The capital city of South Korea is infamous for many things: the popping food scene, the backdrop to your favourite Korean drama, and the global phenomenon that is K-Pop, all intertwined with the cultural threads of a more traditional Korea marked by royal palaces, civil war, and a rapid rise from poverty to economic boom. Seoul is all of this and so much more. It is a city that promises to perplex, enrapture, and ultimately steal your heart away.
01. Bukchon Hanok Village
The word hanok means traditional Korean house. In the midst of a city filled with high rise apartments and flashing neon signs, Bukchon Hanok Village is home to hundreds of these traditional buildings. Many of them run as cultural centres and guesthouses while some are actual homes where people still live today. Take your time strolling through these winding streets, peeking into alleyways and admiring the architecture.
TIP: You may notice signs throughout the village reminding you to keep your voice down as courtesy to the residents living there. While you may feel the urge to express your awe and excitement with screams of delight (an appropriate response, to be sure), it might be best to absorb the beauty in contemplative wonder instead.
02. On Either Side of the Han River: Hongdae / Gangnam
To the North of the Han River is an area called Hongdae, a playground for the creative’s heart. Come here to enjoy street performances, wall murals, and an endless selection of shops and cafés. Every Saturday from March to November, you can also check out the Hongdae Free Market, a space for artists to sell and showcase their handmade products.
To the South of the Han River lies Gangnam, a shiny district bursting with hip restaurants, brand name shops, and department stores. Make a stop by Starfield COEX Mall, a large-scale shopping centre where you can also find an impressive library, movie theatre, aquarium, and a wide variety of exhibitions.
TIP: Seoul is a fashionable place, but lucky for us, running shoes are a staple piece in South Korean style. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes, as you’ll probably be doing a lot of walking as you shop and explore.
03. DMZ / JSA
Book a guided tour to visit the border between North and South Korea, otherwise known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This particular tour includes a look into the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. While undeniably touristy, this is a worthwhile experience for anybody interested in the history between North and South Korea and its present day conflict.
TIP: There are a number of different tours offered by various operators, so be sure to do your research to see which one interests you the most (many of them will offer a pick up / drop off service from a Seoul location). The rules for visiting the DMZ are quite strict and include an appropriate dress code, so make sure to review all the guidelines sent by your tour guide.
04. National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
This is an excellent museum to get a comprehensive look at South Korea’s history from the late nineteenth century to present day. The museum is organized into four exhibition halls and includes a hands-on learning Children’s Museum. Learn about South Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, the meaning of the national flag, and the process of re-building post-war to become the nation they are today.
TIP: Admission is free! There are periodic guided group tours in English and other languages, as well as audio tour guides that you can pick up at the information desk.
05. Convenience Stores and Street Food
Seoul is crawling with delicious restaurants. A quick Internet search will present you with a whole list of places to eat Korean BBQ, fried chicken, and more noodle and rice dishes than you can count. But if you’re in a hurry or want to eat something on the go, these recommendations are for you.
Convenience stores like CU and GS25 have a yummy selection of pastries, lunch boxes, and samgak kimbap (triangle shaped kimbap: seaweed wrapped rice with different fillings inside), not to mention a fridge full of flavoured milk, yakult (a popular yogurt drink that is not actually yogurt), and a freezer full of ice cream bars.
While walking around, you may notice many street vendors selling ddeokbokki (spicy Korean rice cakes), odeng (Korean fish cake soup), or random things like giant corn dogs and other adventurous foods. Eat! Them! ALL! There’s no better feeling than exploring the streets with something delicious to keep both your hands and your stomach warm.
06. Gems of Samcheongdong
The above-mentioned Bukchon Hanok Village is located in an area called Samcheongdong. This neighbourhood is a blend of traditional beauty and modern day chic, an aesthetic reflected in many of their coffee shops. Among them, Yeon is a hanok café with a traditional Korean home interior and a menu with both traditional snacks and modern day coffee shop items and desserts. It is the perfect spot for an afternoon tea date.
Of course, a trip to Samcheongdong isn’t complete without a visit to the famous Samcheongdong Hotteok, a tucked away food stall that sells fresh hot hotteok (a Korean pancake, another popular street food). At Samcheongdong Hotteok, you can either get one with a honey filling or a vegetable filling. Though they’re both delicious, I’m personally partial to the honey.
07. Guesthouses / Airbnbs
There are guesthouses and Airbnbs all over South Korea with many different options in Seoul. Pick which neighbourhood you’d like to spend the most time in and find a place to stay that’s closeby. If you want to try sleeping in a traditional Korean home, check out one of the many hanok guesthouses, and if you’d like to meet other travelers during your trip, look for a hostel in a high traffic area like Hongdae or Gangnam.
While traveling Seoul, you’ll most likely be taking the subway everywhere you go. You’ll want to get a T-Money Card, a pre-paid transit card that you can re-load as needed. You can get these at a subway station or at certain convenience stores. Also, be sure to bring extra room in your suitcase for all the inevitable shopping you’ll do!
Sarah Suk is a Vancouver born Korean with a passion for kidlit, North Korean human rights, and patbingsu (red bean shaved ice). She is currently pursuing her dream as an author for kids and young adults while trying to use her aquarium membership as much as possible before it expires. You can find her on her blog, Twitter, or Instagram.