Trip planning: Beauty, shopping and food (Seoul Summer 2020)

The Wife was supposed to be on a flight to Seoul three weeks from now, for a week-long girls trip with her good friends DT and XL. Obviously that’s not going to happen now because of that-which-must-not-be-named, but I thought it would be nice if they could at least get to experience it virtually.

Logistics

There are a few choices for direct flights from Singapore to Seoul and after considering cost and convenience, an overnight flight on Asiana Airlines was booked and pre-paid (but subsequently cancelled and refunded). DT was planning to fly from San Francisco to Singapore and do a stopover in Seoul to rendezvous at the hotel.

We’ve flown both SQ and OZ to Seoul before and both are equally good. Well, maybe SQ is slightly better overall just because of nationalistic pride. However, Asiana is a clear winner in one department — food.

Because DIY bibimbap. In economy class. Mashisoyo!

Image credit: Reddit u/dissonate

Incheon Airport is quite far away from downtown Seoul, and the easiest way to get to the hotel with luggage in-tow would be to take the Airport Limousine. There are many different bus numbers that go to different places, and Bus 6001 goes to the Myeongdong and Dongdaemun neighbourhoods where most tourists stay.

Airport Bus 6001 route map and timetable

Conveniently, there is a stop (Acasia Hotel, Western Co-op) just a short walk away from the Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun. Doesn’t it look pretty when it’s all lit up at night?

Image credit: Accor ALL

Among the various hotels that we’ve stayed in Seoul before, the Novotel Dongdaemun has the right mix of comfort, convenience and cost-efficiency. It has large 53 sqm Residence Deluxe rooms with three single-beds, just nice for this trip, although the toilet has *gasp* only. one. sink. The mirror is pretty large though, so that should make up for it.

The breakfast buffet is extensive with both local and international food, and service is warm and efficient. There are also two pools, one indoor with a large jacuzzi, and one outdoor, with a cool rooftop bar. Front-desk staff who we’ve interacted with speak good English, so communication shouldn’t be a problem.

The lift lobby is covered with floor-to-ceiling LED screens that project different featured images, and the last time we stayed there it was showing the history of Korean fashion from the Joseon dynasty to modern times. Very cool.

Getting around Seoul is easy once you’re familiar with the metro system and have your Tmoney Card. We bought ours online from Klook and picked them up at Incheon Airport, but you can buy them (and top-up the stored value) at any convenience store or metro station ticket machine.

Klook-branded Tmoney cards

The Seoul metro system can be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get used to the various lines and interchange stations, you can get around almost anywhere within Seoul. I would suggest downloading either the low-res JPG version of the route map below, or the latest high-res PDF version (which comes in a ZIP file) and save it to your mobile phone for easy reference.

The nearest station to the Novotel is Dongdaemun History & Culture Park which is served by Lines 2, 4 and 5 and a short unsheltered walk away (remember to carry umbrellas). Don’t confuse it with Dongdaemun station, which is further away and served by Lines 1 and 4.

Image credit: Seoul Metro

Itinerary

The five-day itinerary revolves around beauty, shopping and food; three things that Seoul is famous and well-loved for by the ladies.

I’ve created a simple one-page summary in both PDF and JPG formats that can be saved onto your mobile phone. It includes addresses, opening hours, closest metro stations and some descriptions where useful.

Itinerary (Seoul Summer 2020)

I’ve also saved the various locations in a public Google Maps list for easy reference. A word of warning though that Google walking directions don’t work well for Seoul. Apparently it’s because of security reasons i.e. *whisper* North Korea. But at least you’ll know where things are relative to your current location and you’ll somehow figure it out.

Day One

After reaching the hotel in the early morning and storing the luggage at the front desk, it’s time for some brunch at Gwangjang Market, a leisurely 10 minute stroll from the hotel.

Entrance of Gwangjang Market

While it’s still technically a local market where people can buy a wide assortment of kimchi and other daily necessities, it is quite touristy and has become even more so after being featured on a recent Street Food series on Netflix.

Many many kimchi

Two things to consider for brunch are bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) made from freshly-ground beans, and made-to-order bibimbap.

The bindaetteok are made from mung beans pulverised using huge stone grinders and then shallow fried with probably too much oil. They go well with dumplings and mayank kimbap.

At the bibimbap stall, and there are many to choose from, you point to what you want and the ahjumma will assemble a bowl for you with gochujang on a spoon. Mix it all up for a delicious, fresh and satisfying meal.

After wandering around the market, take a stroll back to Dongdaemun and explore the iconic Dongdaemun Design Plaza and get some shopping done at the nearby malls like the Doota Fashion Mall.

And since the shopping bug has been awakened, why not take the metro to the Express Bus Terminal Underground Mall where you can get the latest Korean fashion at unbeatable prices (remember to bargain!). When you’re done there, take the metro to the Starfield Coex Mall, which houses the world’s largest underground shopping mall with an area of 144,000 sqm as well as the beautiful Starfield Library.

Image credit: Starfield Coex Mall

When you run out of hands to carry all the shopping bags, head back to the hotel to drop off all the loot and cross the street to Manjok Ohyang Jokbal for some traditional Korean braised pig trotters and makgeolli. Get the half-and-half to sample both the original and spicy versions.

Day Two

Korea is world-famous for its cosmetic surgery with many clinics located in the upmarket Gangnam-gu neighbourhood.

Make an appointment at D&A Plastic Surgery Clinic for some non-surgical day treatments to understand first-hand why so many people fly to Seoul to improve their appearance.

Here’s a video by Youtubers MaoMao TV and Mira’s Garden for an idea of the experience and the results you can achieve in just a few hours.

When you’re done, head over to the nearby Hanilkwan in Apgujeong for some traditional Korean food. It has seven branches throughout Seoul and is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant.

Spend the rest of the day in the artistic Ikseon-dong neighbourhood, especially the Ikseon-dong Hanok Village that houses traditional teahouses and fashion boutiques.

Tteuran Tea House is located in a hanok and serves herbal and fermented tea that goes well with various traditional snacks.

Teterot Salon sells modern hanbok fashion that combines elements of Korean hanboks with Western styling for a unique look.

Most pieces are in the affordable US$60-150+ price range and span blouses, dresses, jackets and trousers. Take a look at some pieces from their current season to appreciate their point of view.

End the day with a light dinner of bibim guksu and assorted mandoo at Changhwa Dang, and head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Day Three

After appreciating, and most likely buying, many pieces from Teterot Salon, why not go for the real deal and have the full-blown Hanbok Experience, courtesy of Studio KJD. Spend several enjoyable hours together on fittings, makeovers and a photoshoot for an experience that you’ll remember for many years to come.

Youtuber Miss Mina from sweetandtastyTV did exactly that with her elegant mother and documented the whole experience. Have a look and I’m quite sure you’ll be more than convinced.

The photoshoot is likely to be done at the nearby Bukchon Traditional Cultural Centre, but if not, then plan for a short visit afterwards.

Lunch at Tosokchon for classic samgaetang and if possible, avoid usual lunch hours to dodge the inevitable crowds and long queues at this famous institution.

The meal starts with a shot of ginseng liquor, and depending on which dish you order, you might even get strands of ginseng to mix into the rich soup for a herbal upgrade. An added bonus is the probably the best kimchi you’ll have in Seoul.

Walk off the heavy lunch by exploring Gyeongbokgung, a short stroll away. It’s a vast compound with many impressive buildings from the Joseon dynasty. The changing-of-the-guards ceremony happens twice daily at 10am and 12pm, except Tuesdays when the palace is closed to visitors.

Before it gets dark, have some Korean BBQ at Wangbijib Myeongdong and then hike over to Cheonggyecheon Stream to walk off the meat overdose. It’s a popular place for locals which hosts seasonal events, so check if there’s one happening when you’re there.

The last time we were there, it was during the mid-Autumn festival and the place was packed with people admiring the impressive lantern display. These were not the tiny handheld lanterns that children typically carry, but life-size sculptures of characters and animals.

Have a look, and you’ll see what I mean.

Day Four

You might want to sleep in a bit to recover from the past three hectic days and maybe even skip breakfast.

Because a visit to the Noryangjin Fish Market awaits, where you wander around the countless stalls to choose your favourite seafood and send them to the upstairs restaurants to cook and eat.

Youtubers Luke and Sabrina from the Luke Martin channel provide a good walkthrough of their delicious experience.

The next stop is Hongdae, where the hip and trendy young people in Seoul hangout and do their shopping. Browse in the many shops along the Hongik University Shopping Street and visit the Hongdae Mural Street to admire creative street graffiti.

After that, catch the long-running and highly entertaining Cookin’ Nanta show at the Myeongdong Nanta Theatre. Don’t worry about not understanding Korean, because there’s minimum dialogue and maximum chaos!

The cast changes daily and spring for the VIP seats, which you can get at 40% discount when you buy online at least 15 days before.

Here’s a sample performance when the show visited Washington DC during the 2016 Korean Culture Week. Multiply the mayhem by 10 and you’ll start to approach the full live show in Seoul.

Grab a quick dinner at the nearby Myeongdong Kyoja for kalguksu, mandoo and the spiciest kimchi in Seoul, and spend the rest of the night shopping at the Myeongdong Shopping Street. But do watch out for pickpockets.

The kimchi is free-flow but deadly

Day Five

Spend the last full day relaxing and resting, starting with a visit to Insadong to shop at small artisan shops in the Ssamzie-gil Market and maybe have some Jeju tea and cakes at O’Sulloc Teahouse.

In the past, we’ve had very nice and not ridiculously expensive lunches at high-end Michelin starred restaurants like La Yeon and Jungsik. Another restaurant worth experiencing is Hansikgonggan, located on the 4th floor of the Arario museum in Jongno-gu.

It’s helmed by chef Cho Hee-sook, who was recently named Asia’s best female chef for 2020 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chef Cho specialises in using seasonal ingredients and local cooking techniques to bring out the best flavour in each dish. Expectations are high and I’m confident that she will not disappoint. Advance reservations are a must.

The last item on the itinerary is to stock up on various local snacks to bring home and the best place to buy them is from the Lotte Mart beside Seoul Station. It’s huge and has everything from Market-O brownies to honey butter almonds to kimchi ramyeon. They even provide empty packing boxes if you’re planning to buy in bulk.

And you simply cannot leave Seoul without having some Korean fried chicken and beer, which you can takeaway for dinner on the way back to the hotel. There are branches of BHC, BBQ and Two Two Chicken near the hotel and you can buy from all three to compare.

The rest of the night will be dedicated to the extremely challenging task of packing everything into luggage that was not designed to handle five full days of shopping. If, by some miracle, you all succeed, reward yourselves with drinks at the rooftop bar.

Korean Fried Chicken

The final day is always a mix of happiness and sadness. Happy that you’re finally heading home, but sad that the vacation is over.

One last thing to look forward to at Incheon Airport is the extensive duty-free shopping available for cosmetics and beauty products. Last chance to use up all the Korean Won that survived the previous five days. And remember to order the bibimbap again on the plane.

Epilogue

So, DT, XL and The Wife, I hope you’re all not too disappointed that this girls trip had to be cancelled. This, too, shall pass and I’m sure you’ll be able to make this lovely trip together in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, please enjoy this blog post.

If you can’t go to Seoul, at least a part of Seoul can come to you.

4 thoughts on “Trip planning: Beauty, shopping and food (Seoul Summer 2020)

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