Bucket List Worthy Traveler's Toolbox
There’s a reason the South Korean capital’s official name is Seoul Special City. Many people know that Seoul is home to a thriving economy and some of the world’s largest tech companies, but it’s also a city with a unique appeal to tourists, and that appeal has fallen under the radar until recent years. Whether you’re into sky scrapers or temples, five-star restaurants or street food, luxurious malls or night markets, Seoul, South Korea, offers what you’re seeking and much, much more.
Although the city’s incredible diversity is reason enough to visit, these 32 remarkable places to go, things to do, and sights to see will help you understand why Seoul is such a special city. They might even convince you to make South Korea your next travel destination.
Between two palaces, the Gyeongbok and the Changdeok, is a picturesque village of traditional and privately-owned Korean wood homes. The combination of perfectly restored Korean architecture and cute cafes, art galleries and popular eateries make Bukchon Hanok Village the perfect place to spend a day.
Seoul is known for its endless shopping options, but Myeong-dong takes shopping to a whole different level with neon signs, crowds of people, billions of Korean products, four-storey-tall shops and hip restaurants offering everything you need and more. Myeong-dong boasts a number of high-end stores, but it’s the free people-watching and affordable street food that make it such a popular destination for tourists and locals. Spend an afternoon and evening in Myeong-dong, so you can see the neon signs and bright billboards come alive at night.
The Gwangjang, or Kwangjang, market is the opposite of what you’ll find in Myeong-dong, yet it’s equally as pleasing. This market feels a bit like it’s stuck in the past, offering traditional items like silk, linen, bedding and second-hand clothing. Gwangjang was Seoul’s first traditional market to open daily, and it still gives visitors a look into how Seoul used to be — before all of the glitz and glam. Visit in the evening when the market turns into Seoul’s largest street-food alley, and don’t forget to try one of the market’s signature pancake-like treats, nokdu bindaetteok.
Learn about Korea’s difficult history and its troubles with its neighboring country through the must-see War Memorial of Korea. The site is much more than a traditional memorial and feels more like a massive history museum with guns, planes and even tanks on display. The museum is closed on Mondays, but is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every other day of the week.
There’s always something to do in Seoul, so it’s no wonder that the city’s nightlife is exciting. In fact, the famous local rice liquor, soju, is the most popular liquor sold in the world. Hongdae, Itaewon and Gangnam offer nighttime hot spots that typically don’t close until sunrise. Although, more low-key visitors can always find a cool place to enjoy a couple of beers with friends.
The Bukhansan National Park offers visitors a trip into the wild while still remaining inside Seoul’s metropolitan area. Granite peaks and clear streams create a tranquil atmosphere that will make you feel thousands of miles away from the bustling city life. Hiking and biking trails will wind you through the park’s gorgeous natural setting and a number of cultural heritage sites, including more than 100 Buddhist temples and dwellings.
The largest retail and wholesale shopping district in Korea, Dongdaemun offers a shopping experience that is unlike any other in the city. The overwhelming 26 malls, 50,000 manufactures and 30,000 specialty shops sell everything from silk to electronics. Tourists and wholesale shoppers flood the market at all times of day (it’s open 24 hours), but Dongdaemun is most famous for its night market.
The skyscrapers and neon billboards may make it difficult to believe there’s a soothing stream running through Seoul. This 11-kilometre-long stream, which existed during the Joseon Dynasty (from 1392 to 1910), was restored in 2003 as part of an urban renewal project. It starts at Cheonggye Plaza and flows under 22 bridges into the Hangang River. Visitors can walk along the stream day or night or even take a tour to better understand the Cheonggyecheon’s deep history.
For an unbeatable, traditional Korean lunch, head to Baedongbaji in Samcheong-dong. Full-course Korean meals inside a traditional wooden home (or hanok) run just $15 per person for a multitude of popular local dishes like sengsun ya-chae jeon (fried fish with veggies) and doenjang jjigae (stew made with tofu, vegetables or meat and bean paste).
You may have already noticed that Seoul is bursting with markets, and if you’re only planning on visiting a few, Namdaemun Market must be on your list. It’s the largest traditional-style market in all of Korea, dating back to the reign of King Taejong from 1367 to 1422. The market is known for its wholesale goods, but don’t let that discourage you from visiting. There’s plenty of shopping, eating and people-watching for tourists to enjoy.
Step back in time to 1395 when the Gyeongbokgung Palace was constructed in the heart of Seoul to represent the supremacy of the Joseon Dynasty. The palace has endured a tumultuous history, including being burned down by the Japanese in 1592, but it has since been moved, rebuilt and opened its doors to visitors. The Gyeongbokgung Palace now houses the National Folk Museum of Korea, the National Palace Museum of Korea and countless other pagodas, pavilions and sites that make it a must-see.
Forget about making it to the spa by 5 p.m., because most of Seoul’s luxurious spas are open 24 hours. Body scrubs, heat soaks, facials, manicures, pedicures and massages are some of the services available at the luxury spas, also known as jjimjilbangs. Chunjiyun Spa is a popular jjimjilbang frequented by locals and tourists, but if you’re looking for something more extravagant, visit the massive (it spans seven floors) Dragon Hill Spa.
Bonguensa offers a tranquil getaway in the heart of Seoul. The temple dates back to AD 794, and although the buildings have been reconstructed multiple times, many ancient Buddhist symbols and art remain. Visit on a Thursday between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., to enjoy meditation, a temple tour, lotus lantern making and a tea ceremony provided in English by monks and volunteers.
Korean food isn’t as popular in North America as some other Asian eats, but you’ll be wishing there was more back home when you taste a few galbi, also known as kalbi, dishes. Galbi refers to a variety of grilled dishes often including beef or pork short ribs in a Korean soy sauce-based sauce. Find a galbi house, and the meat will likely be cooked at a set-in grille right at your table.
With skyscrapers in the background, the 15th-century Deoksu Palace looks almost out of place. It’s the smallest of the city’s palaces and is popular among picnicking couples and wedding photographers. The palace offers some of the best examples of royal architecture from the Chosun Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910. Keep in mind that the palace is closed on Mondays when planning your visit.
It’s easy to get caught up in the Seoul’s endless shopping and dining options, but the city is home to a number of museums that are guaranteed to be highlights of your trip. The National Museum of Korea is a grand, modernist-style building that displays some of Korea’s most fascinating ancient treasures. The museum’s picturesque gardens with ancient pagodas make for one of the most scenic spots in all of Seoul.
Reserve one of your nights in Seoul for a visit to the Banpo Bridge’s Moonlight Rainbow Fountain. In typical Seoul fashion, the fountain is colourful and dazzling. The Moonlight Rainbow Fountain is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest bridge fountain, and the rainbow-colored lights, water jets and perfectly-timed music make for a fascinating show.
Art enthusiasts will find it easy to spend an entire day inside Nature Poem, a building in Cheongdam-dong housing 16 art galleries. Nearby cafes, shops and additional galleries make for an exciting, trend-setting area of Seoul that inspires everyone who visits.
Arguably the most stylish of all of Seoul’s shopping malls is the famed D-Cube City in Guro. Seven levels of shops, extravagant outdoor terraces, the D-Cube Arts Centre, a swanky Sheraton and a massive Korean food court make a visit to D-Cube City a must for any trendy visitor.
The Changdeokgung Palace Complex has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, and it’s one of Seoul’s many must-see traditional sites. Unlike some other palaces that seem to stand out like a sore thumb in Seoul’s modern cityscape, Changdeokgung Palace seamlessly blends in with its natural surroundings at the foot of the Ungbong Peak of Mount Baegaksan.
Seoul may seem like a concrete jungle at first sight, but the Korean city boasts a number of charming green spaces. Namsan Park is the largest park in the city, and it hosts roughly 23,000 people per day. Take a cruise on the Namsan Cable Car for breathtaking views of Seoul from above.
Heading to a baseball game on vacation may seem more like a North American tradition than a Korean one, but the Jamsil Baseball Stadium offers plenty of South Korean culture and excitement for visitors. The baseball stadium is the first of its kind in Korea, and it hosted the baseball events in the 1988 Summer Olympics. Join Korean couples and families as they root on one of two Seoul home teams from the Korean Professional Baseball League.
The N Seoul Tower is actually inside Namsan Park, but it’s a site worth mentioning on its own. It was built in 1969 as Korea’s first radio and television transmission tower, but it has become a beloved Korean landmark since. Visit in the evening and dine at one of the tower’s famed restaurants, then admire the digital art projected on the tower after dark. The digital observatory also offers the best views of Seoul in the daytime.
Seoul’s famous Olympic Park was constructed for the 1988 Summer Olympics. It now offers locals and visitors a place to take part in a number of sports and leisurely activities. The park is divided into four different parts, including the art and culture zone, the recreation and sport zone, the environment zone and the history zone. The park is one of the top five sculpture parks in the world and sites like the Peace Plaza, the Olympic Swimming Pool, walking trails and countless other attractions make it far more than a place for sports enthusiasts.
A bookstore may not sound like the highlight of your South Korean vacation, but the Kyobo Bookshop in Gwanghwamun is more than your average Barnes and Noble. It’s the flagship store of Korea’s largest chain of bookstores and has remained a Korean landmark for decades.
The Noryangjin Fish Market is a sight to see with nearly every type of aquatic life form available for purchase. The old-fashioned market offers everything from crab and tuna to exotic sea creatures and is the best place in the city to get incredible prices on some of the best seafood in the world. Try one of the many restaurants serving up fresh hoe (raw fish) just outside of the market for a traditional Korean treat.
If you’re not a fan of Korean food before you visit Seoul, you will be when you leave. Bibimbap is a signature Korean dish consisting of white rice topped with seasoned vegetables (namul), soybean paste (doenjang) or chili pepper paste (gochujang) and soy sauce. Sliced beef and a fried or raw egg are often tossed into the mix, and the entire dish is stirred thoroughly before eating.
One of the many draws to Seoul, South Korea, is the city’s striking affordability. Street food is very cheap with meals running just a few dollars per person, and traditional restaurant meals only cost a handful of dollars more. Cheap but nice accommodations are abundant throughout the city, and for less than $10, you can get you a spa treatment in a jjimchilbang. Even better, saving money on food and accommodations means you have more money leftover for shopping.
When you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly way to kill a few hours in the city, a trip to the Alive Museum in Insadong is an experience you’ll never forget. It’s regarded as the city’s largest “fun” exhibition, including quirky trick art, three-dimensional experiences, obstacle art and tons of hands-on experiences. There’s no better place to dive head first into the silly side of South Korea.
There are so many malls in Seoul that they’re even underground. The COEX Mall is the largest underground mall in Asia with more than 260 stores, cultural spaces, entertainment centers and an overall unique one-stop place to shop. A visit to Asia‘s largest underground mall is the perfect way to spend a day when the weather above ground isn’t ideal.
Concerned with staying connected while traveling? You can check your email, compose a tweet or update your Facebook status from just about any street corner or restaurant in the city. South Korea is known for its tech-driven economy, and the widespread, super fast and free WiFi signals that are available virtually everywhere in the city prove it.
Many travelers steer clear of tours because they seem too cliche, but the Seoul City Tour Bus is ideal for travelers with time constraints. For just $12, you’ll enjoy history lessons from tour guides as you make your way to the city’s major markets, the N Seoul Tower and two palaces. Unlike traditional tours, you can hop on and off the bus at the sites you please throughout the day, so you’re not stuck with a determined schedule.