The first reaction I received whenever I said I was going to South Korea, was shock and actual confusion. Why would anyone go to South Korea for vacation? The second reaction was disbelief that I was traveling so far on my own. Did I have a friend there? What about North Korea? I must be going because I like all that K-pop stuff…
No. I have no friends currently living there.
Yes, Seoul is just 35 miles from the border with North Korea. But no, I wasn’t afraid North Korea was going to bomb South Korea while I was there.
And yes, I like K-pop, but there is so much more to the country than flashy music videos and idols.
So why South Korea?
It’s an old country with a rich history and culture.
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom, which ruled for nearly 1000 years from 57BC-935 AD, before it was eventually absorbed into the Goryeo Kingdom. The photo above is from Wolji Pond, which was renamed Anapji Pond after the fall of Silla. Its original name returned in the 1980s after “Wolji” was found carved into a piece of pottery.
One of the few seaside temples in Korea, Haedong Yonggungsa was built in 1397 by a Buddhist monk known as Naong, and is still used as a working temple today.
The food is delicious.
Naengmyeon guksu is buckwheat noodles in a cold broth.
Despite being weak against spicy food, I just love ddeokbokki – spicy rice cakes!
The hikes are beautiful.
Igidae Park is named after two Korean gisaengs (courtesan), who threw themselves and a Japanese General into the sea in resistance to the Japanese occupation. The walk along the rocky coast provides gorgeous views of the water, and has plenty of places to stop and rest. You can access the trail either from the Oryukdo Skywalk side or the Gwangan Bridge side.
I read a couple of blogs that said this bamboo forest is small or a bit unimpressive after visiting the larger Arashiyama forest in Japan, but for my first trek through a bamboo forest, I thought it was incredibly beautiful and relaxing. The thing I enjoyed most was the sound the bamboo made whenever there was a breeze.
Cafes are everywhere and you don’t have to look hard to find one that’s unique.
Meerkat Friends is located in Hongdae, and is probably the most unique cafe I visited! Customers pay for a drink, and can enjoy the company of a raccoon, arctic fox, a cat, and other creatures (they had just gotten a wallaby when I was there) while they wait to have their time in with the meerkats, which are kept in an enclosure in the center of the cafe (for good reason – they are small and fast!). Customers get 10 minutes in the enclosure so other guests can have a chance, but you can always go back for another round!
While this looks like a standard cafe, for fans of K-pop star, Kim Jaejoong, it’s a place you can’t miss when you’re in Seoul! The cafe is owned by him, and is located in Samseong-dong, Gangnam, where you will find fans and regular office workers enjoying coffee in the spacious cafe.
If you are a shopper, there is nothing you can’t find.
As someone who is not a shopper, I didn’t come home with much more than some new skin care products. But, if you are, South Korea is a haven, with a plethora of department stores full of international brands, small streets packed with local vendors and designers, and a 24hr market in Seoul where you can literally shop all night and even get a few bargains if you know how to haggle.
And yes, there’s also K-pop.
From birthday celebration ads to anniversary ads, you will see them in almost every major train station in Seoul.
Traveling on my own
The trip was a lot of things for me: Exhilarating. Fun. Overwhelming. Exhausting. Peaceful. Beautiful. Frustrating. Freeing.
More than once I thought of how I wanted a friend with me to share the experience and take in the views. The feeling was strongest in the evenings when I would have loved to have someone to share a bottle of soju with and enjoy eating some authentic Korean BBQ (these places usually require a minimum of 2 guests). Still…it was an experience that I would do again without hesitation.
Being alone let me fully take in everything I was seeing and experiencing. I learned a lot, not only about myself, but also how to handle certain situations I may not have been in if I was traveling with someone. And while it seems daunting and scary and overwhelming to travel on your own, nothing quite beats the sense of accomplishment you feel over the simplest things like finding your hotel, or using public transportation without getting off at the wrong stop.