Find out what happens when a hungry K-drama fan has six days to explore Seoul for the first time. First up: Days 1 to 3 of sightseeing and binge eating in the capital of South Korea.
Day 1: Tteobokki & Dongdaemun
We arrived in Seoul on the evening of Day 1, but since our circadian clocks insisted it was the middle of the day, we decided to go out. First up was Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki. Mabongnim is the busiest and most famous restaurant on Tteokbokki Street, in a row of tteokbokki restaurants. We were provided with aprons so that we could watch a pan of rice cakes, eggs, instant noodles, and other stuff stew, up close.
After dinner, we headed over to Dongdaemun for some late night shopping. Coming out of the subway, we immediately encountered the striking Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which K-drama fans may recognize from its appearance in various shows.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza was closed, but the malls directly across the street were all open with closing times varying from 2:00 am to 5:30 am. It was at the Lotte department store elevator that I began to notice the dominance of Kim Soo Hyun in Korean product endorsements. I would continue to see his face at various clothing stores, a skin care product chain, and even a chain of banks throughout my visit.
Unfortunately for us, we arrived on the last day of the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday, so the stores all closed at midnight. The subways also shut down around midnight, so we cabbed it home, and learned that cabs are cheap, hence why K-drama characters are always taking them.
Day 2: Oksu Free Bike Rental, seafood and Seoul Tower
We usually join up for a bike tour when visiting a foreign city, but this time, we were thrilled to discover the Oksu Free Bicycle Rental. In exchange for photo ID, we were able to borrow a bike for up to three hours. None of our bikes were perfectly tuned up, but the tires were inflated, the brakes worked, and best of all, it was free! We followed the bike paths running alongside the Han River, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, despite looking like amateurs in comparison to the locals in their full kits. For a list of Seoul free bike rentals, please refer to this list.
After biking, we headed to Pro Soy Crab for their house specialty. We ordered both raw and cooked Blue Crab, and we all agreed the raw version was better, as it left the crab meat sweet and unadulterated. The cooked crab was still good, though the crab meat took on a texture reminiscent of white chicken. Many celebrities showed their appreciation for the restaurant by posing for photos, put on display at the front. The only person I recognized was Jang Geun Suk, who appears to have visited at least twice.
As if we did not have enough seafood, we proceeded to the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, where we chose various seafood, most of it still kicking and killed right before our eyes. We were then led into the basement of the Market where a restaurant prepared and cooked up our fresh seafood selection. The most squeamish thing we ate was chopped up mini octopus, which was still moving on the plate. It was all enough to induce vegetarianism. Despite its freshness, the seafood was not as good as one might expect, because some of the dishes were overcooked.
One of the best views of Seoul can be found at Seoul Tower. Though there is an option to walk up for free, having spent the entire day walking up and down the rolling hills of Seoul, we decided to pay for the cable car. We made it to the viewing deck just before the Tower where love locks can be hung on the fence.
We ended the day with soft serve ice cream with an actual honeycomb stuck in it from Sweetruck. I have never eaten honeycomb before, and I can report that it was sweet and chewy.
— Noonas Over Forks (@NoonasOverForks) September 11, 2014
Day 3: Demilitarized Zone, bibimbap, and Myeongdong
Every time a K-drama actor disappears into the army for two years, we are reminded that South Korea is technically in a state of war. This tense stand off with North Korea prompted us to take a tour bus into the Demilitarized Zone, where we could witness the world’s longest running staring contest. Technically, we entered North Korea when we visited the boardroom that straddles the divide.
Our tour took us to a restaurant where food was served like a school cafeteria. I chose the bibimbap option, unaware that I would be eating more bibimbap shortly.
Back in Seoul, we visited the shopping district of Myeongdong, and it was decided that we would try Gogung, which is reputed to have one of the best bibimbap in Seoul. We ordered two types: one with the traditional stone bowl and another in a metal bowl. We definitely preferred the stone bowl, though I did not find either of Gogung’s bibimbap significantly better than the bibimbap from the DMZ.
Immediately after Gogung, we headed down the street to Gyoja, known for their hand rolled noodle soup and mandu. It is a testament to how good their food is that I was able to enjoy it in spite of a full stomach. I found their noodles softer than I would like, though they were still delicious, and the broth was amazing. The mandu were perfectly executed with a thin layer of dough on the outside, and juicy meat on the inside.
After the eating, came the shopping, which packs the side streets of Myeongdong full of pedestrians. Surprisingly, these small streets are not actually closed to traffic, and the occasional car or scooter still tried to make its way through the crowds of shoppers. Though the shops appear never ending, the chain stores actually repeat themselves; I counted at least four branches of Etude House, and two Babara locations.
Having eaten dinner in the middle of the afternoon, we felt ready for dessert in the evening. At Four Seasons Dessert House, we followed the labels that indicated that the Injeolmi desserts were ‘Best’ and ordered the shaved ice and toast. The toast was a bit heavy, with a mochi-like filling between the two slices of bread, but the shaved ice featured the right balance of light and heavy elements.
After a day of gorging, it felt right to attempt to sweat it all out. We decided to visit a jjimjilbang, and chose Dragon Hill Spa on the basis of its tourist friendly reputation. It was definitely popular with Chinese tourists, and Korean teenagers. The decor was unbelievably gaudy, with Egyptian pyramids side by side with a model of a geisha. The pyramids were actually sauna rooms that featured crypt-like alcoves for visitors to insert themselves into for some privacy.
As hilarious as Dragon Hill Spa sounds, I would not recommend it. They had some weird double standard where women were only issued two tiny towels and any additional towel required ₩3000, whereas the men could grab as many towels as they wanted in their dressing room. There was also an absence of toiletries such as shampoo and conditioner in the bath and showers. In fact, the only thing they made available were bars of soap. The final straw was the guy at the front desk who decided to combine the bills of me and my friend for no other reason than the fact that he was lazy. When we asked him to separate the bills, he got them mixed up and gave the wrong change to each of us. Hopefully, I will be confident enough in my Korean to be able to visit a different jjimjilbang in the future.
Please check out my synopsis of Days 4, 5 and 6 in the next Friday Feature.
Readers: What would you see and/or eat while in Seoul?
Keep the saliva off your keyboard as you type.