GBA Lifestyle News
Travel Outside HK Section
By The Loop HK Contributor | March 21st, 2016
  • City Break
  • Asia, Seoul, South Korea

by Madison Forbes

Just three hours from Hong Kong, South Korea’s capital Seoul makes for a unique city break jam-packed with vibrant colors, quirky shopping and an endless stream of photogenic dishes to feed your Instagram. Head over in March or April and you may even catch the season’s cherry blossoms in all their glory — and the envy-inducing photo-ops that come along with.

Must Do

Learn some Korean

Trust us, Korean is pretty easy to learn to read and speak at a basic level. The people you meet along the way will love it, and it’s ideal for the most important part of traveling — ordering food! Need a cheat sheet? Learn to read here.

See the Cherry Blossom Festival

Slightly less manic than Japan but equally as beautiful is Korea’s Cherry Blossom Festival. Though the unfurling of the buds is unpredictable, they tend to appear in Seoul in early April. The best place to marvel at the blossoms is Yunjung-ro Road in Yeouido Hangang Park, which is worth a visit in itself so you can kill two buds with one stone.

Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr CC
Pink petals rockin’ everywhere. Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr CC

Play in Hongdae

Hongdae is a trendy student hub bursting with boutiques, nightlife and obligatory hipsters. Local students sell handmade clothing and jewelry at decent prices, and you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to watering holes. If you’re trying to go bit, hit up Thursday Party (any day of the week) for cheap pregame cocktails then head to dive bar Club FF for live indie music and late-night revelry.

Visit Changdeokgung Palace

There are a few palaces in Seoul but Changdeokgung, combined with a visit to the secret garden, is most worthy of your time. Make sure to book your secret garden tour in advance as it’s a popular spot.

Visit the DMZ

The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is probably the closest you’re ever going to get to the North, so make sure you book a tour well in advance. Ensure your tour includes a visit to the Joint Security Area — a facility that has a foot in both the North and South, so you can claim you’ve stepped foot in Kim Jong-Il’s hood. Book with Koridoor for a sure-fire experience.

Should Do

Shop in Myeongdong

The neon chaos of Myeongdong is an experience in itself, with bargain makeup and clothes to boot. Swing by to soak up the atmosphere, pick up some threads and chow down on some Korean street food such as the ridiculous but delicious deep-fried potato spirals and tteokbokki (a soft rice and fish cake with sweet red chili sauce).

Photo: Chelsea Marie Hicks/Flickr CC
Myeongdong is an amazing madhouse. Photo: Chelsea Marie Hicks/Flickr CC

Visit a cat or dog café

Whether you’re a crazy cat OR dog person, Seoul is full of cafes where you can hang out with all kinds of fluff balls. Grab a drink and hunker down for some cuddles and play time with feline friends and canine companions. Animal cafes can be found throughout Seoul but the best are in Hongdae and Myeongdong.

Visit Insadong

If you want to experience some old-school Korea, swing by Insadong. Dress up in traditional Korean garb (hanbok), buy handcrafted Korean goodies or wander around Bukchon Hanok village to have a nosey at some traditional Korean houses. 

A stoll through Insadong, Seoul. Photo: Jareed/Flickr CC
A stoll through Insadong. Photo: Jareed/Flickr CC

Cruise on the Han River

Alright, it’s not quite Victoria Harbour, but cruising down the Han River at night is still pretty magical. Pick a docking point that will take you past the Banpo Bridge and see it light up in all its rainbow fountain glory.

Must Eat

Yoogane (유가네)

We’re all for the Korean fried chicken craze, but save some room for oft-overlooked dakgalbi while you’re there. Spicy, gochujang-marinated chicken and vegetable goodness is stir-fried at your table at Yoogane, a stalwart spot that makes for a great intro to this delicious dish. When you’ve finished, order fried rice with cheese, which is prepared in the residue of the leftover dakgalbi and oozes with melty goodness. Yoogane has branches all over Seoul, with its Myeondong location being one of the most spacious.

3-1 Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, (+82) 2-3789-3392.

Nolboo (놀부)

Budae jjigae, or ‘army stew’ was born from post-war Koreans making use of surplus food from US troops. The result? South Koreans added hot dogs and spam to gochujang- and kimchi-based soups. A myriad of nonsense can be added to budae jjigae, including everything from instant noodles to American cheese, ham, baked beans, macaroni… the list goes on. A solid budae jjigae bet is Nolboo, a casual establishment in Hongdae.

29 Hongik-ro, Mapo-gu, (+82) 2-3141-7766.

Nolboo, Seoul. Photo: Tim Walker/Flickr CC
Nolboo knows what’s up. Photo: Tim Walker/Flickr CC

Korean BBQ

We know the real reason you’re going to Seoul: MEAT. Just like you’ve always dreamed, Korean BBQs are prolific in Seoul and, though they vary in quality, most are guaranteed to be delicious so don’t sweat it too much. Just stop every time you’re craving more meat and you’ll be fine. Our favorite cuts to grill are pork skirt meat (galmaegisal) and pork belly (samgyeopsal) washed down with copious shots of soju.

Should Eat

Makgeolli Salon (막걸리 싸롱)

A match made in heaven, Koreans reckon a bowl of makgeolli (a sweet, milky rice wine) and pajeon (a pancake made with everything from seafood to kimchi) is best consumed on a rainy day. We reckon it’s good any time you need food and booze which, let’s face it, is most of the time. One of our favorite mak-bars is Makgeolli Salon where you can pay around KRW6,000 (HK$40) for an all-you-can-drink experience. You’ll cop the worst hangover of your life by mid-day, but it’ll be worth it.

12-6 Wausan-ro 21-gil, Mapo-gu, (+82) 2-324-1518.

Makgeolli, Seoul. Photo: hirotomo/Flickr CC
Makgeolli is what’s for breakfast. Photo: hirotomo/Flickr CC

Samarkand Uzbek Restaurant (Самарканд)

Surprisingly, a small area in Dongdaemun is home to a small Russian, Uzbek and Kazakh community. This is a no frills but serious eating kinda place, with hearty meat pastries, dumplings, breads, kebabs, stews and obligatory vodka. The prices are good, the food is filling and the service is terrible, but what else do you expect from a restaurant in Seoul’s ‘Little Russia’?

Gwanghee-Dong-1-ga 162, Jungu-Seoul, (+82) 2-2277-4261.

Vatos Urban Tacos

We’d go so far as to say that Vatos makes the best taco in Seoul, and it’s also one of the first restaurants to bring the whole Korean-Cali-Mexican love affair to Asia. Pricy though it may be for Seoul, the restaurant’s kimchi fries are unrivaled and the makgolita — a margarita and makgeolli concoction — is a must for cocktail fiends.

Itaewon-ro 15-gil, Yongsan-gu, (+82) 2-797-8226.

Vatos Urban Tacos, Seoul. Photo: Duane Brown/Flickr CC
Go big at Vatos Urban Tacos, Seoul. Photo: Duane Brown/Flickr CC

Sleep Here

There’s a wide variety of accommodation in Seoul but one particular speciality is the city’s novelty love motels. If you want to give it a go, head to Hotel Jade (16 Yonsei-ro 2ga-gil, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, (+82) 10-7162-5147) — the affordable spot offers bang for your buck, and even has a room with a swimming pool.

But if you really feel like ballin’ out then you’re not going to beat the brand-new Four Seasons Seoul. The fresh face just opened in 2015 and is getting all kinds of accolades for its seven restaurants, old-meets-new design, spa-like bathrooms, and convenient location in Gwanghwamun.

Getting there and around

There are tons of direct flights to Seoul, including full-service carriers such as Asiana and Cathay Pacific, as well as budget flights from the likes of HK Express and Jeju Air.

When you’re in Seoul, the subway is infallible, with signs in Korea, English and Chinese. Buses are fairly easy to navigate and taxis are cheap too.