Visiting Sinheungsa Temple, Biseondae, and Cheonbuldong Valley in Seorsaksan, South Korea

I discussed how I arrived at Seoraksan National Park from Seoul in my previous post, but in this post I will share all of the pictures I took on my first day of hiking in the mountains. My fifth day of traveling in South Korea was spent in one of the most beautiful places in the country, seeing places like Sinheungsa Temple 신흥사 (新興寺), Biseondae 비선대 (飛仙台), and Cheonbuldong Valley 천불동 계곡 (千佛洞溪谷).

Here is a map of the Seoraksan courses in case you missed it from my other post:

Seoraksan National Park hiking trails and course map

Sinheungsa Temple is a few minutes walk from the Seoraksan Tourist Hotel. Biseondae is 2.3 km further away and takes around 45 minutes to get there. From Biseondae, it'll take you another 3.5 km (or 2 hours walk) to walk to Oryeon Falls in Cheonbuldong Valley. I walked as far as I could into Cheonbuldong Valley before turning around again and was probably on my feet for a good 6 hours that day.

Seorsaksan Tourist Hotel 설악산관광호텔 Review

I visited Seoraksan National Park in mid-October to see the fall leaves. Everyone said you would need to spend at least 2-3 days there, so I booked a room at the Seoraksan Tourist Hotel, also known as the Mt. Sorak Tourist Hotel.

Seoraksan Tourist Hotel

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot hotels to choose from that are near Seoraksan National Park. Sokcho City 속초 (束草), a 30 minute bus drive away, has more selections but you have to think about how tired you'll be after a day of hiking and whether you'd want to take a bus or taxi just to get back to your hotel.

Even though I had to kill a wasp in my room and squash a beetle on the window, I would still stay at Seoraksan Tourist Hotel the next time I visit.

Day 5: Seoul Express Bus to Seoraksan National Park

This was the day I looked forward to the most during my whole trip in South Korea. It was the day I traveled to Sokcho 속초 (束草) for a two day hike in Seoraksan National Park 설악산 (雪嶽山) to see the changing red autumn leaves. Some of the trails at Seoraksan are notoriously difficult, but I was super excited. I mean, how can you not be excited about a place that looks like this:

Seoraksan Mountains. Image from Visit Korea

There are a few things to consider before visiting Seoraksan National Park, such as what to bring, when is the best time to go, what the hiking course maps look like, etc. I'll go over some of these points in this post, but the majority of these details will be covered in a separate post here.

Here is a general outline of my activities for the day:

Day 5 Activities:
  1. Seoul Express Bus to Sokcho City
  2. Local Sokcho bus to Seoraksan National Park
  3. Check into Seoraksan Tourist Hotel 설악산관광호텔
  4. Seoraksan hiking:
Now prepare yourself for an onslaught of photographs (with accompanying commentary, of course)!

Myeongdong Gogung 고궁 (古宮) Restaurant Review

Myeongdong Gogung 고궁 (古宮) is a restaurant in Seoul famous for its jeonju bibimbap 전주비빔밥. Because of all the good reviews, I came here for lunch after a morning visit to N Seoul Tower.

The restaurant itself isn't too hard to find, but it's nestled away from the hustle and bustle that is the middle of Myeongdong.

Myeongdong Gogung Restaurant

I ordered dolsot bibimbap instead of the jeonju bibimbap because I wanted something hot. However, as it goes with most Korean food I've eaten while there, the temperature wasn't as hot as I would have liked it to be. I also ordered pajeon and japchae, both of which were delicious. All the food came in huge bowls, but the actual amount of food was not that much. I guess I'm too used to Texas-sized portions!

Myeongdong Gogung dolsot bibimbap 

N Seoul Tower 엔 서울타워 Brochure

Here is a scanned copy of the brochure I picked up at N Seoul Tower. It explains all the different levels there, so it won't be as confusing when you actually visit.

Day 4: N Seoul Tower and more

I hope everyone had a good holiday! I ate way too much and my pants are really mad at me right now. However, I've successfully recovered from my multiple food comas, so I can now return to posting with some regularity.

Day 4 Activities:
  1. N Seoul Tower 엔 서울타워
  2. Namsan Mountain 남산 (南山)
  3. Lunch at Myeongdong 명동 (明洞)
  4. Dinner with a Korean family (at their house)
My fourth day in Seoul was much more laid-back compared to the previous days, mostly in preparation for my upcoming hiking trip to Seoraksan 설악산 (雪嶽山). I kicked off the day with some breakfast at a nearby bakery (I think it was called Tres something...) before taking the free hotel shuttle to the Namsan Cable Car station.

Ibis Hotel's free shuttle service actually goes to lots of tourist hot spots. For example, we passed Gyeongbokgung 경복궁 (景福宮) on our way to N Seoul Tower. Definitely take advantage of this free transportation to save on taxi and subway fare. The only thing you have to do is to reserve a spot on the shuttle, which is actually just a van, the day before.

Driving by Gwanghwamun at Gyeongbokgung


Some sort of performance at Gyeongbokgung

We made several stops and I wasn't really sure where I was supposed to get off, but as long as you tell the hotel where you want to go (and double check with the driver), you will be fine. After approximately 20 minutes, we arrived at the Namsam Cable Car station.

Day 3: Driving around Seoul

Day 3 Activities:
  1. Dongdaemun Market 동대문시장 (東大門 市場)
  2. Apgujeong 압구정동 (狎鷗亭洞), Cheongdam-dong 청담동 (淸潭洞), and COEX Mall area
  3. Garosugil 가로수길 (林荫树路)
  4. Itaewon 이태원 (梨泰院)
  5. Cheonggyecheon Stream at night 청계천 (淸溪川)
  6. Myeongdong 명동 (明洞)
I originally planned to take the subway to Dongdaemun Market and the Apgujeong area, however, my good friend in Seoul offered to show me around the city. After pretty much spending all of the second day on my feet, going for a drive was a much welcomed change.

She picked me up early in the morning to hit Dongdaemun before the crowds. If you're wondering whether you should go to Namdaemun Market 남대문 시장 (南大門 市場) or Dongdaemun Market (that is, if you don't have time for both) please read my more detailed post about Dongdaemun here.

From what I read online, I knew Dongdaemun Market would be big, but I didn't know it would be that big! There were so many malls, markets, and little stores, it was definitely overwhelming. You can bargain down prices, but you're not allowed to try on most things. Ask anyway because the shopkeeper just might be in a good mood! Things were actually more expensive than I expected them to be (maybe I was looking in the wrong places?), but I still found a sweater and some leather bracelets.

Sweater bought at Dongdaemun Market

Because I didn't have that much time, I only went to Jeil Pyeonghwa 제일평화시장 and Doota 두타.

Shopping at Jeil Pyeonghwa

Jeil Pyeonghwa resembled a warehouse attic (it's more for ladies 30 and older) and Doota (very fashion forward) was like a Forever 21 on crack.

Myeongdong Gyoja 명동교자 Restaurant Review

Myeongdong Gyoja is a restaurant in Myeongdong known for its kalguksu (knife sliced noodles 칼국수). This place is so popular, there are actually 2 branches in Myeondong within 90 meters of one another.

Myeongdong Gyoja map

I went to branch no. 1, the one across from Missha, on a Thursday night and the place was jam packed. I'm not sure if I was being overly sensitive, but I noticed that when the host realized I was a foreigner, I was escorted upstairs. The restaurant is pretty small on the inside, with the tables crammed closely together, but everything looked fairly clean.

Inside Myeongdong Gyoja

As soon as you sit down, a waitress comes to take your order. Staying true to my online research at wingbus, I ordered kalguksu (knife sliced noodle soup 칼국수), bibimguksu (cold noodles with sauce 비빔국수), and mandu (steamed dumplings 만두). Everything is served with a small bowl of rice and their specially made kimchi. You can ask for free refills for both, but the ajummas are quite vigilant and refill your kimchi almost as soon as you finish.

Kimchi at Myeongdong Gyoja

Now, this was no ordinary kimchi. It looks like a small, innocent lump of fermented goodness, but the kimchi at Myeongdong Gyoja was like a hot fireball fuming with garlic gas. It was seriously spicy, yet strangely addictive. I had three refills before my nose started running non-stop from the heat. 
I didn't wait long at all for my food to come:

Visiting Dongdaemun Market 동대문시장 (東大門 市場)

I only had time to visit one big market in Seoul and it was between Dongdaemun Market and Namdaemun Market 남대문 시장 (南大門 市場). Namdaemun is known for a being a tourist place, while locals tend to flock to Dongdaemun. Namdaemun actually reminds me of the Liuhe Night Market (六合夜市) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

If you ever visit Kaohsiung, everyone will tell you that you have to go to Liuhe Night Market. However, if you live there, like I do, you tend to skip it because it's always chock full of tourists. Being such a tourist hot spot has sapped the night market of its local charm. That's the way I felt about Namdaemun Market, so I chose to go to Dongdaemun instead. This decision was also reinforced by my Korean friend, who told me that Namdaemun leans towards food and kitchen things, whereas Dongdaemun is the place to go if you want to shop for clothes and accessories.

Dongdaemun Market is not so much a market as it is a commercial district full of shopping centers. It's divided into two sections: Section 1 (the left side of the below map) is where most of the malls (Doota, Migliore, and Hello apM) and retail stores are located. Section 2 (the right side of the below map) is where most of the wholesale shops are located. The stores here also sell things at retail, but they mostly deal with bulk sales. Since there are sports stadiums in Dongdaemun, there is also a good selection of sporting goods.

Dongdaemun Market Map, from Korea Hotel Reservations

I hitched a ride from a friend to Dongdaemun Market and the drive from Hotel Ibis in Myeongdong took around 25 minutes because of all the traffic lights. Alternatively, you can take the subway. From Hotel Ibis, you can walk to the Euljiro 1-ga Subway Station and take Line 2 (green) to the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park station (3 stops away). Here, transfer to Line 4 (blue) and get off at the next station, Dongdaemun Station. The entire commute should take around 13 minutes and cost 1000 won, according to Seoul's SMRT website.

Subway directions to Dongdaemun Market

When we finally arrived, I was shocked at how much shopping you could do here. Dongdaemun Market is so big and there are so many stores, you could easily spend 3 days here and only see a fraction of the place. Boy was I glad I was with a local! I only went to two "malls", Jeil Pyeonghwa 제일평화시장 and Doota 두타, and I didn't even feel like I skimmed the surface of shopping.

One thing's for sure, if you're going to shop at Dongdaemun, set aside a lot of time and bring a lot of money. I was under the impression that since there were lots of wholesalers at Dongdaemun, everything would be pretty cheap, but that was not my experience. I'm not sure if it was because we were a little rushed and didn't explore every nook and cranny, but prices at Dongdaemun could easily rival those at my local Macy's. Of course the styles are different and the selection is great, but it was still more expensive than I expected.

Day 2: Walking around Seoul

Day 2 Activities - Seoul, South Korea
  1. Changdeokgung Palace 창덕궁 (昌德宮)
  2. Samcheongdong 삼청동 (三淸洞)
  3. Insadong 인사동 (仁寺洞)
  4. Cheonggyecheon Stream 청계천 (淸溪川)
  5. Myeongdong 명동 (明洞)
Let me preface this post by stating some of my preferences when selecting places to visit. I have seen more than my fair share of ancient buildings, palaces, and temples in China and Japan. I also live in Taiwan for more than half the year, so I am no stranger to street markets or street food. When traveling, I also prefer to walk around the neighborhoods to absorb the city's culture instead of going to museums. Therefore, while Seoul has a number of beautiful palaces, serene temples, interesting museums, and awesome night markets, I did not visit many of them on my trip. If you've never experienced these things before though, definitely check them out if you plan to visit Korea.

I kicked off my second day with an early breakfast at the hotel. Ibis Hotel has a breakfast buffet for 14,000 won. It's pretty pricey for the selection, but it's convenient. There are far better options just outside the hotel in the Myeongdong area, especially juk (rice porridge 죽). If you are a bread person, there are also 2 bakeries nearby in Myeongdong.

KB Bank and Ibis Hotel

After breakfast, I went to KB Bank (right next to the hotel) to exchange more money. If you recall from Day 1, I only exchanged enough money at the airport to buy my bus tickets in order to hold out for more favorable rates at places outside of the airport. The money exchange at the bank was fast and easy. The bankers will understand what you want even if you ask in English. I did end up get a better rate at the bank than at the airport, so I'm glad I waited until the next day to exchange my money. One thing I wish I did before I left the bank was to ask for smaller bills. 5,000 and 1,000 bills will come in handy, especially on taxi rides.

Something I wondered before heading out was whether or not I needed to take my passport with me. The hotel front desk said it would be best to carry my passport at all times while out in Seoul, so that's what I did. The upside is that you have a form of ID on you at all times, but the downside is that you need to be vigilant about your passport so you don't lose it. I didn't need my passport at all in Korea (except to check-in at the hotel and exchange money at the bank), so in hindsight, I would've probably locked it up in the hotel safe and called it a day.

I then took a taxi to Changdeokgung Palace. I was hoping for the hotel to call a cab for me (because cab drivers seem to be on their best behavior that way), but unfortunately, the hotel lobby on the first floor doesn't call taxis for you unless you need a jumbo taxi. You are on your own to hail a cab from the street. Make sure you grab your hotel's business card before you leave so you can find your way back!

Injeongjeon at Changdeokgung

Korea's Tourism Organization has a helpful page on the different kinds of taxis in Korea, but honestly, it's hard to tell them apart when you are trying to flag one down. I hailed a gray colored taxi, which according to that website is a regular taxi. When I got in the car, I busted out with:

Visiting Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul 청계천 (淸溪川)

As I mentioned before, Cheonggyecheon Stream 청계천 (淸溪川) is my favorite place in Seoul. Nothing beats the out-of-place serenity amidst such a busy city.

Cheonggyecheon Stream map

Cheonggyecheon starts at Cheonggye Plaza 청계광장 (淸溪廣場), near the Seoul Finance Center, and extends past Dongdaemun Market 동대문 (東大門). It's also within 15 minutes walking distance from Insadong 인사동 (仁寺洞) and Myeongdong 명동 (明洞).

Cheonggye Plaza

Cheonggye Plaza

Cheonggye Plaza

Visiting Insadong 인사동 (仁寺洞)

Insadong 인사동 (仁寺洞), located in the middle of Seoul, is a busy shopping street. Its main street, Insadong-gil, is flanked by shops selling things both old and new. Tourists and locals alike come here to experience the eclectic shopping, food, and sightseeing. Hidden in small alleys that branch out from the main street are numerous cafes, galleries, and traditional restaurants.

Map of Insadong by The Beetle Map

There are so many stores selling similar items that you can be easily overwhelmed. There are touristy things, souvenirs, clothes, accessories, ceramics, vases, toys, street snacks... you name it. If you want a map of Insadong or ever need any help, there are Tourist Information Centers like this dotted along the street:

Tourist Information Center in Insadong

As I walked down the length of Insadong, I found that most of the things being sold at the beginning of the street were sold at the end of the street as well. I didn't end up buying anything, but you can bargain with the sellers here.

Insadong in Seoul, South Korea

Accessory shops in Insadong

Shops in Insadong

Jirisan Restaurant 지리산 (智異山) Review

Jirisan Restaurant 지리산 (智異山) in Insadong 인사동 (仁寺洞) is known for its good, traditional Korean food. It got lots of good reviews on blogs and on wingbus, so before I left for Korea, I made my mind to dine here.

However, it can be a little confusing to find. As you enter Insadong-gil, walk down a bit and look to your left for this street sign. You can see Jirisan at the bottom right corner.

Insadong street sign

Follow the sign and walk down the narrow alley. It will look something like this:

Walking through Insadong alleys to Jirisan

Walk all the way down and if you see this sign, you are on the right path:

Jirisan Restaurant sign

Make a left and you should see Jirisan Restaurant on your right. Getting closer!

Jirisan Restaurant

The outside of Jirisan looks like a traditional wooden building. There is a huge menu on one of the walls and some trees in the yard.

Outside Jirisan

Changdeokgung 창덕궁 (昌德宮) Brochure

Here is the pamphlet I scanned, including a map of Changdeokgung (material owned by Korea's Tourism Organization):

20 Things to See at Changdeok Palace 창덕궁 (昌德宮)

Changdeokgung map

I'm just typing out the places to visit at Changdeokgung 창덕궁 (昌德宮) so it will be easier for you guys to see, especially if you are planning a self-guided tour. The above picture was scanned from a pamphlet I brought back with me after my visit to Korea.

20 Things to See at Changdeokgung:
  1. Donhwamun 돈화문 (敦化門) - the main entrance gate to Changdeokgung
  2. Injeong-jeon 인정전 (仁政殿) - where coronation and congratulatory ceremonies were held
  3. Seonjeong-jeon 선정전 (宣政殿) - where the King met daily with his ministers, the one with the blue roof tiles
  4. Huijeong-dang 희정당 (熙政堂) - also spelled Heejeongdang, this was a council room for the King
  5. Daejojeon 대조전 (大造殿)  - the King's bedroom, where King Sunjong died
  6. Seongjeong-gak 성정각 (宣政角) - court doctor's main area
  7. Gwolnaegaksa 궐내각사 (闕內各司) - administrative building
  8. Seonwon-jeon 선원전 (璿源殿) - shrine for former Kings' portraits
  9. Nakseon-jae 낙선재 (靻鉏豏) and vicinity - a living place for royal concubines (on Fri, Sat, and Sun)
  10. Sangnyang-jeong and vicinity - pavilions
  11. Buyongji 부용지 (芙蓉池) and Juham-nu 규장각 (奎章閣) and vicinity - a rectangular pond and pavilion in the Biwon gardens; Juhamnu is a library (first floor stores books, second floor is a reading room)
  12. Aeryeonji 애련지 (愛蓮池) and vicinity - a beautiful lotus flower pond and pavillion
  13. Yeongyeong-dang 연경당 (演慶堂) - a building modeled after a gentleman's private residence
  14. Jondeok-jeong 존덕정 (尊德亭) and Gwallamji 관람지 (觀纜池) and vicinity - a hexagonal shaped pavilion and a fan-shaped pavilion and pond
  15. Ongnyucheon 옥류천 (玉流川) and vicinity -a stream in the inner most part of Changdeokgung
  16. New Seonwon-jeon 새선원전 (璿源殿) - where former King's portraits were enshrined
  17. Chinese scholar trees - Trees at the front entrance. Some of these are 300-400 years old. Scholars used to congregate here 
  18. Juniper
  19. Mulberry Tree
  20. Chinese gooseberry tree

Visiting Changdeokgung Palace 창덕궁 (昌德宮)

I visited Changdeokgung 창덕궁 (昌德宮) on my second day in Seoul. The palace was a short taxi ride from my hotel, but check with your accommodations to see if they offer free shuttle rides to the historic sites in Seoul.

Changdeokgung map

Tickets cost 3,000 won and you buy them at the ticket booth towards the left. You can actually purchase a combination ticket for 10,000 won that grants you access to all the other palaces in Seoul: Changdeokgung (including the Secret Garden tour), Gyeongbokgung 경복궁 (景福宮), Changgyeonggung 창경궁 (昌慶宮), Deoksugung 덕수궁 (德壽宮), and Jongmyo Shrine 종묘 (宗廟). The closest places to Changdeokggung are Changgyeonggung (right next to it), Jongmyo Shrine (right below it), and Gyeongbokgung (to the left after passing through the Samcheongdong area). This combination ticket is a much better deal if you want to visit more than one palace. For me, one was enough.

If you visit Changdeokgung on a Thursday, you can roam around the palace grounds by yourself. Any other day and you have to join guided tours to get in. These tours are available in English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese at different times of the day and last around 1 hour and 20 minutes. Changdeokgung is also known for its beautiful Biwon Secret Gardens 비원 (秘院), which you can only visit on special tours. Tickets to the Secret Gardens are sold separately for 5,000 won, but the Biwon tour is included if you purchase the combination ticket described above. However, this tour is two hours long, so I opted not to take it as I had a full day planned ahead.

I liked wandering around Changdeokgung on my own. You might think that you'll miss out on someone explaining everything to you in detail on the guided tours, but as long as you grab a brochure at the entrance, you'll pretty much know what you're looking at. It was nice to be able to walk around freely or sit down whenever I felt like it.

Inside Changdeokgung

It wasn't crowded when I went, but there were lots of kids on field trips with their classes. If you need to use the restrooms (which were clean and stocked with toilet paper), go before the kids or you will be in for a long wait!

Korean student at Changdeokgung

The Second Best in Seoul 서울서 둘째로 잘하는집 Review

My travel guidebook could not stop raving about this must-eat place, so I decided I had to give it a try. The Second Best in Seoul (Seoureseo Duljjaero Jalhaneunjip 서울서 둘째로 잘하는집) is known for its velvety patjuk (red bean soup 팥죽 紅豆粥).

After walking around Samcheongdong, I arrived at this little hole in the wall place. It looked small on the outside and felt even smaller on the inside.

The Second Best in Seoul

The owner speaks Chinese, which came in handy when I ordered some patjuk and shigye (cold sweet rice drink 식혜). Unfortunately, they did not live up to the hype.

Shigye (left) and Patjuk (right)

Patjuk at The Second Best in Seoul

They came in small bowls and cost 9500 won total. The patjuk was topped with cinnamon, chestnuts, and moji. It had a nice texture, but the red bean juk itself was too sweet. As far as the shigye goes, I have nothing good to say about it. It tasted light, but it was not what I was expecting at all. I don't think I will be visiting this place a second time nor do I think it lives up to its name as the "second best" in Seoul. The patjuk definitely isn't worth a making a special trip to try, but other people must love it because I wasn't the only customer at the restaurant and it got some good reviews at wingbus.

For more information if you're interested: 
The Second Best in Seoul (Seoureseo Duljjaero Jalhaneunjip 서울서 둘째로 잘하는집)
Address: South Korea Seoul Jongno-gu Samcheong-dong 28-21 서울시 종로구 삼청동 28-21
Telephone: 02-734-5302
Hours: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Budget: < 10,000 won
Top Menu Items: patjuk (red bean porridge 단팥죽) 5,500 won; shigye (sweet rice drink 식혜) 4,000 won
Directions: Go out of Exit 1 of Anguk Station (Line 3). Take a taxi to KBI (KOREA BANKING INSTITUTE). It usually costs only the basic fare of 3000 won, but it could vary if there is traffic. Alternatively, you can walk for 30 minutes from Anguk Station.

Day 1: Arrival in Seoul, South Korea

Ever since I watched Full House, I've wanted to visit South Korea. Not to stalk Rain or anything, but just to understand what things are like over there. I had been planning this trip for a few years, but never found the right time to go until now. Even though I was still pretty swamped with work, there was no way I was putting this off again because the more I put it off, the less likely it would happen. So, join me as I finally visit my dream country and take you through my Korean adventures in these upcoming posts.

Day 1 Activities - Seoul, South Korea:
  1. Fly to Incheon Airport
  2. Exchange money 
  3. Rent cell phone
  4. Take limousine bus to hotel
  5. Explore what's nearby
  6. Sleep early
As you can see from the above list of activities, my first day, or should say I night, in Seoul was not the most interesting.

There are two main airports in South Korea, Incheon International Airport and Gimpo International Airport. Incheon is the newer one of the two, but also the one that is further away from the heart of Seoul. Most international flights tend to go through Incheon, while domestic flights take off at Gimpo.

I flew to Korea from Taiwan, arriving at Incheon Airport. Since there is only a one hour time difference between Korea and Taiwan, I did not have to battle any sort of jet lag.

Checking in at Kaohsiung International Airport

8 Days in South Korea

It's been a month since I returned from my trip to South Korea and I just now finished uploading all the pictures I took. I spent 4 and a half days in Seoul, 2 and a half days at Seoraksan National Park, and then one more day in Seoul before flying home.

Overall, I had a really great time. Since this trip was just a cursory introduction to South Korean life, I definitely plan to visit it again in the future. I brought back lots of maps and brochures to share with you guys, so check back in the next few days as I update with more detailed posts.

For now, here are my 7 general reflections of South Korea (mainly Seoul):
  1. Traffic is really bad. Seriously, if you plan on driving or taking the taxi, prepare yourself to be stuck in the car for longer than expected. Traffic is especially bad near the Myeongdong area and it seemed to be like that for the whole day, rush hour or not. So even though basic taxi fare is cheap (compared to Japan, Taiwan, and China in my experience), if you are going to use taxis for the majority of your transportation, remember to factor in bumper to bumper time.
  2. You don't have to know how to speak Korean to travel by yourself in Korea. If you plan to be in Seoul, you don't really need to know much Korean, as long as you know English. Of course it will help a lot to know some Korean phrases, but Seoul is very westernized and most signs are in both English and Korean. I do think it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with basic Hangul, that way you can at least read Korean even if you don't know what it means. It'll make it easier to spot shops when their names aren't written in English. Even if the shopkeeper doesn't speak any English, chances are someone nearby will know how to speak it. Just ask around. I'm sure you will be able to find a willing translator. Most shops and restaurants, especially in the touristy areas, can handle basic phrases though. And if no one knows how to speak English, there are a bunch of very convenient, helpful, and free Tourist Information booths scattered around the city. However, when I went to Seoraksan in Sokcho, barely anyone knew any English. So if you are venturing to less urbanized areas, a Korean phrasebook will be your best friend. I actually had my friend send me some handy Korean phrases to print out and show to bus drivers, ticket booths, etc to make sure I was going the right way.
  3. Things in Korea cost more than you think, especially fruit. Before I went to Korea, I was under the impression that everything there would be cheap. Cheap clothes (as in around $10-$20), cheap souvenirs, and cheap food (as in around $1-$3)! But, alas, that was not the case. I'm sure you can find really inexpensive things, like near the universities, but the trade off is poorer quality. I'd rather pay a bit more for clothes that will last longer or for food that is prepared in a more sanitary environment than save a few bucks. Then again, maybe I didn't go to the local watering holes. Or maybe I am just picky? Expensive or cheap is relative though... We'll see when I visit next year and do more exploring!
  4. Shopping is absolutely overwhelming. If you are a woman (or love to shop), you will be in heaven. If you are a man (or hate to shop), you will be in hell. For me, I was in heaven. My eyes lit up at all the trendy styles and rhinestone encrusted accessories. Then 30 minutes later, the huge crowds and overwhelming amount of selection gave me a headache and sent me straight to hell. The thing is, if you are visiting Korea for the first time, your time will be split between sightseeing and shopping. You can't do everything at once and shopping will for sure take a few hours. If you do plan to go shopping, make sure you decide which places you want to shop at before you go. You don't have to hit all the department stores or all the shopping areas. More often than not, they will have the same stores. Dongdaemun market is the best for the most "a little bit of everything" shopping. Also, it's a good idea to make a list of potential things you want to buy, so you don't waste your shopping time doing a whole lot of aimless wandering.
  5. Food tasted pretty similar everywhere in Korea. I was expecting food in Korea to be really good since, in Korea, bulgogi has got to be more authentic than the bulgogi at the Korean restaurant I frequent in Houston right? Well, either that restaurant serves some really authentic food to begin with or my expectations were just too high. Don't get me wrong. I love Korean food and found food in Korea to be absolutely delicious. It just didn't blow me away like I thought it would. Take Gogung Restaurant, for example. Gogung in Seoul is famous for their Jeongju bibimbap, but honestly, I thought it tasted more or less the same as the bibimbap I had at other places. I actually think the dolsot bibimbap in Taiwan tasted better than the dolsot bibimbap in Korea. Maybe because Taiwanese food focuses on more intense flavors? Or it could be that Taiwanese food is always served hot (temperature-wise), while food in Korea was often just warm. For me, hot food tends to take mediocre food to the next level and since it was kind of chilly when I visited in October, hot food and hot soup would have made my belly much happier. Kimchi, however, is hands-down the best in Korea.
  6. You won't be running into any celebrities. My dream of meeting Rain, him doing a double take and then instantly falling in love with me, unfortunately, did not come true. Unless you mean billboard ads, you will be hard-pressed to run into any Korean celebrities, even though they all live in Seoul. I read online that the best place to meet Hallyu stars was at the Apgujeong and Gangnam area, but I didn't spot anyone famous there. Not that I was doing any stalking or anything... Alternatively, you can wait outside recording studios like KBS or entertainment companies like SM, but it seems like there'd be better things to do while you're in Korea than wait for a K-pop star to maybe or maybe not show up. If you can't meet them in person, at the very least, you can get your fill by buying their photo books, picture cards, and other memorabilia. SM Entertainment has a whole store in Myeongdong devoted to promoting Girls' Generation, Super Junior, and SHINee!  
  7. Seoul is very East meets West. It's an indescribable feeling to be sandwiched simultaneously between two cultures and two time periods: East meets West and Old meets New. I really liked how in Korea, there would be a huge row of skyscrapers and then nestled in between them would be an old temple or something. Or how some places would add cheese to their tteokbokki or kimchi to their pizza. It's also interesting to see Asian architecture and Asian statues dotted around such a modern city. I don't think you can find any other place that is as unique in this aspect as Seoul. Since I grew up in the States and now travel back and forth between the States and Asia for work, it was especially surreal to experience such a collision of cultures and time periods.