It has barely been a few minutes since we have exited Seoul’s IncheonInternational Airport andmy daughter is already on her phone, determining the distance to K-StarRoad, one of South Korea’shotspots for K-Pop fans. Dotted with Gangnam Dols(a compound word of Gangam, idol anddoll), human-scalebear like statues representingimages of the famous K-pop bands and groups,this stretch of road is chock-ablock with teenagegirls squealing indelight as they spot their favourite Gamgamdol and taking countless photographs, wide-eyed-tourists taking in the buzzing atmosphere and a few like me, trying to grapple with the K-Pop wave that has taken over the world by storm! But then, that’s the beauty of Seoul. On one hand you have swanky, upscale sights that boast the best amenities modern technology can provide and on the other, you have picturesque yet traditional neighbourhoods that have not only retained their old-world charm but also narrate glorious stories of the bygone years. Of course, you have the key streets too with a vibe found in almost every touristy destination across the world but if you wish to discover the soul of the city, follow me.
The Dongdaemun Gate
Seochon, one of the earlier neighbourhoods allied with the Joseon era and Korean literature, expanses out from the western gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace and extends to the base of Mt Inwangsan.
BUKC HON HANOK
This old-fashioned village comes with an extensive history positioned between Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeok Palace and Jongmyo Royal Shrine. It comprises alleys and well-kept hanoks (a home built in traditional Korean style) that date back to the Joseon Dynasty and display centuriesold city architecture and planning. This is where we begin our Seoul discovery with a guide. We are mesmerised by this inhabited area that boasts as many as 900 hanoks with most occupants following a traditional lifestyle. Walking around, we notice many women strolling about dressed in pretty . if not more. One of the sights that still lingers in my mind is the stark contrast the patterned walls and tiled roofs of the hanoks present against the highrises of the modern city in the distance! All the Instagram- worthy walking makes us hungry. We find a cosy corner at Cityfood Noodles Myung-ga. A small restaurant tucked between large keepsake shops run by a mother-son duo, it serves delicious bowls of noodles, all reasonably priced too. We go for noodle soup with spicy seafood and we are not disappointed.
Elaborate tea ceremonies are an integral part of the country’s culture.
Seochon, one of the earlier neighbourhoods allied with the Joseon era and Korean literature, expanses out from the western gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace and extends to the base of Mt Inwangsan. We are told that while it is less crowded as compared to the more-famed Bukchon, it has more hanoks. I would say that Seochon is a wee bit modern too, but the neighbourhood, even today, has an old-style aesthetic, is cosier and not over-visited at all.
We reach Tongin Market around lunch. This marketplace goes back to 1941 and today offers an exclusive dining experience! Seoul has several markets but what makes this one unique is the Dosirak CafО, which translates to ‘lunch box’ in Korean. You pay cash in exchange for 10 coins and a lunch tray. You can use the coins to buy your favourite food from any of the partaking stalls inside the market. Tongin is also popular for gireum tteokbokki or rice cakes that are fried fresh and come with two sauces – spicy red and soy.
In Korea, a meal is had with metal chopsticks called cheotgarak
With over 60 years of business, locals come all the way here just to taste the unique fried rice cake. Among the notto- be-missed delicacies here include the sikhye, a traditional beverage made of rice. The bookstore cafe called Daeh Oh Bookstore 33 is hugely popular too as it served as the backdrop for Shark, a popular South Korean television show. There are numerous washed-out book covers that would put to rest any doubt one may have about how old this bookstore is. Did I mention that the bookstore is run by a grandmother whose grandson owns a watermelon juice store next door?
Located amid the mountains Inwangsan and Bugaksan, Buam Dong is a charming, picturesque and artsy village with oodles of appeal and an antiquated allure. Upon arriving here we feel like expatriates from Seoul, even though we are barely a mile away from the main palace. Here, upscale homes are tucked away in the hills, there are no McDonald’s or French baguettes in sight and no venders on the streets either. Add to this an assortment of art galleries, bakeries, classic restaurants, museums and exceptional craft stores and you’re in for an interesting and fun-filled day.
Two Korean women in hanbok (traditional Korean attire)
An excursion here is incomplete without visiting the Seoul Fortress Wall against the mountains. We also make a pit stop at the Seoul Museum, home to three floors of momentary, and enduring modern and traditional art created by local and foreign artists. The top floor gives admission to the museum’s shop as well as Seokpajeong, a splendid and breathtaking old hanok that was once an imperial villa. A good idea is to relish a coffee with a view, tread along the fortress wall, meander through the galleries and museums, have lunch, and conclude with a cupcake. It is a gorgeous break for the soul!
Changing ofthe Royal Guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace