Seoul: Gwangjang Market

Ok, enough of the touristy stuff. Ready to see the real Korea, the one that’s not a careful reconstruction of a medieval past or a glitzy techno present? Then come with me to Gwangjang Market, a bustling commercial center located near Dongdaemun and the Jongro 5-ga subway stop. My friend took me here in search of bindaeduk (a sort of fried bean pancake), but upon entering, we were first greeted by rows upon rows of fabric vendors:

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Apparently, this is where you go to get colorful fabric for hanboks (traditional Korean robes, typically worn for ceremonial purposes):

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Finally, after winding our way through seemingly endless fabric shops, we came across what can only be described as Korean street food heaven:

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The smell of oil on batter and the sound of old men arguing after their 3 pm drinking sessions filled the air. Soon we found our little piece of the action and feasted on some spectacular bindaeduk (why didn’t I take a picture? Too busy eating, I suppose).

This is why I love cities: the often chaotic, sometimes messy, never orderly gathering of so many people in tight spaces creates an energy that you just don’t find anywhere without the density that cities create.

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I’ll take this over a shopping mall food court any day. Even if it means dodging the occasional motorcycle (Yes, they drive motorcycles through the narrow aisles).

Seoul: Namsan Tower

Ah, Namsan. If Gyeongbokgung is the White House or Lincoln Memorial of Korea–stately, historic, majestic–then Namsan is the Empire State Building of Korea–amazing views of a huge city and totally overrun with tourists.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This combination cable car and elevator ride up the mountain and tower are totally worth it to go; it’s a hot tourist attraction for a good reason. Like Gyeongbokgung, no trip to Seoul is complete without it. It’s best to go on a clear day or night, but even on a cloudy morning, it’s still an impressive sight.

Pro tip: if you’re at the front of the line, you get first dibs on prime window space for the cable ride up. Perfect for taking videos like this:

Once you’re at the top, you have to cough up more cash for a ticket up the tower, but again, totally worth it:

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But like most places in Korea, they could use some help with their English. Any idea what this cryptic phrase written on steps leading up to a window mean?

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Seoul: Gyeongbokgung Palace

Every tourist itinerary in Seoul must include Gyeongbokgung Palace, the seat of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for the last few hundred years prior to the 20th century Japanese occupation.

Once again, I found something new here. The grounds are expansive–not as expansive as those of Changdeokgung with its Secret Garden, but still large enough to get lost and not cover entirely in one visit. This beautiful pavilion was my major discovery this time around:

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As an added bonus, they also do historical costume shows with some frequency to give foreign tourists a good taste of that old-timey Korean royal style. I saw a smaller version of the elaborate ceremony I stumbled upon 3 years ago (you can see pictures of it here). This time around, the sight was still impressive:

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And as always, the stark contrast between Korea’s medieval past and ultramodern present was on full display here.

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Beneath the skyscrapers and LCD billboards, the Joseon spirit lives on.

Seoul: Changdeokgung Palace

Another major tourist attraction that managed to escape me in my last two visits!

Changdeokgung is one of several royal palaces in Seoul; this one’s major claim to fame is its Secret Garden. It’s a huge natural space smack in the middle of Seoul, so big that you forget you’re in one of the largest cities in the world while enjoying the trees, flowers, and ponds that the Joseon monarchs built for their own enjoyment hundreds of years ago.

Simply spectacular:

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