Seoul is an amazing city of contrasts. Old Buddhists temples and 500 year old palaces next to modern skyscrapers and mega malls.
Here are a few things I learned on my first trip to Seoul.
There is more to Korean food than just BBQ
When I first visited Seoul, I had this idea that Koreans mostly ate BBQ and that there would be a BBQ restaurant on every corner. While there were tons of tasty BBQ restaurants in Seoul, I soon realized that there was a lot more to the Korean cuisine than I knew.
There were so many unique and new foods to try from kimchi, to stews, to soups, to noodles, to meats, to small dishes known as banchan.
One of my favorite dishes I had in Seoul was dak galbi, made using stir fried chicken, onions, cabbage, and gochujang, a spicy red chili pepper paste. You can find this dish being served all over Seoul including one of my favorites at Yoogane at 3-1 Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul.
The easiest way to travel between Incheon International Airport and Seoul Station is by Airport Express Train (AREX)
I live in the Los Angeles area. In one word, the public transportation in Southern California sucks. Whenever I fly out of Los Angeles International Airport I have to either drive myself or ask a friend for a ride.
When I arrived in Seoul for the first time, I was happy to find out that there was a train that would take me from Incheon International Airport to Seoul Station in the center of the city. The Airport Express Train (AREX) took about 43 minutes and cost 8,000 won (about $7.35).
Yes, there is also a bus option, but I really enjoyed taking the train. It was comfortable, fast, clean, and you have more space to relax before or after a long flight across the Pacific.
Incheon International Airport is one of the best airports in the world
From security, to customs, to check in, Incheon International Airport has to be one of the most efficient and hassle free airports I have ever traveled through. The airport is so effiienct that authorities claim that when you arrive or depart, it will take you less than 20 minutes.
Every year, the airport is rated by Skytrax as one of the best and cleanest airports in the world.
Just some of the things you can find at Incheon International Airport are a golf course, spa, ice skating rink, indoor garden, and a casino.
There is shopping everywhere
It doesn’t matter where you are in Seoul, you will be next to a market, a shopping center, or a street vendor. There is shopping literally catering to the millions of residents of Seoul.
Seoul has it all from transitional markets to luxury shopping malls, such as Lotte and Shinsegae, to vendors selling fruits and vegetables outside of subway exits. Many of these markets, such as Namdaemun Market, are open 24 hours.
Some of my favorite markets in Seoul include the Daehangno Philippine Market and Gwangjang Market.
There is street food everywhere
A visit to Seoul isn’t complete without sampling some of the delicious street food.
Some of the popular street foods you will encounter in Seoul include tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), hotteok (sweet pancake), bindaetteok (mung beach pancake), odeng (fish cake), and assorments of fried food.
If you area a street food novice, head over to the touristy and popular Myeongdong area. Here, you will find a large group of tourist friendly vendors that serve wide varieties of cheap food. Just walk down the street and pick and choose what looks best to you.
If you are looking for street food that caters mostly to locals and university students, then check out the line of food carts just outside exit 1 of Noryangjin Station.
The public transportation is amazing
Getting to destinations across Seoul is so simple whether by subway, bus, or taxi.
About 10 million riders a day use the metro system which has 18 lines and over 627 stations. The subway is continuously rated one of the best and cleanest systems in the world. Even for first time riders, it’s hard to get lost thanks to clear signs and digital LCD screens that can be found in subway stations and inside most trains.
I recommend getting a T-money transportation card which can be used to pay for fares on the subway, buses, trains, taxis, and some convenience stores. It works like a debit card that deducts from the total value each time you scan it.
Just a note about taxis: Most taxi drivers in Seoul do not speak English. If you need to take a cab, you can take a “foreigner only” international taxi with drivers that speak limited English or take one of the many taxis that have translation services available. When you are done with your trip, just scan your T-money card to pay for your fare.
You don’t have to tip
Just as with other destinations in Asia, you are not required or expected to tip at restaurants, for taxi drivers, or at hotels.
For the first time visitor, it might sound strange or dishonest not to tip, but Korea is a no tipping culture. If you try to tip, your money will probably be returned to you as if you accidentally left it.
The only place in Seoul that I ever saw a tip added on a bill was in the international area of Itaewon.
There is a national park in Seoul
One moment you are in downtown Seoul and then next you are surrounded by nature in Bukhansan National Park. The park is located only minutes north of downtown Seoul by public transportation.
Every year, millions of visitors come to the park for its hiking trails, Buddhist temples, bird watching, nature, and fresh air.
The Baegundae Peak hike is one of my favorite hikes inside Bukhansan National Park. The moderate hike takes about four hours round trip and requires no special gear but hooking boots are a plus. From the top, you will be rewarded with stunning 360 degree views of Korea and Seoul below.
You can take a tour of the “White House” of Korea
Cheong Wa Dae, also known as The Blue House, serves as the office and residence of the president of Korea. The building gets its name from the hundreds of beautiful blue tiles that covers its roof.
Many tourists who visit Seoul may not be aware but there are free tours available to the public.
The tour takes about 60 minutes from start to end. The guide on my tour only spoke Korean, but the experience was still worth it. Just make sure you only take photos when you see everyone else taking photos.
Reservations are required and must be made at least three weeks in advance. Reservations can be made online by visiting http://english1.president.go.kr/tours/tours.php.