A Nostalgic Post and My Guide to Seoul
Nostalgia gets the best of me, time and time again.
This week marks the 10 year anniversary of Ian and me completing a year of teaching English as a Second Language while living in Seoul, South Korea. We moved across the world as freshly graduated university students with our MEC backpacks shrugged onto our shoulders and our Lonely Planet Guides in-hand. To quit my job and jump on the opportunity to teach ESL overseas was one of the biggest decisions I have ever made, and it turned out to be one of the best. I view our experience in Seoul as a milestone in our lives; our time in South Korea helped mold us into the people we are today. (Click here for our first ever blog post, a few days into teaching in 2007). I’m grateful for every friend we made, and every lesson we learned. It was a year I will never forget.
Ten years after leaving, we went back.
If you have read my Olympic Journal and my Back to Seoul intro post, then you are already aware that eight of us headed to South Korea this past February for the Olympics. It was something Ian and I had been looking forward to for years; we saw it as an opportunity to go back to our old stomping grounds, but also as an opportunity to experience something entirely new and exciting: the Olympics. We were anxious to shrug back into those travel backpacks and see Seoul through a new looking-glass.
Our group of friends hit the ground running and didn’t look back. And by this, I mean we never stopped experiencing everything our trip had to offer. We immediately felt at home, which is one of the most beautiful feelings to have upon revisiting a significant place from years past. After our first evening in Seoul, which consisted of doing nostalgic things like having cheap beers at a GS25 convenience store on plastic patio furniture, Ian, our friend April and I set off to the neighborhood Ian and I once called home: ‘Eunhaeng Sageori.’
Cue intense feelings of nostalgia.
That morning, as we rode the subway and approached our old stop, Sanggye Station, I could feel tears start to well in my eyes. The flood of memories that came rushing back was overwhelming, and I wanted to hold onto each and every moment for as long as I could.
While the three of us walked through Eunhaeng Sageori, Ian and I looked around in wonder. Ten years had passed, yet so much was the same. We approached the building our old school, Plus Academy, had been in. We climbed the stairs. We walked the halls. We peeked inside our old staff room which, despite a renovation, was still recognizable. April shot a video of Ian and I running through the halls, marveling at our surroundings: it was so good to be back. Our school has since moved on, a math and science academy in its place, but it didn’t matter. Being there felt so familiar, so surreal, and all I could do was try to absorb it.
After the emotional visit to our old school, we headed to the apartment we lived in. We rode the elevator and stood outside door 301 –our old home– gazing into the distance at ‘our’ mountain and the buildings our friends had lived in. We continued strolling through the neighborhood, taking pictures and reminiscing. We pointed out stores that remained the same, and restaurants that had changed. We popped into a café that I used to frequent before class and a Japanese curry restaurant we used to grab lunch at; we tasted nostalgic tastes and smelled nostalgic scents— the good, the bad and the deliciously familiar.
Goodbyes are never easy.
It was hard to leave even though we felt so fulfilled from our visit, and had so much to look forward to on our Olympic Adventure. As our bus pulled away, I got emotional once again, but it felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders since I had now gone back to the one place I needed to see again. I was now free to move forward and experience our 2018 trip with open arms and an open heart. (I know, I know, I’m so sentimental). I’m glad we took the time to go back to Eunhaeng, and it was fun for our friend April to see the area that had meant so much to us at a pivotal time in our lives.
Being there… well, it truly did feel like we got to go home again.
For some more nostalgic moments and to read this post’s dedication, please scroll to the end of this post.
Kelly’s Guide to Seoul
In addition to our old neighborhood, I was fortunate to experience some of my other favorite spots in Seoul. I had my very own “Kelly Day” in the city, shopped a lot and booted around to several areas that I had fond memories of.
Whether you live in Seoul now, have lived there in the past, or care to go in the future, check out the below for a snapshot of my favorite neighborhoods, restaurants, stores and experiences from our whirlwind trip. It’s another Kelly Travel Guide, and this one truly comes from the heart.
A shopping mecca – my happy place ten years ago, my happy place now. Myeongdong has always been one of my favorite area’s in Seoul. The energy is positively electric, and the storefronts span for what seems like miles, but really it easy to navigate and quick to get around. It’s laid out quite well, and very simple to get acquainted with.
Getting to Myeong-dong is easy no matter what subway stop you’re starting from: take Line 4 (Light Blue Line) on the Seoul Metro to Myeongdong. Station Exit 6 and head up the stairs – you’ll end up right in the center of the shopping strip!
I didn’t take specific notes re: the accessory and clothing stores because it’s Seoul: they are always re-branding and renaming their one-off stores. There is a ton to take in, so make sure you put aside at least an entire morning or afternoon to explore!
Myeongdong Beauty Shops:
My top three favorite beauty shops that are still expanding are Skinfood, Innisfree, Etude House, however there are a ton to pick from, including Tony Moly, Olive and Young (although the one I went to in Myeongdong was very picked-over), Laneige, and SeaNTree.
Shangpree Spa – I had the BEST facial of my life at Shangpree Spa. I did a lot of research on the best spas to book with in Seoul, and I narrowed it down to Shangpree and Oracle. Unfortunately Oracle, despite having an English Facebook page, never got back to me, but I thin they are more of a ‘clinic’ vibe, anyway. The Shangpree team speaks English and you can book with them my emailing, which was super easy. They have two locations, one about a ten minute walk from Myeongdong and one in Gangnam. I would definitely recommend the lavish experience and if you want more details, comment below and I can shoot you more details with my experience!
Isaac Toast– The ham and cheese sandwich is out of this world, oh-so-buttery and has the best sauce (and yet I have no idea what’s in it) as a delicious glaze. My mouth is watering just thinking about this place.
Congee House– I was super bummed when I walked in Congee House as they were on “break time” from 3:30-5 PM, however I looked up reviews and they were fantastic!
Additional Beauty Shops:
Lotte, Lotte Department Store, Eden Plaza in Gangnam (I didn’t make it here- it was closed when I was in Gangnam… next time!), LOHBS. In Myeongdong there is also a Lotte Department store with a duty-free on the top floor. You can get some products like Skinfood there and you won’t have to save your receipts for the airport. It’s about a 14 minute walk from Myeongdong Station.
I could talk at nauseam about how I love Ewha for shopping and people-watching. If you love shopping and want to get a sense for what shopping is like for female Millennials in Seoul, check out Ewha. The clothing and accessory stores line the streets, while the women’s university lay in the distance. (Side note: If you are at all interested in Line Friends, I would definitely recommend going to the Line Friends store in Ewha rather than risking it in Itaewon, based on the lineup I saw to get into the Itewan store. Line Friends are the cutest!)
Ewah is great for women’s clothes, shoes and jewelry. They have some good, cheap street food, but they don’t have a ton of great restaurants.
I spent a lot of nights out with our group of friends when we lived in Seoul, however the nightlife is now predominantly university students. There is a strip of stores and a handful of restaurants worth checking out, and Hongdae is walkable from Ewha.
The foreigner district! We spent many nights (and early mornings!) walking the street of Itaewon, roaming up ‘hooker hill,’ drinking Canadian beer at the Canadian Bar called Rocking Mountain Tavern, and popping into our favorite bar, Polly’s Kettle. Polly’s Kettle isn’t in the same location anymore, but let me tell you the best part about the bar: They would give you a 2 litre Fanta bottle with the top cut off and Soju mixed in, then top it off with a straw for patrons to take onto the dance floor.
I used to private tutor every other Sunday evening in Itaewon, and afterwards I would go to the English used bookstore and see what they had. It’s where I bought my first Harry Potter books (and Andy and I would race one another reading them and then talk to our students about them). I would always grab shawarma’s on the way home for Ian and I, and would even pick up some Diet Pepsi because Itaewon was the only place I would find it.
Parc – superb. Trendy and new “Korean Mother’s Style” cooking was worth the ten minute walk from the subway station. (I mean, that’s not far at all). April I went for lunch and loved our cocktails and our meals. We would definitely recommend!
Buddha’s Belly– Buddah’s Belly has been in Itewan (although it has moved addresses) since before Ian and I arrived in Seoul ten years ago. Leah and Andy introduced us to the delicious Thai restaurant, and we were glad to see it was still operational!
What else to get there:
Galbi (several yummy places)
Shawarma’s (at every turn!)
Forever one of my favourite areas of Seoul. The first time I visited Insadong was with Ian, Leah and Andy. We eat sugared strawberry skewers and received hand tattoos before watching the Lantern Festival Parade march through the decorated, cobblestone streets. Insadong is also where we bought my favorite wooden chopsticks over ten years ago… and they are still my favorite! Directions: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 6.Go 100m straight, then turn left. Or, Jonggak Station (Seoul Subway Line 1), Exit 3. Go straight 300m, and turn left at the 4-way Intersection. Go straight 100m, and take the left road toward Insadong-gil Road.
It’s just like the famous song paints it out to be! Ha-ha. I love Gangnam. It’s super lively at night- definitely fun to bar hop in! Also, when Justin and I were there, we found a delectable duk galbi restaurant called Jangin Dukgalbi that I would definitely recommend!
Also, if you want to take a photo of the ‘Gangnam Style’ sign, it’s a sight to see, especially at night!
Eden Plaza is also a good shopping mall in Gangnam.
A ritzy area and is dead at night. Justin and I went before heading to Gangnam on a Friday night and couldn’t believe how bare the streets were. The Michelin restaurant we went to, Jungsik, was fantastic! (There is one in New York as well, if you can’t make it to Seoul). We walked right in and had our own little private pod. It was amazing.
Namdaemun– A vibrant, fun, daytime market. They also have a small fun food market at night. You would have seen this on my insta story the first night we arrived.
Dongdaemun Night Market– Quite possibly the most famous market in South Korea, Dongdaemun Night market is extremely different from when we lived there but they still have yellow tents lining the streets starting at 11 PM. Some of the department stores are open late, but the vibe isn’t as bustling as it used to be. The best part, in my opinion? The big sweet potatoes sold by vendors on the side of the street. I dragged Ian, Ian M, April and Anup out to the market on our last night and was a bit disappointed that the area wasn’t what I remembered.
Yongsan Technology Market- Futuristic and fabulous.
Restaurants throughout Seoul:
|Gwanghwamun Jip||Very close to Gyeongbokgung Palace!||Home to some of the best kimchijiigae in the city|
|Street Churros||Very close to Gyeongbokgung Palace!|
|Han Wa Dam||Iteawan- 75-1 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea||Chef Hookikin recommends it. He said the radish kimchi and brisket fried rice is amazing here.|
|Jungsik||Gangnam (11 Seolleungro 158GIL, Gangnamgu Seoul)||Two Michelin Starred. “New Korean” fine dining- Justin and I visited and it was amazing!|
|Layered||Near Angu Station||Treats!|
|Again Refresh||Samcheong-dong||Healthier western-korean fusion (Looks like the Korean version of Fesh). Insta: @againrefreshsamchung|
|Italyjae||Italyjae has been selected by Michelin Guide Viv-Gourmand.|
|Soi Yeonnam||Yeonnam-dong (West of Gangnam)||The Thai beef noodles and popiah spring rolls and papaya salad look amazing! Insta: @soi_yeonnam|
|“OhGenNeh Dakgalbi”||“Behind down an alley” by Yongsan Park||(See @seoulfoodie Instagram)|
|Noryangjin Fish Market|
|Mingles||Gnagnam (757 Seoulleung-ro, Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea||The spreads here look amazing! Recommended by lots of foodies on Insta.|
|Buddha’s Belly||Itewan||I cannot believe this is still around!!! LOVE IT HERE https://www.timeout.com/seoul/restaurants/buddhas-belly|
|Maple Tree House||Korean Galbi||https://www.timeout.com/seoul/restaurants/maple-tree-house-itaewon|
- Fruit dipped in liquid sugar – The best places to get these delicious skewers are in Ewha and Insadong.
- GO TO A BASEBALL GAME. You will not regret it. It doesn’t matter if you are a baseball fan or not, it is entertaining and a ton of fun!
- The popcorn at a movie theatre. I know this sounds insane, but I remember the weirdest things about living in Seoul, and this is one of them. Sometimes, I would go into the cinemas at Lotte Department Store and just get their popcorn and leave if there weren’t any English movies playing. It’s salty and sweet and… just plain delicious
- Hyehwa is another fun neighborhood that we had a ton of fun in… Leah and Andy became friends with one of the bar owners, so we ended up spending a lot of time there towards the end of our adventure (the first one!)
- The COEX Mall (a very cool aquarium with doctor fish inside!)
- Seodaemun Prison History Hall is the super fascinating prison in Seoul and I definitely recommend. Visiting the prison gave me a ton of insight to why Koreans are so proud and what the Japanese occupation did to them.
- Gyeongbokgung Palace– is my favorite palace, and was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
Mudfestival with Adventure Korea (Leah, Andy, Ian and I among the group) Summer 2007
Other Information that will help you get around Seoul:
- Getting Around: Naver App- The ‘Google Maps’ of Korea
- Kakao Talk and Kakao T- both apps need to be downloaded to use. Kakao is like the Uber of Seoul.
- Note: bring your Air BnB or hotel address around everywhere with you. Have it on a paper typed or written in Korean so you can just show a cab driver. It can be hard to get a cab to take you somewhere that is only a ten minute drive from where you are, even if it is after the subway has closed.
- Subway Notes: All signs have the stop name written out in English too. Make sure to go to a convenience store within a subway station and ask for a T Money Card. They will show you all the cute options! You just load up your card at the top up stations (initially you can do it at the store when you buy your card too) and the top-up stations have an English option so just have your cash ready. Also, the transfer stations are huge so always have your card out as you may have to tap it a few times before getting to the train you are taking. Once you get the hang of it is easy to see why it’s he beat subway system out there! There are also maps everywhere. When you are somewhere like Seoul Station (or any big station with multiple transfers or exits) pay attention to which exit number you are entering as some stations have up to twenty exits and can lead you in a completely different direction. Note: subway times: on weekends they aren’t open as late. So if you are somewhere that is only a couple of subway stops from where your hotel, is just take note of that as taxi’s don’t like taking you somewhere close so it’s easier to subway.
Hopefully you have gotten some use out of this blog post, and if you are heading to Seoul, or live there, maybe it has inspired you to try something new! It was exciting for me to relive our adventure and reminisce. I just wish I had more time.
If you’re still with me, before I go, I want to take the time to shout out the lifelong friends Ian and I made in South Korea, since our experience was amplified in every way because of them.
Some of my favorite memories include:
Friday night galbi (Korean BBQ), drinking cheap beer and rice wine at the GS25 convenience store on their plastic patio furniture, potato and pumpkin pizzas, cream cheese stuffed pretzels, Bagel Street Cafe, Isaac Sandwiches, my local gym atop a ‘PC-bang,’ local noreabang sessions until the sun rose, and popping in to our favorite restaurants either for lunch or after work.
There was also: cleaning up an oil spill with cut up pieces of donated clothing (most notably: lace), nights out in Itaewon and Hongdae (more about these two areas below), DOOSAN YOUR MOM, GO!, getting robbed x 3, singing in a small noreabang (Fernando! Take on Me! Time After Time! Any Hil Duff Song!) with drinks, snacks, and disco balls until our voices were gone and snake tattoos were applied, themed parties, Fresh Prince, Jenga, UMG, celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving with our overseas family, Adventure Korea trips, hiking (not my favorite activity but good memories nonetheless), X-Rated museums, alien ano’s, Girls/Guys nights with co-teachers, every country we visited, the OKAY Wall of China, POLLY’S KETTLE, dancing in the subway, our last weekend, finger down the throat, Fat Albert, Hallowe’en as the Spice Girls with Marois and Linds in Itaewon, Mud Festival, Jeju Island, wigs, shopping, beach vacations in Muuido, subway and green bus rides, THE OPRAH DIET, China, visits to Costco with giant suitcases, the most epic New Year’s Eve, family and friends coming to visit, teaching (of course!), staff parties, and adventures spent exploring with friends living all over the city and beyond.
Guys, this post dedicated to you.
Leah and Andy, you taught us how to experience an entirely different world than we were used to, and because of you we were able to adjust to life in Seoul quickly. Ian and I were practically fresh out of school, and you took us under your wing. I cannot imagine what our experience would have been like without you there to guide us in the beginning, and work alongside you (and have the MOST fun outside of work) the rest of our stay. Our first night out in Seoul, when we danced until the sun came up, is a memory I will have forever. Almost every incredible, positive memory from that year involves you guys. We love you. Jess Hull, we would never have met you if it wasn’t for your familial connection to Leah and Andy, and we have had some hilarious and deep experiences together. We are so grateful for your friendship and miss laughing at ridiculous things with you daily. Naomi & Beth, we were so lucky to have you at our neighboring schools, and being together made our adventures and girls nights’ all the more fun. Glad we are able to stay in touch and see one another regardless of where we are in the world. Meaghan and Devin, it’s not like we met in Korea, and although our SK time together was short (6 weeks to be exact) we are so happy you made the trek over to Seoul, and that we were able to experience that surreal, impactful period of our lives together. (I still have the frame you made me, Mugs). Erin and Justin: As if I actually MET Erin across the world. Still one of the best meet-cutes in history. So glad we were able to experience life in Korea in neighboring towns, and get together for board game nights that made homesickness non-existent. Poly, Flem, Grace and JPray, holy smokes. As if we all were friends in university and then got to experience everything Korea AND China had to offer together. Some of my favorite Seoul memories include things with you that can’t be written on a blog post that lives in the universe forever. Josh and Marois: Waterbuffaloes do Korea? As if that actually happened. Linds– You met Marois in Korea, and now you are married with a baby. I’ll never forget the first night we met, and I pulled Marois aside and said “Don’t mess this one up- she’s is amazing.” I still feel that way, all those years later. ❤ Mel, I am so happy you were able to come and our Laurier connection led you to Plus Academy. We had a lot of fun! Lastly, Ian M, we met on a snowboarding trip 10.5 years ago and have been friends ever since. You now live in Bali, on the other side of the world, and we are still wonderful friends. I am not going to question how that happens, only express my gratitude and joy.
We experienced this vibrant city with so many others along the way, Taylor, Saveena & Rod, Zero Nine, Candy, Jenn & Jer, Huth, Ian, Sarah, Sarah, Mike, Mark, Dylan, Jessica, Joy, Yoon, Hye Jin, Eamon, and everyone from Plus Academy (including out students) to name a few. You guys all made our experience worthwhile and plentiful. Our memories will last our lifetime. There others I am redoubtably forgetting, and for that I apologize. Jane and Rexy: You guys experienced life in Korea after we left, but so glad to share a common ground with you all the same. To our Olympics Group: What a whirlwind! We loved experiencing every moment with you!
Ian– I would do it all over again in a heartbeat, as long as you were still by my side.