There is more to South Korea than what is shown in the Korean telenovelas that Pinoys have grown to love. Known in some school textbooks as the “Land of the Morning Calm,” it is at the forefront of modernity while its glittering exterior is an ancient and proud culture whose features we catch a glimpse of in historical TV dramas with colorful and elaborate costumes.
This amalgam of both the modern and the traditional can be seen right after landing at Incheon Airport, named the best airport in the world this year by Skytrax. Visitors are welcomed by a display of local products crafted by artisans representing the different provinces of South Korea. For those visiting during the early Spring season from late March to early April, a must see would be to walk underneath those glorious cherry blossom trees in full array. There is a limited time frame when these ethereal flowers could be seen so should you come a little later, try to inquire from the locals where you can still chance upon some trees in bloom.
The Gyeongbok Palace, located in the northern part of Seoul, remains one of the must-sees for first time tourists in South Korea. It serves as a remembrance of the time when monarchs ruled the country as well as a reminder to the present generation of their colorful past and rich history. Thousands of visitors flock to the site along with students on a field trip; excited to learn about their country’s beginnings.
Nearby is the National Folk Museum of Korea which gives a holistic view on the Korean way of life: their past, present and milestone events that brought honor to the country, including its national football team rising up to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002. A life-size display of them in action gives the visiting foreigners perspective of how their success came about. The exhibits also include traditional practices and ceremonies and also how Seoul developed into what it is now one of the world’s most modern metropolis.
A trip to the Bukchon Hanok Village, also in Seoul, takes one’s immersion into Korean culture to the extra level for it is an opportunity to view Korea as represented by its well-maintained traditional houses. The Koreans should be commended for preserving their cultural heritage amidst the changing times and remaining true to one’s origins; clearly something their Asian neighbors can learn a thing from.
A clear division of the “old” Korea with that of the “new” can be seen in the Namsan tower, which gives visitors a grand view of the whole Seoul during the day with all those traditional buildings and palaces and the glistening city lights at night particularly from its skyscrapers and motorways all lighted up and heavy with traffic. There is a special deck at Namsan tower where numerous leave ‘Locks of Love’ dedicated to their lover or special someone. However it is not only limited to those in a relationship because I, too, left a lock that I share with my Mother.
If you haven’t had a taste of kimchi during your entire stay, then perhaps you’re not eating in an authentic Korean restaurant and that’s a shame! Served as an appetizer, it is a staple in all the places I have dined in. Most of the food found in Korean cuisine is spicy so unless you like hot entrees, pass up on the chili.
Besides the popular bibimbap, another favorite fare is ramen which is recommended to keep one’s stomach warm during the cool weather. Pinoys can feel right at home with the availability of rice, usually served with their famous beef stew. Most local restaurants have a grill in the middle of the table so be prepared to cook your own food.
Shopping and Entertainment
South Korea has been known for its trendy shopping places, each one trying to outdo the other. One can get overwhelmed by the different department store giants present all over the city but the following places are worth looking at—they offer quality pieces worth every Won. Myeongdong is the ultimate shopping mecca; it is a one-stop street with international brands, cosmetic brands and side-walk vendors beside each other, making it convenient for the shopper.
Dongdaemun area is where malls like Hello apm, Good Morning City, Migliore and Doota are located. Clothes are relatively cheaper here and haggling is welcomed, especially for those on a strict budget. They offer bigger discounts to those paying in cash so make sure to have your money exchanged earlier since there are only a few banks in the vicinity. Also visit the University Areas as well for other price-friendly items; Hongik University and Ehwa Women’s University are accessible via the subway.
Apujeong is their Champs Elysee or Rodeo Drive, where the high-end boutiques are located. Cafes abound in the area and are great for people watching. The place is constantly filled with shoppers and even those who may not afford this season’s ‘It’ bag should still drop-by to take a whiff of the luxurious lifestyle of the rich and the famous while people watching over coffee.
Lotte marts are everywhere but their flagship store is called Lotte World which also houses an amusement park. The ticket prices get cheaper as the day comes to a close so to those who just want to take pictures and enjoy the colorful sights, come in the afternoon to avail of almost 50% discount from the original price. It is advisable to come on a weekday to avoid the crowds and the long lines for the rides.
There are so many unique Korean finds from cosmetics to bags pricing at 10,000 won (or roughly P380) to delicious native snacks so make sure to save some space in your luggage and prepare for one heck of a shopping time. Take an entertainment break by watching Nanta, the first Asian show on Broadway. Its comedic stunts and upbeat rhythm attracts tourists and locals alike and it is also included in the ‘Top Ten Things To See In Seoul’ list by the tourism department. There are three shows daily but you need to buy tickets in advance because they sell out pretty fast.
To those who are not on a package tour, Seoul is best travelled using the subway. There are English maps available in hotels and in the Information section. Most people are not fluent in English so you are lucky to chance upon someone who can help you with directions. The language barrier should not be a problem. Being lost in translation can lead to wonderful things such as the time I found myself in one of Korea’s top 30 restaurants in the city just because I missed the subway sign. However, it is as important to rely on your maps and sense of direction to get you by as it is to being open to spontaneous adventures ahead.
Indeed there is more to South Korea than just Koreanovelas or K-pop or dainty clothes. Despite the modernity and cutting-edge technology around, they manage to keep their heritage intact—proving they have a heart for culture and their city’s got soul.