K-pop and Korean BBQ dominate Korea’s influence on Singapore culture but a visit to Korea offers so much more. Before my trip there, I promised myself that I would try to get as diverse a range of experiences as possible. And I did!
Here are 10 of the things that I had the most fun doing. Yes, some of them may be cliche, but they are that popular for a reason. And, if I could add an eleventh, it would definitely be cafe hopping!
1. Dance at the Gangnam Style sculpture
You know the name, you know the music, you know the move. Now, it’s time to put it into practice at the place that inspired the worldwide phenomenon known as Gangnam Style.
The Sculpture of Gangnam Style is located in the upscale Gangnam district of Seoul. 5 metres tall, the sculpture towers above onlookers and is about 8 metres across. It’s practically tradition to take pictures and videos of yourself recreating the famous dance sequence in front of this landmark.
You may have to stand in line to perform the moves first showcased by K-pop star Psy. For those who have somehow managed to forget those moves, there is a screen playing the iconic music video. To save energy, that screen and music only come alive when motion is detected around the display.
There’s a secret to this sculpture as well. Seen from above, the Gangnam Style arms are actually depicted as embracing the planet. Wow.
2. Have an ad-hoc buffet meal as you walk Myeongdong
One of the great pleasures I uncovered on my trip to Seoul was the kilometres of street food in Myeongdong. It’s actually a scene replicated in every area frequented by tourists. I made it an almost-daily ritual to put aside a couple of hours to discover the amazing array of delicacies.
The exact fare may vary slightly by season but there’s always something for everyone. My personal favourite was the Oreo churros, which I returned to almost every day.
There are skewers galore. Take your pick of the various kinds of meat but they will usually have the same spicy-sweet orange sauce that gives it such a nice kick.
If you are a fan of mochi, there are countless varieties on sale by different vendors. I love the homemade varieties, usually sold by an older auntie. Some are the mass-produced kind but also very good. There’s one where they place strawberries inside the soft confectionery— those are my favourite!
3. Design your own phone case in Insadong
Insadong is the artsy centre of Seoul and it is worth a visit, even if you don’t have an artistic bent. If you do appreciate creativity, though, this place is a wonderland hiding an exciting discovery around every corner. My most enjoyable experience here, strangely enough, was with something I did on my own— design my own phone cover!
They have covers for all the most popular phone models. You pick yours, which is just clear plastic. Then, you get this tube of pastel-coloured slow-hardening ‘glue’. You squeeze it out onto the back of your new phone case (without the phone in it!) however you like. I found it to be very similar to decorating a cake!
You also get your choice of little ‘charms’ to place on top of that base pattern. Food is my life so, unsurprisingly, all my charms are makan-related. However, they have hundreds of different patterns to choose from. Go nuts!
4. Try on Hanbok, Korea’s national costume
My second love after food (which overtakes food when I am shopping online) is clothes! Elaborate exotic clothing has always fascinated me and the traditional Korean attire, the hanbok is one of the most elegant examples. In Korea, you can try your hand at donning this wonderful set of clothes with the help of experts.
A hanbok set comprises the jeogori (hanbok jacket for men and blouse for women) and chima (skirt). Most designs are vibrant and meant to draw attention. I noticed that brilliant blues and resplendent reds dominated the colour palette. Gold also made significant appearances, adding a touch of regal sophistication to the outfit.
It’s a pity that almost everyone in the world wears Western clothing. I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace on a public holiday and there were entire families kitted out in hanboks. It was a wonderful sight and one of my most memorable experiences in Seoul.
5. Devour a 32-cm tall ice cream tower
A dessert challenge? I’m in! One of the most fun experiences I had in Seoul this past winter was licking a 32-centimetre serving of ice-cream in -4⁰C weather. You should try it for the novelty factor (and like-worthy Instagram post) regardless of when you visit.
Unsurprisingly, this footlong tower of temptation is not very common, particularly in the colder months. I had to do a bit of hunting and, in my excitement, once accidentally ordered a comparatively dwarf-sized 15-centimetre one. Still, there are at least 2 places along the walking street in Myeongdong where we saw these tasty temptations.
Some of the most popular flavours are green tea and the standard flavours of vanilla and chocolate. There is also a dual tone Choco-Vanilla option.
You will find that this ice-cream resembles its much smaller Singapore cousins but the constitution is quite different. The Korean version is much softer, almost like an extra-frozen Slushie. Plan your licking wisely to avoid what happened in Pisa.
6. Have a cosmetics shopping extravaganza in Myeongdong
Guys, cosmetics shopping. If you are a girly-girl like me, there is virtually no place in the world like Seoul’s Myeongdong for cosmetics shopping. I spent, literally, hours every single day of my trip in cosmetics stores that are on every street and street corner.
The prices are insanely low! I know of people who purchase extra baggage allowance before they go to Myeongdong. They make a killing reselling the stuff back here in Singapore. While I’m not sure that’s entirely legal for taxation purposes, I know that my personal haul cost me about 20% of the price it would have in Singapore.
It’s difficult to recommend a chain or brand from which to buy your cosmetics. I can only guarantee that you will love the variety and won’t come away disappointed. Kudos also to the attentive and very accommodating sales staff; they are very generous with free samples! Hehe.
7. Visit the Korean DMZ and take a peek into North Korea
No, not the ‘dee-em-zed’, it’s pronounced the ‘dee-em-zee’. Formally known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, it is one of the most intensely-surveilled strips of land in the world. On one side is the technologically-advanced democracy of South Korea and, on the other, communist-controlled and nepotistic North Korea.
South Korea, like Singapore, has compulsory National Service for all males. Most of the South Korean soldiers you will see on your visit are kids still in their teens. You can bet they all passed their version of IPPT.
Because the border remains a flashpoint that sees sporadic outbreaks of violence, you cannot visit the DMZ on your own. All visitors must be part of an organised tour but don’t worry, there are ample places available.
A half-day tour costs KRW 46,000 (S$47 at time of writing) while a full-day excursion with lunch costs KRW 87,000 (S$90 at time of writing).
8. Take the Wine Train
I found the Korean subway system very efficient and comfortable (have you noticed how much wider their carriages are than ours?) However, there is a whole other kind of rail discovery for the wine aficionados in our midst— the Wine Train Tour.
The crowd is mainly local so you will have to specify that you want an English-speaking tour. The free flow of tipples begins pretty much as soon as the train departs the platform. Cheese and fruit platters are also served on board.
Korea apparently has a much older and storied wine heritage than I knew. You are introduced to the different varieties and given a brief introduction to their respective histories. The train makes a number of picturesque stops along the way.
The Wine Train operates on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are available online and may also be bought from the departure point, Seoul Station. Adult tickets cost USD120 (S$163 at time of writing).
9. Watch a hilarious performance of Miso at Jeongdong Theater
I’m not a particularly artsy-fartsy connoisseur of theatre but find certain plays, for example, My Fair Lady, wonderful. MISO: Baebijang-jeon is a Korean play written by an unknown author centuries ago. It touches on the themes of elitism and the human desire for adulation in the most humorous way.
Presented in a modern interpretation of the original, the performance retains the mesmerising dance and colourful costumes. Choreographed into an exciting series of performances based on traditional Korean dance, it is the perfect symbiosis of old and new. It is part a love story and part a comedy of errors. In short, amazing.
The play is an enthralling 90-minute performance and an adult ticket costs KRW100,000 (S$103 at time of writing). However, the lobby of the Jeongdong Theater itself has been transformed into an art gallery. Appreciate the intriguing creative works on display as you wait for your show to begin.
The swish-swish of powder spraying off your skis as you zigzag your way down a dazzling white slope, not a care in the world. Ahhhh, now that’s the life. I try to squeeze in a day on the slopes whenever I visit a country during winter. (I still suck, though) Seoul has some of the most inviting ski resorts, especially for beginners like yours truly.
All the ski resorts in Seoul are located in the city’s mountainous interior, meaning that it’s quite a journey there. I went to the Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort, which is the main ski destination northeast of the capital.
Since my skiing adventures are so few and far between, I was glad for the foreigner ski school. It’s right next to the equipment rental area. If you aren’t up for the challenge of each of your pesky skis conspiring to make you do the split every few seconds, you can even rent a sled here!
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