Welcome to another interview of Through the Eyes of a Local series! A couple of times per month I interview someone from a faraway city, to bring you some insider’s insights about many destinations out there. This way you can travel with the best information in hands, and actually do what locals in that city do as well.
I’m glad to say that this week’s interview is coming from the other side of the world! Diamond is kindly showing us a little more of this huge metropolis that Seoul is.
If you want to read other interviews of this series, take a look at my “Through the Eyes of a Local” archive! I’m sure you’ll enjoy learning more about other cities from a local’s point of view.
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is home to over 25 million people. Seoul is where you go for great shopping (Myeongdong), catchy Kpop music (Korean Pop) and amazing food (pretty much everything). Korea was once called the Hermit Kingdom but has now opened its doors to the world and to hundreds of Foreign Language Teachers like me.
Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself? Where are you from and what do you do?
Hey! I’m Diamond and I’m a twenty-something solo female traveler who’s currently living in South Korea. I teach English to my lovely bunch of middle schoolers during the week and on the weekends, I explore this beautiful country. I grew up in the United States and ever since I was young you could always find me with a book in hand. I love reading, writing and traveling and I’m so fortunate that I’ve been able to combine all my loves into my job and everyday life.
What do you like about Seoul?
It’s so hard to pick, but what comes immediately to mind is how Seoul is such a perfect mix of modern and ancient. Seoul showcases five thousand years of culture and knowledge, language and architecture, food and fashion. Seoul is a fast-paced city with all the modern conveniences but its roots still shine clearly through.
I also love how easy it is to get around Seoul. Growing up in a Florida suburb, I was a bit nervous about navigating subways and buses. I’ve collected quite a few funny (and embarrassing) public transport stories over the years so I fully expected to have more stories to share within my first month. But it turns out I didn’t have to worry about Seoul. Buses and subways pick up frequently, stops are marked in Korean, English, and Japanese. Also, if needed, there is usually a kind stranger around who is willing to help show me the way.
Which 3 places do you highly recommend paying a visit in the city?
So, my recommendations all have to do with food because good food is what makes life worth living! All my fondest memories are in some way attached to a happy belly so here are a few places I highly recommend visiting so that you can have some fond belly memories too.
Bimbom is one of the most popular brunch restaurants in Seoul and one bite of their Brioche French Toast told me why. Their food is insanely good and my friends and I love meeting there on Saturday mornings, ordering a bunch of different things and sharing them out family-style. Afterward, we stroll around Seongsu-dong where the restaurant is located and we enjoy how peaceful and quiet it is compared to other parts of Seoul. It’s a cute little area with a bunch of cafes and bakeries that make the street smell of delicious fresh bread. Even if you don’t want to indulge yourself in the wonder of Bimbom you can still enjoy the peace and beauty of Seongsu-dong.
Seoul does movie-going better than any other country I’ve ever been to. You have IMAX and 4DX for an immersive experience and then you have your luxury theaters. One such luxury theater being TempurCinema and yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking. You watch your movie while lying on a Tempur-Pedic mattress that can be adjusted to your comfort.
Serving the TempurCinema movie-goers are the staff of Cine de Chef. If you get hungry while watching your flick, you can ring for your attendant and order from Cine de Chef’s gourmet menu. Enjoy a three-course meal or some fancy Sriracha Chili Popcorn. It’s a fun and unique experience for people that love food and movies as much as I do.
The best part though is that the TempurCinema locations (Yongsan and Apujeong) are two very lively parts of Seoul with lots of restaurants, shopping and cafes. You could spend all day in these areas and not run out of things to do.
The Sky Farm
Located in Yeouido, Sky Farm is a sweet little café that features dishes from all over the world. It’s a very popular place, like hour-long wait for a free table popular, but it’s worth it for the amazing food and the incredible view you have of the Han River. Sky Farm is on the 50th floor of PKI tower and is the place to go for one of the best nighttime views of Seoul.
And which place should people avoid?
You know there really aren’t any places that need to be avoided. Some places like Itaewon can get a little wild at night with people partying and blowing off steam but that doesn’t make it a dangerous area or one you should stay away from. However, I do know that’s not everyone’s scene so if I did have to list areas that some might not want to hang out in, then Itaewon would be the only one on it.
Is there anything you don’t like about Seoul? What is it?
One thing I don’t like about Seoul is the trash piles. Businesses will bag their trash and leave it out on the sidewalk for pick-up and that seems to be an open invitation for anyone passing by to add their garbage to the pile. As a result, you will have one neat tied up bag on the sidewalk surrounded by a mountain of loose garbage.
Throwing away garbage is pretty complicated in Korea. I myself have to separate my waste into five bags when I take it out and if I get caught not putting the plastics with the plastics and the food waste with the food waste, then I could get fined. I can see why people don’t want to deal with all that and will just toss their trash on random street piles and let the garbage men and women sort it out. I get it, but still, it’s not very pleasing to look at and I can’t imagine the sanitation workers like it too much.
What are your favorite things to do in Seoul?
My favorite things to do in Seoul are going out to eat and hitting the movie theaters. Seoul has so many themed movies theaters and I plan on visiting every one of them. While I’m working on that goal I’m also doing my best to try different international and Korean cuisines. The food in Seoul is simply amazing and even those on a tight budget can please their stomach for a reasonable price.
What is the best way to get around Seoul? Is it easy to reach nearby cities?
Hands down the best way to get around Seoul is the subway. It’s quick, on time, runs frequently and is super cheap. The cost to ride with a TMoney, or Transport Card, is only 1,250 Won (About $1.20 USD).
If you want to get out of Seoul for a bit then you have a few options depending on how much you want to spend and how long you want the trip to take.
Either of these options is fine and will get you where you want to be:
- High-Speed Train KTX: Seoul to Busan in less than three hours. Price: 60,000 Won ($57 USD)
- Slow Regional Train Mugunghwa: Seoul to Busan in five hours. Price: 29,000 Won ($28 USD)
- Intercity Bus: Seoul to Busan in four hours. Price: 33,000 Won ($31 USD)
How travel-friendly is the city?
Seoul is extremely travel-friendly. The entire country is very accessible due to buses connecting even the most remote villages to the outside world. Signs all have English translations and while you’re in Seoul chances are good that you’ll run into at least a few people who speak English, whether they are locals or foreigners.
If you’re headed to or from the airport then the Airport Railroad Express connects Incheon International Airport and Gimpo International Airport to the heart of the city. It’s quick, runs frequently and will get you where you need to be in an hour.
How safe is Seoul? Is it ok to walk around with your camera or alone at night?
Seoul is a safe city and I have never felt uncomfortable when I’ve been out alone at night or carrying valuables. I never worry about being pickpocketed in crowded areas and I have never been harassed. But even with all that said I feel it’s important to always exercise caution no matter where you are. Even though I don’t fear for my safety in Seoul, I still don’t make it a habit to wander around alone at night and I never leave my things unattended.
What are the best things to do when the weather is, respectively, bad or good?
When the weather is bad then that’s the perfect time to get a few friends together and eat some Dakgalbi. Dakgalbi is a spicy stir-fried chicken dish that is usually served with cabbage, sweet potatoes, and rice cake. At Dakgalbi restaurants the food is cooked right at your table. When it’s blisteringly cold outside then nothing is better than gathering around a hot stove and feasting some on delicious Korean food.
When the weather is good, I love wandering around the many neighborhoods of Seoul looking for cheesecake, shopping and taking part in all of the amazing festivals. From International Firework festivals to Cherry Blossom festivals, Seoul is always celebrating something and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.
Can you tell us where we can find the best view of the city?
If you’re looking for the best view of Seoul then look no further than Namsam Tower. The tower is 370 meters up with panoramic views of the entire city of Seoul. If you’re feeling brave you can step out on the glass floor and get a feel of just how high you really are. Namsam Tower also has lots of restaurants, one of them a revolving restaurant, so it’s a great opportunity to indulge in a meal with a view.
What is the most traditional dish in Seoul?
Korean Kimchi is becoming known worldwide for its yummy taste and its health properties. Kimchi is served with almost every meal and is a staple in Korean cooking. The most common type of kimchi is cabbage with a kimchi paste that is then left to ferment for a few days. Different regions with different local produce and traditions will have their own take on making kimchi so everywhere you go in Korea you’ll have a chance to try the many favors and stylings of kimchi. Seoul, in particular, is famous for Royal kimchi, Wrapped kimchi and Whole Radish kimchi.
Could you recommend a local bar and restaurant?
I recommend visitors try a cute little steakhouse in the Jongno district called Jongro Steak. The restaurant is very small with only about seven tables for guests but still, word has managed to spread about their crazy good food and affordable prices. Usually, affordable and steakhouse can’t be said in the same sentence when talking about restaurants in Korea because meat is very expensive here but Jongro has become the exception.
What is the biggest tourist trap of Seoul?
That would be Myeongdong hands down. Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s main shopping districts and one of the most expensive shopping districts in the world. People come from all over to check out the high-priced shops, theaters, restaurants, and hotels. I read somewhere that Myeongdong gets about 2 million people coming through a day, but after visiting myself; I think that number is on the low side. Myeongdong is packed!
Can you tell us a funny memory that you have in this city?
My funniest memories all have to do with the inevitable misunderstandings that come from language barriers. Once I went out to a Galbi (rib) restaurant. It’s one of those places where you buy a plate of uncooked meat and grill it yourself at your table. When you’re done, you usually smell like smoke and meat so a lot of places will have some fabric freshener you can spritz on yourself before you go out.
So, after we ate, my friend asked one of the staff for some Febreze. The waiter handed it to him and then said bluntly, “Get out,” and started shooing us towards the door. After we got over the initial shock of that we burst into laughter right outside the restaurant. When you have the cultural background to know when and to whom you can say certain things, you know not to tell paying customers to get out! When you don’t, you just use the words you know will get your meaning across. This has resulted in me being in quite a few funny situations in Korea.
Could you describe the people of Seoul?
The people of Seoul are all a bunch of well-dressed, busy people rushing about the city. Everywhere you go you’ll see all kinds of people laughing, talking and looking fabulous. But even though I always look like a bag lady in comparison to everyone else, people are still very kind and welcoming. And because Seoul is an international city filled with people of all backgrounds and skin colors I don’t get stared at here like I do in smaller cities and town.
Tell us a fun fact about Seoul.
Fun Fact #1: When you are handing someone something like money, paper, a drink, etc. The polite thing to do is to present it with two hands, not one.
Fun Fact #2: Shoes outside and slippers indoors. When you enter someone’s home you leave your shoes at the door. Even in school, the students will leave their shoes out in the hall and enter the classroom in slippers or socks.
Fun Fact #3: It is not considered impolite here to ask someone their age, religion, relationship status or what they think about Trump. The age and relationship ones are my student’s favorite questions to ask me. They also like asking me if I’m a gun owner. (I think it’s an American thing.)
What piece of advice would you give to readers who want to visit Seoul?
My advice is to not stay in just one area of Seoul whether it is Yongsan or Gangnam or Itaewon. I truly cannot pick a favorite area because there is so much to do and EAT all over Seoul. Myeongdong is not the only place you can find great shopping and Gangnam isn’t the only place to party. Don’t limit yourself to one area because you’ll miss out on so much that it’ll be like you didn’t really visit Seoul at all.
What is the biggest prejudice other countries have about Korea?
Based on the things I have heard, there seems to be this idea that all Korean men are sexist and all Korean women are submissive, aspiring homemakers with no other dreams but to get married and have children. It’s sad to see others take unique individuals and put them into boxes and stereotypes but I like to think that will change as we keep connecting, traveling and learning from each other.
Can you tell us a book based on Korea?
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin is about an elderly woman who gets separated from her family in a Seoul subway station and then disappears. As her family looks for her, they realize they don’t really know much about the woman who cared for and raised them. Have they just been taking her for granted all this time? This book earned the author, Kyung-Sook Shin, the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Huge thanks to Diamond for taking time to share with us!
Diamond started traveling the moment she escaped University and hasn’t stopped since. She’s been to so many amazing places but Ireland, Switzerland, and Thailand are the places she could visit again and again for the rest of her life. Her next big adventure is a year-long Round-The-World trip hitting every continent, even Antarctica. Her blog, Ink For Miles, is geared towards inspiring women and women of color to the world solo.
Read more interviews of Through the Eyes of a Local series and get inspired for your next adventure!