The first week of November was a funny week. On Monday we caught a cable car up to the fortress of Masada and spent the afternoon floating in the Dead Sea. On Tuesday we wandered through the streets of the Christian Quarter in Old Jerusalem before catching a plane to Athens. On Wednesday we spent our very last full day in Greece wandering the streets of Plaka and indulging in Greek cake and wine. Thursday morning we sipped freddo cappuccinos whilst gazing over the Acropolis, before heading to the airport once again. By Friday evening we had arrived in Seoul with enough time to grab some street food at the night market before bed. To say that we were dazed is perhaps a bit of an understatement.
These kind of mind-spinning, contrast-filled experiences are exactly why I wanted to embark on a trip like this in the first place. What better way to garner an appreciation of the splendid variety of the world we live in than to visit three vastly different regions in the space of one week? I should also say, however, at the risk of sounding completely cliche, that I love these kinds of experiences too for their ability to show how connected we are across the globe. Just tonight we were standing in Starbucks (a symbol of globalisation if ever I saw one) waiting for my green tea frappucino when Hava Nagila started playing in the store. We’d recently heard it at a Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem and I certainly didn’t expect to hear it again in South Korea!
But I digress – this story is about our time in Seoul! So let me start from the beginning: we booked our flight to South Korea on a whim. We really had very little idea of where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see, though we were certain about one thing: the food would be excellent. With that in mind, once we’d arrived we decided to plan our days around delving into the culinary fantasyland that is Korean cuisine, whilst doing some sightseeing in between.
After a big sleep-in (our bodies were not yet used to the time difference or Seoul’s cold temperatures) we headed for Bukchon Hanok Village, a picturesque neighbourhood consisting of hundreds houses built in traditional Korean style. We spent a couple of hours wandering around and admiring the architecture. Everywhere we looked, autumn leaves provided beautiful bursts of colour that brightened streetscapes dulled by grey skies.
Throughout the afternoon, we noticed lots of people walking around with scrumptious looking skewered snacks, so we immediately set about finding some of these for ourselves. We found a little shop just outside the village where the signs were all in Korean, but were thankfully accompanied by pictures, so we simply pointed out a couple of things that looked good and we were on our way. Later investigation revealed that we had purchased eomuk, an iconic street-food snack that is actually a type of fish cake served with a fish and radish broth. The second was simply a sausage wrapped in shortcut pastry and smothered in spicy sauce – healthy!
However, our dinnertime adventures were the real highlight of the day. As a birthday present, Zac had arranged for us to go on a food tour organised by one of Seoul’s top food bloggers (who has entertained the likes of Anthony Bourdain!) that focused on Korean BBQ. We visited two restaurants in Seoul’s Mapo district: the first was a traditional BBQ restaurant, and the second was a so-called ‘pancake restaurant’ that serves up an incredible variety of deep-fried morsels of deliciousness.
The best part about this second place was the way you go about choosing your food. Instead of looking at the menu, you simply grab a basket at the market stalls downstairs and select your pre-battered foods (they have everything, from crab and seaweed to cow liver and sweet potato), which are then promptly served to you in the restaurant upstairs. Our meal was accompanied by carbonated rice wine and a bottle of grape flavoured soju that was dangerously delicious.
Traditional architecture at Gyeongbokgung Palace in the morning, and modern architecture at Dongdaemun Design Park in the afternoon.
Today was all about buildings, except for a delicious little break at lunchtime for some spicy Korean fried chicken. Now, I’m no architect, but I think that even the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi would agree, if they had ever had the good fortune of tasting it, that the fried chicken was the real standout of the day. It was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and smothered with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Seoul’s architecture is cool, but you can’t eat it.
We didn’t even pretend to sightsee today; instead, we headed straight for another street market, where we sought out kimchi dumplings, bibimbap (a dish of white rice topped with vegetables, pepper paste and egg) and naengmyeon, a tasty noodle dish served on ice. Unfortunately it was at this market that one of the worst situations of the trip unfolded: one second we were walking along happily after purchasing our dumplings, and the next I had clumsily dropped one on the ground as I attempted to eat it with my chopsticks. It was a very sad moment. RIP dumpling.
In the evening, in an attempt to distract ourselves from this unfortunate event, we took the cable car up to Namsan mountain where we peered out through the drizzle at the lookout to see Seoul sprawling before us.
Today brought clear skies and low temperatures – about 10 degrees lower than the day before! So we rugged up as much as possible and headed off to the Contemporary History Museum to brush up on our Korean history (to be honest, our prior knowledge was quite poor). The museum is divided into four different sections that examine the country’s 20th century history, with the Korean War as its focal point. We found the exhibits to be reasonably simplistic in comparison to other historical museums that we’ve visited recently, but they did provide a useful overview of the most important events of the past hundred years.
As always, we were feeling hungry after absorbing all this information, so made our way on foot (fuelled by some steaming green tea lattes) towards a restaurant called Gogung, which we’d heard served great bibimbap. It did not disappoint.
Afterwards, we did some market-hopping, first visiting Gwangjang Market, a traditional street food market selling lots of scrumptious looking snacks. We made a huge error in judgement coming here after we had already eaten lunch; we were already so full that we simply wandered around forlornly, looking at all the things we could’ve eaten if we’d made better decisions. You live and you learn I guess.
Our last stop for the day was Noryangjin Fish Market, where we walked through many aisles of tanks and tables filled with all sorts of sea creatures waiting to be sold to restaurants.
Seoul has so many areas to explore and foods to eat that we could barely scratch the surface in only a few days. It is an incredible city that has so much to offer its visitors, and we hope that one day we’ll be able to return to get to know it better.