South Korea, over the last few years, has blown up as a tourist destination. More and more people from across the world are coming to visit the Land of the Morning Calm for a vast multitude of reasons, from food to fashion, K-pop to K-history, and nearly all of those visitors land right in Seoul, the capital of the country. It’s safe to say that Seoul has something for everyone, however, it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start, especially if you’re visiting on limited time. So, I’ve put together a guide to the top 8 spots in Seoul to visit if you want to get a well-rounded taste of what Seoul has to offer.
Get a Taste of Seoul
#1 Gwangjang Market 광장시장
What better way is there to kick off the list than a place where you can get an actual taste of Seoul by sampling some authentic Korean food? Now, Gwangjang Market isn’t only a food market. In fact, you can find most things anyone could need amongst its sprawling stands and stores, but its famous Food Street is where you want to go to try some freshly-cooked Korean food. Popular eats here include jeon (Korean pancakes and other battered and fried foods), mandu (dumplings, particularly of the steamed variety), tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), and kimbap (seaweed and rice rolls, usually filled with vegetables and imitation crab meat).
Hannah’s recommendation: Sit at one of the food stalls and eat modeum jeon (a mixed selection of Korean pancakes), before gawking at the people eating sannakji (‘live’ octopus), and shopping for souvenirs.
How to get there: Take the subway to Jongro 5-ga (Line 1), exit 8, or Euljiro 4-ga (Line 2, 5), exit 4.
88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul / 서울특별시 종로구 창경궁로 88 (예지동)
When to go: Food Street is open every day until around 23:00. All other stores are open 10:00-18:00~19:00, closed on Sundays.
#2 Myeongdong 명동
Second on the list, and equally as bustling as the market, is Myeongdong: Seoul’s number 1 spot for tourist shopping. Located slap-bang in the centre of the city and only a few stops away from Seoul Station, Myeongdong is a highly concentrated shopping district famous for its large number of skincare and cosmetics stores, its underground shopping centres, and its ever-popular street food stands. It also houses both a Lotte Department Store and a Shinsegae Department Store for more luxury shopping options. With its streets busy with shoppers, stationary hawkers, and neon signs, Myeongdong can be a little overwhelming at times, but its the place to be if you want to get a bargain on face masks and wash it down with a tornado potato and some garlic shrimp.
Hannah’s recommendation: Go at night time! The cacophony of lights and signs really comes into its own. Enjoy the busyness of the area with a goat’s milk ice cream served in a waffle cone with fresh honeycomb and matcha powder.
How to get there: Take the subway to Myeongdong (Line 4), exit 5 & 6.
24-1 Chungmuro 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul / 서울특별시 중구 충무로1가 24-1
When to go: Most shops open around 10:00~11:00, and close around 22:00. The street food stalls tend to start opening in the early evening.
#3 Gangnam District 강남
From one set of bright lights to another, Gangnam is one of the chicest places in Seoul and a must-visit to experience the sleek high-rise surroundings and luxury lifestyle that the district is famous for. Leave the subway station at exit 10 or 11 and you will find all the bars, restaurants and shops that are most commonly frequented, but head further back from the main road and there you’ll find all the best cafés, restaurants and beautiful homes that the upper percentile inhabit. It can be a bit of a maze, but it’s fun to play “spot the fancy car”.
Hannah’s recommendation: Gangnam is famous for its nightlife, so it’s best experienced in the evening, especially if you want to get the full effect of the high-rise buildings and bustling crowds. Get samgyeopsal BBQ (pork belly) out of the station exit 10 and then splash out on an extremely overpriced cocktail at one of the district’s rooftop bars.
How to get there: Take the subway to Gangnam (Line 2, Shin-Bundang line), exit 10 & 11.
When to go: Most shops will open around 10:00, and close around 22:00. Underground shopping stores will close earlier. Restaurants, bars and clubs are open through the night.
#4 Hongdae 홍대
Arguably the most famous university area of Seoul, Hongdae is the rat-run of a neighbourhood surrounding Hongik Arts University which gives the area its name. Understandably, it’s an area filled with students and other artsy types, and is a very popular spot to go shopping for street-style and alternative fashion, as well as watching the famed buskers on the main Hongdae street. This isn’t only relegated to daylight hours however, as Hongdae is one of the most popular spots for nightlife in the city, offering everything from pubs to clubs (for people of all orientations), retro vinyl bars, reggaeton clubs, underground live rock music clubs, shisha bars and even a Beatles pub playing only Beatles music, if that’s your thing. Hongdae is also where you’ll find a whole host of independent and boutique shopping spots and unique cafes, the vast majority of which are open until late at night, so if drinking isn’t your thing, then a retail-therapy nightcap is certainly possible.
Hannah’s recommendation: Leave at Exit 9 of Hongik University station and walk along the main Hongdae street to see the dancers doing their thing. Stop by New Mapo Galmaegi for cheap but delicious Korean BBQ with a delicious eggy added extra that you won’t find anywhere else, then go for a walk along the formerly-named Parking Lot Street (the main pedestrian street opposite the main Hongdae Street) and see what the shops have to offer you! If you go at nighttime, head up to the Hongdae Playground to soak in the (boozy) atmosphere, then head for the backstreets opposite the university entrance to find all the little cafés and bars that epitomise the area.
How to get there: Take the subway to Hongik University (Line 2, Gyeongui-Jungang line, Airport Railroad), exit 8 & 9.
When to go: Most shops and cafés open around 10:00 or 11:00, restaurants around lunchtime, and bars will open in the early evening. Weekday daytime will be calm, but evenings and weekends will see heavy crowds.
#5 Bongeunsa 봉은사
As Korea’s previously reigning religion, Buddhism plays an important role in many people’s lives here. There are several temples in Seoul, but one of the most beautiful is Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple of the Jogye order, built in the year 794, that now sits directly opposite COEX Mall in the busy district of Gangnam. Its complex comprises 11 buildings and pavilions, as well as a large plaza containing the Great Statue of Maitreya Buddha which, at 23 metres high, is the tallest stone statue in South Korea. Bongeunsa is the perfect escape from the buzz of glitzy Gangnam, and it’s fascinating to see the contrast between the traditional buildings and skyscrapers behind.
Hannah’s recommendation: The best time to visit Bongeunsa is at sunset. Every morning and evening, at the jongru (bell pavilion), you can see monks playing four traditional sound instruments before they hold ceremonies for saving all beings. After the ceremony, walk up the stairs directly opposite the jongru to see the Mireuk Daebul (the Great Statue of Maitreya Buddha) and the beautiful statues surrounding it. At night, the whole plaza is lit up with white lights, which makes for a stunning sight.
How to get there: Take the subway to Bongeunsa (Line 9), exit 1 and walk straight ahead. The temple entrance is on the right.
When to go: Bongeunsa is open at all hours, all year round.
#6 Namsan 남산
From most parts of central Seoul, as well as neighbourhoods further afield, it’s a place you can see nearly always. Namsan, meaning South Mountain, is slap-bang in the centre of the city, and offers one of the best opportunities to view Seoul from above. As well as its breathtaking views, available from both the multitude of viewing points and the famous N Seoul Tower that it houses, Namsan offers various hiking trails, a mountain park, and a traditional hanok village where visitors can experience Korean cultural and historical activities, particularly around public holidays and days of cultural importance.
Hannah’s recommendation: Take the cable car up to the top of the mountain for an easy ride with stunning views, or, if you’re feeling up for it, walk up the paved and stairway-ed hiking trail to take in the gorgeous surroundings. Spend a while at the top – make sure you see the city from all sides! – and check out all the love locks left by couples, friends and families alike. Then, take a walk down the mountain through Namsan Park, stopping in the Gyungridan neighbourhood at the bottom for a well-deserved drink. An afternoon at the top of Namsan is gorgeous in all seasons, so don’t let the cold or heat stop you.
How to get there: For the hiking trail – Take the subway to Myeongdong (Line 4), exit 3. Follow the signs on the road for Namsan. Alternatively, take bus TOUR02 to Myeongdong Cable Car and walk up the hill until you see the trail entrance.
For the cable car – Take bus TOUR02 to Myeongdong Cable Car. Walk a little down the road to the Cable Car ticket booth and station. Find ticket pricing and other information here.
When to go: N Seoul Tower opens at 10:00 every day and closes at 23:00 every day except Saturday, when it closes at midnight. The cable car runs from 10:00 – 23:00 every day.
#7 Changdeokgung 창덕궁
Look in any Seoul guide book and you’ll see that Gyeongbokgung is top of the list of palaces to visit, but top of our list is Changdeokgung. It’s the secondary royal palace and was popular among kings as a place to rest and find peace. Unlike other palaces, it was left nearly untouched by the Japanese during their occupation, with the exception of accidental fires (when it was rebuilt with parts from Gyeongbokgung), and so it’s nearly all from times past, albeit various different times. It also houses the beautiful Huwon, also known as the Secret Garden; a 78-acre area of nature enjoyed by royal families for hundreds of years as a place to relax and entertain guests. The whole complex is a UNESCO World Heritage sight, recognised as such in 1997, and shows the true beauty of Korea’s historical architecture and nature right in the heart of the city.
Hannah’s recommendation: Spend some time walking through the palace buildings – don’t miss Seonjeongjeon hall, the only palace structure existing today that has the original blue-glazed roof tiles. Book yourself onto a tour of the Huwon (the only way to access the garden), listen to the history of the place, and don’t leave right away at the end. They’ll let you wander around by yourself for a little while, so take advantage of that and visit the little nooks and crannies that the tour doesn’t cover.
How to get there: Take the subway to Anguk station (Line 3), exit 3. Walk straight for 5 minutes and the palace entrance is on your left.
When to go: The palace is open 9:00 – 18:00 (Mar-May, Sep, Oct), 09:00 – 18:30 (Jun-Aug), 09:00 – 17:50 (Nov-Jan), with last admission 1 hour before closing. Admission fee is 3,000W for the palace, and an adul ticket for the Huwon tour is 8,000W. Find ticket pricing and other info here.
#8 Ikseondong 익선동
One of the top things to do when visiting Seoul is taking a wander through one of the many hanok villages. One of the most popular these days is the Ikseondong Hanok Village, a concentrated maze of traditional Korean houses that have been converted into boutique shops, cafés and restaurants. Here, right in the heart of Seoul and Jongno district – one of the oldest districts in the city – you can experience the more sophisticated and quaint side of Seoul’s café culture, as well as observing the beautiful old buildings.
Hannah’s recommendation: Take a walk down all the streets of Ikseondong and see what’s on offer. Visit ArtMonster for chicken and pizza, then stop by 동백양과점 (Dongbaekyanggwajeom) for their strawberry soufflé pancakes (quite pricey, but delicious). Beware the queues – this is the ‘it’ location in Seoul right now!
How to get there: Take the subway to Jongno 3-ga (Lines 1, 3, 5), exit 4.
When to go: Most places open around 10:00 and close around 23:00. Weekends are very busy, so queues for café and restaurant tables will be long.