With more than 10 million residents, Seoul provides all the action of a world-class city with plenty of ways to escape the rush and convene with nature. The Korean capital is home to an abundance of charming temples and historic palaces, major features of an ancient culture that is still very much a part of daily life.
Surrounding the ancient architecture are modern skyscrapers showcasing panoramic views. Century-old markets exist alongside contemporary malls and spellbinding buildings that seem to defy the rules of engineering. While at any point, you can jump on the metro to explore nearby national parks, where granite rocks soar towards the heaven.
Dodge the Crowds at Bukchon Hanok Traditional Village
Before you dive deep into modern day Seoul, it helps to enjoy a glimpse into traditional Korean heritage and culture. The well-preserved village comprises a number of districts that combine to take you back over 600 years. Add in its location in the center of the city, and you have one of the best things to do in Seoul.
The village splits two major palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Bukchon’s thin streets are lined with beguiling ancient architecture, including hanoks. These are traditional homes that showcase early life in the city. Their colorful walls and unique roofs create a vibrant location, that is a pleasure to explore on foot.
The highlight of the experience, however, is making your way into some of the hanoks, which have become cultural hubs in their own right. Here, you can further explore the history of the neighborhood, along with learning traditional art and crafts. Some hanoks are also homestays, for a memorable experience in central Seoul.
Explore Gyeongbokgung Palace
Seoul has a total of five royal palaces. The biggest of them all is Gyeongbokgung, built towards the end of the 14th century. The grand palace strikes an imposing presence in front of a mountainous landscape and represents the height of the historic Joseon dynasty.
Since it was completed in 1395, the palace has suffered immense damage on several occasions and was renovated post World War Two. But it’s only been since the 1990s that Gyeongbokgung Palace has returned to perfection, leaving travelers in a fortunate position.
Today, you can wander inside the enormous palace and explore such sites as the historic pavilion, the Throne Hall, Hyangwonjeong Pond and the King’s Quarters. At one point in your visit, you must witness the changing of the guard at the palace’s southern gate. This occurs every hour from 10am to 3pm.
Within the palace, visitors will also be able to pay a visit to the National Palace Museum and the Folk Museum of Korea.
Head to the Top of Namsan Seoul Tower
In the heart of Seoul, Mount Namsan, is an 800-foot (243m) landmark that can be seen wherever you go in the city. But rising from the peak of the mountain, is a broadcast tower offering striking views from her heady heights. From the top, you’ll be standing just shy of 1650 feet (500m) above sea level, with the bustling city spread out below.
Getting to the tower is also an adventure. A cable car will carry you up from the foothills to the summit, leaving nothing but a few steps between you and the tower. Keep in mind that the cable car ticket does not include the tower experience.
As the elevator whisks you up to the heavens, you’ll have just a matter of seconds to pick between one of the four observations decks. For an elevated, pun intended, experience and a memorable date night, pick the rotating restaurant serving French cuisine on T5. Travelers will also find a regular eatery on T1, a wishing pond on T2 and a masterful multimedia display showcasing Korean culture and history on T3.
Hike Through Namsan Park
Most travelers get taken in by the sparkling presence of the radio tower on the mountain’s peak, and who could blame them. But there’s more to Seoul’s central mountain, that just a marvelous piece of engineering. Within the park, you’ll find serene walking trails that lead to beautiful vistas and more than enough fascinating attractions.
Through the centuries, Namsan Mountain played an important role in the strategic defense of the city from potential invaders. Today, you can still visit the five chimneys that would send smoke signals to leaders down in the valley. The park’s well-marked trails will lead you to this site, known as Mongmyeoksan Bongsudae, with the chimney’s elevated platform granting you with views of the city skyline. You’ll also find further viewpoints at the nearby ancient pavilion.
Namsan Park was home to a city wall through the Jonseon Dynasty, but was left in ruin after the Japanese occupation. You can still see parts of the wall, which are undergoing reconstruction, along the path that brings you to Baekbeom Square.
Experience the National Museum of Korea
One of the largest museums in all of Asia, the National Museum of Korea, is a thorough journey into the stories that shaped Korea into the nation it is today. Comprising three floors packed to the rafters with thousands of captivating artifacts, the museum is an experience that starts strong and keeps your attention all the way through.
The National Museum of Korea focuses on three major themes: art, history and archaeology. The curators blend the three to create a superb journey. Along the way, you’ll find relics dating back thousands of years, from ancient calligraphy to buncheong ceramics. The collection is immense, but if you have just a short time to explore, then make a beeline for the museum’s treasures.
The best of the best includes the 7th century bronze gilded sculpture of Maitreya, who’s in a deep meditation and a golden crown from the 5th century that was found in the tomb of Hwangnamdaechong. To take a break along the way, head to the outdoor area to relax. Here, you’ll find pagodas, ornate gardens and even waterfalls.
Eat your Way Through Namdaemun Market
If you’re someone who likes to wander, then you’ll stumble upon many markets in Seoul. As popular now as they were way back when, the hundreds of local markets bring together the community and help travelers experience Seoul like a local. But if you’re after the best market in the city, then you can pass up a night at Namdaemun.
Between Seoul Station and City Hall, this market is as traditional as it gets. While not trendy and/or modern, it’s easy to find authentic cuisine. The market is a true culinary adventure. With the addition of a language barrier, it can be a tricky experience. But if you’re open to trying new things, then you’ll be glad you took the plunge.
As you wander along, you’ll spot vendors showcasing the health benefits of their homemade ginseng. Young professionals cramp into tight spots to get a post-work feed and families try to grab a bargain at one of the many clothing and electronics stalls. Start and end at Foodie Alley, where you can try the full range of Korean staples from hair-tail fish stew to hotteok.
Take a Cooking Class
After taking a crash course in Korean cuisine at the boisterous and chaotic Namdaemun, spend some time honing your skills at a local cooking class. Korean food is largely based on rice and vegetables. The latter of which showcases the nation’s veritable obsession with kimchi, fermented cabbage.
Modern Korean cuisine descends from the favorite eats of local royalty from years past. As you try more and more authentic dishes, you’ll discover the lovely balance the cuisine has between spice and sweetness. Such is the pride locals have in their food, you won’t have a hard time finding delicious eats whether that be at a 5-star restaurant or down a narrow alley.
Aside from kimchi, some of the most popular dishes in Korean cuisine include red rice cakes, bibimbap and the world-renowned bulgogi. But you could spend a whole week in the city and barely scratch the surface. So, to continue your culinary adventure back home, sign up for this cooking class. Tour a local market, a learn four dishes alongside your chef-guide.
See the DMZ
One of the most interesting experiences to be had in Korea is to head out of Seoul to the nation’s demilitarized zone. The DMZ is located between South and North Korea, and is a strongly protected area. So much so that the only way to explore it is on a certified tour.
The experience will essentially bring you to no-man’s-land. The eerie gap between the nations is 2.5 miles (4km) and spreads across the Korean Peninsula for over 150 miles (250km). A highlight of the experience is entering the Third Tunnel. This mile-long passageway was excavated by North Korea to prepare for a possible invasion. Later, head to the DMZ Theater, where you can learn about this tunnel that was only discovered in 1978 after the South was tipped off by a northern defector. Finish the day trip by heading to the summit of Mount Dora. From your elevated viewpoint, you’ll be able to gaze over the DMZ into North Korea.
On this DMZ tour, enjoy hotel pickup and the insight of an expert guide.
Visit South Korea’s Tallest Building
A recent addition to Seoul’s splendid skyline is the Lotte World Tower. Upon its completion, it became the tallest building in the nation and one of the tallest on earth. The Lotte World Tower reaches over 1,600 feet (500m) above seal level and its unique design was inspired by traditional Korean ceramics.
It almost doubles the height of the next tallest building in Seoul, Parc1 Tower A, hovering over the city like a proud parent. While the sight of the building is spellbinding, naturally you’ll want to head inside and soar to great heights. Visitors will have a number of indoor and outdoor viewpoints to choose between. But to get the heart racing head to the Sky Deck on the building’s 118th floor.
The journey to the observation deck is just as fun. The elevator swoops you up at great speed as you watch the city become smaller and smaller.
Tour Changdeokgung Palace
Known as the Palace of Prospering Virtue, Changdeokgung is Seoul’s other iconic palace built in the 15th century. Unlike Gyeongbokgung Palace, this structure had a little more luck over the centuries and is the best preserved palace from the Joseon Dynasty.
Despite minimal damage since it was built, the beginning of Changdeokgung was rather turbulent. In an era aptly called the Strife of Princes, Teajong, the fifth son of Joseon, killed off his rivals to the throne and became king at the beginning of the 15th century. His first order of business was to make this palace the royal palace.
Although not as formal as the other grand buildings around Seoul, Changdeokgung is a tranquil place, a palace that blends perfectly into its natural surroundings. Within the palace, you’ll be surrounded by the lush trees that will have you quickly forgetting that you’re within a place of government.
Memorable sights include the Throne Hall, which has been designated a National treasure and the oldest surviving bridge in the city.
Adventure into Bukhansan National Park
It’s hard to wrap your head around how the spectacular Bukhansan National Park can exist so close to the modern metropolis, otherwise known as Seoul. But that’s just one of the many enthralling aspects of traveling through the nation’s capital.
One of 22 national parks in South Korea, Bukhansan’s trio of monumental granite peaks makes it a must-visit. Add in a fortress that dates back 300 years and over 100 temples and you’ll begin to get the picture.
In typical Seoul fashion, making the trip to the national park is easy. From Seoul Station, make the 25-minute journey to the southern end of the park. From here, you can embark on the scenic 1.5 mile (2.4km) Bogukmun Course, an easy trail that is the perfect appetizer for the day ahead.
As you trek by oak-lined effervescent streams, vast gorges and a waterfall, the towering Baegundae will come into view. At over 2,700 feet tall (836.5m), it’s crazy that you can scale this pure granite slab. Although tough on the legs, you can imagine how jaw-dropping the summit views are.
Balance hiking with culture and a full-body massage on this unique national park experience. Hike to the summit of Mount Bukhan (Baegundae), before treating yourself to an oil massage and Korean sauna on the side of the mountain.
Head to Lotte World
Spend all the time in the world preparing yourself for the sheer scale of Lotte World. It won’t make much of a difference. Once you stroll through her double doors, you’ll still be in a state of shock. Lotte World is a mega indoor theme park, the largest of its kind on earth. In Sincheon-Dong, the fun-filled mecca covers four stories under an expansive glass dome.
While Lotte World makes for the perfect activity on a rainy day, there’s really never a bad time to pay a visit. The enthralling atmosphere will pick you up like a flying carpet and whisk you across the many stories as you experience VR roller coasters, arcade games in tiny villages, playgrounds and an ice rink.
If the sun is out, jump on the monorail that guides you around Lotte World before transporting you outside to Magic Island. Here, you’ll find an exotic man-made island with cinemas, hotels, malls and restaurants. Afterwards, head to the Garden Stage where you can watch a variety of themed musicals.
Take in a Show at Seoul Arts Center
Within an intriguing building, inspired by the traditional “gat” (a Korean bamboo hat), the nation’s official performing arts center is the place to go for a night of high culture, music and ballet. The Seoul Arts Center was built in preparation for 1988 Olympics, hosted by the city. The center is now home to the National Ballet, Korean Symphony Orchestra and the National Opera.
The building is on a sprawling multi-building complex that includes the Calligraphy Art Museum, a second amphitheater, the Hangaram design and art museums. Add in spacious grounds complemented by a beautiful pond and you could easily spend an entire day enjoying each of the highlights before settling in for a performance.
Depending on the schedule, you could watch a classic opera with a large-scale cast, international theater productions or simple recitals. You should expect that most performances will be in Korean.
Explore the Seoul Museum of Art
To continue the trend of high culture, next up is the Seoul Museum of At. Known simply as SeMa, the museum is just behind Deoksugung Palace and has an expansive collection of contemporary and modern art. Here, you’ll be able to explore the careers of many nationally renowned artists, with the odd addition of an international creative.
Covering three floors, Seoul Museum of Art is within a large-scale building that was once the country’s supreme court. Visitors will find a range of art genres that showcase the changing perspectives and influences over the last 200 years. SeMa also hosts art workshops in Korean and English to go along with the museum’s free entry.
With the addition of six smaller charters around the city, SeMa is Seoul’s go to art complex. The Nam June Paik Memorial House is one satellite gallery that best complements the experience. The house hosts a complete collection of Nam June Paik, an iconic Korean artist and also includes a popular workshop.
Get Lost at DDP
Just like the theme park, Lotte World, it’s hard to imagine the size and elegance of Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The exterior of DDP is breathtaking, with the curving metal building appearing like the tear drops of melted iron. The futuristic DDP is home to an enormous exhibition space and is the hallmark of Seoul’s preeminent fashion district, Dongdaemun.
After forcing yourself to leave behind the spellbinding views and make your way inside, you’ll uncover endless passageways that guide you between the five major halls that make up DDP. Each hall has a different theme, covering anything from art and design to culture and history. The latter of which explores the many uses of the very land that DDP stands on, including when it was a military training ground.
At night, Dongdaemun Design Plaza takes things to yet another extraordinary level. Stick around to see over 25,000 led roses light up, making DDP a photographer’s dream. After taking one too many pictures, explore the greater Dongdaemun Market, where you’ll have the tricky task of picking between 26 malls and 30,000 stores.
Have a Night Out
Post DDP, the bright lights of downtown Seoul invite you on a journey into the night. For the best nightlife in the city, head to Hongdae, a youthful neighborhood fueled by the presence of Hongik University. The neighborhood is a hub for students and young professionals, where the nights start early and end late.
The district has the full range of after-dark activities. Whether that be a trendy bar or dizzying nightclub. One thing is for sure, with its edgy and alternative student population, drinks prices and club entry fees are much cheaper than other parts of Seoul. Begin your evening in Hongdae at Thursday Party where travelers and locals mingle in equal numbers. Later, graduate to the Corner Pub as you prepare for one of the many nightclubs to follow, such as Noise Basement.
Hongdae may be a fantastic place to explore after the sun goes down, but it should also form a part of your daytime itinerary. Revered for its underground culture, Hongdae has streets teeming with cute 24-hour cafes, art galleries and plenty of cheap eats. Swing by on the weekend for their markets before exploring Mural Street.
Relax Beside Cheonggyecheon
Coursing through the city for over 5 miles (8km), the Cheonggyecheon is a stream home to one of Seoul’s best urban revitalization projects. In the years following the Korean War, the west-to-east stream was covered in major roads, robbing the cityscape of a vibrant slice of nature.
But in 2005, the roads were lifted, and the stream was again visible. Today, the waterway is surrounded by paved trails and large spaces to sit and relax as you watch the water slowly flow downhill. The mini-waterfront area has actually helped to cool the neighboring districts and improve air quality.
Start of your experience by exploring the exceptional Cheonggye Plaza, whose design is a recreation of a Korean bojagi, a traditional wrapping cloth. Afterwards, join locals in great but pleasant numbers under the bright lights of Seoul as you wander along the lit up stream to the Candlelight Fountain and Cheonggyecheon’s cascading waterfall.
Wander Through Insadong
In central-Seoul, Insadong is a charming neighborhood that is a haven for lovers of craft goods. Almost half of Korea’s traditional crafts, from clothing to ceramics, are exchanged within Insadong. An astounding number when you compare the neighborhood with other popular shopping destinations in Seoul and around the country.
From Tapgol Park to the Anguk-dong Rotary explore on a whim down a variety of of alleys. Along the way, you’ll stumble upon a seemingly endless number of local vendors, authentic wooden tea houses slinging herbal treats, and cute mom and pop restaurants. While the markets are great for the experience, if you want to pick up a memento or prized relic, then Insadong is where you should head.
Accompanying the many street hawkers are buskers playing live music or artists ready to create a masterpiece on a whim. Visitors should try to time their arrival to land on a weekend, when traffic in Insadong is banned, making it an oasis for pedestrians.
Have a Picnic in Seoul Forest
In the eras come and gone, the Seoul Forest was a place of hunting by the royals of the Joseon Dynasty. Today, the extensive 300-acre landscape is a place for rest and recreation. Travelers can reach the park via the metro, just outside of the bustling downtown.
Here, over 400,000 trees create a refreshing escape from the wonderful chaos of Seoul, with five distinct parks offering plenty of room for an afternoon picnic. One of the top sections of Seoul Forest is the Experiential Learning Park. With an aviary, botanical garden and playground the focuses on ecology, there’s fun to be had for young and old.
In the heart of the forest, you’ll uncover the Culture and Arts Park, complete with a visitor center, a stage for summertime music, restaurants and kid’s play area. But for a true forest experience, enjoy a slice of the wilderness at the Eco Forest. As you wander along the path, keep an eye out for elk and deer before watching on from afar at the observatory.
Visit Gwangjang Market
It won’t take long for you to realize the Seoul is heaven for foodies, with your appreciation for the delectable local cuisine growing by the day. However, to complete your Korean culinary education, make a stop at Gwangjang Market. It’s Korea’s oldest market that continues on today. In fact, its humble beginning reaches back to the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
Just a few blocks away from the pumping DDP, you’ll be whisked away to a place of mouthwatering aromas and authentic eats. Gwangjang Market has a reputation for being one of the top spots for street food in the city. Its food alley is a sight to behold, laden with all the dishes you’ve come to love over the journey.
Rather than regular stalls, each vendor essentially has their own mini restaurant, with tiny chairs scattered in front. But since there’s so much to try, go on a sampling adventure by letting your tongue and nose guide your feet.
See the Jongmyo Shrine
The Jongmyo Shrine was built in the 1300s as a place of worship for the kings and princes of the Joseon Dynasty. Here, royals were able to take part in rituals, mourn the kings and queens that had passed away, or pray over the community. Today, it’s one of the best-preserved Confucian shrines on earth and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although its preservation is a thing of beauty, what you’ll see on your trip to the shrine is the result of a reconstruction that occurred in the 17th century after a Japanese invasion. It ended up being a mere blip on the radar for this beautiful shrine, where the Jongmyo Jerye ritual takes place every May as it has for the last 600 years.
As you explore the grounds, you’ll visit several buildings from the Hall of Eternal Peace and Jeongjeon, the main hall. The latter being an astounding piece of architecture and one of the longest freestanding wooden buildings on earth.
Pay a Visit to Gangnam
Meaning south of the river, Gangnam has long been the neighborhood of the rich and famous. But it rose to international popularity thanks to the song Gangnam Style. Now a must-see spot, the beautiful district offers plenty of up-scale shopping, embellished gardens and the busiest metro station in the city.
As you arrive at Gangnam Station, you’ll find yourself within a swarm of people, steps away from a huge underground mall. But for a real shopping experience, head to COEX, home to the largest underground mall in Asia. Other must-see spots include the stunning Bongeunsa Temple and the Seonjeongneung Tombs, set within a beautiful park.
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