Day 4 in our winter-fall Seoul escapade was easily my favorite day. Dampened a bit by some morning drizzle that did nothing to tame the cold (rather exacerbating it to a very unique chill), the skies cleared soon enough in time for an umbrella-free afternoon. This day sort of turned into our hippie arts and culture day, starting with a stroll along Gwanghwamun to say hi to King Sejong, then a fascinating tour of Gyeongbok Palace, ending with an afternoon split between Bukchon Hanok Village and trendy, energetic Hongdae.
- At Gwanghwamun*. Having known his ingenuity in creating Hangul as we know it, I was very interested in meeting King Sejong, in statue form of course. We took the friendly subway to Gwanghwamun station and exited to see a direct view of the square. Apart from the statue of the famous king, my research promised the sights of Gwanghwamun Gate, Recovering the History of Gwanghwamun Gate Plaza, Reenacting Yukjo Street Plaza, Korea Main Plaza, Civil Participation Urban Culture Plaza, Downtown Plaza and Cheonggyecheon Stream Connector, all of which I was giddily excited to explore. But we were there during the morning drizzle, and sadly had to make do with a few minutes with the statue and a slower walk until we reached the palace. I shall return.
- Of Kings and men. Gyeongbok Palace (or simply Gyeongbokgung) was a magnificent sight, standing proud at the heart of the city, a majestic piece of history right smack in the middle of the roaring present, with the beautiful mountains as its background. Gwanghwamun leads you directly to the palace; you won’t miss it. The guards stand stiffly at the gates, and you can line up to have your picture taken with them. Entrance ticket is only KRW3000 (for KRW10000 you can visit all 4 palaces plus the Jongmo shrine). From the entrance, we turned right to the Information Center to verify the schedule of the free English tour, then waited outside for the tour to start. You can choose to go around the palace at your leisure of course, but I wanted a piece of history to associate with the beautiful landscape and architecture. If you feel the same way, then do take advantage of the tour, lasting only a little bit over an hour. It was still drizzling during this time, so we walked along the muddy grounds under our umbrellas. The rain stopped soon after the tour finished, as if conspiring with the rest of our outdoors itinerary for the day.
- Cafe street and picturesque hills of Samcheongdong. From the palace, we took our hungry stomachs on a 20-minute walk to Samcheongdong. If you exit Gyeongbokgung facing Gwanghwamun, turn left and just follow the signs, walking along the palace wall. We were aiming for a taste of a royal banquet at Yongsusan restaurant (a recommendation of my aunt who was there only a few weeks earlier). It’s jarring how hunger can make a distance seem farther than it probably was, specially since we did not know exactly where the restaurant was, guided only by its small dot on the map. It did not help our restraint either that we were passing by quite a lot of appetizing restaurants and cafes. But thanks to the help of a patient duo manning one of these cafes, we were able to reach the restaurant, only to find out that it is closed for renovation. Dear Yongsusan, it would have been awesome if you put up a notice on your website. Thanks.
By this time we were surrounded by other restaurants on both sides, so it was easy to eat our disappointment. I will sink my teeth on that unique gustatory experience on my next visit. After lunch, we strolled along the cafe street, stopping by the shops and unique boutiques. The shops here boast of amazingly unique finds, both at affordable price points (sweaters, tops,etc starting at KRW10000) and at more expensive tags. We also found a lot of socks on sale here. A LOT. Also properly warm bonnets and gloves, unlike the merely decorative ones from our tropical country.
Bukchon Hanok Village was only one steep staircase away, so we braved it and were rewarded by the fantastic view. The still gray skies did nothing to dampen the reds and browns of the autumn foliage. Hanoks are traditional Korean houses, and in Bukchon, though some of these were converted to shops, most remain residential. So you have to remember to walk along the sloping streets in respectful silence. Keep the happy tourist chatting to a minimum. After a quick stroll here, we went back down to the commercial streets, bought some more socks, then found warmth and refuge inside a coffee shop. There, we met the Korean Edward Cullen. Refer to picture above.
- Hongdae and jimaek. We walked back to the direction of Gyeongbokgung for another 20 minutes, passing by the mouth of Insadong where we stopped to get a few more souvenirs (the requisite ref magnets and the teddy bear phone accessories), then a few more hundred meters to Anguk subway station. We got off at Hongik station together with about half the occupants of the train, like one collective, many-people body moving in unison towards the exits. We took Exit 8, got happily bruised and battered as the crowd of youngun’s carried us like a human wave to the mouth of what looked like a deep labyrinth of cool stuff. Hongdae, short for Hongik University is a university town, which explains why it was teeming with school-age people and why it just bursts of contagious energy. There were shops left and right bearing a distinctive, rugged vibe compared to the kitchy charm of the streets of Samcheongdong. Each stall boasted outdoor racks of KRW10000 clothes, all on sale. They have more selections inside, but these are a bit more expensive. On and on we walked, eating all sorts of street food, passing shops selling clothes and shoes, some bags, some candy and cookies, with a smattering of Korean cosmetic brands. We stayed longest inside a shop that had racks of KRW5000 and 10000 clothes. It was a true test of self restraint. Come dinner time, we found a packed chicken-and-beer or jimaek joint, and were seated quickly by the accommodating ajusshi. We were the only ones who had rice with our jimaek. Just outside the restaurant was a small crowd circling some boys dancing to EXO’s Growl. It was easy to find other huddles like this in Hongdae, crowding around and cheering a dance routine or an amateur live band. Hongdae also takes pride in its bars and clubs but we weren’t able to sneak a peek, laden as we were with shopping. So a few hours later we walked back to the subway station, tired and sleepy thanks to the beer, Growl playing in our heads.
*At Gwanghwamun is also the title of Kyuhyun‘s (Super Junior) first solo mini album and solo song.