South Korea is not a large country, and transportation is swift and efficient, making it easy to cover a lot of geographic ground in a very short period. To truly get a sense of the place, however, it’s best to take it slow, giving yourself ample time to walk the streets, dip into restaurants or markets on a whim, test out the public transit, and plan an excursion or two to rural areas or historical sites to better understand the country’s roots.
With only a week to spare, it’s probably best to concentrate on a specific location—in this example, Seoul, which is large, dynamic, and complex enough to keep anyone busy for far longer than that. A similar amount of time in Busan would allow you to check out some of the areas popular with expatriates—such as Haeundae and Pusan National University—and perhaps fit in a side trip to Ulsan or the culture-rich city of Gyeongju. It would also be enough time to make your way around Jeju Island with lengthy pit stops in the main cities of Jeju and Seogwipo. Or you could pick a region and divide the week among its main centers, heading south from Seoul to visit Daejeon, Gwangju, and Jeonju to the west, for example.
After a night recovering from what’s bound to be an exhausting flight, get up early and head straight for Gyeongbokgung Palace in the central district of Jongno-gu before the inevitable hordes of sightseers arrive. This is primarily a tourist site, to be sure, but also the heart of old Seoul and one of the best places to begin getting a sense of how the city is laid out. The palace is surrounded by some of Seoul’s most historic and character- crammed neighborhoods, so take the time to explore them. A short stroll from its eastern walls will bring you to the charming, Samcheong-dong district, where cafes, galleries, and boutique shops are housed in a mix of historic and eye-catching contemporary architecture. Follow the main strip toward the entrance to quiet Samcheong Park and veer right, and you’ll soon be in the heart of Bukchon Hanok Village, one of the few patches of Seoul where hanok, or traditional Korean homes, still exist in significant numbers. With their snug courtyards and delicately curved eaves, these properties have attracted more than a few foreign residents, and you may want to drop in on a neighborhood real estate agent if you feel the lure of hanok life—but since many of these places are beautifully restored and equipped, bring an open checkbook. Just south of the village, on the other side of Anguk subway station, is the Insa-dong area, popular with visitors (and residents) for its craft and souvenir stores as well as traditional restaurants and tea shops. This is a great part of town for new arrivals to get acquainted with Korean food, since most restaurants see a fair number of tourists and go out of their way to cater to non-Korean speakers.
If you continue south from the main Insa-dong road, passing Tapgol Park on your right, you’ll soon hit the Cheonggyecheon, a restored waterway that runs over eight kilometers through the city center. Follow it west and you’ll soon see the massive (some would say garish) sculptured shell that marks its entrance from Sejong-daero, one of Seoul’s main arteries for centuries. Just north of this intersection is the Kyobo Building. An excellent bookstore in the basement is stocked with material for Korean language learners, English-language newspapers, and city event magazines such as Seoul; pick up a few to see what Seoul has to offer in an average week. Since the store is popular with expatriates and English-speaking locals, there’s a fair chance you’ll also end up meeting someone to discuss city life with.
From here you’ve got a couple of possible ways to explore Seoul’s bustling retail scene. If it’s high-end boutiques and mammoth department stores you’re after, head straight south past the wavelike City Hall building to the Myeong-dong district, which heaves with shoppers until the late hours and has plenty of bars and restaurants to relax in when the credit cards are (almost) maxed out. For a cheaper, more local, but also slightly more chaotic option, a short taxi or subway ride east to Dongdaemun Station will put you in the middle of one of the city’s largest markets, Dongdaemun, with the Gwangjang and Bangsan Markets also just blocks away. Dongdaemun Market focuses on clothes while the latter two carry more food and household supplies, but each spans multiple blocks, buildings, and floors, and together they contain just about anything anyone could want to set up a new home. Browsing (or better yet, buying) will give you a taste of the bargaining process and how much South Koreans pay for standard goods—prices at markets are often substantially lower than those at megamarts or department stores. Cap off the day by sitting down for a bite and a drink in one of the markets’ food sections, which serve up a spectacular range of good-value street snacks and are a favorite spot for the locals to blow off steam after work.
It’s time to familiarize yourself with Seoul’s always-hot housing market. Take the subway to Noksapyeong Station and resurface next to the entrance to the Itaewon strip. Spend an hour walking the length of the street, stopping in one of the cafés along the way, for a glimpse of the center of Seoul’s expatriate community. Finish at the Yongsan International School at the eastern end; if you have you have school-age children you may want to arrange a quick tour with the administrative staff.
Double back to the nearest intersection, where you’ll see a few real estate agents. Most agents in this area will have a number of places throughout Yongsan district on their books. Have a chat with them about what’s available, and feel free to check out a few apartments, but remember not to make any final decisions before you’ve talked to multiple agents—quotes sometimes differ from one to the next. If time permits, take a bus or cab up the hill to the Hyatt Hotel—just outside the hotel is an entrance to Namsan Park, which has some reasonably unstrenuous walking trails that offer sweeping views of the city. If you’d prefer a dose of culture, just downhill from the Hyatt is the striking Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which houses much of the enviable collection of the Samsung conglomerate’s founding family, as well as rotating exhibitions by contemporary local and international artists. When evening hits, make your way back down to Itaewon’s main drag to sample some of the area’s legendary (and occasionally notorious) nightlife. The district’s diverse range of restaurants, bars, and clubs collectively probably boasts the highest concentration of expats in the city, and many are welcoming, convivial places for a chat with current Seoul residents.
Get a look at Seoul’s more modern face by heading south of the river to the affluent Gangnam district. A walk along bustling Tehran-ro, one of corporate Korea’s epicenters, is a good reminder of just how prosperous the country has become, and can be followed by a visit to the rather incongruously located Bongeunsa Buddhist temple, an island of tranquility in an area that is busy even by Seoul standards. Gangnam is an important shopping destination, and several modern-style malls and megastores are located here, including the COEX center, E-mart, and further south, Costco. Poke your head into one of these places for a crash course on the costs of imported food, and if you’re considering living in Gangnam, visit a few real estate agents. After dark, prepare to splurge a little and visit one of the trendy restaurants or lounges in Garosugil, a nightspot and designer-dotted street in the Sinsa-dong area, to mingle with some of Seoul’s trendsetters.
Regardless of whether you’ve decided you have to live in the city center or are staunchly determined not to, a trip out to Seoul’s suburbs is worth taking, if only to witness how South Korean cities are developing. Go to the nearest rapid (red) bus stop and take a commuter bus bound for Ilsan, which should take about 45 minutes to reach from downtown Seoul. Upon arrival, head for the massive Lake Park near Jeongbalsan, a relatively successful example of urban planning that boasts bike paths, jogging tracks, artificial islands, and even a singing fountain. The park is ringed with plush new apartment complexes that are also worth a look; property agents in the area will be more than happy to show you around but may not speak much English. There’s no need to head back to Seoul for dinner—the nearby Lafesta and Western Dom shopping/entertainment complexes house a variety of boutiques, restaurants, and nightspots that rival almost anything in the capital.
To prove Seoul isn’t all business, spend the day exploring the Daehangno or Shinchon/Hongdae university districts, both accessible by subway—you could even try to cram both into a single outing, although they’re relatively far apart. Both have a slightly bohemian feel, pleasant pedestrian areas, and an abundance of youth-centric boutiques, cafés, and pubs, but the Shinchon/Hongdae area is better known for cutting-edge galleries and clubbing, while Daehangno is famous for its outdoor sculpture, theaters, and street-side performances. Anyone on the hunt for low-cost housing would do well to talk with some of the real estate agents in these areas, as both have accommodations geared toward student-sized budgets. You should also stop by the campuses of the main schools, such as Yonsei University in the Shinchon area, if you’re considering taking language or other courses in Seoul. Parents may also want to visit the Seoul Foreign School in nearby Yeonhui-dong, seen as one of the city’s preeminent international schools. The area surrounding the school also has a good range of expat-friendly housing and shops.
Hopefully having completed most of your research, devote your sixth day to some leisure pursuits. If you enjoy hiking, tackle one of the fairly unpunishing mountains in central Seoul—Inwangsan is a good pick—for fairly fresh air, spectacular views, and hidden shrines. You’re highly likely to make some local friends along the way; Seoulites are rarely as relaxed or congenial as they are on the mountaintops. Seoul Forest and any of the Han riverside parks are alternative, less strenuous venues for a long, scenic stroll. If you’re willing to go farther afield, a guided tour to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas or a trip west to Gangwha-do, an island littered with temples, fortress sites, and other relics, are both worthwhile trips.
On your last day in Seoul, try to tie up any loose ends, taking the time to visit any neighborhoods you’re curious about but may have missed, even if only to browse some of the advertisements pasted in the windows of property agencies to get a better idea of prices. This might also be a good time to visit the Seoul Global Center, a support facility for non-Korean residents in Jung-gu, to ask any questions that have come up on your trip and pick up some of the literature they have on utilities, banking, and other services to help prepare you for the eventual move.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in South Korea.