In late July and early August of this year, I had the chance to visit Korea on a work trip. In my previous post, I described how to get around Korea, and in this post, I’ll share a few things I managed to get up to in Seoul and Haeundae, between work engagements.
General impressions of Korea
Korea is a beautiful country.
Cleanliness-wise it was almost unreal: I didn’t see a single scrap of paper on the floor in any public toilet, someone was mopping the already spotless train platform in Busan, and there was no litter in the bushes, no overflowing trash cans.
Safety-wise, I never for one millisecond felt unsafe or that I had to keep an eye on my bag. I walked all over the central part of Seoul with my phone in my hand looking like a total tourist and no one gave me a second glance.
I know that Korea is not a common tourist destination, but I really enjoyed my brief time there. There is so much more to explore, and I have a feeling I will be back.
A few things to do in Seoul
We were staying at the Millenium Hilton, which is quite centrally located for tourist things. Right in front of the hotel is a small park through which runs Hanyangdoseong, the Seoul city wall, dating from 1396. The park was very steep but the paths were easy to walk. We saw a few stray cats there. The views were lovely, especially so at sunset.
Walk up to Seoul Tower
The next evening we decided to be more ambitious and walked through the park and continued up the hill to Seoul Tower. Once through the park and through the parking lot of some government building, we saw the cable car station. We went past it and continued up the steps.
With the temperature outside at more than 30C and with humidity at 100% it was a hot and sweaty walk to the top – but somehow it only took 30 minutes (about 1 mile). There were plenty of people doing it, and it looked like it was a popular after-work activity. At the cable car stop, which was really only 3/4 of the way up, there was a little cafe and vending machine.
Right at the top though there was a full-scale mini-mall with cafes and restaurants. We got beers and looked at the excellent view in both directions.
Then it was a knee-trembling 30 minutes back down the hill.
Someone in our group had recommended going to see Cheonggyecheon, which is a restored waterway in downtown Seoul. I decided to walk up there in the early evening as it was only about a 30-minute walk from the hotel, and my Naver Map was very helpful in getting me there (see my previous post). It was on this walk that I noticed how well-dressed everyone was. I made it to the river, sweaty again, and went down a few steps to below street level.
The river is only about 15ft wide with paths on either side. There were a few places to sit and stepping stones to get across to the other side. The river goes under all the street bridges, obviously, and sitting under these bridges were families with kid dangling their feet in the water, with a yellow-vested guard making sure no one decided to go swimming.
So, unless I missed the best bit, I would rate this as a medium-interesting thing to do. I probably wouldn’t make a special trip for it.
Markets and cat cafe
On our final evening in Seoul, we decided to walk up to the Namdaemun market which is a shopping area somewhat devoted to tourists. We had a quick look around and made a few souvenir purchases then my colleague spotted a sign for a Cat Cafe (Cat Playground), so we absolutely had to go there.
This was my first time in a Cat Cafe but I roughly knew what to expect. We put on slippers to enter, then had to put our gear in a big plastic bag (which we kept with us). The charge was 12,000 KRW (about USD $9) which included a drink. The sign had promised beer but it wasn’t on the menu, sadly… There were about 25-30 cats scattered all over the cafe, mostly sleeping. After about 30 minutes they all seemed to get up (as cats do) and start cleaning themselves and generally livening up. My colleague spent a few KRW on treats and we each gave one to a cat.
The cats mostly seemed ok though how that many cats live together without massive fights is beyond me. The air in the room seemed very clean and perhaps that’s why my cat allergies didn’t play up (that and we had to wear masks, obviously).
After that, we went to dinner in a random restaurant where the waiter in very limited English told us everything we were doing wrong with eating our dinner (fair enough) and the only other patrons were Asian-Americans who were talking loudly in English about how rubbish Los Angeles was…
And then we walked home in the dark and no one looked at us once.
A few things to do in Busan – Haeundae
I transitioned down to Busan over the weekend. I was actually staying in Haeundae which is a famous tourist beach area. Like when I was in Seoul, I didn’t have that much free time, but I did manage to do a couple of things.
By accident, the hotel I booked was quite close to the beach, so I was sure to make the most of it every day, even if it was just for a few minutes. The beach is sandy and quite wide. The water looked ok but perhaps a bit deep close to the shore.
The beach is about a mile long with a wide promenade, going in front of hotels and restaurants, and malls. It seemed to be continuously packed with people walking along and Instagramming. On the promenade, there were toilets and showers (spotless I assume) and I even saw one area with an air hose where you could blow the sand off your feet. On the beach, there were changing rooms and lifeguards. It looked very well organized.
On the last day, I got my feet in the water and found it pretty cold. At the water’s edge, there were people collecting stuff into black sacks – I assume it was seaweed.
APEX house loop
At the western end of the promenade by the Westin Josun hotel is a small prominence called Dongbaek Island, which has a car-free 1km walking/running loop. This loop was apparently built for an APEX conference in 2005 and the “house” is now a tourist attraction.
I went around the loop a couple of times in the early morning on hot and sweaty runs. Everyone else had the same idea and it was well-populated with runners and walkers. At the far end of the loop, there are nice views.
Markets and Main street
As a tourist destination, Haeundae has the usual array of postcard shops, restaurants, and miscellaneous attractions such as a splash-pad type fountain in the middle of the main street.
There is also a small market, which is an alleyway with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and small shops. The main attraction here seems to be the live seafood in tanks, and on a few stalls, restauranteurs skinning and chopping up eels while they are still alive. Needless to say, that was more than my stomach could handle.
While I wasn’t too adventurous in terms of food, and I ate far too many burgers and fries, I did get the chance to eat some local food on a few occasions.
I started out with western food. On my first morning in Korea, I was 100% famished, having arrived late, and woken up early. I was not technically supposed to go out because my Covid test results hadn’t arrived yet, so I ordered room service for 41,000 KRW (about USD $30 Hilton prices!). I got the big western breakfast and it really hit the spot. The only minor issue was that I wondered where the tomato ketchup was…. and I found it later when I went to put jam on my toast…. I swear the picture on the sachet looked like a strawberry!
The coffee was plentiful but in most coffee shops it was served with soy milk by default. Yuck. There was plenty of chocolate and sweets/candy to be had in the convenience stores, so that was a bonus. I also had a sandwich or two from convenience stores: they had no crusts and were perfectly serviceable.
In terms of Korean food, my first experience was when my colleagues and I ventured out from the Hilton to a side street where we went to the “Korea Best Restaurant” and got a fairly authentic experience. We sat down and within 30 seconds we had ordered (including time for patient explanations for westerners). The food came approximately 2 minutes later, along with a wide selection of kimchi. At the next table, a big group of Korean businessmen arrived and went from walking in the door to maximum sweaty enjoyment in seconds. The whole thing cost about USD $9 each. Here we learned not to wait for the check: pay at the counter on the way out.
My favorite Korean dish turned out to be Bibimbap (hot or cold). It requires a bit of table preparation and was doing it wrong of course, but my Korean friend who I caught up with in Busan showed me the proper way to mix it. Delicious! Recommended to have with the local Cass beer.
I hope one day to return to Korea with more time to explore properly, and make the most of this beautiful country.
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