JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH SHELLEY LEE FROM SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA!
Shelley Lee is a coffee loving, cubicle hating, toddler toting introvert, who quit the grind 10 years ago to live life on her own terms. She’s visited 61 countries so far, morphing from budget backpacker, to mid-range flashpacker to family traveler along the way. Highlights include getting married in Thailand, a safari in the Serengeti, a babymoon in the Maldives, and any time spent on a Greek beach. Read about it all, on her blog travel-stained.com.
Seoul is the capital and largest city in South Korea. Recovering back from the ruins of Korean War, Seoul has become the world’s 10th-most economically powerful city and second-largest metropolitan area in just 50 years.
Seoul is home to the world’s fastest internet connection and the whole city is often considered as one giant shopping mall because of the numerous shopping options available there.
What is the best time to visit Seoul?
Seoul has 4 incredibly different seasons, lasting about 3 months long each.
Weather-wise, autumn and spring are undoubtedly the best times to visit. Temperatures are reasonable, and the city is alive with cherry blossoms and flowers in the spring, and incredible fall foliage in the autumn. I’d recommend visiting during the first 10 days of April, if you want to see cherry blossoms, or any time in October, as the ideal months to visit the city.
Seoul is actually overrun with tourists in summer, because that’s when most people are able to take holidays – but it’s actually the WORST time to visit. Humidity and temperatures are crazy high, it rains a lot and it’s generally very uncomfortable to wander around the city. If you can avoid it, I would.
Which is the most convenient and favored transport of Seoul?
For visitors to the city, subway is definitely the way to go. There are 22 separate commuter lines that cover all of Seoul + many of its satellite cities, and it’s easy to navigate, affordable and fast. All subway information is written in both English and Korean, and stops are announced in both languages as well.
There are many options to get from Incheon airport to the city centre too. If you’re on a budget, the cheapest method is via the AREX airport line. It costs around $4, and it’s ideal if you’re staying around Hongdae or Seoul station. If you’re staying south of the Han River in areas like Gangnam or Apgujeong, it’s faster to take an airport bus. These can be caught on the Arrivals level. They cost around $15, but seating is in huge business class style, recliner seats. Perfect for napping after a long flight!
What are the top three must visit places in Seoul?
For first time visitors, a visit to one of the city’s 5 Joseon-era palaces is a must. The most popular ones are Gyeongbokgung for its grandeur, and Changdeokgung for its Secret Garden. While there, you can also check out Gwanghwamun Square and Bukchon Hanok Village. They are all within walking distance.
If you fail to see the Han River during your trip to Seoul, you’d really be missing out. This massive river divides Seoul north and south – and is as symbolic of the city as its palaces and mountains. In fact – that famous word “gangnam” really just means “south of the river.” It runs east to west through the entire city and beyond – and one of the best ways to experience it, is to rent a bike and ride along the Han’s bike paths exploring each neighbourhood as you go.
For something completely different, head up to the top of the Seoul Sky Observatory. It’s located on the top 7 floors of Korea’s tallest building, and the 5th tallest building in the entire world. It’s a little pricey, but worth it for the incredible birds eye view of the entire city and surrounding area.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Seoul ?
Nami Island, Petite France and the Garden of Morning Calm are popular day trips out of Seoul, as is the UNESCO listed Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, but if there’s only one day trip you take out of Seoul, it should be to the DMZ.
Nami Island is a half-moon shaped island located in Chuncheon and is famous for its beautiful tree lined roads. It is situated about 2 hours away from Seoul and is named after General Nami who died fighting with rebels for King Sejo of Joseon Dynasty. He was only 28 at the time of his death. The island was formed as a result of the construction of Cheongpyeong Dam.
Garden of Morning Calm is a 3-hectare garden located in the east of Seoul. There you can hand-pick fresh and luscious strawberries from the dreamy garden with beautiful flowers. You can also experience the exclusive light festival called the Garden of Morning Calm Light Show or enjoy the sledding experience too during winters.
DMZ stands for demilitarized zone, and it’s a heavily militarized no-man’s land between North and South Korea. The DMZ is 250 kilometres long, and about 4 kilometres wide. You can only visit on a guided tour, but it’s well worth it, and will give you a window into the tensions that still exist on the Peninsula today.
What is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Seoul?
There are 2 big holidays that Koreans celebrate. One is Chuseok, which is the mid autumn festival, and the other is Seollal, or New Year. The dates of these holidays change every year, based on the Lunar Calendar, but one thing you can count on, is that the Seoul will be much quieter and travel around in during these times. These are big family celebrations and since many Seoul residents’ hometowns are in smaller cities and towns around the Peninsula. To read more about Chuseok, click here.
What is the most loved local food, savory and sweet of Seoul? Is it a vegetarian friendly city?
Food is a religion in Seoul, and you’ll find restaurants, food stalls, food courts and more everywhere you turn. The one thing you can count in is that the food will be comforting, often spicy and incredibly delicious. Try some fiery ddeokbokki from a street cart, DIY Korean bbq over charcoal for your meat fix or a healthy bowl of bibimbap.
Truly vegetarian food is difficult to find in your average Korean restaurant, and a lot of Koreans don’t really understand what vegetarianism is. Lately though, there’s more and more restaurants geared specifically towards vegans and vegetarians. There’s also a good number of Indian restaurants in the city, as well as Loving Hut locations. Seek out some Buddhist temple cuisine if you want truly vegetarian Korean food.
Where to head for shopping in Seoul? Are there any popular weekend/night/flea markets which tourists must visit?
You’ll find shopping pretty much everywhere you turn in the city. There are huge malls, underground shopping complexes, stalls in subways and stand alone stores all over the place. If you want to experience shopping in the middle of the night, head over to the Dongdaemun Wholesale Clothing Town, where you can shop all night long. For insider shopping tips, click here.
In the warmer months, the Bamdokkaebi (or Night Goblin) Market, takes place in the evening hours at various locations around the city. The one at Banpo Hangang Park combines a food truck festival with an artist’s flea market, and it’s a great place to shop for unique gifts made by independent artists and vendors.
Which is the local craft or souvenir of Seoul?
This is probably not the suggestion you’re looking for, but I’m not much of a souvenir shopper myself, so never really recommend these types of trinkets to travelers. What I do recommend people buy in Seoul is some Korean skincare, or eyeglasses if you need them. K-beauty is taking over the world and there’s good reason for it. Products are high quality and very affordable relative to what you’re getting. And yes, there are great products for men too, so this is not geared only at women! I also recommend eyeglasses because you can have a free eye exam, pick out your frames and get lenses made in under an hour, for as little as $50 for everything! Insadong is a popular neighborhood in the heart of Seoul that is often visited by locals and tourists wanting to experience traditional culture of Korea.
Which are the best streets of Seoul worthy of taking a stroll on?
Have a wander around Hongdae for youthful energy and nightlife, Bukchon Hanok Village to see traditional Korean architecture, Garosugil for fashion, cafes and shopping and Gangnam for huge skyscrapers and super crowded streets. Ikseon-dong is a new and trendy area, where you can walk along the narrow streets of one of Seoul’s oldest neighbourhoods. Be sure to head towards Nagwon Music Hall to find Pojangmacha Street. Sadly, these outdoor tented food stalls are getting harder and harder to find in the city, but they’re definitely worth experiencing. If you’d like a peek into Seoul’s expat community, dead over to Itaewon and the nearby Kyungnidan and HBC for great authentic foreign food restaurants.
Can you suggest a place from where one can get the best view of the city?
I mentioned the Seoul Sky Observatory above, but if that price tag is a bit steep for you, you can head up to the top of Namsan. You can take a short, easy hike up, an electric bus, or the cable car. At the top, you’ll have views of Seoul, that are absolutely free. If you wish, you can attach a love lock there, visit the Teddy Bear Museum, have a meal or visit the observatory in the N Seoul Tower (which is significantly cheaper than Seoul Sky Observatory).
Would you suggest any shows in Seoul to drama, music or art lovers? Where can one spot street art in Seoul?
One of Korea’s longest running shows is called Nanta. It’s been running since 1997, and it’s a nonverbal performance that incorporates of Korean traditional drumming or Samulnori.
Seoul is a huge city with a huge population, so there’s a constantly rotating bill of both local and international performances. Your best bet is to check the tickets and offers on the Visit Seoul website to see what’s available and what you’re interested in. Check it out here.
If you want to see street art in the city – the Ihwa Mural Village near Naksan Park is undoubtedly the most famous place to do it, but lately residents tired of the never-ending tourists and noise have complained (rightfully so), and a few of the most famous murals have been painted over. If you do choose to visit, please be respectful of the fact that people actually LIVE in the neighbourhood.
How hard is it to travel in Seoul without knowing the local language?
Traveling around Seoul is incredibly easy, even if you don’t know a word of Korean. All street signs and transport info are usually translated into english and other languages, as are the Korean navigation apps. In touristy areas, you can look out for volunteers in red jackets that speak multiple languages. They are there specifically to help tourists out!
If you really get into a pinch, you can call 1330 on your phone and be connected to the Korea Travel Hotline. This is a 24 hour service run for free by the Korea Tourism Organization. There are operators who speak Korean, English, Japanese or Chinese, and they can help you with literally ANY question you might have about tourism in Seoul, so don’t be shy to call them.
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport or hidden gems in Seoul?
For transport, I’d definitely download a Seoul subway app. The one I use is called Jihachul, or Subway Korea. It’s in multiple languages and you can use it to help you chart a course around the city. Be sure to pay attention to which exit number you should use, because sometimes exits at the same subway station can be kilometres apart.
You should also download Naver, Kakao, or Daum Maps. Google Maps doesn’t work very well in Korea, and you’ll be much better off with a Korea based one. They are also available in English, so no need to worry.
There are restaurants pretty much everywhere you turn in Seoul, so you won’t have trouble finding one. The good news is that in all of the 9 years I’ve lived in the city, I’ve only ever had 1 meal that was just average – and that was in super touristy Myeongdong. You can pretty much go anywhere and expect to have a decent meal!
IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING TO SEOUL OR WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SHELLEY’S TRAVEL EXPERIENCES THEN BE SURE TO FOLLOW HER ON
Click here to share this interview.