Located on the Han River in South Korea, the capital of Seoul is the most populated city in the country, with over half of all South Koreans living there, along with a huge number of international residents. With all of these residents, Seoul may not be a go-to holiday destination for those seeking serene relaxation, but stepping into this vibrant city and soaking up its rich history is guaranteed to be an experience like no other. Considered a world leader in culture, technology, and finance, to step into Seoul is to step into the beating heart of East Asia.
This fascinating city supplies the complete package for anyone seeking a city break with an abundance of unique wonders and culture that stretches back more than two thousand years. From block after block of food vendors and markets to electric nightlife districts, and scenic mountain trails, Seoul provides a diverse range of sights and sounds around every turn. This diversity is further emphasized within the contrasting architecture on display; from Buddhist temples, to row after row of gray apartment buildings, Seoul is an absorbing blend of old and new.
If you consider yourself an inner-city wanderluster, then Seoul should be at the top of your dream bucket list. And to make your trip as unforgettable as possible, please take a look at our top recommendations for what to see and do while you’re there. Make sure to note down your favorite places in your BUCKiTDREAM planner.
Shop ’Til You Drop One of the most frequent first stops for young people and tourists in Seoul is Dongdaemun Market. This market is the largest shopping district in the city, containing everything from massive department stores, to small chic shops and independent stalls, many of which are open 24/7. A perfect place to pick up a traditional souvenir.
Witness a Dynasty To immerse yourself within Seoul’s ancient history, there’s no better place to start than Gyeongbok-Gung Palace. This is the grandest of the five major palaces within the city, first used by the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Palace and Korean Folk Museums are also contained within the expansive grounds to help uncover the enthralling history.
A View From Above Heading to the top of the N Seoul Tower and looking out from the observatory provides panoramic views of the city itself, as well as the surrounding areas. Furthermore, you can enjoy these breathtaking views while eating at N Grill, a western-style revolving restaurant.
It’s Tradition If Dongdaemun doesn’t quench your shopping thirst, then your next stop should be the largest traditional street market in Korea: Namdaemun Market. It’s here where you’ll find a wealth of goods, ranging from a digital camera to clothing, accessories, and food, all sold at affordable prices.
A Peaceful Journey If at any point the hustle and bustle of the city get too much for you then taking a walk along the Seoul City Wall is the ideal remedy. These walks come in all shapes and sizes; from the ease and relaxation that comes with the Heunginjimun Gate trail, to the more physically demanding Baegak Mountain trail.
The Epicenter of Design The most iconic landmark of the Korean design industry is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. This plaza – designed by a world renowned architect, and one of the New York Times’ “Top 25 Places to Visit in 2015” – is comprised of five halls, each an architectural masterpiece. If you’re in town for a trade show, exhibition, concert or fashion show, this is where you’ll be.
A Sight for Hungry Eyes Close to Dongdaemun Market you’ll find Gwangjang Market, Korea’s oldest remaining daily market. Not only is this a great place to pick up clothing, but it also boasts the claim to fame of being the largest food alley in the city. A sensory overload for sure, but your stomach will certainly thank you.
The Traditional Atmosphere Venturing slightly north out of the crowded metropolitan area, you’ll come across Bukchon Hanok Village. With ‘hanok’ being stunning traditional houses, it’s not hard to imagine what you’ll find here. You can also take a walking tour around the village which will reveal several restaurants and tea houses, providing visitors a chance to learn about Korean culture.
High-end The luxurious Grand Hyatt Hotel sits on Mount Namsan, within the heart of Seoul. Surrounded by acres of gardens and waterfalls, this five-star hotel is a sight in and of itself. As well as boasting recreational activities such as swimming, tennis, and ice skating, the Grand Hyatt is also mere minutes away from the Itaewon shopping district.
Mid-level While not exactly a looker from the outside, the Hamilton Hotel provides spacious rooms in an excellent location. It is also based within close proximity to many popular eateries, as well as coming fully equipped with a gym, sauna, and even a seasonal rooftop pool.
Budget Seoul is a dream for backpackers, with its two unofficial hostel districts that cater specifically for them: Jongno and Hongdae. However, if it’s a hotel with a reasonable price you’re looking for, then Hotel Prince is a stellar choice, as it’s close to Myeong-Dong shopping district as well as the metro line.
Social life revolves around food in Seoul – something which soon becomes clear when laying eyes upon the countless outdoor vendors and restaurants which line the streets. Along with Korean food, Seoul also has exceptional Japanese delicacies. From the myriad street stalls, to the 24hr fast food restaurants and late-night Korean BBQ, there’s always somewhere to get a bite to eat.
For those craving some home-grown goodness, Richard Copycat’s All-American Diner is the only place in Seoul which sells US food. But when it comes to traditional cuisine, Everest and Jacoby’s are two of the finest eating establishments in the city. Or for something a little more high-end, head to Hanwoori for their specialist dish of shabu shabu.
Drinks and Nightlife
For travelers who enjoy a drink or two, Seoul has you covered. Across the board, drinks come cheaper than in most other metropolitan cities, fueling the fact that Koreans are known to be some of the heaviest drinkers in the world. Step inside the district of Hongdae to find the clubbing hotspot of Seoul, as well as being the prevalent scene for indie and underground arts.
If you’re in the mood for Gangnam-style bars, high-brow establishments such as Alice, or a more low-key beer pub such as Craft One, Seoul has it all. Being the home of K-pop, the karaoke scene in Seoul is also especially vibrant. Or if it’s a quieter night out you had in mind, then consider taking a night cruise on the Hangang River Ferry to see the lights of the city shine across the water.
Tips and Culture
Seoul can be a rather hectic place, so getting bumped into on the street or on the subway is commonplace, but try not to get offended – it’s a way of life here, and not meant to come across intentionally impolite. And speaking of the subway, the Seoul Metro will be your best friend while traveling from place to place. This subway system is the third largest in the world and provides connections to anywhere you’ll want to go during your stay. Picking up an M-card (exclusively for international visitors) and topping it up with T-money at any convenience store is the easiest way to pay for any public transport.
Most Seoul natives don’t speak English, but they’re accepting and accommodating of visitors. We’d recommend visiting a Hanbok café where you can experience the culture by dressing in traditional clothes, drinking tea, and even taking photos to remember your time there – just remember that in South Korea bars and restaurants, you always pay at the counter.
The highlight of your trip, and undoubtedly Seoul’s must-see attraction is Mount Bukhansan National Park. Covering over 30 square miles, and reaching a peak of 2,744 feet, this is the most spectacular way to look over almost every one of Seoul’s multitude of districts. Hiking to the top of any one of the three major peaks isn’t for the faint of heart, but is a surefire method to take your breath away.
And the national park isn’t just for climbing enthusiasts. If scaling the edge of a cliff isn’t your thing, then walking through and discovering the lush forests, valleys, rivers, and temples around the park is an equally rewarding and magical adventure. Mount Bukhansan shows a truly remarkable side of Seoul – one that you’ll never forget.
Seoul should absolutely be near the top of your bucket list destinations. So, start on those plans in your BUCKiTDREAM planner, and don’t forget to share your experience on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.