A few years ago, pre-pandemic to be precise, the peninsular East Asian country of South Korea did not really figure among the top countries to visit for Indians. But with the rising popularity of K-pop, K dramas and Korean cosmetics and skin care products, everything in South Korea has caught the young Indians’ fancy. It is but natural that a lot of Indians now wish to travel to this country, relive the locations they so often see in the K-drama world and experience the destination for themselves.
Add to this is the rising number of students who are choosing South Korea as their preferred study destination. The fact that it is a modern, hi-tech megalopolis and extremely safe for women takes precedence over the language barrier and high costs of living. For many, a trip to South Korea is a dream come true.
Direct flights to Seoul and easy visa facilitation add to the ease of travel. Easing restrictions for international travellers is only encouraging the Indians to travel to the destination more. It is to fuel and amplify this interest that the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) in India has been actively working on pushing tourism to the country. Through events, partnerships and familiarisation trips aimed at young Indian travellers, it has been actively looking at promoting Korea in India.
And in South Korea, when it comes to cities and vibe, Seoul is on another level. A city steeped in art, culture and heritage is surprisingly modern, hi-tech and safe at the same time. Especially for women travellers. You could be out at 3 am on your own and no one will bother you. Public transport is highly advanced and very dependable. The incidence of thefts is practically negligible and as they proudly tell you in South Korea, you can leave your bag behind and you’ll find it in the same place even a day later!
So if you are planning a trip to Seoul, we have a few recommendations:
Dip your feet in the Cheonggyecheon stream
If you have been watching K-dramas, you would recognise this location at once. An 11 km-long stream that runs through downtown Seoul, Cheonggyecheon Stream was created as part of an urban renewal project. To be more specific, it is a restoration of the stream that once flowed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). As part of the economic development post the three-year Korean War of 1950, the stream was covered with an elevated highway. It was in 2003, that the elevated highway was removed to restore the stream to its present form.Currently, the stream starts from a popular cultural arts venue – Cheonggye Plaza – and passes under 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang River. Surrounded by fountains and public art installations, it’s a popular hangout place among Koreans for a leisurely stroll, particularly in the evenings
Revisit history at Gyeongbokgung Palace
Most commonly referred to as the Northern Palace, Gyeongbok-gung (Gung is a palace in Korean) is arguably the most beautiful palace in South Korea. Built-in 1395, it is the largest of the five palaces in South Korea. Steeped in history, the premises of the palace were once burnt down during the war. These palace buildings were later restored with great care to the original details and are now open for the public to see. The buildings of the Joseon dynasty, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and the pond around Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, however, have remained relatively intact.
The Change of Guard ceremony is the highlight event that you must not miss on your trip to the palace. For a more immersive experience, visitors are encouraged to wear hanbok for the tour. The palace is surrounded by shops that rent out hanbok and even help you dress up, complete with hair-dos and accessories for a complete feel. A lot of activities and entry to a lot of spaces within the palace are free for those wearing a hanbok.
Cultural exploration in Bukchon Hanok Village
If you wish to see how people lived in ancient Korea, you must make a trip to the Bukchon Hanok Village. Reminiscent of a bygone era, it has the feel of a quaint old town with old winding lanes. Lined on both sides by traditional wooden Korean houses, known as hanok, the walk inside is an uphill task. One of the expensive addresses today, it’s largely inhabited and retains the old architecture. Some of the buildings have doors dating back to another era and are carefully preserved or restored. Tourist police volunteers holding up placards asking visitors to maintain silence is a common sight as most of the hanoks are still home to many families.
Go on a shopping spree
You cannot go to Seoul and not shop! Korean fashion, Skincare and food items to the shopping list of most here. For those looking for boutique Made in Korea shopping, the shopping centres of Myeongdong and Insadong top the list. While Myeongdong tops the list for Korean cosmetics and skincare shopping, Insadong is the place you would love if you wish to shop for eclectic arty and handmade stuff, and yes, pottery.
For a more local and street shopping experience, head to Namdaemun or Dongdaemun. You will find the best bargains there!
A visit to Nami Island
Situated in the middle of the Bukhangang River, Nami island in Seoul is South Korea’s prime tourist destination. You can zipline your way to the island (it is one of the largest zipline facilities in Asia) or take a ferry (if you are afraid of heights). The island comprises a theme park, including trails, restaurants, performance halls, wild animals, gardens, rides, and souvenir shops and is packed with activities for all age groups.
A toy train (with proceeds from ticket sales going to UNESCO) takes you around this theme park that is dotted with installations of famous landmarks from around the world, including India Gate. This particular installation commemorates the 75th year of Indian independence and the friendship between the two countries. Another not to be missed reference to India is the presence of Panchtantra in the book-based installation from classic selections from all over the world. A great place to spend a day and extremely Instagram-worthy, so to say.
When in Seoul, you would be amazed to see how the city transforms itself at night. While Koreans like to have their dinner early (by 7 pm, one is told), late nights are for partying till the wee hours, especially on the weekends. Between the city’s low-key watering holes, high-end cocktail lounges and fun noraebang (karaoke bars), there is something for every late-night reveller.
For a good nightlife experience, head to Gangnam, Hongdae and Itaewon. While Gangnam is where the most expensive clubs are concentrated, Hongdae offers a more affordable option for budget-conscious university students. Hongdae is also where buskers find a base and audience. Itaewon attracts a more international crowd.
Temple food at Balwoo Gongyang
Korean food has caught the fancy of the world and your visit to Korea should be a perfect opportunity to try the most authentic fare that the country has to offer. Seoul offers a fair smattering of international cuisine, including Indian restaurants. If in Myeongdong, you must try the dongaseu (pork cutlet) and kalguksu (noodle soup) there. The area is famous for its street food.
But if you are looking for a unique and one-of-its-kind experience, then you must try the temple food at Balwoo Gongyang. A Michelin-starred restaurant, it only uses original, traditional recipes that are passed down in Korean temples. Purely vegan and devoid of strong aromatics like garlic, onions, chives and leeks, the fare is humble and mildly flavoured, just as the monks consume. Since the temple food is meant to be nourishing for the monks and nuns in accordance with their way of life, it’s certainly not the type of food that would usually capture the interest of the general public.
There is this, and so much more to cover in Seoul. The city is so addictive that it would make you want to return, and soon at that.