Seoul is the capital of South Korea and one of the biggest cities in Asia. It’s not exactly a tourist hotspot though and finding reliable information about what to do and see in Seoul can be a struggle. Here are our top tips to help you have an amazing time when you visit Seoul.
Stay in Traditional Hanok Guesthouses
Korean traditional wooden houses are known as hanok. They are made of natural materials, and feature gracefully curved eaves, sliding paper doors and tranquil courtyards.
Most of Seoul’s hanok neighborhoods were bulldozed in the 60s and 70s to make way for shopping centers and parking lots. Fortunately, Bukchon survived and is one of the last neighborhoods dominated by these beautiful old houses.
Many of these old gems have now been converted into affordable guesthouses – you can expect to pay as little as $40 a night for a single room in the heart of the city. They are clean, quiet and comfortable, if a little small. In our experience the owners of these guesthouses are friendly and helpful; often breakfast is provided in a communal kitchen – some places even keep animals like chickens or rabbits which they let wander around the courtyard – this is great if you’re travelling with kids. We can’t recommend them highly enough. Love.
If you need more information about accommodation options while in South Korea you might find this article helpful.
Old Market Alleyways
Seoul’s alleys are full of unusual, cheeky, charming, friendly and eccentric characters with almost anything you can imagine for sale.
If you don’t know where you are going, Seoul is the kind of city you could spend a week walking around and never find anything interesting. Many visitors to Seoul go to popular markets or shopping districts and all they find are other tourists, crowds, brand-name stores and a clean but sterile concrete jungle. In contrast Seoul’s alleyways may look a bit dark, seedy or dirty but once inside you realize that this is where it’s all happening. The most interesting alleyways can be found in the area around Dongdaemun Market, Namdaemun Market and Insadong.
Things you might find for sale include fruit & vegetables, bathtubs, doors, dried fish, used books, vast piles of nuts and bolts, rusty garden implements, stained glass windows, car parts, pigs heads, pot-bellied stoves, Buddha statues, snakes in oil, ginseng, old cameras, antique coins, medicinal herbs, live octopus, fur coats, valve radios, records or used military paraphernalia. Have fun.
Try Korean Food
You’ve heard about Korean food and maybe you’ve even tried it – it’s delicious, unique and increasing in popularity all over the globe.
Every region in Korea has its own specialty but Seoul is a great place to try them all. Here are some suggestions:
Kimchi – This is pickled cabbage preserved using salt water and chili. It’s sometimes made using other vegetables such as radish or carrots and also often contains seafood such as shrimp for extra flavor – vegetarians and those allergic to seafood, consider yourself warned.
Korean-style fried chicken – This is similar to American style fried chicken but for a uniquely Korean experience ask for the “yang-nyom chicken” which is smothered all over in sweet spicy sauce.
Bibimbap – Sticky Korean-style rice mixed with a combination of fresh and pickled vegetables (many of them gathered from the wild) plus an egg and chili sauce.
Korean BBQ – This is a blanket term for meat, which is served raw, and then you cook it yourself on a hotplate in the center of your table. The Korean way is to cut it into bite sized pieces and then eat it dipped in sauce and wrapped in a lettuce leave. There are actually many types of meat available, prepared in a variety of ways including pork ribs (Galbi), thick bacon (Samgyeopsal) and duck (ori).
Galbitang – A hearty pork broth soup swimming with meat on the bone and chunks of vegetables. It’s delicious and strangely familiar, like something your grandmother used to make.
Doenjangjjigae – This is a thick salty bean-paste stew reminiscent of Japanese miso soup. Like miso, it’s also a fermented food and incredibly healthy.
For more information about traditional Korean food and health benefits, check out 5 Korean Superfoods to Bring Health and Balance to Your Body.
Visit Korean Palaces
Seoul has 5 palaces – they are all unique and beautiful.
They are not like palaces you will find in any other country. Seoul’s palaces blend the man-made and natural environment perfectly and add beauty to the landscape rather than detracting from it.
Seoul has 5 palaces but I wouldn’t recommend visiting them all, it’s too much and rather repetitive. The two easiest to find and most impressive are Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. I’d recommend dedicating an entire afternoon to each palace and doing them on two separate days – if you try to do them both in a day you’ll get palace fatigue.
If you have time to visit only one, make it Changdeokgung – in addition to the gorgeous structures, it’s surrounded by very large and beautiful gardens. Take a tour, it only costs a few dollars and you will get so much more out of your visit.
To find out more about traditional Korean architecture, take a look at Inspiration from Korean Ceramic Roof Tiles.
Seoul’s Public Transportation
Seoul has some of the best public transport in the world.
In fact it’s so good it’s actually one the city’s attractions. The subway has to be one of the best in existence – it’s clean, easy to use, cheap, frequent and fast.
The KTX high-speed train will take you anywhere in the country in a few hours for the cost of a meal in a nice restaurant. It travels at over 300km per hour, has an excellent safety record and is quiet and comfortable.
Taxis are plentiful unless it’s late at night or raining, they are crazy cheap and while the drivers probably won’t speak English, most taxis will advertise an English language translation phone number that you can call for help communicating.
Shop at Insadong Market
This is the place to go in Seoul for antiques, arts and crafts.
Handmade mulberry paper and fabrics, ceramics, old-books, calligraphy, brush-paintings, ancient coins, antiques, old-style street food, art galleries and tea-houses – you can find all this and more in this small neighborhood in central Seoul. If it’s old or traditional they’ve got it. If it’s fake, touristy and made in China – they’ve probably got that too.
Genuine 500 year-old vases and uber-expensive creations by modern masters can be found for sale just meters away from mass-produced fakes – to the untrained eye it can be hard to tell the difference so be sure to double check the number of zeros on the price tag before you hand over your credit card!
It gets crazy busy here in the afternoons so if you don’t like crowds, come in the morning. Also, be sure to explore the side alleys and not just the main street – you can find some incredible little tea-houses and restaurants that just ooze mystical, oriental charm.
Seoul never really sleeps – restaurants, street-food vendors, markets, convenience stores, karaoke rooms, internet cafes, pubs & clubs (obviously) and even bookstores all stay open until the wee hours.
Koreans don’t really worry too much about bedtime or sleeping. You can party hard in Seoul and sleep late the next morning without feeling guilty – everyone else is doing it! The down side is, if you are a morning person, in some parts of the city it can be difficult to find a café that opens before 10 or 11 am…. breakfast?
Compared to most western countries, Seoul is an extraordinarily safe place.
You can walk around the city streets at night with very little chance of being mugged or harassed. Forget pickpockets, I’ve never experienced it in Seoul or met anyone who has. Lost your wallet, cell phone or tablet on the train? Just wait for the police to call you when it is inevitably handed in. Obviously, there is some crime so you should use your common-sense, but in all probability the worst thing you’ll be a victim of in Seoul is being over-charged.