Seoul Day 4: Very Old and Very New

Today is our last full day in Seoul, and we start off with breakfast buns from a bakery in the subway station. Seoul has a very good and extensive subway system, with each station spanning several city blocks and linked by walking tunnels. The tunnels are lined with small stores selling phone covers, clothing, and occasional books, as well as numerous underground bakeries and dumpling stalls. In fact, there seem to be more (and sometimes better) bakeries underground than above ground, and you can follow the smell of fresh baked pastries to find them.

We have a mocha bun (a fluffy hand-sized bun with a hollow center, covered with a flaky mocha coating – very yummy and highly recommended!) and a red bean paste bun (my eternal favorite) from Bake Story. The bread in Korea has been a delightful surprise and very different from European-style bread. It is light and soft with very fine air pockets, and just very slightly sweet, like a sponge cake evolved into bread. Unfortunately, we ate both of the buns before remembering to take photos!

We then head up to the Bukchon Hanok Village, a well-preserved traditional village that dates back to the 1300s. The hanoks are traditional homes built using wooden beams and stone blocks, with a tile roof for the wealthier homes (left upper). Some of the building floors are raised up for heating, and the shape of the home varies depending on the local weather and wind patterns. The village of Bukchon is nestled between Gyeongbokgung Palace (which we saw on day 2) and Changdeokgung Palace, the main palace in Seoul. We take a winding walking tour through the village, stopping to taste amazing cold brewed coffee, spot a celebrity (we think) filming a commercial (middle upper) and photograph beautiful old buildings on the winding cobblestone walkways (right upper). At the peak of the village hill is beautiful residential street (bottom left), with a breathtaking view looking back towards the modern city (bottom right).

After a quick lunch of steamed buns and Korean pot stickers (they are open at both ends), we head next door to Changdeokgung Palace (upper left), a UNESCO world heritage site (!!) and the favorite palace of the Joseon princes. It was one of the five grand palaces that was destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1592 and was rebuilt several times in the following centuries. The palace grounds encompass 110 acres, with architecture that is strikingly similar to the palaces we toured previously, though everything is more grand and also more peaceful here. The walls and ceilings are restored with vibrant colors which mimic the original pigments. The original paints were historically made with shells, minerals (including cobalt for the deep blue roof tiles), and plant dyes, and were initially used to protect the wood buildings from insects and decay.

In the secret garden tour, we see some of the private retreats used by royalty. We see a meditation pavilion for the royal family (left upper), a garden arch carved from a single piece of stone and engraved “Never Age Gate” for never ending youth (left middle), a study for a crown prince (with heated napping quarters attached to the back because they spent so many hours studying to become the next king) (right upper), as well as a relaxation pavilion for the king, where the major activities included composing poetry and sometimes demonstrating new agricultural techniques. Incidentally, there is an azalea species here that is a culturally important flower (it is the color of a traditional hanbok), and oddly does not produce many leaves amid the numerous pink flowers (lower left and right).

Next up, shopping! We take the train back across the river towards Gangnam, after a gimbap snack (left). This is a traditional Korean rice roll that is rolled like sushi, but is stuffed with different julienned vegetables (vegetarian sushi!) and rolled with only a little rice. There are several modern shopping areas in Seoul, but our best experience was on Garosu-gil Street, a pretty tree-lined avenue with both major brand name stores (like Mango, Theory, and Massimo Dutti) and also more esoteric local boutiques. The young people shopping here are quite fashionably dressed, and some of the stores even provide a special cloth head cover to protect their garments from makeup while you try them on. There is also a stuffed animal store here that features one particular teddy bear named Brown – we found him riding in an blue car with his bunny friend on Garosu-gil (credit JP).

Useful tips:

Bukchon Hanok Village should definitely be on your list of places to visit in Seoul. The hike up to the top of the hill is moderately steep, and the entire route takes about 1.5 hours, with stops for snacks and photographs. Go early in the day to avoid crowds. This is apparently a very popular lunch spot for nearby workers and students.

Changdeokgung Palace is beautiful, though architecturally similar to Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung Palace. It features several different styles of buildings, including a Qing-inspired complex for one of a king’s concubines. The gardens are worth a visit if you have time, though they are also a moderately strenuous walk, lasting 90 minutes with some hills and several breaks. Entry for the Changdeokgung Palace is 3000 won, with the Palace + Garden combination for 8000 won. If you want to see the gardens, check the online reservation website preferably one week before. Only 50 slots are available per tour, and we got the last 2 English-tour tickets 3 days in advance.

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