After living an hour outside of Seoul for almost a year now, I’ve figured out some of my favorite spots in Korea’s capital city, and have visited several “must-see” destinations. I seriously love this city and am really happy with the amount of Seoul searching I’ve been able to accomplish.
The folks over at Tripping, an awesome service that connects travelers with people to meet and places to stay all over the world – from “couches to castles” – found my blog! Hooray! I’ve written a guest post on their blog about…that’s right, Seoul! Check out the post, of course, but definitely peruse the rest of their site for all the interesting services they offer to travelers!
In case you’re too lazy to click, (or you simply can’t stay away from bassenyourseatbelt) it’s also posted below.
Seoul is a city that needs no introduction, but I’ll give you one anyway. The ultimate example of a city straddling the old and new in a harmonious balance, South Korea’s capital mega-city will surprise and delight you, and will leave you wanting more. From spicy street foods at Gwangjang Market, to dozens neon-illuminated shopping centers, to tranquil temple complexes in the heart of the hustle and bustle, Seoul has so much to offer. Whether you’re an English- teaching expat living on the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, a backpacking college grad with a thirst for the novel, or a world traveling duo celebrating your 25th year of marriage, every site on this list is a must-see in Seoul. And don’t forget the travelers’ curse: the more you see, the more you want to see! There is always more to do, taste, and experience, in the land of kimchi, K-Pop, and K-risma.
1. Insa-dong. A neighborhood that was inhabited by poets, artists, and liberal thinkers back in the day, this area is now home to a bevy of traditional tea houses, unique shops, winding, cobblestone roads, and dozens of art galleries. Wander the streets, take photos and peek into the artisan shops. You’ll stumble upon the Bukchon Hanok Village, an area perched up on a hill encompassing a small neighborhood of traditional Korean houses, still inhabited by human beings. It’s a nice first-stop for many visitors: not insanely crowded with an emphasis on the traditional – you won’t find any chain stores or restaurants here. The storeowners of Insa-dong are insistent on keeping the area as homegrown and non-commercialized as possible. Return at night for authentic Buddhist “temple food.” I’d recommend well-known Baru-gong-yang (Gyeon-ji-dong 71, Chong-ro-gu, Seoul, 02-2031-2081) where you’ll be treated to delicious vegetarian foods, herbs grown in mountains, and new flavors for everyone. After dinner, sample some tea at a the local teahouse, for which this neighborhood is famed. (Take subway line 3 to Anguk Station)
2. Cheonggyecheon River. A narrow park that slithers its way through the best parts of the city, the Cheonggyecheon River is a beautiful escape from the noise, crowds, and smells of Seoul. Until 2005, the Cheonggyecheon was more like a sewage system than a river, covered by pavement and the concrete jungle. Lee Myung Bak, then mayor of Seoul and South Korea’s current president, took on uncovering the Cheonggyecheon as his signature project, creating an awesome green space for Seoul’s inhabitants and visitors. It reminds me of New York City’s High Line Park - an abandoned elevated train track that is now an elevated park – in myriad ways. Not only do these two parks both posses an overgrown, all-natural aesthetic, but they are both the result of restoring pre-existing urban components into something green and enjoyable for the people. (The Cheonggyecheon stretches 5.2 miles starting at Seoul’s City Hall, and can be accessed at several points throughout the city.)
3. Gyeongbukgong Palace. This palace complex is the biggest in Seoul and definitely the most popular amongst tourists. Adjacent to Insa-dong and the head of the Cheonggyecheon, you’re bound to bump into the palace even if by accident. I’m not going to go into the history of it, because I’d basically just be copying this. Just look at the photos. (Take subway line 3 to Gyeongbokgung.)
4. Myeong-dong. Lights. People. Lights. People. Neon. Neon. Neon. People. This is modern Asia. Myeong-dong is one of Seoul’s (many) major shopping districts, with every imaginable type of store: from high-end designer department stores, to niche boutiques, to discount stalls, to chain stores. Anything you’re looking for can be found in this crowds-at-all-hours neighborhood. And if you’re not looking to shop, window shopping and navigating your way through the crowds, lights, and hagglers is an unforgettable experience in itself! (Take subway lines 1 or 4 to Myeong-dong, exit 6 is best for shopping!)
5. Hongdae. My loyal blog followers know how I feel about Hongdae. It’s my favorite place in Seoul, hands down. Home to the city’s biggest art university, Hongik, the neighborhood reeks of youth and creativity. Kitschy coffee shops, vintage dress stores, handmade leather notebook stands, strange graffiti – the best thing to do in Hongdae is wander, get lost, and find your new favorite café. (There’s a good chance it will have a hilarious theme!) On summer Saturdays, head to the park next to Hongik University for the weekly open-air art fair! You can find amazing handcrafted jewelry, painted sneakers, inexpensive portrait drawings, and more, all brought to you by university students. Hongdae is also known for its energetic nightlife. From dive bars to bumping dance clubs, it’s possible to satisfy your inner wild-child on any night of the week! Try starting off your night at Weolhyang 2 (월향 2호점) (352-23 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Map) a makgeolli bar (Korean rice wine) that offers various types of deliciously flavored makgeolli at reasonable prices. Good prices, and you can sit outside. (Take subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 1. Walk straight, take your first right, and on the opposite side of the street you will see a BBQ meat restaurant—which happens to be delicious!—and to the left of it there is an alleyway. Walk down the alley until your 3rd right, and Weolhyang 2 is just down the street in a big white house!)
6. Gwangjang Market. Supposedly the oldest and biggest market in Seoul, specializing in textiles, a Seoulite friend recommended eating dinner here. It took a little wandering since most of the market was closed for the day, but we finally found the after-work crowd, stuffing their faces with all kinds of Korean street foods. Find a bench, rest your rump and indulge in a cheap yet tasty Korean street food sampler: ddoekbokki (rice cakes with a spicy chili pepper sauce), kimbap (rolls of seaweed with rice, cucumber, spam, radish, carrots, and more), and pajeon (basically a Korean pancake with onion, garlic, and other veggies). Also look out for the make your own bibimbap stalls! (Take subway line 1 to Jongno 5-ga exit 8 or line 2/5 to Euljiro 4-ga exit 4.)
7. Jimjilbang In my year of life in Korea, I have had the pleasure of discovering yet another Korean expertise, the 찜질방 or jimjilbang—the Korean bathhouse or spa. There are tons of jimjilbang throughout Seoul and Korea, and people use them regularly to relax and rejuvenate. Spa culture is an important, engrained Korean tradition, and this becomes evident from the moment you nakedly and nervously tiptoe into the bathhouse for the first time. Usually the spas cost between 8,000 and 12,000 won, and they are typically open 24 hours (you can even spend the night for free!). After finding your locker and undressing, venture into the bathing room where you’ll spend the next few hours soaking in baths of differing temperatures with about 30 other naked Korean ladies (or men if that’s your thing). I highly recommend indulging in a Korean-style scrub, which will cost anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 won. In Seoul, I can personally recommend Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, Itaewon Land in Itaewon, and the brand new Spa at Garden 5 in East Seoul. The internet is your friend—use it!
8. Ladies Only: The Wedding Dress Café As I mentioned before, Seoul boasts hundreds of hilarious theme cafes, including the Princess Diary Cafe, a “wedding dress cafe” where women come to revel in our femininity, sip on milkshakes and lattes, and take thousands of photographs in imaginary bridal bliss. One of the girliest experiences you’ll have for a while, or perhaps ever, choose a wedding dress from a massive wardrobe of options and the ladies in the store adjust and pin it up for you. There are awesome accessories to pair with your bridal gown, like pirate hats and bunny ears, along with a selection of heels to choose from. To try on the gowns, it costs between 10,000-30,000 won, depending on the gown. You are also required to order a beverage, and there was a nice selection of coffees, teas, and smoothies. (Take subway line 2 to Ehwa Women’s University, exit 3. Walk down to the little street just before the Starbucks and turn in and look up to your right – you’ll see the sign on a close-by building.)
9. Namsan Tower/N. Seoul Tower at Night. Resting at the top of a Namsan Mountain in the heart of Seoul, this tower is visible from most of the city on a clear day. While a daytime hike to the tower can be charming, I’d recommend heading to the tower at night for a truly magnificent view of darkened Seoul, lit up in all its glory! (Take subway line 4 to Myeongdong exit 3, use the road to the right of the Pacific Hotel and walk 10 minutes to the Namsan cable car.)
10. The DMZ. Before heading to Seoul, when you told your friends you were traveling to Korea, did anyone say: which one, North or South Korea? Well, now you can tell your…uh…misinformed friends that you actually had the chance to take a look at North Korea, up close at personal, at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Many tour groups run trips to the DMZ, and one full day-trip will cost about USD$96. This is a HIGHLY recommended, unique experience that most visitors to Korea rave about. I would recommend going with the USO-led tour, whose awesome tour guides will show you several sites around the DMZ. Be sure to book at least a month in advance.