Did you know Seoul is a city with a sweet tooth? When I think of our trip to Seoul in 2017 I immediately remember the pastries. Every corner we turned seemed to have a sign tempting us with a freshly baked tart or elaborate dessert concoction.
Of course, there is much more to South Korea’s capital than cake though. This forward-thinking city is an intoxicating fusion of soaring skyscrapers, sprawling palaces and street food markets. Seoul’s got an array of attractions and a buzzing nightlife that make it perfect for a city break, and, as it’s relatively easy to navigate independently, it’s a great place to start your travels further into South Korea.
Once it becomes safe to travel again, South Korea is one of the lesser-explored destinations I hope to return to. Perhaps this introduction to the best things to do in Seoul will make you feel the same way.
(Note: This post was originally written in 2017 after a self-funded trip to Seoul and has been updated in August 2020 in partnership with the #SeeKoreaNext campaign by Korea Tourism Organisation.)
What to do in Seoul on your first visit
Best places to visit in Seoul
There are 5 grand palaces in Seoul and you could easily spend a whole day exploring them, but the one I think you absolutely shouldn’t miss is Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Also known as the Northern Palace due to its location in relation to the other 4.)
Built in 1395 as the main royal palace for the Joseon Dynasty, this sprawling complex features imposing gates, a pavilion in the middle of a lake, and is home to both the National Palace and National Folk Museum of Korea.
Don’t miss the twice-daily changing of the guard ceremony at the main gate, for lots of colourful pomp and flag-bearing.
For some extra memorable photos, rent a traditional Hanbok outfit from one of the rental stores near the palace and (bonus!) you won’t have to pay for entry.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Another wonderful way to get to grips with Seoul’s past is to wander the narrow lanes and meander into the traditional wooden Hanok houses at Bukchon Hanok Village.
Many of the Hanok are still residential dwellings but a few have been converted into cosy teahouses that give you a taste of South Korean traditions. We also discovered a few independent boutiques selling handcrafted homewares that, on reflection, I wish I’d bought home with me!
Café-Hop in Hongdae
By far my favourite neighbourhood in Seoul is hipster Hongdae, an area surrounding Hongik University filled with coffee shops, cake cafes, craft beer halls and trendy Korean BBQ restaurants.
By day, you can café-hop around brunch spots with Seoul twists or cuddle up to puppies at pet cafes (if that’s your thing!), and by night, you’re spoilt for choice with rows of restaurants serving up modern South Korean cuisine.
Gangnam’s Food Streets
Another area you must graze your way around are Gangnam’s Food Streets. Situated either side of the digitally lit Gangnam Shopping Street (near Gangnam Station’s exit 10 or 11), these bustling roads are filled with every imaginable type of fast and street food, from Korea’s first Shake Shack to South Korean coffee chains and cheap Korean fried chicken shops.
This area really comes to life at night when office workers, commuters, students and shoppers come together to enjoy the food and entertainment. We had a fun evening visiting a beer shop, which, as the name suggests, was a bar with wall-to-wall beer fridges. You helped yourself to whatever you fancied, popped the empty bottles in a bucket and took it to a till to pay for what you drank on the way out. That is my kind of convenience! (Although arguably dangerous if you’re trying to stick to a budget!)
Also while in this area, pop into Samsung D-Light at the Samsung superstore for a taste of technology’s future.
And if you want a silly photo with a tribute to (arguably) Seoul’s most famous product, check out the Psy Gangnam Style interactive statue at Exit 6 of Samsung Station. (Yes, it does play THAT song!)
N Seoul Tower
To get a sense of just how vast Seoul really is, take a trip in the cable car that drops you at the base of N Seoul Tower.
Situated atop Mount Namsan, the N Seoul Tower is both a communication and observation tower that sits geographically in the centre of the city and is surrounded by parkland and scenic picnic spots on the mountain’s slopes.
The visibility on the day of our visit wasn’t good enough to warrant a trip to the top observation deck but we had fun exploring the restaurants and shops inside the tower and taking in all the love locks that locals and visitors had left laced to the railings. (The shop sells them if you’d like to leave a little piece of your heart in Seoul too.)
Travelling as a family? Click here for a kid-friendly Seoul travel itinerary
What to eat in Seoul
Definitely ask your accommodation provider if they can make you a reservation at a popular Korean BBQ restaurant in Hongdae – our hotel did this for us and it was exceptional.
Head to Namdaemun Market, the largest traditional market in South Korea, to literally get lost in laneways of Seoul street food. We found English was rarely spoken at the market so you’ll have to pluck up the courage to sit at a street food stall and just see what comes. We tried some of South Korea’s famous Bulgogi this way, although I can’t be certain we did it right as there was an element of self-assembly that we fudged our way through!
Gorge on cheap Chimaek (fried chicken and beer) after a night out in Gangnam and try one of the self-serve beer shops I mentioned earlier for a memorable experience.
Where to shop in Seoul
Dongdaemun is Seoul’s major shopping district with local markets and glossy malls to keep you busy for days.
For something a little more unique, head to the Design Market at the Zaha Hadid designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza (or DDP) – itself a spectacular piece of architecture that’s worth exploring.
For all sorts of Korean souvenirs, street food and tea houses head to Insadong.
Where to stay in Seoul
We stayed at a funky loft style boutique hotel called – wait for it – Boutique Hotel Loft. Found right near Dangsan Station it was easy to get a bus here from the airport and hop on the subway to explore the areas of Seoul mentioned above.
Soaking in the big tub after all the walking was lovely too!
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