A one-stop guide on the city of Seoul, South Korea, for first timers.
My trip to Seoul, South Korea was rather last minute. In fact, it was only confirmed a week before departure, and I was smack in the middle of another work trip abroad. Outside of booking accommodation for the personal part of the trip, I barely did much research and planning – very unlike me. I figured it’s a city right? Cities are easy right?
Until you realise there’s a staggering amount of things to do and explore within this city. Seoul was one of the most dynamic cities I’ve visited. Luckily enough, I had a couple of days with local friends and colleagues that could take out a bit of the planning stress for me.
Let me attempt to condense Seoul in this little post with a list of must-sees and must-dos.
There are a few palaces located within Seoul City and if you have the time, it’s very easy to visit them all in a day. I don’t, so I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, undoubtedly the more famous of the lot. The palace is complex is huge, and has a park within itself. No thanks to Japanese invasion, most of the original palace from the Joseon era has been destroyed. What you see is a reconstructed – beautifully, I might add – version of the palace. I spent about 1.5 hours here roaming the palace grounds, including taking photos.
Entrance fee to the palace costs 3,000 Won. Time your visit such that you can catch the guard changing ceremony. Unfortunately, the day of my visit it was cancelled due to bad weather. I did however, see the guards standing at attention later on at the front entrance.
The palace also provides an hour-long free group guided tour in English, which I chose to miss out for the sake of time. Another free service provided by the palace is a try-on of the hanboks.
Bukchon Hanok Vilage
Located about 20 minutes by foot from Gyeongbokgung Palace is Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a quaint little town with tradition Korean houses, or hanok. You can rent a hanbok here, and walk through for a complete Joseon Dynasty experience. I didn’t, but a lot of tourists did so I felt transported nonetheless.
I walked over to Insadong from the Bukchon Hanok Village. Insadong is probably one of my favourite street markets to walk through. You’ll find a lot of traditional souvenirs here, such as ceramics, calligraphy, fans, chopsticks, bookmarks and fun magnets here.
The traditional souvenir shops are interestingly set alongside modern ones like K-beauty brands and random accessories shops. There’s a mini shopping mall called Ssamziegil at Insadong which housed unique handcraft and jewellery shops that’s worth a visit.
Have a Hanbok Experience
Some perks of wearing a hanbok: entrance to the palaces are FREE, you get to live out your Korean palace fantasy, and the un-shapely hanbok somehow is ultra flattering to any body shape. Although I was alone, I would ABSOLUTELY rent a hanbok and get my old school Korean on. Unfortunately, I was hit with a bout of bad weather, and I can’t fathom having to deal with wet hanboks.
BUT I did manage to live out my hanbok fantasy albeit for 10 minutes at this photo sticker shop located at Sszamziegil in Insadong. They rent it for “free” for you to take your photo booth stickers in the shop, which was 8,000 Korean Won – but the lady happily took some photos of me in the hanbok with my own camera. Yasss. I can’t find any official information on this store on Google, but the shop was on the third floor of Ssamziegil, towards the café. Can’t miss it.
Within walking distance from Insadong is Jogyesa Temple, considered one of the main temples of Buddhism in Seoul city. When I visited, brightly coloured paper streamers were strung up all over the temple compound. This juxtaposed against the huge golden Buddha within the temple and the worshippers – it was a cool sight to behold. I think it might have been a special day in Buddhism. My favourite part might be chancing upon this smiley little dude.
Visit a traditional market at Tongin
Tongin Market is a traditional marketplace located in Seochon-dong, close to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The marketplace mostly consist of grocery stores and restaurant, and worth a nice walk through. I had a traditional Korean rice cake dessert and it was delicious.
The marketplace offers up a unique and interactive meal experience too. First things first, head to the Dosirak Café to purchase brass coins. They cost 500 won each, but 5,000 won or 10 brass coins, would be the minimum amount. You will then receive a tray, to carry around with you, while you poke around the Tongin Market to exchange the brass coins for food.
Go up N Seoul Tower
You can actually get awesome panaromic views of Seoul from a lot of places, thanks to the city’s mountainous nature and soaring skyscrapers. However, going up Namsan Mountain to the iconic N Seoul Tower will get you the added bonus of ultra fresh air from the surrounding Namsan Park. No cars are allowed in – only eco-friendly electric busses. You can hike up to the mountain, ride a cable car, or take the electric public busses up. There are a lot of food establishments at the tower as well.
If you’re up for some cheesy action, you can lock a padlock as a love forever thing. Didn’t bring a padlock or you literally just met your forever person at the tower itself? They sell padlocks there.
Stroll through Namsan Park
As a continuation to the last activity, please have a walk through Namsan Park. While we took the bus up, we left N Seoul Tower through the park. After days of concrete view, it was a nice reset to see tons of refreshing greens. You can also definitely tell the difference in air quality up there.
Soak in Myeongdong
As I’ve mentioned way too many times here, and here (and, spoiler alert, later on this post), Myeongdong was one of my favourite neighbourhoods to explore. If you don’t have a lot of time, but want to experience the concentration of Seoul city, come to Myeongdong. Myeongdong epitomizes the two things that Seoul is most known for – eating and shopping. That, coupled with the general buzzing energy of the area made this area a must-visit.
The K-Shopping Experience
Shopping is one of the highlights of Seoul city. Specifically for me, K-beauty shopping. I spent a lot of pockets of time weaving in and out of stores in various neighbourhoods. For a guide on the best places to shop for K-Beauty, click here.
Even if you’re not a shopper, you can get the most out of visiting these shopping areas such as Myeongdong and Hongdae. The bustling energy of these areas are just incredibly intoxicating. Other popular shopping areas include Dongdaemun, which is more known for late night shopping for clothing and wholesale items, and Namdaemun.
The Street Food Experience
If you’re not having street food in Korea, you’re doing it wrong. My favourites were the saucy red Tteokbokki, Odeng, and the grilled beef steak. Some unique street food that I came across were lobsters grilled with cheese (at exorbitant prices a pop), kimbap, tornado potato, tower ice creams, grilled cheese, Korean egg toast.
In general, the food experience
Korean food is some of my favourite. Naengmyun has always been one of my perennial faves – chewy noodles bathing in a bowl of cold broth with ice pieces in it. Bibimbap, dak galbi and bulgogi are a must, and of course, you cannot leave the country without having Korean BBQ. Though as a frequent solo traveller, I probably almost had to. Korean BBQ is a meal you have to have with other people. I think some restaurants won’t even allow solo diners to have bbq – so I’ve heard. Harsh, man.
If you’re with friends too, pop into one of the many Chi-Mack shops. Chi-Mack is a colloquial term for chicken-and-beer, a very typical Korean meal concept. I didn’t have the beer, but I enjoyed the fried chicken all the same. Order the one with the sticky sweet spicy sauce. Mmm.
Meals in a Korean restaurant are usually served with about three to five banchan, or side dishes. These are FREE and sometimes I look forward to them more than the dish I ordered. These banchan can be different types of kimchi, vegetables, fish cakes, even anchovies.
While we’re talking about Myeongdong, visit Coffee & Ni in the area. This place served up the best coffee I had in Seoul. That’s saying a lot, because in general, Seoul has some really good coffees. I don’t think I had a bad coffee while in Seoul. Another unique find is the Sakura Latte at the Innisfree Café in Myeongdong. Venturing out of this neighbourhood is ep.3 Black Essence. This coffee place bills itself as an artisanal coffee bar. I didn’t get the chance to try it, but I would have loved to.
In any case, try the coffees in Seoul. There are so many good coffee places, that competition is stiff. If you don’t serve a good cup, you can’t survive, simple as that.
It’s hard not to include Gangnam in this post, as everyone and their mothers would know this town thanks to Psy. Gangnam has true city vibes with its skyscrapers, modern architecture and designer malls. I like this neighbourhood for its shopping, but of course. There is an underground mall that I browsed through briefly that housed rows and rows of clothing stores. I personally preferred the stores aboveground for the K-Beauty.
Gangnam was one of my favourite place to people-watch. If you want to see plastic surgery gone very, very right, check out the well-dressed, gorgeous ladies up here.
Located close to Gangnam is Garosugil, a popular street in Sinsa-dong. It literally translates to “tree-lined street”, and as its name implies, has a row of gingko trees flanking the road alongside boutiques and cafes. Garosugil continued the upscale feel of Gangnam, except with a more boutique feel. The stores here tend to be more conceptual too, offering a bit more experience than any other of the same shop in Myeongdong, for example. A new area has recently emerged, called Serosugil, which is a smaller street that cuts vertically from the main Garosugil.
Pulse of Youth at Hongdae
I was expecting Hongdae to be like Myeongdong but it’s a totally different atmosphere. Hongdae definitely felt younger, and has a more diverse mix of clothing and beauty stores, restaurants, bars and cafes. Since the area caters to students, you can find mpre affordable stuff here. Though I took part in none, the nightlife is renowned with night clubs, bars and noraebangs or karaoke places. In the weekend, there’s an open street market with students from the nearby art university selling unique items.
Explore Hipster Neighbourhoods
Myeongdong and Gangnam are a couple of ultra-famous neighbourhoods, but there are so many cool little towns to explore in Seoul, such as Seochon, Hapjeong and Sansu. Check this post to read up on these neighbourhoods, which would have been off-my-radar if it weren’t for my Korean friends.
Get out of Seoul
There are so many wonderful locations outside the city of Seoul. I spent two fruitful days in Busan, and loved the added twist to my trip.
Some other locations to consider include Jeonju, Pocheon, Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress, Nami Island and Jeju Island (though this one cannot be a daytrip).
Get Acquainted with Seoul at City Hall
This is a great place to start if you have no clue or impressions on the city of Seoul. Seoul City Hall is a newly-constructed, eco-friendly building located in the middle of the city. There’s a comprehensive tourist area at the lobby filled with useful maps, brochures of activities and helpful guides.
Make sure to visit the free Gungisi Relics Exhibition Hall, which preserved one of the original foundations of the old City Hall. FYI, the original city hall was bombed during the Japanese invasion. Relics from the Joseon Dynasty which was uncovered during the reconstruction are also showcased here. There’s also a Green Wall, a huge vertical garden which spanned all the way from the first to the seventh floor. It was named in the Guinness World Records as the largest vertical garden in the world.
I spent no more than 30 minutes here, including walking through the small but eye-opening Gungisi exhibition hall.
Witness a Peaceful Protest
Speaking of, the area outside of Seoul’s City Hall is a common place for demonstrations. This is out-of-the-norm of touristy things to do, but South Koreans know how to put on a demonstration peacefully. And effectively, alluding to mass protest that led to the resignation (and recently the prosecution) of the nation’s ex-president.
When I was there I chanced upon two demonstrations, one along Gwanghamun road and the other outside of the US embassy. At one point the road crossing was blocked by policemen, and I wondered if I wrongfully entered restricted territory, but was helpfully ushered across by a policeman who saw my bewildered face. On the other side was a row of demonstrators carrying banners of a very orange Trump chanting into loudspeakers.
Other Fun Korean Things to do
I never got the chance to, but if you’re up for it: these are a couple extra things I would have loved to go for:
Visit a Noraebang, or Karaoke Joint
Noraebangs are fun, private karaoke rooms to spend a couple of hours with friends. I’ve heard these noraebangs are a class of their own – with disco lights, props, musical instruments and the latest songs on rotation. Not too sure if these latest songs include Billboard hits in English, and not just K-pop.
Visit a Jjimjjilbang, or Korean Spa
A jjimjjilbang is the most local thing you can do in South Korea; it is greatly integrated into local culture. At a Korean Spa, you can detox at the sauna, get a nice body scrub, or just chill at the common area and even sleep. It’s a good, and extremely relaxing, hack for saving some hotel cash if you have a late/early flight to catch. You’re even given comfy clothes to change into while at the spa, so you go to the airport in your fresh gear after using their shower facilities.
Where to Stay:
I stayed in Myeongdong, obviously. Not only was it easily accessible by two metro stations, it amalgamated the two essences of Seoul for me – food and shopping. I loved that I could get hungry at 10pm, and have food options right outside my hotel.
Myeongdong was also along the airport limousine bus route, the stop being outside the metro station.
If you’re looking for a more traditionally Korean experience, I recommend staying in the Insadong area. Insadong itself is an open market with traditional souvenirs. You can easily walk to the palaces from Insadong, and Bukchon Hanok Village is nearby too.
The map apps in Korea can be… frustrating. No one single app worked flawlessly for me. Google Maps will not be as effective here, but that’s not to say it’s useless. It’s good for finding and saving certain locations on the map. For navigation, not so much.
The local map apps would be Kakao Maps or Naver. They’re great for getting directions, but might be troublesome if your location does not have an English name attached to it on the map apps. Sometimes these two apps will refuse to work in a no-wifi situation, unlike Google Maps which will use GPS. Naver and Kakao has GPS too, but strangely and annoyingly enough, sometimes it just refuses to load if there’s no wifi or signal.
I had to toggle between maps often. I found that I was using Google Maps more – for navigation purposes, I would just follow the blue dot as it moved by GPS.
Seoul’s metro system is extremely efficient and pretty much connects to every corner of the city. If you’ve been on the metro system in Tokyo, Japan, and get mindboggled by the extensive train mapping system – same thing here. I typically like to use Kakao or Naver maps to direct me for trains and any transits I might need to do.
For some reason, people kept telling me that I needed a T-Money card to take the metro. This was just a bit of a communication problem. You can actually purchase individual tickets at the station. The T-Money is just the more fuss-free way since you load it up just once, and tap in and out until your card runs out of money.
You also get a 100 Won discount per trip. I don’t think I actually took the metro enough to make up for what I paid for the actual T-Money card. The T-Money I purchased was a special edition one with a KakaoTalk character, which was slightly more expensive than the regular ones. I didn’t realise this since I literally took the first card off the shelf pointed to me by the cashier. Anyway, if you’re looking for just the regular cards, look out for the plain blue cards with the T-money logo on them.
T-Money can also be used at convenience stores and taxis. I liked using it for taxis – any chance to not count foreign money is a plus.
Taxis in Seoul are cheap and easy to find and flag down. If I find that I’d have to make too many metro changes, I would just take the taxi for the sake of convenience and time.
Communication can be a huge problem – the first cab me and another non-Korean speaking colleague hopped into had no idea what our hotel was. Extremely funny moment ensued, when we both put on our worse Korean-accented English to try to get the cabbie to understand us. Fail. Always take a hotel card with a Korean address on.
Have you been to the city of Seoul? If you have any other tips and tricks for tackling this city, let me know!