a Seoul visit
It was good fun, however, and I recommend Seoul, either as a short stopover or for a longer visit. I think I could have spent a week there just as a tourist.
We visited two of the palaces (Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung), which gave some idea how Korean royalty used to live. With lots of separate buildings scattered around extensive gardens, they're not exactly well-insulated however, and visiting in winter I wondered how many forests were burned down to keep their underfloor heating going.
We only saw three museums: the Korean Folk Museum, the Seoul Museum of History, and the National Museum of Korea. The latter is a shiny new building, architecturally quite striking, and showcases the choicest archaeology and fine arts of the country. We spent three hours there and could easily have spent a whole day.
A fair bit of time was spent just wandering the streets, visiting several older areas (Bukchon-dong and Insa-dong) packed full of little museums (including a Museum of Chicken Art!) and art galleries, two big bookshops, and the Dongdaemun markets. It wasn't too crowded, but the street life was lively (the entire CBD seemed to be one huge street fair, though possibly that was just because it was Christmas).
The cold was not too bad, since there was almost no precipitation — just some barely perceptible snow on our third day — and almost no wind. I survived without a coat and just a thin jumper, relying on thermal underwear and a full array of scarf, beanie and mitttens. And we stayed in a nice hotel in the city centre, so we had all the creature comforts we could want (though neither of us were game to try the "massage" option on the high-tech toilet). We were a bit jet-lagged, however.
The food was excellent, even sampled with no particular discernment — neither our guidebook nor tripadvisor nor anything of that kind were consulted — and not expensive. Our most expensive dinner, one of those BBQ-at-your-table meals, was 56,000 won (a bit under $50), but most of our meals were in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, for two. The food wasn't too spicy, either, as most of the hot items come as condiments.
Coffee and tea, however, were a different story. We paid 4,500 ($4) for coffees a few times, and once we paid 5,000 each for tea in a restaurant where the meals were only 50% more! Given that central Seoul is jam-packed with near-empty coffee shops, I don't understand the economics of this. (My friend Cecily suggests the Korean coffee-craze comes from a 2007 tv drama.)
The subway is cheap, fast, clean and not even too crowded. We didn't venture anywhere outside the central city, though if we'd had more time I'd have liked to climb some of the little mountains that are inside larger Seoul.