July 21, 2024

Each summer, I look forward to visiting Korea to see my extended family and immerse myself in a unique culture I can’t experience in Irvine. But even if you don’t have relatives waiting for you there, you should still visit to experience Korea’s unique history, landscape, and culture.

Korea has a more social culture that encourages going outside with bustling urban centers and many unique natural phenomena. For indoor activities, there are numerous museums and cafes around Korea. If you’re a person who loves to go out, there are hundreds of natural wonders and outdoor spots you can visit. Here are my top recommendations for this trip!

A backstreet in Seoul with traditional buildings. (Photo by Eric Lee)

When my brother and I had spare time, our favorite place to visit was Riot Cafe, a popular PC cafe that hosts the League of Legends championships in Korea. Located in Myeongdong, at 33 Jong-ro, Cheongjin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, it’s easily found by a sign that reads LoL park outside.

As you go up the elevator, drawings of League characters pass by. (Photo courtesy of Chris Lee)

As you walk indoors and ascend the escalator, the wall is lined with hundreds of drawings and sketches of each League of Legends character. On the third floor, the Ick arena is on the right, the Riot PC Cafe is on the left, with a cozy cafe and shop at the end of the hallway. The whole place feels futuristic, thanks to the sleek black floors and walls lit with bright LEDs.

The League Champions Korea play their matches in the LCK arena during the spring and summer seasons, with many professional League teams competing for the top spot. Attending a match would be an unforgettable memory if you play League of Legends and visit during the spring or summer.

The red and blue lights illuminate the esteemed LCK arena during a match. (Photo Courtesy of Chris Lee)

Going to the Riot Cafe, you will find a polished room filled with rows of computers. Along with the computers, friendly employees help you to figure things out. Although the price of my drink and game time at Riot Cafe was more than other PC Cafes I went to on my own, it was worth the money because the quality of the cafe was better. It made the gaming experience fast and enjoyable. It was fun to play games in an environment with many like-minded people. Overall, the location’s quality and low prices make Riot Cafe a place any gamer should visit.

Just a few days after arriving in Korea, we visited the Blue House. (Photo by Eric Lee)

On a hot Monday afternoon, my family and I visited the Blue House, one of the most prominent places in Korea, located in Seoul 1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu. Formerly the office and residence of the president, the house was previously closed off to the public. However, the recently elected president, Yoon Suk Yeol, opened it to create communication between him and the people.

As you approach the Blue House, many will first notice the traditional Korean architecture, complemented by the blue roof tiles. The Korean architecture starkly contrasts with the inside, which is modeled to look more European while still keeping its Korean roots. Every room that is open to the public shows the history of each president.

Visiting the Blue House is one of the best ways to experience Korea’s political and cultural history.

My family’s first experience with live octopus. (Photo by Eric Lee)

When my family was craving authentic Korean food, we visited Gwangjang Market, located at 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea, one of the largest outdoor markets in Korea, best known for its street food. One vendor, Cho Yonsoon, was recently featured on Netflix for her famous knife-cut noodle soup, or kalguksu.

The best part about visiting this market is its lively atmosphere; people stop to buy food and enjoy themselves, making it the perfect place for social gatherings. The market is separated into two wide intersecting streets, with vendors hawking items on either side. There is a diverse blend of culinary cultures, and visiting the market was a surprise as I saw just as many foreigners as Korean people.

Some of the iconic foods I tried were the live octopus and raw beef. The live octopus was hard to eat as the tentacles kept wriggling out of my chopsticks, and the raw beef was seasoned well. Having lived in America most of my life, trying out these foods was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A scenic view of Jeju Island’s landscape. (Photo by Eric Lee)

After our time in Seoul, my family took a plane with my grandmother and flew one hour south to Jeju Island to explore the beautiful landscape there. After time in the busy city, looking out at the Jeju scenery was breathtaking and filled me with wonder.
The island’s scenery is gorgeous, with several tall mountains covered in forests and greenery. The cliffs surrounding the island were rough, and the waves pounded on the cliffs, creating explosive sounds.

My family and I went hiking around the Jeju coastline. (Photo by Eric Lee)

Jeju Island is renowned for its variety of seafood. Traditionally, the seafood was harvested by female divers, called Haenyeo. Haenyeo can hold their breaths for 1-2 minutes and dive up to seven hours a day without equipment to collect abalone, sea cucumbers, and seaweed. It is a profession unique to Jeju island, with a strong culture and community.

The entrance to the Nohyeoung supermarket. (Photo by Eric Lee)

A spectacle of reflective light all around. (Photo by Eric Lee)

Our first stop in Jeju was the Nohyeung Supermarket, an immersive media art exhibit that combines Korean history with large projected videos, lights, and visual art. The exhibit starts out as a black-and-white 1900s convenience store that displays items and newspapers from that time. The exhibit leads to a large screen showing surreal videos, ranging from a field of grass and flowers to an enchanted forest at night. The use of light in the exhibit is spectacular and enchanting.

The world’s tallest lava column stands at 7.6 meters high. (Photo by Eric Lee)

As we drove through Jeju, my mother found one more spot of interest, the Manjanggul Lava Tube. Now a UNESCO heritage site, the tube was formed by magma flowing beneath Earth’s surface about 300,000 years ago. Eventually, as the magma flowed out, it left behind a cave, creating the lava tubes. Located at 182 Manjanggul-gil, Gujwa-eup, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, South Korea, it’s best to visit near midday as the cave gets cold and closes in the early evening.

Before entering the tunnel, you’ll be amazed by the tunnel’s massive entrance. As you enter the lava tubes, the temperature drops rapidly and the humidity rises. Walking through the tunnel, there are numerous signs of volcanic activity, and the walls of the tube tell a story about the formation of this island.

Traveling through the tunnels is a feeling that is hard to replicate, and visiting the Lava Tube was the highlight of my trip. We spend most of our lives on the Earth’s surface, so exploring a subterranean space was fascinating.

As I flew back to America, I thought of all the new memories I had made during my trip to Korea: walking through gorgeous landscapes, eating delicious seafood in Jeju, and learning about the history of old formations like the lava tubes.

However, I realized that although the culture of Korea felt familiar, it didn’t feel natural. Korea is a fantastic place to visit to connect with my heritage, but Irvine is my true home.

Stepping back into the familiar California sun, I breathed a sigh of relief.

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