Out of Office: Katie in Seoul

April 2, 2014 by

Asia, Places to Go

Viator’s team of travel insiders is obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere we travel. From traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, everywhere from Australia to Zimbabwe, we spend our time scouring the globe for the best tours and activities around the world.

Whether traveling for work or pleasure (or both!) our staff members are always on the go and we want to share their experiences with you! In this new series, Out of Office, we’ll bring you their stories, highlighting the best things to do and see in destinations around the world, as experienced by a real Viator Insider.

Katie eating barbecue pork in South Korea

Katie eating barbecue pork in South Korea

The Traveler: Katie Hammel, Senior Travel Editor

What’s your role at Viator? I manage Viator’s network of blogs, assigning, editing and curating content to help our readers get inspired and plan their perfect trip.

The Trip: Seoul, South Korea, for one week in February, 2014

What appealed to you about this destination?

I was excited for this trip because I’d never been to Asia before and I thought Seoul would be a good “starter city” as it has a reputation for being easy to navigate and safe, with friendly people (all those things turned out to be true). I was also attracted to its mix of ancient history and modern culture.

What did you do on the trip?

Though I’d planned to split my time between Seoul and somewhere else in Korea, I ended up spending all eight days in Seoul and I’m so glad I did as I was able to slow down and really immerse myself in the city.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace

I packed a lot into my eight days. I visited the beautifully restored Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace and watched the colorful changing of the guards ceremony, and I took a tour to see the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from North Korea. I visited several museums and monuments, including the very moving Korean War Memorial, the (free) National Museum of Korea, and the Korean Furniture Museum, which was recently spotlighted on The Bachelor. 

I explored the historic Bukchon Hanok Village and wandered around the huge  Noryangjin fish market and marveled at all the varieties of seafood. I sang my heart out in a noerabang (karaoke room), went partying with college kids in the Hongdae neighborhood and checked out the glitz of Gangnam.

And throughout the whole trip, I ate a ton of delicious Korean food!

The Korean War Memorial

The Korean War Memorial

As it was my birthday while I was there, I also spent one day in the lap of luxury at the opulent Hotel Shilla, easily the best hotel in the city. My husband and I treated ourselves to their amazing brunch buffet, with dishes like seared foie gras, sushi, king crab legs, and truffle mushroom soup.

What was the best experience? 

My favorite experience was taking Viator’s Korean Night Food Tour. I took the tour on my second day and it really helped make the rest of my time exploring (and eating in) Seoul so much better because of all that I learned about the customs, nightlife, and cuisine.

The makings of a delicious barbecue dinner

The makings of a delicious barbecue dinner

The tour took us to four different restaurants, all of which I never would have found on my own, and included one dish at each. The first stop was far off the beaten path in a small tent, with tiny stools for chairs and table-top barbecues fashioned from metal drums. Everyone there was Korean and the food – barbecued pork served with kimchi and seasonings – was so delicious that I went back for more a few days later!

At the third stop of the night, we noticed caricatures of political figures on the walls. It turned out that the owner is also a cartoonist and he kindly offered to do caricatures of each of us. The drawing of my husband and I doesn’t look much like us, but it is a souvenir I’ll always cherish.

Which attraction did you enjoy the most, and why?

I really enjoyed the beauty of Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace but I think my favorite attraction was the N Seoul Tower which sits on top of Namsam mountain in the center of the city. You can hike up or take a cable car (we opted for the latter) and once at the base of the tower you can choose to pay $20 to ride to the top of the tower, or just take in the impressive views from ground level.

Many people buy locks, which you can have inscribed there, and then attach them to the fence as a sign of their enduring love. It’s cheesy fun. There are also some cafés and shops at the base.  We spent about an hour wandering around then hiked back down through a serene park to street level. It is amazing to me that in a city as densely populated as Seoul there is such a beautiful natural space to enjoy.

What surprised you the most about the destination?

I was very pleasantly surprised by the food. I can be a picky eater and I was worried about how I would like Korean food. But it turned out to be delicious, with plenty of choices (particularly for meat-eaters). I ate a lot of Korean barbecue and a lot of street food like rice cakes and grilled meat skewers.

Korean street food

Korean street food

I was also very surprised by how easy it was to get around the city. Seoul is huge but the subway system is extensive, user-friendly, and well-marked in English. People were also very friendly and helpful the few times I did need help navigating.

What sight, activity, or experience would you tell people they should not skip?

The entrance to the DMZ visitor's center

The entrance to the DMZ visitor’s center

Other than eating everything (and taking the food tour), I think everyone should see the DMZ to get a better understanding of the current reality in South Korea. It was so interesting to hear stories of how the North Koreans dug tunnels leading to Seoul and tried to paint them with black to say they were coal mines, and other tactics they have taken to try to infiltrate South Korea. On the South Korean side, the area is a major tourist attraction and is used to educate visitors about the ongoing tensions with North Korea.

What was the best thing you ate or drank?

Everything was delicious! My favorites were the aforementioned barbecue and all the street food; I tried little donuts filled with a honey-walnut paste, bread with an egg baked inside, and lots of delicious sweets. My husband also enjoyed a crazy double-deep-fried hot dog coated in French fries! Some of the best street food we found was on Insadong, where we made a meal out of all the little nibbles we tried.

Makgeolli, a fermented rice wine traditionally served in metal bowls

Makgeolli, a fermented rice wine traditionally served in metal bowls

The drinks were also very good – and cheap (aside from wine which was on the pricey side). We drank a lot of local beer, a local liquor called soju, and makegeolli, which is a fermented rice wine that is slightly carbonated and very delicious.

What are your top three recommendations to any visitor?

  • Take the Metro. It’s cheap and so easy to use, as all the signs are marked in English and each stop is announced in English as well. It’s the best way to get around in a city so big, and with such bad traffic congestion.
  • Be sure to experience both sides of Seoul – both the historical side in the palaces and museums and modern life as seen just wandering the streets and enjoying the nightlife.
  • Leave room in your suitcase to shop. Korea is one of the “Asian Dragons” experiencing huge economic growth. It seems everyone has money to burn and there are plenty of shops where you can spend big, particularly if you are looking for electronics, high fashion, or beauty products. I spent about $100 and came home with a huge bagful of cosmetics.

What’s the best Insider Tip you can offer future visitors to this destination?

Try all the food – even the things that scare you! The food tour is an excellent way to try a lot of things you might not otherwise, with a helpful guide along to translate.  Food, particularly the street food, is relatively cheap so it’s easy to try things without committing to spending too much.

Where are you off to next?

I’ll be in Iceland, my favorite country in the world, in September for my third visit. I am ridiculously excited to wander the streets of Reykjavik, go riding on the adorable Icelandic horses, see glaciers and waterfalls and mountains, and hopefully, catch a glimpse of the elusive northern lights.

- Katie Hammel 

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One Response to “Out of Office: Katie in Seoul”

  1. Juliann | Browsing the Atlas Says:

    I’ve recently thought about visiting Korea and this post made me move Korea higher on my list of places to go. I already know I’d love the food. This post made me hungry! But what fascinated me more was reading about the DMZ. Sounds like a must-see.

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