See & Do in Seoul:
Seoul is a city that truly has something for everyone. Seoulites have tried to marry their ancient traditions as seamlessly as possible with their desire to be the most technologically advanced and modern city in the world. There are limitless opportunities for any kind of person.
If you’re wanting to get a feel for how Seoul was in the past the city has done its best to try and preserve the historic buildings and neighborhoods.
The Ancient City Wall and Gates
If you’re wanting to explore the old Seoul a hike along the ancient city wall is an excellent way to get a history lesson and some truly amazing views of the city. The city wall snakes along the mountains around Seoul. Though not fully restored, you get to see why Seoul has been such an easy city to defend from land-based attacks! The four city gates of Seoul (Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, Seodaemun, and Bukdaemun) have all been lovingly preserved and restored. Originally Seoul was a completely closed off city and could only be entered or exited through one of these four main gates or the four much smaller lesser gates. Whenever any of the main gates were opened the giant Bosingak bell (also still erected) would be rung. This walk offers views of the city you can’t get anywhere else!
The Great Palaces
Korean palaces contain some of the most unique architecture you will see. Ancient Koreans believed that palaces should flow with the surrounding nature and interrupt it as little as possible. However, due to Korea being controlled at different times by both China and Japan, the marriages of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean styles create something wholly unique. There are 5 different palaces (Gyeongbok, Changdeok, Changgyeong, Gyeongdeok, and Deoksu) in Seoul and each palace was constructed in completely different times in Korean history and show different eras of Korean architecture.
Hanok villages have been either constructed or preserved in order to give both Koreans and visitors a sense of what life and architecture was like in old Seoul. The two largest of these are Bukchon and Namsangol. Bukchon gives a feel of the ancient city, with winding streets, small businesses, and still functioning homes. Namsangol is more of a museum to show the more rural aspects of Korean life, but is surrounded by a very serene park.
For the ultimate bargains you should head to the labyrinths and massive warehouses of the two major shopping districts: Dongdaemun and Namdaemun. Because they are situated beside two of the ancient city gates there have been markets in these areas for centuries. You could spend weeks exploring the streets of these markets and still not see everything there is on sale. The vendors will be more than happy to haggle over prices and try to usher you into their stalls. You can find something completely unique and wholly Seoul here.
If you’re looking for fashionable clothes but don’t want to break the bank then Myeongdong is the place for you. There are hundreds of boutiques and name-brand stores as well as some wonderful street food and very unique characters. The tightly packed streets are literally overflowing with Koreans and tourists alike. Korea is famous for it’s cosmetics and Myeongdong is the best place to go to stock up, offering many tourist-oriented discounts that you can’t get anywhere else.
If you have money to burn, look no further than Sinsa. In Sinsa, upscale boutiques mingle with internationally famous luxury brands. If you want to rub elbows with the rich and famous but don’t have the money to dress like them, have a seat in an adorable café overlooking Garosu-gil street, you might even spot your favorite K-Star!
When looking for Korean-themed gifts for your friends and family back home there is really no better option than Insadong. The main street of Insadong is filled with artisans selling their truly uniquely Korean wares. You can find handmade everything, from fine Korean textiles to pottery to traditional Korean paintings. Most of the sellers are willing to haggle and will give you deep discounts if you buy more than one item.
Hiking, Hiking, Hiking!
Every weekend the subways of Seoul are filled with middle-aged Koreans flocking to the thirteen mountains surrounding the city. These mountains range from easy to pretty difficult. A hike up Namsan is very doable and offers some spectacular views of the city. You’re also rewarded at the end by the best views of Seoul from Namsan Tower. Bukhansan has the widest variety of hiking trails and can help you really work up a sweat. If rock climbing is more your style a short subway ride out to the surrounding Gyeonggi Province offers a wealth of locations for all ability types.
The Han River
Name the flat-land activity and it can most likely be done at the Han River. You can rent anything from kayaks to jet skis and can rent bicycles, tandem bicycles, or scooters to ride along the edge of the river. All parks and hiking trails in Korea have one special amenity: exercise equipment! There are simple machines available outdoors for stationary biking, elliptical machines, and various tools for stretching out your city-cramped muscles.
Hongik University (Hongdae for short) is the top Korean art university and logically the area surrounding the school has a wealth of galleries, outdoor art installations, and unique bars and cafes. The youth that choose to inhabit Hongdae are bursting with energy. At night the streets are full of performance artists and musicians. Grab a beer from a convenience store and just spend an entire night people watching, it’s a sure way to find inspiration!
Like any major city there are plenty of museums to explore in Seoul. The largest museum is the National Museum of Korea. It’s a combination Korean art and Korean history museum that regularly hosts internationally travelling exhibits. The traditional Korean art is wholly unique to the peninsula, with it’s own themes and trends. The layout of the permanent collections works well as an art history lesson for those unfamiliar with Korean art. The Seoul Museum of Art hosts many famous travelling exhibits throughout the year. The Leeum Art Museum is the most architecturally striking museum and boasts a very diverse collection of ancient Korean pottery as well as modern installations and sculptures.
Gallery areas are scattered throughout the city, but the largest concentration of galleries is in Samcheong-dong. This unique neighborhood has become the dating hotspot for your, hip Seoulites. The architecture of Samcheong-dong is very striking, as modern architects attempt to marry their creations with the surrounding traditional Korean architecture. The modern galleries of this area give you a wonderful overview of where Korean art is heading. You could easily spend an entire day walking lazily through this neighborhood, popping in and out of galleries and cafes.
Korean Food Specialty Markets and Streets
Korean cuisine is incredibly diverse, but there are certain dishes that Koreans pride themselves on and restaurants are constantly trying to out-do each other in the game of “who has the best ____ in Seoul.” Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the many cuisine-specific streets throughout Seoul. There’s Ddokbokki (VERY thick rice noodles in spicy sauce) Street in Sindang, Naengmyun (iced buckwheat noodle soup) District in Ojang-dong, Sundae (blood sausage filled with noodles) Town in Sillim, and Jokbal (smoked pig’s feet) Land in Gongdeok. Though some of these places are a little far from central Seoul it’s more than worth it if yu want to stuff yourself with your favorite Korean food.
If there’s one thing Seoulites love more than anything it’s a cute, quirky, unique café. The city is literally bursting with cafés and, other than the chains, no two look alike. One of the best parts about exploring a new area of the city is finding a café to fall in love with. Many cafés fall into the dangerous trap of focusing more on aesthetic than their actual product, but there’s a growing call for cafés to be not only adorable but also delicious. A similar trend is happening with café food, though much slower. Take a book with you whenever you leave the house, because there are few more enjoyable activities.
Seoul is becoming more and more of a welcoming place for international chefs, but going to western restaurants can be a bit of a gamble. Non-Korean restaurants tend to be concentrated in areas where many non-Koreans live. The best western restaurants are undoubtably in Itaewon and the surrounding neighborhoods, the foreigner districts of Seoul. If’ you’re looking more for Middle Eastern or Russian food there’s no place better than Dongdaemun. The more upscale restaurants can be found in Gangnam and increasingly in the City Hall area. Be warned, though. The Korean gastronomic palate might be very different from that of your home country.
Koreans, Seoulites most of all, work extremely hard and are often desperate for an opportunity to unwind but don’t have much spare time in which to do so. This has made the “relaxation industry” and extremely time-efficient and well oiled machine.
Jimjilbangs and Spas
The Korean public bath houses (jimjilbangs in Korean) have been a staple of life here for generations. Though originally purely utilitarian establishments they have since transformed into relaxation factories. There are many jimjilbang (often having changd their names to spas) that feature multiple levels of baths, saunas, and steam rooms with varying properties and themes. Though jimjilbang culture can be shocking at first (the areas in which the sexes are separated are entirely nude as no clothing is allowed in the bathing rooms) once you get over the initial shock you’ll wonder why you were ever nervous.
For those looking for more active relaxation techniques, Seoul has something for you. There are hundreds or driving ranges, virtual golf rooms, billard halls, tennis courts, swimming pools, and gymnasiums for you to enjoy. You just need to learn what to look for in order to find them. Many driving ranges in Seoul have blended into the city skyline (whenever you see a massive green netting tent popping up, it’s a driving range). Most gyms also have virtual golfing equipment but there are also entire complexes devoted to it. Hotels always have indoor pools which you can pay to use either on a daily or subscription basis.
For those of us (myself included) addicted to people watching there is no place better than Seoul’s parks. The largest, of course, being Hangang Park, which runs the entire length of the Han river on both sides. Though sorely in need of more trees this is an excellent park for a picnic, game of Frisbee, or just relaxing and watching people slide by. Yeouido Park offers more shade and more interesting landscape. Seoul Forest and Seoul Dream Forest are the two best all-around parks, though they are less centrally located. Grab some kimbap and your alcoholic beverage of choice (there are no open container laws in Korea!) and happily waste the day away!