One activity every international student must do is visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest and most well-known palace of Korea. This palace housed the royalty and government of the Joseon dynasty and was steadily expanded up to the early 20th century, when the occupying Japanese razed the majority of the buildings to the ground. Fortunately, rebuilding of the palace has been occurring since 1990 and the palace today stands as a proud monument to early Korean history. What we think of as a “palace” doesn’t fit Gyeongbokgung; the architecture style is similar to Korean traditional houses (하녹) but on a much grander scale, with spacious courtyards contrasting with maze-like walls and smaller clusters of buildings. The main attraction of Seoul for many is the vibrant city life and the modern atmosphere, but there are some UNESCO World Heritage sites here and there if you are so inclined to visit an era of the past.
Some bits of information I gleaned during my time in Seoul:
-> coffee is incredibly expensive and yet a cup of it is a must-have accessory for young people. A regular American coffee shop sells an Americano (the quintessential Korean drink) for about $2-3. Prices in Seoul are $4, $5, even $6! Cafes are very often a hybrid of coffee/tea/desserts and offer space for people to hang out and sometimes study.
-> Appearance is everything, and status symbols (such as cars and brand name clothing) pervade society. Positively, that means many look attractive and fashionable. Negatively, that means many are preoccupied with looks and wealth.
-> bakeries are EVERYWHERE, but the bread is much different than bread in the United States; it’s a springy texture with a very sweet taste, almost like Wonder bread. Churro stands are the food of the day as well. Fads here are intense as they are fleeting, I’ve learned.
Throughout my trip one of my favorite activities was visiting Hongdae, the area next to Sinchon (where Yonsei is located). Hongdae is so fun! It’s a college town area packed with karaoke, bars, clubs, restaurants and shopping. One of my favorite activities is visiting a promising street filled with tiny Korean restaurants, walking into a random one, pointing to any item on the menu and being pleasantly surprised. After filling up on Korean food it’s fun to peruse the shopping area, marveling at the price difference between the chic boutiques and the market stalls offering virtually the same quality and style clothes.
Hapjeong, an area right next to Hongdae, contrasts with the noisy college atmosphere to offer a more upscale locale. In the span of a couple blocks the crowded, hectic shopping stalls gave way to quiet, classy bars and art installment buildings. An interesting aspect that confused me initially about Seoul is the way districts aren’t clear-cut; Edae, Sinchon, Hongdae, Hapjeong. Each area has a different vibe, feel, crowd, personality. And yet the lines are blurred on where exactly an area ends and another begins.
Couple culture: it’s everywhere. This may be a recent phenomenon, but Koreans are serious about showing off their relationship. PDA is accepted and sometimes couples even wear matching clothes! Other than the matching clothes, though, fashion here is a must. Trends also move so quickly that clothes are sold cheaply at street booths, the vendors knowing that the style will eventually change and their patrons will be back before the season is done.