Seoul, the city that touches my soul. I have finally decided to come up with my list of things to do in the capital city of South Korea — after putting it off every time I visit because it never seemed complete (it will never be complete, really, but I’ve decided to share all my experiences anyway). I’ve visited Seoul in winter and in autumn, and my recent visit was in the height of summer — where I spent a couple of weeks in the country learning the language (you can read about my experience here). To me, the city is beautiful in every season, and every season evokes a different feeling to the places I visited. I can never get enough of this vibrant metropolis; and I leave a piece of my soul every time I leave.
I have traveled to Seoul in many different ways — I’ve followed a tour, I’ve visited with family, I’ve toured with a group of friends, I’ve explored the city solo, and I even had the rare opportunity to actually live in the city for a little while. But of course, as a traveler, I have really only skimmed the surface of this city. That being said, after all my visits thus far, I’ve compiled this list as a collection of my absolute must-do’s in Seoul. A little sharing on my part of a city that has always intrigued me, and one that I have come to love — and I hope, you will too.
1. Step into the Beautiful Palaces
There are four main royal palaces situated in Seoul — the first and largest palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace; the UNESCO World Heritage Changdeokgung Palace; the royal family residence, Changgyeonggung Palace; and the palace of the last king of Joseon, Deoksugung Palace. All palaces are equally beautiful, and it really is hard to choose which palace to visit when in Seoul. During my few visits to the city, I only visited 2 of the 4 — Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace.
The first palace I visited in Seoul was Gyeongbokgung Palace. The grand palace was first built in 1395, but was abandoned (for 270 years) after it was ravaged by fire during the war in the late 16th century. It was rebuilt and destroyed again in the Japanese war — and the palace standing today is a recent reconstruction in the late 20th century. Gyeongbokgung Palace is huge and majestic, but I was more impressed with Changdeokgung Palace. Built in 1405, this charming palace is surrounded by nature, wide open spaces, and the most beautiful garden. I visited in the fall, and an additional fee gave me entry into the Secret Garden (Huwon), which was absolutely gorgeous with the colors of autumn.
2. Walk Around an Ancient Joseon Village
I absolutely loved walking around the Bukchon Hanok Village. This approximately 600-year old Korean traditional village is located on a hill between the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and the Jongmyo Shrine — and is filled with hanoks (old Korean traditional houses) and narrow alleyways going up down the hill. Many of these old hanoks have now been turned into restaurants, shops, cultural centers, guesthouses and coffee and tea cafes.
I picked up a map of the Bukchon Hanok Village upon arrival — and it marks several photo stops (and notable landmarks) around the village. These main places are filled with throngs of tourists, but there are many other pretty spots around the area that are quiet and crowd-free. During my visit, I found a lovely cafe that serves yummy cheese shakes; got lost along the many lanes; and peeked into some of the cultural centers to see people trying their hands on tie-dying, drinking tea, and wearing traditional hanboks (Korean dresses). I even found a little viewing spot on the third floor of building run by an old halmeoni (granny), and it had the most lovely view of a sea of hanok rooftops, and Seoul city in the distance.
3. Visit the Iconic Tower of Seoul
The Namsan Seoul Tower may not be the tallest tower in Seoul (that title goes to the Lotte World Tower opened in 2017); but it is the first, and definitely most iconic tower in the city. Located on the top of Namsan Mountain, it is 480m above sea level, and stands at 237m tall — and was first built as a broadcast tower in 1969. Now the tower also serves as a tourist center with not only fantastic views of the city — there are restaurants and cafes, the Ssentoy Museum, Hello Kitty Island, as well as the Namsan Park nearby.
To get to the tower, car access is restricted — but you can either take the public bus, walk, or ride the cable car. I took the cable car at a return fare of KR₩8,500 (~US$8.5) in the evening, so I could catch the sunset; and enjoy day and night views of Seoul. One of the main attractions at the base of the tower are the collection of thousands of love locks on the grills — and I bought a lock and left a message too. The views from here are gorgeous as well, but I paid the KR₩10,000 (~US$10) fee to get to the top of the tower (buy it online for cheaper here). From the top, I got to enjoy 360 degree views of Seoul — and sent a postcard home from up high.
4. Chill by the River and Streams
I have to say there is nothing like watching the sunset at the end of the day along Seoul’s Han River — against a silhouette of the city’s gorgeous skyline. Running through Seoul and separating the city into two, the river is dotted by many riverside parks that are great to chill, relax and have a picnic. There are also many activities to do along the river like boat cruises, cycling, and water-sports. The many bridges are tourist attractions too — during my visit, I stopped by the Banpo Bridge to watch the rainbow fountain that comes on several times a day, with LED lights and music accompaniment. Nothing especially spectacular, but it did make a good spot to watch the sunset.
Another famous water feature in Seoul is the historic Cheonggyecheon Stream. This 11km long stream has been around for a long time in the country’s history — being covered by a highway at one point, and then restored in 2003. Now, it is one of the city’s popular tourist spots, a natural beauty running beneath 22 bridges along the bustling metropolis.
5. Shop the Streets, Markets and Malls
When in Seoul, shop! There are just so many places in the city for retail therapy — from markets, to shopping streets and huge department stores. Namdaemun Market is Korea’s largest traditional wholesale market, selling a myriad of goods from clothes, accessories and toys, to kitchenware, sports equipment, and herbs. Opened in 1964, it stays open till 4am. If you’re looking for clothing and fashion, then Dongdaemun Market is the place to go. Also open till 5am, it specializes in wholesale clothes at its many retail outlets and has expanded to include shopping malls and department stores. Head to Insadong if you’re shopping for the more cultural and artsy stuff (including art galleries); and for a more up-class shopping experience, there are the gigantic department stores like Shinsegae, Lotte and Hyundai.
My favourite place to shop in Seoul is the shopping street of Myeongdong. Heck, it’s my favourite place to pass the time in the whole city! There are just so many things to do in Myeongdong — it is filled with retail stores and international brand outlets, as well as various dining options like dessert shops, cafes, international cuisines, Korean specialties and fast food chains. My favorite part of Myeongdong though, is the street food! Lining the streets between the shops are small food vendors selling everything delicious. And I mean, everything!
6. Revel in the Night and Party Scene
The capital city of South Korea never seems to sleep. Seoul has one of the most active and dynamic nightlife; and there is never a shortage of clubs, pubs and restaurants that open way into the early morning. During my recent experience living in the city, I usually start my night out with a delicious Korean meal (usually Korean BBQ) with soju and beer; and then continue the fun at a noraebang (karaoke) to sing my heart out; and finishing off the night with a visit to either a club (if I still feel like dancing) or a sul jib (beer house) for a few more rounds of drinks.
I was living in the Gangnam area, which is a pretty popular night spot — so I spent many a night with my friends singing at the noraebangs, our favourite hangout activity. I also spent some nights visiting other party areas like the university area of Hongdae, and the clubbing mecca of Itaewon. I have to say that these areas are great places to people watch too!
7. Learn the History of the Nation
On my first few visits to Seoul, I did not have enough time to visit the museums in the city. On my recent trip however, I made it a point to learn some of the history of the nation (cause I had a lot of extra time on my hands, and also cause museums are great places to visit when it rains). I do love museums, and I can spend hours on end just walking around and browsing through the many, many historical galleries.
My visit to the War Memorial of Korea was extremely educational — and I was really intrigued by the long and turbulent history of this nation, especially the Korean War (and the peninsula’s relations with North Korea). I also made a trip to see the National Museum of Korea, which is the largest museum in the country, and took me almost 3 hours to see! The museum covers everything from Korea’s prehistory and ancient history to the wars and its modern history — and it was just fascinating learning about some of the ‘real’ historical facts I have seen in all the K-dramas I love. Entry to the museums are free, with a small fee for special exhibitions.
8. Watch the Korean Shows and Performances
I was pleasantly surprised when I went to watch a Korean theater performance in Seoul — Nanta. The entire show is set in a Korean kitchen, and the actors use kitchen utensils as musical instruments; as well as action comedy, singing, beat-boxing, martial arts and acrobatics to bring their story (about preparing a royal banquet) to life. It was absolutely hilarious, captivating and unique. Get tickets here. Other than Nanta, there are many other such performances all over the city — Jump, Bibap, Fanta-stick, and the Painters: Hero, just to name a few. They are great opportunities to immerse in the Korean culture, even if you don’t understand the language — because well, they don’t really speak much at all!
Some of these Korean theater performances are so popular that they occasionally have worldwide tours. I managed to catch Bibap when they came over to perform in Malaysia — not once, but twice! Bibap is also set in the kitchen, where two rival chefs battle it out at a bibimbap cook-off. It includes singing, dancing and comedy — and incorporates audience participation by asking someone to name the winner. These shows and performances are extremely entertaining, so don’t miss the chance to watch it when in Seoul.
9. Enjoy Korean Cuisine and Street Food
Oh, Korean food. I absolutely love Korean food. Korean BBQ, bibimbap (mixed rice), kimbap (seaweed rice like sushi), bulgogi (grilled beef), dakgalbi (stir-fried chicken), samgyetang (ginseng soup), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), gamjatang (pork potato stew), kimchi jiggae (kimchi stew), jokbal (pig’s feet) — these are some of my favorites and its hard to choose which ones I love more. So whenever I’m in Seoul, I look for all of these dishes to make sure I try it once before I leave the country!
And don’t miss out on the Korean street food. I think the most exciting street food place in Seoul has got to be Myeongdong. This walking street is always packed with people and food stalls; and they serve everything from steaks, scallops and escargots, to egg buns, fish cakes and dumplings. Prepare your change — most food items cost about KR₩2K-5K (~US$2-5). Gwangjang Market is also great place to go for a Korean food experience. It is the first permanent market in Seoul and the ground floor is packed with food stalls serving authentic Korean food like pork trotters, pig’s blood and chicken feet (among other more normal food). Yup, if you’re up for an adventure — find a seat in front of one of the stalls and just order away (they have English menus). These are some of my favorite food, so that’s what I did!
10. Take Day Trips Outside the City
Just staying in the city centre of Seoul can keep you occupied for a long, long time; but don’t miss the opportunity to take some day trips out of the city. If you’re only visiting the capital city, it’s nice to escape the bustle of the metropolis and experience another side of South Korea. There are many interesting and beautiful places to visit just outside Seoul — whether you’re looking to immerse in nature, explore a different city, or learn a little bit about Korea’s history.
During my visit in autumn, I made a trip to the gorgeous Nami Island. Situated about an hour away from Seoul, the small half-moon shaped island was made famous in the drama Winter Sonata — and you can find all sorts of reference to the movie on the island. It’s also a great place to enjoy the colors of nature, and I had a fun time cycling around. The city of Incheon makes a lovely day trip as well. Its more known for being the location of the international airport, but the city has lots to offer too. I think my most memorable experience on my visit there was watching the seagulls fly alongside my boat as I sailed across to Wolmido Island. And on my next visit to Seoul, I plan to take a trip to the DMZ – the Korean demilitarized zone that separates South Korea and North Korea. This trip requires a guided tour, and it’d be interesting to learn more about this part of the nation’s history.
After I came up with my initial list of Top 10 things to do in Seoul, I realized that there are still so many things to do in the city! It is so difficult to come up with a complete list that I am satisfied with. Yes, that’s how much I love Seoul and will always visit again and again. So I decided to add 5 more things to do in this list. They might not be for everyone, but I really think these are some fun activities that can truly enhance your South Korean experience in the capital city.
11. Pamper and Beautify Yourself
When it comes to beauty and skincare, no one does it like the Koreans. Known all over the world for their devotion to look good — South Korea has made its name when it comes to plastic surgery, aesthetic procedures and skin-care products. The country’s beauty industry is so huge that it is impossible to be in Seoul and not get into a whole beauty immersion! Of course I’m not talking plastic surgery; but skincare and makeup stores are just everywhere that its hard not to get sucked in and buy a whole range of products. The few times I was in Seoul I usually come home with a big box of facials masks, amongst many other things!
And talking about beauty care; don’t miss the opportunity to experience a jjimjilbang (Korean Spa) while you’re in Seoul — it’s a different experience altogether. I visited the Dragon Inn Spa near Yongsan and spent the entire night soaking in the many hot and cold tubs. I think I had a little culture shock when I entered the ladies section and saw the women nonchalantly walking around stark naked — and it took me a little while getting used to being naked myself. I had a relaxing time at the jjimjilbang, and had the best thorough body scrub ever!
12. Stay and Live Like the Olden Days
I think one of my most memorable stays in Seoul has got to be when I spent a night at a hanok (traditional Korean house). Hanok stays are growing in popularity in the city — where guests are given the opportunity to experience what it’s like to live during the olden days of Korea. First introduced in the 14th century during the Joseon dynasty, hanoks are usually made of natural materials like timber, soil and rock; paper for the windows; and tiled roofs and wooden beams. The floors are wooden with heating and air-conditioning to help combat the hot summers and cold winters of Korea — so they sleep and sit on the floor. It was fun setting up my own bedding on the floor, and it was extremely snuggly sleeping under the comfy duvet on the warm floor.
I stayed at the Yoo’s Family Guesthouse, just a short walk from the old Bukchon Hanok Village. The owner was friendly and welcoming; and the hanok guesthouse also offers other Korean cultural experiences like tea ceremonies, folk painting and wearing the hanbok (traditional dress) — which brings me to my next point!
13. Dress up in Traditional Costumes
The very first time I wore a hanbok was at the hanok guesthouse I was staying at. For an additional fee, the owner allowed us into her wardrobe of beautiful colorful traditional dresses, where we got to choose our favorite (I chose a royal garment, worn by the princess) — and then took pictures everywhere in the hanok. There are also several Korean culture experience centers in the airport that allows visitors to play traditional Korean games, and wear the hanbok. I had my second hanbok experience at one of these centers.
During my visit to the royal palaces, as well as the Bukchon Hanok Village — I saw many visitors donning the beautiful hanboks and walking around the grounds. There are hanbok rental shops dotted all around these tourist spots, which allows visitors to play dress up while visiting the popular spots. The hanboks come in all sorts of designs, and some shops even include make-up and hair-styling. Just imagine walking around the centuries-old streets in a traditional costume, and pretending like you’re transported back to the Joseon dynasty. How fun! I decided against it during my visit though, as the weather was always just too hot!
14. Be A Kid Again at the Theme Parks
If you love roller coasters, fun rides, huge candy floss and wearing cute headbands — then head to the Seoul theme parks! I spent a lovely afternoon at Lotte World being a kid again during one of my visits to Seoul. Operated by the Lotte Group, the theme park opened its doors in 1989 and apparently has the largest indoor park in the world! There is an outdoor park as well, with roller coasters and adrenaline-pumping rides. A one day pass costs about KR₩55K (US$55) for adults, and KR₩44K (US$44) for kids; and is open all year round. Buy passes here.
Another popular theme park in Seoul is Everland, South Korea’s largest theme park. Opened in 1976, this theme park is located in the city of Yongin, about 45 minutes away from the capital city. The theme park is divided into 5 zones, including a zoo and a waterpark. Tickets cost about KR₩54K (US$54) for adults, and KR₩43K (US$43) for kids (get tickets here) — and it makes a great family day trip out of Seoul. I have yet to visit Everland.
15. Get in On the K-Craze
And last but not least… the Korean Hallyu mania. K-pop, K-drama, K-stars, K-everything. It’s just amazing how the Korean hype just took over the world. So during your visit, why not get on the bandwagon and experience South Korea through the eyes of the legion of loyal fans. Attend a K-pop concert, visit the K-star Road, drop by the SM Town museum where you’ll learn about all the artists managed by them, learn to dance and sing like a K-pop star; or if you want to go one step further, wait outside one of the popular entertainment companies for a chance to spot your favorite K-star!
On one of my earlier trips to Seoul, it was for the sole purpose of attending a K-pop concert. During my recent visit, I was convinced (by my K-pop friends) to visit the SM Town museum; and then was sucked into waiting (for 3 hours) for the K-pop group, NCT, who was scheduled to show up. I swear, I have never seen people go as crazy as they did that day — it was verging on scary! And while I was in Seoul, I also learned the language (read about it here); and learned how to dance to a K-pop song at Fanxy Studio (join a class here).
So I’ll end this post with my K-pop MV!