Last updated on November 17, 2019
There were a number of titles in contention for this post, including “Heart and Seoul”, and “Going Seoul-o” (a reference to both Roald Dahl and Seoullo, the highway in Seoul that has been converted to a pedestrian park). Keeping it simple though, this has turned out to be the most straightforward title, and takes away the need to find something equally punny to name the writeups of other areas to come, like Busan and Boseong.
We spent about a week of the trip in Seoul all up, with days there at the start and end of our journeying. A broader overview of our travels through South Korea can be found in another post, South Korea travel tips. There is plenty to cover about Seoul itself though, and even the time we had there wasn’t enough to see, do, and eat all the things we wanted to. Still, we thought we might share some of what we discovered, because we found travel blogs from others a useful resource in planning our own trip.
Seoul is a huge city, with over 20 million people living in the metropolitan area. For comparison, the population of the whole of Australia currently sits at around 24 million. As a view from a high point like the N Seoul tower will tell you, the city just keeps going and going. As someone explained to us, there used to be separate towns once, but they have just grown into each other and coalesced into an urban landscape that extends seemingly as far as the eye can see.
It is all very well connected though, and as we mentioned in our other post about South Korea, the subway and bus make it convenient to get to anyplace you want to go. A T-money card is your literal ticket to almost anywhere. The neighbourhoods are also quite different, with history inevitably having influence. There is Gangbuk, the districts north of the Han river, with older, more traditional character, because that was where the royal palaces were, and so the original centre of power. Then there is the more famous Gangnam, the areas south of the Han river, newer, flashier, more commercial (there is the specifically named neighbourhood of Gangnam, but the names also refer to the broader division). Closer to the current day, neighbourhoods around the universities have a hipper, youthful buzz due to the influx of university students.
Things to do and places to go:
The Palaces and Bukchon Hanok Village
If you are a history and culture buff, you will want to be in the area north of the river, in particular the Jogno-gu district. This has four out of five of the great palaces of Seoul, and the Bukchon hanok village. Of them, Gyeongbokgung palace, Changdeokgung palace, and the Bukchon hanok village are reasonably walkable to each other. Cramming seeing them all into one day will probably be a bit of a push though, in particular if you want to join walking tours of them, rather than just whip through to say you’ve seen them.
There is an entrance fee to each of the palaces, but if you intend to see a few of them, you can save money by getting a Royal Palace Pass. This booklet of tickets was 10000 krw at the time we visited, and included entry to the five palaces and the Jongmyo shrine. It is valid for three months, meaning you can take your time to do the visits, but you can only go to each place once (so you have three months to get through all the sites, rather than it being a visit each as many times as you want for three months). This does work out, because entrance fee to Gyeongbukgong palace was 3000 krw, and the entrance fee to Changdeokgung palace and the Secret Garden was 8000 krw (you can see just the palace itself without going to the Secret Garden for 3000 krw, but the garden is actually the majority of the Changdeokgung palace site). You can buy the pass at the booths where you buy the admission tickets to any of the palaces. Alternatively, you can rent a hanbok, and get free entry to all the palaces when dressed in it. Entry to the Bukchon hanok village is free.
Tips on the palace visits:
-The palaces are not open every day of the week, so plan out your trip accordingly to avoid the disappointment of turning up on the wrong day. Gyeongbukgong palace is closed on Tuesdays, and Changdeokgung palace is closed on Mondays. The Jongmyo shrine is closed on Tuesdays. We didn’t get to the other palaces, but you can find more information on them, including their opening times and how to get there on the Korea Tourism Organisation page about them.
-There are free guided tours a few times a day at each of the palaces, each involving a walk around the important buildings at each of the sites and explanations of details about them. It is worth timing your visits to go on these tours, as the available pamphlets are pretty light on information, and if you’re like us, you will find it much more interesting than just wandering around on your own looking at the structures (because after a point, they all look pretty similar).
-Some of the palaces also have particular events, for instance Gyeongbokgung palace, which has Changing of the guard ceremonies at different times and locations on the palace grounds. Those too, are worth figuring into your planning.
Tips on visiting the Bukchon hanok village:
-Leave yourself enough time to wander the winding streets, and enjoy the enchanting atmosphere created by being surrounded by the traditional buildings, enhanced by people strolling past in hanboks on their way between palaces (and taking copious photos). It will take you at least a couple of hours to wander through, as it spans a larger area than you might think.
-There are also other places within the village itself you might like to visit, like the Traditional Crafts Experience Centre, and the Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre.
-Free walking tours of the hanok village are available, but have to be booked at least three days advance on the Visit Seoul.net site, operated by the Seoul Tourism Organisation. (You can also book a paid walking tour elsewhere, but they require at least as much organisation, and aren’t free.)
-The Bukchon Tourist Information Centre is closed on Mondays.
-The hanok village is still a residential neighbourhood, so visitors are advised to avoid making too much noise, and respect residents’ privacy when taking photos. Due to issues from the hordes of tourists, rules have recently been implemented, so non-residents can only visit the Bukchon hanok village between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Saturday, and it is closed to visitors on Sundays.
How to get there: You can get to Gyeongbokgung palace from Gyeongbokgung subway station, at exit 5. Changdeokgung palace, Jongmyo shrine, and Bukchon hanok village are all walkable from Anguk subway station.
Namsan Seoul Tower
Most large cities have a high vantage point that is a popular place to take in the surroundings from. The N Seoul Tower, also known as the Namsan Seoul Tower, or just Seoul Tower, is the highest spot in Seoul. Mount Namsan is pretty high (262m – for comparison, Brisbane’s Mount Coot-tha is 287m high), and the N Seoul Tower is almost that height again (237m). You get a good view from even the base of the tower, and just before sunset is the best time to go, so you can still see the buildings, then see the city lights come on. You do have to buy an admission ticket to go up to the observation deck at the top of the tower (more information here), but you can see plenty from the viewing area around the base of the tower.
As people are wont to do in various locations with fences, couples have attached thousands upon thousands of locks in all colours and sizes to the fence around the viewing area, to symbolise their bond. This is quite a sight, and is an attraction in itself. Rather than cut them down, as has been done in other places (due to damage to the structures from the weight of the locks), the government has realised the potential of this (hey, if people were going to keep attaching locks to the fence anyway), and has constructed a fence able to sustain the load, and actually encouraged visitors to add locks to it. There is even a separate section with trees covered in (or made up of) locks. If you haven’t remembered to bring your own lock, you can buy and personalise one there.
There is also Seoul Tower Plaza at the base of the tower, extending downwards from the ground level you reach the tower at. This has a few eateries, including Starbucks and Gong Cha, and a branch of Olive Young, just in case you really need some beauty products while you’re up there. There is also a Ryan Cheezzzball Adventure Park, which we didn’t get (turns out it is a Kakao friends VR theme park), and Hello Kitty Island on other floors of the plaza.
How to get there: Buses number 2, 3, or 5 will take you most of the way up Mount Namsan, but there is still a bit of an uphill walk to Namsan Seoul Tower itself. If you are really keen, you can walk up to it through Namsan Park. We took a bus up and walked back down to the city. The walking route is paved and well lighted, so you can traverse it just fine at night.
Hongdae was an area we visited a number of times. Also north of the river and near Hongik University, it has energy and vibrance from locally-residing university students, and creative influence from one of the best fine arts colleges in South Korea. Its indie-culture history remains strong. You will find plenty of not-too-expensive eateries, and shops with affordable streetwear. The main Korean skincare brands also have stores here, and the prices match whatever you can find in Myeongdong.
Something you definitely have to see is the street performances that happen in the evenings. These take place along Eoulmadang-ro, a pedestrian area between rows of shops, where there are four semicircular areas with steps around them that form makeshift performance stages, with the gathering audience sitting and standing around on those steps. The usual performances are singing or dancing, with the dancers usually garnering the larger audiences. The dancing usually involves energetic K-Pop routines, and the performances are impressive. We witnessed some that had clearly amassed their own fan base, with people lining up to take selfies with the group members afterwards (and we’re talking lines snaking a good way around the performance area here). If you want a taster of seeing a K-Pop concert live and up close without having to line up for hours and hours beforehand (more on that later), then definitely visit Hongdae.
How to get there: Take the subway to Hongik University Station. Exit 8 is the closest one to the lively areas.
Myeongdong will be a given stop for those into K-Beauty and skincare. There isn’t much to add about it that isn’t already written up in numerous beauty blog sites, apart from that we didn’t really find that things were more of a bargain there than at the brand stores elsewhere. There also weren’t complimentary samples or freebies, probably because they had no shortage of shoppers who would buy things anyway, so they didn’t need to entice people. If anything, it was an outlet in a quieter neighbourhood that threw in free samples. Probably the main benefit of going to Myeongdong is that all the major brand stores are there. Unless you are after particularly premium brands though, you will find branches of most of the mainstream skincare brands like Face Shop, Innisfree, Holika Holika, and A’pieu close together in many other neighbourhoods, like Hongdae (as previously mentioned) and in the Ewha Womens University shopping area. Olive Young branches are also everywhere (like N Seoul Tower above). NUNC was a little less widespread, but another multi-brand store with some well-priced products. Remember to bring your passport with you, as if you spend over a certain amount, many stores can give you the tourist tax refund on the spot.
It’s not all just about the shopping though, because as evening sets in, street food vendors bring their carts out and line the main street of Myeongdong. It stretches quite a distance, and you will find just about any street food you were looking to try while in South Korea here.
While in Myeongdong, we made a point of visiting the Stylenanda Pink Hotel, actually a concept store from Korean fashion and beauty brand Stylenanda rather than a hotel you can stay in. This shop is themed, as you may have guessed, like a hotel. What we were particularly wowed by was the creativity in the styling. The store spans six floors of a small building, with each floor uniquely decorated, but in a way that absolutely tied in with the theme. On the ground floor was a replica information desk, with rows of keys behind it. You could take either the stairs, or a lift to the other floors. You will have to see it for yourself, but other floors were styled to look like a hotel corridor complete with rows of doors (some of which led to change rooms), a laundromat, and a pool terrace (the shower cubicle was actually a change room). There is also a rooftop terrace on the top floor, but it was closed on the evening we were there. The Pink Hotel certainly made for an entertaining detour despite that, and they have clearly put it together with the Instagram crowd in mind.
How to get there: Take the subway to Myeongdong station, and Exit 6 will be the closest one to the main shopping area.
Going south of the river, you will find the well known district of Gangnam. We didn’t spend much time there, but did visit the Starfield Coex Mall. This is not just any mall, but a huge complex, with the largest underground shopping mall in Asia (or the world, depending on which reference you read), concert halls, and an aquarium. It also has SMTown, SM Entertainment’s showcase of its popular idol groups, with memorabilia like outfits worn in music videos and awards won, merchandise for purchase (of course), and theatres with hologram concerts. While there are things you can see for free (mostly pictures), you have to pay for entry to the museum and to see any of the shows. Something for only the true fans, perhaps, but it was interesting to see.
There are a couple of Insta-popular places you should stop at while at the Starfield Coex mall. The gold Gangnam Style hands outside one of the entrances to the mall are a bit of a pop culture icon, and an interactive display board next to the giant statue will play the song and accompanying video so you can take footage of yourself dancing to Gangnam style on the circular stage underneath the hands.
The Starfield Library is another venue in the mall that continues to draw many visitors because of its photogenic design. Filtered daylight streams in from the ceiling above, lighting bookshelves that stretch up many stories. Although it isn’t clear how they get to those books so very high up, it is actually a functioning public library. The number of spectators seemed to outnumber those there to borrow books though. We watched numerous people riding up and down the escalators to try to get just the right selfie..
How to get there: Go to Samseong subway station, and take exit 6 to get to the Starfield Coex mall.
One area we only discovered right at the end of our trip (the very last day, before we left for the airport), and wished we had more time to explore, was Ikseon-Dong. We hadn’t read about it in any of the travel blogs about Seoul, but stumbled upon it when we were looking for the cafe scenes from Hotel Del Luna were filmed at. This was the Hotel Seine, actually a cafe styled to look like a hotel (it seems to be a trendy theme). This, too, has been decorated with an eye for detail. It also has a range of delectable treats you can avail yourself of. It was absolutely packed though, so we didn’t really get to explore the upstairs levels (think narrow staircases that really fit one person at a time that a stream of people are constantly trying to travel in both directions through). We did try to get a look, but every seat was filled on the second floor, so you couldn’t really appreciate the surroundings or get pictures without lots and lots of people being in every shot, and it just didn’t seem worth the effort to try to make our way up to higher floors.
The Hotel Seine was on the edge of Ikseon-Dong, and it was the stream of people going past the window into the adjacent lanes that caught our eye. After we exited the Hotel Seine with our pastry purchases, we joined the trail of people, and found ourselves wandering through a maze of narrow laneways between hanoks that housed cool cafes, eateries, and other independent shops. While the Buchon hanok village had a preserved old-world feel, this had more of a hipster vibe. While the area didn’t seem to loom large on the tourist radar, it was certainly popular with the locals.
How to get there: Take the subway to Jogno 3-Ga station, and take exit 4.
Those are some of the highlights we would recommend checking out while in Seoul. To explore more, and get more local insights, we would also suggest doing a free walking tour. These are organised by the Seoul Tourism Organisation, and are actually free. There are a range of different walks you can do in different areas of Seoul. Many of the tourist information centres also have a pamphlet about these you can pick up, but we found that what was listed in the pamphlet didn’t always correspond with what was available on the site. You have to register for tours at least 3 days in advice via the website, so that is probably the more up to date list. We did the Seoullo 7017 walk, and got to explore an area we might not have seen otherwise.
Hopefully this has been a starting point to help you work out how to spend your time in Seoul. We will cover places to eat in a post to follow.. To be sure you don’t miss out, you can subscribe to receiving new posts by following with the buttons below, or in the right toolbar.