Seoul is a place where South Korea’s rich past fuses together with modern advancements, producing a city where nearly 10 million people live, work, and create. Here are a few suggestions on what to do when you visit this distinguished metropolis.
– Rent Hanbok and get into Palaces for free!
Hanbok is the traditional attire of Korea, still used mostly for ceremonies and festivals. Although the style of dress isn’t common anymore, you can see Hanbok everyday if you visit one of the five Grand Palaces in Seoul. Why? Because people get in free to the palaces if they wear traditional attire. Also, the photos you get from the trip are absolutely amazing!
Not everyone has hanbok just lying around, so luckily there are rental services near all of the palaces. They are will help you put on the outfit and offer hair ornaments for women and different traditional hats for the men. Try to wear nice shoes because if you’re tall like me then it’s likely that the outfit will be a bit short on you and your sneakers will show.
The Five Palaces are: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung.
Hanbok Price – range from 18,000 won – 50,000 won depending on where you go and the quality of what you wear.
Palace Price – around 1,000 – 3,000 won (free with Hanbok)
A note – Some of you may be worried about cultural appropriation, which I understand. What I came to understand was that Koreans are happy to see their culture being appreciated and shared with foreigners. They encourage you to wear Hanbok (and will 100% ask you to take pictures with them – I counted 8 times I was asked for the day), will be delighted if you can handle their spicy traditional food, and will love your interest in learning more about their culture. Still worried? Ask a native Korean their thoughts on the matter, as I did before I tried on Hanbok. I promise you that you’ll hear the same.
– Go to a Jimjilbang
This is an experience unique to Korea, a multi-level sauna complete with beds, TVs, karaoke rooms, meeting rooms, cafeterias, hair salons (in some cases), and of course the baths and steam rooms. This should 100% be on any travelers list and can even be a place where you spend a night or two!
Cost: 7,000 – 20,000 won (usually)
To learn more:
– Explore Hongdae
Hongdae is the “trendy” area of Seoul, most popular amongst younger crowds and students due to its close proximity to Hongik University (for which the area is named after). It plays an important part in popular culture, as it has been used as a filming site for many movies and television dramas (any Kdrama fans in the house?) – most recently it was home to the “Blackpink House.” Speaking of Blackpink (a kpop girl group), kpop fans will probably remember this area most as the place where YG Entertainment has its headquarters.
Another stand out feature of this area is its indie culture and busking. Buskers are street performers and Hongdae is probably best known recently for dance performances. If you see a huge crowd gathered in the middle of a pedestrian street, that’s what they’re watching. Some of these crews actually make it into the entertainment agency, as is the case for rookie boy group A.C.E.
Tip! – I recommend just walking along the streets. You’ll see signs for cheap eats, skin care and makeup stores, cute animals cafes, trendy bars, street food, and crazy clubs – most famously, NB1 and NB2, clubs owned by YG himself. It’s a condensed piece of modern Korea, seen through the eyes of the younger generation.
– Eat Korean BBQ
Korean BBQ is one of the best things to eat in the world. Clearly I’m biased, but seriously you have to try it! There are hundreds of little stores in Seoul but the cheaper ones are around the college areas like Sinchon and Hongdae. It’s a meat lovers paradise, but they also have veggie options!
For more information about Korean BBQ:
– Shop in Myeongdong
This is one of Seoul’s most commercial and touristy areas for a good reason, as it is by far one of the best shopping areas you’ll ever encounter. It was actually named as one of the most expensive shopping areas in the world, but this shouldn’t detour you. There are many cheaper options alongside expensive neighbors and the area has great street food at night.
Tip! – For those looking for Kpop memorabilia, there are a couple great shops in this area. I visited two, one was a little hole-in-the-wall with great posters and really cheap deals. The other was the more famous shop in the underground subway shopping center. This is more expensive but has lots of albums, lightsticks, and other little things that are hard for foreign fans to find anywhere else.
– Visit an Animal Cafe
Cafe culture in Korea isn’t just limited to animal cafes, as there are also themed cafes such as Hello Kitty or Charlie Brown, but my favorites were the animals cafes where I got to drink a coffee and hold a dog on my lap, while a raccoon tried to jump on my back.
There are many different types of animal cafes all over Seoul, from cat, to dog, to raccoon, to meerkat, to sheep, and more. Try to get to as many as you can!
Cost: around 11,000 won but it varies
For more information:
– Travel up Mount Namsan
This spot is a favorite for locals and tourists as it has one of the best views of Seoul in the city. Located near Myeongdong’s famous shopping district, you can gain access to the mountain through foot paths and cable cars. It’s a great spot to visit with friends, family, or that special someone.
(Below, a low quality picture of myself and my sister in front of the Tower)
The mountain has a variety of attractions to entice visitors, including the famous Seoul Tower (where you can go up to the observatory), a library, an aquarium, arcades, etc. For those history lovers out there, Mount Namsan has an integral part in history for its role in Seoul’s defense system during the Joseon Period. As such, you can see parts of this historic importance that remain on the mountain, such as portions of the old Fortress Wall and the signal fire.
It also has some famous picture opportunities, namely around the main pavilion, the tower and view at night, and the popular spot for couples – the rail with the “Padlocks of Love”. They sell locks and pens at the store underneath the tower if you want to join in on the love train.
Cost: Cable car – 6,000 won one way and 8,000 round trip, prices are less for children. Tower Observatory – 9,000 won, less for children.
– Be Adventurous with Traditional Korean Foods
I’ve mentioned before how Korean food is sorely underrated, other than KBBQ it barely gets any recognition. Traditional food is composed of mainly rice, meats, and various vegetables (milk wasn’t introduced till after the cuisine had already been developed so those with dairy allergies like me can eat most dishes easily).
There are a few things that you can find in nearly every Korean meal, one is kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), another is banchan (a variety of side dishes, mainly pickled vegetables), and the last is the use of spice, mainly through gochujang (red chili paste), doenjang (fermented soybean paste), and ssamjang (a spicy paste made of a mix of the former two, among other ingredients).
A Few Favorites: bulgogi, tteokbokki, kimchi stew, bibimbap, naengmyeon, and japchae.
– Drink with Locals
(Above, my sister with her first soju, already drunk)
Koreans love to drink and are great at it. They are also usually shy around foreigners at first, but if you drink with them they’re sure to warm up to you! Be adventurous and ask them to play drinking games with you.
The drink of choice for Koreans is soju, which tastes a little bit like watered down vodka. Plain soju is not particularly my favorite, but flavored soju might be my favorite alcohol ever – especially peach and grapefruit! You’ll likely also drink beer with soju and on occasion, rice wine.
Cost: In convenience stores, beer and soju are usually less than 2,000 won each.
– Go Clubbing
South Korea hands down has the best clubbing out of any country I’ve ever been to. It’s not a question of should I go? It’s how many times can I go?
Like everywhere, people who go to clubs sometimes go to try to meet someone. This is true of Korea but to a much less extent than in other countries. In Korea a man (or woman) might try to come up to you but if you aren’t interested you just have to decline them once and they won’t bother you again or be offended. That’s because the clubs are all about dancing. Koreans love to dance and are GOOD at it. They don’t just grind or awkwardly fist pump the air and try to save face, they dance their hearts out and genuinely want you to enjoy the moment with them, language barrier be damned.
(Below, I rarely insert videos but this was of a dance crew that performed in Club Octagon and I had to share it)
Clubbing in Seoul was the first time I was ever able to truly let my guard down and dance without worrying about friends I came with or about someone harassing me. I can easily rank it as one of the most fun memories I have in all my travels.
A note – I will have a full blog post about clubbing in Korea, complete with personal experiences, where to go, and unspoken “rules”. So stay tuned!
– Buy Street Food!
Street food should be a must on any travelers list no matter what country they go to (provided it’s clean), but South Korea has some of the most delicious and random street food you’ll find anywhere. My favorite is tteokbokki!
Street food Hotspots: Myeongdong, Bamdokkaebi Night Market, Tongin Market, Namdaemun Market, Dongdaemun Night Market, and Gwangjang Market.
Learn more below:
– Explore Insadong
This is one of the best places in Seoul to see how ancient traditions can interact and thrive with the present. Now Insadong is an area with one of the biggest centers of trade for traditional items in Korea, but it wasn’t always so. More than 500 years ago Insadong was a residential town for government officials. Its close proximity to two palaces ensured its residents that they were in high standing with the king and gave them an equally high quality of life. When Japan occupied Korea, these affluent residents were told to move. Not able to take their expensive antiques with them, they were forced to sell them on the street – thus a more modern Insadong was born.
As the years passed, the antique shops and traditional tea gardens became surrounded by cafes and vendors. This may seem a shame but instead, the newcomers have added to the unique atmosphere of this place. Art reigns supreme here, and anything that overpowers that is unwelcome and fished out. Due to this, the streets have retained part of their old elegance and fragments of the past live on.
Tip! – Buy souvenirs here, especially handicrafts. They have lots of cute handmade hair accessories, fans, and other treasures.
– Walk around the Bukchon Hanok Village
Looking for a piece of authentic Korea? This is where you’ll find it! This residential neighborhood is composed of Hanok houses, which are the traditional houses of Korea. The entire area is made to appear as it would have 600 years ago (other than for the obvious visual image of cars). Like Insadong, it was originally for high-ranking government officials. However, Bukchon’s area was even more wealthy and important, including nobility and the king’s most trusted. However after occupation and the war, it became a place for commoners too.
Nowadays the area is popular to walk around in and you’ll often see people in Hanbok trying to snap a picture of themselves in a traditional environment with their traditional clothes. You can go inside some of the Hanoks and look around, but the best part is just to walk around the narrow alleyways and envision old-time Korea.
– Eat Korean Fried Chicken
Korean fried chicken is SO DAMN GOOD. When I was in Korea I didn’t understand what it was that made the chicken taste so different from American chicken, but then I looked it up and realize that Korean chicken is fried twice instead of once. You may think this means that the chicken (or chikin in Korea) is greasy, but it is actually less greasy than American chicken.
The chicken in Korea is so much more versatile too, with a huge variety of sauces, pastes, and powders to add to it – the most famous is yangnyeom, which is spicy and seasoned. Be aware it is harder to find boneless chicken in Korea though, Koreans use every part of the chicken so its odd to a lot of people that someone would want to take the bone out.
– Sing at a Norebang
A Norebang is a Korean karaoke room, taken to a whole new level. The rooms are private and are able to fit anyone from solo singers to work parties. The best part is that nobody outside of your room can hear you singing and inside, the music is so loud you can pretend you don’t hear how bad you are (if you’re anything like me).
The gigantic amount of different songs you can pick from is truly baffling, and all song lists are color coded so you can easily find whatever you’re looking for. The room is dark and has bright lights flashing around to add to the mood, many times they’ll have tambourines so you can clap along to the music. You can also bring food and drinks in, (Well at least to most places I went to) and some places will even offer food for a price.
My go to karaoke song? Definitely, Yeah! by Usher.
Cost: 5,000 – 30,000 won, depending on how nice the place is and if you rent by the hour.
These are bonus options because they are more expensive, dependent on times of year, or are not directly in Seoul.
– Go Clubbing in Gangnam
As I mentioned above, clubbing in Korea is amazing, but Gangnam is definitely very expensive and was only a one time thing for me.
A note: As I mentioned above, I will be making a full post about clubbing in Korea at a later date so stay tuned!
– Go to a Kpop concert
Kpop concerts or festivals are a lot of fun, but it can be hard to find an event where your favorite group is performing. Melonticket shows upcoming concerts in Korea but be aware that popular groups will be expensive and seating will be limited.
To Learn More:
– Theme Park Day at Lotte World or Everland
I can’t fully recommend this because I didn’t do a park day. I had originally planned to do it in the end of my trip, but I broke my foot beforehand. Lotte World is the world’s largest indoor theme park and Everland is Korea’s largest theme park, also 16th in the world for yearly attendance. Both were highly recommended to me by native Koreans.
Cost: Lotte World – 55,000 won or less per day Everland – 54,000 won or less per day
– DMZ Day Trip
This is 35 miles away from Seoul so I’m counting it as a bonus trip, because 100% you should visit the DMZ if you have the opportunity. You never know how long it will exist for!
A note – I will have a full blog post about my DMZ experience up soon so stay tuned!