We spent 5 days in Seoul and honestly? I wish we had spent a little more time there. There were so many things we wanted to go do and see but we couldn’t squeeze them in without being on a militant schedule and who would want to spend a vacation like that? Not us, that’s for sure. Maybe 5 days might be enough time for the average traveler (and that’s a BIG maybe) but it wasn’t for us. I am originally from Seoul and my mom’s side of the family all mostly still live there. So a visit to the motherland usually involves setting time aside for family dinners and gatherings. This time around, we also had a wedding to attend (the main reason we came to Korea was to for my one of my favorite cousin’s wedding) so what was supposed to be a 5 day trip really felt more like three. Don’t misunderstand! I am not complaining at all. I love seeing my family and enjoy spending time with them since I only get to see them every few years. And some of my family members met Simon since they flew all the way to Hawai’i to come to our wedding last year, but the majority haven’t met him yet so it was nice to be able to introduce him to everyone (I love to show off my handsome husband. As my aunts would tell me as they pat my back, I did well) and we had such a great time showing him where I spent the first 9 years of my life. There were so many moments where we would go somewhere and I would tell him a memory attached to that particular place so we had an amazing time. Also, my beautiful little sister, Kellie, also joined us on this trip and she’s always a blast to travel with. The three of us created so many wonderful memories that will stay with us for years to come.
// Family Day //
Getting to Korea was an absolute NIGHTMARE!! Our flight was delayed but we didn’t know it was until we were already on the way to the airport at 8 AM. It was supposed to be only a three hour delay but it kept getting longer to 5 hours, then 8 hours and United didn’t even bother to let the passengers know what was going on and they had the audacity to tell us that we will “definitely” make our connecting flight in Japan as if we can’t figure out simple mathematics. Are they going to hold the flight for 5 hours for us at the Narita Airport? I mean, come oooooooon. But I am not going to go on and on about the woes of traveling (Even though United only put us on a different flight by a different route after being on the phone with them for an hour… and even though United lost our bags for two days and Simon’s clothes to wear at the wedding the day we arrived was in that luggage).
Anyway, we arrived at the airport at 5:30 in the morning from LA instead of 8:00 pm the night before as planned, got to the hotel at 8:00 am after figuring out our lost luggage fiasco, quickly showered and got ready to go to the department store near our hotel that opened at 10:00 am to buy Simon some decent clothes for the wedding and arrive at the wedding ceremony 11:30 am. My mom was so sweet to come to our hotel with some coffee and baked goods and took Simon to the near by Shinsegae Department Store (which was the store was was open at 10:00 AM on a Sunday) while I finished getting ready. My entire family was so worried that we would miss the wedding, which we really almost did!! But everything turned out fine, Simon splurged on a really nice outfit (department stores in Korea are expensive and carry only designer brands for the most part), we made it to my cousin’s beautiful wedding on time, ate a delicious lunch at their reception and got to see family that I haven’t seen since I moved to America in 1993.
After the reception, we went back to our hotel to change our clothes and headed to my eldest uncle’s house for a “welcome back and nice to meet you” dinner with the whole family. We took a cab back to our hotel after our family dinner and went straight back to our hotel for some well deserved sleep.
WHERE WE STAYED
L7 by Lotte in MYEONG-DONG
City Guide: Seoul is the capital and the largest city of South Korea. It is surrounded by mountains roughly 2500 feet high and the Han River flows across the city from East to West dividing the city into two parts. Seoul is a post-industrial playground full of shopping, dining, entertainment, and arts.
Population: 10,349,312 of mostly ethnic Koreans
Currency: Won (₩): 1 US dollar is approximately 1000 Korean won
Language: Korean: The younger generation may or may not speak English well but the older gen won’t. Download a translator app that works offline as the Korean language is difficult to pronounce with a Western tongue
Transportation From Airport: Airport Limousine Bus with ticket stations available outside the arrival terminal. Ticket prices approximately ₩7000 with convenient drop off locations. Just tell them the name of your hotel and they will tell you where to get off.
//Second Day Feels Like the First Day //
Namdaemun // breakfast
We could have slept waaaaay longer than the 10 hours we got last night but we always feel like sleeping on vacation is a waste of time. I had an appointment at 11:00 to get my eyebrows microbladed so we got ready and went to go eat breakfast at a well known mat-jip (literally translates to “tasty house) nearby specializing in oxtail soup. I figure if he’s going to spend a part of his vacation waiting for me to to get my eyebrows done, I can feed him something he really enjoys.
Gangnam // eyebrow microblading
Ugh. I survived my junior and high school years but not without my eyebrows. Over plucked, over waxed and way too thinned out, I can’t leave my house without drawing them in. I have to repeat “eyebrows are sisters, not twins” over and over again as I get ready just so I don’t spend more than 5 minutes filling them in without nitpicking. The process was super easy, pain free and took less than an hour. First, she numbed me up, drew them to show me the shape and then went in with a thin blade dipped in tattoo ink and bladed tiny strokes to mimic how my natural hairs would grow. Then she covered my entire eyebrows in more ink and had me lay there for about 15-20 minutes so that the fresh cuts would be stained, so to speak. And that was it! I was warned that my eyebrows would be a bit dark until it healed but it really wasn’t that bad! I will most likely continue to get my eyebrows microbladed as it fades because this changed my life.
Gangnam // Kellie meets up for coffee and shopping
Dongdaemun // snacks at food alley
Every food blogger who has ever been to Seoul has been to Kwangjang Market. It is a massive open market with rows and rows of food stalls. Each section specializes in a particular dish. If you want some mung bean pancakes, 10 stalls will be lined up nest to each other with its owners inviting to you take a seat on one of their empty seats. Competition for customers can be fierce so they gotta keep the food fresh and tasty!
Myeongdong Shopping District // birth of the Chicken Monsters
After our semi-light snacks at Gwangjang Market, we headed over to Myeongdong to check out their street food offerings and do some shopping as well. Simon and Kellie make the perfect snacking team. They both eat SO MUCH junk food, it is ridiculous. I’m always on the search for the healthier options no matter where I go… Fruit juices, green smoothies, steamed vegetable dumplings, etc. but these two! They are all about that fried chicken, pizza, and beer! Simon really wanted to try the Korean sweet n’ spicy sauce I always talk about (I can’t seem to find anywhere in the States that replicated the yang-nyum sauce perfectly) so we went to TwoTwo Chicken to finish out our day. Okay… TwoTwo Chicken ended up being a huge disappointment and it did not live up to the hype. The search for the perfect (Michelle Approved) fried chicken would become Simon and Kellie’s mission, thus earning the nicknames Chicken Monsters for the remainder of the trip.
WHERE WE WENT
Nam Dae Mun:
JinJu Jip // Oxtail Soup/ Sul-Lung-Tang (Bone Broth Soup)
Urban Rabbit // Coffee
KwangJang Market // Beef Tartar / Fried Chicken Bites / Veggie Sushi / Spicy Rice Cakes / Green Grape Juice
Two Two Chicken // Swee n’ Spicy Sauce / Garlic Sauce
Street Food // Taiyaki Honey Ice Cream / Roasted Ginko Nuts / Pizza Roll
Shopping // Art Box / Club Clio / Banilla Co. / Missha / Etude House
MyeongDong Guide: MyeongDong is a favorite area among travelers for their street food stalls and shopping. You can find all of the trendy foods and desserts you see on Instagram here as it’s target group are teens and young adults. Every brand of Korean beauty stores are also here in MyeongDong, often with multiple locations just steps away. You can find cute clothes and accessories here and don’t be shy to get some funky items because the fashion in Korea tend to be ahead of the curve and what you see here, you’ll see in the stores in the States a few months from now!
Getting Around: Subways are cheap and easy to use. Purchase a metro card at any convenience stores for ₩3000 and load money in it at the machines in the subway stations for hassle-free commuting. You MUST tap the card upon entering AND exiting the subway turnstile as you are charged based on the distance traveled. Taxis are plentiful and affordable as well. If you see a row of taxis waiting for patrons, go to the taxi at the front of the lines. They are lining up for a reason! You can also wave one down on the streets and don’t necessarily have to go to the taxi stations.
// Dreams Really Do Come True //
Namdaemun // late breakfast
We started off eating one of my FAVORITE dishes, spicy hairtail fish stew and Kellie’s favorite, steamed eggs for breakfast at the Nam-Dae-Mun Market near her hotel. The fish was too bony for Simon and Kellie to fully enjoy (amateurs…) but they really liked the sauce and ate it with their rice and steamed eggs.
Blind Alley // playdate with raccoons
I know a lot of people in America have a negative opinion on raccoons but I absolutely LOVE them. In fact, raccoons and foxes are my two favorite animals. Bats and elephants follow closely behind on the favorite lists along with dogs and cats, obviously. The raccoons at Blind Alley were rescued from the successful fur industry in Korea and are lovingly taken care of. The owner told me that taking care of her rescue animals are costly and the cafe makes it possible for her to keep rescuing these babies that would otherwise end up as trimmings on a coat. Blind Alley also had a new addition to the rescued family… a capybara! The owner told me that she got him from a shady “zoo” that kept him in a tiny cage for show. He was still shy and a little afraid of new people, but he was slowly gaining confidence and started showing curiosity toward the guests by looking out his window into the café. He also made his very first friend (no, not the raccoons. They would bully him too much so I was told), the resident Corgi named Cookie! We spent about an hour feeding and playing with the raccoons until they all wanted to take a nap.
Dongdaemun // green juice and spinning chairs
I think this might be the first time I have ever been to Dongdaemun during the day! This area of Seoul is one of the biggest shopping districts and houses HUGE multi-level shopping building. No, I don’t mean department stores, I mean shopping buildings. These buildings are like 7 or 8 stories tall and each floor sells a specific genre. For example, the first floor might be all purses, the second floor would be accessories like scarves, third-floor shoes, fourth-floor jewelry, 5th-floor women’s clothing, 6th-floor men’s clothing, so on and so forth. There are stalls after stalls selling similar items with individual vendors competing for your money which means, this is a bargainer’s heaven. But Dongdaemun really comes alive at night when all the street vendors start setting up shop outside on the streets, that’s when all fun begin for the bargain hunting shopaholics! During the day, though, it was quite dead and frankly, kind of boring, so we spent our time drinking juices and playing on these really cool spin top chairs. You are never too old to have some fun!
Itaewon // dinner and drinks with Tia
Tia and I have been friends since we were 13 years old when she came to study in Hawai’i. She went off to an international school in the Philipines and then to Canada for college and returned home to Korea after her studies and we meet for dinner and drinks everytime I am back in Korea. She is a lovely person who is passionate about rescuing dogs and ending the tradition of eating dogs in Korea. I brought Simon and Kellie to our reunion this time (I felt so bad because she and I were speaking Korean the whole time!! We tried to speak English but old habits die hard!) and since I was with two meat-lovers, she chose a restaurant that specialized in BBQ pork belly (we had a great discussion why we eat some animals and not others!). She knows all the cool spots and cute rooftop bars and she didn’t disappoint tonight, either.
WHERE WE WENT
Nam Dae Mun:
JinJu Jip // Hairtail Alley / Spicy Hairtail Stew / Steamed Egg Custard
Namdaemun Market // Sticky Rice Cake with Honey and Cinnamon / Croquettes
Blind Alley Cafe // Coffee / Raccoons
Joe the Juice // Street Food // Fried Chicken Bites / Meat on Stick / Spicy Rice Cakes / Green Juices
Gul Goo Nae // BBQ Pork Belly / BBQ Beef Intestine / Scallion Stir Fry
Prost // Craft Beers
Avant Garde // Rooftop Bar / Craft Beers /Cheese Plates
Line Store // Brown Shaped Custard Cookies
Itaewon Guide: Itaewon is a favorite area among the expats living in Seoul and tourists. It used to be a gritty area, heavily populated with the US military personnel stationed in Korea, but now it is the go to neighborhood for foreigners and the LGBQT community living in and visiting Seoul. There are many trendy bars and restaurants, art murals and cute cafes. Almost every place is sure to have English speaking servers and an English menu.
Phone Data: I used a 10 day pre-paid sim card with unlimited data via KT Roaming. You can reserve and purchase it online at Trazy.com and conveniently pick it up at the airport for $29. You cannot make phone calls but you’ll have WiFi at all times so you can communicate through WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, iMessage, etc. The only downside is that your phones might have to be unlocked and international use ready. I have an international Samsung Galaxy so it was extremely reliable for me but I heard from others that iPhones do not work all that great in Korea
// Squad Goals Met//
Myeongdong // breakfast with Kellie and Mom
Yup! My mom was in Korea, too but she was busy spending time with her friends so today was the first meal we had together. My mom was a bit of a wild child when she was my sister’s age and Myeongdong used to be her playground. We have our own tradition of eating Kalgooksoo at Myeongdong Kyoja every time we come to Korea and of course we didn’t break the tradition! Mom and Kellie were going to spend the day shopping (I’m not much of a shopper) so we went our separate ways after breakfast and planned to meet back in Myeongdong for dinner.
Hongdae // where the cool kids are
Hongdae is another area that comes to life once the sun goes down, but since we were there in the morning, many of the shops, cafes and stores were still closed. We really wanted to come here at night but we simply didn’t have the time during this trip.
Bau House // the chihuahua pack
Rain, rain, go away… it started POURING when we got to Hongdae but all was swell because we just ended up spending HOURS at the dog cafe to wait out the rain (okay, okay. It was really because I couldn’t get myself to leave). Speaking of the dog cafe, I think I died and went to heaven. As soon as we walked in, I saw four TINY Chihuahuas (I loooove tiny chihuahuas! I know, I know… they look like big rats and they are so yappy but… I also think rats are cute and their yaps are so quiet!) and I told Simon, “I want to cuddle with the chihuahua pack!”. I got to cuddle with so many cute babies and I don’t know how it happened, but at the end of our visit, we had all four chihuahuas cuddling with us! Two fell asleep on my lap and the other two climbed into Simon’s jacket and fell asleep in the warm and cozy darkness of his coat. I was STARVING but how do you wake up four sleeping puppies just because your stomach is yelling at you? I just couldn’t do it.
Hongdae Continued // food
We needed a snack before dinner after giving away all of our love the puppies so we walked around checking out the neighborhood and went on a short food tour.
Myeongdong // dinner with Mom and Kellie
Prior to coming to Korea, I asked Simon what were some of the things he wanted to eat while we were there and Kalbi Jjim (steamed beef ribs) made the top of his list. I did some research and got some recommendations and found a place really close to our hotels! Gangnam Myun Oak was walking distance for us and one train away for Mom and Kellie so it was so convenient. Don’t be fooled, it was in Myeongdong, not Gangnam!
WHERE WE WENT
Myeongdong Kyoja // Hand Cut Noodles in Seafood Broth / Steamed Dumplings
Gangnam Myun Oak // Kalbi Jjim / Steamed Dumplings / Fried Rice
Bau House // Chamomile Tea / Stella Beer / Puppies
Ao Hana Bakery // Melon Bread / Milk Cream Bread / 2 Hot Americanos
Me? Steak // Steak and Mashed potatoes in a Cup of Beer?
Gusto Taco // Shredded Pork Tacos
Hongdae Guide: Hongdae is a very popular area for university students and young adults. There are many street performers, such as dancers and singers, waiting to be discovered at night. Hongdae is known for their nightlife and themed cafes. I heard of a sheep cafe, a hedgehog cafe, a hip hop cafe and even a manga cafe. There are many boutique stores selling small independent brands and so many options for food.
Navigation: Dear Google Maps navigators, you will NOT be able to use the Show Direction function on Google Maps to find your way around Seoul. However, with some planning, you will not be lost. Prior to your trip, download Google Maps if you didn’t already. Sign in using a Google Mail account (create one if you don’t have one) and start saving or “STAR-ing” important landmarks such as your hotel, subway stops in the areas you want to check out and places you know you want to visit during your trip. Download the map to be used offline and voila. The blue dot that shows you your location will work even when you are on airplane mode so you know which direction you are moving in to get to where you need to go and if you enjoy the fun of getting lost, you will be able to find your way home when you are done exploring. Yes, it takes a little bit of work but it’s a lot better than spending your entire vacation lost and confused.
// Last Night in Seoul Spent With Family //
We are leaving for Busan tomorrow morning for 2 days so we checked out of our hotel and to check into the Lotte World Hotel in Jamsil, which is much closer to where my family lives. We had to drop off our luggage at my Grandfather’s house and just pack a day bag with clothes and toiletries enough for 2 days so we don’t have to lug all of our bags around. My Mom and Kellie met us at our hotel with all of their belongings and waited for my cousin to pick us up.
My Grandma passed away a few years ago and her ashes are now in a Buddhist Temple up in the mountains somewhere in Seoul. We went to pay our respects and introduce Simon to her. One of the last memories I have with my Grandma is when we were sitting on the couch in Hawai’i and her telling me to live with much love and happiness with tears in her eyes while she held my hand tightly with hers. She told me that I deserved all the love the world had to give because of my difficult childhood and I wanted to show her how happy I am and that I met a man who certainly does give me all the love he has to give and would give me all the love in the world if he only could.
NakSunJae // lunch with my Mom’s BFF
Food just tastes better when you share it with the people you love. #Fact.
Jamsil // lotte world park
Lotte World is an indoor amusement park that’s been around as long as I can remember and they also own a chain of hotels, department stores and a variety of products. And apparently, they own a beautiful park lined with cherry blossoms too! We looked out of our hotel room in Jamsil and saw the pink tops of the blossoming cherry blossoms so we went to go check it out as well as some duty-free shopping at the Lotte Department Store before meeting our family for dinner.
Bangi-Dong // family dinner, the k-drama style
Simon’s mom watches a lot of Korean drama and often asks me, “what is that thing that you guys always eat? You know, the thing that looks like *insert description here*“. Another thing she used to ask me a lot since I don’t eat meat very often is, “how come you don’t eat meat? I thought Koreans eat meat ALL the time.” I’ve explained to her many times that traditional Korean cuisine is mostly fish and vegetables and that my family really don’t eat meat all that frequently. Meat has always been a celebratory food, saved for special occasions. And us coming to Korea to visit family is most definitely considered a special occasion worth celebrating so we went to our family’s favorite BBQ places in the neighborhood. Before we left for our trip, his mom told me to make Simon try fishcake on a stick and send her pictures because it’s one of those things she always sees on Korean dramas. He’s never eaten one before and didn’t want to, but when I saw it at the underground food court on the way to dinner, I had to fulfill her wishes. To his surprise, he really liked and wanted to eat more but I stopped him so he wouldn’t spoil his appetite.
WHERE WE WENT
Nak Sun Jae // Ginseng Chicken Soup / Spicy Chicken and Mushroom Soup
Lotte Department Store // Shopping // Duty Free Mall
Jamsil Undergroud Mall // Fishcake on a Stick / Green Grape Juice
Lotte Magic Island Park // Cherry Blossoms
Mappo House // BBQ Meats / Cold Buckwheat Noodles
PLACES WE MISSED
-Insadong: A neighborhood where it’s focal point is the preservation of Korean culture and arts. You can pick up traditional souvenirs such as Hanbok (Korean dress), stationery papers, traditional tea sets and folk crafts.
-Gyeongbokgung Palace: There are five palaces you can visit and Seoul but Gyeongbokgung is the largest and arguably the fairest of them all. At the palace, you can take a tour of the Huwon Secret Garden which was once a garden used exclusively by the royal families.
-Bukchon Hanok Village: This is a traditional neighborhood over 600 years old and now a preserved cultural area where you can see the hanoks (traditional homes) from the Joseon dynasty. Home owners are not allowed to change the outward appearance of the homes, so the outside may be traditional but the inside of the homes are renovated with all of the modern amenities.
-Jeju Island: We took almost 5 days out of our trip to visit two other cities, Busan and Incheon. Next time, we would like the take those extra days and spend them at Jeju Island just off the southern coast of Korea. The beautiful island houses wonderful natural wonders such as a dormant volcano, lava tube caves, awesome hiking trails and deliciously sweet tangerines.
Look the Part: Not sure what to pack? South Koreans are super fashionable, making Seoul one the greatest cities to visit if you love fashion. You can dress like you are attending a Fashion Week and you’ll get stares of admiration from both genders. But beware! Girls in Korea wear very short skirts and shorts even in the winter, but showing you bare shoulders or cleavage will get you some not-so-friendly stares that just might make you a bit uncomfortable. You’ll end up having a staring contest with some people and they have zero chill when it comes to staring you down in disapproval. I don’t know what it is, but women in Korea don’t show their chest area at all and to do so will make them think that you *gasp* cheap. And do wear comfortable (and stylish) shoes. Adidas kicks and Chucks are always good choices since there is a lot of walking to do!