Like my series on Osaka, I’m also going to be posting a series about my experiences in South Korea. They’ll be separated into four portions: Itaewon, the Korean War Memorial, the Demilitarization Zone, and what to do and see in Seoul!
First off, lets talk about how to get around in Seoul.
The map above shows the subway lines throughout Seoul and the surrounding areas. It is INCREDIBLY easy to travel around Seoul. Everything and I do mean everything, has English text associated with it. Furthermore, every train car announces and displays on video screens the next station and its transfer points in four languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English. This is immensely helpful and I was never confused while on the Seoul transit system.
Furthermore, purchasing tickets are incredibly easy. Tickets can be purchased at an automated booth that functions in four languages, as well. As far as I could tell, every ticket in the city, regardless of where I was going or how far it was from the original departure point, only cost around $2-3 dollars. It’s really cheap and easy.
I do recommend getting a map while in the city; get either a tourist paper map or download one of the many apps that are available for the Seoul transit. This will help you identify which stops you need to go to and which exits to use once you arrive at the station. Also, check out the Korean Tourism Site for more details!
Now, where to stay:
When Lexi and I went to Seoul we didn’t know much about the city at all; it was kind of a spur of the moment trip. We did, however, know of the US military presence and the foreigner area of Itaewon.
As a part of our agreements after the Korean War, the US continues to maintain a very large military presence in the country (we help man the DMZ). One of the main bases in Seoul happens to be in Itaewon. As a result, the main area is almost entirely oriented towards appeasing foreigners with restaurants ranging from Thai delicacies to traditional French brunch; there’s even an Outback Steakhouse. The main street itself is also lined with flags from countries all over the world and plaques embedding those countries into the sidewalk.
Furthermore, there are more bars and clubs here than I’ve seen in most college pub crawls. It’s a really lively and fun place that reminds me a bit of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street mixed with Arizona State University’s Mill Avenue. Anywhere you go, you will see foreigners from all over the world gathered to drink, eat, and seriously get merry. I’m talking diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, backpackers, expats, musicians, everything.
While some see this as a negative, spouting thoughtless quips like, “Oh, that’s just not Korea, it’s just a foreigner trap,” I see quite the opposite. While it is true that there are many foreigners here, the overwhelming demographic of restaurant goers, clubbers, and people having a night out on the town are Korean.
I highly recommend visiting this area at night to see the side of Seoul and people who come out to experience the foreign food and mingle with the vastly diverse number of foreigners. Its a really fun environment.
In fact, I would recommend staying in Itaewon. While the area is quite expensive, there is one hostel right in the middle of everything called SP Guesthouse. It is one block up from the main bar/restaurant street of Itaewon and miraculously shuts out all the noise from the sleepless nightlife below. As a hostel, it is very affordable; the staff is very accommodating and it is extremely handy to be within walking distance to the Korean War Memorial and major subway lines that can take you to Gangnam, Seoul Tower and even the city center.
But let me give you a good idea of what Itaewon is really like:
To really understand how foreigner oriented this area is, imagine this: as you leave the major station, whichever side of the street you surface on, your first sight will either be the sign of a KFC or an Outback Steakhouse. Further down you’ll find shop after shop lined with Nike, Adidas, Body Shop, and more.
The main area of Itaewon rests on a hill to the side of the main street and exhibits an almost tiered level of restaurants, then restaurants/clubs, and finally guesthouses and hostels. In order to get to any of this you have to walk up through some sketchy looking alleyways, passing all sorts of amazing smelling establishments offering food from all over the world.
Once you’re on the major street, you have choices of any type of food you could imagine. For someone like me, a person living in super rural Japan, I was in heaven having access to dining choices again. My favorites were definitely the Thai restaurant and the Mexican fusion restaurant.
The Thai restaurant,”Pattaya Thai,” was delicious and not too expensive once Lexi and I realized we could share a plate between us. Our waitress spoke perfect English and had actually traveled around Japan before, so she knew where we were from! She was a sweetheart.
The Mexican restaurant,”Coreanos Kitchen,” is actually started as a food truck in Texas. Now spreading around the world, Lex and I were lucky enough to find one in Itaewon. If you’ve read my blog about finding a Mexican restaurant in Osaka, you’ll know that I’ve been craving Mexican food for a while since coming to Japan. This place satisfied that craving in spades! Do you want to know when a restaurant has some pretty authentic roots in its cooking? When your waitress asks you, “is cilantro ok?” Come on, of course it is!
The drink menu boasted a wide variety of tequila and Mexican beers while also showcasing a diverse arrangement of entrees from tacos to enchiladas, and burritos to tapas, and even sopapillas. Lexi decided to order some amazing looking tacos and I had to go with the kimchi burrito, a Korean specialty infused burrito. If that weren’t enough, we were given hot salsa and a small portion tortilla chips to begin the meal. FURTHERMORE, I was even able to get a traditional IPA beer here (my favorite type of beer).
If you’re in Seoul, visit Coreanos Kitchen; just do it.
In addition, I recommend going to Prost bar for some lively night life and I definitely recommend hitting up the Turkish Kebab shop. In 2012 I lived in Italy for six months and despite all the amazing Italian food in Florence, there was no substitute for Turkish Kebabs as drinking food. They are just absolutely perfect for that 2am craving.
Overall, if you want to walk around and see diverse architecture, night life, and people while having as many choices of food as possible, I recommend taking the time to visit Itaewon. You really will get a feel of how some of the younger crowd in Seoul live and how the foreigners in Korea act.
I love parties and night life (really I should have gone into party planning), because it is a great way to see people for how they truly are, or how they want to be. Itaewon is the place to see that in full force. BUT, Itaewon isn’t just a party district, it is within walking distance to two of Seoul’s biggest attractions: the Korean War Memorial and Seoul Tower.
For more information on Itaewon, check out the website “Only Itaewon” for a directory of restaurants and stores throughout the Itaewon area. It has directions, website links, and menus!