking off items on the skincare list, I did my duty scouring the street food…despite the fact that dinner was less than an hour away by that point. You’re welcome.*

*But I’m not! – stomach

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Hongkong Banjum 0410 Plus – 홍콩반점 0410+

Hong Kong Banjum 0410 Plus
Entrance to Hong Kong Banjum 0410 Plus

Guksu, meaning noodles, is an important word in the Korean food vocabulary for obvious reasons. There are many types to try, but in Myeongdong, give Junghwa yori (Korean Chinese cuisine) a go – the area has a reputation for it. Two particular recommendations are jajangmyeong (noodles in chunjang – sweet black bean sauce) and jjampong (pretty much the closest thing to a gourmet version of Shin Ramyun, loaded with seafood).

Makes sense, so far. What doesn’t make sense is the name of the restaurant. Happy to receive comments on this strangest of names.

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Day 3 – Sinseon Seolleongtang / Noryangjin Fish Market (+lunch) / Bongeunsa Temple / Starfield Library / Sona Dessert Cafe / Mingles

Sinseon Seolleongtang – 신선설농탕

Sinseon Seolleongtang
Line outside = good times ahead

Due to the parentals’ preference for making the most of the Millenium Hilton Seoul‘s complimentary breakfast options (I mean I did say that it was pretty good for what it is), I only managed to have an ‘outside’ breakfast one time while in Seoul. Yes, I pulled a runner from the fambam: for the sake of food!

But I mainly didn’t want to miss out trying the dish that was the most recommended by my Instagram followers – by a long shot: Seolleongtang (alternatively Seolnongtang), or ox bone soup. It is part of the tang (soup) group of dishes in Korean cuisine, made from slow-simmered ox bones (varying parts of the ox, usually the leg), and other cuts (which can include offal – so beware) depending on the order. This is bone broth, and more nutritious and wholesome than you’re likely to have ever known.

Other than seolleongtang’s obvious nutritional benefits, I found it interesting that seasoning is left to personal taste: try the soup by itself and you may as well be drinking boiled water. Salt (and optional chilli/pepper/garlic) is the magic pixie dust, and the dish truly bequeaths its hearty umami once it’s seasoned to taste.

Tang is a particularly well-represented class of dish in Korean cuisine, and seolleongtang is part of the ‘hangover soup’ category – it is believed that there is no better cure than a bowl of hot broth. Knowing how the Koreans stereotypically drink, they need it.

You don’t need to have a hangover to try it, but it might just be the ticket to justifying getting one. There are many such seolleongtang vendors in Seoul, but Sinseon is an absolute cracker – as the queue outside would attest!

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Noryangjin Fish Market – 노량진 수산시장

Noryangin Market
Tunnel vendors on the way to Noryangjin Market

There will never be another fish market like Tsukiji (RIP). But for all intents and purposes, Noryangjin is Seoul’s version: chaotic, lively, and wet. If you come here in clothing/accessories beyond the Uniqlo’s level of luxury, you don’t have your priorities straight.

Noryangin Market
This photo was taken during off-peak hours…so imagine (and thus avoid) the peak if you can!

We visited the fish market with the express intention of having lunch there, and while you don’t have to eat at the market, it’s certainly a large part of the experience. What’s the point of looking at all the tasty goodness and leaving it at that? The eyes eat first but the stomach must follow.

For someone who’s familiar with Tsukiji, Noryangjin won’t be a mindblowing experience. However, it is still an impressive market by almost any measure. Besides, there are significant overlaps with its Japanese counterpart, especially when it comes to seafood that’s common to both countries. For me, the winter season brought on literal tons of crabs and shellfish, but there really is something for everyone. Prices are very reasonable, often 3-4x cheaper than if you ordered an equivalent dish featuring the same ingredient at a restaurant. For example, everything you see in this section came up to 230,000KRW (~$279AUD), which would easily be $800+ of cooked seafood if ordered at a restaurant. Pro-tip: negotiation is recommended.

Noryangin Market

Something unique to Noryangjin is that after buying your haul, restaurants specialising in cooking the customer’s haul can be found on the second floor. You decide how you want everything to be cooked, a cooking fee is charged, and you can enjoy your seafood right there and then, at peak freshness. This is exactly what we did, the cooking charge coming in at 107,000KRW (~$130AUD) for the lot. Ultimately, this worked out to be a $410 meal at $51 per person. Value.

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Bongeunsa Temple – 봉은사

While the Joseon Dynasty was something of a golden age for Korea, the same couldn’t be said for Buddhism during those times. It was a heavily suppressed, with Bongeunsa Temple being one of the first temples to re-disseminate Buddhism across Korea.

I’m sure I don’t need to mention the fact that you don’t need to be a Buddhist to visit a Buddhist temple, though you’d definitely get a lot more out of it. If you know your deities (thanks Journey to the West!), many of the figures at the temple should be very familiar. All in all, a tranquil way to spend an hour or so.

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Starfield Library (COEX Mall) – 별마당 도서관

Probably the most Instagrammed location in Seoul, Starfield Library (or
Byeolmadang Library) probably has the lowest ratio of people who are there to actually use library services, versus those who are there to get one for the gram. I can’t even fault them – it’s bloody built for social media and I’m here for that very reason! I also have some doubts on the functional aspects of the library: how does one reach the books on the higher shelves? But hey, tourists need not apply.

Just soak it in.

Starfield Library
Don’t quote me, but you’ll find an Instagrammer on that escalator at least 1/4 of the time

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Sona Dessert Cafe – 소나

Sona Dessert Cafe
Definitely worth a visit

Visit Sona’s website, and a grammatically questionable proclamation reads ‘Desserts Better at Sona’. Syntax aside, my assessment is that this is likely a true statement: I’d be shocked if the desserts at Sona aren’t significantly better than average. Since I didn’t exactly make a trip out of visiting dessert cafes, there is clearly not enough data from just one location to defend my premise, but I stand by it. This would be a standout in Sydney, or Melbourne. Sona is absolutely the place for the sweet-toothed among you.

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Mingles

Mingles Restaurant Seoul
Mingles has some strange lighting: those napkins are naturally white…

We’ve talked about Korean Royal Court Cuisine as being a Korea’s traditional answer to ‘fine dining’. But unlike European cuisine, modern fine dining interpretations of Korean food are incredibly rare. A large part of this is their food culture: food should be universally accessible, cheap doesn’t mean nasty, and many recognisable Korean dishes today originates, like so many great street food dishes all over the world, from austerity. It’s just not built for fine dining. Or so it seems.

Mingles Restaurant Seoul
Is that ultraviolet light, or are you just happy to see me?
Mingles Restaurant Seoul

But modern Korea is prosperous, and restaurants that cater to a more affluent clientele have begun propping up, even if the cuisine is at a stage where it doesn’t smoothly translate into a Western fine dining format. When the average street food dish is 2000-8000KRW (~$2.4-$9.6AUD), charging something like 150,000-215,000KRW (~$180-$260AUD), even if it’s just ‘a ton of street food served one by one’ seems ludicrous.

If Mingles, a restaurant that barely needs introduction, did this, that intro would be an obituary. As it stands Mingles – along with Jungsik Dang (alas, closed for renovations while I was there) – are two of a handful of names that are pushing the cuisine forward. A clue to how Mingles bridges the old and new is in its very name: by mingling Korean and European influences to form what head chef Mingoo Kang describes as ‘new Asian cuisine’.

There are traditional dishes such as myeolchi guksu (hand cut noodles in anchovy soup), and abalone seon (steamed veg stuffed/layered with meat), executed to perfection. But it’s the forward thinking stuff that gives it the global creds: ginseng chicken cooked as a superlative risotto with truffles, or the polarising – but absolutely delicious – dessert based on the three mother sauces in Korean cuisine: doenjang, ganjang, and gochujang. And it’s all just so delicious.

The restaurant doesn’t hold back on luxurious appointments either (as if the dining space wasn’t a clue) – the Korean version of wagyu beef, hanwoo, makes an appearance should you choose to shell out an extra surcharge for it. Its taste? Well, let’s just say the Koreans don’t really need to be jealous of the Japanese on the beef front, notwithstanding Japan’s disproportionate share of the media limelight.

So Mingles isn’t a ‘Korean’ Korean restaurant. If it were, you’d be back at Korea House, a market, or one of the many eateries that do few dishes and do them well. For something special, and elevated, Mingles is worth every won. I almost hate to say this when in an Asian country, but credit where credit’s due: Mingles was one of the best meals of my entire trip.

Mingles Restaurant Seoul
We will mingle again
Mingles Quick Scores

Yes, it does deserve its own blog post but I need a break from blogging after writing this beast of a post :’)

F8 | S4 | A2
8/10 Caesars

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Golly. And this was only three nights in Seoul. So much done, yet so much missed out: Jungsik. Gwangjang & Dongdaemun Markets. Lotte World. Nami Island. Changdeokgung Palace. Hell, even KBBQ. Not enough time. Not enough time at all.

Dongdaemun
Dongdaemun market: there’s a lot to eat here, but given it was right after Korea House, all we did was spend an hour shopping for Korean red ginseng. Further exploration required

Clearly, 3 nights in Seoul is not even close for a first-timer. If you think a few days is enough for this buzzing megalopolis, think again. As for me? I chose to compromise Seoul in order to visit Jeju, Jeonju and Busan, a deal I in no way regretted. As for Seoul? A revisit one day. Not such a bad deal after all. Hah, the people who nicknamed Korea as the Land of the Morning Calm…now that is irony.

If you have any feedback, errors to report (with either factual content or blog structure), holler in the comments below!

Next up, the Hawaii of Korea, Jeju Island!

2 comments on “The Land of the Morning Calm – 12 Days In South Korea [Part 1 – Seoul]”

  1. Anon Reply

    Hi! Really comprehensive post and enjoyed reading it. I spent roughly the same amount of time in Seoul last year too! Keen to really go back and explore other cities – there’s a lot more to Korea than just Seoul.

    Also it’s “jjajangmyeon”!

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Thanks (Cathy?)! Glad you had a ball reading it. It’s because I spent so much time outside Seoul that I didn’t spend nearly enough time in it – something I’ll definitely fix next time.

      And goodness me, thanks for pointing out that error! Fixed 🙂

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