The piece of tentacle I had placed in my mouth squirmed a bit as I furiously chewed, hoping to still the movement and get this painful episode over with as quickly as possible. Sitting at a makeshift table at one of the many sannjaki vendors in Korea’s Gangjang market, I realized that despite the fact that all eyes were on me, chuckling at the absurd faces I was making and how I was flailing my arms in an attempt to do I don’t know what to ease the process, I had found myself at the end of what was one of the best days I had experienced in the entire three months of our time in Korea. Yes, I thought, as the name of the tour company popped into my head, this IS Korea!
During the past year, we’ve not really gone for tours. We’ve had a boat ride down the River in Chiang Mai, an excursion to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary with an overnight stay at the Karen hill tribe that runs it, and an amazing day of snorkeling with a picnic through Island Gem Picnic in Koh Samui. But we hadn’t done the full out, day tour complete with guided stops at various ‘hot spots’ across the city.
Not that we think there’s anything wrong with them. Each person’s method of travel and exploration differs from the next, and we believe you should do you, whatever that may be, but we’ve kind of worked out our style of travel. For one, we take a lot of photos and videos, because well, it’s what we do for One Modern Couple, and so it can be excruciating for anyone travelling with us.
The other reason is that neither of us are very good at taking orders and following direction when it comes to timelines and strict orders on where and when we need to be at various places. But when we came across This Is KOREA! and discovered their unique approach to providing private tours in Seoul (they provide tours all over South Korea as well), we knew it was something we had to do and that it would provide an opportunity to experience the Seoul we knew we had yet to see!
A Freestyle Tour Experience
This is KOREA! has tour guides that are knowledgeable locals providing a freestyle tour experience. By freestyle we mean we were able to choose what we wanted to do, spend as much or as little time at each place, alter the plan as we went and keep our cameras snapping and rolling to our hearts content.
We were picked up by our tour specialist Gene who quickly began to feel like a new friend showing us around town, rather than a guide. By the end of the day we had hit up some major highlights on our tour of Seoul, learned a ton of information about the city, the country and the culture, and had one of the best days during our time in Korea.
The Palace and The Blue House
Our first stop on our tour of Seoul was Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the changing of the guards ceremony. This is the main palace and though it was initially built in 1395 it was destroyed by Imperial Japan and has since been rebuilt albeit, Gene tells us, to only 10% of its original size! Since it is such a massive property to begin with, it was a surprising fact for us!
We probably wouldn’t have made sure we attended the 10 am changing of the guards ceremony. Chances are we’d stroll in for one of the other guard changes that are apparently shorter and less impressive and not get the full effect of this incredible procession so it’s a good thing we had Gene to tell us that we absolutely had to make it on time for the first change of the morning!
We got a detailed tour around the grounds to see the main gates and the various buildings of the property like the building used for banquets and celebrations and the King’s secluded gazebo on the water where he romanced his queen, er, queens!
We then headed to a view of the Blue House (think White House but blue) which is the presidential home and heavily guarded not just by security, but also mountains. We were able to take some shots of it from a lookout point but we’re fairly certain that’s the closest anyone is able to get!
Did You Know?
Though you can take all the photos you want of the Blue House, video is not permitted! Not too sure why but Gene was told that we had to stop filming, perhaps it was the rising tensions between the north and south during that time.
The Hanok Village
After the palace, we headed to a traditional Hanok village, something we were both hoping to get a chance to see. Bukcheong Village is all hills and stone walls with traditional style houses and quaint shops. We loved walking through and seeing the old architecture, strolling past souvenir and jewellery stores, cafes and even a puppet shop! It’s definitely a worthwhile place to explore and if you get a chance, trying on a hanbok (traditional dress) and walking through the streets is a common and popular tourist attraction!
Did You Know?
Not only are Hanok homes traditional on the outside, they usually retain their traditional layout as well and much like centuries ago when Bukcheong was home to high status members of society, it is still home to the wealthy as prices for these properties are not cheap!
Insadong Shopping District
Not too far away, we stopped at Insadong, the biggest traditional shopping area. With a bustling main strip of stores and narrow, winding side streets filled with more shops and pedestrians, Insadong is a vibrant and popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
We had heard about this place over and over again by many people during our time in Korea but hadn’t managed to get to visit until our tour with This is KOREA!
We especially enjoyed visiting ssamzigil, a complex we definitely would have just passed by if we were on our own. This multi-storied centre is the main shopping building in Insadong with a spiraling path up each of the floors rather than stairs and a variety of shops along the way.
Did You Know?
Insadong used to be two towns – ‘In’ and ‘Sa’ – divided by a stream and home to government officials.
Traditional Korean Lunch
One of our favourite things about being guided around a city is the chance to try new restaurants and food that we normally wouldn’t know to look for and to learn more about the food culture of an area. Gene took us to Wellbeing Restaurant for ssambap, which is a style of Korean food where rice, meat and other ingredients are wrapped in green leafy vegetables. As usual, a variety of sides come with your order and with Gene’s guidance we got beef bulgogi and spicy pork. It was absolutely delicious and we loved the glazed mini-potatoes that accompanied the meal, something we had not had the chance to try while in Korea.
Wellbeing Restaurant is a place we wish we had found sooner as it had delicious food and was really reasonably priced.
Did You Know?
Ssambap literally translates to “wrapped rice” as Ssam means ‘wrapped’ and bap is ‘rice’.
‘N’ Tower, With A View
From the first day we arrived in Seoul we could see the N Tower, or Seoul Tower, and we kept talking about going to actually see it up close. We got our chance with This is Korea! and had the added benefit of being driven almost all the way to the base – something that is only possible when you are with a tour! With Gene we were able to skip the cable car, or the lengthy uphill walk!
The area around the N Tower is actually quite scenic with incredible views over the city from the base of the tower. We opted not to go to the top as we were told we’d get a similar view, only higher, and explored more of the area around it. There were many restaurants, albeit expensive, but also a love lock wall and various other areas that would be absolutely perfect for a picnic!
While this was our very first love lock location, we didn’t leave a lock…perhaps at the next one!
Did You Know?
The ‘N’ in N Tower is often thought to stand for North, however it actually stands for Namsan after the mountain on which it stands.
The day was almost done, but Gene still had a few more stops for us before we’d be heading home so we made our way to a popular spot for locals to relax – Cheonggyecheon stream. This stream is almost 6 km (or almost 4 miles) long and was only finally restored a mere decade ago. It is now an incredibly frequented spot where students go to study, families go to enjoy the day and couples go to spend time together. We had already stopped by here once before but wanted to see it again since we were already so close and had the added benefit of a guide who could tell us more about the area and the restoration project.
Did You Know?
The stream used to be used for laundry and had many shanty houses lining it’s waters after the war. While restoration initially began in the 50’s it wasn’t completed until 2005.
After a quick detour for some coffee, upon our request, we made our final stop of the day. the traditional Gwangjang market. Over the previous few months we had ventured to several markets but had yet to explore this popular one that we kept hearing about. The narrow aisles were lined with food stalls, small shops of souvenirs, fabric, clothing and a variety of other traditional products.
Gene told us it was famous for three different foods: mandoo (or dim sum), mung bean pancake and live octopus. When we entered we were fairly certain we’d be grabbing some of the first two, but were dead set against trying the last. Live octopus was just not on our list of things we wanted to try and hadn’t been since we landed in the country.
Unfortunately, we could not have predicted a kind offer we had no clue how to politely refuse….and ended up with a mouthful of squirming octopus tentacle…
If you’d like to spend some time exploring the city with us and watch how the offer of live octopus turned out, take a look at our video of our tour of Seoul with This is KOREA!
Did You know?
Gwangjang market is one of Seoul’s oldest and largest markets and was started over 100 years ago.
A Day To Remember in Seoul
The entire day was filled with history, tradition, culture and fun and by the end of it we were left feeling like we hadn’t truly experience Seoul until that day. The tour of Seoul with This is KOREA! was an amazing way to learn about the city and get a chance to have a guided exploration of areas we really wanted to see.
The entire process, from first contact to arrange a tour to the moment we were dropped off by Gene at our accommodation was smooth, efficient and professional. We could not have asked for a better tour guide, a better schedule or a better day!
You Can Do It Too
If you’d like to plan a tour in Seoul, or elsewhere in Korea, contact This Is KOREA! and let them work with you to customize a schedule that works best for you! And if you happen to get Gene as your tour specialist, tell him we say hello!