Seoul, South Korea, a city with an interesting and rich cultural tapestry that has been knitted over centuries of tempestuous yet fascinating history.
History has been done, undone, and redone in this bustling city that has been invaded countless times and that has redeveloped itself with a free and forward thinking mentality; going from the poorest Asian country to one of the richest in the last 50 years.
Today, skyscrapers dwarf shantytowns and technology play with ancient history. Here are 10 places you can see that can help you capture the essence of what Seoul is.
1- Gyeongbokgung Palace
This is probably Korea’s most famous royal palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1394 and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times during periods of war and invasion.
A complex of pavilions spread along its walled, landscaped grounds composes this palace; so, couple hours are well spent here.
This palace is tough to miss since it is located at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard –Sejongro– and next to the Blue House (the President’s residence).
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station.
2- Changdeokgung Palace
This is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. Changdeokgung was constructed in 1405 as the secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, the main palace.
This palace is not just a single building, it is an immense complex filled with courts, halls, bridges, pavilions, and secret gardens. It is the only palace designated as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO.
Here, you can also relax in its beautifully landscaped botanical garden.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station, walk 5 minutes.
3- Bukchon Village
Situated between two palaces –Gyeongbokgung to the west and Changdeokgung to the east – this utterly picturesque neighborhood makes it easy to imagine the days of yore in this city.
This village has the largest cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes (“hanok”) in Seoul, all connected by alleys and beautiful small courtyards. This neighborhood also counts with quaint cafés, art galleries, and restaurants.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station.
Insadong is a very busy shopping street located in the middle of the city. It is full of restaurants, art stores, antique stores, and traditional souvenir shops lined along the main street.
Off of the main street, alleys full of galleries, traditional restaurants, traditional teahouses, and cafes abound. There is free classical music every Sunday.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station or Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station, or Line 1 to Jonggak Station.
This is an expat-friendly neighborhood near the main U.S. Army base. Itaewon is full of bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops. Here you will find Beton Brut: Concrete Bar and Soap Seoul, two of the best dance clubs in the city.
- Getting there: Take subway line 6 to Itaewon Station.
6- Namdaemun Market
This market has existed for over 600 years and counts with thousands of shops. This is a great place to find inexpensive clothing, fabrics, houseware, accessories, jewelry, food, etc.
It is also surrounded by dozens of multistory buildings full of specialty shops; so the shopping experience here can be a little overwhelming. This market is always crowded, so, prepare to get bumped around.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station.
7- Dongdaemun Gate (Great East Gate)
Originally called Heung-injimun (“Gate of Uplifting Mercy”), it once served as the main eastern gate in the wall surrounding Seoul.
The original gate was built in the 14th century, but it was rebuilt in 1869 to its present form. Detailed and delicate decorations represent the original post-Joseon Dynasty style of architecture.
Dongdaemun is one of only two main gates that have survived, the other being the North Gate, Sukjeongmun.
Located nearby are the Dongdaemun Market (one of Korea’s largest and most popular) and the Dongdaemun Sports Stadium (which has an interesting flea market on Sundays). Just like Namdaemun, the shopping experience here can be overwhelming.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 1 or 4 to Dongdaemun Station.
8- War Memorial of Korea
South Korea has been invaded so many times – too many to count – and it is still on guard with neighboring countries, ahem, North Korea.
This memorial presents the troubled history of this country and its relationship and influence with the rest of the world.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 4 to Samgakji Station.
9- N Seoul Tower
N Seoul Tower is a communications tower that opened to the public in 1980. The tower is located at the Namsan peak and measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base) and tops out at 479.7 m (1,574 ft) above sea level.
To get there, you can ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain and then walk to the tower.
The tower features gift shops, restaurants (one of them is a rotating restaurant), and four observation decks. This is a popular place to go on a clear day to see most of Seoul.
- Getting there: Take Subway Line 1 or 4 to Seoul Station.
Mountains surround Seoul, so if you like the hiking experience, one of the best to best to hike is Bugaksan, located behind the President’s pad, Cheongwadae or Blue House.
Several trails take hikers through reconstructed 15th-century gates and along Seoul’s ancient fortress walls. Once at the summit, you’ll get one of the most impressive views of Seoul’s skyline, from shantytowns to skyscrapers.
At the fortress, you can follow the steps of North Korean commandos, where they climbed the mountain some 40 years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the president. Note: You need your passport to get into the trails.
- Getting there: Take a taxi to Sukjeongmun gate, where you can access the best of the three trailheads.
Essential Info: Logistical Tips and Tricks to Book your Trip
BOOK YOUR FLIGHT
Regarding cheap airfare, I highly recommend using Skyscanner and Expedia. These are two of the sites I use the most due to their exhaustive search on several websites and airlines around the world. They usually bring the cheapest fares.
Additionally, I recommend getting the WayAway Plus membership to save money on cheaper fares and earn cashback (sent straight to your PayPal) on your bookings.
BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATION
For hotels, guesthouses, apartments, and other types of accommodation, I highly recommend Booking.com. They are my go-to booking site because they usually have the cheapest fares.
If you’re a registered Booking.com user (“Genius”), you can take advantage of their “Genius discount” to save even more money. I almost always book my accommodation with Booking, and I’ve saved thousands of dollars with their Genius discount.
And of course, as one of the largest travel booking sites in the world, Expedia is another excellent accommodation booking site with a free reward program and discounted member prices.
If you’re looking to save money by staying at a hostel, HostelWorld has the largest inventory of hostels with shared dorms and private rooms. On the other hand, Vrbo offers a wide variety of rooms and apartments at affordable prices.
DON’T FORGET YOUR TRAVEL INSURANCE
Travel insurance with comprehensive coverage will protect you against unexpected events like theft, cancellations, injury, and illness.
I use HeyMondo to insure my trips and recommend them. Their affordable plans offer a 24/7 assistance platform for claims, medical coverage for every traveler, adventure sports and covid-19 coverage, and more. And better yet, GloboTreks readers get 5% off their plan! Get a quote.
Alternatively, if you’re a nomad and travel often or long-term, then SafetyWing could help you save a lot of money on long-term travel insurance.
FIND THE BEST TOURS AT THE BEST PRICES
If you’re looking for the best day tours and cheapest ticket entrances to local attractions, I recommend checking Viator, as they have the largest selection of attractions, passes, and activities all around the world.
BOOK YOUR LOCAL TRANSPORTATION AHEAD OF TIME
Bookaway offers the easiest and most accessible way to book overland transportation with local operators, be it by bus, train, ferry, plane, mini-van, or even private transfers.
If renting a car, then I highly recommend DiscoverCars to get the largest car selection at the best price.
OTHER TRAVEL AND MONEY-SAVING TIPS?
Lastly, check out my resources page for some of the best products and companies to use for your trip. If you like saving money (like I do!), then this page will help.
LET ME HELP YOU TRAVEL MORE BY GETTING ADDITIONAL TIPS AND INSPIRATION VIA THE MONTHLY NEWSLETTER.
Plus, receive a short e-book with 15 Beginner Tips and Tricks to Start Travel Hacking!
I had a long layover in Seoul once. They offer transit tours. While I didn’t have time to go into the city, I did visit the beach and a nearby temple. It was a great way to pass the time, and get a South Korean Passport Stamp!
Really? That is really cool. One of the times I was there was on a long layover too (13 hours), but didn’t know about that tour. I managed to get around (and get lost) by myself. I guess that tour would have been cool, though I went during the winter, so the beach doesn’t seem so appealing. Ha! Still, its a great initiative by the South Korean companies/government to cater to long layover tourists.
Nice list! Like Ben, I also took advantage of the transit tour during a layover. I’m so glad I did because I loved it!! I hope to go back to South Korea at some point. I also found out that Seoul airport is one of the best airports to have a layover at because they have free showers, a transit hotel, lounge chairs for sleeping, internet and a flat screen that you can watch tv or movies on.
Seoul Airport has been the BEST airport I’ve ever been! It is so cool!!! Yeah, I spent a couple hours walking around it and was amazed by it. It is practically new so it is full of top notch amenities. Good architecture and design also. 🙂
Another great post! I’m heading to Seoul for three weeks over the holidays and I’ve definitely taken some notes here.
Thanks Amy! That’s great. If you have the chance, explore outside the city. They have great landscaped and not so visited spots that are not too far from Seoul. Take a good coat. It gets VERY cold during the winter. I wasn’t too prepared when I went so I had to run to a flea market to buy cheap gloves.
Funny that I have not had a major jones about visiting Korea, but you got me thinking. The market looks incredible. Nice photos by the way, Norbert
Thanks Devin! The South Korean markets are CRAZY! Thousands and thousands of little shops; all very specific to their market. Very active, very interesting…
I would love to go to Korea, you’ve listed some amazing places that I hadn’t heard about before.
There is so much to do in Seoul. Such an culturally interesting city. I want to go back and explore more outside of the city.
Nice places. 🙂 Hope you visit again and explore more as well! 🙂 There are just too many places and too many things to feel what Seoul is. Such a diverse city..
Glad you liked your visit!
Thanks Juno! I’m looking forward to go back. I loved Seoul!! So many things to do! Now I want to explore a bit more outside the city.
there are much more places to visit~!!
If you guys need any more info,
feel free to ask me~!!
haha I’ll help you~~
Thanks for stopping by Sam! Definitely, there are much more places to visit. 🙂
do you recommend a “must see/do” list for couples going to Seoul (with price ranges)??? I just arrived here but my wife will be visiting next month so i’m in the process of planning activities.
It’s been a while since I visited Seoul, so my recommendations could be outdated. But, I highly recommend you check http://www.runawayjuno.com and contact her as she’s a local and a world traveler as well. I’m sure she’ll give you great recommendations for you and your wife. 🙂