Visiting Seoul, South Korea on a budget
Envision a landscape of mountains, thousands of trees, temples, and dirt roads that royal dynasties once explored. Now climb up enough hills and peaks and you’ll quickly realize that you’re still in a metropolis filled with busy skylines and the aroma of coffee shops at every corner.
As with any wanderluster, we often find ourselves looking through photographs of our past amazing vacations trying to recollect everything that had happened. We remember the crowded streets, the smell of street food, and the inevitable sores and blisters from hours upon hours of walking.
Being a hopeless romantic sucks. Being a hopeless romantic that watches Korean dramas suck even more. Whether I was stuck on the notion of running around the city with my true love hand-in-hand while we ride into the sunset on a moped, or the idea of having a cute coffee date with my oppa at a cafe, something about Seoul just drove the goo-goo-gaga in me completely wild.
After spending a solid two years watching Korean dramas, I was given the best anniversary gift ever, a trip to Seoul by my boyfriend! Unfortunately due to our times and schedule constraint, the trip was only limited to a full 7 days of exploration. And you can bet we took advantage of those full seven days in what I can only describe as FABULOUS!
Just so you all can get a pretty good idea of who I am as a traveler: I’m a 28-year-old male Texan, so I guess that’s relatively young. I love the busy always-in-a-hurry lifestyle, but then sometimes I will need something to balance that out – like alone time in my room. I’m not much of a beach-goer and I hate being out in the sun because I get extra crispy. But I do love to party, drink, sleep, and then party and drink again. Oh, and last but not least, I love to eat. If any of you are a foodie like I am, you will come to quickly appreciate how (in my opinion) much cheaper the popular Korean dishes are in Korea – meaning I got to eat more of it!
My vacation to Japan last year taught me many new things as an aspiring traveler. Such as wearing appropriate shoes for long walks, learning that I actually love skyping with my parents so that they can experience it with me without physically being there to nag at me, and that one of the biggest regrets I had in Japan was that I didn’t take enough pictures and videos. So with that note, I would love to highlight my trip experience to Seoul, South Korea.
My best friend third-wheeled this trip with my partner and I (the more the merrier right? Plus she’s obsessed with K-drama as well). It was her first time leaving the country and I was extremely excited that she was experiencing it with us.
Upon Arriving in South Korea
Upon arriving at Incheon International Airport, the very first thing any fabulous overseas traveler must do is brush their teeth – that and take pictures of the “Welcome to South Korea” and bathroom signs because, duh, it’s in a foreign language. You can’t have a legit experience without those signs, so have your camera ready! The airport does offer free Wi-Fi in case you want to contact your loved ones to let them know that you safely arrived.
We quickly went through customs and were on our way to Seoul via a one-hour bus ride. Both my partner and best friend fell asleep while we were on route, but I was just too anxious to knock out. Once we got to the city center I was pretty sure all my gasping and wowing woke the entire bus up. The streets were jammed and the shopping centers we passed were bustling shoulder-to-shoulder.
Being thoroughly parched and starved from the long flight, we finally got to our drop-off destination and that’s where the trouble began. We were walking around the area for almost 2 hours trying to find the apartment which was booked through Airbnb and it was nowhere in sight! Keep in mind that at this point we didn’t have reliable data connection because the hotspot device we rented was delivered to the apartment.
We walked into the coffee shops to ask for help, but no one understood English. We tried to use an app to translate, but because international data on T-Mobile US was working at snail’s pace, the translation never loaded.
We finally stopped at a GS25 (convenience store) down the street from the bus drop-off area to see if we’d have better luck. No luck. By now it was nightfall and we made probably ten trips around the area in hopes of finding the apartment. You will never believe this! Lo and behold, the apartment complex was located at the same high-rise as GS25. The same GS25 with the very same clerk, whom we showed the address to, and was told that he didn’t know where it was located.
After breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing that we actually had a place to live for the next few days, we showered, got something quick to eat and checked out the neighborhood, and then came back to the apartment so that we could get an early start the next day.
Morning started out beautifully with an amazing view of the N Seoul Tower, which also happened to be in the direction of an elderly man doing his morning stretches in a t-shirt entirely too small, on the rooftop of the adjacent building.
Traveling Around Seoul
This is pretty much a no-brainer for those traveling on a budget — take the train. Their train system is so efficient! I do highly recommend however, that you purchase their transit card for quicker traveling. You basically pre-load your card at any terminal for whatever amount. Then all you have to do is walk towards the train platform area and lay your card on their reader for entry. The card can be purchased at all train stations and at most convenience stores like GS25 or 7/11.
Just a note to all the travelers that are mildly sweat-phobic, a lot of the train stations we visited didn’t have any air conditioning and surprisingly we were the only three sweating. For us, it was the Hunger Games. You fight for that spot on the air-conditioned train or sweat to death waiting for the next one. May the odds be forever in your favor.
Using your debit/credit card in Seoul
Unlike Japan, you can definitely use your visa or master card almost everywhere in Seoul. Be warned though, most banks charge an international transaction fee in the range of 3%. If you pull out cash (which you will also need at most tourist attraction) the banks will add a $5 ATM fee. That’ll quickly add up. If you’re a frequent traveler, or a traveler that would just like to save money on non-necessary expenses, I would recommend the Capital One 360 Debit Card. There are no foreign transaction fees or monthly maintenance fees. However, the best part I noticed about using this card internationally is that there’s also no ATM fees when withdrawing cash at the major banks like WooriBank. If you’re interested in signing up please use my code https://r.capitalone360.com/HysSpQYTse so that I can save up more traveling money from referrals.
What I did while in Seoul, South Korea
Noryanjin Fish Market
At the advice of many Trip Advisors, we wanted to start the day by having breakfast at the Noryanjin Fish Market. After spending a good 30 minutes toying around with Google Maps, we learned that the full features of the app does not work in South Korea. With a little guesswork and hand signals with strangers at the train platform, we hopped on the train and prayed that it would take us in the right direction.
Thankfully we got there and I was in absolute awe at the massive size of the fish market and its colorfulness. It was vibrant and vivid – a little musky – but it was so cool to see the market in action. I was like a kid in a candy store. I thought to myself, “this is it. I am doing this. I am going to eat truly fresh sea food.” With my eyes wide open with excitement I quickly paced myself towards the vendor, which quickly ended, when a tiny Asian woman bludgeoned a fish for a customer right in front of me. I immediately grabbed my partner and best friend’s hand and dragged them out of the warehouse. There was no way I could have stomached it that early in the morning.
P.S. Yes, I returned before leaving Korea to accomplish my mission.
War Memorial of Korea
Hungry, and still a little shocked from the great fish market massacre, we decided to hit our next stop, which was the War Memorial of Korea. Be prepared to spend 2-4 hours at the museum and walk up a lot of steps just to get to the entry. It was ginormous and definitely an attraction you do not want to miss. The best part of all, it’s free! There were countless displays, interactive exhibits, and they even offered a self-guided audio tour in your language on request. I’m by no means a history buff, but there was a video exhibit detailing the war history alliance between South Korea and America that made us tear up, but again you can’t take us too seriously because we watch Korean dramas — so we cry at everything.
After leaving the museum, we of course got lost trying to find the train station, but I guess that’s the beauty of exploring another country. You’re forced to ask for help from the locals and the older folks get pretty impressed when you throw a little Korean at them.
Namsangol Hanok Village
Our next stop was the Namsangol Hanok Village. By the time we found it, it was high noon and it was too scorching hot for my liking and I admit, I was acting like a spoiled brat. The village was literally close to the N Seoul Tower which made for a great photo opportunity, but other than that I would not recommend this as a must-do when visiting Seoul. Heck, when we got there we just sat on a rock under shade for about 30 minutes pretending to soak in the serenity and beauty of the area, when in reality our foot was sore and probably blistering.
Somehow between my whining and a random train ride, we ended up at Insadong and finally had lunch. Insadong is the place you go to buy cheap souvenirs. It’s a very huge strip and they also have a ton of street food vendors. There was also this cool area we found that had a photo booth vendor which allowed us to dress in traditional Korean outfit for only 26,000 Won for the group. To many, this may have been a waste of money, but the laughs we got were priceless.
We eventually made our way to shopping heaven known as Myeongdong. This is the area everyone gawks about on television and traveling magazines. You’ll find your discount street vendors and luxury brands all in the same district. Plan to stick together because you will get lost. There’s no “I’m standing right near The Face Shoppe” because everywhere you turn there’s the same shop. There are different stores for different taste. Here is where you can get all the top Korean beauty care products you can dream of. Trust me, I loaded up. You can never look too young! Oh, and beware of the cute elderly Asian woman offering massages – she’ll kick you if you say no and then pat your shoulder to play it off — and yes, it kind of hurt.
Nightfall finally arrived and we were ready to paint the town red! We met up with a friend that we made at the San Francisco Airport by means of spilling coffee near him, which led to an amazing conversation and exchange of phone numbers. For our first night out we decided to hit up the popular Hongdae district. Known for its young and hip crowd, we quickly fell in love with the area for its food, shopping, and live street performances. Did I already I tell you that I love kdrama? I felt like I was dreaming! There was never a boring moment there.
After bouncing from bar to bar we finally settled at the well-named “Ho Bar”. It was by far one of the best nightlife I’ve enjoyed ever. The bass was deep, the music was alive, and I felt high on life. Ho Bar has something similar to what we call a bottle service in America, but instead of having a server bring us drinks on request, at Ho Bar they provided finger food and they handed us the entire bottle to drink at our own leisure. Half of the bottle later, the entire club was on tables and chairs dancing wildly as the music seem to get louder and louder. A group of guys knowing that we were foreigners even tried to out dance my partner. A local guy even tried to get fresh with my best friend. It was an awesome night! In fact, it was so awesome and I was so wasted that I even thought I saw celebrity Kim Soo Hyun sitting at the table text to us. It was now sometime between 4-5 am and the streets were still alive with everyone either passing out at the coffee shops or cramming into the nearest street food tent to sober up. I honestly have no idea how we even got home.
After a few hours of sleep, and just a tad hungover, we started our adventure to the historic Gyeongbokgung Palace. This palace was on acres upon acres of land. If you visit at the right time you’ll get to witness the guard ceremony at the front gate. We noticed a lot of visitors doing their usual “peace sign” photo ops at the front of the palace and then leaving the grounds which caused us to wonder whether or not we wanted to spend the 8000 Wons to go in further since no one else was going inside. I am so thankful we opt to pay. Once we were inside everything just seem surreal. It was honestly like going back in time, and the architectural details of the reconstruction of the palace and its surrounding buildings were magnificent. And quite frankly, after a long night of partying this was the perfect way to detox.
Trick Eye Museum
After our much needed break, we headed back towards Hongdae to grab a bite to eat and visit the Trick Eye Museum. You’ve probably seen photos of this on social media. It’s basically wall art that gives off a optical illusion making the art to appear 3D when you’re standing and looking at it from certain angles. The fee was a tad high to go into the actual exhibit, but we managed to have a lot of fun with the free exhibits located before the entrance. If you have some Wons to spare I would recommend this on your must-do list.
Nightfall was quickly arriving again, and we needed something quick to wake us up after being drained from walking all day. We stopped at the coolest café ever – The Cat Café. Who doesn’t love to drink coffee and play with Cats? Plus after walking around shopping from stop-to-stop, sitting down sounded like a vacation in itself. There’s not much to say in regards to the cafe besides that I love their green tea frappe and the cats made me sneeze more than usual. It’s truly a unique concept and any animal lover should experience this firsthand.
We rushed home to get ready for another night of fun. Lidia decided to stay home this time because she couldn’t keep up with our party life. While waiting for our friend Tom to arrive, we decided to go downstairs to grab a quick bite and pre-drink. My partner, however, forgot the Wi-Fi hotspot upstairs which we needed to contact Tom. Most of the door locks in Seoul are passcode protected. No knocking or keys required. We thought it was a really cool and nifty feature. Big mistake. As soon as the door unlocked we saw my best friend running in the bluff towards the restroom exposing her backside. What she failed to realize while running towards the restroom was that the closet in front of the restroom also had a full-length mirror. Yeah. We quickly grabbed the Wi-Fi and ran out of there all knowing never to speak of this event again.
After a few train rides we arrived in Itaewon, also known as the melting pot of diversity of South Korea. Foreigners from all over the world transcend to the area to meet and party with other foreigners and locals alike. The U.S. military is also stationed here so it was nice to sporadically hear English.
As I was waiting for my partner to use the restroom, I started walking around the corner and got startled as a woman popped out of the doorway gesturing me to “come here” to her. I immediately thought “what the hell” and kept walking. Another man walked by the doorway, but this time a completely different woman popped out saying “good time?” Ladies and gentleman, I was standing next to a brothel. It was a never-ending cycle throughout my 10 minutes of waiting. After Vu was finally done, things got weirder. A heavy-set woman, obviously drunk on the ground across from the brothel, kept telling my boyfriend and I “you guys are so sexy. You want to see my d!#$? I have big d!#$.” Needless to say it was an experience we won’t soon forget.
Bukhansan National Park
It was now one day before we were set to leave Seoul. We decided to join the fad and go hiking at the Bukhansan National Park. It was literally a day of leisure and relaxation. We obviously didn’t make it remotely close to the highest peak of the mountain, but it was a satisfaction in itself to say I was able to hike in another country. I was extremely proud of myself and my group for holding up so well. During the hike you’ll pass many waterways and also a ton of temples scattered throughout the mountain. Be very careful and watch your step.
N Seoul Tower
Last, but not least, we made our final stop to the most popular attraction in Seoul. After a few train rides and then a bus ride of a very steep hill, we were at the N Seoul Tower. It’s not the tower that made this place special though, it was their famous “locks of love”. And it was at this moment that I was able to literally lock my love with my partner. The view was spectacular. I have never seen anything like this in my life.
Awaiting my next adventure
I’m sure my friends get annoyed every time I tell them about my trips, but it’s very hard to deny the experiences and cultural value you gain by actually being there first hand. As we were heading to the airport I couldn’t help, but tear up, knowing it’ll be another full year before I get to experience something truly as magical as seeing the world again. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story. I hope you enjoyed it.
Other attractions worth mentioning
Dr. Fish Cafe
I’ve always seen this on TV and wanted to experience this for myself. Located within the Myeongdong district, you can pamper yourself to a 20 minute or 40 minute session of a fish foot pedicure. Afterwards you’ll get a cafe drink of your choice plus a dessert.
Dongdaemun Night Market
If you love shopping then add this to your must-do list. Koreans DO NOT SLEEP. I’m not going to lie, it was a little overwhelming. The area was just so huge that it took us a good 3 nights to fully explore and shop. They are open super late, had super cheap clothes and souvenir items for sale (some knock-offs), and best of all they had cheap food! This seem to be the place where many locals would travel to sober up after a long night.
Jongmyo Shrine and Deoksugung Palace
There’s not much to really say about shrines and palaces, but I think the Jongmyo Shrine and Deoksugung Palace is definitely worthy of your visit. You’re literally walking in world history and it’s something that many of us young folks have taken for granted.