From pancakes and padlocks to katsu and cats, South Korea’s capital serves up plenty to see in a short amount of time, Gerard Ward finds.

No matter how many times you practice, no matter how many podcasts you listen to and TV shows you watch, as soon as someone looks at you quizzically after attempting to speak another language, confidence disappears immediately.

I had been to Seoul before on a very short trip, and had squeezed four days of activities into a day and a half – think of the TV show 24. Now with my girlfriend accompanying me – and time on our side – we had a chance to try seeing the city at a leisurable pace. It isn’t until my first attempt at speaking Korean to a train station attendant that I lose all confidence again in the very few amount of words I thought I knew. ‘Sure, no problem at all,’ the uniformed staff member replies in fluent English to my request in Korean for two new train tickets – I already mistakenly bought the wrong tickets from the automatic machine.

Heading to Seoul days before Christmas was a gamble; not only did we not know what would be open or closed because of the holiday, but whether the country saw Christmas as a holiday at all. Our jam-packed research before going indicated that the holiday was seen as more of a ‘couples day’, which worked for us, but we are aware that this will not be our typical Christmas.

We drop our gear off at our Airbnb flat – sitting conveniently above the Gongdeok train station, a great interchange between different lines – and discover a Christmas cake in the fridge, with a note from the owner wishing us a happy holiday. If the owner thinks he can just charm us into a good Airbnb review…he’s…pretty spot on.

Gongdeok Market’s Pancake Alley.

We head outside to find something to eat, having starved ourselves by taking a budget airline flight. Just outside and five minutes away is Gongdeok Market’s Pancake Alley, a well-celebrated Korean pancake spot where various types of fried foods mixed with every ingredient under the sun – from chives and green onions to Spam. The concept of this food stall is to take a small weaved basket and some tongs, and select pre-fried pancakes on display, then taking a seat indoors while the food is refried – if it sounds a workout for the arteries, you aren’t too far off.

Away from the chill of the outside, we sit in a room only occupied by a few others – a group of younger girls who are mostly quiet, and two older gentlemen who by the amount of empty bottles of soju (a clear liquor that can range anywhere between 16-45{fad86f5e3336133246a213aa2a2588200b27e4ae08b3f6f25405093f2c4991ee} alcohol content) seem plenty liquored up.

Having ordered more than our stomachs could ever handle, the dishes come with banchan – a handful or two of side dishes given out at most meals ranging from kimchi (spicy cabbage) to japchae (glass noodles).

Together with a bottle of Komju, a newly released type of soju that was weakened down to 9.5{fad86f5e3336133246a213aa2a2588200b27e4ae08b3f6f25405093f2c4991ee} by the soft grapefruit flavouring, the pile of warmed up pancakes are now ready to be cut into shareable sizes with a robust pair of scissors – this is standard practice in most Korean BBQ restaurants. One wonders why this practice hasn’t caught on in other cultures.

Street art in Seoul is clever and quirky.

Taking a walk down towards Seoul Station, we face the chill of the December air. While the sun is out and the sky is bright blue, it is still only a few degrees above zero. We come across multiple coffee shops, all highlighting their offering of americanos, and stop at Psycho Barista for a hot latte – mostly so we can keep our hands warm and our senses buzzing for the rest of the day.

It’s hard to avoid the allure of caffeine when there are cafes on almost every street. Cafes serve as the perfect meeting place for couples wanting to come together outside the peering eyes of parents back home.

Popping over to Itaewon, known to locals as the expat-friendly strip, the street is relatively quiet – it’s only noon on a weekday. Nighttime is where this place shines, but for us, we are after a place to find some quality japchae.

Heading down Itaewon-ro, we pass a mixture of BBQ restaurants, international café chains and a couple of art galleries until we reach the Hannam district – where the buildings become less touristic, and more industrial. Thinking we walked too far, we take a left down an alleyway where it seems there’s groups of people walking the same way.

Freshly made japchae glass noodles.

Further down, we come across an intersection of multiple side streets, with modern-looking diners – from an Italian pizzeria to an unmarked room with a killer line of people waiting for the door to open.

We had stumbled upon a hidden spot with a very cool vibe to it, and decide to wander around first to digest our ‘breakfast’ before lunch. We stroll past two-storey homes with modern architecture – a change from the typical design of buildings along the main road – and come across two obedient Shiba Inu dogs smiling at us outside one of the houses. They seem playful, but we worry that two tourists bundled in massive coats look odd enough, and leave the pups alone.

We eventually arrive at the doorstop of Parc – which translated on the menu says ‘park in the famed romance language of Catalan’ – serving traditional Korean food inspired by the owner’s mother. You’d mistaken the inside for a London pop-up wine bar or a hip loft, with white-painted brick walls, a wall-to-wall window that opens up, and a selection of gins and wines.

The clientele in the restaurant are groups of young, fashionable diners who fit the description of Seoul’s modern designers and influencers. A common assumption of Korea is that every passer-by has the looks of a K-pop star, and until now we hadn’t come across this. One group has the look you’d expect of self-proclaimed fashionistas and bloggers, and another bunch of friends look like they’ve just finished a group modelling photoshoot. I look at the room my incredibly puffy jacket is taking up in the small restaurant, and try to stuff it out of sight of the designer coats.

A woman stares at the slightly frozen river.

Opting for the Korean beef ribs stew, the main meal comes with a light Winter Doenjang soup, brown rice and three side dishes – fried anchovies, kimchi and thin-sliced mushrooms. We can’t help ourselves to order a side of japchae, the glass noodles we’d been searching for. The beef stew falls effortlessly from the bone, with a hearty stew of carrots and potatoes to hold it all together. My stomach is already hating me for my indulgence.

We make our way to Namsan Park, which sits at the bottom of Seoul Tower – a tourist hotspot with a 360-degree view of the city right in the centre. The winter has already taken the leaves of most of the large trees in the park, covering the ground in a fading red hue. The nearby lake has a thin sheet of ice covering it. An older woman stares at the ice, perhaps wondering just as I am how the fish survive such chilly conditions.

We follow the signs to walk up towards Seoul Tower. The distance on each sign we see fluctuate a little too much for us to feel one hundred percent confident that we are heading in the right direction, but the steep inclines are surely warming us up.

As we climb the hill, the southern side of Seoul shows itself – there’s a mountainside backdrop behind residential and business districts before us, and we wonder whether there might be snow over yonder.

Drummers tour the fenced-off square with traditional garb.

There’s a moment to absorb the size of Seoul at a large wooden lookout along the way. This is where experts of panorama photos can create a masterpiece – though on this occasion the weather is a little hazy, kicking in flashbacks of Singapore’s recent haze. By now we can see more detail on the tower, with what seems to be King Kong scaling the monument.

A line of tour buses travel past us and up the winding road to the tower. There are some that are happy to take the easy way up, though I feel there’s nothing like taking the time to make your way up to appreciate kilometres of view. That, or I didn’t realise there was a bus to begin with, but these are minor details.

Among the swarms of tourists standing around at the entrance to the tower is a handful of people surrounded by a fenced off bit of space, rehearsing traditional sword fighting moves for what would ten minutes later be a half-hour show on traditional Korean warriors and dancers.

Dressed up in black and white garb with gold sashes and hats with elaborate feather arrangements, the drummers tour the fenced-off square. One child is so mesmerised he runs from his father to the performance space to join in, to the crowd’s amusement.

People sign their names on to locks and keep them atop Seoul Tower.

What surrounds the tower other than plenty of tourists is metal fencing completely covered with a sea of colourful locks. Reminiscent of Paris’s well-known Pont des Arts bridge, couples come here to write miniscule notes in different languages on padlocks bought from the nearby souvenir shops to make their bond official.

In the theme of Christmas, there’s also Christmas tree-shaped frames – though we avoid clipping our own lock to this in case the trees are removed when January arrives.

Atop the tower is a 360-degree view of Seoul, and this day seems to have a thin layer of either fog or pollution – I consider the former to keep the illusion of the journey being perfect this far. The sun begins to set as we leave the glorious views of the tower, and the stomach begins to somehow shout at me.

As we take the winding pathway down towards Myeongdong, two groups of people watch a fox terrier puppy and an older beagle react to each other – the puppy is adorably terrified, while the beagle takes pleasure in being nosy.

A glass street light illuminates the park.

Myeongdong is best known for its late-night shopping attractions – it’s usually near nightfall when you begin to think maybe skin moisturiser would be good on a tired face. Myeongdong 10-gil is the busiest street, with street vendors selling spicy tteokbokki (spicy soft rice cake) outside of beauty shops and fashion labels.

MilleFeuille, a Japanese restaurant chain recommended by a few YouTube videos we watched previously, focuses on tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) stuffed with various ingredients. We hop inside after seeing one particular cutlet that I couldn’t resist ordering – the cheese-stuffed pork cutlet.

Fresh cheese chicken tonkatsu.

Upon picking up the first piece, I witness that same stretchy cheese moment as every pizza advertisement – and a satisfying crunch from the wispy batter. A large bowl of thinly shredded cabbage given at the beginning of the meal becomes our breather from the heaviness of pork and rice – and is topped up after we finish it.

There isn’t a shortage of people in oversized animal suits trying to convince passers-by to check out the nearby dog and cat cafes – and when we leave the restaurant, the second orange cat we come across convinces us to take a side street detour to what is simply called ‘CAT cafe’. There are twenty heads that turn to us as I slowly open the door. Their eyes analyse the new distractions that just walked in, then with a silent sigh, all turn away.

Cynical cat stares ahead, pondering his life.

It’s 8pm now, and we are sure the cats are exhausted. For the price of a hot drink – which in this case is around $8 SGD – we are granted the chance to coerce feline friends over with supplied toys and a distinct measurement of enough attention to interest them. It takes thirty minutes before one of the staff feels pity enough to give us a cup of tuna and a spoon. ‘Here, take this,’ she says, and not a single second goes past before the scent grabs the attention of the snobby cats.

A little bribery goes a long way, and being momentarily popular with a large group of cats is not what we expect just before Christmas, but it sure is a memorable one.