It was our third day, and it was time to feel the vibe of the city.
Seoul is surrounded by beautiful palaces and historical structures, but there’s one other thing in abundance in the city – therapy…retail therapy. Seoul is a city of markets – there’s the traditional market of Namdaemun, the retail and wholesale capital of Dongdaemun, the touristy Itaewon, the artistic Insadong, gigantic malls like COEX, and of course the fashion capital, Myeongdong. This is one city where “shopaholics” could spend weeks without running out of places to shop, or max out their credit cards.
Made up of a maze of alleys with shops left and right, front and back, Myeongdong is what would probably happen if you transplant Manila’s Divisoria into a wealthy and developed country. It is tight, crowded and noisy, but instead of “tiangges”, they have Zara and H&M block after block, plus innumerable outlets of the local cosmetic brand Face Shop.
If those brands are not elite enough, Myeongdong’s outer fringes is bordered by upscale department stores like Lotte and Shinsegae, where Gucci and Burberry look like just any other brand. For someone like myself who hails from a developing country, it’s unthinkable how something like Gucci could just occupy some space inside a department store…until I went inside the Lotte.
We arrived Myeongdong at 10 in the morning, and the shops were already open, though the place wasn’t crowded yet. We could still walk with leisure and stop for pictures from time to time, without blocking anyone up. As the day progressed though, the place got tighter and tighter, and by 2PM it felt like you could already stage dive to the pavement and not hit the ground. There were that many people. It felt as if something like Singapore‘s prim and proper Orchard Road transformed into Hong Kong‘s rambunctious Tsim Sha Tsui in a matter of hours.
For any tourist visiting Myeongdong on a weekend, I would highly recommend hitting the narrow alleys first thing in the morning, and skip out to the department stores or go elsewhere in Seoul before the crowd becomes a mob in the mid-afternoon, unless of course if you’re the type that gets energized by a crowd.
For the “Koreanovela” addicts, there’s also the Star Avenue behind Lotte, where photos and hand prints of Korean stars can be found (“Koreanovela” refers to Korean TV drama series aired on Philippine television – a play of the term “Telenovela” which refers to Filipino soap operas). The “Korean wave” phenomenon brought K-pop and Korean show business into places that historically didn’t have much of a connection to it, like the Philippines. “Boys Over Flowers” and “2NE1” were probably as responsible for putting Korea into global consciousness, as much Samsung and Hyundai does.
Like most Asian cities, Seoul is also big on street food, and Myeondong is no exception. As the crowd gets thicker, hawkers also start to open shop and populate the alleys. They sell street food of various kinds, from grilled meats, Korean sausages, dried squid, spicy rice cakes, and even Korean versions of the Japanese “maki”.
Seoul’s landscape is dotted by short mountains (or tall hills), on what is otherwise a flat plain. The mountain right in the middle is called Namsan, and on it is one of the city’s famous landmarks, the Seoul Tower. The tower can be accessed by cable car, originating near Myeongdong, or by bus routes 2, 3 and 5, from various points in the city. For those feeling active and athletic, it’s also possible to hike it up, provided you have time at hand. Lots of locals hike up and down the mountain, especially on weekends, as Namsan has become a de facto recreational area for Seoulites. It’s their version of New York’s Central Park.
The Seoul Tower, sitting atop the mountain, gives a commanding 360 degree view of sprawling, metropolitan Seoul. One can even gaze as far north as the bordering peaks of North Korea on a good day. The view is even more spectacular at night, when the whole expanse of Seoul and its neighboring urban areas turn into a sea of lights, stretching through the horizon.
The entrance to the tower’s observation deck is not that expensive at 9000 KRW (9 USD), but if you really want to scrimp, there’s a viewing terrace at the tower’s base, accessible for free, though you can only see the south side of Seoul.
THE TEDDY BEAR MUSEUM.
You could also get a culture and history lesson at the base of the Seoul Tower, courtesy of some cute, cuddly and furry friends. The Teddy Bear Museum is a collection of dioramas, portraying scenes from ancient Seoul, with none other than the bears as the main characters. There is also a part that portrays scenes from modern Seoul, such as one that depicts the Cheonggyecheon, as well as the presidential palace.
The place does look as childish as it sounds, and if you’re a guy, is certainly not one to go to if you want to look macho. However, if you are secure enough to not be bothered by the lack of machismo, then it’s a nice place for a family trip or a date. For 5,000 won more you can get a package that gains you access to both the tower’s observation deck and the museum, and I would recommend to any new visitor, “go get it”.
* We went to Seoul last September 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm F2.8-3.5