Seoul is a tapestry that unfurls yard by yard, secret by secret

There’s no better season to discover Seoul than winter, when the city whispers its stories in stolen moments.

I am coming from the oppressive Philippine heat, where the mercury doesn’t sink lower than 25 degrees Celsius. From December to February, when half the world is covered in snow and people are throwing boiling water in the air to see it transform into ice crystals, Manila is still at a high 23 or 22 degrees—if you’re lucky. Lower than that, you’ll have to make the two-hour drive to Tagaytay to enjoy 20 degrees, or drive four hours north to Baguio for a few more degrees lower.

Also four hours away but by plane and you get to South Korea, where the temperature is decidedly and dramatically lower.

But Seoul doesn’t reveal its winter secrets right away. It’s only when you finally step past Incheon Airport’s automatic doors that the cold and dry air suddenly bites you on the nose. The weather app on my phone reads 2 degrees Celsius. I’ve been warned that it could dip below zero, but it’s late November crossing over into December and this is considered warm right now. I love it.

Simply wandering around Seoul will yield bounties. Photo by Romeo Moran

Some people don’t like the cold—they’re made for the tropics. Those who have lived in cold climes all their lives, on the other hand, yearn for places where you don’t need so many layers. But I’m a boy raised in the heat; I’m a boy who wished he grew up in the mountains. I don’t like to sweat. The cold is comfortable, even when it’s not comfortable.

They had us do a four-day guided tour around Seoul. The word was that it was the only way to land this Seoul trip on relatively short notice. The itinerary was already booked, and there wasn’t much leeway — we arrived on a Saturday morning and had everything planned out until we were set to leave on Tuesday night. The only free time was until sundown on Sunday and the afternoon before we had to be shuttled to the airport.

It’s not an ideal way to explore an entirely new city. My girlfriend and I preferred to discover every little thing Seoul had to offer all on our own, at our own pace.

Seoul is for those of us fed up with the tropics, for those who want to see snow gently floating down from the heavens, without having to travel halfway across the world.

Some of it fell under the rightfully touristy things to do, sights you should see to fully comprehend Korea. Gyeongbokgung Palace, a vast patch of medieval Korea nestled in the heart of the modern city, was a good place to start. It did enough to flesh out my perception of the country.

Everything else on the tour’s itinerary, however, was not really my vibe—a lot of it was to businesses that felt shoehorned in, places that were taking their own cut from tourists who were willing to be ferried around a city they were still getting to know.

We were seasoned millennial tourists who knew exactly what we wanted from our journey, and this wasn’t it.

A gradual discovery

Sunset at Cheonggyecheon Stream

Simply wandering around this walkable city will yield bounties. If you’re on TikTok or any other shortform video platform, you can type in “Seoul” in the search bar and find many enthusiastic travelers who are willing to share what they’ve found and what you should find for yourself.

This is how we decided to pin Bukchon Hanok village on our map (Naver, not Google Maps), accessible via a few transfers on the MRT from our hotel in the Myeongdong shopping district.

The sleepy residential neighborhood was absolutely charming and beautiful, and winter decided to bless us with the lightest of snowfall in the late afternoon—our first ever.

From there, we enjoyed the cold some more by walking around as the sun went down. We found a quaint shop that sold coffee and small ceramics, and we found Tamburins, the popular perfume store owned by BLACKPINK’s Jennie. I was amused by the most beautiful New Balance store I’d ever seen, carved into a traditional-style wooden house.

Roaming around the immediate area outside of Myeongdong also brought us to the Cheonggyecheon stream, which winds through the city. It’s a park that people can climb down to from the main street. We caught it at its most stunning, framed by the orange leaves of autumn. Cities like ours beg for serene spaces like these in the thick of concrete.

A city for the wide-eyed

Evening in Seoul after a snowfall

Exploration is also sampling and learning the local cuisine. It’s dropping by a skewer stand or the Oreo churros vendor in busy Myeongdong while throngs of holiday shoppers and tourists clog the alleys around you.

It’s making a fool of yourselves in a gukbap eatery run by elderly Koreans in Insadong who can’t speak a breath of English. It’s inadvertently offending sensibilities when you don’t put the rice in the soup the right way because communications broke down. Love is laughing about it and quietly promising the unnie that you’ll come back and do better.

Love is sharing the cold together, sharing warmth both physical and emotional—where once you fought over the too-balmy weather in countries closer to the equator. It’s heading to the N Seoul Tower at the top of a hill and joining the rest of the world’s declaration of love, made manifest in padlocks hooked to a fence, overlooking the city lights at night.

Gyeongbokgung Palace at night

This may all sound corny, but it’s what happens when one doesn’t always get to go somewhere cold when it’s supposed to be cold. Seoul is for those of us fed up with the tropics, for those who want to see snow gently floating down from the heavens without having to travel halfway across the world.

Seoul is a city for the wide-eyed, for those that are ready to see what else awaits them beyond the corners of their homes, past the thousand traffic lights that fence them in. Four days and a strict guided tour was far from enough—but if you’re able to break free, you should let Seoul unfurl itself slowly to you, let you in on its secrets.

I know I will get the chance again.

The new lifestyle.