I consider myself a world traveler, but up until this month, Asia was still unchecked on my travel bucket list. All that changed when I headed to Seoul, South Korea for a weeklong trip for work and to see the city.
Leading up to my trip, I was nervous to be in the city alone, not able to speak the language. But mostly I was nervous about what in the world I’d be eating! How do you order something off a menu you can’t read?
So to beat my food-nerves, I prearranged a local food tour of the Gwangjang market in Dongdaemun neighborhood of Seoul. I found Janet’s Cooking Studio & Seoul Food Tour on TripAdvisor, the best decision I made on the trip. Janet, a former Northern Virginia resident herself, was beyond helpful, warm, passionate, and thoughtful as she showed me around the market that day.
We went from stall to stall, as she told me about the history of Korean cuisine and food traditions.
She instructed me to ask her any questions, so I asked her everything on my mind so I would be prepared for the week ahead. Do you really just use chopsticks? Why don’t you have bars in Seoul? What do you like to cook on a daily basis for yourself? What do you recommend I eat for dinner by my hotel tonight? Do people really eat dog meat?
She had me try everything, pushed my comfort level with odd-looking but delicious tasting foods. I loved the pork and regular mung bean pancakes, eaten with bites of pickled onions and kimchi to cut the grease in between.
One stand was filled with colorful containers of salty side dishes to be eaten with rice. Janet had me sample a full-shell baby crab, spicy octopus, garlic knots and more – food I would never have known to try on my own.
Next we stopped for dumplings – yum, blood sausage – not so much, fish stew, chewy rice cakes, and a chicken foot. I tried it all!
Hands down my favorite market stop was for “bungeoppang,” a sweet fish-shaped waffle dessert, filled with red bean paste or cream. Hot off the stove, the sweet treat was almost too cute to eat.
The food tour was both helpful and delicious. Next time I’m in a brand new city with a different food scene, I will definitely be booking a food tour on the first day again.
Later that week, once the meetings had come to an end, I had chance to explore Seoul. My colleague had offered to show me around for the day. Overwhelmed with so much to see in a short span of time, we got hop on-hop off tour bus tickets.
Our first stop was Deoksugung Palace, just in time to see the changing of the guard.
Once you enter the main palace gates, you get to explore the large palace grounds. The historic buildings were all brightly colored with intricate designs, so beautiful. Crazy to think of how old Korea and the rest of the world is compared to America.
After the palace we visited Namsangol Hanok Village, a small village of old hanok homes.
You could peak inside to the open air homes and see what life was like during that time. My colleague said her grandparents who live in the rural part of South Korea still sleep on the floor and live in a similar style home.
We stopped for bibimbap for lunch, a rice bowl with beef, pickled vegetables, and a fried egg. So delicious. I’d become a chopstick pro by this point.
Our final stop of the day was N Seoul Tower, the spire overlooking the city. I snapped a photo of two young girls dressed in hanbok at N Seoul Tower. Apparently it’s a big trend with teenagers to dress up and do amateur photoshoots through the various historic attractions of Seoul, so we saw a lot of these beautiful dresses all weekend.
The tower had a great view of the city below, which I was finally starting to get a feel for. I loved the thousands and thousands of love locks along the gates of the tower, colorful and overwhelming.
We ended the day in Insadong, a shopping district home to the Ssamziegil craft mall.
After dumplings for dinner, I parted way with my new friend, thanking her for giving up her free day to show me around.
Before I left Seoul, I had one final item on my checklist… makeup shopping! Not even the youtube haul videos of Myeongdong could prepare me for the bustling streets filled with makeup and cosmetic stores. Similar to how we see multiple Starbucks across the street from each other in the US, Myeongdong had the same big major Korean beauty chains around every corner.
They lure you into their store with bribes of free samples and $1 face masks, which totally worked on me. Within a few minutes my arms were heavy with shopping bags full of gifts to take home. Facial cream, eye liner, lipsticks, face masks, hair cream, foot masks, and more.
I found delicious food, beautiful sights, and amazing shopping in Seoul. But even better were the people. Everyone I met during my trip, from Janet to my colleague, were so hospitable, thoughtful, and friendly. My first trip to Asia was a definite success and I can’t wait to go back to Seoul again one day soon.