1. Visit Dongdaemun History and Culture Park
Wish you could time travel? Head over to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, a historical park where you can explore the ruins of a military campsite from the Choseon Dynasty, see the old Igansumun Watergate and walk along the ancient wall of Seoul Fortress. The sleek and shiny Dongdaemun Design Plaza (or DDP) with its exhibition spaces and shopping complex is also located within the park, offering a sharp contrast between the old and new Korea.
Opening times: (DDP) Daily 9am – 7pm.
Location: 281, Eulji-ro, Jung-gu.
2. Cure jetlag at Seoul Medicine Market
Suffering from jetlag, or did you just go a bit hard on the rice wine? Either way, find a remedy at Seoul’s medicine market, part of Gyeongdong Market. Sample free medicinal tea and pick up some of Korea’s world famous red ginseng, an apparently brilliant cure-all! There’s also the Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum, offering further insight, right opposite the market.
3. Battle it out at the War Memorial of Korea
Relive some of Korea’s most famous battles, learn the story of how the modern nation emerged from invasion, corruption and civil war, as well as information about current North-South relations at the Korean War Museum. This highly digital and interactive museum has an F-15K 3D experience room, shooting range and Incheon Landing 4D experience. Outside, there are actual weapons from the Korean War in the 1950s.
Opening times: Tues to Sun, 9am – 6pm.
Location: 29, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu.
4. Unwind at Bongeunsa Temple
Find time for some soul-searching at Bongeunsa Temple. Located in Seoul’s financial district, sign up for The Temple Life programme and get an introduction to Buddhist culture with a tea ceremony, lantern making, and mental training sessions. You can even check yourself in for a couple of nights for the chance to really experience monastic life.
Opening times: Temple Life every Thurs 2pm – 4.30pm.
Location: 73 Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu.
Price: Free to enter. Temple experiences from 20,000won.
5. Head to a Korean bath house
Scrub up at a jjimjilbang, a traditional Korean bath house. Chill out in a themed sauna, take a medicinal bath or have some fun in the game rooms: this is how young and old Koreans alike de-stress after a hard week. You’ll also find staff on hand to give you a more thorough exfoliation, for around 15,000won. If all the lazing around tires you out, some bath houses in Seoul even offer overnight accommodation. Dragon Hill Spa is a good choice for first-timers. Be warned though: it’s usual practice to be completely naked once you’re in the pools!
6. Eat some Korean barbeque
Forget silver service and dine like the locals. Scream ‘yo-gi-oh’ for your server, get tipsy on countless bottles of Korea’s signature drink, soju, and gorge on bottomless side dishes, banchan, all while your dinner cooks right in front of your eyes at a local Korean Barbeque shop. Try Doma Restaurant in the Hongdae neighbourhood for fine Korean ribs, or galbi (details below).
Opening times: Mon to Sat 11.30am – 5am. Sun 1pm – 5am.
Location: 357-3 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu.
Price: From 13,000 (£10).
7. Act like royalty at Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung, once home to the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty, is the biggest of five royal palaces in Seoul and also the place to dress up in traditional royal costumes, if you like that sort of thing. Don’t get too carried away with all those fancy dress selfies though; the building is now home to the National Palace Museum of Korea, so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to brush up on your imperial art history – there are over 40,000 artefacts here – and explore the massive gardens. Look out for free English guided tours at 11am and 2pm.
Opening times: Mon to Fri 9am – 6pm; Sat & Sun 9am – 7pm.
Location: Hyojaro 12, Jongno-gu,.
8. Shop ‘til you drop in Myeong-dong
Love picking up a bargain or hunting down some unusual souvenirs? Score some cosmetics and funky fashion in Myeongdong, a shopping district at the intersection of two main streets in Seoul. Stop for a bowl of kalguksu (noodle soup) at one of the many street food stands that line the blocks. Even if you don’t buy, the dazzling and frenetic atmosphere, especially in the evening, is somewhat addictive.
9. Be deceived at Hongdae’s Trick Eye Museum
For the ultimate holiday snaps, head to this silly but endlessly fun Seoul attraction in the Hongdae college district. The Trickeye Museum is considered Korea’s most popular museum, and once you’re inside, it’s hard not to join in with the absurdity of it all. Fool all your Facebook friends with pictures of you fighting dragons, climbing walls, and even levitating!
Opening times: Daily, 9am – 9pm.
Location: #B2 Seogyo Plaza 20 Hongikro 3gil, Mapogu.
Price: Adults 18000 won, Under 18s 12000won.
10. Meet locals at Bukchon Hanok Village
Wander through the (hilly) streets of Bukchon Hanok Village and discover hanok, an ancient style of Korean architecture. Sample signature teas and sweet rice cakes at a traditional teahouse or poke around craft workshops and galleries for souvenirs. Homestays are also available, where you can sleep on cushions on the floor kept toasty by Korea’s ondol underfloor heating system. Start your trip at Bukchon Traditional Cultural Centre near Anguk subway station to orientate yourself with a map of the area.
11. Enjoy the view at N Seoul Tower
The best place to see Seoul from above, this observation tower is packed with restaurants on almost every floor so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the panorama, including a revolving French restaurant on the 7th floor. A sunset trip is recommended. Get there by cable car if you don’t fancy the (steep) 10-minute climb – the station is near the Myeong-dong subway and Pacific Hotel.
Opening times: (Observatory) Mon to Fri/Sun 10am – 11pm; Sat 10am – 12am.
Location: 105 Namsangongwon-gil, Yongsan 2(i)ga-dong, Yongsan-gu.
Price: Adults 10000won, Concessions 8000won.
12. Namsan Mountain & Park
Now you’ve done the tower, take a few hours to explore Namsan Mountain, the green peak that looks down on the city’s sprawl. Short trails criss-cross around the mountain, with landmarks like the Mongmyeoksan Beacon Hill Site and the Palgakjeong along the way. If you’ve brought a loved one, there’s even a love-lock wall, where you snap shut a padlock to seal your eternal commitment.
13. See the changing of the guard at Deoksugung
Deoksugung is another great palace of the Joseon period, dating from the sixteenth century. This is the only palace in Seoul where you can see the guard changing ceremony (11am/2pm/3.30pm), complete with flamboyantly colourful costumes, and explore the beautifully lit grounds at night, as it’s open ’til 9pm. There are also some surprisingly Western-looking buildings, with classical colonnades, rubbing shoulders with Korean hanok roofs. As an attraction, it’s smaller and lesser-known than Gyeongbokgung, so less crowded as a result.
Opening times: Tue to Sun 9am – 9pm.
Location: 99 Sejong-daero, Jung-gu.
Price: Adults 1000won, Concessions 500won.
14. Hike in Bukhansan National Park
Hankering after those mountain tops you can see from your Seoul hotel window? The rural expanse of Bukhansan National Park is only a bus ride away, but comprises nearly 80km of forests and challenging inclines, stretching all the way to Gyeonggi-do Province. Most people come to scale the great Baegundae Peak, but you don’t need to be a diehard hiker to walk here: different trails are available depending on whether you want to test your abilities or just take a quick amble. Watch out for snow and ice near the top of the peaks; ice cleats are available to rent and it’s always wise to check the weather and ask for local advice before going.
15. DMZ tour to the North Korean border
Curious about life on the other side of the famous Korean North-South divide? A trip to the demilitarized zone between the two countries won’t exactly illuminate much, but it is a fascinating experience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Unusual sights include the ‘infiltration tunnels’ that were begun by North Korea and discovered in the 1970s and the ‘fake town’ of Kijong-dong, created in the 1950s to project an image of everyday life to any South Koreans who might be willing to move over the border. You’ll need to arrange things with a tour group as visitors aren’t allowed to wander unsupervised here – try Panmunjom Travel Center or TOURDMZ for a range of trips taking in different points of interest.
How to get to Seoul
There are three direct flights a day from London Heathrow to Seoul, although these are rarely the cheapest; Qatar Airways operate affordable stopover connections via Doha, or you can check out alternative routes via Amsterdam or Paris, both of which run direct flights to Seoul.
Most international flights land at Seoul Incheon International Airport, just over 40 minutes away from the city centre by rail.
Start planning your next adventure and compare the cheapest fares to Seoul here:
Where to stay in Seoul
For simple and cheap city breaks, grab a stay at the 3-star M.Biz Hotel, which includes free continental breakfast and a handy location for the subway at Samseong. Luxury travellers can get a little more pampered at the Four Seasons Seoul, a chic 5-star skyscraper with two indoor pools, its own golf course and five restaurants, two of which were created by minimalist Hong Kong designer Andre Fu (rooms from £278).
At the other end of the scale, there are real bargains to be had if you go for a hostel in Seoul – the Neighbors Guesthouse Chungmuro wins points for its friendly owners and seriously cheap dorms (from £9 a night); it sits just north of Namsan Park for easy access to the walking trails.
*Published March 2017. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.
Megan Fox is a journalist and teacher from the Northeastern United States, currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea. She is a blogger and freelance writer, currently writing a blog entitled Seoulmateskorea that is aimed to help expats explore life in Korea. Megan’s love for travel and exploring new cultures has made Korea the 5th country in four continents in which she has worked. Her other interests include cooking, hiking, and volunteering.
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