Christmas in Seoul
This holiday season, my boyfriend Cody and I decided to take a short trip up to Seoul. Since we’re both English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, we had about 10 days off for a winter vacation around Christmas and New Year’s, so we figured it would be nice to go see a part of Korea we hadn’t had a chance to visit yet.
We rode up to Seoul from Busan on a regular train. Korea, like most Asian countries, does have a “bullet” train (KTX), but I had never been on a train before so I didn’t mind taking the slower way to our destination. It took about 5 hours (compared to the KTX’s 2.5 hours), but it was also basically half the price, so we considered it a fair wash.
I rather liked traveling by train. You get to see a lot of the countryside, going over rivers and passing through mountain tunnels. Even in the middle of winter, when everything is this sad sort of brown color, I liked getting to see all of the mountains and villages. But I recommend bringing a book or something else to do, because Korea’s standard trains don’t have wifi (or at least ours didn’t) and you will definitely want a way to pass the time.
Once we arrived at Seoul Station, Cody and I then had to figure out how to get to our hotel in the Itaewon district by subway. We use the subway all the time in Busan, so at least we had that advantage on our side, because the Seoul subway system is freaking massive! If you are ever in Korea, I highly recommend you download the Korea Subway App (here are links for it for Apple and Android) because it is super helpful, but in Seoul it is an absolute necessity.
We eventually made our way to Itaewon, and when we came out of the subway we were treated with our first real view of the city. Seoul reminds me of a cross between Pittsburgh and New York City, and Itaewon especially feels like you’ve left Korea almost entirely. Itaewon is the “foreigner district” of Seoul and as such it is filled with all sorts of Western-style restaurants and stores (there’s even a Taco Bell, should you fancy it).
The hotel we booked was the IP Boutique, and boy does it live up to the “boutique” in its name!
Since we were staying in Itaewon, Cody and I were excited to try out some of the Seoul-exclusive-western-food restaurants, rather than the usual Asian fair we eat pretty regularly. The first place we tried was a Mexican restaurant, but they only served fajitas that cost around $40 USD, so we obviously didn’t stay to order. We wandered further down the street and eventually found a little pub called Reilly’s Taphouse, and ended up with a really good dinner (burger, beer and fries for Cody; nachos and a coke for me).
After dinner, we decided to try exploring Itaewon for a while. There’s a lot of really cool buildings in the district, and we got some neat pictures. Unfortunately it was unbelievably cold so we soon called it a night and headed back to our hotel. We were really surprised by how the dark the city looked from our hotel room, especially compared to Busan. None of the pictures we took really showed how dark the city is, but head over to Google and check it out for yourself.
There was a reason I chose to come to Seoul in the middle of winter, and it can be summed up in three words: World’s. Largest. IKEA. (I’m not kidding) Ask any one of my friends or family back home, and they will assure you I’ve been dying to go to this store since I first learned it existed. So, because Cody loves me and agrees to go on silly adventures with me, we got up suuuuuper early so that we could try to be to the store when it opened. Hence the sunrise picture you can see up there.
But, since Seoul is so insanely massive, we ran into a bit of a hiccup trying to get to the actual store. The directions on the website are pretty clear and easy to understand (in theory), but it was insane to try to actually figure out. Certain subway stops only get stopped at at certain times of day, buses aren’t always the number you see on the side of the bus, and it’s not always clear which way a bus is going on the route. We eventually figrued it out, but basically it was hell getting to and from IKEA. Thankfully I can read Hangul (the Korean writing system), which helped a lot with the bus maps.
[If you can’t read Hangul though, the Google Translate app (Apple and Android links) is handy because it can take a photo of the text on a map or poster and translate it for you. Pretty handy, if you ask me.]
The important thing, however, is that we eventually made it! Hooray! If you’ve ever been to an IKEA before, this one really isn’t all that different, it’s just absolutely massive. They do have some Korea exclusive items throughout the store, such as smaller beds and the like. Plus they have Kimchi fried pork and rice in the restaurant, in case you don’t want to have Swedish Meatballs. I always love going through IKEA and seeing how they’ve put the different rooms together. I’m also a massive organization junkie (not that I’m Martha-Stewart-level organized, I just think that kind of stuff is really cool), so I enjoy playing with all the different boxes and trinkets.
Attached to the IKEA is the Lotte Premium Outlets, a giant department/outlet mall. It’s a tad on the pricey side for me, but it was still fun to wander around the store for a bit after finishing at IKEA.
After we made it back to our hotel (a minor miracle in and of itself), Cody and I decided to wander around Itaewon a bit more. We found their Food Street, which is full of all sorts of cool restaurants, such as a Sherlock Holmes themed pub, and a whole bunch of others. We grabbed dinner at a little Turkish place called Mr. Kebab (lamb kebab and homemade lokum, yum!!) and then wandered over to the Fashion District. Given that it’s the middle of winter, a lot of the stores seemed to be closing up early, but it was still fun to see what the different stores and cultures had to offer. We also found the Wolfhound Pub Itaewon tucked away near the Fashion District, which made us quite happy as the Busan branch in Haeundae is our favorite bar in Korea.
By that point in the evening, it was starting to get freezing cold again. So I snapped a few more pictures of the really unique buildings in the area, picked up a macaroon from a little dessert shop near the hotel, and headed back to our warm room. But that little macaroon held a nasty surprise for me: not only was it rock hard stale, but the cream in the middle was pure butter! Sometimes you just have to laugh at the silly things in life haha.
On our last day in Seoul, we just had an easy day planned. We hopped on the subway to the National Museum of Korea. Admission was free unless we wanted to go to one of the special exhibits, but we chose to see the main museum instead. It was three floors of some amazing Korean art and history. I personally didn’t know that much about the history of the Korean culture, so it was really interesting to see the history of the land where I’m living. If you’re ever in Seoul, I would definitely add this museum to your itinerary because you get to see some truly amazing artifacts, for free.
After spending a few hours at the National Museum, Cody and I decided it was time to head home. So back to the subway we went, this time to Seoul Station to purchase tickets for the KTX train. To continue the theme of chaos that was happening every time we tried to travel around the city, we ran into several issues trying to purchase our tickets. Learn from our mistakes: try to find one of the ticket machines that lets you purchase your own ticket without having to stand in the massive lines, or at the very least keep walking till you find one of the lesser used ticket terminals, you will be so glad you did.
There was a bunch of stuff that Cody and I wanted to do, but we either ran out of time, were too tired, or it was too cold out to do. I enjoyed my time in Seoul, and I can definitely see myself going back to visit again (but never again in the winter, it is waaaaay too cold after having lived in temperate Busan). Maybe in a different post I’ll share some of those, so that way you can get ideas for your own trip. Have any suggestions?