I “met” Lauren Kilberg, of the travel blog double takes, soon after I shared my love of art and travel in an installment of Boarding Pass, “an insider’s look at designers and how they travel,” on Anne Ditmeyer’s beautiful blog, Prêt à Voyager. Lauren and I—both writers, teachers, and Americans living in Asia—clicked immediately.
A bit about Lauren, in her own words: “I’m an expat currently living in Seoul, South Korea. Moreover, I’m a Chicago native who favors the nomadic lifestyle over settling down.
“According to my diploma, I’m a writer, geographer, and political scientist… I prefer traveler. I’ve been told, however, that doesn’t count as a job title, so technically I’m a freelance writer by profession.
“If there’s anything you should know about me it’s the following: I strongly believe that popcorn tastes best with m+ms. I collect maps, passport stamps and freckles. I think Flintstone vitamins, erasable pens, and Pez shooters are all wonderful inventions.”
I am so thrilled to have her inaugurate notabilia’s My Asia series. Over to Lauren…
Flying Pan Blue. While traditional American-style breakfast diners are virtually nonexistent in Seoul, brunch spots are popping up all over the city. My favorite is easily the Flying Pan Blue. I love this place equally for its classy but eclectic interior and its menu. Their pancake variations are a cure to any culinary-based homesickness I might be suffering from. The heaping salads made with local greens are another favorite along with a number of other dishes consisting of generally hard to find ingredients in Korea… like cheese! There’s almost always a wait but it’s never long and always worth it.
Noryangjin Fish Market. Noryangjin Fish Market is an overwhelming experience for nearly all the senses. A late dinner there also happened to be one of the best and most genuinely Korean meals I’ve had since moving here. It’s Seoul’s biggest fish market but often overlooked. I loved the experience of walking through the massive facility, hand selecting the components of my meal. You can bring your purchases to a number of restaurants located on the basement and second floors of the market. If you’re brave enough and want a truly Korean meal, I recommend sannakji (live octopus) and a bottle of soju (Korea’s firewater) to wash it down. If seafood isn’t your thing, it’s worth visiting for the experience alone.
Insadong. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite shop in Seoul, but I can easily name a favorite district. Insadong is a historic neighborhood in Seoul and often overshadowed by the city’s more popular shopping areas. The main thoroughfare and its crisscrossing alleyways are host to some of the city’s most authentic shops, which is why it’s a favorite. You can window or wallet shop for everything from traditional calligraphy paint brushes, hanji (traditional Korean paper), and hanboks (the traditional Korean dress). There is even a store dedicated to selling the ingredients and supplies for cooking Buddhist temple food.
Seoul Folk Flea Market. Seoul Folk Flea Market is a massive, two-story facility that contains hundreds of vendors. The items sold range from the breathtaking to baffling. It’s a Korean shopping experience unlike any other. The vendors themselves are as eclectic and diverse as the items they’re selling: vintage cameras, clothing, antiques, liquor, and music (arguably enough music to start your own karaoke club).
Shortcake. It took me well over a year to find a legitimate cupcake in Korea. After recently stumbling upon Shortcake in Seoul’s northern neighborhood of Buam-dong, I realized it was worth the wait. I guess you could say it was love at first (Korean) cupcake. Aside from the treats, Shortcake also has a great collection of vintage and otherwise household items for sale.
Book Cafe. The Book Cafe in Gangnam is one of my favorite coffee shops, but not because it has exceptional coffee or that it’s exceptionally conducive to getting work done. It’s just unique. The Book Cafe, along with its coffee menu and bread bar, offers the unique experience of having a “fish massage” by a school of Dr. Fish. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You stick your feet into a tub of hungry fish who gently tickle, I mean nibble, the dead skin off your feet. An odd but enjoyable experience. When it’s all over, you can go stock up at the bread bar and get back your book.
Samcheondong Street. The best art spaces in Seoul seem to gather north of the Han River. Samcheondong Street is by far my favorite of those areas. It’s a single street running along one of Seoul’s most stunning palaces and perpendicular to the street housing the presidential offices and residence. Samcheondong street is virtually an art museum, just with many front doors. The galleries are all free and pull some great exhibitions. Gallery Hyundai is a particular favorite of mine, as I’ve never been unimpressed with the work of their curators.
Insadong Street. Another favorite neighborhood for perusing art is Insadong. There are a number of smaller galleries tucked away in the narrow alleys, along with a few larger and more notable galleries along the main street. A favorite is Insa Art Center. The multistory gallery primarily showcases the work of up and coming artists and the upstairs balcony offers a great view of the neighborhood.
Gyeongbokgung Palace. Seoul has an impressive number of palaces for a single city. Each one has their own unique draw. Gyeongbokgung Palace (Palace of Shining Happiness) is by no means a hidden gem, but it’s by far my favorite palace. It was one of the first sites I visited after moving to Seoul and I’m compelled to revisit it often. Originally built in 1394, the diverse architecture of the complex is astounding. More than anything, to me it is genuine reminder of where I live and what an amazing place this is.
Seonyudo Island. In a city the size of Seoul (second in population only to Tokyo) you grow to appreciate quiet escapes. My favorite within the city is Seonyudo, a small island on the Han River. It’s popular among locals, but virtually unheard of otherwise. It’s one example of Seoul’s efforts in environmental reclamation. Once containing a small mountain, the island was leveled and eventually turned into a sewage treatment plant. Today, the treatment plant’s skeletal remains work almost as a sculpture park, as they’ve been transformed and integrated into the park’s gardens. It’s a unique and modern mix of art and nature. More importantly, it’s an example of how urban and environmental spaces can coexist harmoniously.
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(Additional credits: Photographs by Lauren Kilberg.)