This post will contain 100% less Seoul puns than the previous post.
After getting to bed around 2:30AM the night before Shana and I decided sleeping in was a necessary component of the days agenda.
We had a free walking tour penciled in at 10:45 that started with Seoul City Hall. We arrived about 10 minutes early and unlike Prague where there were crowds of people offering walking tours, tour guides and answering questions there wasn’t a
Seoul soul to be found (sorry, I promised). We got breakfast at a very expensive cafe because it was adjacent to the meeting place and we could see if anyone showed up. About five minutes past the deadline the sky cracked and opened up a deluge of steaming rain. So much for our walking tour, it appeared to be double cancelled by the guide not showing up and the rain.
The rain lasted about 10 minutes and we decided to make our own walking tour starting with Seoul City Hall. There is large plaza in front of city hall. On this day there also happened to be a large stage erected that featured what I imagine to be popular Korean musical acts. We watched a couple groups go through dress rehearsal and took a quick tour of the city hall building itself which is actually shaped like a giant wave.
Across from city hall is Deoksugung also known as Gyeongun-gung. This is a “small palace” that contains a massive garden, the National Museum of Art and a complex of 10 buildings or so that provided temporary housing while the Joseon rulers were working on the other palaces around Seoul. Despite the epic heat we toured the grounds but were not able to go into the art museum as it was closed to the public while we were there.
Next we walked down the main boulevard that connects City Hall Plaza to Gyeongbokgung which is the largest of the five palaces in Seoul built by the Joseon dynasty. The main street has two large statues on its median and often hosts special events. Only about 40% of the palace is still standing or has been reconstructed after numerous destructions due to invasion. Deoksugung is an out house compared to the size of Gyeongbokgung. The place is massive with gardens, gates, buildings and former residences stretching in all directions. It is impossible to really get a grasp for how big it really is even walking around it.
After an extensive tour of Gyeongbokgung we headed to Seodaemun Prison History Hall. I struggled for a long time to come up with the right way to describe this museum. Its part Alcatraz because you are touring a prison including cell blocks, exercise yard and even the kitchen. It’s part independence museum because the museum focuses on the time it was used by the Japanese as a colonial prison for Korean independence activists. Finally its part Tower of London with a thorough demonstration of some of the torture techniques the Japanese used on their Korean prisoners. Somber is too a light of a word to describe this place. From a Western point of view we had very little exposure to this region’s history and this became a huge eye opener for us. While the museum is obviously one sided, I’m not sure there could be a different side to be on when you see a table designed for sticking needles underneath prisoners’ fingernails.
Feeling brutally educated about some of Korea’s more recent history we trekked down into the Insa-dong neighborhood which is filled with traditional craft stores, restaurants and sidewalk vendors. We walked up and down the main street looking at tea shops, tourists and stopping at a few sidewalk carts to get some street food. Insadong has been recently renovated and is becoming more popular with locals. It is still somewhere between Korean street market and tourist trap.
To really get our fill of tourist traps we then hopped on the subway to get to Itaewon. Itaewon is adjacent to the Yongsan garrison of the US military stationed in South Korea. Because of Itaewon’s proximity it has also developed an incredibly international flavor including but not limited to, burgers, craft beer, halal cuisine, tailor made suits, tacos, greek food, a delicatessen, and numerous shops filled with knock-off designer items. Itaewon is also home to a massive mosque, the red light district, (Hooker Hill) and an underground gay community. We had been desperate for shwarma and stopped at the first place we saw that served it. Despite the fact they used Mexican tortillas for their wraps instead of pita or lavash it was still an excellent departure from our Asian diets. After that we stopped at a local tap house to try their mediocre but expensive beers. Since a large beer in Korea is typically 3000 won anything over 4 or 5 thousand won is starting to get ridiculous.
With evening fast approaching, we took a train down to Seobinggo. While there is nothing particularly special about this neighborhood, the bridge that connects Seobinggo to Banpo-dong is known as the ‘Moonlight Rainbow Fountain.’ Every night at 8PM the bridge puts on a fountain and light show that can be seen from parks on either side of the river. The picture on the Wikipedia page shows a beautiful spectacle. This is false as you can see from my picture below. There is no amount on insect repellent that will keep you from being eaten alive while you are underwhelmed at just how unimpressive this really is. On top of all that, there are ZERO signs indicating where to go to watch the show once you are down along the river. The picture from Wikipedia shows the fountain being on both sides of the bridge. This is also not the case for the time being. Needless to say we had stationed ourselves on the wrong side of the bridge and had to hoof it another half mile or so to see the end of the show. This one isn’t worth the trouble. I’m sure you could pay a fortune to get on a river cruise and watch the show from the water if you hate money.
Exhausted after the exceptional amount of walking we had done, we headed back to the Myeong-dong neighborhood to grab a bite to eat and get back to our hotel. When we surfaced from the Myeong-dong subway station we found an immensely crowded night market going on and our curiosity got the better of us. In the face of debilitating hunger we window shopped for the better part of an hour before succumbing to an offer for Korea BBQ. Makgeolli and spicy beef were on the menu as we spent an hour or so mixing and matching all the different condiments they set out on the table.
Full, exhausted and experienced we headed off to bed for a KTX ride the next day.