D[I] Travel Guide: Seoul

It has been truly humbling to travel and see so much of the world, but no place has ever moved me in a way like Seoul. I’m still not sure what about this city captivated me, but aside from visiting the motherland, I have never felt more at home. The liveliness, people, food, natural beauty, the culture — all of it inspires me in a way that makes me want to rush back.

Now when most people think of Korea, they think of either k-bbq, k-pop, or then all the drama with North Korea, but there is so much more to this magical place than we know. Seoul is the capital of South Korea and it’s buzzing with friendly people, fashion, culture, art, and of course BTS (I mean…you know I had to). While I had some interactions growing up with Korean culture through friends, food, and music, it wasn’t until I got into BTS during their BST era that I became obsessed with learning everything. I know it may sound silly, but music has always been my way of connecting to new places and I’m just so grateful it led me to Seoul. Korean music has gained popularity on a global scale, generating massive hype for the mainstream and underground culture, but it’s no coincidence. Back in the 90s during the financial crisis in Asia, the South Korean government realized they could turn culture into commodity, so they funded k-pop music using Motown as a template and made it a viable export to establish influence in the region. Since then, South Korea has seen a rise in other industries such as tourism making it accessible, fairly affordable, and a destination worth putting at the top of your travel bucket list.

Here are some things to consider as you plan your trip to Seoul:

Stay: Seoul is a sprawling metropolis along the Han River with some unique areas to stay. We stayed at the aLoft Gangnam and it was an awesome experience. The service was impeccable, the location was ideal, and I would definitely go back because the rooms were so clean and modern. In general, hotel prices in Seoul are pretty similar to rates back in the States, not too expensive but not that cheap either. I loved staying in the popular area of Gangnam because it had a little bit of everything — great food, luxury shopping, nightlife, and accessible lodging and transportation. AirBnbs are also available and you can find pretty good rates as well, just depends on the experience you are looking for

Transportation: I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get around. Most people use the subways/trains or then buses which aren’t too difficult to figure out. There are cabs that are reasonably priced, as well as Uber. If you are staying in the main part of the city, moving around isn’t difficult and your longest ride might just be getting from one of the two major airports into the central area.

Photo by Michelle Khan

Shop: Shopping in Seoul was one of my favorite things! I was blown away by how trendy and progressive the fashion scene was. Everyone looked like a model, their skin was flawless, they were all impeccably dressed, and the shopping was EVERYTHING. For high-end shopping, Gangnam’s Galleria is a great place to start. However for the unique, inexpensive market scene, you have to go to Myeongdong or Hongdae. These are areas where you will find a great mix of shopping, street food, street performers and entertainers. In terms of shopping, you can find a variety of clothes, accessories, jewelry, knock-off designer stuff, and of course the famous skincare products. Most places take card, but street vendors usually prefer cash. Unlike India, there is no real concept of haggling, but things are competitively priced and you can always load up on free samples of skincare products. DON’T FORGET TO LOAD UP ON K-BEAUTY MASKS.

Photo by Michelle Khan

Eat: This is my favorite topic and there is so much to talk about when it comes to food in Seoul! Some of my favorites included the ChirChir fried chicken & cheese skillet dishes, the Eatzi’s style dining hall at Gourmet 494, the fried cheese & tteokbokki skewers from street vendors in Myeongdong, hameul pajeon, and the food court at Common Ground. The food is all generally really good, though it can be challenging to find options if you have any dietary restrictions such as halal/zabiha, gluten-free, kosher/non-pork, vegan etc. Areas such as Itaewon (which consists of more foreigners) have options such as Halal Guys and other international chains. Korean food is heavy on meat/pork, and requesting food accommodations is not a part of the general dining culture. They also don’t tip, so don’t expect much in terms of service in casual places. Don’t forget to check out local favorites and desserts, such as patbingsu and all the cool varieties of Korean snacks. If you are really hungry and can’t figure out where to go, don’t hesitate to pop into a convenient store for some quick options such as instant ramen and sushi/inari etc. (easy, cheap, and really good).

Visit: There is so much to see in Seoul, but some of my absolute favorite places to visit were the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheonggyecheon riverwalk, Common Ground area for shopping and food, and of course Han River to take in the city. As I mentioned, Myeongdong and Hongdae are great for shopping, but it can get very crowded on the weekends. Other tourist-y places to see include Bukchon Hanok Village, Gwanghwamun plaza, and Seoul Tower. We also experienced the nightlife in Itaewon and Kondae (Konkuk University area) and not only was it crazy fun, but also pretty safe for us girls to turn up late night.

BTS is a huge part our friendship, so of course, being the #ARMY that we are, Sruthi, Michelle, and I designated a whole day to our fav boys. We visited Laundry Pizza where BTS did their iconic shoot, then to the Mins, a popular cafe where BTS and other k-pop stars hang out. After checking out a few more Bangtan essentials, we ended the day at Yoojung Sikdang, a traditional Korean restaurant that the boys would eat at run by the kindest ajummas, and it was one of the most memorable experiences we had. Even though language was a barrier, we received so much love from the aunties running the restaurant.

Music brought me to Seoul and one of the best parts of the trip was being able to experience a culture that I connected with through art. I learned so much about traveling to Asia solo, interacting with new people, navigating different places, and I even learned how to read/write Hangul! Traveling is truly the best teacher and this adventure made me feel like I grew as a person. I am genuinely grateful to have been able to visit and I will definitely be back soon!

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