Today travelling may seem like a distant dream, but the travel-hungry can feast on memories of past adventures, while actively planning their post-pandemic tours. Pen South Korea onto your voyage wish list, because this nation serves up scintillating vistas, humbling heritage and cutting-edge mod cons in equal measure. South Korea has also fared reasonably well when it comes to their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which makes it a particularly desirable destination for post-pandemic travel.
In mid-2019, the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) presented me with an opportunity to visit this picturesque peninsula. South Korea had been on my wish list for a while, so I jumped at the chance to take in the sights there, while simultaneously filming a web series for the popular travel-based YouTube channel Mountain Trekker. A four-day getaway, this proved to be an enriching experience that balanced lush nature with vivid culture, while leaving me awestruck by the pace at which development and prosperity have been achieved in South Korea over the past few decades.
Though its tourist attractions and cultural richness were impressive, I came away overwhelmed by the hospitality of the friendly, polite and humble Koreans. Their disciplined lifestyle, respect for their heritage and liberal attitude towards change makes them especially endearing. This is a common refrain amongst those who have travelled to South Korea — you can go for the food or the festivals, but you return packed with a warm appreciation for the local people.
From World Heritage Sites and Instagram-worthy locations, to traditional cuisine and unrivalled shopping spots, South Korea is a treat for any traveller. My first-ever trip to Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, will hopefully inspire other vacationers to visit this vibrant destination soon. With that in mind, I’ll recount my journey for you. Many of these experiences are a must if you decide to follow in my footsteps.
1. Hop into Hongdae
The first place I visited after landing in Seoul was Hongdae — a popular district known for its upbeat nightlife. Named after the Hongik University in the area, it is expectedly a hangout for youngsters; including a large number of international students. The neighbourhood is dotted with dance clubs and karaoke lounges, so if you are a techno, hip-hop and rock music fan, you are sure to enjoy this. You may also spot a few buskers performing K-pop dance moves like I did while on my way to Hongdae Street, which is a pedestrian-friendly spot for indie clothing stores. I took the subway from my hotel in Itaewon to Hongdae and that was an experience in itself!
2. Experience the subway
Like the local trains of Mumbai or the Delhi Metro, the subway is a lifeline for Seoul. Most of the tourist attractions — including Incheon Airport — are well connected with the subway system. Amongst the most economical ways to explore the city, the subway also offers tourists a unique view into the lives of the local folk. This was my introduction to the incredible amiability of the South Korean people and I highly recommend trying it at least once. With information display boards and announcements that are also made in English, it isn’t too much of a challenge to get acquainted with the system. Besides, there’s free Wi-Fi on the Seoul subway, so you can use navigation apps should you need additional assistance.
3. Ride a rollercoaster
Everland, a resort operated by the Samsung group, is the largest theme park in South Korea and happens to be home to the steepest rollercoaster in the world. With a top speed of 104 kilometres per hour, at a 77-degree angle, the ‘T Express’ is a wooden rollercoaster that you absolutely should not miss! If you do get stuck in a long queue, remind yourself that this ride will be well worth the wait. That done, you could visit their separate theme zone for animals: aptly named Zootopia. If, like me, you are uncomfortable with the idea of animals kept in captivity, you will be relieved to see pandas relaxing in a large open space within Zootopia’s Panda World. Plus there’s an entire zone dedicated to food, souvenirs and relaxing pursuits too. While I had only a few hours allocated for my visit, I would recommend turning your Everland experience into an all-day affair. There’s plenty to do here that justifies the time allotment.
4. See the world from above at Lotte World Tower
Currently the tallest building in South Korea and the fifth tallest in the world, the Lotte World Tower is another exciting attraction. At a rate of 10 metres per second, it took us about a minute to reach the Seoul Sky observation deck on the 117th floor. The elevator ride is a big part of the excitement — being the world’s tallest and fastest double-decker elevator. Also awe-inspiring are the glass floors at the observation deck, from where one can view the traffic below; with large cars looking like miniature models! The last seven floors are dedicated to an assortment of observation spaces, and a premium lounge takes pride of place on the 123rd floor, at the very top of the building.
5. Get a taste of the outdoors at Nanji Campground
Set beside the Han River, the Nanji Camping Ground is a concept I wish we would replicate in India. The largest of five such sites in Seoul, the area is able to accommodate up to 2,000 people, with a total of 165 camping spots. I missed the opportunity to rent a bicycle and ride alongside the river because the activity is only available until 7 pm, so go early if that is something you’d like to do. Locals visit on the weekend to enjoy barbeques with their loved ones and it’s an easy activity to replicate because tables, grills, charcoal and other necessary items are easily available at the exclusive convenience store on site. If you plan to stay here, either rent a ready camp for $25, or pay $15 for pitching your own tent for the night.
6. Dress up for a royal palace tour
Of the five grand palaces in the capital city of Korea, The Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and most visited one. I toured this palace the morning after my Nanji Campground experience, but this was a tour with a twist! For my visit, I wore a traditional Korean dress called Hanbok; available on rent from one of several such shops near the palace. Anyone wearing this traditional Korean dress is allowed free entry to the palace. Dressed in a General’s uniform, I got a lot of attention and requests for selfies — making this the perfect photo-op for Instagram, besides being a lot of fun! The palace opens at 9 am. Go early, so you can witness the changing of the guard ceremony at 10 am daily.
7. Travel back in time at the Namsangol Hanok Village
Perhaps it was fitting that I visited the Namsangol Hanok Village on my last day in Seoul. Parts of this traditional Korean village reminded me so much of the hamlets back home in India. With houses of different sizes and architectural styles, the village is a maze of traditional Korean houses that have been lovingly restored to preserve the original atmosphere of the area. One of the houses was open for tourists to walk through, and I found it to be quite similar to a traditional South Indian home — with a courtyard surrounded by many rooms, a kitchen, a storage area and so on. The kitchen was also similar to what one might find in the remote villages of Uttarakhand; built with mud-clay and an underground centralised heating system. While here, visitors can try their hand at archery and even learn to make bows!
8. Relish some Indian food
Surprisingly, Seoul has many Indian restaurants. Most of the popular tourist locations like Itaewon, Hongdae and Insadong have eateries where Indian food is easily available. Some of them are owned by people from the Indian subcontinent and most offer a fair few vegetarian options too.
9. Try Bibimbap
There is no better way to understand a country’s culture than through its cuisine. Known globally for its mouth-watering range of sweet and savoury foods, the local cuisine is sure to tickle your taste buds. South Korea offers a wide variety of culinary delights, with over a hundred types of spicy and sour kimchi (fermented vegetables), cold buckwheat noodles called Naengmyeon and Hotteok (sweet, syrupy pancakes). To round off my culinary expedition, I ordered a flavoursome bowl of Bibimbap, which literally means bibim = mixed and bap = cooked rice. This rice is usually mixed with sautéed vegetables (called Namul), eggs, meat and pepper paste. Being a vegetarian, I ordered the version which had Namul (edible grass or leaves) and a hot paste called Gojuchang, which is similar to an Indian chutney. I was told that most Korean dishes are very healthy because they don’t deep fry or use excessive oil while cooking. Such eating habits are probably the primary reason why obesity is not common amongst Koreans.
10. Shop in Seoul
Besides Hongdae, Insadong Street is another haunt for shopaholics. From fridge magnets to Korean handicrafts, this is a great place to shop for souvenirs for friends and family. Enthusiastic shoppers headed to South Korea for the first time are sure to be mesmerised by the local K-Style, which is evident in trendy street shops, Korean beauty brands and range of luxury products. Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets are truly a shopper’s paradise too, where you can find almost anything you might need. Myeongdong Shopping Street — nestled within the commercial hub of Myeongdong — is famous for housing several international fashion brands, cosmetics boutiques and luxury departmental stores, so this area is worth a visit too. Many stores offer tax-refund benefits to international tourists, so don’t forget to carry your passport. Of course you can always claim a tax refund at the airport while departing from Korea, even if you haven’t carried your passport to the stores. The process is relatively simple and, if you have done a significant amount of shopping, you’ll probably save a fair bit by making this effort.
WHERE TO STAY
South korea offers something for everyone. check out these 5-star properties
Conrad Seoul: Wallet: 278,000; Where: 10, Gukjegeumyung-ro, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Yeongdeungpo-Gu, 07326 Seoul
Asia Lakeside Hotel : Wallet: 168,000; Where: 133 Namgang-ro 1beon-gil, Panmun-dong, Jinju-si, Gyeongsangnam-do
Sono Calm Yeosu: Wallet: 194,000; Where: 111, Odongdo-ro, 555-030 Yeosu
Ramada Plaza Jeju Hotel : Wallet: 374,000; Where: 66, Tapdong-ro, Jeju City, 63165 Jeju,
Ocean Suites Jeju Hotel : Wallet: 143,000; Where: 74 Tapdonghaean-ro, Samdoi-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do
Grand Hyatt Incheon: Wallet: 297,500; Where: 208 Yeongjonghaeannam-Ro, 321 Baekbeom-ro 910 beon-gil, Jung-gu, Incheon
Grand Hyatt Seoul : Wallet: 330,000; Where: 322 Sowol-ro, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
* Subject to change
* Located approximately an hour's drive from Seoul, the Incheon International airport is the primary gateway to Korea. Other international airports in South Korea include Gimpo (Seoul), Gimhae (Busan), Cheongju, Daegu, Muan, Yangyang and Jeju
* Korean Air operates daily flights between Delhi-Incheon-Delhi, and Air India flies 4 times a week on this route. Korean Air also operates flights between Mumbai-Incheon-Mumbai three times a week
* Subject to change
* SUBWAY: The Seoul Metropolitan Subway's railway system is available at Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon and Gwangju
* CITY BUSES: Local city buses are the most affordable and convenient way to move around in the city. You can pay the fare in cash or use the transportation car on boarding
* RENTAL CARS: You can also rent cars if you travel outside Seoul. You require a valid International Driving Permit