Queen Mary Comparative Literature student, Ruby Punt, studied abroad at Seoul National University during her third year of studying. And what a year it was! Take a look below for Ruby’s top 5 things to do in South Korea…
During my third year I completed an exchange programme in South Korea at Seoul National University. While there, I ventured out of my comfort zone and took part in many incredible activities which taught me the importance of making the most of all opportunities. I flew through the mountains paragliding, hiked the tallest mountain in South Korea, bungee jumped, and skied along the Olympic trails. I travelled lots. I ate lots. I smiled lots. I cried lots. It was truly a whirlwind of a year.
If I were to offer you one piece of advice before you begin your year abroad it would have to be experience everything. I spent so long hauled up in the library to begin with, if I had spent more time focusing on the present then I would have made more memories of this beautiful country. Yes, grades are important but they’re not everything. When you go home, you won’t remember the times you spent studying; instead, you will remember all the experiences you did (or didn’t) have.
With that in mind, here are my top 5 things to do in South Korea to fully experience the country and what it has to offer:
1. Cooking Classes
One of the best ways to get acquainted to a new culture is to learn a few of their recipes. Cooking is about so much more than just bunging a few ingredients in the oven: it’s history, it’s science, it’s personal. During my own cooking class, some of the recipes I learned included bulgogi, kimchi pancakes, and jabjae. Throughout the lesson my instructor explained how all of his ingredients were shipped over from his mother’s farm, for him cooking was a way to keep connected to family despite the many miles that separated them.
When we dished up our food, he explained the significance of rice to South Koreans and the popular phrase “have you eaten rice yet?” During the Korean War, the nation was struck by poverty and sickness – as such it was common not to eat. Over time, this question became synonymous with “how are you?” Despite this class being only 3-hours long, I learned so much about South Korean culture and would recommend that this be one of the first things you experience when travelling to South Korea.
2. Coffee Shop Hopping
South Korea is known across the world for their quirky cafes and restaurants. While I was in Seoul, I spent many Sunday afternoons strolling Hongdae, dipping in and out of the strange and wonderful coffee shops they had to offer. From traditional teahouses to poop themed cafes, they really do have a wide variety of places you can visit!
One of my favourite cafes would have to be Zapangi. Hidden behind a fridge, this quaint speakeasy has some of the best cakes I have ever tasted. When I first entered, I was skeptical about how good the food would be because of the size of the building and the amount it had been hyped up on social media; however, I was pleasantly surprised by this little gem!
If you go to South Korea and don’t visit at least one palace then you will have severely missed out on one of the most crucial tourist activities. These are vital snippets of history, which provide a backdrop to South Korean culture as a whole. If the lure of history isn’t enough, perhaps you’ll be interested to know that some of them are used to film popular dramas and films. For instance, “Kingdom” was filmed at Changdoekgung! When visiting, you are likely to see tourists dressed up in traditional South Korean Hanboks, these traditional outfits provide you with free entry to any palace or museum! I found it really fun dressing up and wandering around like an ancient South Korean elite.
4. Korean Spas
Korean Spas, also known as Jimjilbangs, were one of my favourite places to visit in Seoul. They have these huge sauna rooms which are basically just oversized kilns where you bake yourself like a pizza. Trust me, it’s more fun than I make it sound. I will warn you, if you want to venture off to the bath area, this is a fully nude section. However, there are tons of other places you can relax fully clothed.
Of all the spas I visited, Dragon Hill Spa was my favourite due to their many themed rooms and the variety of entertainment they had on offer. Alongside the traditional saunas and bathrooms, Dragon Hill also has a games room, massage centre, gym, and cinema! Plenty of things to keep you occupied!
5. Temple Stay
If you’re interested in Buddhism or just looking to unwind, I would recommend joining a Temple Stay programme! The purpose of Temple Stay is to teach visitors about Buddhist thought and South Korean culture. While here, I learned how to complete the 108-prayer bead ceremony and took part in multiple meditation sessions.
Over tea with a monk, I learned some of the reasons why people become monks and what it is like to live as a South Korean monk. A typical day starts at 4am for them and ends at 11pm, after their night-time meditation session.
If you would like to learn more about South Korea, you are always welcome to contact me through the Global Opportunities Office (details below).
Alternatively, check out some of the publications I have written for here:
CUB, QMUL’s Arts and Culture Magazine
Feather Pen Blog, a Creative Writing Publication