Dynamic, modern and hyperactive, Seoul in South Korea is fast becoming one of Asia’s must visit destinations. Eclectic Emissary takes a look at the 10 best things to do in the South Korean capital.
By day chow down on flavorful food and shop til you drop, by night party hard. With so many ways to enjoy Seoul, it was difficult to condense it into a short list. Seoul is a futuristic metropolis contrasting with a traditional and oriental ambiance. Whether you enjoy eye-catching modern architecture, or traditional of palaces, temples, and shrines, Seoul has something for everyone.
Koreans are genuinely some of the nicest people and the country has very low crime, so Korea is a very welcoming country for new travelers. It also has one of the simplest metro networks I’ve ever used, so getting around is a breeze. Here’s my top ten favourite things to do while in Seoul.
10. Bukchon Hanok Village
If you’re looking to take a relaxing walk somewhere quiet, check out Bukchon Hanok for one of the most peaceful places in Seoul. Actually still a residential area, its best to be respectful and quiet to maintain the peaceful atmosphere (the elderly folks on guard will strictly enforce the quiet rule, so don’t be too surprised). You can also visit a traditional tea house to try some Korean style tea and zen out.
Koreans definitely have a very unique sense of style. If you’re looking to blend in with your own crazy outfit, or just browse, head to Myeongdong for some top quality name brand shopping and fantastic street food. You’ll find huge department stores, and a massive choice of food stands with everything from fried seafood on a stick, Gimbap (similar to sushi), and drinks made out freshly squeezed pomegranates.
8. Trickeye and Ice Museum
Fans of optical illusions and cool pictures should head to the Trickeye Museum. There are tons of murals you can be a part of plus an Augmented Reality App for your smart phone to watch the paintings come to life. Entry is 15,000 won (approx $12). Tickets also include entry to the Ice Museum which displays an entire room with furniture made of ice, including a slide! Pretty cool (literally).
7. Starfield Coex Mall
If you’re not too shopped out yet, this is another great destination to get your consumerism fix. The huge mall offers tons of unique quirks, like many shopping centres in Korea. Besides an amazing and culturally diverse food court, there is the Starfield Library which is the most photogenic stack of books I’ve ever seen. You’ll also find a huge aquarium as well as a statue of giant Gangnam style Hands from the World famous K-Pop song, Gangnam Style by PSY. Oppa Gangnam Style! (Don’t pretend you haven’t heard it).
If you’re looking to party, then you’re in the right place. The nightlife culture is vibrant and even on week-nights you’ll likely see Koreans drinking, hanging out with friends, and dancing into the early morning hours. One of the best areas for a night out is Hongdae. As it’s the main University district, there’s always a young and lively crowd, with tons of bars and nightclubs to choose from. Head out to Retro Game Bar for free video games while you drink, or sign up for a Pub Crawl, a great way to meet people and make new friends….
Itaewon is another great party area. Popular with foreigners and expats, this is a good option if you want to meet an international crowd. A night out usually starts with a huge meal, drinking, dancing, and then an inevitable round of Noraebang (Korean Style Karaoke). Most nights I returned around 6am, so get ready for a long one!
5. Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden
Despite it’s glitzy modern veneer, Seoul is packed full of history. Changdeokgung is the second largest palace and secondary residence for the royal family. This UNESCO heritage site offers spectacular royal gardens and a real sense of history. Tickets are only 3,000 Won ($2.50) but I HIGHLY recommend getting a Royal Palace Pass. With this pass you can visit most of the large palaces in Seoul for around 10,000 Won ($10 USD). You can also go on a free guided English tour which is super informative. Find operating hours and more info here.
Also included in the Royal Pass is entrance to the Secret Garden, a stunning garden with a tranquil vibe. To get in, you’ll need to book your slot on the mandatory tour, which is limited to 100 guests. So arrive early and book your spot. The Palace grounds are closed on mondays so plan accordingly.
4. Korean Food
If you’re not in Seoul to party, then you might be more focused on Korea’s outstanding food reputation. As a foodie myself, every meal was an incredible experience of flavorful explosions. From their un-missable Korean BBQ to the plethora of delicious street food, you’ll get to try dishes that will blow you away. Every meal is served with a few side dishes, especially kimchi (fermented cabbage and vegetables with spices, much better than it sounds). Koreans really love their spices, so make sure you’re prepared for the burn.
I could make an entire separate list of all the amazing food so here’s just a few of my favorites:
- Korean BBQ,
- Bibimbap (steamed rice dish),
- Bulgogi (slices of grilled meat),
- panjeon (scallion pancake),
- gyeran-pangg (egg bread),
- And of course…. Chimaek (Korean fried chicken). All other fried chicken will pale in comparison to the seasoned, crispy greatness that is chimaek. So embrace its chickeny-goodness.
3. Gyeongbokgung Palace
Seoul’s largest Palace was the primary residence for the royal family during the Joseon Dynasty. Surrounded by the huge Gwanghwamun Gate, which is also a pretty photogenic spot. The Palace Guards stand by the entrance, and yes, you can pose next to them for a cool pic. Just don’t touch them and you should be fine. If you want to catch the ceremonial changing of the guard, arrive at 11am or 1pm. The palace offers English tours 3 times a day at 11am, 1:30pm, and 3:30pm. The grounds are huge and there’s lots of history, the guided tour is highly recommended.
An added bonus is right at the Northernmost exit, The Blue house. Consider it the Korean equivalent to the presidential White House. There are many Hanbok (traditional colorful Korean outfits) rental shops around the area. Majority of people touring the palace are dressed up. It’s a lot of fun plus you will even get a discount to the entrance of some palaces! Gyeongbokgung Palace is closed on Tuesdays so schedule it accordingly.
2. N Seoul Tower
Perched on top of the Namsan Mountain is N Seoul Tower, another eccentric skyscraper that offers an incredible panoramic view of Seoul. You can either walk up the hiking trail, or ride the Namsan Cable Car for 9500 Won (around $8 USD) return, or 7,000 won (approx $5.90) one way.
As you arrive at the top, you’ll notice the fences and stairways filled with countless “Love Locks”. With the stunning view, it is of course seen as a super romantic place among young local couples. Love-stuck young couples usually write heartfelt messages before sealing the lock to symbolize their lives being unbreakable love for each other. Bring your own lock or buy one at the store (they don’t miss a trick those Koreans), and have a romantic night with your date.
From the top of the observation deck, you can enjoy the view of the beautiful Seoul skyline. It’s probably more endearing to admire the lights of the city at night, where you can feel it coming to life. N Seoul Tower closes around 10pm, so if you don’t want to wait in the ridiculous line for the cable car back down, think about taking a taxi or leaving earlier.
1. A Tour of The DMZ and JSA
OK, technically this isn’t in Seoul, but this is one of the best things to do when you visit the city. Officially the two Koreas are still at war, and the DMZ is the front line! The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 2 mile wide border which divides North and South Korea and symbolizes a neutral zone between the divided countries.
Before my trip, I assumed it was dangerous to go anywhere near it. Besides the waiver that explains they are not responsible for any injury or death, I thought the dangers of the DMZ were dramatically exaggerated. However our tour guide was exceptional and ensured the safety of the group for the duration of the trip. There are some very specific rules you’ll need to follow such as, a strict clothing guideline and prohibited photography at some locations. You’ll also need to refrain from provoking soldiers, and of course trying to cross the actual border to the Northern side (duh).
If you want to read more about my DMZ experience, you can read my full guide here.
For a tour to the DMZ you’ll need to book around a week in advance and bring your passport on the day of the tour. Going to Panmunjom for the Joint Security Area(JSA) is where you actually get to cross the border line, although its in a shack in the middle of the DMZ. You can really feel the tension in the air, but so long as you obey the rules, you’ll be fine.
If you enjoyed this guide about the top ten things things to do in Seoul, you can check out Eclectic Emissary’s website.
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