Prior to this summer, I’d done an exchange semester in Europe and travelled most of North America, yet I still anticipated Asia would be incredibly different from any place I’d been before. What’s more, I was determined to take a solo leg on my Asia trip this summer while my roommates hiked southern China because a) we all know I’m not the best in *wilderness situations* – trust me, growing up in a ranch town in South Texas, I’ve paid my dues, and b) I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it – a fun little puzzle I could solve alone.
I’d always had at least one partner-in-crime on my previous excursions. Anyone who knows me knows how dependent I am on others for all sense of direction. Seriously, I could take the same route with someone every day for a year, and when they’d turn to ask me right or left, I wouldn’t be able to answer. However, beyond wanting to cure my chronic dependence on other people reading Google Maps for me, I also wanted to test the skills I presumed I was good at, yet hadn’t properly tested alone – my ability to communicate with people with limited English, quickly learn public transport in a new city (and not give in to my Uber vice), and keep myself as educated and in-tune with local culture as possible.
After a few haphazard Google searches and TripAdvisor scans, I decided on Seoul, South Korea as the destination for my 10-day hiatus from the group. While tromping the pristine streets of metropolitan Seoul doesn’t require extraordinary skill, it was a baby step I was proud to take.
In this piece, I’ll share with you how the (initially haphazard, yet retrospectively advantageous) choice to travel alone in Seoul was an easy, yet impactful way to transition to the world of riding solo.
The most rewarding investment you can make is in travel (well, perhaps in mental health, friendships, and generally being a decent person as well, but I’m trying to prove a point here). Especially as an American, I am determined to break as many negative stereotypes about my culture as I can, and a large part of that comes from taking the time and effort to really understand people different from myself.
While this perspective-gaining isn’t limited to prodigious trips across the Pacific (I sometimes still feel culture shock even in NYC ^.^), I personally found exploring Asian culture this summer incredibly eye-opening. Taking the time to explore it on my own for a week was one of the best decisions I could’ve made.
I didn’t understand it until I tried it out myself, but travelling alone really does afford such a different picture of a culture. While travelling with friends is still my personal favorite way to jet, it’s only natural to miss some of the more nuanced cultural bits when you’re laughing and snap chatting your way through cities with your biffles. When you’re alone, the only person you have to converse with is …yourself, and I think it’s important to have that conversation every now and then 😉 It’s easy to talk. What’s difficult is making time to test your own self-reflection.
Travelling alone, I found myself hyper-aware of small things I normally wouldn’t notice while travelling with others, like the way people enter the subway (in perfect lines in Seoul, for instance), or the way people eat their food. You learn so much more about the culture you’re immersed in. You get to push your independence to the limit – something I really get a kick out of 😉
Solo in Seoul’s bite-size steps
No matter how often you’ve travelled before, your first trip completely alone will feel, well, foreign. While many girls more adventurous than myself may not bat an eyelash at jumping off the back of a helicopter into the Sahara Desert, I knew I’d need at least a few creature comforts to get me started. Seoul is the perfect place to dive out of the nest, given the numerous built-in cultural and structural stepping stones:
While I loved the idea of forcing myself to navigate a non-English speaking city, I grew to deeply appreciate Seoul’s commitment to ensuring most of their infrastructure signage is presented in both Hangul and English for tourism purposes. While it can make me feel uncomfortable to see non-English speaking countries feel the need to translate everything to English, an exception forms when travelling solo. Knowing that I could always find my way back home allowed me to take much more calculated risks in where I felt I could explore.
Friendly, helpful locals
One of my biggest goals in Seoul was to interact with as many locals as possible. If you know me, you know how big of an ask this was of myself – I have a hard enough time interacting with the classmates I knew for four years in college at times ^.^ However, I couldn’t have picked a better place (even accidentally) to meet locals. From the moment I arrived, I was constantly approached by locals willing to plug my destination into a Korean map app (I never learned the name) any time I showed the slightest bit of confusion on my face.
This friendliness extended from people my age to shop owners, café baristas, and the local police. Incredibly, everyone I encountered was over-eager to help me enjoy their beautiful city.
Style risks galore
If you’re at all familiar with the K-Pop culture, you’ve caught a glimpse of the South Korean fashion scene. An experienced K-Pop listener myself, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into by immersing myself into its city of origin. But there’s no way I could’ve anticipated just how strikingly stylish everyone in Seoul was. While some people feel this “aesthetic-obsessed” culture is something artificial and stressful, I saw it a bit differently.
Perhaps it was a subliminal pressure to dress up to blend in, but I took my week in Seoul as an excuse to try out every crazy style I had ever seen my favorite K-Pop stars rock. I injected my wardrobe with South Korean staples like high-fashion athleisure, culottes, and kitschy accessories. I had even more fun playing with my makeup – from the standard Korean ombre lip to an ultra-dewy BB crème complexion. I even dyed my hair black-to-silver ombre at the famous Soonsiki Salon in Hapjeong (ask for @soonsiki_si!). *before and after snaps below*
Rather than feeling pressured to look a certain way, I found the streets of Seoul to be more of a personal runway, where no one looked twice at any fad I dared try. I never felt self-conscious or side-eyed for how I dressed, which can often happen in a foreign country (this liberty was especially welcome after four years at a southern university, where oversized t-shirts and Nike shorts were the unofficial uniform ^.^). What a breath of fresh, fashionable air.
My final plug for solo travel in Seoul pays homage to the city’s absolutely unrivaled café culture. After studying in Vienna and living in Austin, Texas, I thought I knew what café culture was – and boy, did Seoul blow this out of the water. The city has an overwhelming number of coffee shops, but the prize does not come by sheer volume. In Seoul cafes, no detail is overlooked – from the menu design to the impeccably decadent desserts and over-the-top interior design. The best part is how ideal these cafes are for solo travellers. Any time I needed a quick caffeine pick-me-up, camera re-charge, or just a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, I could hop into one of the three cafes on the block and be certain it’d be beautiful, clean, and have free wifi (a luxury for the weary traveller in Asia). I’ve linked a few of my absolute favorites below:
C27 – stylish four-story cheesecake cafe in the hyper-posh Garosugil neighborhood, serving 27 flavors (hence the name). Each floor is themed differently with seemingly endless nooks & crannies to explore.
Skin Food Café – what a beautiful combination of two of Seoul’s most decadent luxuries – skincare and cafes! Located on one of the busiest blocks of Garosugil, you can’t miss this half-skincare boutique, half-cafe’s white-and-bright yellow exterior, complete with manicured rooftop garden.
Café de Paris – During my short stay in Seoul, I couldn’t help but notice a slight infatuation with Parisian culture sprinkled throughout the city. It seemed like the Eiffel Tower was sprinkled throughout lots of beauty product advertising, and you can’t miss the Paris Baguette bakeries on every street block. However, for a smidge more authenticity, pop into Café de Paris for a unique mix of Korean and Parisian sweets with a view of the busy streets from the cafe’s second-floor.
Hello Kitty Cafe – Kitschy? Of course. But when in Seoul, right? Of course there’s no shortage of themed cafes in the city, but this one holds a special place in my heart. While Sanrio is a product of the Japanese kawaii culture, its aesthetic is right at home among the cutesy shops of Myeongdong. Stop by for (literally) anything Hello Kitty-themed – lattes, cupcakes, pies, you name it.
So, what are you waiting for?! Go take the dive into the KPop/café/shopping/Asian culture mecca that is Seoul – and what the hell, go Seoul-o 😉