A Trip to One of South Korea's Coolest Cities
Before I started my internship at XploreAsia, I wanted to see more of Asia. First on my list was Seoul, as South Korea had been on my bucket list for the past few years. As a girl who loves fashion and makeup, the trends in South Korea have grabbed my attention. I’ll also admit that I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie, and consequently a fan of Korean dramas and K-pop. After seeing so many beautiful images of South Korea while watching dramas, I couldn’t wait to see this amazing country in person!
Before arriving, I was a bit nervous about getting around Seoul as a solo traveler, as I don’t speak any Korean. As soon as I got to the airport, however, these fears were calmed. The airport was organized intuitively, and signs in English were everywhere. As I took my seat on the cleanest train I have ever been on, I felt the joy and peace that comes with traveling to a new country that just feels “right”.
I made my way to Hongdae, a neighborhood known for its nightlife and hip restaurants and shops. I quickly found my hostel, and settled in for breakfast. Soon after, a group of people came down and we started chatting. I found out they were all teaching English in South Korea, and were here for a holiday weekend. They were some of the nicest people I have met in my travels, and they were even kind enough to invite me to join them for the day.
Our first stop was the Korean War Museum, which was one of the most informative, well-curated museums I have ever visited. Most of the displays contained both Korean and English descriptions, so it was easy to follow along. The museum also contained striking art pieces, and a section that simulated what it was like to be on the battleground in the Korean War. For me, the highlight of the visit came when an older man approached me. He put Korean flags in each of my hands, and told me to strike a pose. He then took my friend’s phone and began taking what seemed like hundreds of photos. He came closer and closer to my face, finishing by showing me one of the extreme close-ups and proclaiming “movie star!”
We then headed to lunch at a Korean-Mexican restaurant. It may sound like a strange combination, but the kimchi burrito I had there was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. As we ate, my new friends told me about their lives as teachers and how they had all fallen in love with South Korea. Almost all of them mentioned staying longer than their original one-year contracts and a few were discussing the possibility of staying there for the next 5 years. They talked about their placements in the city of Busan and smaller towns, the hikes they went on, and their trips to the lovely coast. Listening to them, it was hard not to be inspired. I started to think that I might like to teach in South Korea in the future.
To finish out the evening, we did some shopping and exploring. One of my favorite things about Seoul was that shops are everywhere, including at train stations. Walking to your train, you’re bound to see some adorable tops and skirts. We wandered and browsed the stores, including Western shops like Forever XXI. Done shopping, we walked down a bustling street filled with street vendors selling everything from meat on a stick to oddly shaped ice creams. I found myself quickly falling in love with this place.
The next day, we grabbed some delicious green tea lattes then headed back out into the city. Getting on the train, one of the guys I was with had some difficulties with his transit card. A Korean woman walked him over to the attendant, and stayed with him until it was worked out. I was shocked by this level of kindness. Back in Chicago, a similar situation would have most likely resulted in the person in line behind him getting annoyed. To see a stranger jump in to help without a moment’s hesitation was a pleasant surprise, especially in such a large city.
In the afternoon, we went to a local park. I love when cities have both skyscrapers and green spaces, and Seoul fit the bill. The park was as pristine as I had come to expect from South Korea. We walked by the water, and headed towards a bridge where there would later be a water show.
As the sun began to set, we made it to what would be my favorite section of the city. Large flower sculptures sat on the water, with the skyline as a perfect backdrop. We checked out the nearby buildings, featuring all kinds of restaurants and souvenir shops as we waited for the show to start.
The show itself, while nice, wasn’t much to see. However, the night was still great. Being in this beautiful new place, with these cool new people, was more than enough.
My new group of friends left the next morning, so I spent my last day in Seoul exploring on my own. After hearing from multiple people that it was a must-see, I made my way to Gyeoungbokgung Palace. It more than lived up to the hype. The palace is made up of multiple buildings, all built in a classic style of Korean architecture. The grounds are a joy to walk around, taking in the beautiful mountain views and peaking in the windows of different buildings.
Done with the palace, I headed to the area of Ewha, which is located near a women’s university and consequently has some amazing shopping. I browsed shop after shop, and had to be careful as I easily could have maxed out my credit card there! I purchased some nice sheet masks for about 1 USD each, and received some free samples of perfume. I stumbled upon one particularly nice clothing shop, and found an adorable button-down skirt. The shop attendant, who was wearing green colored contacts, asked if I needed any help. As we made eye contact, she smiled and exclaimed, “Green eyes! So lucky!” She showed me a few other cute items, but I ultimately settled on the skirt. She looked at me, and as if considering, said, “For you, because you are so pretty, 10% off!” While I’m sure she gives that discount to everyone, it made my day.
I wandered the neighborhood in search of somewhere to get dinner. I ended up stopping in a cute little diner. I ordered some bibimbap, a dish consisting of a bowl of rice and veggies topped with a fried egg. It is both delicious and one of the cheaper meal options available in Seoul. As I fumbled with my chopsticks, I reflected on how lucky I was to be there. I had made it to South Korea on my own, and there I was, enjoying a nice meal in this country I wasn’t sure I would ever be fortunate enough to visit. My only complaint about my trip was that it was much too short. I vowed to myself that this would not be my last time in South Korea, and to look into teaching there. I knew I could easily spend years experiencing this amazing place and culture that I had so quickly fallen in love with.