Seoul is a vibrant mix of technology, palaces, trendy design, mountain trails and deep-rooted traditions. Arriving here can be overwhelming but this Seoul city guide covers the city’s best attractions, places to stay, what to eat and Korean highlights – everything you need to know when exploring Seoul.
exploring SEOUL, the MAIN ATTRACTIONS
Even though you are exploring Seoul, a modern, technologically advanced, and bustling city – there are still spots to experience the history and long-standing traditions of the South Korean culture. In fact, right in the heart of Seoul is the beautiful and ancient Gyeongbokgung Palace – the most famous palace South in Korea.
Korean palaces are unique in that they consist of many different buildings spread out across the palace grounds. The palace grounds large and spread-out so make sure to give yourself a few hours to explore. The grounds for this palace are very beautiful with splashes of nature, such as gardens and ponds.
There is also a museum here that you can check out if you want to learn more about the area’s history. Since the original palace was built back in 1395 you can bet that there is lots of history!
Tip: If you visit in the summer make sure to bring lots of water with you (you can buy some outside the front entrance) because once inside the palace I could not find any and Korean summer’s heat can get intense.
If you are exploring Seoul specifically for shopping, then this is the area for you! There are several buildings with cute boutiques, but the real place to head is the streets behind these buildings were the street vendors set up. This is where all the stores around Seoul buy their merchandise from to sell – so you can buy the exact same items here but without the markup. The vendors start putting their goods out around 6p.m.
What really makes this place unique though is that you can literally shop all night! So if your jet-lagged at 4 a.m. and can’t sleep, just head to Dongdaemun for a shopping trip.
If you are in this part of town make sure to check out the fortress wall that used to surround Seoul. You can walk up the hill and sit on the fortress as you take in the amazing view of the city. This is a great spot to see the contrast between both urban and traditional Seoul.
I’ll admit that this place is a bit touristy – but for good reason (as long as you are okay with crowds). In fact, this is one of my favorite places to hang out in Seoul and I visit every time that I come back to the city.
The streets of Myeongdong are busy with vendors selling clothes and trinkets, but the best part is the street food. If you are down for trying new things, Myeongdong offers a variety of different Korean dishes. The food is cheap and delicious, and since you don’t get big portions you can taste food from multiple different vendors. My personal favorite is bungeoppang- a fished shaped bread that comes filled with either a delicious cream or red bean paste (get the cream for the more tasty version and the red bean for the more authentic treat).
Myeongdong also has a lot of stores and boutiques – making it yet another good area in Seoul for shopping.
Take a step back in time and head to Insadong. This is the more traditional area of Seoul, but with so many tourists and souvenir shops, it doesn’t always feel that way. However, I still highly recommend visiting Insadong because it has a cool vibe. You can easily walk here after visiting Gyeongbukgung Palace and cure your appetite with some traditional Korean cuisine.
Make sure to check out Ssamziegil which is a small mall in Insadong. The word ‘mall’ doesn’t quite do it justice – it is a building filled with a variety of cute little shops and the walls are covered in artwork. On the top floor, there is a little walkway with love notes (so Korean). There is also a Poop Cafe here, where you can get your coffee served to you in a toilet and your food looks like crap – literally.
Hongik University Area/Hongdae
If you are looking for a fun and central place to stay when exploring Seoul, I recommend Hongdae. During the day this area is good for eating out and visiting cool cafes. Another popular attraction in this area is the Trick Eye Art Museum – where you take fun pictures with 3D artwork (make sure to bring your selfie-stick!)
Come night-time this area transforms into a party. If you are young and want to have fun in South Korea, then Hongdae is the place to be!
To start the night off people meet in Hongdae Children’s Park – where ironically no children ever hang out. People meet in the park and drink soju (a popular Korean alcohol similar to vodka) while watching university students perform K-Pop dance routines.
To experience the crazy nightlife in Seoul, you won’t have to go far. Hongdae is swarming with nightclubs. When South Korean’s party, they party hard. The clubs blast outrageous music and flash vibrant lights while confetti comes down from the ceiling. On your way back to your accommodation, no matter what the time, the streets will have a variety of food stalls to help you satisfy your late night cravings.
Exploring SEOUL, the BEST FOOD & DRINK OPTIONS
South Korean’s love to eat. Food has always been a large part of their culture and something that they take great pride in. South Korean food is unique from other Asian countries and has changed very little over the years. Every single meal consists of Kimchi (spiced, fermented cabbage) and rice – so be prepared to eat lots of these when you’re exploring Seoul.
If there is one thing and one thing only that you do in South Korea, it’s eating Korean BBQ. Korean BBQ is a growing phenomenon and Korean BBQ restaurants are now popping up around the world. People always ask me, “do they really eat Korean BBQ in South Korea?” The answer is yes – a lot.
Experience the real deal by going out for Korean BBQ in Seoul. These restaurants are everywhere so you will easily stumble upon one during your trip.
The literal translation of this means ‘taxi driver restaurant. ‘ This is a great option for solo travelers because South Korea is such a community-based culture that it can be hard to find a local place to eat for just one.
Since these restaurants are made to quickly fill up taxi drivers, not only are you guaranteed an authentic meal but a hearty one. Very few travelers know about these interesting restaurants located all around Seoul.
The best part is that finding one of these restaurants is as simple as jumping in a taxi and ask them to take you to one! After all, taxi drivers are the ones who should know where the best ones are. Maybe they’ll even join you!
To understand this café you need to understand a couple of things about South Korean culture. The first is that they love coffee. You don’t ever have to look far in South Korea to find your caffeine fix because there are about two coffee shops on every street. In fact, South Korea has more coffee shops per capita than Starbucks’ home in Seattle.
The second thing that you should know is that South Korea is a very superficial country. This may sound like a mean thing to say but the facts are in, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world.
Now put these two things together, coffee and vanity and you have Daface Cafe – a coffee shop where you can order a latte with a picture of your face in it! I guess the awkward part comes when you have to drink your own face.
Dog or Cat Cafe’s
Whether you are a dog person or a cat person – there is a café for you! Heck, there are event raccoon and sheep cafes! Because Seoul is a small city with a population of about 10 million people, there is not enough space for most people to have pets. South Korean’s have come up with a solution to this by creating many dog and cat cafes. You can enjoy a tasty cup of brew and a cuddle too! (yes I made that jingle up all on my own).
Hello Kitty Cafe
Technically Hello Kitty is Japanese, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this Hello Kitty inspired café. This place is adorable – and great for Instagram pictures!
I ordered a latte and it came with a hello kitty face drawn in the foam. If you order a dessert it will also most likely come in the shape of Hello Kitty’s face. Basically, any ways that they can infuse Hello Kitty into this café, they will – everything from the wallpaper to the chairs!
Exploring Seoul, GETTING AROUND
Getting around while exploring Seoul is super simple. They have an amazing transportation system; the Seoul Metro. In fact, the moment you arrive at Incheon airport you can take an express metro right into Seoul’s city center.
To use the metro you will need to buy a T-Money card. You can purchase one from most metro stations or from any convenience store (convenience stores are literally on every corner in South Korea). When you buy the card you can load it with the amount of money that you wish. Metro prices are reasonable at 1,250 won per ride.
You can reload your card at any convenience store or at the automatic machines in the metro stations and use it to take you everywhere that you need to go around Seoul.
The metro line is very easy to navigate because the lines are color-coded and they have all of the stops written in English. Inside the train, they have a map that has a dot lighting at each stop along the line, as well. The metro can take you within walking distance of anywhere that you need to go in Seoul – especially the main tourist destinations.
If you want to take a taxi they are very affordable in South Korea and are all metered – you can even use your T-money card to pay. When telling your taxi driver where to go it is best to give them a landmark. For some reason, whenever you show taxi drivers a map of where you want to go they refuse to look at it. You also aren’t expected to tip your driver.
If you want to travel beyond Seoul then you will use the KTX. This is the South Korean version of bullet trains. Whatever you do, do not call it a bullet train. South Korean’s are a very proud country and don’t want to be confused with their Japanese neighbors.
The best way to buy a KTX ticket is by going to Seoul Station. Since it can be difficult to purchase tickets online with a foreign card and with the language barrier so I recommend just buying your ticket in person at the station to make sure that there are no mistakes.
Exploring Seoul, PLACES TO STAY
Because Seoul has so much going on, there isn’t one area that is necessarily the best place to stay. There are many unique and busting districts around the city that are easily accessible using transit. The following are some of the areas that I recommend staying in if you want to stay in some of the most popular areas:
- Hongik University (if you like to party)
- Gangnam (more upscale part of town)
- Itaewon (if you still want to be near some comforts of home)
- Hongdae (Not too crazy not too calm)
Because these areas are popular destinations there will be many accommodation possibilities in each. For some accommodation recommendations you can check out the following:
Guest house: Comet Guesthouse Yongsan (Itaewon)
Traditional Korean style (where you sleep on the floor): Seochon Guesthouse
Apartment: The Seoul House
DON’T MISS OUT ON SEOUL’S…
This isn’t the most impressive tower in the world, nor the tallest. In my personal opinion, they cheat a bit by putting it up on a hill. However, it is a fun activity and a popular attraction for tourists.
If you want to go up the tower, first you need to walk up the hill that the tower sits on. You can take a cable car up but I don’t remember it being a hard walk from where the bus dropped us off.
When you first arrive, immediately buy your ticket for the tower because you will have to wait about an hour before you can go up. Don’t fret – I actually had more fun wandering around the tower than in the tower itself. So if you want to save money, you can just visit Namsan Hill versus Namsan tower.
You can get some great views of the city just the top of Namsan Hill and the fence around the hill is it is decorated with colorful love locks- making for some fun photo ops. It is a very cute area that is worth visiting even if you don’t choose to go up the tower.
On the way back down you can take a leisurely stroll through Namsan Park. At the bottom of Namsan Mountain is also the Namsan Hanok Village – a traditional village where you can see how South Koreans used to live before the construction of high-rise buildings.
One neat thing that you can see here though is a traditional wedding ceremony! Many South Koreans choose to get married in Namsan Hanok Village and since South Korean weddings aren’t very private or intimate events, people tend to gather around to watch. Weddings are typically held in the summer and are most likely to occur between 12 or 1 p.m.
*Admission to the Hanok Village is free and they are closed on Tuesdays.
Most people think of visiting a river during the daytime – but not Seoul’s downtown river. Cheonggyecheon Stream is best seen at night because they put on laser shows once it gets dark. Parts of the stream glow with colorful fluorescent lights, as well.
You can either sit and enjoy the trickle of the stream on your feet or go for a stroll along the rivers walking path that is decorated with art. The recommended starting point for the walk is at Gwanghwamun Station.
Even if Karaoke is your worst nightmare, I promise that South Korea will make you change your mind. The Korean word for karaoke is nora-bong – which directly translates to ‘singing room’. Nora-bong is a lot of fun because you rent a private room with your friends – so no awkward singing in front of strangers. You can order beer and soju to your room and essentially have one big party with your friends. It is very carefree and after a few drinks everyone is up and singing to each song- so you are very rarely ever singing alone.
While walking down the streets of Seoul you may even see people in glass buildings nora-bonging.
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This was something that terrified me at first, but once I tried it I was hooked. Jjimjibongs are bathhouses. Why is that terrifying? Because at these bathhouses you have to be completely naked with a bunch of strangers soaking in a variety of different bathtubs and saunas. Don’t worry – this part is divided by gender.
Once you get over your nightmare of being completely naked in front of strangers, you will end up spending hours here. To really get the full experience you can pay to get exfoliated – this is a true act of bravery as they will exfoliate your skin raw using nothing but an exfoliating cloth and muscles.
The most renowned jimjibang in Seoul is Drago Hill Spa at 40-712 Hangangno 3(sam)-ga, Yongsan-gu.
South Korean Ice-cream
If there is one thing I miss about South Korea, it’s the ice cream. South Korean’s love ice-cream – If you walk around on a hot summer day in Seoul, about one out of every three people will be enjoying this cold treat! In Seoul, you can find some wacky flavors of ice cream such as corn, sweet potato or red bean.
If you’re not interested in trying something weird, my personal favorite is Melona – a creamy melon flavored popsicle that is to die for!
If you prefer to sit down and enjoy your ice cream, then try the Korean dessert, patbingsu. Patbingsu translates to “red bean and ice”. I know that doesn’t sound appetizing – and you are right. However, there are many different flavors of bingsu and so you can opt out of having the traditional red bean flavor.
The dessert is made from shaved ice and then covered with sweet, creamy condensed milk and other delicious toppings – my personal favorite comes with chunks of cheesecake and mango! Bingsu is perfect for sharing since the South Korean culture is all about eating together – plus it’s huge!
KOREAN THINGS TO KNOW
Soju is a clear, distilled Korean alcoholic drink. This drink is such an imperative part of the South Korean culture that you are more likely to be served soju at a restaurant than water. Typically consumed neat in shot glasses, this drink has an alcohol content of about 16%.
A few years ago they came out with flavored soju. These are delicious but deadly because they are so easy to drink that it is easy to forget about their high alcohol content. In South Korea, it is considered rude to drink out of the bottle since drinking is something that is social and should be shared. Therefore, always pour your soju into glasses.
South Korea is the only country in the world that uses metal chopsticks instead of wooden ones. This can take some getting used to.
They use chopsticks for eating everything – even cake!
South Korea is not a tipping culture. In fact, I have tried to tip at restaurants and they just come running after me with my ‘change’ – so don’t even bother to try.
Whenever you are giving money or taking money, always do so with two hands and a slight bow of the head. In South Korea, it is considered rude to do most things (pour a drink, pass objects) with one hand.
Dressing as a Female
Seoul is a lot more open-minded than the rest of South Korea so you can get away with wearing most things here. However, it is good to keep in mind that most South Korean females do not show any chest or shoulders. I’m not even talking cleavage here – they don’t even show their chests. For some reason though very, very short skirts seem to be okay to wear.
You will hear this word a lot – especially if you travel outside of Seoul. This word means ‘foreigner’ and yes, they are talking about you.
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Tessa is a travel blogger who has explored over 40 countries. She always tries her best to understand the local cultures that she travels to and has done so by volunteering, studying, living, and working in many different countries. To date, Tessa has lived on four different continents – with the longest being a year and a half in South Korea while working as an English Teacher.
As an adrenaline junkie – who loves to travel off the beaten path – Tessa has a lot of wild travel adventures and an abundance of hilarious travel stories of things going terribly wrong during her travels. Bad luck just seems to be attracted to her. In fact, Tessa has a whole page on her blog, Wild & Wandering, dedicated to blog posts about her most comical and outrageous travel mishaps. She’s a travel pro who not only teaches you what to do but – most importantly – what not to do. This wild girl has no shame!