Things to do in Korea

Visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing Hanbok
Visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing Hanbok

I celebrated my 1 year anniversary of living in Japan last month, by visiting Korea.  It’s one of those things that made more sense at the time.  On the journey with me were two friends from my house who needed a man to show them around.  That man was Jiyong.  Not wanting to miss a chance for adventure I tagged along.

Korea is a country I knew literally nothing about – my friends also knew this, because I told them so several times.  Aside from a vague choreographical appreciation of Gangnam Style, Korean culture hasn’t historically intersected with my life growing up in the UK.  Of course, this totally changed for 6 days with my friends and I getting immersed in everything we could.

No boundaries between friends

Going on holiday with friends is a great way to strengthen your friendship.  Or destroy it – you don’t really know which way it’ll go.  Whether it’s getting angry at you for being attacked by a mosquito, or making you go for yet another meal at Paris Baguette, your friends will do the best they can to both annoy and be annoyed by you.  This is actually a good thing, mostly because I want to be positive about it.  In the case of this trip, an extended stint of close proximity gave us memories and shared experiences, which ultimately brought us closer.  Too close.  Actually it was a disaster, privately remembered as “the ball touching incident of 2016,” but we’ll get to that.

Jiyong was an old housemate of ours who’d moved back to Korea.  One of the best things about living in a sharehouse is meeting people from all over the world, letting you make lasting friendships that you can call upon for things like tours of foreign countries.  He rocked up to our hostel sporting a backpack that looked like a shark.  After eventually getting over how cool the backpack was we left to check out the local area of Hongdae.

Things to do in Korea

Here are a few things to do in Korea that I recommend based on my trip.

1. Ride the trains

This is my blog and that means I might choose to write about Korean transport infrastructure from time to time.  Having lived in Japan for the past year, I didn’t expect to be impressed so easily by a foreign rail system.  Actually it’s rare I think about rail systems in general.  However, credit where it’s due: the Korean lines used in Seoul were top notch.  Wider and less crowded than the ones in Tokyo, they whisked you away like a capsule in space.  And whisk you they do, not only by physically transporting you, but by playing a fanfare of trumpets to everyone heralding your arrival, as if you were an established dignitary, for example the Queen of Sheba.  And if that weren’t enough, the tickets are cheap, and they’ll buy back your used ticket for 50 Won.  How they make any money I don’t know.

As a point of comparison, I see people in Britain are having trouble getting home because it rained yesterday.

2. Take some pictures

There are a lot of nice things in Korea and I recommend taking a few photos.  Specifically there’s a great little place in Mapo-gu called the Trickeye Museum, which lets you take fancy pictures.  Here’s a candid shot from our time there.

A man of many talents
Acting natural

There are also some stunning places such as the Gyeongbokgung Palace (pro-tip: get in for free by renting a hanbok, the Korean equivalent of a kimono), the views from the N Seoul Tower, and don’t miss the stage to take a Gangnam Style photo outside Gangnam Station.

3. Get drunk

This one’s highly recommended.  We went to a Korean style izakaya and ordered a drink each.  This is actually a very good idea in Korea.  In Korea you share drinks, so when you order a drink, it’s a big drink for everyone.  As a result of this enlightened custom we were happy to receive 3 big drinks for everyone.

After indulging copious cups of soju and makgeolli, and attempting to do purikura in an ID photo booth, things escalated.  As it happened I had been working on a theory that says that if you want to know if your friend will touch your balls, you should simply tell them, “don’t touch my balls!”  I’m not sure what I expected from developing such a theory, but suffice to say its immediate validation was provided by inconceivable violation.  Unfortunately things got worse as I was recorded in an embarrassing video featuring an umbrella.  These things aside, getting drunk in Korea is 10/10 would do again.

4. Buy an umbrella (actually buy two)

Korea’s a fantastic place for shopping.  I learnt this first hand since one of the consequences of travelling with girls is that you have to go shopping.  In fact most of the trip was shopping.  After the quantity of make-up shops Seoul has to offer became fully realised, we decided to split up.

The shopping districts in Seoul are very big.  Places to recommend are the large underground mall at Gangnam Station, a long more traditional street called Myeongdong, and a huge interconnected series of shopping streets at Dongdaemon.  Yes, it’s called Dongdaemon.

Korea has much better umbrellas than Japan, and Japan has better umbrellas than the west.  The more worldly I’ve become, the more I’ve come to accept and respect this hierarchy.  Expect a Korean umbrella to both look good and to have a button to put itself up automatically.  And consider buying two, depending on where you live.  Umbrellas aren’t safe in Japan and naturally I lost mine immediately.

5. A couple of warnings before you go

Book all your accommodation in advance.  Being homeless in Korea is not as fun as it sounds, even though it doesn’t sound very fun.  Walking around Korea is less good when you’re carrying all your suitcases and don’t know where you’re going or going to end up.  Depending on when you travel, all the hostels will be booked and you’ll have to search high and low for a place, with no guarantee of finding one.  But on the other hand it’s kind of exciting, so do it if that’s your cup of tea.

Second, and I can’t stress this one enough, don’t put a battery in your hold luggage.  I did this and they took it out and literally destroyed it, leaving me distraught for days.  These days, going on holiday is like playing Russian Roulette with your prized possessions.  This time it’s a battery, next time it’s your girl’s vibrator and a packet of Tic Tacs.   Meanwhile actually dangerous items such as the guy behind you’s Michael Bolton collection will go through undetected.  I’m considering conducting all future transport by boat.


Go to Korea, you’ll probably have a great time.  Do fun things like eat bicycle-delivered chicken by the Han river, wear a hanbok and buy Jeju cactus chocolates to take home.  Eat patbingsu (Korean shaved ice), ride the underground and don’t be homeless or make theories about your balls.  Occasionally consider how lucky you are not to have to give up 2 years of your life to do mandatory military service.  Then write a blog post with all of the above, try to make it funny and you’re well on your way to internet fandom and adoration.  At least I hope that’s how it works – I’ve written too much to quit now.

Matt Bowen

Matt is a blogger, budoka and software developer. He sold his things, quit his job and moved to Japan to study Japanese and martial arts. Sometimes he writes about it.

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