When traveling with a tour, be prepared for some very full days with very little down time. I think it’s safe to say I did more on my first day in Seoul than I would do in a week’s time back home: I did some jewelry shopping, went to the top of Seoul Tower, explored a royal palace, saw the South Korean president’s home, visited three museums, ate three meals and watched a dance performance — all in one day. But in my opinion, sometimes shorter trips with jam-packed itineraries guarantee the most fulfilling experiences.
Day 1, Part 1
Our first stop of the day was the Itaewon district, where we exchanged our American money for Korean Won. After that, we had a little over an hour to browse through the shops in the area.
I was on a mission to find the following items while in Korea: Earrings with a small stud in the front and long, dangling backing (I’ve seen them in Korean dramas) and a headband with a bow at the top (These are also prevalent in Korean dramas and YouTube videos).
The jewelry stores in this area were unique in the sense that they almost looked like factories: Multiple workers could be seen handcrafting their own jewelry in their own designated areas within the store. So if you saw anything you liked, you’d have to purchase it from that particular vendor, which also made it slightly difficult if the merchant you wanted to buy from was on his or her lunch break — that happened to be the case for me. But fortunately, she returned several minutes later, and I was able to buy several pieces of jewelry for myself and some friends back home.
When looking at our itinerary, I was particularly excited about going to Seoul Tower. Call me a big-time tourist, but I absolutely love going to observatory towers when I travel. I just love feeling like I’m on top of the world and observing the layouts of cities while comparing them to others I’ve been to.
Like any other big city, the perimeter of Seoul Tower included a seemingly never-ending surface of ant-sized buildings packed tightly between giant high-rises. But what made this view particularly unique were the lines of pale pink cherry blossom trees interspersed throughout the area, giving the city splashes of color here and there.
We then made our way to the “locks of love,” similar to Paris’ Pont des Arts bridge, where couples would attach their padlocks to symbolize their affection. Although I do love my mom, we didn’t contribute to this ritual and instead admired the colorful cluster of locks that formed a decorative wall of art.
After a packed morning, we were in desperate need of some food. We stopped off at restaurant for some samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup, a dish that contains a whole chicken — stuffed with garlic, ginseng (hence the name), rice and other spices — immersed in a light and savory broth. David explained that this dish is commonly consumed when sick, mostly because of the health factor.
To be quite honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of this dish because it didn’t have as much flavor as I would’ve liked, but I could see where this would make amazing comfort food on a rainy day or even when sick and in bed.
Our adventure continued with a stop at the Blue House, the executive office and official residence of Park Geun-Hye, the South Korean president. Interestingly enough, Park is actually the first female president of South Korea and also the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee.
You can’t miss the Blue House: The building, with its signature blue-tiled roof, sits almost perfectly centered in front of Mount Bugakskan, portraying an air of nobility. Not to mention, the gate — accompanied by rigid guards akin to those seen in London — in addition to the endless crowds of tourists — snagging any narrow opening to capture the perfect picture — made it quite obvious that someone really important lived here.
After quickly snatching my golden photo opportunity, it was time to peruse the famed Gyeongbokgung Palace.
The Gyeongbokgung Palace, merely steps away from the Blue House, is also referred to as the “Northern Palace” since it is located furthest north compared to its five neighboring palaces.
The palace suffered quite a tumultuous past. Built in 1935, it served as the home of the kings of the Joseon dynasty, the kings’ households and the government of Joseon. It continued to serve as the main palace of this dynasty until the premises were destroyed by a fire. Though finally restored in the 19th century, it was later torn down during the Japanese occupation. Since 1990, efforts to fully restore it to its former glory were initiated.
As our group walked the palace, I noticed that the architecture and layout strongly resembled those of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The entire area of the palace included multiple structures, all of which appeared very similar and uniquely Asian in style. To me, what sets apart Asian-style architecture from others are the roofs, which often have a distinct upturned shape, intricate patterns and oftentimes some kind of animal figure. This is how I would describe the architecture of Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Since all the structures appear very similar, it’s quite easy to get lost as you walk the grounds of the palace. Luckily, this didn’t happen for me, but I could see where that would happen if you got separated from your travel companion.
In retrospect, a first trip to Seoul wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Gyeongbokgung Palace. It truly exemplifies the rich history and culture of Korea simply by its bold appearance and stature.