Seoul, South Korea seems so far away from here. When I think of South Korea, I think of a place that is so modern technologically and also so ancient in its traditions. Like a living juxtaposition of old and cutting edge. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was lucky to have a few Korean friends over the years. Through them I had the pleasure of learning some aspects of the culture, attending weddings, and enjoying some great meals, yet so much of their beautiful culture still feels unknown and foreign to me.
I was so excited when our next guest poster agreed to participate in this project. Let me introduce you to Jen, a diplomatic wife living in Seoul, South Korea, with her diplo-spouse and diplo-babies. Like most places around the globe Jen explains to us the amazing and not so amazing things about living in Korea which I hope will be helpful to anyone traveling/moving there. For the rest of us a little lesson on what life is like on this asian peninsula. If you want more from Jen, you can find her on Instagram @jenficklin.
Go to a baseball game. One of my favorite things to do in Seoul is catch a baseball game at Jamsil baseball stadium. I enjoy the ball park in the US but the experience of a Korean baseball game cannot be compared to an MLB experience. Korean fans are very passionate about baseball. The fans are energetic and enthusiastic. There is constant noise and energy. There are cheerleaders, song leaders, and chant leaders. Everyone is so engaged in the game it makes it so much fun.
Rent hanbok to enjoy local sights. Hanbok is the traditional Korean clothing that has been worn for hundreds of years. There are many shops in Seoul where you can get fitted into hanbok and then pay by the hour to rent your special outfit. At most palaces, temples, and cultural sights the entrance fee is waived if you are wearing hanbok.
Shop at local markets & streets. Seoul has several different shopping areas; each unique. Namdaemun market is the largest traditional market in Korea and a great place to wander, explore, and get lost. Insadong is a great place to find traditional Korean souvenirs. If you are looking for famous Korean skin care products you want to go to Myeongdong. Toy Alley in Dongdaemun Market is a fast favorite of little ones. All the large markets have English maps at the information booth to help you find your way around the different sections.
Relax at a jimjilbang. A jimjilbang, or Korean bath house, is the ultimate way to pamper yourself. These facilitates are usually 24-hours and include a variety of baths of different temperatures and herbal infusions, several saunas, massage services, salt rooms, cold rooms, food, rest areas, sleeping rooms, just to name a few. There is so much more!
Find a café of your liking. There is a myriad of themed cafes in Korea. If you want to spend time snuggling up to cats while you enjoy your coffee, then look up the nearest cat café. Or maybe you are more of dog café type of person. But it doesn’t end with cats and dogs. There are sheep, bunny, raccoon, and even a meerkat café. There are game board cafes, comic book cafes, Kpop cafes, Harry Potter cafés, Hello Kitty cafes, a Sherlock Holmes themed café, and even a poop café where you can eat your lunch from a bowl shaped like a toilet.
Attend a festival. There is an abundance of festivals in Seoul and throughout Korea. It will be easy to find one that caters to your interest. You shouldn’t miss the lantern festival or cherry blossom festival, both held in the spring. My family had so much fun attending the Boryeong Mud Festival where you can slide, jump, run, and play in the special Boryeong mud that is known for keeping your skin young. Next on our wish list is the Taean Tulip festival and the Ulsan Whale Festival.
Korean BBQ, obviously! When people think of Korean food this is typically what comes to mind. Thinly sliced meats brought and cooked at a charcoal or gas grill located right on your table. The meat can be marinated or unmarinated, among the most popular being bulgogi (thin sliced beef or pork), galbi (marinated beef or pork ribs), and samgyeopsal (pork belly).
Kimchi. Without question, kimchi is the one dish that is synonymous with Korean cuisine and culture. A staple in Korean cuisine, kimchi is a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables. It is most commonly made with cabbage but there are hundreds of varieties of kimchi using different vegetables as the main ingredient. They say kimchi is an acquired taste and I'm still working on attaining the love for it!
Bingsu. There is nothing better on a hot, humid summer day in Seoul than a big bowl of bingsu. It's a base of shaved milk ice (!!!!) piled high with toppings of your choice. The shaved ice so light, fluffy, and creamy. This is not the ice from the snow cone shack at your local carnival. Traditionally, bingu is served with red beans but as it has grown in popularity the toppings have changed. My favorite is topped with sliced strawberries, strawberry syrup, sweetened condensed milk, and a scoop of frozen yogurt to top it off.
Korean fried chicken a.k.a Chimaek. Chimaek is a compound word for chi-cken and maek-ju, the Korean word for “beer”, so it refers to the popular duo of Korean fried chicken and beer. I don't know all the magic that goes into frying chicken the Korean way but what results is a light, airy, crunchy, outside and a juicy delicious inside. They use a very thin batter and have a double frying technique that ends with some of the best chicken I've ever had.
All the food on Myeongdong Food Street. If you are looking for street food in Korea do not miss Myeongdong Food Street. Vendors line the street selling both traditional Korean food as well as modern twists on Korean favorites. Tteokbokki is a quintessential Korean street food. Soft rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy gochujang sauce. My favorite street treat is hotteok. A sweet pancake filled a mixture of brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon. Other popular street foods are mung bean pancake, chicken skewers, egg bread, dumplings, and soondae (Korean blood sausage).
Rugs. Carpet is virtually unheard of in Korean homes and apartments. If you want to feel some plushness under your feet you'll have you bring your own area rugs to fill your home.
Holiday decor. If you like to decorate your home for holidays you'll have a hard time finding any available in Korea. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated here but ornaments and other decor are not readily available.
Lightweight stroller. With little ones in tow and navigating the subway having a lightweight stroller is a must. Frequently the elevator in the subway station is not convenient to my destination so I end up carrying the stroller up flights of stairs.
My favorite kitchen tools and gadgets. My kitchen items are always the first things to be unpacked at a new house. My kitchen aid, sharp knives, and pressure cooker are always missed during a move.
Learn Hangul! Take time to learn the Korean alphabet known as Hangul. It doesn't take long to learn the letters and sounds. You can master the alphabet with the help of apps on your smartphone. Getting around Seoul with only English is mostly easy but having the ability to read hangul is very valuable. It looks intimidating but is easily learned.
You'll need to replace google maps with a Korean app. Google maps does not work in Korea. You can download English versions of Naver or Kakao Maps which will get you anywhere you need to go.
Take advantage of the expansive subway and trains system. Whether going a few stops or to the other side of Korea the subway and trains are a great way to get around Seoul and Korea. Looking at the subway map can be intimidating but you'll get the hang of it!
Poor air quality. Fortunately, air quality is typically not a year round issue in Seoul but from January to May it is up with the worst places in the world. You can see it, smell it, and taste it. We have multiple air purifiers throughout our house and are home bound for days at a time if the air is too bad.
Parking your car. I don't find driving in Seoul to be frustrating but parking your car can be a headache. If there is a parking garage available at your destination, it will likely have a system that will read your license plate when you enter and again when you pay to exit. However, diplomatic plates are different and these systems have errors when trying to read them. There is often not an actual person at the exit to help so you have to try your luck with the help button which will not be in English. Another reason to take advantage of the amazing Seoul subway.
Seoul is fabulous for families. It's hard to narrow Seoul down to one best thing but I feel like being family friendly encompasses so much of what makes Seoul so great. There is so much green space, an endless number of activities for children and families, a super safe city, an array of incredible schools to choose from, and overall a really easy and wonderful place to live.
Thank you so much for your tips Jen! I found many to be quite useful for settling into life in South Korea and any cafe where I can pet animals sounds great to me.
In Love & Travel
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Guest Posts From Diplo-families Worldwide
What is life like all over the globe? This area is a window into the lives of diplomats and their families. These interviews serve as mini crash courses in expat living worldwide. 7 salient notes about expat life in a given location. Enjoy!