I woke up early the next morning and caught a bus to the entrance of 우면산 (umyeonsan/Umyeon mountain), where Eunju, Julie and I would start our second day of Seoul exploration with a short hike and lunch. We ended up only walking for a short time before accidentally stumbling upon the very peaceful 대성사 (daesongsa/Daesong Temple), which with beautiful views across Seoul seemed like as good a place as any to stop and eat. However, the local wasp population decided to make our picnic as difficult as possible, and it wasn’t long before we just gave up and made our way back down the mountain again. Our route down took us via the Seoul Arts Centre, which boasts a large and impressive musical fountain outside. We sat and watched for a while, surrounded by adorable children and their families; we were the only ones without any children accompanying us, but nevertheless enjoyed the spectacle almost as much as the excited kids.
From here, we took a bus to the 고속터미널 (Gosok [Express] Bus Terminal) for a quick spot of shopping – it was Julie’s birthday weekend, after all, and Eunju wanted to buy her some gifts. A bus terminal is probably not a place you might imagine to be a great shopping location, but there’s a huge Shinsegae Department Store, as well as a shopping mall and underground shopping area, attached to the terminal. We then spent a little while walking around the mall searching for a good spot for some drinks and a sit down, and as soon as I spotted a cafe that offered a cheesecake milkshake, I knew we had found our place. I was so excited at the prospect of this beverage that I exclaimed it loud enough outside the cafe for the woman behind the till to hear me and begin putting in my order from several feet away.
After a rest, we went via subway to the 동대문 (Dongdaemun) area, and as well as the gate and market, couldn’t resist showing Julie the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza), which became instantly iconic following its construction due to its striking architecture. I’ve visited a number of times before, and sadly was feeling a little lazy at this point in the day, so didn’t take any photos.
Our next point of call was 이화벽화마을 (Ihwa Byeokhkwa Maeul, Ihwa Mural Village) which I was very excited about because I’d actually never been before, despite photos of its beautiful painted walls and stairs always featuring in guidebooks and articles about Seoul. We began to walk there, but already feeling exhausted, I half-jokingly suggested we instead take a taxi, and Eunju’s hand instantly shot out and hailed one. Bizarrely, the taxi driver didn’t know where this popular tourist destination was, and after driving round in circles a couple of times, Eunju eventually had to guide him using the GPS on her phone.
I begrudgingly paid him and we got out, and it wasn’t until he’d left that Eunju realised that he had taken us to the wrong end of the village and we were kind of at the exit. Nevertheless, we simply did the route in a big circle, able to enjoy the artwork quite peacefully; despite it being a Saturday, it was surprisingly quiet.
Already starving, we decided to walk from the Mural Village to 혜화 (Hyehwa), a lively theatre district, for an early dinner. Eunju spotted a branch of a restaurant (서가앤쿡/Seoga and Cook) she knew was delicious and did enormous portions, and we didn’t need any convincing. We had to wait a little while with it being a Saturday evening, but it was well worth the wait; by the time we’d finished eating, I felt as though I would never move again.
However, being very limited with time, we all dragged our (no doubt several kilograms heavier) bodies back outside and took the subway to 명동 (Myeongdong). Eunju’s Saturday itinerary ended with us taking the cable car up to 남산 (Namsan) Tower – again, something I was excited about, having only ever been to the tower on foot. However, our plan was soon scuppered when we arrived at the cable car station to see an enormous queue, with warnings that it would be two hours before we could take it.
The thought of having to walk up the mountain after the past two days of doing nothing but walking filled us with quiet dread, and so we jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us as far as she could. However, this was our second disastrous taxi ride of the day, for she took us away from the mountain in an attempt to go back round another way, went wrong, went back out and round, and then took us back to where we had got in the taxi, before announcing that this was as close as you could get by car, and that ‘walking is more fun anyway!’. She was actually very nice and apologetic, cutting our fee down to the minimum (although, really, should we have paid anything if we were taken back to the exact spot we started in?), and with heavy hearts we stepped out and began the long walk.
Eunju and Julie seemed pretty down about this, so I did my best to keep us awake, energetic, and entertained by jogging and singing for some of the journey. It kind of worked, though I later realised that, at some point during one of my ridiculous uphill sprints, my purse containing ₩60,000 must have fallen out of my bag. (Usually, Koreans are great about returning things, even wallets containing money, back to their original owner untouched, provided they can find a way to do so; however, this purse contained absolutely no ID or contact info, so sadly I had to write it off and say goodbye to the money).
After what seemed like an age we arrived at the tower, which at 9pm on a Saturday night was still bustling with life. We bought tickets and realised that this too would be a considerable wait, so settled in at the small cafe downstairs (while I urgently downed a coffee in about thirty seconds, desperate to stay alert). This was soon disrupted by a strange Russian tourist wearing a Putin shirt, which Julie jokingly commented on (because I mean…who wears t-shirts with Putin on in a serious way? Well, apparently this guy); this then sparked a huge debate about Russia and its morals, which we needed to save Julie from, so Eunju pretended that our ticket number had been announced, and we instead went and browsed the gift shop for a while.
Eventually it actually was time for us to queue, which took another twenty to thirty minutes – it’s obligatory to have a ridiculous tourist photo taken in front of a green screen before you can take the lift up to the top of the tower. Finally, we then made it to the top, and despite the crowds outside, it wasn’t anywhere near as busy as it could have been. Seeing cityscapes at night is one of my absolute favourite things, and Seoul has to be up there with the most beautiful. We took photos and enjoyed the views for as long as we could muster energy to do so, before looking at each other and all admitting how tired we were, and then giving in and calling it a day.
The walk back down the mountain thankfully felt much quicker, though Eunju fell and hurt her leg, and Julie’s back was hurting, and by the time we got to the bottom we looked like a ridiculous, exhausted mess. We practically fell into a taxi to my apartment (thankfully only a couple of minutes away, though way too hilly for us to have walked) so that I could fetch a few things, before grabbing another cab to Eunju’s house for the night.
We arrived just before midnight, and sat around talking for a little while because, after the following morning, I wouldn’t see Julie again for at least several months. We didn’t manage to stay awake very long, though, and I soon slipped into a very deep and much-needed sleep. Eunju’s mum prepared an amazing birthday breakfast for Julie the next day, complete with an amazing cake from Paris Baguette, and for the millionth time that weekend, we ate until we could eat no more. After this, sadly Julie had to start making her way to the airport for her flight that afternoon, and I had a prior engagement (which may or may not have been a Super Junior concert) later that day, so I wasn’t able to accompany her and Eunju. However, we had crammed so much into the short few days that she had been in Seoul that I felt like we had been able to spend much more time together than we actually had, and I was glad to have shown her so much of the city that is now my home. (Julie secretly admitted to us that she really didn’t want to go back to Japan because, simply, ‘Korea is better’. Job well done, I think.)
I believe the itinerary we followed for our 48-hour whistlestop tour of Seoul would serve well for anyone visiting the city for a limited amount of time. Naturally, things can easily be tweaked to adjust to your wants and needs, but as a way of seeing many of Seoul’s famous highlights in a short amount of time, I think this plan does pretty well (if you’re prepared to walk a lot and be in need of a very good night’s sleep at the end):
- 광화문 (Gwanghwamun) and 경복궁 (Gyeongbokgung) – famous square and palace
- Walk to 인사동 (Insadong) for lunch, coffee, and shopping
- Walk to 삼청동/북촌 (Samcheong-dong/Bukchon) for street art, traditional village, and shopping
- Walk to 조계사 (Jogyesa), a beautiful Buddhist temple
- Walk to 명동 (Myeongdong), Seoul’s most famous shopping area, for (you guessed it) shopping and dinner
- Bus to 해방촌 (Haebangchon) for makgeolli tasting
- 우면산 (Umyeonsan) for hiking, temple, and lunch (and Seoul Arts Centre)
- Bus to 고속터미널 (Gosok Terminal) for shopping
- Subway to 동대문 (Dongdaemun) area for famous gate, market, and Dongdaemun Design Plaza
- Taxi to 이화벽화마을 (Ihwa Byeokhwa Maeul) for Mural Village
- Walk to 혜화 (Hyehwa) for dinner (and shopping)
- Subway to 명동 (Myeongdong) for Namsan Tower at night; can take cable car (if it’s not busy or if you don’t mind waiting) or walk up the mountain