It’s so easy to fall in love with Seoul, South Korea’s bustling and vibrant capital city. Here you’ll find not only a historical and traditional glimpse into Korea’s past but also an endless to-do list of modern and uniquely Korean experiences!
After living in South Korea as an English teacher for two years, I’ve had so much fun exploring Seoul’s best attractions, prettiest destinations, and historical sights! So before you jet off to one of my all-time favorite cities, I’ve got you covered with my ultimate Seoul city guide.
I am sharing everything from where to stay in Seoul, the best things to do in the city, must-know Korean travel tips, and more!
The Best Things To Do In Seoul
There is an infinite list of unique Seoul experiences, but here are my top ten favorite things to do in Seoul for any first time visitor. And to properly see the city, I recommend having at least three full days in Seoul if possible.
1) See The Changing Of The Guards At Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s Largest Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and most well-known of Seoul’s five palaces, so if you only have time for one, I recommend this one! Try to time your visit to see the changing of the guards in traditional garb at 10 am or 2 pm every day the palace is open.
The entrance fee is only 3,000 won (about $3USD), and the palace is open every day except for Tuesday and has varying hours depending on the season.
Many people rent a hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, for a fun day of taking photos around the palace. There are a few different hanbok shops outside of the entrance to the palace, so be sure to pick it up before entering! It shouldn’t cost you more than 30,000 won for one day.
2) Go Back In Time In Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon Hanok Village is a cluster of traditional Korean wooden homes that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. Located just a short ½ mile walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace, wandering the streets of Bukchon will transport you back to Korea’s pre-industrial past.
Admission is free, and there’s a self-guided walking tour map you can pick up from the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center.
Please be respectful while you visit; this is a residential neighborhood that can get quite disruptive and crowded with tourists. Respect the homes of those who live there and keep the area clean, calm, and quiet.
3) Walk Along The Peaceful Cheonggyecheon Stream To Gwangjang Traditional Market
On a warm and sunny day, a classic Seoul experience is to walk the beautiful urban recreation trail that follows the Cheonggyecheon Stream 2 km (1.25 miles) to Gwangjang Traditional Market. The stream starts at Cheonggye Square near Seoul City Hall and is a peaceful walk with modern and traditional murals along the way.
Watch out for signposts for Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s oldest traditional market. Here you absolutely must try the famous Korean mung bean pancake (bindaetteok in Korean) that’s made by mixing mung beans, bean sprouts, onions, and peppers before being deep-fried into a pancake that has a texture very similar to a hash brown. It’s to die for!
You’ll also want to try the dumpling soup, kimchi dumplings, and bibimbap (mixed rice and vegetables) while you’re there.
For more great food to try, be sure to read our Vegetarian Food To Eat In South Korea article!
4) Eat Korean Street Food And Shop The Streets Of Myeongdong
Although Seoul doesn’t have a single downtown area, Myeongdong is right up there as one of the main neighborhoods of the city. Here, fantastic shopping, tall buildings, and glitzy neon signs will amaze you!
Along the walkways, street food vendors set up shop in the afternoon to sell classic, must-try Korean street food goodies as well as trinkets and souvenirs.
Myeongdong is one of the best places to shop for Korean faves like cutesy phone cases and accessories, K beauty supplies, Korean fashion, and more.
5) Climb To The Top Of The N Seoul Tower For Sweeping Views Of The City
The N Seoul Tower, or Namsan Tower, is Seoul’s most recognizable landmark. Located in the Itaewon neighborhood, visiting the observation deck is a must-do.
You can opt to spend 45 minutes climbing the stairs all the way to the top (the tower is on Namsan mountain), or instead, you can take the cable car for an extra fee (9,500 won or about $9.50USD roundtrip).
Entrance to the tower is 11,000 won (about $11USD) and is open 10:00 – 23:00 every day, closing at 24:00 on Saturdays. I recommend coming to see the sunset so you can enjoy both day and night views of Seoul’s skyline.
6) Experience The Traditional Side Of Seoul In Insadong
Here you’ll find a lovely pedestrian street that is lined with food vendors, old school tea houses, and countless shops selling traditional Korean souvenirs such as tea, Hanji paper, pottery, chopsticks, and more!
The artsy Ssamziegil shopping complex is tucked away down a small alley from the main street and houses the cutest handicraft shops.
While in Insadong, I highly recommend popping into one of Seoul’s oldest tea houses Chatjip Teahouse for traditional teas and snacks. You’ll also find in the area the silly Poop Cafe, a classic Korean cafe that sells lattes in toilet mugs and chocolate-filled, poo-shaped treats.
7) Grill Some Meat And Sip Soju Over Korean BBQ
Another excellent Korean bucket list item is feasting at a local Korean BBQ restaurant. There’s something magical about cooking your own meat and indulging in all of the small side dishes (bonchon in Korean) that come with your meal.
For authentic Korean BBQ, check out any of the restaurants in BBQ Meat Alley near Jongno Station 3, or pop into Wangbijib (왕비), a popular BBQ restaurant in Myeongdong that will help you grill your meat.
8) Check Out Some Of The Most Instagrammable Places In Seoul
There are so many fantastic photo spots in Seoul that are just begging to be photographed. A few of the most Instagrammable spots include:
- Yongma Land: an abandoned amusement park
- Common Ground: a shipping container shopping complex
- Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
- Inwangsan: Hike along ancient city walls with skyline views
- Starfield Coex Library in Gangnam
- Ihwa Mural Village in Incheon
- Stylenanda Pink Pink Pool Cafe
9) Get A History Lesson At The War Memorial Of Korea
Learn how the two Koreas came to be divided during a conflict that’s still unresolved to this day at the War Memorial of Korea.
Here you’ll get an eye-opening history lesson and can take in the sights of over 30,000 war artifacts. After wandering the streets of Seoul, it’s hard to imagine it was a city entirely devastated by war in the 1950s.
The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday (closed Mondays) from 09:30 – 18:00 and is free to enter unless there is a special exhibition on offer.
10) Take A Day Trip To The DMZ
The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ is today’s border between North and South Korea, where military negotiations from the Korean War still take place today. Visitors can join a special tour that takes you to noteworthy war sights, including an observation deck looking into North Korea, a tour of the infiltration tunnel, and more.
I recommend Kooridoor as a reputable tour agency for English tourists looking to safely learn more about the tense history between North and South Korea!
How To Get Around Seoul
As a large and spread out city, many of the attractions aren’t within walking distance of one another. Check out how to quickly and affordably get around Seoul during your visit.
For those on a budget looking to save some money, public transportation is probably the best way to get around the city.
Seoul has a very comprehensive metro system, as well as hundreds of bus routes that efficiently connect every neighborhood. For tourists, everything is written out in English, so there’s no need to worry about the language barrier.
Fares depend on how far you travel but range from 1,250 – 2,000 won ($1.25USD – $2USD) for a one-way trip. You can buy your metro tickets at ticketing machines in the station before you board (you pay cash to the driver on the bus), or you can pick up a transportation card at a local convenience store such as 7/11, Family Mart, G Story, etc.
Korea’s transportation cards (T Money or Cash Bee cards) are honestly the most convenient way to travel in Seoul and cost only about four dollars.
They must be pre-loaded with cash before you ride, and you can load money onto them at the station or any convenience store that sells the cards. With a card, it’s as simple as tapping it on the turnstile reader to get in, and tapping it when you exit.
For faster and more convenient travel around Seoul, grabbing a public taxi is also a breeze. Compared to taxi fares in the west, the fares in Korea are generally pretty reasonable, often not exceeding $15USD-$20USD per ride.
The easiest way to get a taxi in Seoul will be via the KakaoT app. There is no Uber or Lyft in Korea, but Kakao is exactly the same. Just plug in your location and desired destination in the app, and a driver will come to pick you up and take you where you need to go.
Using the app also helps with any language barriers because it lets you use it in English while the driver receives your destination’s address in Korean. However, if you flag down a local taxi on the street, they may not understand where you’re trying to go if you don’t speak Korean.
Where To Stay In Seoul: The Best Neighborhoods
Choosing where to stay in Seoul is a challenge because of how big and interesting the city’s neighborhoods are. After living in the city, these are my favorite places to stay while visiting Seoul.
Myeondgong is the bustling shopping area of Seoul that’s home to countless international brands, local shops, and some of the best eateries in the city.
Myeongdong is a great place for tourists to stay because everything you could possibly need is right at your fingertips. It’s also a very photogenic part of the city that’s surrounded by tall buildings, flashing neon signs, and many of Seoul’s main attractions.
I recommend Myeongdong for first-time visitors seeking an authentic Korean experience in the heart of Seoul.
My top Myeongdong pick: Hotel 28 Myeongdong
Itaewon is best known as the international district of Seoul and boasts a vibrant night scene. You’ll find here some of the best international dining restaurants and the city’s most popular bars. Itaewon doesn’t offer much during the day other than a few shops and brunch spots, but in the evening, the streets come alive with party-goers and bar hoppers.
Itaewon is a great place for travelers excited to enjoy Seoul’s fantastic nightlife and looking to meet other travelers.
My top Itaewon pick: N Guesthouse Itaewon
Hongdae is named after the local university and has a really unique and inspiring art and music scene.
Here you’ll find street performances by aspiring stars, fantastic shopping, and an endless supply of independent cafes, restaurants, and bars. I personally loved staying in Hongdae for the chill and hip vibe, although it’s a bit further away from the main tourist destinations.
I recommend staying in Hongdae if you enjoy staying a bit off of the beaten tourist path and want to see a more trendy side to Seoul.
My top Hongdae pick: Hotel L7 Hongdae
Where To Eat In Seoul
The list of incredible Korean foods to try and must-visit creative eateries is so vast and varied, it’s incredibly difficult to choose just a handful of recommended restaurants in Seoul. Not only are there countless Korean restaurants serving fantastic traditional dishes, but the modern and international food scene is also unparalleled.
But if this is your first time visiting Korea, I think you gotta go Korean food as much as possible! So here are my favorite, must-try Korean restaurants in Seoul.
Gaeseong Mandu Koong
Gaeseong Mandu Koong is very popular, Michelin recommended traditional dumpling restaurant that’s extremely affordable considering its worldly recognition. It’s tucked down an unsuspecting alleyway in Seoul’s Insadong district and makes for a great lunch stop while exploring the Insadong area.
Wangbijib (왕비집) is hands down one of the most popular Korean BBQ joints in Seoul and is located near Myeongdong Station. It’s an excellent introduction to Korean BBQ because the staff will help you choose and grill your meat.
Price is charged per person, and meat proportions are based on table headcount. Don’t forget the soju and beer!
Gogung is a famous Korean chain offering bibimbap (mixed veggies and rice), pajeon (savory Korean pancake), and more on the main streets of Myeongdong. Gogung also offers vegetarian options, which is a rare find in Korea.
Imun Seolnongtang is one of Seoul’s (and Korea’s) oldest restaurants and was opened in 1904. It has survived over a hundred years of service and miraculously made it through Korea’s brutal Japanese colonization period, historic flooding, and even the Korean War.
Today, this Michelin guide establishment still serves a local favorite, ox bone beef soup.
Jungsik has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 50 restaurants and has become a pioneer in Korea’s modern food scene. They serve a wide variety of innovative and creative Korean dishes that take inspiration from the diverse cultures around the world and offer a high-end dining experience in Seoul.
The Best Bars In Seoul
No visit to Seoul would be complete without spending a night or two out on the town. Whether you’re into creative cocktails, a cold pint of beer, or a wild night of dancing, Seoul has it all.
Blacklist is a popular and cozy cocktail bar in Itaewon that’s best known for creative and bespoke cocktails and a fantastic atmosphere. This joint is a great place to kick off the evening with a tasty cocktail and or to spend a chill night filled with excellent conversation and drinks.
Southside Parlor is a hip cocktail bar open and managed by American ex-pats that also serves some great bar food for those hungry for western bites in Itaewon. In the summer, the bar’s rooftop opens up for outdoor cocktails and fun.
For beer enthusiasts excited to taste some Korean craft beer, head over to Magpie Brewing for a refreshing brew.
Located in Yongsan District near Itaewon, it’s one of the best spots for craft beer in Seoul. They also serve up a highly rated pizza and a cool atmosphere.
Once In A Blue Moon
Once in a Blue Moon is a trendy jazz bar that features live performances from local musicians, an impressive cocktail menu, and notable dishes.
It’s on the pricier side but delivers a memorable evening filled with music. I recommend booking a reservation in advance to ensure you get a good table.
General Travel Tips for Seoul
When To Visit South Korea
South Korea is a country that experiences all four seasons and sees both extremes of weather. In the summer, it gets hot and humid with temperatures up to 90° F, and the winter sees temperatures as low as 20° F.
For the most comfortable experience, I recommend visiting South Korea in the spring or fall, but in summer is also a good option – just prepare for some heat!
For those excited to see South Korea’s beautiful cherry blossoms, you’ll want to aim for a visit in March – April. The exact date varies year to year and depends on the weather, so timing a trip can be a bit of a challenge. Check out South Korea’s cherry blossom forecast before you book any travel to get a better idea of when to visit.
As for winter, it’s pretty cold and gloomy between the months of November – May, so I would try to avoid traveling to South Korea then if possible!
South Korea’s Tourist Visa Policy
For many countries (over 100), South Korea has a visa-free entry that allows travelers with a valid passport to come into the country for free!
Depending on your citizenship, you may stay for 30 to 90+ days. How easy is that? No fee, no application, and no visa special to deal with on your trip to South Korea.
Be sure to check out the requirements for your citizenship before you leave for the most up to date information!
Cash Or Card?
Unlike many other places in Asia, a large number of shops and places accept foreign cards making your travels even more convenient. Cash is still recommended to have on hand for street vendors, public transportation, and taxis, but it’s not a necessity to carry around large amounts of cash during your stay.
However, you may have a hard time finding ATMs that accept your foreign card because not all do. Be sure to look for ATMs that have international or global on them.
English In Korea
As a tourist visiting South Korea, you don’t need to worry too much about the language barrier as many people in Seoul can speak English reasonably well!
Popular tourist places often have menus or signs in both Korean and English, and if you ever need any help, look to younger generations as many must learn English in school starting in 3rd grade.
But that doesn’t mean you won’t need Korean at all during your trip! I recommend coming with a translation app on your phone for those inevitable situations where you’re struggling to communicate with someone.
Common examples include – communicating with a taxi driver or a bus driver when a restaurant doesn’t have a menu card in English, and when asking a local shop vendor a question or for a price.
Learning a couple of key Korean travel phrases will also go a long way for you and make a good impression with Koreans! Start with learning hello (An-nyeong-ha-se-yo), thank you (Kam-sa-ham-ni-da), yes (ne), and no (aniyo).
Korean Manners And Etiquette
Before heading off on your Korean adventure, be sure to learn some of the essential local manners and etiquette, so you’re respectful of the local culture during your visit.
Important Korean manners for tourists are:
- Use two hands when giving and receiving items, including while paying for something and shaking someone’s hand
- Be quiet and respectful on public transportation, it’s considered rude to be too loud.
- Don’t place your chopsticks vertically in your rice, it’s an omen of death in Korean culture
- Take your shoes off in people’s homes as well as some local shops and restaurants – it is very offensive to step inside with shoes if it’s a no-shoes establishment
- Avoid blowing your nose in public
- Respect your elders, and bow in greeting to show respect
Apps To Download For Korea
Many of the most common apps used around the world aren’t available or flat out don’t work in South Korea. I recommend having these Korean travel apps on hand before coming into the country!
Kakao Maps is the best navigation tool to use in Korea for accurate maps, directions, and public transportation routes and schedules.
As a heads up, Google Maps doesn’t work in Korea, other than for a vague outline of the bus and metro routes. You don’t want to be caught off guard without a reliable GPS by your side.
I loved using Mango Plate as a food guide for the best local restaurants in Seoul. It’s like the Korean version of Yelp and allows people to review and share photos of the city’s eateries and bars.
If you’re like me and are super dependent on reviews, you’ll want Mango Plate on your phone!
As mentioned above, KakaoT will be the easiest way to grab a taxi in Seoul. It not only helps with any potential language barriers between you and older taxi drivers, but it also will ensure you get to where you need to go without any delay or confusion.
Papago or Google Translate
Even though English is widely spoken in the city, there are still instances where having a quality translator on hand will help immensely, and Papago or Google Translate is great go-to options. Papago is a Korean app and generally has more accurate translations than Google.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit Seoul, South Korea. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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