Seoul is a fascinating place to visit, with a wonderfully rich culture and history that combines modern skyscrapers with Joseon dynasty palaces. Among the many unique things to do in Seoul, visitors will find five palaces, three amusement parks and dozens of neighbourhood markets. The city also boasts five national and ten municipal museums, as well as many private museums dedicated to art, history and the sciences. Below, we’ve highlighted a few areas that travellers may find especially interesting in the South Korean capital.
It’s important to note that while Seoul’s mad bustling style may seem intimidating at first, its many points of interest are easily accessible thanks to the city’s transport system. Seoul Metropolitan Subway covers an expansive area, with each line designated a colour. Subway signs are in Korean, English and Chinese, making travel easy and convenient. That said, it is the wise tourist who avoids the subway during rush hour.
Guest blog by Joungmin Anna Park and Stephanie Dargon Luce
Things to do in Insadong
This area of Seoul is popular with locals and tourists alike and is home to dozens of tea shops like Shin Old Tea House, where patrons sit on cushions on the floor. Known for its extensive tea list and old-world charm, this traditional Korean tea house is hidden away in one of the many alleys snaking through Insadong.
Insadong is peppered with art galleries, souvenir stores, and is home to some of the tastiest food vendors in all of Seoul. While in the area, be sure to give the delicious honey and sesame sweet known as Kings Dessert a try. If you have an affinity for shopping, then you will enjoy perusing Ssamzie-gil Market on Inadong’s main road. With over seventy shops filled with ceramics, furniture and one-of-a-kind clothing, this is the place for finding a hidden gem.
Situated across from Insadong, facing Seoul Tower, are hundreds of traditional Korean houses known as hanok. Wandering through the steep streets of Bukchon is like stepping back in time, especially when the weather is fine and the locals dress in the traditional Korean hanbok (traditional Korean dress) The more adventurous will enjoy staying in a hanok guesthouse during their trip to Seoul. English-speaking tour guides at the Bukchon Visitor’s Center can help arrange your stay.
An extremely popular stopover with younger tourists, the Gangnam neighbourhood was made popular by the song, Gangnam Style by theKorean pop singer, Psy. The name Gangnam literally means ‘south of the (Hangang) river’ and it is home to several popular shopping and entertainment areas. The COEX Mall houses a large aquarium, bookstore and Mega Box multiplex cinema, plus many of the upscale shops and frequent year-round exhibitions.
The Hongik University area is very famous for clubs and busking. You’ll definitely find lots of young people hanging out here with friends on the weekend. Seoul’s old industrial area, Seongsu-dong, is the hip new spot for young lovers. The Instagrammable warehouses are now home to many stylish cafés and bars, making it perfect for an afternoon date. Nearby, the large eco-friendly city park, Seoul Forest, is a marvellous place to visit for long walks and picnic lunches.
Located close to the main universities (Yonsei, Hongik and Ehwa), Hongdae has by far the coolest nightlife in all of Seoul! Here you’ll find themed cafés like Hello Kitty, Thanks Nature, The Galapagos, Meerkat, and 943 Kings Cross (a six-story Harry Potter-themed café). If coffee isn’t your thing, there are plenty of clubs, German/Korean hofs and pubs like the Queen’s Head, which specializes in microbrews, especially of the German variety.
There are many other things to do in Hongdae as well. A visit to the interactive Trick Eye Museum is a fun experience, where you can pose with the paintings as if you’re part of the art. Located in the same building is the erotic x-rated Love Museum, for those aged 19+.
An all-time favourite with both young and old is Nanta, a Korean non-verbal musical comedy about three cooks preparing a wedding banquet. The longest-running show in Korea, Nanta also made its international appearance in Edinburgh and later performed off-Broadway. The show involves acrobatics, comedy, magic, and audience participation. The production also features traditional Korean Samul nori music performed with kitchen utensils. We highly recommend spending an evening at Nanta.
Although Seoul houses five grand palaces, Changdeokgung is considered by the majority of Koreans to be the finest. Built during the reign of King Taejong in the 15th century, then destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, it was the first of the palaces to be reconstructed.
Changdeokgung also features a Secret Garden, once reserved for members of the royal family. The idyllic garden contains some plants that are over three hundred years old.
Things to do in Itaewon
With its many international restaurants, pubs, and lounge bars, Itaewon’s multi-cultural atmosphere appeals to young Koreans and foreigners alike. It also has a small but thriving Muslim community, Korea’s only mosque and several popular LGBTQ clubs.
Towards the eastern end of Itaewon is the neighbourhood of Hannam, which has one of Korea’s best art museums, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. There are also lots of upscale restaurants and cafés in Hannam.
Gwangjang Market is probably one of Seoul’s most exciting places for the adventurous foodie! Reportedly, the largest of the traditional markets, Gwangjang is most famous for Korean street food. You can also take a walk along the Cheongye-cheon stream, which is especially romantic in the evening.
While at Gwangjang be sure to sample one of the many varieties of jeon (Korean pancakes) and a cup of Korean rice wine known as mokgoeli. Jeon and Mokgoeli are especially enjoyable after a night of partying. You can also take a walk from Gwangjang market to the Cheongye-cheon stream.
Things to do in Buamdong
A short 15-minute ride by taxi or bus from Gyeonbokgung Palace, Buamdong is home to the Chung-un Literature Library, Seoul Museum and Hwanki Museum. Named after one of Korea’s most famous abstract painters, the Hwanki Museum is a popular stop for art lovers.
The Seoul Museum is my favourite art museum ever! It also features a beautiful traditional Korean garden and a house, which was once owned by the father of the emperor Gojong who used it as the family’s summer house. The garden also has a pavilion called Sukpajung, which was influenced by Chinese and Russian architecture during the late Joseon dynasty.
Things to do near City Hall
Hidden on the 13th floor of the Seoul City Hall Seosomun is Café Darak and the Jeongdong Observatory. The café is a great place to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while admiring the panoramic views of the Seoul city skyline and nearby Deoksugung Palace, which features a western-style garden.
Housed in the Old City Hall building on Seoul Plaza (close to Deoksugung Palace), a visit to the Seoul Metropolitan Library is a must. There you will find a beautiful display of English language books and daily newspapers on the 4th floor and a picturesque view of the many trees, plants and flowers along the boardwalk from the Sky Walk café on the top floor.
If you visit Seoul in winter and yearn for the great outdoors, try ice skating at Seoul Plaza or the newly opened Nodeul Island (via Nodeulseom station on line 9). The ₩1,000 ($1 USD) entry fee includes skates and a helmet and you can enjoy beautiful sunsets while listening to music as you glide across the ice. Don’t forget to stop by one of the many food trucks for a tasty local treat.
Namdaemun & Dongdaemun Markets
If the shops along Insadong don’t fulfil your need for retail therapy, then Namdaemun and Dongdaemun certainly will. Namdaemun, or the Great South Gate, is the largest traditional market. Spread out over many blocks, Namdaemun consists of thousands of independent vendors and merchants selling everything from clothing, shoes, purses to food supplies.
It’s very easy for a tourist to lose their bearings among the maze that consists of Namdaemun, so bring a friend with a good sense of direction. Frequented by international buyers, Dongdaemun Market is famous for its vast assortment of textiles and sewing accessories. It also has an incredible number of speciality wedding shops and boutiques.
Lotte World Mall
Much like Mall of America, Lotte World is an enormous shopping and entertainment complex that has its own monorail, amusement park (divided across four floors), shopping malls, a luxury hotel, movie theatres, sports facilities and more. Be sure to wear your trainers when visiting Lotte World as there is so much to see and do.
Housed inside Lotte Tower, the tallest building in Seoul, Lotte World has an observatory at the top that you will need to make a reservation in advance. Otherwise, you could end up waiting for an hour just to get a ticket for the elevator.
Things to do in Daehangno and Seongbukdong
Daehangno is famous for theatres and busking, especially on the weekend when you can see live performances at Marronnier Park – named after its many marronnier (horse chestnut) trees. This park is at the centre of Seoul’s theatre district and is a popular gathering place for the city’s university students, while on the next hill, Naksan Park features many homes with very unique artwork on their exteriors.
In neighbouring Seongbukdong is the Gilsangsa Temple and 30s dynasty-style tea house Sooyeonsanbang. The temple is incredibly peaceful and you will forget that you’re in a big, crowded city.
Seoul Botanic Park
Newly opened in 2019, the Seoul Botanic Park is an absolute must for lovers of plants and flowers. Make a reservation for a guided tour here.
About the authors
Stephanie Dargon Luce was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and currently resides in Wisconsin with her spouse and rescue dog. Stephanie is the author of the 2019 mystery novel, All Hail theQueen, and was a feature writer for Seoul Word and Morning Calm newspapers, as well as Arirang magazine while living and working in Seoul, Korea.
Joungmin (Anna) Park enjoys travelling and has visited 15 countries. She loves New York, where she lived for 18 months. Anna is studying tourism at Korea National Open University and working on her first photo essay of Jeju Island. She was an English instructor at YBM Sisa for 16 years and developed English programs for Sogang University Language Program afterwards.
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