THE ESSENTIAL SEOUL CITY GUIDE
Cosmopolitan Seoul is a city caught between the ultra modern and the legacy of old. Skyscrapers loom over ancient palaces, hanok houses share real estate with boutique coffee shops and even fashion trends are embracing traditional designs and updating them with a modern twist.
Seoul is a fascinating city and one that shouldn’t be rushed. Take a few days, a week, or however long you’ve got and explore the many neighbourhoods of this buzzing capital.
Don’t know where to start?
Well, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve been to Seoul a ton of times in our three years living in Korea, exploring both tourist hot-spots and hidden gems. We’ve put together this Essential Seoul City Guide to make sure you experience the very best that Seoul has to offer. Read on to find out what to see and do, where to eat, drink and party, how to get around, and the best areas to stay.
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SEE AND DO
A number of Seoul’s best historical sites are found in the north of the city. Bukchon Hanok Village is a great neighborhood to explore and wander in. Pick up a map at the tourist info centre and check out the walking tour, or just make it up as you go along, peeking into old hanok houses and marvelling at the beautiful designs and intricate woodwork. There are lots of quirky shops and a warren of alleys and side streets to get lost in.
Wandering the backstreets of Bukchon
A little south of Bukchon is Insadong, one main drag and umpteen meandering side alleys full of traditional arts and craft shops, tea houses, restaurants and galleries. Touristy? Sure. But it’s a great area for souvenir shopping and getting a feel for days gone by. All the store fronts in this area must use hangeul (the Korean script), so even the big names like Starbucks blend in fairly seamlessly.
Flanking Bukchon are two of Seoul’s most impressive palaces, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung. The hidden garden (Huwon) at Changdeokgung is worth including in your ticket price. There are English language tours that take about 1 ½ hours, or if you don’t care about the commentary, just join any tour and whizz round yourself. The trees in Spring and Autumn are stunning.
Inside the ‘secret garden’ of Changdeokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung has a brilliant backdrop of mountains and a beautiful entrance gate. A changing of the guard ceremony takes place at 10am and 2pm which is pretty cool to see. Changdeokgung is closed Mondays and Gyeongbokgung is closed on Tuesdays.
The entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace
Deoksugung Palace, a little south of Gyeongbokgung, is the only palace you can visit at night, shining a new light on the impressive old buildings. A few of them house some low-key light displays, and you might even encounter a raccoon or two scurrying around the grounds! During the day you can catch the colourful changing of the guard ceremony in front of the entrance gate at 1100, 1400 and 1530 (free to watch). It’s open 9am-9pm daily except Mondays.
Deoksugung Palace at night
Tranquility In The City
For some respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, head to the serene Cheonggyecheon. Appearing out of nowhere, this stream, hidden below street level and beneath shiny, towering skyscrapers, is a peaceful haven for people and wildlife alike. Flowing for nearly 11km through the city, the stream was covered by a highway for years, but finally given a new lease of life in 2005. Paths ideal for strolling run alongside, while murals and photographs tell tales of the past.
Cooling off under a bridge along Cheonggyecheon stream in the heat of July
During the Lotus Lantern Festival in May and Seoul Lantern Festival in November, an incredible display of hanji (traditional paper) lantern sculptures are the star attraction. In hotter months, it’s a great place to dip your feet and cool off under the shade of the many stone bridges.
To the west of Insadong is the head temple of the Jogye order in Seoul, Jogyesa. This complex comes alive with colourful lanterns and people in the run up to Buddha’s birthday in May, but is a great place to visit any time. Its central location makes it easy to include in a walking tour around the area. Relax in the shade of old pine trees, listen to the monks chanting or check out the spectacular temple buildings.
Jogyesa Temple covered in lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday in May
Architecture & Design
One of the best spots for admiring the iconic Gwanghwamun Gate is from the pedestrianised Gwanghwamun Square directly in front of it. Day or night (when it’s especially impressive) buses, cars and taxis whizz by, barely giving it a second glance, but you can enjoy the uninterrupted view for as long as you like.
Watching the traffic whizz by at Gwanghwamun Gate
Then, head south and check out the strikingly modern City Hall. As impressive inside as it is out, this curvaceous steel and glass extravaganza embodies ultra modern design with traditional Korean forms and functions. The curved roof resembles the protruding eaves of traditional houses, providing shade to the narrow court below. The glass facade is lit up at night with an ever changing spectrum of colours and during the day you can marvel at the vertical green garden rising all the way from the ground to the seventh floor.
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East of Cheonggyecheon you’ll find the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a Zaha Hadid architectural feast for the eyes. It’s a great place to while away a few hours, checking out the design shops, museum and the plaza itself. Stick around until dark and a sea of LED roses come to life. And from Spring to Autumn, food trucks and stalls descend on the concourse on Friday and Saturday nights.
A sea of LED roses come to life at night at Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Museums & Galleries
To learn more about the Korean War, as well as Korea’s warfare history in general, head to the War Memorial of Korea. It’s an interesting and informative museum, with some impressive statues and memorials outside.
Statues outside The War Memorial Museum
For an interesting mix of traditional and modern art, with some outstanding installations and architecture, head to the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. You can check out the impressive sculptures dotted around the grounds for free, or head inside to explore the permanent and revolving exhibitions. Tickets are 10,000 (half price on the last Wednesday of each month) and it’s closed Mondays.
Sculptures in the grounds of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
Despite being a thriving metropolis, Seoul has a ton of hikes on its doorstep. This is a nation of outdoor enthusiasts after all.
For some inner-city hiking (nothing too strenuous), head to the ever popular Namsan Park. You can skip the cable car and walk up to the peak, then head all the way to the top of N Seoul Tower for an even better view. You can walk up the north side from the steps near the lower cable car station (closest subway stations Myeongdong or Seoul Station), or up the slightly rougher trail on the south side from HBC area (Noksapyeong station). It’s a good idea to go up one and down the other, checking out the vibrant areas of Myeongdong and HBC before/after. It shouldn’t take you more than around 30 minutes to reach the peak.
Take a hike up to N Seoul Tower and down the other side to explore the neighbourhoods around
Bukhansan National Park
For a more strenuous hike and some incredible views head up Seoul’s highest peak in Bukhansan National Park, in the north of the city. The hike takes around 4-5 hours in total, so best to make a day of it. To get to the trailhead, take the subway to Gupabal Station on line 3, take exit 1 and then bus number 704 to Bukhansanseong Ibgu (북한산성). There’ll no doubt be plenty of other hikers you can follow if you’re lost!
The mountains that can be seen behind Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyeongbokgung Palace are home to the old city walls. You can hike along them and to the peak of Bugaksan and get a spectacular view over Seoul and the surrounding landscape.
In 1968 North Korean Special Forces infiltrated these mountains and an assassination attempt was made on the president. For nearly 40 years the area was off limits to civilians but re-opened in 2007. Parts of the wall are still strictly patrolled and photography is restricted.
You need a permit to hike, which can be picked up/dropped off at Changuimun gate in the north west, or Malbawi Information Centre in the north east. Take your passport or Korean ID card. The hike is closed on Mondays but otherwise open Mar – Oct from 9am – 4pm and Nov- Feb 10am – 3pm. Check out this site for a map and transport info.
Hiking the old city walls in February
To the south of Cheonggyecheon you’ll find the bustling shopping mecca of Myeongdong. It’s a pretty compact area, covering just a few streets and alleyways between Euljiro 1-ga and Myeongdong subway stations, but it packs a lot in. There’s a number of department stores, plus loads of high street stores and pretty much every Korean skincare and cosmetics shop there is.
All the skincare shops you’ll ever need – Myeongdong
Slicing through Seoul, the Han River is a good spot to escape the hustle and bustle of this highrise city and enjoy the wide open space. Biking along the river is the best way to take it all in and you can even rent bikes for free! Free bike hire is available for a couple of hours at a few rental spots, just swap your ID for a single or tandem. Otherwise there are loads of paid rental places if you want to make a day of it (usually 3000 Won/h or 15,000/day).
If you’re looking for nightlife then Seoul has it in abundance. The best areas to head to are Hongdae and Itaewon.
This is the heart of Seoul’s student area, with clothing stalls filled with the latest trends lining the streets by day, and bars, restaurants and clubs buzzing come night. The small park (Hongdae Playground) is usually packed at night with musicians and crowds of students. It is also host to a flea market every Saturday afternoon. To get there the subway stop you’re looking for is Hongik University, although everyone just calls it Hongdae. Sangsu Station can be closer if you’re looking for the main bars and club area, not the shopping streets.
Hongdae street food stalls
This area is the heart of the foreign community in Seoul and has been since the participation of UN forces in the Korean War. It’s always had a reputation for being more open and accepting, and the area has a unique multicultural feel. There’s a US Army garrison nearby and a number of English language bookshops. You’ll find LGBT friendly bars and clubs – this in a country that still has some pretty conservative attitudes towards gay people, especially among the older generations. Itaewon is also home to the country’s biggest mosque, and if you’re craving some Greek, Turkish, Mexican, Moroccan, American, or just about any other non-Korean food, this is the place to find it.
While the bars and clubs behind the main drag in Itaewon are plentiful, and jumping come the wee hours of the morning, our favourite bars and cafes are down the hill, in the direction of N Seoul Tower. There’s a bunch of micro-breweries, tap houses, and quirky bars and restaurants that spill out onto the street in warmer months. During the day there’s loads of great cafes to hang out in and we really like the quieter neighbourhood of Haebangchon (HBC).
Head up the quiet looking street with the brown kimchi pots for loads of cafes, bars and restaurants, or cross over the road for more craft beer bars spilling out onto the street
Noksapyeong subway station is closer to this area than Itaewon (and has an amazing Soviet-esque interior and glass dome roof). Jump off here and head down the hill, keeping the army base wall on your left. Head up the street with the big brown kimchi pots for HBC, or cross the road for loads of bars and restaurants.
You won’t go hungry in Seoul, that’s for sure. Restaurants, cafes, street stalls, hole in the wall joints, fine dining experiences, and the biggest choice of non-Korean food in the country can all be had here.
The bustling undercover market of Gwangjang is one of the oldest in Seoul and has a mouth watering array of food on offer. Our favourite is the mung bean pancakes, bindaetteok, ground and fried before your eyes. Pick a stall that’s busy (we like No. 60), grab a stool (or wait until you’re directed to an empty one), and wash it down with some makgeolli (Korean rice wine). Mmmm!
For a cheap and filling snack, look out for Bukchon Son Mandu (dumplings) in the Bukchon Hanok Village. You’ll also find it in various other spots around the city. You can get fried or steamed, or mix it up! There are pictures on the menu and English descriptions too, making it easy to order.
Traditional Korean Food
Next door to Gyeongbukgung Palace and ideal for stopping in at while exploring the Bukchon area is the excellent Hwangsaengga (황생가 칼국수). They specialise in hand-cut noodles and dumplings. There’s usually a queue to get in, but once you’ve ordered, your food will arrive in seconds. Their kal-guk-su (칼국수, pronounced kal-gook-soo) is superb, the best we’ve had in Korea! You can watch them hand making all of their dumplings, and these too are top notch. The menu has English descriptions but the sign outside is in Korean only. Look for the big 칼국수 sign and board with pictures of the food. Check the map for directions.
Handmade Dumplings at Hwangsaengga
There are loads of restaurants to choose from in Insadong but a good one with a lot of character is 싸립문을 밀고 들어서니 (Sa-rim-mun-eul Mil-go Deu-reo-seo-ni). It’s housed in a traditional hanok and serves tasty Korean dishes. The owner sometimes plays traditional Korean music which is great to see. It has an English menu, too. Check our map at the top to find it as it’s down a side alley off the main drag.
Traditional Makgeolli House
We are big fans of makgeolli (Korean fermented rice wine). Our favourite place to try different kinds while munching on delicious Korean food is Damotori h (다모토리 ㅎ) in Haebangchon (HBC), near Itaewon. It’s a small, dark place with an extensive makgeolli menu and excellent food. You can order a sampler for ₩3000 and try 5 different varieties of makgeolli. Then, simply choose a bottle of your favourite if you want to drink more!
The makgeolli sampler at Damotori h
The menu is in Korean only, but there are some pictures in the makgeolli menu and it’s OK to point at others’ food on the tables around you. Or just go with some of our favourites: 해물 김치전 (seafood and kimchi savoury pancake), 고등어 구이 (grilled mackerel), 갈비 구이 (marinated pork on the bone) and 두부 김치 (tofu and stewed kimchi with pork). The place gets busy and people are turned away when it’s full so arrive early if possible (by 6pm)! To find it walk down the hill upon exiting Noksapyeong subway exit 2, veer left at the massive brown kimchi pots and head up the road. It’s next to Bonny’s Pizza.
Dark and cosy – Damotori h makgeolli house
As our hometown in Korea has a distinct lack of foreign food we have a tendency to pig out on our trips to Seoul. Here’s a few of our favourite non-Korean spots…
In Itaewon you can get an awesome slow cooked meat platter at the American style smokehouse Manimal. We also love Taco Chili Chili, on the road heading downhill from Itaewon towards N Seoul Tower. Order downstairs and head upstairs for extra seating. Their homemade salsa and nachos are an excellent accompaniment to your main.
After (or in between) drinking the night away in Hongdae, do as the locals do and grab a slice of Monster Pizza. Also in the Hongdae area, Anh is a cozy (and very popular) Vietnamese restaurant that’s worth the wait (and there usually is one). For a slap up brunch the next day, head to The Famous Lamb where you can indulge in a breakfast buffet and some excellent coffee. It’s ₩9000 for the buffet, with drinks costing extra. Stuff your face and you won’t need anything else till dinner.
In HBC there’s a small but wonderful Moroccan cafe called Casablanca Sandwicherie. It does some really fantastic sandwiches and shakshuka. They tend to sell out so get there early! The same folks also run the Morococo Cafe across the road, with a different menu focusing on tagines and the like. Their food is seriously good.
Moroccan chicken sandwich at Casablanca Sandwicherie
On the same road as Casablanca you’ll find The Fat Cat Neighborhood Bistro. They do excellent and hearty sandwiches, salads, chilli and so on. I can’t think of a better roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had.
Further up the winding hill of HBC, towards the Namsan hiking trail, you’ll find an atmospheric little cafe/bar, The Royal. With Magpie Porter on draft and the most incredible cheese dip I’ve ever tasted, this place is a firm favourite. You can’t go wrong with any of the food here, and the cosy interior is inviting come rain or shine.
Coffee culture is well and truly thriving in Korea, and this is no more evident than in cosmopolitan Seoul. There are coffee shops on every corner, with plenty of independent roasters to be found alongside the big name chains. One of our favourites is Fritz, with three locations across the city. Not only is their coffee top notch, they have an excellent bakery and stylish retro branding that makes us want to buy anything and everything on sale! Find them in Mapo-gu, Jongno-gu and Seocho-gu.
Retro designs at Fritz Coffee
There’s a couple of great spots we like to drink in around the Bukchon area. One is the Kiwa Taproom, set in a beautiful hanok with an open air feel. The other is Cafe Gondry. Both have a good selection of craft beer and serve snacks and nibbles.
Kiwa Taproom in the Bukchon area
If you’re staying in the Bukchon area it can be a bit quiet at night, but about 20-30 minutes walk away is a decent and busy spot full of izakayas, bars and restaurants. Just head south beyond Insadong and you’ll find some life in the side streets between the main road of Jong-ro and Cheonggyecheon stream.
There’s loads of chain bars and rowdy establishments to stumble into in Hongdae, but if you’re looking for something a little different and enjoy a good craft beer, look out for the Queen’s Head. It’s hidden down a lane off the main drag – just look for the arched sign. The menu is small but they have some of the best beer we’ve tasted in Korea. What’s more, it’s reasonably priced and has a proper pub atmosphere.
Nearby is our other favourite Hongdae joint, Suzie Q. If you’re a music lover check out this basement dive bar. Here a 70 something year old dude spins records every night while his wife dishes out the booze and free cheese balls.
Basement dive bar at its best – Suzie Q
The bars in and around Itaewon are a little more dolled up than the rough and ready student vibe of Hongdae. There’s loads to choose from but a few places we like are Mad Tables, a basement bar with loads of craft beer and food, Magpie Brewing Co., serving excellent brews out of Jeju Island, and nearby, The Booth, also serving up craft beer as well as cheap and awesome Monster Pizza slices.
Drinking on the streets around Noksapyeong/Itaewon
Across the main road from the three bars mentioned above, up the street with the big brown kimchi pots, is (as previously mentioned) Haebangchon (HBC). At first it looks like a residential area, but continue up the street and you’ll find a number of bars, cafes and late night eateries. Be sure to check out Damotori h (다모토리 ㅎ) and sample some traditional makgeolli. This area is good during the day too for brunch, lunch and coffee shops. New places seem to be opening all the time, so go and explore and be sure to keep walking up the hill, there’s more up there too!
If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing in Seoul we reckon the best area to stay is around Bukchon/Insadong/Jongno. Here you are close to many of the main sights and have decent subway connections too. If you want to party by night and shop and hang out by day, Hongdae/Mapo-gu is ideal. If you want to be in a more foreign-centred area, stay in Itaewon.
There are loads of Airbnb stays, hotels and hostels to choose from, as well as hanok stays in the Bukchon/Insadong area. Places we’ve stayed at and can personally recommend include The Place Seoul hanok stay in Bukchon and Hostel The Style in Hongdae. The Noble Hotel, part of the Benikea chain, has small rooms but it’s in a great location, just across the road from Changdeokgung Palace.
The interior courtyard at The Place Seoul Hanok Stay, Bukchon
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GET THERE AND AROUND
There are loads of airlines that fly into Incheon International Airport, the main gateway to Seoul. A few international flights also fly into Gimpo International Airport, much closer to Seoul, however this is mostly used for domestic flights.
Both airports are well connected to the city. Depending on your final destination in Seoul, the best and cheapest options from Incheon Airport is either by train into Seoul Station, or a City Limousine Bus, which makes stops at many locations around the city. Check out the various bus routes here.
A taxi will set you back a fair whack at around 70,000 Won. It takes between 40 minutes (AREX Train) and 60 minutes or more, depending on traffic, to get between Incheon and Seoul. Gimpo Airport has a subway connection, and is just 18km out of the city. It takes around 15-35 minutes to get into the city from there. Again, the AREX Train into Seoul Station is fastest but a bus or subway route might suit your final destination better.
The Seoul Metro system is extensive and easy to use, with signs and announcements in English.
Make sure to buy a T-Money Card before making your first journey and just keep topping this up as and when you need to. You can pick one up at any convenience store for 3,000 Won. Top it up with cash at the store, or at the recharge machines in subway stations. You benefit from discounted fares and can use it on the subway, local buses and most taxis (good across the country, not just Seoul!). Just tap the card at the subway turnstile, at the machine by the bus driver, or hand it to your taxi driver. If you’re changing lines or buses within 30 minutes, make sure you tap off and you won’t have to pay for the second journey. You can get a refund on any unused money up to 20,000 Won at any convenience store. They’ll just take a fee of 500 Won.
If you have lots of bags with you, you can use the lockers available at every subway station to store your stuff.
Being the capital city, getting to or from Seoul is easy.
There are a number of bus terminals throughout the city serving various locations. You can double check which bus terminal you need for your destination by calling the Korean Tourism Organisation (KTO) on 1330. Long distance buses are super comfortable, with massive reclining seats and footrests. Buses stop mid-way through a long journey at a service station for around 10 – 25 minutes so you can use the toilet and grab some snacks. The driver will shout out the duration in Korean – if you’re not sure then err on the side of caution and be back within 10 minutes!
Seoul Station is the main train station and hub for the superfast KTX to Busan and other destinations around Korea. Some services heading to the south-west of the country depart from Yongsan Station. Train fares are more expensive than the bus.
Although there are a number of domestic flight routes operating throughout the country the only one you are likely to consider is Seoul – Jeju (the world’s busiest air route!). There are around 200 flights a day, departing every 15 minutes or so. Check out Jeju Air, Korean Air, Asiana, Eastar Jet and Jin Air to name a few.
So, are you ready to take on one of East Asia’s most exciting cities?
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