The first thing that took me by surprise was just how large Seoul really is! It’s the kind of destination you could easily spend a few weeks slowly exploring each neighbourhood and district, then head out into the mountains to get up close with nature. When we visited, we only had a few days to pack in as much as possible but somehow, managed to see and do quite a lot. If you’re planning your first ever visit South Korea’s lively capital city, here are our tips on 18 of the very best things to see, do and eat in Seoul.
But first, watch this…
1. Visit the DMZ
Our visit to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea was an unexpected highlight of our trip. It was an opportunity to learn about the Korean War, past and current relations between North and South and to ask questions about the future. We also got to see important historical sites, explore the invasion tunnels and see North Korea. It was, honestly, fascinating and well worth the time spent! I never thought I’d get close to North Korea in my life so it was definitely a memorable and educational experience for us both.
2. Go shopping in Myeongdong
Korean beauty trends have really taken over and there’s an endless world of makeup, application tips and beauty products to explore. If you’re visiting Seoul, you can spend hours exploring beauty stores trying makeup and products in Myeongdong. There’s shop after shop selling everything you could possibly think of and a million things you didn’t know you needed! In addition to all those beauty shops, there’s no shortage of clothing, shoe and department stores to peruse too.
3. Eat Korean BBQ
You cannot visit Seoul without getting stuck into some delicious Korean BBQ! Delicious meats like beef, pork or chicken are grilled on a gas or charcoal grill built right into the table. My grandma would probably complain that she isn’t paying for a restaurant dinner she’s got to cook herself but I think it’s an awesome experience and the food is delicious! I haven’t found a vegetarian-friendly Korean BBQ in Seoul yet so if you do come across or know one, be sure to let me know! In the meantime, you might like this guide to some of the best Korean BBQ spots in Seoul.
4. Catch the subway
When it comes to getting around Seoul, the subway or train is the best way to do it. It’s very affordable, reliable, clean and easy to figure out. Matt and I didn’t catch a single taxi or Uber, opting for the subway and walking as our modes of transport. Just be sure to wear really comfortable shoes because the distance between some stations, to transfer lines, can be really long and I wasn’t prepared for that. Be sure to wear sneakers, for example, not really thin sandals (me!) it was a big fail on my part.
5. Visit a cat cafe
Walking through Myeongdong we were given a flyer for Cats Playground and, missing our own two beautiful babes, decided we had to visit. We absolutely loved it! The cafe was really clean and well looked after, as were the cats. Some of there were hiding for a nap in their favourite sleeping spots, others were being groomed by the cafe staff while some played with toys available free for customers. The entry fee per person was ₩9,000 which includes one drink of your choice. We spent about an hour here and had a really nice time.
6. Check out Gyeongbokgung
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty and a must-visit for anyone in Seoul. We spent some time wandering around the grounds taking in the amazing buildings and really loved it! There were so many people locals in traditional dress and it was quite fun watching them all get their photo taken and having a really nice time. Afterwards, we wandered outside the grounds up to the National Folk Museum, which we actually enjoyed slightly more than the Palace as it was less crowded. Admission to Gyeongbokgung is ₩3,000 per person and the National Folk Museum is free!
7. Hiking at Bukhansan
Hiking culture in Seoul is real! The locals absolutely love to get out into the mountains and spend a few hours in nature, following the very best hiking trails. If you’re visiting, Bukhansan is the closest mountain to Seoul and the perfect pick for a day of outdoor adventures. There are different trails and the time will depend on your level of fitness and where you start but a 3.4km trail should take around two hours to reach the top where you’ll be treated to incredible views of Seoul! To get there, you can catch the subway and a bus. For more information, this detailed guide is fantastic.
8. Wander Bukchon Hanok Village
Be sure to make time to visit Bukchon Hanok Village, which is located right near Gyeongbokgung so you can do them both on the same day. The traditional Korean village is absolutely beautiful, with quaint winding streets, traditional homes and lovely views of Seoul as well. It’s a photographers dream and an Insta-worthy wonderland. If you want to go the extra mile, you can hire traditional costumes nearby. BUT please keep in mind, Bukchon Hanok is a residential area so while it’s a beautiful spot for us to visit, people who live there call it home. Don’t disturb any of the locals, touch or remove anything. Don’t climb on or enter anyone’s property and, when walking around, be sure to keep the noise levels down so as not to bother residents.
9. Visit Lotte World
Let your inner child out at Lotte World and enjoy the world’s largest indoor theme park! There’s also an outdoor amusement park called “Magic Island,” and an artificial island, shopping mall, folk cultural items, miniature villages and themed musicals. Admission is ₩55,000 for adults so it’s definitely in the higher end of the activity spectrum but this includes all your rides so you’ll have no trouble getting your money’s worth.
10. Have a fairy floss latte
If you love to treat yourself to something a little bit special when you travel (me!) then a visit to Stylenanda’s Pink Pool Cafe should be on your itinerary. We visited on a particularly rainy afternoon and absolutely loved the bright pink interior of the cafe, tucked away on the top of Stylenanda in Myeongdong. The pool theme is also really cool and, on a sunny day, you can go up onto the rooftop to chill out and enjoy the views. I fulfilled all my girlie dreams by getting a latte with a baby pink cotton candy cloud! It was quite expensive, costing around ₩10,000 but it was a treat and something I really wanted to do so, to me, it was worth it.
11. Stock up on snacks at Lotte Mart
Let’s talk snacks! I love to go to a local grocery store when I travel so I can snoop through all the food aisles, see what the locals eat and stock up on weird snacks to try later. If you love to do the same kind of thing, then you want to go straight to Lotte Mart at Seoul Station! There’s also usually quite a number of ‘free sample’ stations set up so you can try some things for free, stock up on what you like and buy a few extra snacks for later too.
12. Eat at Namdaemun Market
Let’s keep going with the food theme and get you to Namdaemun Market for a food and shopping crawl! The open-air market is the oldest in Seoul, with over 10,000 shops and stalls selling everything from textiles, luggage, umbrellas, jewellery, accessories and toys to food, food and more food. If you don’t speak Korean, that’s okay as many restaurants will have English menus or very realistic sample dishes made out of plastic. It’s a great way to get a feel for Seoul’s food and shopping scene and a budget-friendly shopping and food option. Just be sure to visit before midday if you have social anxiety or struggle with crowds (me!)
13. Check out Cheonggyecheon Stream
A great way to escape the big city feel is by heading down to the Cheonggyecheon Stream in the heart of Seoul. Nestled below large skyscrapers, the 10.9km long stream is a peaceful respite from the world around it and something you could do after visiting Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbokgung like we did. It’s just a lovely spot to take a stroll or sit under the shade of a tree and eat lunch or enjoy a cold drink.
14. Unleash your Instagram ho at Common Ground
If you love to ‘do it for the Gram,’ then you’ll definitely want to visit Common Ground. The pop-up market is made of blue shipping containers stacked on top of one another and home to some fantastic clothing and food shops. It really is an Instagram dream-come-true as you’ll find many gram-worthy deserts and photo opportunities. I mean, if you went to Common Ground and didn’t get an insta shot in front of the wall of shipping containers, did it even really happen? (Yes, it did but… well, you know!)
15. Go to Insa-dong
If you find yourself in the heart of the city, take the time to check out Insa-Dong. It’s home to a myriad of antiques and used to be the largest market for antiques and artworks in Korea. Look for the main road, where you’ll find a maze of alleys on either side. Here, you’ll find a world of galleries, traditional restaurants, teahouses and cafes to explore. If you need some inspiration, check out this guide on the top 10 things to do in Insa-Dong.
16. Experience Gangnam Style
Of course, you’re going to want to check out the Beverly Hills of Seoul and visit Gangnam to get a glimpse of the world-famous Gangnam style for yourself. You might like to wander the streets and check out the local architecture before indulging in the most beloved of Gangnam past-times, shopping! Head to the huge COEX shopping mall for a look around and, for bibliophiles, to see the huge wall of books next to the escalator (a great spot for a photo!) If you need some more inspiration, you can find some of the best things to do in Gangnam here.
17. Check out the Myeongdong Cathedral
Not everyone likes visiting religious sites but if you do find yourself in Myeongdong it is worth taking the time to glimpse the Myeongdong Cathedral, even just from the outside. It’s a beautiful building and, if you’re like me, it’s nice to see something different when you travel, rather than just big buildings, shops and restaurants. You don’t need long, maybe just 10 minutes to check out the outside and, if you like, you can duck inside and have a quick look too. They have some free information flyers inside which tell you a bit about the history of the cathedral.
18. Experience the world of KPOP
Korea has fast become famous for its K-Pop stars and, honestly, the whole world of K-Pop is fascinating. We got the chance to visit the filming of a K-Pop television program known as ‘The Show.‘ Aspiring and established K-Pop groups perform live onstage in front of an audience and it’s absolutely awesome and wild! We learned SO much about K-Pop including how many young Koreans aspire to be an ‘idol’ and ‘idolling’ is considered quite the career! Fans range from young girls through to older guys, known as ‘Uncle Fans,’ and each group has fan lyrics which are sung in-between the lyrics of the song. Each group also has their own hand-held light in a unique shape and colour, which fans purchase, so when the band looks out into the crowd they can see their fans! Interestingly, K-Pop group members rehearse for hours and hours each day, dancing for something like 10 hours and singing for a further 6-7 hours. Like I said, it’s a fascinating world and one well-worth experiencing while you’re in Seoul. Keep an eye out for how you can attend something like ‘The Show,’ or even just catch a K-Pop performance (read this guide on how to catch K-Pop in Seoul for help!). We LOVED it and it ended up being an unexpected highlight for us.
How to get there and where to stay
We flew direct from Singapore to Seoul with Singapore Airlines. If you’re thinking of doing the same thing, flying via Singapore is a great way to do it. We got to spend a few days exploring Singapore on our way back, which extended our trip and broke things up nicely. Of course, we had an amazing experience with Singapore Airlines. The food was delicious, the service was exceptional, we had plenty of great movies to watch to pass the time and our seats were super comfy.
In Seoul, we stayed at TMark Grand Hotel in Meyongdong and loved it. The hotel was located close to a train station and Meyongdong so we could easily get around and there was plenty to see and do nearby. The room was modern, clean and very comfortable. You may find it a little smaller than what you’re used to in places like North America but it was honestly fine! I’m not sure if smaller rooms are a consistent thing throughout South Korea but, like I said, it didn’t bother us. The hotel staff were amazing, the breakfast was delicious and we had a really good stay.
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