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October 15, 2017

Getting Into the Halloween Spirit, Seoul Style

Halloween isn't a traditional holiday here in Korea but over the past decade or so, it has begun to slowly seep into the nation's culture.

In Seoul, decorations can be spotted in store fronts while costumes can be purchased at supermarkets and speciality stores. Kindergarteners go trick-or-treating at their English hagwons and bars offer cash prizes to the best-dressed vampire, cartoon character or sexy bunny.

This year (2017), there are a number of events going on in Seoul around the 31st (including a Halloween pub crawl, a Halloween booze cruise hosted by Adventure Korea and a Rocky Horror Picture Show production) but if you're like me, you just can't wait until the end of the month to start celebrating.

Check out my suggestions below on how to get into the Halloween spirit, Korean style.

The Dark Side of Seoul

The Korean capital is a beautiful city with lots to see: sparkling skyscrapers, majestic mountains and peaceful palace gardens. Surprisingly (or not), the city has a dark history that very few visitors ever learn about--one that is often not advertised in guidebooks or attraction brochures.

Enter Joe McPherson, founder of ZenKimchi Food Journal and guide of the Dark Side of Seoul walking tour. Modeled after the ghost tours of other big cities, the tour aims to showcase stories of hauntings, murder and sex scandals of the past.

The Dark Side tour has been in operation for a few years now, but it has already been rated one of the best city tours in Seoul, and it isn't difficult to see why. Joe, who studied Korean history in university, is extremely knowledgeable about the lesser-known aspects of Seoul's history and navigates the dimly-lit back alleys of the city like he's lived here his entire life.

The Dark Side of Seoul tour takes participants to Seoul's most sinister locales.

He also has a seemingly endless list of ghost stories and urban legends to tell tour participants and conveys them in an entertaining way.

When I joined the tour, our group had an unusual encounter when a fellow tour mate told us she was picking up a lot of energy. This energy, she said, came from a female spirit who followed us up the steps of the palace we visited, but refused to go in. As it turns out, what she felt exactly matched Joe's version of the story. The following night, a few people on the tour picked up light orbs with their cameras in the same place. Creepy!

Join the Dark Side of Seoul Tour, which is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm in October.  For more information or to make a reservation, click here.

Joe McPherson entertains participants with his interesting and comical Korean ghost stories.

The Sinister Side of Seoul

After checking out the Dark Side of Seoul and exploring the haunted areas downtown, why not create your own horror tour itinerary and check out a few additional sinister spots around the city, including a prison where Japanese colonialists tortured Korean independence fighters and a mountain where one of the country's most notorious serial killers buried his victims.

For a complete list of these darker corners of Seoul, click here.

Wax Museum Haunts

There's something about wax museums that's,  well... creepy. I mean, just walking through the place makes you wonder if those eerily realistic, life-sized figures come to life when the lights go down and the doors are locked.

The Grevin Museum in Seoul has officially upped the ante with a series of events and activities that will take place there this month.

From October 14 to 21, visitors can get into the Halloween spirit all the while rocking out to Michael Jackson's Halloween album "Scream." This "thriller" of an event is only enhanced by fun augmented reality experiences that can be had throughout the museum.

On October 28 from 2 to 5pm, visitors of all ages can get a scary makeover, thanks to the Halloween makeup services on offer.

Walk Like a Zombie

Zombie Walk Seoul began in 2012 as the first international zombie walk parade in Korea. Last year, over 500 participants donned in tattered clothes and creepy makeup marched through the streets of Shinchon and Hongdae to frighten unsuspecting passers-by.

Now in its sixth year, it's expected to be bigger and better than ever. Join Seoul's undead for some Halloween fun on Saturday, November 4 at 3pm in Sinchon. For details, click here.

Image: KimchiBytes

Lotte World Zombie Party

If you can't make the Zombie Walk, or you just can't get enough of zombies, stop by Lotte World in Jamsil in the evenings from now until November 5 for a show you'll never forget. Zombies come to life to feast on unsuspecting visitors. Think chainsaws, Walking Dead-like zombie moves and makeup that's the stuff of nightmares.

There are also plenty of spooky, Halloween-themed rides and experiences that are sure to give you the scare you seek in the evenings, while children can enjoy the park's "Cute Halloween" events before sunset, including the Happy Halloween Parade.

Everland Horror Village 

Just an hour outside of Seoul is Everland, Korea's answer to Disney World. During the month of October, the entire theme park is transformed into a "Blood City," complete with over-sized jack-o-lantern decorations, a cute parade for children, and the Horror Village, the perfect place to get your Halloween chills and thrills. In 2017, it will operate from now until November 5.

The Horror Village area of the park is open all day but is most fun at night, when a convincing cast of vampires, witches and seriously creepy Korean ghosts and folktale creatures sneak around in the shadows, terrifying unknowing visitors.

There are two horror mazes (open 11am-7pm) in the village that require an additional fee (around 5,000 won) and a wait in a long line but are worth every won.

In Horror Maze 1, your group will be given only a single flashlight to navigate your way through a building constructed to look like a madman's shed of mangled body parts and Frankenstein-like human experiments. Incredibly creepy but so much fun! (Tip: Tickets to the Horror Maze are limited so be sure to book your time as soon as you arrive at Everland.)

Don't miss Everland's Horror Maze I to get your adrenaline pumping.

Additionally, a Horror Safari will take you on a wild ride through African terrain... infested with zombies. For more information on Everland, including admission costs and directions, click here.

Shots Served by Zombies

Still not enough zombie action for ya? Then why not have a few drinks at Noneun Zombie in Hongdae?

At this quirky pocha (a bar that requires the purchase of food), things seem pretty normal. That is, until the lights go out and the sirens sound.... and an army of zombies attack! Some may grab you and encourage you to down your Zombie Shot, others may dance to Big Bang tracks. Either way, it's an experience that won't soon be forgotten.

The place gets pretty packed starting at 10pm, so consider arriving early.

Horror Movies

If a good horror movie is what it takes to get you into the spirit, you're in luck. In my opinion, Korea does horror movies much better than Hollywood and there are plenty available on the internet with English subtitles.

Check out Death Bell, a classic horror flick set in a high school college exam prep class. A group of elite students are killed off in order of their class rank by a vengeful murderer who promises to continue to take the students' lives one by one unless they answer a set of questions correctly.  The students fight eagerly to discover the motive and the mastermind behind the killings.

Death by fishtank is only one of the famous scenes in Death Bell, a favorite Korean horror flick. [Photo: CultureView.com]
Another personal favorite is A Tale of Two Sisters, a brilliant psychological thriller about suicide, murder and revenge that will keep you on the edge of your seat (and scratching your head at times) with ingenious plot twists and great cinematography. Train to Busan is yet another favorite that follows a crowd of passengers on the KTX as they try to survive a zombie outbreak spreading quickly across Korea.

Doll Master, a film about possessed dolls, is a flick that lacks quality special effects but has a creepy, well executed story. Be sure to visit Hapjeong's Blue Fairy Cafe after watching it for even more creepiness. (Note: As of 2015, Blue Fairy Cafe is now closed.)

Sweet Treats

No Halloween is complete without sweet treats and there are plenty of places in Seoul to pig out on cute, sugar-coated ghoulish goodies.

Monster Cupcakes, located near the main entrance of Gyeongridan, is the place for cupcake fanatics to satisfy their sweet tooth with adorably decorated treats. Try the tasty Tombstone Tiramisu or the Eyeball Lemon and enjoy the monster-themed cafe decor.

If you can't make it out to Itaewon, visit your local Krispy Kreme for some spooky donuts. Their Real Pumpkin is a cute frosted jack-o-lantern and is stuffed with a sweet pumpkin filling.

No matter how you celebrate Halloween this year, have fun doing it!! And be sure to watch out for the ghosts and goblins haunting the seemingly serene parks and palaces of the city. Muahhhhhahahaha.

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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September 28, 2017

Ideas and Tips on Gift-Giving in Korea

If you’re new to South Korea, you’ll notice the hundreds of specialty shops that dot the city streets that offer more goods and gifts you could ever hope to buy for yourself. A great way to take advantage of these amazing shops and indulge in their wares is to immerse yourself in the rich tradition of gift-giving.

Many Asian cultures value modesty and graciousness as staples of their culture, and South Korea is no different. This translates into the gift-giving culture as a wonderful way to express gratitude towards others who have shown their kindness.

If you are new to the culture, here are a few tips to help your gift-giving in South Korea go smoothly.

The first thing you should understand about the gift-giving culture is that Koreans pride themselves on modesty and humbleness. Gift-giving is a way for Koreans to show respect, keep good kibun (being in a good state of mind), and show modest graciousness. The emphasis on modesty and appreciation lends itself to the way gifts are given and accepted.

For example, gifts are given with both hands, and are never opened in front of the giver.

Colorful and elegant bojagi, or Korean gift wrapping cloth, illustrates the importance of the gift's appearance. Photo

Presentation and Selection of your Gifts

Make an effort to wrap your gifts nicely. Presentation and packaging matter almost as much as the gift itself. Yellow or green-striped wrapping paper is a traditional wrapping design in Korea, and you may want to avoid wrapping gifts in dark or red paper. Red is associated with unpleasantness and isn’t used in gift wrapping.

If you are sending gifts to South Korea as a thank-you or follow-up to a business meeting or visit, try using an international gifting service so you can send big baskets of flowers or blossoming shrubs. You can’t send these types of preferred gifts overseas yourself, and these services ensure the package arrives undamaged and perfectly wrapped with bows and ribbons.

Even though Koreans take great pride in their own culture, regional gifts from your home country or town also make great gifts for any occasion. If you aren’t sure what to get, a great resource is to search “regional gifts” on Amazon.com. They have thousands of selections of items you may not have even known exist from your home region!

If you’re already in the country and are at a loss at what to bring the hostess of next week’s dinner party, food can always be your go-to. There has been a bit of a cupcake renaissance in Seoul, and cookies, wine and fine chocolates can be a sweet way to offer your thanks.

Gift baskets are always a safe choice for any occasion. Photo

Understand the Cultural Taboos and Traditions

In most Asian cultures, giving sharp objects is symbolic of severing the relationship, and the same idea applies in South Korea. While giving a newlywed couple a new set of expensive kitchen knives may be commonplace in other areas of the world, you may want to avoid it in Korea. In fact, you may want to stick to the Korean wedding tradition of giving cold hard cash to the bride and groom.

Many Korean holidays, like Chuseok, are celebrated by exchanging gifts. Wine, fruit and other culinary delicacies are great ideas for these holidays, but don’t discount the value of giving money for celebrations like New Year’s Day and weddings. Money is actually the preferred gift for many family celebrations.

As a house-warming gift, candles with a big box of matches and laundry detergent may seem odd in your home country, but they are the traditional gifts in Korea.

You may feel like there are rules for every situation and celebration, but gift-giving in Korea is really only centered around one aspect - showing thanks. Understanding the culture and traditions may make your experiences easier, and choosing what to give someone in any circumstance may quickly become second nature. So use the helpful tips, and enjoy your next gift-giving experience!

Pretty envelopes like the one pictured above can be purchased in just about any of Korea's stationary stores and are used for giving money on New Year's and at weddings. Photo

How is your country's gift-giving culture different from Korea's? Leave your comments in the box below.

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September 24, 2017

Gross or Great? 8 of Korea’s Most Bizarre Foods

Every country has its fair share of… “delicacies”… and Korea is no exception.

While some of the country’s dishes are downright scary (both in appearance and taste), others are just unfamiliar concepts to the Western palate that work surprisingly well. Nevertheless, they are all components of Korea’s rich cultural and gastronomic heritage that should not simply be brushed off.

Below are eight of them. But I must warn you, reader: these dishes aren't for the faint of stomach.

Beondegi (번데기)

If the thought of roasted silkworm larvae doesn't turn you off, then the distinctive smell will.


And to make matters worse, beondegi boast a rather memorable flavor combination—a roasty, chewy, insecty fusion that leaves one hell of an aftertaste. These little guys are also sold canned, stewed in a buggy broth. On the upside, insects like beondegi, are a high-quality, low-fat protein that can boost your energy. So much so that scientists say they could potentially be the next big superfood.

Which I suppose is why Korean parents often give them to their kids as snacks—without telling them that they’re eating bugs, of course.

Seonji Haejangguk (선지해장국)

Coagulated ox blood hangover soup. I know your mouth is watering already.

After a night of too much drinking, Koreans often cure their hangovers by slurping up spicy, hot soup. (Which, I can personally say is quite effective.) But this particular variety, which features a moldy, gray, sponge-like chunk of coagulated blood, isn’t my cup of tea (or bowl of soup).

Dalkddongjib (닭똥집)

This little treat translates literally to "Chicken's House of Poo" which, in essence, is chicken anus, a popular drinking food among Korean “salarymen.”
Dalkddongjib is usually steamed or stir-fried and is made with a seemingly harmless mix of oil, chili peppers and sesame seeds. The dish is a bit on the chewy side, but the flavor, I have to admit, isn’t all that bad. Then again, I guess anything is good when served with soju.

Gejang (게장)

Instead of being cooked, these little crabs are seasoned in various sauces, such as soy- or chili pepper-based sauce, fermented a bit and eaten raw. The entire creature is meant to be eaten, but the shells are still quite hard.

This dish is especially popular in South Korea, and even has an entire alley dedicated to restaurants that serve up the specialty.

Hongeo (홍어)

Speaking of fermented seafood, hongeo, or fermented skate, is another one of the more bizarre—and one of the strongest smelling you will find in the entire world.

Image: Zen Kimchi

Skates, which look similar to rays, don’t urinate like other fish. Instead, they pass uric acid through their skin. When it is fermented, the uric acid breaks down into a compound which smells exactly like ammonia. The smell of this fish is so strong that some suggest inhaling through your mouth and breathing out through your nose to reduce exposure to the odor.

But, like chicken feet, they provide plenty of collagen, which might just be one of the reasons Koreans have such amazing skin.

Sannakji (산낙지)

Live octopus is perhaps one of the most famous on this list, thanks to its appearance in multiple travel shows, as well as Korea’s most famous movie, Oldboy. (Watch below for the full effect.)

When ordered, the chef will chop up the tentacles which will continue to squirm around when served. Diners then attempt to pry the bits of moving, sucking tentacle from their plates, dip them in a variety of sauces and finally revel in the strange taste sensation. Surprisingly, however, there’s not much flavor… but it sure is fresh.

Chewing is the most important part of dining on live octopus, as there have been cases (approximately six a year, in fact) in which the octopus has used its suction cups to grab onto the eater's esophagus, thus choking them to death. Who would have thought that octopi could make their way to the top of the food chain?

Boshintang (보신탕)

To set the record straight, yes, dog is still eaten in Korea, despite what the government or media says. That being said, it is not a dish that is commonly eaten, and when it is, it’s usually by old men. For "stamina."

In fact, most young Koreans are appalled at the fact that eating dog is still legal, especially considering the incredibly sad and abusive practices that are carried out in dog farming. It's quite common to see animal rights organizations out and about, protesting dog farming, and if my guess is correct, the whole practice of eating dog will be outlawed within the next decade or so.

Gaebul (개불)

Take a look at this delicacy in action. Would it surprise you that this little creature is eaten as an aphrodisiac… for men?

Gaebul is a species of sea worm whose phallic appearance has earned it its nickname of “penis fish.” If that weren’t enough, chewing on gaebul results in an explosive spray of…salt water. This is also what it tastes like. Enough said.

Is your appetite adventurous enough to stomach these daring dishes? Which would you try? Leave them in the comments below.

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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September 20, 2017

Is It Safe to Travel to South Korea?

This article was originally published in May 2013 but is still just as relevant today amid the most recent missle tests and threats from North Korea. 

While eating breakfast at my hostel in Barcelona in April 2013, a CNN news brief aired declaring that tensions were high and nuclear war was imminent on the Korean peninsula.  A Korean backpacker that I had met earlier that week looked at me and simultaneously, we rolled our eyes, irked by the excessive urgency and seriousness in the reporters' words. The others in the room, who hailed from all corners of the globe, looked worried and advised us to prolong our stay in Europe rather than return to a country that was in such a hostile state.

The concerned comments didn't end there. Messages from my friends in America began flooding my inbox with questions regarding my well-being and my parents even offered to purchase a plane ticket so I could quickly get back to Mississippi.

The fact of the matter is that during the situation, I never once considered not going back to Korea.  After living in Seoul for over eight years, I have become accustomed to North Korea's endless empty threats and South Korea's apathy toward them. Fortunately, because I was traveling, I also wasn't as exposed to the media's outrageous reports, which were no doubt embellished to expand viewership and increase ratings.

As tragic as it was, the Boston Marathon bombing was the event that eased my family's and friends' fears. After the bombing, news on North Korea was virtually nonexistent, proving that the threats were not as newsworthy as the media networks made them out to be.

When I returned to Seoul at the end of April, I was not surprised to find the city unchanged. Walking around downtown, I spotted cheerful children playing, decorations for Buddha's Birthday being hung, and happy couples sipping lattes in cafes.

A gentleman at Gwangjang Market expresses more interest in the latest soap opera than in updates on North Korea. (Photo: Seoul Searching)

Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, I'm well accustomed to impending disaster and brewing panic. Once every few years, a hurricane would sweep through our stretch of coastline, knocking down houses and flooding towns. I was used to trips to the supermarket to stock up on emergency supplies and waiting hours in line at service stations for gasoline.

The tensions that were manifest during those times were (and are still) nowhere to be found or felt in Korea.

In fact, those who live in Korea might be wondering why I am writing this, as it is indeed old news.  Still, there are a number of people considering moving or traveling to Korea and are wondering, "Is it really safe?"

The answer is yes, it is.

I have traveled to over thirty countries and can assuredly say that of all of the places I've visited, Korea is the safest. This remains to be true in the midst of the North's threats. I could go on to elaborate as to why North Korea would never actually make an attempt to engage in warfare with the South (or the US), but I think the reasons are obvious enough. Kim Jong-un might be egotistical and absurd, but he's not stupid, nor is he ready to see the fall of his dear nation.

A number of circulating memes indicate that many netizens are more interested in mocking Kim Jong-un than fearing him. (Photo: Gagnamite.com)

But don't take my word for it. A countless number of unfazed embassies (including the American one in Seoul) have issued notices stating, "...despite current political tensions with North Korea there is no specific information to suggest there are imminent threats to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea (ROK)."

The same goes for the recent outbreak of MERS. I'll be the first to admit that the American government is far from perfect but I do believe that they would make an effort to advise citizens to leave the country if necessary.

Now, I'm not saying that there are not risks involved in traveling to Korea. In actuality, there are risks involved in traveling anywhere outside the comfort of your home. If there weren't, travel insurance agencies would cease to exist. There are, however, precautions you can take to ensure peace of mind during your trip.

Be sure to notify your country's embassy of your travel plans, and monitor travel warnings and worldwide caution notices. Again, this should be a habit when traveling to any country, not just South Korea.

Fear of empty threats provoked by money-hungry media networks should not deter anyone from experiencing the wonderful food, culture and attractions South Korea has to offer.  Happy (and safe) travels!

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless otherwise noted.

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September 18, 2017

5 Reasons to FALL in Love with Korea in Autumn

I can feel it. There's a crispness in the air that hints fall is near.

So close, in fact, that the first hints of autumn colors can be seen streaking the mostly verdant leaves that canopy the green spaces of Seoul. The aroma of roasting chestnuts permeates the busy streets downtown. Sweaters take over the storefronts of Myeongdong, Dongdaemun and Sinsa, the shopping districts of the city.

Yes, I can feel it.  And I'm giddy.

Korea's fall beauty in full force © hojusaram
You see, there's something about autumn that makes my heart beat a little faster. There always has been. When I lived in America, it was tailgating at football games and trick-or-treating that did it for me. But here in Korea, there are a number of things that keep me eagerly waiting for this beautiful season all year long.

Here are five of them.

Mountain Hikes

For one, there's nothing more beautiful than the sight of the country as it becomes progressively saturated with a palette of autumn hues: burning crimsons, vibrant oranges, and rich browns.

Hikers enjoy the fall foliage at Seoraksan National Park in Sokcho. © Seoul Searching
It's the perfect time of year to enjoy the great outdoors, whether taking a walk at the park or hiking one of the nation's famous mountains. One of the most well-known places to see the foliage is Seoraksan National Park in the city of Sokcho, situated on the east coast of the peninsula. Inwangsan and Dobongsan Mountains in Seoul are two other beautiful and even more convenient hiking spots.

Beautiful autumn hues paint Shinheungsa Temple in Seoraksan.© Seoul Searching

Fall Colors at Seoul's Palaces

The palaces of Seoul are also great destinations to witness the colorful transformation of Korea during its most aesthetically pleasing season. The visual of traditional buildings and reflecting ponds draped in the colors of fall lure photographers, artists, and romantics from all around the country.

The bright colors of Deoksugung Palace blend beautifully with the yellows of the leaves.© Seoul Searching
When visiting the palaces, one can almost make out the kings and queens of past dynasties reflectively sipping tea under the vivid maple trees, enjoying the crisp chill in the air.

Leaves blanket the reflecting pool at Deoksugung Palace. © Seoul Searching
Seasonal Produce

Fall is also a time of harvest in Korea and the new crops are rich and delicious. Grains are used for making alcohol and special rice cakes called songpyeon are prepared for Chuseok, but my favorite fall food is the persimmon.

A symbol of autumn in Korea, persimmons add even more color to the foliage and offer a welcomed sweetness to the otherwise savory spread of the country's seasonal cuisine. They are particularly tasty when hardened, resembling crispy apples.

Persimmon trees add a splash of color to Gyeongbokgung Palace © Seoul Searching
Persimmons are also dried to make sujeonggwa, a punch-like drink. Dried persimmons are mixed with ginger and cinnamon to create the perfect fall beverage. Although it is traditionally served cold, I personally find it tastes best when hot, just like apple cider.

Pojangmacha & Street Food

Street food vendors serve up seasonal favorites like chestnuts, roasted sweet potatoes and hotteok, a sweet brown sugar-filled pancake. The smells that emanate from the food stalls are enticing to say the least, as are the bright orange colors of the pojangmacha, Korean street food tents.

Hotteok is a unique Korean snack made with wheat flour dough filled with dark brown sugar, cinnamon, sesame, and chopped peanuts © KoreaNet
Although these tents are open for business throughout the year, they are best enjoyed in the fall, when temperatures are ideal to load up on street snacks and swig shots of soju in the open-air spaces offered by the tents.

The sights and smells of pojangmacha, street food tents, lure passersby. © Seoul Searching
Happy Seoulites

Finally, people are happier during the fall. I'm not sure what it is. The end of the sweltering temperatures, the time spent with family, the simple beauty that can only be created by Mother Nature. Whatever the reason, smiles are contagious and folks are friendlier.

Autumn is one of the few seasons that is capable of provoking all the senses, particularly in Korea.  It's a short season, lasting only about a month and a half, but is a wonderful time to experience the splendor of the country before the cold winter sets in.

Fall Foliage Forecast

Korea’s autumn foliage season usually starts in late September and lasts until mid-November, reaching its peak when the yellow and red colors of the trees cover 80 percent of the mountain--about two weeks after the first fall foliage is observed.

According to the Kweather forecast, the 2017 autumn foliage season will arrive two or three days earlier than usual. The first autumn foliage is expected to begin in the northeast regions, at Seoraksan National Park around September 27, followed by the central and southwest regions around mid-October. The autumn foliage will arrive in the southern regions between mid to late October.

Image: KTO
Fall Foliage Dates by National Park

Seoraksan National Park   Starts: September 27 Peak: October 19
Jirisan National Park   Starts: October 12 Peak: October 24
Naejangsan National Park   Starts: October 20 Peak: November 8
Odaesan National Park   Starts: October 1 Peak: October 17
Daedunsan Provincial Park   Starts: October 15 Peak: October 27
Songnisan National Park   Starts: October 12 Peak: October 25
Deogyusan National Park   Starts: October 13 Peak: October 27
Juwangsan National Park   Starts: October 13 Peak: October 29
Gayasan National Park   Starts: October 13 Peak: October 30
Bukhansan National Park   Starts: October 15 Peak: October 29
Hallasan National Park   Starts: October 17 Peak: October 31

Let the countdown to fall begin!

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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September 13, 2017

The Best Things to Do, See and Eat in Insadong

Once the country’s largest market for trading antiques and artwork, Insadong has over the years developed into a bustling yet quaint destination that is now recognized as one of Seoul’s most iconic neighborhoods.

Fairly well preserved and organized to represent Korea’s culture of both the past and the present, Insadong is the premiere locale to sample unique dishes, spend an afternoon in a tea house and wander delightful shops that sell everything from traditional stationary to EXO posters and delicate ceramics to cosmetics.

Most tourists only stick to the main strip, Insadong Street, which is quite a shame considering that the narrow side streets that wind through the district are a treasure trove of antique shops, art galleries and tiny cafes waiting to be explored.

One of the best ways to fully experience the real Insadong is to simply lose yourself in the maze of alleys. But for those with limited time, there are still plenty of places to see to get a feel for the area.

Back to the Good Ol Days 

The entrance to the neighborhood, located just outside Anguk Station and a stone’s throw from Gyeongbok Palace, is marked by a giant stone paintbrush, a striking symbol that pays tribute to Insadong’s artistic roots. Here, you can pick up a few additional maps or brochures at the tourist information booth or grab a quick bite to eat at Miss Lee’s Cafe (별다방미스리).

This lively little eatery serves up nostalgia with its signature lunchbox meal of sausage, kimchi pork and a fried egg sprinkled with seaweed over a bed of white rice. Known as a doshirak in Korean, the lunchbox is to be shaken before eaten, just as school children did back in the good ole days.

The decor, primarily made up of old-fashioned posters and toys, and thousands of love notes left by previous diners, is especially adorable. As such, Miss Lee’s Cafe provided the perfect backdrop as a filming location for an episode of the popular Korean reality show We Got Married.

Just as kitschy as Miss Lee’s is Toto’s Nostalgia Museum and Giftshop, a fun museum cluttered with Korean toys and trinkets from the 1970s and 80s. Although the collection is a bit chaotic, it’s a great place to check out (with your eyes, not your hands) characters and comics unknown outside Korea, mixed in with a few Japanese and American classics. While most of the items are not for sale, you can purchase vintage Korean candy, stickers, stamps and kiddy toys for prices as cheap as the admission (2,000 won).

Get Your Art On

As the art capital of Seoul, it would be a crime to miss Insadong’s galleries that showcase a wide variety of traditional and contemporary art. Many of the neighborhood’s galleries are completely free to explore so be sure to dedicate at least an hour to browsing a few exhibits. Gana Art Space is one of the better known cultural spaces in the neighborhood and is a breeding ground for up-and-coming artists emerging on the scene.

Shop Til Ya Drop 

Down the street, Ssamziegil beckons visitors with its imaginative architecture, whimsical shops and rather bizarre cafes and dining establishments. It has become the beating heart of Insadong since it opened its doors in 2004 and is the perfect place to find one-of-a-kind quality gifts. (Unlike most of the made-in-China wares sold on the bordering streets.)

Follow the spiraling walkway upward from the cheerful courtyard to be treated to a fantastic window-shopping experience as you peer into the glass facades of over 70 shops, many of which incorporate Korean themes into their wares, making them perfect souvenirs for all your loved ones at home. Or yourself. Because you deserve it.

For the Hallyu fan, Pattern Craftshop sells orgel, hand-painted music boxes; some play the traditional anthem “Arirang” while still others feature a variety of K-pop hits. Those with traditional tastes might like something from Art Sense, Korea’s only fan shop that exclusively produces and sells fans. The all-natural cosmetics and skin care products that incorporate Korean herbs found at Skylake will excite any beauty junkie.

Embrace Your Inner Kid 

Upon reaching the rooftop of Ssamziegil, visitors can take in views of the bustling streets below before settling into Ddo-Ong Cafe, sometimes referred to as the “poop cafe.” Here, colorful mini plungers hang delicately from trees, old fashioned squat toilets are placed tastefully throughout the shop and patrons take selfies with borderline offensive poop-shaped dolls.

Yet, the design isn’t too over the top and is worth a visit, if only for a laugh. The ddongbang, or poo-shaped pastries filled with red bean paste, sold outside the cafe also warrant a try.

Also located on the rooftop is a small garden and coffee vendor where couples can purchase love tags and write messages to one another. This also leads into the Alive Museum, a cheesy but fun gallery that engages visitors in a 3D art experience, in which the exhibited works create the illusion that visitors are part of the art.

While you’re at it, try on a hanbok and gather around the Chalcak sticker photo booth studio, where you can use props and wigs, hilarious backgrounds and your very best poses to create colorful stickers that you can take home as a memory of your time in Ssamzigil.

Kids will appreciate the paint-your-own ceramics and candle making studio at the experimental workshops in the basement.

A Taste of the North 

Get a taste of North Korean style dumplings at Gung, a family-run restaurant owned by an kindred grandmother who escaped the North during the Korean war. The Gaesong mandu, stuffed with ground pork, Chinese cabbage and pumpkin, is served perfectly steamed and packs a lot of flavor into each bite.

The dumplings, which are bigger and rounder than the South Korean version, pair well with the restaurant’s bossam, or tender boiled pork slices in lettuce wraps, and kimchi, which is made fresh in front of the restaurant throughout the week.

Don’t expect the dishes at Gung to be overly inventive or even photogenic, as the restaurant is a simple one that captures the traditional tastes of the past, which is perhaps the best thing about this lovely lunch spot.

Tea Time 

Just across from Gung is Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art, a collection of three galleries canopied by trees and surrounded by flowers, a setting that is particularly stunning in spring. The small galleries’ architecture makes use of their surroundings to create a harmony between the indoor spaces and nature. Exhibitions frequently change, but past artworks have included paintings and traditional handicrafts from Korean artists.

The highlight of the artspace is Dawon, the oldest tea house in Seoul, housed in a hanok. In warmer months, it is recommended that you take advantage of the patio, or if you happen to avoid peak hours, the wooden pavilion, to soak up the space’s natural beauty while sipping your tea.

Elusively tucked away on an ivy-consumed alley behind Ssamziegil is Moonbird Thinks Only of the Moon, a lesser known tea house, but one with even more charms. Stepping through the elusive sliding door is almost like stepping back in time to a more simplistic and magical Korea. Shrouded in rustic decor, old household tools and jars of fermenting fruit, one becomes enchanted by the tea house’s charms.

A multi-language menu consists of various homemade fruit and herbal teas, each of which promises a different nutritional benefit. Safe bets include the omija (five-flavored berry) and yuja (Asian citrus) teas, which are served with a complimentary sampling of rice cakes and tea snacks.

The Temple Life 

After exploring the remainder of Insadong Street, continue on to Jogyesa, one of Seoul’s most frequented Buddhist temples, thanks to its central location. Although it may not possess the solemnity of Korea's rural mountain temples,

Jogyesa’s larger-than-life bronze Buddha statues, 500-year-old locust and baeksong trees and chanting monks create a spiritual environment. The temple is a must-see during Buddha’s Birthday, when the grounds are decked out in colorful lanterns and performers from all the world over come together to celebrate the Buddha’s life and teachings.

You can even spend a day in the life of a monk through the Temple Stay program, in which participants engage in activities such as chanting, meditation and service. Night owls be warned: wake-up calls during the stay are as early as 3:30am so be prepared. The Information Center across the street from the temple has plenty of pamphlets and books to assist you in finding the right program for you.

On the fifth floor of the same building is Barugongyang, a modern yet traditional restaurant that serves up customary Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. Strictly vegetarian, this type of cuisine uses only natural flavoring agents such as kelp, mushroom, wild sesame seeds and raw soy bean powder to assist in maintaining nutritional balance while at the same time delivering a simple, clean taste.

Moreover, the food lacks the ingredients usually found in Korean cuisine such as onion, garlic and chili powder; who would’ve thought Korean food could lack this holy trinity of ingredients?

Adorned with minimalist furnishings in natural color schemes and surrounded in floor to ceiling windows which let in plenty of light, Barugongyang exudes a relaxing atmosphere. On the menu is a variety of mid-range to expensive pre-fixed seasonal course meals, each offering up an eclectic sampling of dishes commonly found in formal monastic meals such as dwenjang (bean paste) soup, lotus leaf rice, seasonal salads and fermented vegetables.

For those looking to try temple food on a budget, consider stopping in Barugongyang Kong, a popular lunch buffet, on the second floor.


Although Insadong’s nightlife options are limited — most places shut down around 9pm — there are a few makgeolli (Korean rice wine) pubs that are worth visiting. The best in the neighborhood is Story of the Blue Star, a hidden gem located just a stone’s throw from the subway station.

Adorned by colorful prayer flags, smiling Buddhas and old movie posters (many of which feature the actor-turned-owner’s previous film and theatrical productions), the pub is rustic, unpretentious and popular with rowdy businessmen. Fresh makgeolli is served Korean style, in brass kettles, and pairs well with the kimchi dubu, homemade kimchi and tofu pyramids.

For something a bit less traditional (and less healthy), Brew 3.15 serves up some of the best chimaek in the neighborhood. This dish, which gets its name by combining the words chicken and maekju (beer), has become all the rage throughout Asia in recent years and is a perfect late night meal (or snack).

Start your order with a beer sampler to find the right brew for you; all of the craft beer on tap pairs beautifully with Brew 3.15’s signature fried chicken, which is served up with a variety of homemade dipping sauces. Finish off your meal, and night, with a deep fried chocopie smothered in ice cream. (Yeah, you heard that right!)

To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 6). Walk straight for one minute then take a left just before the giant paintbrush status.

More Neighborhoods Like This: Seochon Village; Samcheongdong

Nearby Neighborhoods: Myeongdong; Seochon Village; Samcheongdong


Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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September 10, 2017

How to Skip Airport Check In and Security Lines with City Airport Terminal

With its great service, endless array of dining and entertainment facilities and optimal efficiency, Incheon Airport is one of the best in the world. It's also one of the most traveled which can make the entire airport experience incredibly frustrating during peak travel periods like Chuseok and Chinese New Year.

But did you know that rather than wasting your precious time in line at the check-in counter or twiddling your thumbs as you wait for your passport to be stamped in immigration, you can actually fly through the process before you even arrive at the airport?


Well ya can, and I did on a recent trip to New York, thanks to the City Airport Terminal (CAT) at Seoul Station.

As usual, I opted to take the AREX Express from Seoul Station to the airport, as it's not far from my neighborhood.

But because of summer vacation traffic, I missed my train. With an extra half hour to kill, I decided to try out CAT's free check in service. 

It literally took less than 15 minutes to check in, go through immigration and board the train. This meant that I even had time to exchange my won for dollars right there at the currency exchange counter.

And let me just tell you about the pleasure I experienced from not having to wait in that security line at Incheon. I walked right on through the crew entrance and was through security and immigration in a snap. 

Seriously. If you usually go to the airport via Seoul Station, there's no reason not to take advantage of this service. (There's also a similar one offered at COEX.) Here's how to do it. 

First off...

Note that you must be flying Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air or China Southern Airlines to check in at the City Airport Terminal. Also, you have to check in at CAT at least three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.

Step 1 

Purchase a ticket for the Airport Railroad Express Train (AREX) (Tickets are ₩8,000, adults; ₩6,900, children). You can do so either at the counter or an electronic kiosk on the B2 floor of Airport Railroad Seoul Station. Check the time table here

Step 2

Walk a few steps over to your designated check in counter and present your flight information, passport and AREX train ticket. You'll be checked in just as you would at the airport, and will be presented with your boarding pass. Drop off any checked luggage... they'll deliver it all the way to Incheon so you don't have to! 

Step 3

Wait 10 minutes for your luggage to be cleared. (Make sure you don't have any lighters or batteries in your bag!)

Step 4 

If you're not called, proceed to the immigration office next to the check in counters and have your passport stamped. You can instead go through the regular security and immigration lines at the airport, if you chose to do so, but it's preferable to do it here.

Step 5

Take the elevator down to the platform on B7 and board the train. (Check your seat assignment on your ticket receipt.) Enjoy the 43 minute ride!

Step 6

Upon arriving at Incheon Airport, go to the Departure Hall on the third floor. You can use the designated entrance to be fast tracked through security and immigration. 

Boom! You're in! Now, relax and enjoy a cultural performance, do some shopping or fill your belly before take-off. Happy travels!

More Information

Seoul Station City Airport Terminal Service Hours:

Check-in (Boarding and Baggage Consignment): 5:20am - 7pm
Departure Procedure of Immigration : 7am - 7pm

Seoul Station City Airport Terminal Map:

Incheon International Airport Designated Security Line Entrance Map:

Words and images by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized. 

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