In actuality, all we really wanted to do in Seoul was eat. After doing all this research beforehand to begin versing myself in Korean cuisine, and subjecting my husband to it along the way, we were both ready to dive in. Neither of us had any desire to see Gyeongbokgung Palace or Changdeokgung Palace or the DMZ or any of the major museums. And we only caught a glimpse of the Cheonggyecheon stream (which I actually did want to spend some time at) as we passed by after dark. We pretty much just went in search of one Korean meal after another, which of course, we would argue is one of the best avenues into local culture. :) Somehow, though, we did manage to find a way or two to distract ourselves in between all those meals…

Bukchon Hanok Village [map]
One of our favorite things about our trip to Seoul was the guesthouse we stayed at. It gave us a close view of a traditional Korean house (hanok), was managed by a nice family, had affordable rates, and was situated in a beautiful historic area near Bukchon Village, where many hanoks have been preserved.

The area was so incredibly quiet and calm. In fact, being used to the apocalyptic scenes on the Beijing subway during rush hour, we were having a bit of culture shock at the eerily empty Anguk station, which was often so deserted we wondered if it was a national holiday of some sort.
At our subway station, Anguk, stopping for our daily Manjoo Hana fix. This was pretty much how empty the station was every time we went through.
On one of the mornings, we walked north from the guesthouse to Bukchon Village itself and strolled through the alleys. It was fun to see some of the traditional homes standing next to quite modern and stylish residences. Some of them have been converted into restaurants and shops and even a church.

Kimchi Museum [map]
We did make it to one museum in Seoul, but it’s a pretty small and unglamorous one. Situated in the basement level of the Coex Mall, the kimchi museum has exhibits on the history of Korea’s most beloved dish, all the different types of kimchi made with various vegetables, and the health benefits of it, among other tidbits.
There are even special fridges designed for kimchi, and I’m told that it’s not uncommon for Koreans to have this in their home. When you think about it, if you eat something this often, it makes sense to have a means to store it year-round where you know it will be maintained in its optimal state.
Some day I’d love to come back during kimchi-making season and watch a family make it first-hand.
the four seasons of kimchi

Supermarket in Lotte Department Store [map]
We also visited this gourmet supermarket in the Lotte department store (not to be confused with Lotte World, the indoor theme park). Remember when I said Koreans have gourmet everything? This is where I came to this conclusion.

Anglican Cathedral of Seoul [map]
Since we happened to be in Seoul on the first Sunday of Advent, we took the opportunity to attend an English service at the beautiful Anglican Cathedral of Seoul. It was another refreshing moment from our time in Korea.
Thanks to my Korean American friend Sarah, we learned about this musical theater show that’s incredibly popular in Seoul. It’s called Nanta, and the plot line centers around a group of three cooking students who are preparing to cater a wedding on very short notice. On top of that, the chef’s (largely incompetent) nephew is visiting, and he decides to add him to the mix. It’s marketed as a non-verbal comedy, so there’s no need to know any Korean, and it’s especially fun if you love food or if you have kids. There was actually a whole elementary-school class attending the show we went to. And even our little one-year-old was enthralled for a good part of it. (Side note: We called beforehand to make sure having small children in the theater wouldn’t be too disruptive, and they reassured us that people bring small children in all the time. Plus, the show is pretty lively and sometimes quite loud, so the concern might actually be more that a baby or toddler might get upset, which luckily ours didn’t.) For promotions and discounts, be sure to check the site.

Myeongdong Beauty Shops [map]
One of the few non-food related things that we (well, I) did included checking out skincare products, which my sister suggested, since Korean skincare products are well made and very popular among a lot of Asians these days. Given that we don’t use local Chinese products in Beijing, this seemed like a particularly good idea… until I realized I had already stocked up on enough stuff from the US to last us a while. Still, it was my friend Sarah again who tipped me off to all the skincare shops at Myeongdong, which happened to also be where we were going to see the Nanta show, so I squeezed in a bit of shopping right beforehand while the boys took a coffee break. (There are also skincare shops at many of the subway stations.) Sarah also told me that stores offer a lot of free products to lure customers in and not to be afraid to ask for EVEN MORE free samples (this didn’t seem to work out for me… but I am really bad at asking for things!).

Dragon Hill Spa 
I have friends back home, Asian and non-Asian alike, who are enormous fans of Spa World, a Korean spa in northern Virginia. But I have always been too scared to go for fear of running into someone I know. So what better place to get naked and let a stranger scrub you raw than in a foreign country, where (hopefully) no one will know or remember you? Although I got some recommendations for local neighborhood jjimjilbangs, we decided it was just easiest to head to the tourist-friendly Dragon Hill Spa, even though it is often likened to a tacky Vegas hotel. Surprisingly, it turned out to be filled with locals (I think I only saw one or two non-Asian faces while we were there), so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely inauthentic experience. :)
I have to confess, even after we got into the spa, I wasn’t exactly eager to venture into the no-clothing sections. I also wanted to spend time with my family, so we hung out more in the communal areas. It was really interesting to see how much of a social activity the bathhouse is. There were families, teenagers, young adults, couples. Just from looking around I saw people there playing games, sharing snacks, chatting, watching movies, playing arcade games, and, in the case of couples, snuggling in various corners.
Once I managed to muster up the courage to head down to the bathing area on my own, I wish I had gone earlier because this really felt like the heart of the place. While the communal areas seemed more like a Vegas hotel slash club house slash amusement park, the bathing areas were more what I imagined a traditional bathhouse to be like. It was quiet, save for the running water and the echo coming off the tiles. There were different pools of varying temperatures and types of herbs and salts. There were also showers and an area in the back where the Korean grandmas scrub you down. Having missed my hamam opportunity in Morocco, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave Korea without getting a good scrub in, and so I did. I have to say, it’s not something I would call relaxing or enjoyable, but it was definitely a memorable cultural experience.

Lastly, right next to Dragon Hill Spa was an Emart, which is like a Korean Target or Monoprix. I love visiting stores like this. You get to see how locals live, where they shop, what’s important to the culture (as you’ll see in the photos below), as well as pick up some cheap, practical, and oftentimes pretty good-quality souvenirs and gifts. I think we were looking forward to roaming the aisles of Emart more than the spa or even the city streets themselves. :) We picked up some cheap winter clothing items, a grill top, and various snacks and Korean cooking ingredients.
gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
instant noodles, including the beloved Shin Ramyun
Koreans love Spam, and Emart was filled with all types of it, including this kids’ version advertising DHA!

As you can tell, we enjoyed our time in Seoul immensely and hope to have a chance to go back and explore more soon. What a great city!