Itaewon and Kwangjang Market (Lacey in South Korea)

Infrastructure in Seoul is a huge plus; the roads are wide, well-maintained, and numerous. Subway stations are everywhere and easy to use for foreigners. Buses run constantly. WiFi is everywhere!!

First rule of Korea: only 할머니들 and 할아버지들 (older people) are allowed to speak loudly on the subway. Anyone else and you’ll get annoyed looks or even be shushed! Buses, too: public transportation is for playing games on your phone (always a Samsung Galaxy) but definitely not having a loud conversation. Conversely, busy restaurants and cafes are SO LOUD. 너무 시끄러워요! Another interesting fact about subways is that they smell delicious– really! They usually have at least one small bakery or waffle stand near the entrance, as well as convenience stores or cheap shoe/clothing shops. Don’t ever shop in the overpriced Hyundai department stores; subway shops are the way to go.

Second rule: foreigners are practically obligated to visit Itaewon (이태원), the foreigner district of Seoul. I’d heard of Itaewon before I even set foot in Seoul, so even though my priority was living like a local I was excited to see what this area was like. Surprisingly, it was small. Very small. The only interesting aspect to me was of course the food area, just one road packed with restaurants and bars; mostly I saw French, American and British, Mexican, and Turkish places. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any Italian restaurants even though Italian-Korean fusion restaurants are all over Seoul. And of course so many Europeans were around! That was a slight shock to me after being surrounded by mostly Koreans for over a month. Another thing about Itaewon– Korea is still a conservative society, but Koreans in Itaewon seemed more liberal, sporting tattoos and different clothing than I usually see in Sinchon.

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Third rule: Everyone visiting Korea must go to at least three markets. They’re my absolute favorite! Especially 광장시장, Kwangjang Market. Two parts make up this market; clothing/fabric shops, which are open during the day, and food stands, open in the evening and night. Walking into the market at night is amazing: people crowd the benches lined around each stand, steam fills the air, and your nose is bombarded with the smell of spicy dukbokki, grilled meat, and fried savory pancakes.  Two other classic markets are Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, open every hour of the day and thriving for many of those hours. A glimpse into the old-style Korea is just as exciting as the new-style Korea, and the vendors are often curious to see foreigners exploring the area. As in every country, be polite, make an effort to learn key words and phrases, and many Korean people will be more than willing to help you out.

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Another favored spot to visit was the Korean convenience store. While Americans might think of convenience stores as run-down and dirty, Korean stores are just what the name implies: convenient. They’re on every street corner and sell snacks, drinks, alcohol, ramen and ramen toppings. Very often schoolkids will hang out there after school, college kids will make ramen and sit at the tables, and coworkers will drink soju and talk. The convenience store and the market, modern and traditional, are two places to gain valuable insights on cultural differences, meet Korean people, and experience what daily Korean life is like.

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