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Destinations with Rudy Maxa

Gwangjang Market

Photo by Seong Joon Cho

A general view of Gwangjang Market.

With its 10 million people and vibrant scene, Seoul is a traveler’s paradise. In recent years, the country has continued to rise among the world’s economies, an achievement Koreans attribute to a national sense of unity and purpose, but their drive hasn’t changed their sense of hospitality toward visitors.

Let’s start, as the Koreans always do, with food. Gwangjang Market, the oldest covered market in Seoul, is the place to go to early in the evening for street food. Crispy pancakes made of mung beans, bean sprouts, green onion and garlic come off hot skillets, and a rainbow of foods tempt. Some shoppers take away their dinner, others dine in the market. For dinner, I love Busan Jib’s marinated crab and agujjim (steamed monkfish in Korean red pepper sauce with bean sprouts). Or, after a week of kimchi and bibimbap, you may have a craving for an American deli experience. Ex-pats as well as Koreans flock to Suji’s, a chain of New York-style delis run by Suji Park, who learned how to make the deli’s signature meats while studying at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

When you are in the mood to wander, Seoul has plenty of hip ’hoods to hold your interest. Insadong is Seoul’s SoHo, with art galleries, antiques stores and traditional tea and coffee shops. The main shopping street, Insadong-gil, is reserved for pedestrians on weekends. Wander the alleys to find interesting boutiques and gift shops. In the Sinchon neighborhood, university students mingle with visitors seeking inexpensive street snacks and filling bars, cafés and “PC bangs” (the Korean term for an Internet café). Poseokjeong is a famous makgeolli bar in Sinchon; makgeolli is a traditional Korean drink made by mixing steamed rice, barley and wheat with yeast and water and allowing the mixture to ferment. The bar has a minicanal of makgeolli, so simply dip your glass and toast your friends.

Seoul boasts a modern subway and clean, efficient taxi service. But you’ll see the city up-close by taking advantage of riverside and in-town bike trails . Bike rental shops are plentiful, especially along the Hangdang River in downtown Seoul.

Korea is known for its beautiful temples. The Myogaksa Temple in the Jongo District overlooks the city. But if you have a sense of adventure and are willing to leave Seoul, one of Korea’s great treasures is stored at a 9th-century temple in the Gaya Mountains in the South Gyeongsang Province. Haeinsa Temple is one of the three “Jewel Temples of Korea,” and it houses the Tripitaka Koreana: 80,000 birchwood blocks carved with instructions for monks and the teachings of Buddha. The first set was burned in a Mongol invasion. The current second set, carved in 1251, may be viewed through wood slats.

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