Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Favorites in Seoul

Seoul is FABULOUS!  Over the past three decades, I have witnessed my homeland transform itself from the rubble of the Korean War to become an economic powerhouse not only in Asia but worldwide, and no city in South Korea epitomizes and reflects this transition like its capital, Seoul.  From the concrete jungles of the 80’s and 90’s to the softer-edged 21st century urban oasis that it has become since the new millennium, largely thanks to its visionary Mayor, Seoul is not only one of the most interesting and exciting cities in Asia but also the most tourist-friendly.

Therefore, I find it ironic when I read the travel blogs or hear from fellow travelers from North America and Europe that Seoul isn’t like other Asian cities because it’s so modern and doesn’t live up to the “third-world” image that the media perpetuates.  Unfortunately, like Africa, this large and vast continent has been lumped into a single, and often colonial image of poverty and exoticism.

Seoul is a cosmopolitan city that equals, and in some respects, surpasses the likes of other megapolis in the world like New York City and Tokyo.  Everywhere you look, there’s a reflection of prosperity that has been built from sheer determination and dedication of its citizens.  From the upscale high-rises in Gangnam district to the chic boutiques in Apgujeong; or the rows galleries filled with fine art in Samcheongdong district to the regal omnipresence of Gyeongbokgung, Seoul is a sophisticated traveler’s dream come true. 

Great thing about Seoul is that, like NYC, another favorite city of mine, it’s ever-changing and ever-evolving, and every time I return to the city, I’m reminded that the best is yet to come.
1. Seoul Museum of Modern Art 서울시립미술관 
Seoul Museum of Modern Art is a beautiful space perched up on top of a hill behind Deoksugung Palace.  It is not only one of the most innovative museums I have been to, but also it happens to have a wonderful little cafe on the 3rd floor that has a beautiful view of the city … not to mention, you can get a great cup of coffee there as well.
2. Deoksugung Palace 덕수궁 
Although Gyeongbokgung Palace is, and should be on the must see list of every (first time) visitors to Korea, my favorite palace in Seoul is Deoksugung.  It is famous for its elegant stone-wall road as well as a series of western style buildings that add to the uniqueness of the surrounding scenery, but more importantly, it's smaller and far less crowded Gyeongbokgung Palace.  There’s also the Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony held three times a day at 11:00, 14:00, 15:30 in front of Daehanmun Gate.
3. the stone wall street and the neighborhood behind Deoksugung Palace
In my opinion, the streets and the neighborhood behind Deoksugung Palace are some of the prettiest and the most historic in Seoul.
4. The National Museum of Korea 국립중앙박물관 & Children's Museum 
It is the largest museum in Korea and houses the most comprehensive collection of Korean cultural artifacts that tells the story of Korea’s fascinating history, from ancient days to the modern era.  There’s also the Children’s Museum that has not only a wonderful playground and play space for children but also has an impressive interactive exhibition that teaches children Korean history and heritage.  Best of all, the admission to the museum, including Children’s Museum is FREE.
5. Anyang Art Park 안양예술공원
During my recent visit to South Korea, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the woods near my grandparents’ house where I had spent many years playing and exploring had turned into an art park. The mountainous area near the Anyang Station has been transformed into an outdoor sculpture garden displaying many art works by both Korean and international artists. I’d always enjoyed visiting my grandparents in Anyang and strolling through these mountains, and it was wonderful to see its transformation, and to see the excitement and delight on my sons face as he explored each sculpture as I’d done when I hiked through these mountain with my grandparents.

A word of advice, the best way to get there is to take subway line 1 to Anyang Station, and then, bus no. 2 to the Art Park parking lot.
6. The Neighborhood Around Hongjik University 홍대앞
The Hongdae Area is an area in Seoul that is known for its urban/street arts, indie music culture, clubs and entertainments, similar to East Village in NYC.  It used to be my go to area for a great selection of (cheap) street foods as well as inexpensive restaurants that serve soju and samgyupsal (grilled pork strips).

In the past decade, the area has been transformed into a trendy hotspot, and overpriced coffee shops and upscale restaurants have replaced some of my favorite mom and pop restaurants.  Nevertheless, I still enjoy strolling through these streets, and visiting and reminiscing about my old favorites.
7. Department Store Food Court (usually located at the basement level)
The joys of eating, drinking, and shopping are three of South Korea’s favorite past time.  So, it should come as no surprise that a place that enables me to experience all three simultaneously would be on the list of my favorites.  The food courts in Seoul’s department stores offer some of the best selection of local foods and produce, much like that of European outdoor markets.  You can sample some or all of your favorite dishes at a street food price, with none of the hassle. 

For those who are unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, this is an ideal place, as you don’t have to second guess the food that you’re eating.  There are also several vendors serving non-Korean dishes, as well as a great selection of foods to-go, which are perfect for a picnic. 

How to order:
First, place the order at a cashier located usually at the entrance of Food Court.  The cashier will hand you a pager and a ticket with the number of the stall or vendor where you have to pick up your food.  Pick up the food at the indicated stall when the pager goes off.  Complimentary water and napkins are usually at the center aisle.  Remember to take the dishes back to the same vendor when you're done with meal.

8. Restaurant Bono Bono
Most travelers from North America or Europe will cringe at the mere mention of the word “buffet”, as it brings about an image of greasy food that's been sitting out for hours exposed to only-god-knows-what.  However, in South Korea and especially in Seoul, buffet takes on a totally different concept that's completely opposite from the buffet restaurants in North America and Europe.  You will get some of the freshest meals at buffet restaurants … and most often, the best, and Bono Bono Seafood Buffet Restaurant offers the best variety and the freshest seafood dishes in town. 

9. Restaurant Rhang
I love Korean food! Fortunately, living in a cosmopolitan muticultural city like San Francisco, I have access to a great variety of it. However, during my recent visit to Seoul, a friend of mine took me to a restaurant called Rhang, and it opened my eyes … and my taste buds to a whole new genre of Korean cuisine, which most of us living outside of South Korea are rarely exposed to.

“New Korean” or “Nouvelle Korean” is a transformation of traditional Korean dishes into a sleeker, highly innovative versions. By all means, it is not taking a fusion approach, but rather a more artistic and refine approach to updating Korean food by mixing elements of other culinary traditions.

I’ve eaten in restaurants where the presentation of dishes gets more attention than the flavor, but this was not the case at Rhang. The food was very well prepared with freshest ingredients, and every course was prepared with exquisite attention to detail.

I definitely recommend the full-course set menu, a 7-course meal that will allow you to taste a wide variety of Korean cuisine. I loved every bite of everything I had, but the most memorable was the skewers of marinated beef with mushrooms that came on a bed of black river stones nestled in an over-turned black ceramic roof tile and was then dramatically flambeed at the table.

The slogan on Rhang’s business card reads “Food Art Dining”, and that’s exactly what the whole experience was, as all the dishes were beautifully presented and tasted like culinary work of art.

10. The Underground Walkways & the Subway
The underground walkways and the subway in Seoul are perfection.  It is the most efficient and convenient mass transit system in the world.  You can get to anywhere in Seoul and even the outer areas like Anyang and Suwon by subway at a fraction of the cost you would have to pay in other metropolitan cities.  There’s even a direct line to/from the 2 major airports, Incheon and Kimpo.

Worth mentioning:
I’m not a big fan of Insadong, which is listed in every guidebooks and travel sites as a must see place in Seoul.  Over the past decade, this historical area in the center of the city has become somewhat of a folk village, filled with made-for-tourists shops and restaurants that serve mediocre Korean food.  However, like numerous palaces and folk villages around the city, it's an interesting place to visit for many (first time) visitors to the city.  So, if and when you’re in the area, be sure to check out the Ssamzigil building, Gook Dam restaurant and the charming Café Galphi on 4th floor.     
Helpful websites & resources: 

Insider's Guide to Seoul


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