My motherland and the reasons why you need to visit. Head over to HHWT and check out why I think the country is so fabulous!
My motherland and the reasons why you need to visit. Head over to HHWT and check out why I think the country is so fabulous!
Which 9 beautiful cities you shouldn’t miss out on visiting when in Italy? Head over to Have Halal, Will Travel where I give my top picks:
San Francisco. A week. February 2013.
My first and only exposure to the great US of A was San Francisco, and wasn’t I glad I chose such a place to go. The weather is beautiful, the people are friendly and the place is vibrant, warm and buzzing all at the same time.
Things seemed to take a turn for the worst before I even got there however. My friend and I researched a couple of hotels, chose one and I asked my friend to go ahead and book. Turned out, the hotel was a chain and the one she booked was located in the Tenderloin. We didn’t quite understand the significance of this until we got to the top of the road marked Tenderloin and saw a large number of shady characters dotted across the entire street, as if a video game and the aim was to dodge the obstructions. When locals asked us where we were staying and we replied ‘the tenderloin’, their responses were thus ‘ah the ol TL eh’ and ‘the tenderloin? ok so what you need to do is you look em in the eye, and you say no!’. Suffice to say, we spent the week either getting cab rides back to the hotel when we were out late or looking left and right and then literally legging it down the street till we reached our hotel. This hotel was also our first experience of completely bypassing free breakfast. When we were told that breakfast gets set up in the reception area by way of paper lunchboxes filled with a milk carton, an apple and a pastry, we decided to hit up the local bagel places instead.
If you come to the US, you are there for a number of reasons- but eating is definitely one of them. Strangely we didn’t make it to an in-and-out (I know!) but ate a plenty of sourdough bread, clam chowder, bagels and pancakes. Our first night involved a short and jetlagged trip to Chipotle where we attempted to eat burritos bigger than our heads and due to the weight, meant we were like animals to a trough- bringing our heads down to the basket (a basket, not a plate!) to eat. I also feel I need to mention the Honey Dijon Mustard Crisps, because I couldn’t get enough of that sweet and sour mix.
Thankfully the dodgy hotel experience only added to the adventure. This is some of what we got up to the week we had in San Fran.
Mission district and Balmy alley
This area is absolutely worth a visit due to the incredible Murials and wall art – amazing political and social statements made and some were very moving. There was one piece of work relating to Travyon Martin and you could definitely feel the raw emotion portrayed from the drawing. The area has a big hispanic community and a lot of the murials in spanish, related to ‘home’ and had spiritual undertones.
Cable car-ing it to places
We cable car-ed it up to Lombard street (the Whirly road) and walked around the area to get to Coit Tower. Though San Francisco is incredibly hilly, and many a break is recommended, the neighbourhoods are so picturesque to just walk around.
I also highly rate the metro ‘BART’ system as it is excellent and easy to use. For the most part we just used this or the cable cars to get around (definitely go on the cable car at least for novelty!). You can also walk a lot in San Francisco but as mentioned, there are hills, and plenty of them.
We didn’t get to Alcatraz but you can spot the island from the pier. Pier 39 also has some sea lions, but not sure what the fuss was about really. However, fuss is completely agreed on the seafood front by the pier- eat, eat, eat!
We found ourselves making our way to this area on more than one occasion. One time was to visit the Ferry Building Marketplace which then turned into an evening walk across the whole pier singing the Spice Girls and other songs about girl power. Another time, we found ourselves by the Ferry Bulding where a planned Valentines Day Pillow Fight was about to commence. Initially excited, we very nearly considered the option of purchasing a pillow off some opportunists and joining in the fun. However, this idea lost weight as soon as we saw a man approach the gathering holding on to a very soiled looking pillow. We watched for a short while as people began hitting strangers with their pillows- in silence might I add. We disappeared soon after.
San Francisco’s parks are beautiful with lovely views of the city such as Golden Gate Park and Buena Vista Park. The area around Buena Vista reminded me a bit of Camden (for my London readers!). We also walked around the neighbourhood in Ashbury- clearly one of the poshest ends in San Francisco!
Biking through the Golden Gate Bridge
One incredible experience was biking through the Golden Gate Bridge from Embacadero and through to Saulsalito- a very quaint small town on the other end of the bridge. We spent a couple of hours in the town, ate pizza and then took a short ferry ride back to San Francisco .
At the time, we were still (kind of) recent graduates fresh out of the university scene and curious to visit other campuses. We visited Berkeley and Stanford (Palo Alto)- both really relaxing afternoons and a nice train ride away from the city.
This is at least a full day trip and definitely worth the time to see. The mountains and scenery were mind-blowing and one of my absolutely favourite nature highlights thus far. A bunch of tour companies operate day trips so worth researching the most convenient one for you.
So does San Fran live up to its lovely weather, lovely people, lovely food, lovely scene stereotype? Yes, absolutely yes.
*All photos in this post taken by my travelling buddy Sana Badri- photo credit due to her and her handy camera 😉
Jeju Island is a £25 single plane journey from Busan (or Seoul) and a feast for the eyes for those who want natural landscapes and greenery. I also wish to recommend a family run hotel (this is absolutely not sponsored)- Hotel Haru. The family who run the hotel were so accommodating and kind, and offered us a ride back to the airport. When my friend got bitten by a mosquito outside, they were quick to bring out a miracle roll -on that relieved the spot. The hotel is situated in the centre of town and I would recommend checking them out.
You need a car in Jeju. The island is large, and the only way you can travel to different sites is by car or bus. There is no metro and sites are not near enough to each other for you to cycle or walk around. What I would recommend is taking the bus where you can, then checking out what you want to see in Jeju and hiring a private taxi for the day to take you round. Please note, however that day tours will only do a section of the Island (North, South, East or West) so either take a number of tours or choose what you would prefer to see. We chose a South Island tour when we took a taxi which the Hotel recommended. Another tip, is that you can hire either English speaking or Korean speaking drivers with English speaking being more expensive. We went ahead with a Korean speaking driver and it was absolutely fine. Universal smiles, finger pointing on maps and hand gestures need no translation.
As part of the tour (10.00-18.00), we visited:
Cheonjiyeon Waterfall and Seonim Bridge.
There are three waterfalls, each requiring significant effort to get to. The view once there were spectacular. The Bridge is also well known due to the nymphs carved on either side.
Next stop was another waterfall where the water flows straight into the ocean. There is a 23 metre drop and the view is magnificent.
Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff
These cliffs were spectacular, and against the deep blue sea, the view was stunning.
After a spot of Abalone porridge for lunch (delicious and definitely a must eat), it was on to the estuary. I was keen to jump on a see through kayak and paddle through the water, but alas a long waiting list meant we had a quick look around instead, watched others on the boat and moved on to the next spot.
Jeju folk vilage
The final spot we requested to visit as part of the tour was the folk village, which in hindsight I would have liked to spend more time in. The village details rural Korean life as well as showcases ancient traditions and customs. You could easily spend a long afternoon wandering around.
Apart from the sites from the private tour, we also visited:
These lava caves contain one of Earth’s largest lava tubes and it was simply mind-blowing to walk through it all. The cave went on for ages, to a point where we had to return back to base as we couldn’t tell how long it would take to continue to the end.
Hiking up Mount Hallasan was wonderful. Granted, we only attempted the shortest and least steep hike path, it was a joy to be amidst nature and the view at the top was fantastic. There are a number of hiking paths you can take depending on fitness ability and willingness, taking between 1 hour to 6 hours.
We also visited Halim Park. While it was nice to walk around the reptile house, bird house, insect house and cactus house, the scene wasn’t really for me. I much prefer being in the actual outdoors!
I fell in love with Hamdeok Beach. The sand was pristine and the ocean colour was almost transparent. We arrived around sunset and the moment was just breath taking.
Hyeopjae Beach is more ‘famous’ than Hamdeok Beach but I can’t really say why. The beach was more crowded, the ocean wasn’t as alluring and I much preferred Hamdeok as a result. There are plenty of beaches for you to take your pick from so do have a look out and do your research. Our short stay meant we could only pick so many places to visit.
And that concludes the end of my 3 day stay in Jeju and this Korea series. Along with Seoul, I would 100% recommend this Island and a longer stay than 3 days. The only thing to bear in mind is that you definitely require transport to get around and that sadly Jeju oranges are only in season from November.
Other posts in the series:
Busan (or Pusan) is a 2 hour KTX train ride away from Seoul and is the country’s second largest city. I was keen to explore Busan as it’s a coastal city and the sea food is meant to be delicious. I had also heard that many Koreans flock to Haeundae Beach when the weather allows, so wanted to see what the ocean had to offer.
To be honest, it was a nice city, but I am not sure I would make the trip to see it again. I quite like visiting spots that are not so touristic and just walking around the city to get a feel for it is a day well spent for me, but there wasn’t anything in particular in Busan that called out to me, and sadly the ocean fronts weren’t as spectacular as I thought. I do love the ocean though, so was content taking in the views from a nearby cafe.
2 days were spent in Busan and another day in Gyeongju (a small city outside Busan I really liked). I feel a special mention also needs to go to under floor heating that generally exists in Korea and was a welcomed edition in the Busan hotel we stayed in . A more important mention to lovely Minjoo who a mutual UK friend put us in touch with and who spent a day with us in Busan and showed us the sights!
Again in no particular order, this is what we did:
Taejongdae is a national park in Busan that offer oceanic views from its cliff front. To get up to the cliffs, you can either walk (for a while) or a take a very cute looking tram bus to the spot. We chose cute tram. Sufficient effort is required to walk up and around the place though, so I wouldn’t advise this for people who have limited accessibility.
Haedong Yonggung Temple
Most temples in Korea are located in the mountains, so it was nice to visit a temple located on the sea front. There are over 100 steps to get to the main sanctuary, so good shoes are a must!
Haeundae Beach and Gwangalli Beach
To be honest, I found Haeundae Beach far too crowded and not all that great. I much preferred Gwangalli Beach (pictured below which overlooked the Busan Gwangandaegyo Bridge and where we sat to watch the sunset and the Bridge lights turn on. The beach corniche also has a number of cafes and restaurants across the road, so you can dine overlooking the views. In this instance, dine for me was in the form of some fried squid/octopus (I don’t remember which)- yum!
Yongdusan Park and Busan Tower
This site was close to our hotel, hence the visit. I wouldn’t make the trip specifically to go, but if you are in the area, it’s a welcomed quiet spot from the busy shopping area around it.
Eat at Goreamsaeomuk
This is one for those who watch Superman Returns and love the cute little triplets (who came to eat here), and/or for one who likes to consume copious amounts of really good fishcakes. The suggestion to go here came from Minjoo, and coincidently was the same place my friend was trying to hunt down but couldn’t locate.
What we missed out on, but worth considering:
Gamcheon Culture Village
This was the main thing I wanted to see and I was gutted I missed out. Sadly, ill timing meant that we reached the village after sunset and really couldn’t wander around the residential area as a result. The village is full of colour, murals and art, so little light meant we couldn’t see very much! However if I ever found myself in Busan again, I would 100% try again.
Busan International Film Festival
We visited Busan in October as the film festival was taking place. It would have been cool to have brought tickets to see a film or two, but alas they sold out pretty much immediately.
Gyeongju was my favourite part of this 3 day stay. You can get to the city via bus or train. The bus was an hour journey on the way there, and in a bid to limit the time spent, we took the train back to Busan, which strangely ended up taking over 2 hours! The city was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla and you can see historical sites throughout the city. We barely scratched the surface of the city, and a lot of historical sites are located far from one another. In hindsight, another day would have made for a comfortable and relaxing stay.
Silla Sori Festival by the Cheomseongdae Observatory
My most enjoyable aspect of the trip was not the temple visits, but rather the Silla Sori festival that our visit happened to coincide with. The festival celebrates and honours the Silla dynasty’s history and culture and takes place on the grass field of the Cheomseongdae Observatory. The festival was well and truly in the thick of it with beautiful lantern figures, stalls, performances and people walking around and taking in the view. It was simply magical.
Gyochon Traditional Village
I absolutely adored the Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village as it felt we had gone back in time, even the grit on the floor seemed old. What made this experience even better was that we just happened to stumble upon it. We were at the Seokguram Grotto, and not looking forward to a) pushing and shoving to get on the bus and b) the long bus trip once we pushed and shoved our way onto the bus. A number of taxis were offering (extortionate) pooled services where a number of people could share a ride back to town- which we jumped on as soon as we got the chance. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going, but in my tired state, I was keen to get out of the busy area, plus the driver took a number of short cuts through villages and residential towns, which was nice to see. We ended up at the Traditional Village and what a treat it was.
As mentioned, I wasn’t too keen on the historical sites and temples, mainly because they were all so far away from each other, we only had a day in the city, and bad traffic meant we spent up to 2 hours to get to each point. However, it was wonderful to get up to the hills and mountains and to experience some wonderful views of the city.
Sites to check out:
Seokguram grotto (located in the mountains and involves a bus trip right up to the top- expect to push and shove, otherwise you will never get on the bus)
Anapji Pond complex
I would go to Gyeongju just to check out the Traditional village, but the history and culture that is there makes for a tourist’s dream! One for your list for sure.
The final leg of this series to follow- Jeju and how the island captured my heart!
Other posts in the series:
Despite my travels in Korea ending with Seoul, I begin my series of blog posts with it. Key words: shopping and food with a secret garden thrown in. I am generally not a big spender when I travel, but the shopping in Seoul was fantastic and I just couldn’t resist the clothes and the makeup. Both types of products are relatively cheap and the quality is great. Korean skincare is decades ahead of Western counterparts and perusing all the strange and unique products and shops was fun in itself. Except for the Lotte Duty Free Mall, which was a traumatic experience. My friend managed to persuade me to go under the guise of cheaper deals. What ensued next was a whole lot of shoving, pushing, mandarin being shouted from all corners by Chinese tourists, credit cards being waved about and me slipping downstairs and waiting for said friend in the café.
Anyway, I digress-escapades in Seoul as follows (in no particular order):
In a bid to experience a traditional stay, 1 night was spent in a 100 year old Hanok (a traditional house). The owners were friendly and the breakfast was great (a simple dish of lotus leaf with rice, anchovies, soup and veg). The bedding is on the floor and is very light, so I wouldn’t recommend long stays but an authentic experience none the less in a building composed of wood of paper and worth a go.
Insadong was a really trendy part of Seoul with a very creative, hipster and artistic feel to it. There were lots of very quirky shops and tea houses. Make sure you stop by and try a tea house. We went to Insadong Tea House, but there are so many down little street alleys so take your pick.
Ehwa Women’s University and Hongdae:
I put these two places together because both are student spaces and full of young people. Lots and lots of shopping to be done here, cafes and restaurants and busy and bustling streets. Lots of underground stations have underground markets and shops which you could literally spend hours in. Just a quick tip about clothing; Korean women tend to be quite (read: tiny) small in stature, and this is reflected in the small sizes available. ‘Free size’ clothes are a plenty though, which might offer more choice in fit (just about!).
This area is where most expatriates and foreigners live, so there are tons of different cuisine restaurants here if you fancy it. I was keen to visit the area, as I had heard of a halal Korean restaurant in the area (called Eid) run by a Korean family and wanted to try Bulgogi. There is also a large and stunning mosque in the area which serves the Muslim expat community and it was a wonder to visit.
Dongdaemun, Namdaemun and Myeongdong:
Again, I put these three places together because of the shopping. Myeongdong is like a little make up village, literally shop after shop of cosmetics and skin care and make up. What was interesting was there would be several brand shops within metres of each other. In one street, there were about 4 Etude House shops, for instance.
Dongdaemun is known for its late night markets and shops. There are some places that are open way into early dawn.
Namdaemun is a great market for souvenirs and gifts and is a bit cheaper than the other two spots. Stock up on socks (you will know what I mean when you see all the novelty socks-cheap and cheerful!)
Food is glorious in Korea and there are plenty of street food vendors and markets for you to try out. I found street food in Korea to be generally clean and safe to eat, and there is a big culture of local people going out just to eat street food and marvel at all the things available.
Gwangjang market is a great spot to try out lots of food for cheap. In the space of half an hour, I had consumed copious amounts of tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), gimbap (veg sushi), Bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) and drank Sikhye (rice drink). Everything was cheap and delicious.
De-Militarised Zone/ Joint Security Area
This was a really sobering experience. Amidst the interesting aspects of the day excursion such as stepping onto ‘North Korea’ soil and learning about Korea’s history, what was most humbling was learning about Korean’s general hope that both states will unify into one. Part of the trip involved visiting Dorasan train station, the northernmost stop which once connected South and North Korea. It is hoped the lines will open once again and trains leaving from Dorasan will one day be able to travel onto Pyongyang. The sad reality of freedom of movement and thought was made clear from a view that overlooked the border between North and South Korea. The South Korean side was full of greenery and trees, while the Northern side was completely derelict, a strong indication that North Koreans would have no shade or hide of tree if they ever tried to defect. History enthusiasts would like this trip, and I would thoroughly recommend it.
Visiting the War Museum (free) is also interesting if you have a spare afternoon. It definitely provided some reflection about the damages of war and the nature of politics.
Korea has Psy to thank for all the tourists who come to visit Gangnam as a result of a certain k-pop track. I have to say though, it is a pretty nice place to just walk through and sit in a café and people watch. Korea has a huge café culture, which is perfect for people who don’t drink (like me!).
Within the Gangnam district, lies Cheongdam-dong, the classiest spot in Seoul, where all the designer shops call home. Come here to see beautiful buildings, clean streets and wealthy couples and to perhaps purchase a designer bag or two.
For any K-Pop fans, the Co-ex mall is also situated in the same district and has a 4 storey shop dedicated to K-pop merchandise.
Palaces and temples
One of the wonderful things about Seoul, was that despite the very trendy and hipster feel to it, there are wonderful pockets of old Korea and traditional buildings. Koreans maintain a very strong link to their tradition and many cultural norms remain very much prominent, such as showing respect to anyone older than you by way of addressing them and expression.
This also plays out in the maintenance of beautiful old buildings and palaces. I would definitely recommend visiting the Changdeokgun Palace and take the Secret Garden tour while there. The gardens were beautiful and well-kept and were a welcomed quiet space from an otherwise loud and bustling city. The Palace itself was also wonderful to look at, the patterns on the ceilings were a favourite of mine (testimony being that the design now hangs in magnet form on my fridge).
Bonguensa Temple was also great to visit and despite its beauty, you can literally blink and miss it as it’s situated just off a side street.
Now this is something that I wouldn’t say is a must do, but the cable car ride to get to the tower was a fantastic way to see the city from above, and that alone might be worth the trip. Once you get to the tower, the experience is pretty average. We didn’t bother to then go up the tower, and preferred to just walk around the space, but it is an option.
Green spaces and the river Han
The Cheonggyecheon stream is often fitted with art installations and is a relaxed and chilled space to spend the evening walking through and sitting by the stream.
We had fully intended on renting bikes and cycling round the River Han. We mistakenly decided to do this on our last day before our departure that evening. This was a terrible idea, as we were exhausted from a busy and adventurous two weeks, that it was effort enough to just place one foot in front of the other to walk. What we did instead though, was brilliant. It involved sitting in a café in Hangang park and watching people partake in the art of riding bikes instead.
Places not visited
We barely scratched the surface of Seoul, but enjoyed what we did do. A few more things we were keen to do, but didn’t get round to include:
Bukchon cultural village. This is a village full of residential hanoks and old houses. People tend to just walk around and soak in the nostalgia of a time gone by.
Gyeongbokgung Palace. We passed by Gwanghwamun gate which is the largest gate leading to the Palace but didn’t venture inside (actually my friend in a previous trip to Seoul had visited this Palace and remarked that once you see one Palace, you see them all…) I would say if you don’t have much time, then be sure to perhaps just pick one Palace to visit and spend a good amount of time exploring it instead of rushing through two visits.
We didn’t get a chance to visit the fish market, but I have heard Noryangin Fish Market is quite the experience.
That’s that for Seoul. It’s interesting as I don’t normally intend to visit a place a second time round but I think I could give Seoul another go (my friend is planning a third trip!).
Next stop- Busan, fish cakes and Gyeongju.
Other posts in the series:
After a new found love and appreciation for Japan, I knew I had to go back to the region. Next stop was Korea.
Of course, Korea would be different, I just didn’t how much. Though there is natural and beautiful landscapes in the country, I found Korea, especially in Seoul to be bustling, busy and very city like. The country has a large youth population and the vibe I experienced had a really strong trendy feel. There is a really big celebrity culture, to such an extent that celebrities advertise anything and everything- from airline endorsements to lemon powder in your local convenience store.
People were generally polite, though there are a few cultural differences that one should be aware of before travelling. The most important being that older women (commonly referred to as Ahjummas by way of respect) don’t see anything wrong with shoving and pushing on public transportation. Do not take this personally.
Quick tips and heads up:
Wifi portable routers are not really necessary. There is super speedy free Wifi available in most public spaces, restaurants and cafes.
Taxis are not too expensive, but public transportation is excellent in Korea, especially trains. Signage is often in English and routes are pretty logical and clear. From the airport, you can take a KTX train that will take you straight to Seoul Station.
The food is absolutely delicious and you will always get a wonderful collection of (free) side dishes to accompany your meal. The only thing I would mention is that you should definitely enquire about dietary requirements as the Koreans love a bit of meat and spam in a lot of dishes. I took a phone screenshot of my dietary requirements written in hangul and showed it as soon as I got given a menu. The waitor/waitress was then able to advise me on what to have. If you are a vegetarian, bhibimbap and Gimbap will be your go tos. The blog Have Halal, Will travel have a brilliant list of useful phrase translations you can use on your trip here. If you eat chicken, then the fried chicken in Korea is apparently the best you can get. My friend attests to this.
You will see couple culture everywhere. One really endearing thing I saw throughout my trip was couples wearing matching clothes, right down to the same socks. This is just not something you see in London and it was sweet to see a different way of expressing affection in another country. This trend is really commercialised though, from matching outfits in shops to couple dinner deals, and despite travelling with a friend, I found myself trying to convince her to purchase a matching jumper ‘just because’ (she refused and I came to my senses).
Choose the time of year you visit Korea wisely. Korea has 4 set seasons, and spring (cherry blossom time) and autumn (mild weather) are the best time according to the locals to visit. Summer is too humid and Winter is icy cold. I visited in October and the weather was lovely and warm enough to just have a light shawl to hand.
Not a lot of Koreans speak English, but it was relatively easy to get around. Signage in most places are in English and restaurants often have English menus. I seemed to get away with just the following terms (probably pronounced/spelt hideously):
kamsahamnida (thank you)
Generally; food, travel and shopping were all of good value or reasonable (in relation to the pound sterling).Word of caution, in Busan, there were a number of stall and randomly placed tables set out on the street that offered currency exchange services. As much as I love to support local businesses, do the sensiible thing, and exchange your money at a bank.
An interesting thing I noticed about shopping in Korea, was that it was rare that you could purchase a product as a single item. Often there would be these crazy deals where if you buy ten aloe vera creams/face masks/pens/magnets (or insert random product), you will get 10 aloe vera creams/face masks/ pens/ magnets (or insert random product) for free! I guess this works out well if you are purchasing a number of souvenirs or gifts for back home, but rather troublesome if you fancied just buying the one set of chop sticks and not 15 for a rainy day.
Would I recommend Korea? If you like shopping and eating, then absolutely yes to Seoul. Despite the big city feel, it was relaxing to just walk around and explore pockets of ‘old Korea’ amidst the big city. Jeju Island was stunning, so if you like nature than the Island is the place to be.
So where did we go and what did we do:
12 nights in Korea: London -> Seoul (1 night) -> Busan (3 nights inc. 1 day trip to Gyengju) ->Jeju Island (3 nights) ->Seoul (5 nights).
Next stop- Seoul and the city.