What to see in Korea when you’re not at CHI

Korea is a beautiful place, but its beauty is not something that can be appreciated right away. Compared to China, Japan, or even other Southeast Asian countries, traditional Korea is less visually stimulating- its architecture and traditional designs are subtle, simple. The mountains are neither high nor low; there are few “landmark” places to take pictures. A small peninsula that has been constantly under attack from neighboring countries, the beauty of Korea is not in what you see, but what you feel.

The most beautiful places in Korea are not in Seoul. Seoul is like over-caffeinated Manhattan- everyone is busy, no one sleeps, and people are extremely fashion-conscious. The buildings are modern and high, the streets are crowded, and everyone moves fast. It’s hard to imagine that 60 years ago, the entire city was damaged by war and completely undeveloped.

Seoul is huge. Over 10 million people live here. Huge. The Han River, which dissects the city into North/South, is very wide and unlike any river that runs through a big metropolitan city (in terms of width).

Most Han River bridges are not pedestrian-friendly

Coex, where the conference is located in, is in Gangnam, the southern part of Seoul. Gangnam literally means “south of the river”. It is also the name of a district. While Seoul is thousands of years old, Gangnam is only a few decades old. It used to be rice paddies and orchards not too long ago, which is why the architecture is all relatively modern. It doesn’t have much character- there are a lot of high rises and new buildings squished together. If you want to see the “old” Seoul, you have to go north of the river. The heart of Seoul- the old city that is thousands of years old- is in the northern part of Seoul, where you will find the old palaces and old gates to the city.

From the Airport

You can take the train or subway, but these options all require transferring, which can be a pain if you have a lot of luggage. If you want to get to Gangnam the easiest option is actually a limousine bus. It goes directly to the location you want to go.  Here is the link for the bus that goes to the Intercontinental hotel: https://www.iccoex.com/eng/company/map/bus.do;jsessionid=917E3F5D7DB95F3E83FFA2A77AA20E5F

Must experience

  • Jjimjilbang- large saunas/baths.  http://blog.korea.net/?p=20198
  • Karaoke- You get private rooms- no singing in front of strangers! Some places are fancier than others
  • Cosmetics stores- along with the proliferation of plastic surgery clinics, you will find a lot of cosmetics stores where you can try stuff


1. Where are the grocery stores? Seoul has limited space so you don’t see sprawling stores or malls. The most common grocery stores are in the basement of department stores. These tend to be a little pricey but the quality is excellent and they also have gourmet food courts. More affordable grocery chains are Emart or Homeplus- most are open 24 hours.

2. No tipping! Tipping was not a part of Korean culture, although due to Western influences it is now common in hair salons. Telling taxis to keep the change is common.
3. Taxis: the ugly orange taxis are regular taxis- the city is in the midst of trying to convert all taxis to this color (to represent an earthen color) much like taxis are yellow in NY.  Black taxis are deluxe taxis and cost more but are nicer vehicles. Not all taxi drivers speak English so it’s a good idea to write your hotel name or ask someone to write your destination in Korean before you take the taxi.
4. So many motels! Yes, motels- or, er, “love hotels” are places where you can check into a room hourly (or longer). Some of these places are like small boutique hotels but don’t cost as much as hotels- if you are okay with the stigma attached to them. Most Koreans live in apartments and traditionally live with their parents before getting married; hence the proliferation of such institutions.

Gyeongbok palace

Tourist stuff
1. Gwanghwamun: this area has the Gyeongbok palace (where the king lived), Deoksu palace, and city hall. If you emerge from the city hall subway station check out the change of the guards ceremony at Deoksu palace; across the street is the modern city hall building. If you walk towards Gyeongbok palace you will see a large statue of admiral Yi sunshin and the Blue House from a distance. This is also where the cheonggye stream, an urban green project, begins- it is marked by a gigantic red shell sculpture.

Cheonggye stream

If you thought bookstores were dead, they are not in Korea. The nearby Kyobo bookstore is like Barnes and Nobles on steroids.
2. Not far from the Gwanghwamun area is Namdaemun market, which sells all kinds of things and is just interesting to peruse. Traditionally it was an open market but now there are also buildings – mostly for wholesale.
3. If you have time, the N Seoul Tower is a nice place to get a view of both north and southern Seoul. Night views are nice but I actually like going during the day- you can hike up to tower or take a car or cable car. They have a nice greenhouse with an amazing cactus collection.
4. Insa-dong: An area with a lot of small art galleries, Asian antique stores, cobblestone streets, and an old-timey Korea vibe.
5.. Buk-chon: A residential neighborhood of old Korean homes. You can’t go into the homes, but see them from outside. This is one of the few areas that has not been modernized, thanks to special laws that prohibit demolition in this particular neighborhood.
6. Bongeun Temple (Bongeunsa): This temple is within walking distance of the convention center and features a large, lovely Buddha. A larger, more elaborate temple is Jogyesa, but that is in the northern part of Seoul. When Korean college entrance exam tests are near, temples are filled with mothers hanging ribbons to pray for their child to get into a good college.

Bongeunsa is just a couple blocks away from COEX

7. DMZ. The area between South and North Korea. You can actually see North Korea a few miles  away. Enter at your own risk- or rather, with a tour guide or tour group.
Shopping is a crazy important part of Korean life. There are so many places to shop and are famous for shopping- the area in front of Ewha University and Myeondong is famous for shoes and women’s clothes; Hongdae (Hongik University) is famous for bohemian craft/art and clothing- the list goes on and on; Dongdaemun is great for clothes for teens/ young adults/ children.
The department stores are very upscale and expensive: Lotte, Galleria, Shinsegae and Hyundai Department Stores some of the main ones. The “underground” shopping arcades (large ones are located at the Jamsil station as well as the Express Bus Terminal Station) are very inexpensive but can be cramped and ill-ventilated, but tons of fun. There is also several famous “electronics” markets (the most prominent one in Yongsan) that sell all sorts of tech-related stuff.

The Galleria lights up at night

For kids
1. Lotte World: an indoor/outdoor amusement park- just get off at the Jamsil station (just a couple subway stops away), very close to the conference venue. The Lotte complex also has movie theaters, indoor ice rink, swimming complex, and huge department store.
2. The Coex aquarium is fairly decent and inside the conference venue
3. Yongin, which is a city outside of Seoul but connected on the subway line, has a huge amusement park called Everland (owned by Samsung) and an adjacent zoo and large waterpark (Caribbean Bay).
Museums- there are many museums but these are my top 2:
1. Leeum, a museum owned by Samsung, is comprised of three small buildings- one has Asian art, the others are modern art. The collections are excellent and the architecture of the buildings is so interesting.
2. National Museum of Korea has a huge collection of Asian art.
Where to Eat
Koreans are obsessed with food, and leases are high so most restaurants that have survived the first few months are usually pretty decent. If you want to go out of your way, here are some options:
  • Department store food court: Department store food courts are not like U.S. mall food courts- the food quality is very high, diverse, and great if you don’t mind the crowd.
  • Sanchon: A temple food, vegetarian experience http://www.sanchon.com/en/index.php
  • Noryangjin Fish Market: Do you want fresh sushi or squirming live octopus? This is a wholesale seafood market, but vendors will also chop up fresh fish to eat on the spot.
  • Itaewon: The heart of the expat community, here is where you can find the most global cuisine packed into several blocks.
  • Kwangjang Market: so many yummy street foods

Other Things to Do

  • Hiking: Korea is a great place to hike; the mountains are beautiful but not that high, making it great for amateur hikers. Koreans take their hiking gear pretty seriously too; it is quite common to find older adults in fashionable hiking gear. Bukhansan National Park, on the northern side of Seoul, is lovely (see blog post by Jack and Jill). For more serious hikers, Jirisan (mount jiri) and Soraksan (mount sorak) are several hours away but worth the trip.
  • Bukhansan hiking

  • Biking the Han River: The Han river has pretty good biking paths that extend beyond Seoul (see blog post by MyTanFeet).
  • Cool Architecture: Seoul has a lot of buildings designed by globally renowned architects. Some recent additions are the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (designed by Zaha Hadid) and the Seoul City Hall (iArc). Here is a great article on CNN Travel with an overview of the best of best.
  • ddm
  • Jeju Island: If you have a couple days to spare, Jeju island is one of the most beautiful semi-tropical islands I’ve been to in the world. It is quite small, with a volcano rising in the center, but it is so unique. The beaches are different on each side of the island- the western beaches are shallow with turquoise water, like the Caribbean; the southern beaches are a dark blue water with substantial waves and both white sandy beaches and black stone beaches; the southeast/eastern areas are tall cliffs, perfect for sea kayaking, and the northern beaches have beautiful rock formations. Aside from some manmade attractions like the Teddy Bear museum (which is actually pretty decent), the natural beauty of this island is incredible. Rent a car or scooter, drive around the perimeter, stopping by the various beaches, and then hike up the volcanic mountain to see the beautiful crater lake at the top. With caves, horseback riding, waterfalls, and tasty Jeju pork on the menu, this island will give you the most bang for your buck.
  • Waterfall that falls into the ocean in Jeju

  • Clubbing: There are two types of clubs in Korea- the Korean “nightclubs” and the western-style clubs. The Korean nightclubs are huge (often spanning multiple floors) and have an interesting dating culture, where the waiters’ task is to bring cute girls to men’s tables. One has to order liquor and some food dish (e.g., fruit, salads, appetizers) by the table, rather than by person, so it’s better to go in numbers. Even then, the alcohol can be pretty pricey. These Korean nightclubs are most often found in Gangnam. The music at Korean nightclubs are usually K-pop. The other type of “western” club are techno, rock, or hip-hop clubs that sell beer or drinks to individuals rather than groups. A lot of these clubs are in the Hongdae area near Hongik University.(see blog for some hip clubs)

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