Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Discovering K-Pop, Noraebang and ‘bibimbap’ in Seoul

Plan your trip around the Yongdeungpo Yeouido Spring Flower Festival in April

Turning a layover into a mini-vacation is the hallmark of a true traveller. Agreed that the “dash-in-dash-out" tenor of the trip might not offer the most immersive experience, but a 24-hour stop could be the ideal way to get a flavour of a city, urging one to cement a full fledged plan in the future. At least, that’s what Apoorva Sharma, sales manager at a multinational technology company, feels about Seoul. Sharma, 30, was on a work trip for five days to the capital city of South Korea, but managed to reserve a few hours each day from her schedule to scour local markets, bars, and the city’s top monuments. Speaking with colleagues, she realised that many use Seoul as a hop-over to Japan or other cities of South Korea. With Seoul being a heady mix of art, street life, history, food and music, she was glad that it wasn’t the case for her.

Ironically, the Incheon International Airport of the city has been voted as the world’s second best airport with incredible in-airport attractions like the rock garden, a craft gallery, Korean Culture Street, observation deck and free concerts. Sharma suggests that one should use a hopping flight in such a way, that one can ditch the abridged representation of the country at the airport, and care to travel 30km away to the actual streets, to feel the real thrum of Seoul. “The mash-up of traditions, technology and cutting edge design was so unexpected that I wished I had planned to extend my trip. I managed to cover a lot of ground on essentials and some offbeat places with ample local flair," reminisces Sharma.

Discovering the city centre

“Before diving into any kind of sightseeing, I had to overcome the small challenge of pronouncing Seoul correctly. It took me some time to transition from the Indianised ‘see-oul’ to the more authentic ‘sohl’," remembers Sharma. “Having nailed that, there were others things to get my head around. Mainly, peering at things through a foreground of ubiquitous selfie sticks, and K-Pop billboards and beats as a constant visual-aural backdrop." Sharma swiftly covered the essentials like the Changdeokgung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace, where apart from the remnants of the Joseon dynasty, she was taken in by the grand architecture. So were hordes of local newly weds, who were dressed in traditional Korean attire to get their wedding photo shoots done at the monuments. This included pictures with the guards, who are not supposed to move or be distracted. “It reminded me of Buckingham Palace, where the poor guards have to keep a stoic expression and not respond to persistent giggling posers," says Sharma.

One of her favourite parts of this square was the sculptures of twelve animals that feature in the Korean zodiac at the close by museum. “According to the zodiac, not only the year, but different times of the day are also attributed to different signs. Did you know that Koreans count a newborn baby’s age as one when he or she is born? You’re always a year older in Korea!" says Sharma, rounding up fascinating trivia from the country.

Apoorva Sharma. Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint
Apoorva Sharma. Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint

Down and under

It’s the local markets that are a true window to the local buzz of any city. Sharma decided to hit the nearly eight decades old Tongin Market, a sprawl of shops selling everything from vegetables, fried food, plastic fans, spices, and fridge magnets to candies. At the heart of the market lies the Dosirak Café, an un-fussy eatery, where you can create your own lunchbox by exchanging 10 old style coins for dak galbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), sigeumchi namul (spinach side dish), tteok galbi (beef patty with rice caking stuffing), ge bokkeum (stir-fried baby crabs), kimchi and other local dishes. Finding vegetarian food in this market was no easy feat. But Maple Tree House in Itaewon made up for this, where the chef dished out a special egg-based bibimbap (rice dish) especially for her. “I reserved the evening for Itaewon, an urban district to visit the best bars and restaurants. Noraebang, a private karaoke room, was my favourite."

Beyond the city

Naturally, the trip left Sharma wanting to explore much more of the city. She’s yet to see Suyeonsanbang (a traditional tea house), the 600 years old Bukchon Hanok Village and the Korean Furniture Museum along with other sights. “The Bukhansan National Park on the outskirts is going to be first on my list when I visit next. It’s said to house 1300 species of flora and fauna, and great hiking trails. With all the diverse food that you get in Seoul, burning off some calories may be a prudent idea," she signs off.

Stopover Sojourns is a series that looks at how to make the most of your time at lesser-known layover cities through the experiences of business travellers.

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