Travelogue: Korea 2017

This post is only about a year and a half late. Since my first trip to Korea in late November of 2017, I’ve been once more, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write about Korea because I felt I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice.

I’ve been obsessed with Korea for over 10 years now, but let’s not get into that story now. This post will be way too long otherwise. I’m gonna break this down into the basics: tickets and visas, where to stay, how to get around, where to go, and what to eat. So let’s get started.

TICKETS & VISAS

We heard insane rumors that you could get roundtrip tickets to Korea for around Php5,000, but no matter how long we waited, we couldn’t seem to find any that even came close. So our goal became to get our tickets for below Php10,000. We booked our tickets a year in advance from Air Asia, and it cost us about Php9,000 with 30kg of baggage allowance each. You can tell we intended to do some serious shopping.

You can definitely get cheaper tickets if you’re constantly on the lookout for good deals, and willing to deal with the struggles of booking during a seat sale. No need to book a year in advance. Also, having a ticket doesn’t guarantee you a visa. We were definitely taking a risk booking our tickets and accommodations before getting a visa.

Unless you’ve been to Korea before (or you have certain platinum or gold credit cards), you’ll probably only be granted a single entry visa valid for 3 months. So you have to time your application to make sure the visa will be valid for your trip. The visa guidelines have changed since my last trip, and you can no longer apply directly to the embassy. Unfortunately, that means you’ll be charged a fee by the travel agent. But overall, the experience was painless. We gathered all our requirements (list here), filled out the application form, submitted our documents, and received our visas about 5 days later.

For the new procedure, please visit the Korean Embassy website and read this announcement on accredited travel agencies.

Don’t do what I did and torture yourself by reading about people whose visa applications were rejected. I mean I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but save yourself the stress.

WHERE TO STAY

A hostel would probably have come out cheaper, but our reason for choosing to go with Airbnb instead had mostly to do with the fact that we can’t stand common shared bathrooms. But even the bathroom in our Airbnb wasn’t great. It’s difficult to find a bathroom where there is a separator between the shower and the toilet. They call it a wet bathroom (literally). Anyways, if you care about things like that, I recommend you check out Agoda. Some hotels have really great deals and the prices can be similar to an Airbnb when they have promos.

However, one big advantage to our Airbnb (and a lot of Airbnbs) was how central it was and close to transportation links. We stayed in Hongdae, which is the area surrounding Hongik University. The atmosphere of the area is lively and youthful. There’s a lot of shopping nearby, and we were literally 1 minute away from the train. The station itself was always very busy, so be prepared to make your way through a throng of commuters no matter what time or day.

For our Airbnb, we split the cost and ended up spending Php7,895 per person (4pax) for 7 nights. I recommend booking the Airbnb in advance because the good ones tend to be booked out early on. Some Airbnbs have great cancellation policies, but a majority of them are strict with cancellations. The benefit of reserving with a service like Agoda is that they usually don’t charge you anything until a few days before the trip. But be sure to read the cancellation policy carefully!

No matter what type of accommodation you end up getting, just be sure you’re located nearby a train station and in an area central to most of your activities.

HOW TO GET AROUND

With the exception of two trips out of the city, we mainly used the train to get around. I haven’t ever ridden a taxi in Korea, so I can’t say what the experience is like. This is mostly because with the train, if you get lost, it’s easy to just backtrack a few stations. Whether you decide to take a taxi, bus, or train, I suggest you invest in a T-Money card. It will save you a ton of time, and there are discounts on transfers and rides. We budgeted to spend around Php3,000 on transportation costs for the week (excluding our out of the city trips), and I’d say that was a pretty accurate amount.

The T-Money card can be found in most convenience stores and train stations. After landing at the airport, I started looking for the nearest convenience store and managed to get cards. I didn’t realize they were a special edition card that cost a bit more. However, if you take the Airport line into the city, there are vending machines near the gates where you can buy the regular cards. They even had cuter designs (huhu regrets). The T-Money card can be returned at the end of the trip, but I just kept mine and was able to use it during my other trip in March. (I won’t lie. I was tempted to buy the Line character version…)

Another item that I feel is essential in getting around Korea is a pocket WiFi device (or a local sim card with data). We reserved our WiFi devices through Klook, and it is so easy to book online in advance and pick-up at the airport. It keeps you connected to your group, and you can easily look up directions or places to go to on the internet. You’ll also need it to use Google Maps (a major lifesaver). Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn’t work as seamlessly in Korea as it does in other countries such as Japan or Taiwan. So I spent a lot of time walking in one direction to see if the blue dot on the map was going in the right direction. But it still was a big help in getting us to where we needed to be.

For out of the city trips, we felt it was worth paying extra to just book a seat on a bus with a group. We did this for Everland and Nami Island through Klook as well. It provided us with entrance tickets and roundtrip transportation. It was convenient for us because Hongdae is one of the designated pick-up and drop-off points. We simply showed our tickets to the tour operator and took our seats.

Overall, getting around Korea is pretty easy. A lot of the signs have English translations and the trains weren’t as complicated as the ones in Osaka. But be prepared to walk a lot. 20,000 steps was our usual step count per day (assuming we didn’t get lost).

My feet were pretty dead after day 1… and they never truly recovered. Oh the woes of being flat-footed. Tip: Buy cooling patches from Olive Young. These are actually Japanese, but available in Korea. 

WHERE TO GO

The goal of the entire trip was to do every single touristy thing possible. There are some trips where you just want to chill and sit in cafes and hang out, but since it was the first time for most of us, we wanted to do every thing humanly possible. I’m just going to go through the major highlights of our itinerary for a week long trip to Seoul. Note: This is in order of when we visited.

Myeongdong Cathedral

Even if you aren’t religious, Myeongdong Cathedral is a beautiful building and is known as the birth place of Catholicism in Korea. It is located in a popular tourist location (Myeongdong), so there’s no real reason to miss out on this stop. We chose to visit the cathedral on Sunday for mass. It’s always interesting to see how mass is celebrated in different countries.

Note: The only English mass at the cathedral is on Sunday at 9am. Schedules may have changed since I’ve last gone.

Ewha Woman’s University

Another beautiful building on this list. I think I’d be inspired to study if my campus was as beautiful as Ewha’s. I think I’ll have to let the pictures speak for themselves.

The area surrounding the university itself is a popular shopping district and is relatively cheaper than other areas such as Hongdae or Myeongdong. Unfortunately for guys, the area caters mostly to women so they’ll be pressed to find as many options for guys. When I went back again in March, practically all the students were wearing beautiful varsity jackets, and I nearly died of envy.

Note: I think when classes are on-going, some buildings are not accessible. Also, I’m not sure what their policy is about guys on campus. I didn’t really notice.

Seoul City Wall & Ihwa Mural Village

This part of the itinerary was one of my favorites, but definitely one of the more tiring ones. It was quite literally an uphill climb, but the views from the top were worth it. The Seoul City Wall passes through the four mountains surrounding the city. There are different paths to take and we chose to take the Naksan Mountain Trail – starting at Hyehwamun Gate and ending at Dongdaemun. This site here shows you the different paths and the attractions of each path.

Through the Naksan trail we were also able to pass through Ihwa Mural Village, a small area with narrow passages and art around every corner. At the top of the path you hit Naksan Park, where you’ll find children going on school trips and older people doing their morning exercises. We also had a go on the exercise equipment in the playground. It seems easy to stay fit when you have such easily accessible, fun exercise machines. The path is about 2.1km and takes about an hour, but that all depends on your pace. I swear there were points when I had to pretend to be appreciating the murals on the wall just to catch my breath. Note to self: Exercise more.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

After descending from the mountain, we were greeted by views of Dongdaemun. We just continued walking until we saw DDP in the distance. You’ll know it immediately because it looks like a parked spaceship. Dongdaemun Design Plaza is part mall, part museum, and part event space. We didn’t go inside during this trip, but the second time I went back, I enjoyed looking at all the pretty goods on sale. It was very inspiring as an aspiring “designer/artist”.

Namsan Seoul Tower

Namsan Tower was slightly disappointing. I enjoyed riding the cable car, seeing the famous Love Locks, and visiting the shops, but I guess I’m really just not a fan of observation decks. I could have lived without going all the way to the top. But I must say, the bathroom experience up top was something else as each stall had huge windows that you could look out of. Nevertheless, it was one of those things that I’ll do once, but never again. We bought our tickets online in advance for about Php300 from Klook.

Trickeye Museum

Having my picture taken isn’t really my cup of tea, but I did enjoy going here with my friends. The Trickeye Musuem has this cool mobile app that animates the murals, which made it extra fun. We also bought our tickets from Klook for about Php550 (as you can probably already tell, I love Klook).

Gwangjang Market

I’ve wanted to go to Gwangjang Market ever since I saw it on an episode of Running Man where they basically ate their way through the market. They made everything look so good! We got there a bit too early and not all of the stalls were set up yet. But we managed to eat some tteokbokki and mayak kimbap, before exploring the rest of the market and buying honey butter almonds. The man running the stall was really nice and kept giving us free samples of all the other flavors.

Seoul Forest

What I really love about Korea (and Japan) is all these parks spread out across cities. It’s a respite from urban life. Seoul Forest was fun to explore even though it looked barren as winter was arriving. We tried to make our way to the lake, but it seemed to have dried up. I don’t know if that’s a seasonal thing or not. There was an interesting “art piece” that turned out to be a massive jungle gym for children to climb. Again, you can see how they promote physical exercise from such a young age. There was even an obstacle course set up for kids (and possibly adults).

Common Ground

Common Ground is a shopping mall made up entirely of blue container vans. I feel like a lot of people go there just to take photos, because it is photogenic. However, it is slightly out of the way. I am also not a big shopper. There were some interesting restaurants, but we had already eaten. I did enjoy browsing through a bookshop there called Index. I bought two small magazines because I liked the layout.

Gangnam

Our main reason for going to Gangnam was to stalk K-Pop stars (aka visit their agencies in the hopes of casually seeing them outside the building). Gangnam is visibly different from most of the other popular areas in Seoul. You’ll start seeing all these high-end brands and the streets will be wider and glitzier. Unfortunately, we did not see anyone famous, but we did make it a point to stop and take pictures of the K-Star Road in Apgujeong.

Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung

There are four palaces in Seoul. While Gyeongbokgung is the main palace, Changdeokgung is famous for its Secret Garden. Both palaces were beautiful and I enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny. Thankfully we got to Changdeokgung early so there weren’t crowds of people. There are guided tours available, but our timing didn’t match. Luckily for us, our entrance was free because every last Wednesday of the month is Culture Day and most cultural places and museums are free or have discounted entrance fees. You also get free entrance to the palaces if you wear a Hanbok (Korean traditional wear) any other time, but it was way too cold to even consider.

Bukchon Hanok Village

What I loved most about Bukchon Hanok Village is that it’s a symbol of Korean culture that has been adapted and maintained. Although high-rise apartment buildings are prevalent in Seoul, there are still a good number of people who live in these traditional houses called hanoks. This traditional style of architecture can be seen in many of the buildings in the area surrounding the palaces. Bukchon Hanok is right in the middle of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, but you’ll have to climb a lot of steep roads to get to the famous view point. There are several tea houses and shops scattered along the way, and we decided to stop in one to warm up and rest our feet. I say “our”, but I probably needed it the most hahaha.

Nami Island

I haven’t seen Winter Sonata, a Korean drama that Nami Island is famous for, but I still enjoyed visiting Nami a lot. It’s out of the city and you have to take a bus and ferry to get there, but I’d say it was worth it. Expect a lot of people because it’s a popular tourist attraction, but there’s enough room for everyone. Nami Island is known for a particular pathway lined by trees where people love to take photos. You’ll either have to be very patient or walk a bit further in to avoid the crowds. Nami Island has everything: shops, restaurants, and even a hotel! But most importantly, Nami had snow!!! It wasn’t snowing, but there was snow on the ground. As it was my first time to actually experience snow, I freaked out a bit.

We bought our Nami Island tour package from Klook, which included roundtrip transportation and entrance tickets. The package we got also included a visit to Petite France, which is in the same area as Nami Island, and cost a total of about Php1,900.

Petite France

I’d wanted to go to Petite France because of a Running Man episode I had seen, but it is also the filming location for dramas such as Beethoven Virus, Secret Garden, and My Love From Another Star. So if you’re a fan of any of those dramas, this is a fun place to visit. But even if you’re not a K-Drama fan, you’ll enjoy it if you love themed places. I found all the exhibits interesting, and some of them creepy (with French dolls…). The whole area is themed after the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but there are also some exhibits that are just generic French themed. I always enjoy observing the tiny details in places like this.

Myeongdong

Ah Myeongdong, shopping heaven. I am really not a shopper, but I had made a list of all the skincare I wanted to buy in Korea. If there’s one place to shop at, it’s Myeongdong. It literally has it all for you, over and over again. Within a span of 50 meters, you’ll probably see two outlets of the same brand. So that makes it really easy to get lost in the endless, winding streets of skincare, fashion, and beauty brands.

But Myeondong also has the most diverse offering of street food ever! Goes way beyond the traditional Korean food offerings such as tteokbokki or hotteok. You’ll find stranger (but also delicious) things such as fried cheese or candied strawberries in mochi. I made it a point to eat hotteok as often as I could. I had one on Nami Island, one in Hongdae, one in Bukchon Hanok, but my favorite one was from Myeongdong. Street food is probably a bit more expensive in Myeongdong because it is a literal tourist trap.

Be prepared for some very aggressive sales people who will lure you into their shops with freebies (Koreans are very generous with the freebies in general). Tip: Don’t make eye contact. They lure you in with beautiful sales people.

Going to Myeongdong is a must-do, even if you hate crowds as much as me.

Everland

So I don’t really enjoy amusement parks for the reason most people do. I hate rides. Can’t decide if I’m too scared or if I just get really dizzy… but either way, I enjoy amusement parks for the themed areas and shows (hello, Disney). I loved that Everland had a zoo! It was well-maintained and the animals looked pretty happy. The safari ride was the best and I got too giddy at being close to giraffes, lions, and bears!

Everland also had some pretty cool animal shows and light shows. I really enjoyed the night parade and fireworks show. In terms of rides, I think Everland has more rides that adults will enjoy compared to other parks I’ve been to. Surprisingly the park food was good and not too expensive. We had jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles) from the Chinese restaurant and I really enjoyed it. Tip: For fun, dress up in matching outfits with your group. Lots of people do it!

We bought our Everland tickets from Klook for about Php2,400 inclusive of entrance and roundtrip transportation.

WHAT TO EAT
Palsaek Samgyupsal

Samgyupsal (pork belly) is one of the must eat Korean BBQ dishes, but Palsaek Samgyupsal offers much more than your usual samgyupsal. It gives you 8 different flavors of marinated samgyupsal to try. If you’re not an adventurous eater, this may not be the place for you. Not everyone in the group enjoyed all the flavors. We got the premium set and spent about Php700 per person (4 pax) and there was definitely more than enough food for our big appetites.

Myeongdong Kyoja

I think Myeongdong Kyoja was one of my favorite meals in Korea. Their menu is pretty bare, but all you need to order are the dumplings and kalguksu (hand-cut noodles). If you can’t handle spice, stay away from the kimchi. Deathly delicious (and spicy). Serving sizes are pretty good, so we ordered two bowls of kalguksu and one order of dumplings for 4 people. Don’t expect warm service at Myeongdong Kyoja, but you can definitely expect quick and efficient service. This place is usually packed and I’d say we spent 30 minutes here before feeling the need to rush out to make way for other people. In total we spent about Php350 per person.

Sigol Bapsang

When we were researching for places to eat, I came across Sigol Bapsang and was intrigued by its affordable price and all that it offered. For about Php375 per person, you can get soybean paste stew (doenjang jjigae) and rice, and an obscene number of unlimited side dishes (30). Now, if you are not a fan of vegetables, I wouldn’t recommend this place for you. We had to get another two dishes because someone in the group needed meat. The restaurant is really tiny and can probably seat less than 20 people, but the experience itself was fun. I felt like all the food we didn’t finish was a waste though… that’s the problem with serving all these side dishes.

Doma

After the Trickeye Museum, we planned to go to Doma, which was right around the corner. Korean BBQ is really the best, and the beef at Doma is delicioso. We ordered two assorted sets and that was more than enough for the four of us. With drinks and all, we spent about Php700 per person. Remembering Doma is making me crave meat. Ugh. I’m not sure how the meat at Doma compares to other places in Korea, but the cuts were thick and juicy, and much better than the regular meat you get here in the Philippines.

Mukshidonna Tteokbokki

Okay, this is the meal I constantly dream about. It isn’t easy to find budae jjigae in Manila. I can only describe this as a melting pot of goodness. It has a little bit of everything that is so perfect for eating in freezing weather. Ordering in a foreign country can get a bit intimidating (but there are English translations), so I made sure to study up the system beforehand. You order the base for the number of people in your group, then you add in whatever you want. I recommend getting the fried rice as well, which they serve at the end by mixing it up with all the leftover sauce in your pot. Mukshidonna Tteokbokki was definitely my favorite meal. The price really depends on what you put into your pot, but this was a relatively affordable meal and we spent less than Php500 per person.

Yoogane

Oh Yoogane. So delicious, but really quite deadly. We got the dak galbi (spicy stir-fried chicken) with cheese option, and asked the waiter to tone down the spiciness. Did that help? Not really. My mouth was on fire the entire time. We probably finished all the water in their refrigerator and all the soup in their refillable soup station. It was really good, and I especially loved that their rice cakes had cheese inside! But man oh man, my insides were on fire. It’s an addicting kind of pain though. I’ll definitely go back again and again. This was also an affordable meal at about Php375 per person.

Tosokchon

Tosokchon is one of those famous places that tons of tourists go to, but I do have to warn you that it is an acquired taste. Not everybody is going to like the taste of ginseng chicken soup. I liked it though. We got two orders of samgyetang and one order of pajeon (which was huge!). The samgyetang comes with a whole small chicken stuffed with rice, so it’s pretty filling. This wasn’t the cheapest meal, costing about Php615 per person, but I think it is a relatively affordable price for samgyetang. Ginseng is expensive! Note: The place is bustling with people so it’s not the most peaceful environment to eat in. But service is fast.

Sinseon Seolleongtang

Side story: We were split up on this day and meant to meet up for dinner at Sinseon Seollongtang. Google Maps wasn’t quite accurate, so two of my friends ended up doing over 30,000 steps that day because they got lost. Sorry, guys.

Sinseon Seollangtang serves really basic food. It’s basically an ox bone broth with bits of meat (not a lot) and options to add noodles or dumplings. This is typically a traditional Korean breakfast dish. We all just opted for the basic broth which came with rice. This is something you definitely need to season for yourself as it is generally bland. Again, not for everyone. But I still liked it! (I am partial to soup and rice dishes haha) It was also affordable at approximately Php330 per person.

BHC Chicken

When you go to Korea, if there is one thing you should try, it’s chimaek. Chimaek is an abbreviation for chicken and beer (maekju). Korea does fried chicken so well, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. There are dozens of popular chimaek places to try, but we opted for BHC Chicken because we saw it while we were walking around Myeongdong. It was also popularized by the drama My Love From Another Star. Fried chicken can be quite expensive in Korea, but I’d say we ordered way too much. I was full after two pieces of chicken, but we wanted to try the different flavors. My favorite flavor is the sweet and spicy one, but we also enjoyed the sweet snow cheese chicken.

THE END

Wow, I finally made it to the end of this post. I never thought I’d finish it. I hope this helps someone planning their next trip to Korea (if they have the patience to read through it). Overall, we spent a little less than Php50,000 per person for the entire trip (not including shopping). I only brought USD600 in cash, and I still had about USD100 left over at the end of it. It’s easy to find money changers at popular tourist places such as Myeongdong, but if you didn’t manage to change money before your trip, you’ll need a bit to pay for transportation into the city. The banks at the airport can change money for you, but rates aren’t the best.

To see our detailed itinerary and budget click here. Note: This isn’t exactly how things played out, but this is what we planned.