If you are looking for help in finding things to do in Seoul, then look no further.
Although at first glance Seoul may seem like just another big city, when you scratch beneath the surface you will notice that it is rich in culture and history dating back thousands of years.
I may have left Korea, but I certainly left my heart behind in Seoul. Though certain aspects of adapting to life in Korea, and the cultural differences started to wear me down after a while, now I find myself quite homesick for this wonderful city where I spent so much of my time over the last few years.
From the moment I got off the plane at Incheon airport, I fell in love with Seoul. Head over heels. Arse over tit. Truly, madly, deeply. Crazy, stupid, love. (You get the picture).
Seoul and Korean tourism aren’t publicised enough internationally, and it’s a shame because not many people realise what a vibrant, cultural destination they are missing out on. I have explored every corner, nook and cranny of Seoul during my time in Korea. I know it can be an overwhelming city, since it is just so vast, so I have composed a list of the best 25 things to do in Seoul. Some are well known attractions, others are off the beaten track hidden gems.
Experiment with Korean Street Food
Street food is a huge part of Korean culture. From delicious sweet red bean pastries and spicy rice cakes, to live seafood and flame-grilled meats cooked right before your eyes. Whether you have an adventurous palette, or you prefer the more western flavours, you’ll certainly find something that you’ll love. Tents cooking up tasty and adventurous treats can be found on almost every corner so you don’t have to venture far to experiment.
Join the locals and go all out Korean by heading to one of the city’s much loved food markets.
Gwangjang is Seoul’s oldest food market. Established in 1912, it is still going strong today and tends to escape the radars of tourists. Pull up a stool under a pojangmacha tent and wash it all down with a strong glass of Korean liquor among Seoul’s company men.
It’s wet, it’s smelly, and there’s definite splash back potential but Noryangjin fish market is one of the largest of its kind in Korea and offers you the opportunity to browse the market stalls, select your own fresh fish, and then have it cooked for you at a nearby restaurant.
If you find yourself in the Dongdaemun area, the Dongdaemun market serves up not only traditional street foods, but there are also many stalls selling clothing and handicrafts.
Explore the Winding Alleyways of Bukchon Hanok Village.
Wandering the winding alleyways of Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village will transport you back in time to the Joseon dynasty. Surrounded by the city’s royal palaces, this area was once the home of the Korean nobles families. Today, many of these ancient houses (known as “hanoks”) have been transformed into traditional tea rooms, restaurants and guesthouses. This is a great place for photos, but arrive early if you want to avoid the crowds.
If you want an authentic Korean experience, you can stay overnight in a Hanok and experience the ondal style rooms (that’s a fancy way of saying “sleep on the floor” but believe me, it’s comfier than it sounds).
Be a Monk for the Weekend with a Buddhist Templestay.
The Korean Templestay program gives travelers the opportunity to stay overnight at one of the many beautiful Buddhist temples dotted around the country. It offers a wonderful insight into Korean and Buddhist cultures (you can read about my Templestay experience here). Specific schedules vary from temple to temple, but you can opt to shadow a monk for the weekend, or simply relax at the temple. If you don’t want to sleep at the temple overnight, you can also do a daytime only event.
Watch the Changing of the Guards Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
During the Josean Dynasty, royal guards protected the entrance to Gyeongbokgung palace where their King lived. There’s no King living there now, but reenactments take place daily (except Tuesdays) at 11am and 2pm. It’s an elaborate ceremony accompanied by Korean traditional musical performances and a lot of violent banging on gongs. You shouldn’t miss it.
Getting there: Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5
Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2
Visit a Korean Traditional Tea Room.
Korean traditional tea rooms are plentiful around the areas of Insadong and Bukchon Hanok village. Traditional Korean teas are very different to Western teas and typically come in four different categories: green tea, medicinal herbal tea, fruit-based tea, and grain-based tea.
The fruit based teas are very popular. Thicker and more concentrated than what you may be used to, think of them as being like the honey and lemon blend that your Mum might have made when you were sick as a child. Jujube, goji berry, plum and apricot fruit teas are local favorites and you can try a pot of tea in accompaniment of lots of lovely traditional Korean rice desserts.
Eat Your Way Down Ansan Multicultural Street.
Itaewon may be well known as Seoul’s “international district” however it’s streets are mostly filled with imitation American and European restaurants, there to give Koreans their western fix. If you enjoy trialing different Asian foods, head to Ansan multicultural street. The majority of the area’s population are migrant workers from Southeast Asia and China so you can find great, authentic eateries and food markets here.
Visit The Korean Border and DMZ.
Just thirty minutes north of Seoul, the scenery starts to change dramatically; barbed wire fences and military outposts line the roads, protecting the capital from infiltration by North Korean spies, and the expensive cars of Korea’s over-worked business men have been replaced with military trucks and large industrial vehicles.
The most fortified border in the World, the Korean demilitarised zone gives an insight into the turbulent relations between the two Koreas. You can take a tour of the Joint Security Area – tense neutral ground where North and South Korean armed forces stand constantly facing their enemy in an eerie silence.
Immerse Yourself in the Quirky Coffee Shop Culture.
Coffee culture is huge in Korea and Koreans are all about themed coffee shops. From animal cafes, to having a latte at Hello Kitty’s house, you can find every quirky, and frankly, downright strange theme imaginable.
Pictured above is “Paul’s Meringue Factory”, an espresso topped with a meringue cookie from Takeout Drawing, a coffee shop and art exhibition space in Noksapyeong.
Visit Ihwa Mural Art Village.
Ihwa Mural Art village is one of the many “moon villages” in Korea. These were less than desirable neighbourhoods (read: slums) that became incredibly rundown and neglected. Feeling disgruntled about their living environment, the locals painted their houses in pastel colours and decorated the streets with art work. There are plenty of cute cafes in this area and it’s a popular first date spot for Koreans.
Visit a Jimjilbang.
A jimjilbang is essentially a Korean spa. Jimjilbangs are 24 hour pampering facilities that include various baths, saunas, massage facilities and other treatments. You can try out an infamous “Korean body scrub” while in town. (Read more about jimjilbangs in Seoul here)
Admire the Beautiful Nature of the Garden of Morning Calm.
Depending on where you are basing yourself in Seoul, the garden of morning calm can be a bit of a trek to get to (it’s located about 30 minutes north of the city), but worth it if you have a spare day on your trip. The garden is the oldest private garden in Korea, and features different themed sections that take inspiration from various Oriental nations – from Chinese water gardens, to Japanese bonsai forests. Numerous Korean dramas have been filmed here, and at various points throughout the year you can visit the garden at night when the grounds are beautifully illuminated with a lighting festival.
Take a Cooking Class
I am a strong believer that a great way to learn about a country’s culture is through its food, and what better way to do that than to take a cooking class?
Korean recipes incorporate chillies and spices that are not common in western cooking, yet they are extremely simple to replicate once you know how.
Different cooking schools specialise in different dishes. You can find a list of recommended ones here.
Fall in Love with the Changdeokgong Secret Gardens
Another Joseon Palace, Changdeokgung encapsulates beautiful traditional gardens that were constructed for, and adored by, King Taejong. It’s not really such a secret now, since there are bus loads of tourists venturing to the palace each day, but the gardens are home to many stunning pavilions and water features, and it’s a lovely place to visit, nonetheless.
Discover Beautiful, Scenic Hiking Trails.
Seoul may seem like a concrete megalopolis at first glance, but the city actually encapsulates several mountains and even an entire national park. For those who like the great outdoors, there are many beautiful hiking trails that you can enjoy without even having to leave the city limits.
Bukhansan national park has many trails that vary in difficulty from beginner to advanced. Mount Ansan and Mount Namsan are also home to popular routes. If you are looking for inspiration, or you’d like to join a hiking group, check out Seoul Hiking Group or the events hosted on the Seoul meetup website.
Pay Your Respects at the Korean War Memorial
The Korean War memorial is a free and interactive museum. Not only does it have interesting exhibitions featuring weapons and vehicles from the war, the rooms demonstrate the timeline of events with special effects, videos and models making a great museum even for people who typically hate museums.
Tread the Walls of the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.
Suwon Hwaseong fortress is an impressive Joseon structure dating back to the 13th century. You could easily spend a day exploring the buildings and pavilions within its walls. There are daily reenactments and performances that take place outside the main gate and there is plenty to do in the surrounding area.
Getting there: It takes around an hour to get to Suwon from central Seoul. You can take the Seoul metro line 1, or the Shinbundang line to Suwon station, and leave at exit 4.
Marvel at the Views from N. Seoul Tower.
Located on the top of Mount Namsan, N. Seoul tower offers fabulous views of the city below. I’d recommend coming around late afternoon so that you can see the city both in the daylight, and as the sun sets. You can access the tower by bus or cable car.
Stroll Along the Cheonggyecheon.
The Cheonggyecheon is a 7 mile man-made stream that runs through downtown Seoul. It is decorated with outdoor exhibitions, street art, and floral displays. Each section has a completely different theme, and locals in that area redecorate it regularly. It’s a really pleasant place to go for a walk and there are frequent events held there such as the Seoul lantern festival.
Learn About the History of the Japanese Occupation.
A sensitive subject for Koreans is the history of the relations between Korea and Japan. The long Japanese occupation is a painful memory and another heartbreaking tale in the country’s history.
The Seodaemun prison, now a museum and exhibition hall, is where the Japanese imprisoned, tortured and executed Koreans who wanted to be independent of the Japanese control of the country.
Young women were enslaved during the occupation and forced to “service” the Japanese military. Many of the survivors now live at The House of Sharing just outside of Seoul. Regular tours take place here and offer you the opportunity to speak with the survivors.
Granted it’s a dark subject, but I think it’s important to face the atrocities of humanity every now and then, and to acknowledge and understand the history of the places we travel.
Rent bikes and cycle along the Han river.
The Han River is one of the largest in Korea and it runs straight through the middle of Seoul. Known locally as “Hangang”, the banks of the river feature stilted cafes with lovely views of the water, large recreational areas, and a trail that extends over 40km which is perfect for cycling or walking along. There are many stands dotted throughout Seoul where you can rent a bicycle for the day, so picking up a bike en route to the riverside is easy enough. If cycling isn’t your thing, you can also take a Han river cruise.
Eat Korean BBQ
If there is one thing that Korea is known for internationally, it’s its BBQ. Grab a table at one of these restaurants and you will be given some beautifully marinated beef or pork to cook yourself on the grill before you.
You will get a heap of food and side dishes and the bill never typically exceeds $10 a person. The “Korean” way to eat the meat is to add some gochujang (chilli bean paste) to it and wrap it in a lettuce leaf. Yum!
Party Until the Next Morning in Hongdae.
Hongdae is arguably the most popular nightlife district in Seoul. The bars are cheap are cheerful, and since the Korean capital is such a night owl of a city, they are all open until the next morning, meaning if you miss the last subway home, you can just carry on until they start up again!
Go Temple Hopping
You don’t have to participate in a temple stay to learn about Korea’s Buddhist culture. Seoul is home to several beautiful temples, all of which are free to explore.
Jogyesa is the head temple of the Jogye order and one of the most important in Korea. It is perhaps the most vibrant and active of the Seoul temple sites. The grounds are decorated with beautiful, colourful lanterns and you will often find worshippers here praying, chanting, or burning incense.
In the heart of glitzy downtown Gangnam, the ancient temple of Bongeunsa almost looks out of place. This area is home to some of the most expensive real estate in Seoul and yet, Bongeunsa remains.
Bongwonsa is a stunning temple with a haunting past. As the site where a Korean serial killer conducted his crimes and buried his victims, very few people visit here and you will often have the place to yourself. It’s still beautiful, you just have to not think about its history so much…
Unleash Your Inner Shopaholic
Seoul is a shopaholics paradise.Whatever your budget and style, there are plenty of options. The main shopping neighbourhoods that you should know about are:
Garosugil – Close to Sinsa station in Gangnam, Garosugil consists of elegant tree lined streets filled with stylish boutique stores, and plenty of trendy cafés and bars. Fashionistas and those looking for one off fashion pieces will love this area.
Dongdaemun – The Dongdaemun shopping centre showcases the works of local Korean amateur designers. You can find some really beautiful clothes here for affordable prices.
Apgujeong and Cheongdam – The glitterati district. Apgujeong Rodeo is essentially the “Beverly Hills” of Seoul and home to all the high end designers that you’d expect to see in such an exclusive place (Louis Vuitton, et al)
Myeongdong – Cheap and cheerful, Myeongdong is Seoul’s high street. It’s a great place to pick up Korean cosmetics if you’re interested in that sort of thing, since virtually every other store here is a beauty shop.
Rub Shoulders with Expats in Itaewon
Itaewon may look a little run down, but nestled among the fake designer stalls and the cheap markets, there are a lot of great, authentic restaurants here serving international cuisines.
Since it is home to the American army base in Seoul, there’s quite a large expat presence in Itaewon and it’s a nice place to go if you want a taste of home. Western restaurants are dotted all along Itaewon-ro. Head to the Muslim quarter (Itaewon station, exit 3) to find Turkish restaurants and bakeries. If you’re the hipster type, head to Noksapyeong station to find lots of quirky coffee shops, exhibitions, book stores and craft beer bars.
Have any questions about visiting Seoul and Korea? Feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an email: Melissa@highheelsandabackpack.com