This is the first of our guides series, where we hope to give you information that you can’t find in any of the guide-books. We are sourcing locals to give you the best advice on cities and towns. If you think that you know your city or town better than anyone and would like to be a part of this guide series, get in contact with us.
Amanda is an American currently living in Seoul, teaching writing to elementary ESL students, and planning her long term, post-teaching contract trip. She blogs about travel, food, elephants, a love of Italy, and life in Korea over at her blog, Farsickness.
What are the highlights of things to do in Seoul?
Seoul is an exciting place to be right now. Korea has made its way from war-torn country to world economic power in the past half century. Seoul, the country’s mega capital, is teeming with wonderful places to see, food to eat, and culture to enjoy. Cooking up crackling meat at your table, singing your heart out in a private karaoke room, visiting the most heavily armed border in the world, and sipping on green tea lattes in a hip café are just some of the fabulous things to do in Seoul.
Where is the best place to stay in Seoul?
Looking for budget accommodation in Seoul? Try Kimchi Hostel in Hongdae. This property is new, clean, and located in one of the most popular nightlife districts. A dorm bed will run you about $15 per night and a private room is $35 per night
If you would like something even less expensive, try a Jjimjilbang. These traditional Korean spas will let you stay the night on the floor in a communal room for $5-$10. Upon check in, you will receive a uniform and sleeping mat, and also have access to saunas and baths. These can easily be found all over the city but Dragon Hill, near Yongsan Station, is especially popular with foreign visitors.
Mid to Luxe Accommodation
On the other end of the spectrum, for accommodation that is little more high-end, the W Walker Hill shouldn’t be passed up. This modern, chic hotel located on the Han River near the affluent Gangnam district boasts some of the best views in the city. The rooms are spacious and contemporary and the restaurants on the property are superb. Rooms run anywhere from $250-$500+ a night but are well worth the money.
How do you get around?
The subway is the best way to get around Seoul. It is cheap, around $1 a ride on average, and easy. Everything is clearly marked in English and directions to important sights and restaurants are all given using exit numbers. There’s nowhere you’d want to go in Seoul that the subway doesn’t serve.
Best places to eat & drink
Korea is famous for its barbecue and one of the best places to grill up some meat is Mapo Galbi. Galbi, meaning rib in Korean, is the most popular barbecue dish. Beef or pork short ribs are marinated in a soy sauce based concoction and then grilled at your table. In addition to the meat you will be served a variety of side dishes (with free refills) including the ever-present kimchi. Galbi goes best with soju, so don’t forget to order a bottle or two!
Gwangjang Market, the oldest covered market in Korea, is a wonderful place to find a variety of traditional Korean food including bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and spicy gochujang sauce), mandu (dumplings traditionally filled with pork or kimchi), sundae (blood sausage), and jeon (savory pancakes). My favorites are the bibimbap and mung bean pancakes. When I stop in, I find the vendor with the longest line and head there first. Everything there is cheap, but delicious, and you can try out a variety of Korean eats.
For a traditional Korean drink try makgeolli, a fermented rice drink, at Taste of the Moon in Hongdae. Here you can sample different types of makgeolli from all over Korea as well as makgeolli blended with different types of fruit. My favorites are the kiwi makgeolli and the pumpkin makgeolli.
Another great place in Hongdae is Strange Fruit. This tiny place has a dive bar feeling and is popular with expats, travelers, and locals alike. On the weekend they often have live music. This is a great place to stop by, chill out, and have a few beers.
Where are the best places to shop?
Myeongdong is THE place to shop in Seoul. Here you can find big named Western chains alongside smaller Korean chains and higher end boutiques. Vendors selling everything from knockoff bags and tights in crazy patterns to hot dogs covered in french fries and spiraled potatoes on sticks line the middle of the streets. It’s always crowded in Myeongdong, but you’ll never leave empty-handed.
My favorite place to shop is Hongdae, the area around Hongik University, Korea’s most prestigious art school. This funky area is filled with tiny shops that range from high to low-end and feature mostly clothes made in Korea. Most of the cities vintage shops are located in Hongdae as well. On Saturday and Sunday artists fill the playground in front of the university selling clothes, art, furniture, and much more during the Hongdae Free and Hope markets.
Activities or tours you shouldn’t miss
There are many things to do in Seoul but you definitely shouldn’t miss a trip to the DMZ. Located about 50 kilometers from Seoul this border with North Korea is considered to be the most heavily armed in the world. On the tour you will learn about important historical events and even have the chance to step onto North Korean soil.
For a view of the entire city check out Namsan Tower. This space needle like building is located on Namsan Mountain in the middle of the city. Visitors can hike the (small) mountain or take a cable car to the entrance. Once your inside signs will point out important landmarks in the city. Try to visit around dusk so you have the chance to see the city both during the day and lit up at night.
Korea has a rich history that is best explored with a visit to Gyeongbokgung, the largest of the city’s five grand palaces. The complex is made up of numerous buildings with a typically Korean design as well as a beautiful back garden secluded from the crazy hustle and bustle of Seoul.
After a long day of sightseeing, or long night of drinking, find yourself a Noraebang. Literally meaning “song room” these establishments rent out private karaoke rooms by the hour. Each room contains a book with thousands of songs, from classics to the newest hits, tambourines, and flashing lights. There’s a noraebang on just about every street (a testament to their popularity) and it is an essential Korean experience.
Best kept secrets
While most tourists head to Insadong for tea houses and Korean souvenirs, locals instead flock to the nearby Samcheong-dong. Tree lined streets, coffee houses, art galleries, tiny museums, and boutique shops are all in abundance in this neighborhood. If you want overpriced, cheap trinkets go to Insadong. If you want traditional culture combined with a hip modernity, try Samcheong-dong.
Another great neighborhood is Haebongchon. Located near the popular foreigner neighborhood of Itaewon, HBC, as it’s often known, is a trendy expat neighborhood filled with great restaurants. Al Matto has what is arguably the best pizza in town and nearby Jacoby’s serves up enormous, customizable burgers. In the spring, HBC hosts a large music festival and block party that shouldn’t be missed.
Do you have other tips on Seoul? Add yours in the comments below.