Seoul is one of the world’s largest metropolises.
Caught between ultra modern and legacy of the old, it’s the perfect mix of history, culture, arts and nature.
Imagine skyscrapers that loom over ancient places, wooden hanok homes that share real estate with boutique cafes, and fashion trends mixing traditional designs with a modern twist.
Fast paced and intense, many Seoul residents work over 10 hours a day. It’s oft called, ‘the Asian city that never sleeps’.
Seoul may be advanced with towering skyscrapers and futuristic technology, but it’s also a place that remains deeply rooted in tradition.
When I first booked my stay in Seoul, I thought 4-5 days would be plenty of time to explore the city. But, I truly underestimated just how massive Seoul is, and how much there is to do each neighborhood.
If you’re short on time like I was, you’ll be able to fit a lot in during your stay. But, don’t be surprised if, like me, you leave wishing you had more time to explore.
Suffice to say, Korea is somewhere I’d love to return one day.
An Itinerary for Four Days in Seoul
Assuming you’ve got closer to 5-6 days in Seoul (to account for arrival and departure), see below for how I’d break up my time to ensure you’re able to visit different parts of the metropolis without feeling too rushed from place to place.
- Day 1: Insa-dong neighborhood; stroll Cheonggyecheon; ogle Jogyesa Temple; revel in Bukchon Hanok Village; Korean BBQ at night
- Day 2: Gyeongbokgung Palace; Changdeokgung Palace; sunset at Namsan Seoul Tower
- Day 3: Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and/or Korean War Museum; shopping in Myeongdong; cafes in the Hongdae neighborhood; Korean spa night
- Day 4: DMZ half-day trip; Gangnam neighborhood in the evening
Of course, you can revisit things, or move things around per your preference.
Even though Google Maps doesn’t work for directions in Seoul, I found it helpful to use when plotting out my days to see where things were located, and what made sense to group together so I wasn’t trekking across the city constantly.
How to Get Around Seoul
As noted above, Google Maps doesn’t work in Seoul- something I didn’t know until I arrived (huge travel planning oversight).
While I used it a few times for a sense of direction when walking, location estimates aren’t accurate, and the public transport part of the app doesn’t work.
For security reasons.
Instead, you can use Kakao for navigation (translate to English), Waze & Korea Subway.
Seoul is a massive metropolis. Wherever you stay in the city, you’ll likely need to travel across it at some point.
You could take taxis or arrange for a private driver if you’re not up for using local transit, but Seoul’s metro is one of the best ones I’ve seen.
It’s clean, extensive, and easy enough to navigate. If you’re going to be using it regularly, buy a T-Money card, which lets you top up. Over the course of your stay, this will be cheaper, and easier, than per ride tickets.
A few times, I also took buses but preferred the subway. Buses were older, usually not air-conditioned and always mega crowded. Try to avoid using the metro at rush hour- it’s like the subway in central Tokyo- insanely crowded and intense.
What to Do
Wander the Insadong neighborhood
One of Seoul’s liveliest neighborhoods, Insadong is packed with art shops, tea houses, cute cafes, restaurants, and energetic street performers.
Stroll peaceful Cheonggyecheon
After undergoing major renovations, this area is now the epitome of serenity with a stream flowing below city streets.
Ogle the rainbow lanterns of Jogyesa Temple
Every May, this temple is decked out with bright, beautiful lanterns to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. It’s absolutely incredible.
When I visited, I’d read reports the lanterns may already be taken down, and was delighted to still find them flying. Look up whether they’re on display before you visit, as it seems like they stay up beyond Buddha’s birthday.
Revel in Bukchon Hanok Village
Famous with visitors, this neighborhood of Seoul is nearly always crowded for a reason- it’s the best place to see old hanok-style houses. The design of these homes and intricate woodwork is unbelievable.
This 600-year old village dates back to the Joseon Dynasty and lies on top of a hill between three of the city’s most important landmarks – Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace, and Jongmyo Royal Shrine.
This neighborhood becomes so busy during the day, people are employed to stand in the streets and remind visitors to be quiet.
For a historic Korean experience here or at the nearby palaces, you may want to rent a hanbok- traditional Korean wear. Dressing up is fun, and a nice way to honour Korean customs.
Revel in Korean history at Gyeongbokgung Palace
Korea has five grand palaces of Seoul. Gyeongbokgung Palace, the “Northern” one, is the largest and most central of them all.
This is traditional Korea, it feels like a small escape from the bustling city outside.
Originally built in 1395 right at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty (Korea’s most influential era), the palace represented the official change in capitals from Gaeseong to Seoul.
Stroll the courtyards, relax lakeside with a view of the man-made island in Hyangwonji Lake, watch the many visitors in traditional Korean dress.
Just take your time seeing this magnificent palace.
Try to time your visit for changing of the guards. Unlike some palaces around the world, it’s actually worth seeing here, as it’s quite a show with loads of traditional dress and customs to observe.
Best yet, entry is under $3 USD per person, which you can purchase upon entry.
Get your Zen on at the gardens in Changdeokgung Palace
While Gyeongbokgung is considered Korea’s main palace, Changdeokgung and its secret garden actually served as the primary royal residence from the early 1600s – 1800s.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and best preserved of all the palaces.
Some details are comparable to Gyeongbokgung, but Changdeokgung’s gardens are spectacular.
Be sure to book a tour in advance, as it’s likely they’ll sell out- especially the ones offered in English.
I didn’t do this secret garden tour myself, but I’ve heard great things from friends who have.
And, like Gyeongbokgung, admission to the palace and gardens is also under $3 USD.
Watch sunset at Namsan Seoul Tower
Catch one of the city’s shuttle buses to the top of the tower, or hike up on your own. Once you’re at the top, you’ll walk up a final hill before being greeted with one hell of a panoramic view.
At the base of the tower, you’ll find pop-up restaurants, and pending time of year, often live entertainment. On the night we visited, there was a live band, which made the atmosphere very jolly. You can pay to go inside and up to the top of the actual tower, but we thought the view from the bottom was incredible enough- not to mention free.
Visit one of the city’s best museums
Like any major metropolis, Seoul is packed with museums. A few that are top ranked: Leeum Samsung Museum of Art; Korean War Museum; National Palace Museum of Korea; and the National Folk Museum.
Shop for beauty products in Myeongdong
Korean skincare is legendary.
Visiting Seoul on a budget, and with only a backpack meant I had to be decisive about what I bought. A major face mask fan, when I realised most beauty stores host mega deals during the week (often to the tune of buy 10 masks for an insanely cheap cost- think ~$0.50 USD each, Monday-Friday), I stocked up- rationalizing I’d be able to use them during my travels for months to come.
I also ended up buying a few lotions- largely ones with ingredients native to Korea, like green tea from Jeju Island- to try.
You’ll find many of the stores I’ve mentioned below across the city, but the largest concentration of them is in Myeongdong.
Stores to checkout: Tony Moly, Lush (three stories!), Lotte, Shingsegae, Missha*, InnisFree*, Dr. Jart*, Holika Holika, Nature Collection and Olive Young.
*Denotes stores from which I bought my favourite masks
And, although I’ve noted this area for its high ratio of beauty stores, there’s great fashion shopping to be found here as well.
Cafe hop in Hongdae & Myeongdong: Cafe hopping in Seoul is next level, the city sits at the center of Korean culture. Known for its unique design concepts, it’s no surprise the city’s cafes are so ‘gram worthy.
Get your stationary fix at Seoul’s cutest shops
Korean culture is known for its obsession with cute, functional stationary and everyday products.
A few stores to pop into if you stroll by them: ArtBox, LineFriends (over the top cute, one of Asia’s top animation brands), Alpha, Kyobo Bookstore Co., Daiso
If you visit any of the above stores, you’ll likely leave surprised with yourself- somehow, every time I stopped in one of these stores, I left with something adorable I didn’t even know I needed.
Have a Korean spa night
Korean spa culture is everything.
Before you experience it for yourself, you should research different spas, and the treatments they offer. In many Korean spas, nudity is the way in communal rooms- which, can make some Western visitors, who are used to more formal spa environments, uncomfortable.
I really enjoyed Hotel Prima’s Spa, where you can alternate dips in hot, cold, and herbal scented stone baths. The baths are designed to improve circulation and overall health. Don’t leave without requesting a full-body scrub.
Travel to the DMZ on a half-day trip
Most people opt to take a half-day tour to the Demilitarized Zone. This activity was high on my list, but unfortunately, I didn’t realize no tours operated on Monday, which was the day I’d designated to go on the tour.
At the time I visited, I didn’t have the ability to switch to another date (too far in my trip), and missed out on visiting.
I’ve heard you can also take the DMZ train to the North Korean border, but doing so on your own isn’t as informative, and doesn’t allow as much access as an official tour would- especially, in a situation like this.
If you choose to take the train, you should know it departs from Seoul and an hour and a half later, arrives in Dorasan Station, which was built as an immigration point to connect the two Koreas. If you’re not on an official tour, once you’ve arrived, you can look into busing around to famed sights like the Third Tunnel of Aggression, the Dorasan Peace Park, and a viewpoint into North Korea. But, from what I’ve heard from friends- don’t expect to find lots of sights or information in English. Not going on a tour means you’ll have to figure out a lot of seemingly difficult details on your own.
*Note: Photos below from the changing of the guard, and of one of the city’s many shelter signs.
Do it Gangnam style
The Gangnam neighborhood, where I stayed, seemed to a bustling business hub, and popular with shoppers.
Here, you’ll find many of the world’s trendiest and most popular brands- Nike, Lululemon, & Other Stories, Starfield Mall, and such.
A few things in Gangnam, aside from shopping, that are worth checking out-
- Starfield Library: Extensive books, magazines in English, and a very cool design
- Outside the metro stop, there’s a stage and video loop streaming constantly for anyone who wants to dance to Gangnam Style
Where to Eat
As with many places in Asia, Korean food isn’t exactly desirable for vegetarians.
Most of it is meat based, and further complicating things, some eating experiences, like Korean BBQ, are meant for sharing and unavailable to solo travelers (restaurants refuse to serve solo individuals).
During my time in Seoul, I was focused on trying a few Korean street foods, and visiting the city’s cool cafes (which usually offered drinks and food).
The only sit down meals I had were at Shake Shack, which I visited two times. Perhaps it was because I’d lived without it for so many years, or maybe it was because I was recovering from a sinus infection and just looking for comfort. Whatever the reason, I found myself craving a veggie burger and fries a few times while in Seoul. Sure didn’t help that the city’s two locations were very close to me in Gangnam 😉
Other eats I enjoyed-
- Dumplings at Bukchon Son Mandu
- Ice cream at Line Friends Store & Cafe
- Honeycomb ice cream at Milky Bee
- Savoury (cream cheese, red bean, sweet potato) croquettes at Myeondong Croquette 32G
- Honeydew melon bingsu (shaved ice)
- Ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes)
- Hotteoks (savoury doughnuts)
- Brown sugar bubble tea
- Taro bubble tea at Gong Cha
- 32″ willy ice cream (found in the Myeondong shopping area)
- Browsing the Gwangjang Market, the first and oldest permanent market in Korea
Where to Drink Coffee
Saying Seoul is a goldmine for Instagrammable cafes would be an understatement.
While I’m into quality coffee, and take finding good cold brew seriously, I’m also a sucker for fun cafes. Especially if it’s a well executed theme, where you feel transported to another time or place.
Thankfully, some of Seoul’s best spots combine both things I love about cafe culture- quirky, cool concepts with good drinks for caffeine cravings.
If you’re heading to Seoul for the first time, and need a cheeky coffee, cake or treat break from exploring, check out these cool, cafes.
- Perception: One of the best designed cafes I’ve ever stepped food in. The undulating ceiling is interesting to look at from every angle. The cafe itself is so peaceful, it’s truly the definition of a beautiful space. And, their grapefruit black tea with honey is incredible- this drink quickly became my go-to order in Korea, and this cafe was one of the best spots for it
- Anthracite: Set in an old warehouse, Anthracite is equal parts dark, moody and trendy. The ceilings are high, the coffee drinks delicious, and it’s got seemingly endless space
- Zapangi: One of Seoul’s most Insta-famous cafes, the entrance to Zapangi is through a pink vending machine, which is fitting, given ‘zapangi’ means vending machine in Korean. Inside, the aesthetic is cool and minimal, and the treats are decadent with a colourful, sparkly mermaid theme
- Stylenanda Pink Hotel & Pink Pool Cafes: Fabulously pink, these cafes are some of the hippest places to enjoy an iced latte in Seoul right now. I’m preferential to the pink pool one because, what could be better than dining by an indoor pool?
- DDong Cafe (Poop Cafe): Yes, you read that right- a cafe dedicated to poo. This cafe is infamous for its lattes served in toilet bowl-shaped mugs, food displayed in mini urinals, and plethora of other food shaped treats
- 943 Kings Cross: Be still my Harry Potter loving heart. The perfect place for Potterheads in the midst of Seoul, 943 is the ultimate Hogwarts cafe experience. Every detail screams wizarding world cafe. The only downside? The food and drink were mediocre- definitely the kind of place you come for the atmosphere
- Yeonnam 223: A 2-D space serving three-dimensional food and drinks, Yeonnam is a cafe concept inspired by a tv show, where the characters are caught between the real world and an animated experience. Everything is black and white, and utterly cartoonish
- CaFace: Famous for its selfie-lattes, I wouldn’t expect great coffee, but that’s not really the point of coming here. If you’re up for the novelty of having a photo of yourself printed on your drink, popping in here is a must
- BAUhouse (Dog Cafe): Seoul’s famous for many things, especially its animal cafes. You’ll find ones for cats, dogs, rabbits, and even owls. On my visit, I spent an evening at a dog one, and absolutely loved playing with tons of puppers
- Cong Caphe: I’ve long proclaimed my love for Cong after discovering their cafes in Vietnam. Hailed as the ‘Starbucks’ of Vietnam, Cong excels at ace coffee drinks. The must order item off their menu? Coconut coffee. It’s sweet, and in my opinion, best enjoyed mid-afternoon after a hot day of wandering
And, if you’re a tea fan, don’t miss stopping in an Osulloc. With all tea produced in Korea (enter: their legendary tea fields on Jeju island), their blends are some of the best I found in the capital. It’s not a cute cafe per se, but their matcha desserts are adorable, and with so many tea blends to choose from, there’s something for everyone.
Where Else to Visit if You Have Time
When I initially booked flights to Seoul from Taiwan, I hadn’t done much research on South Korea, and was keen to get to Bali afterwards, where I had several friends living.
In hindsight, I would have spent at least two weeks in the country, venturing south to Busan, Jeonju and Jeju as well.
- Busan: The second largest city in the country, Busan is a major port, and known for its beautiful beaches, hot springs and great, oceanside hiking trails. Don’t miss the Gamcheon Cultural Village, a colorful, hillside community, oft called the ‘Santorini’ of Korea
- Jeonju: At the peak of the Joseon Dynasty, Jeonju was Korea’s spiritual capital. Today, it’s filled with temples and museums, and one of the best places to visit in South Korea if you want to embrace local culture
- Jeju: Nicknamed the Island of the Gods, I’ve heard Jeju described as the ‘Hawaii of Korea’. It’s a subtropical destination that ranks as one of the top vacation spots in Korea. Here, you’ll find beautiful beaches, lava tubes, lush greenery, and some interesting theme parks, including infamous Loveland
I’d also spend more time in Seoul- at least 8-10 days to really see the city.
Extra Korea Travel Tips
Language: Korean. As with Japan, I noticed transactional English isn’t widely spoken, bar upscale establishments. Transactional English is more prevalent among youth, but still not widespread. Make sure you have Google translate downloaded to help with orders, directions, questions, etc.
Safety: At times, I forgot South Korea is still at war. Seoul is so modern, and things run so efficiently, it’s not hard to overlook the conflict if you’re out and about. That said, the prominence of shelter signs around the city provides an ever-present reminder of the tension. Although you’ll find reminders of the ongoing war across the city, I never actually felt unsafe. Walking around at night in Gangnam felt perfectly fine, too.
Currency: South Korean Won.
I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- some purchases are so small, you won’t meet a card minimum.
Budget: In comparison to the likes of Japan and Singapore, I found Seoul to be affordable. But, it’s more expensive than SE Asia, and nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan.
As with most destinations, you can spend as much or as little as you’d like. I stayed in budget accom, and set a daily food budget of $20-25 USD. This meant I ate street food for a few meals each day, and had to watch how much artisanal coffee I drank, but it wasn’t necessarily hard to stick to my budget. However, I also didn’t eat at restaurants very much, so if you want to treat yourself to sit-down dinners out, I’d budget a bit more per day.
- Accom: $32 USD / night (studio Airbnb in Gangnam)
- Food: $20-25 USD / daily
- Attractions: Usually free or under $10 USD daily
- Subway Rides: Between ₩1,250-2,000 per stop ($1-1.70 USD)
- Airport Train: From Incheon to Seoul’s central station, the express train is ~$8 and the local train is $3.50 USD. Airport taxis are around $35-40+ USD pending where you’re going, so if you’re solo (like me) or with one other person and traveling on a budget, the train is a better option. There’s also the City Limousine Bus, which is about $7.50 USD, but it only picks up at certain locations, and you’ll be subject to traffic
- Taxi: Basic fee is ₩3,000.00, kilometer price is ₩700.00 ($3.50, 0.59 USD)
Getting There: Seoul has two airports- Incheon International Airport and Gimpo International Airport. Gimpo is closer to the city, and accommodates most domestic flights. I flew in and out of Incheon, and loved the airport- so modern! From the airport, it takes about 45-60 minutes on the express train to reach the center of Seoul, and 80-90+ minutes on the local train. In a taxi or bus, it’ll likely be an hour, but it depends on traffic.
Where to Stay: I stayed in a great budget studio Airbnb in the Gangnam neighborhood. It was about a 6 minute walk to the metro, and even closer (~3 minutes) to several buses. Location wise, I had a bunch of restaurants and stores, plus a few chain coffee shops within 5-10 minutes walk.
The only thing I didn’t like about staying the Gangnam hood? It takes about 30-60+ minutes to reach some of the city’s main attractions, which are on the other side of the river. If heading back to Seoul, I’d stay in the Hongdae neighborhood. Popular with the uni crowd, the area is packed with cool cafes, restaurants and shops.
When to Visit: I visited in late May and had perfect weather- five days of sunshine and temps in the 70s/80s.
March–May and September–November are the best times to visit Seoul, because of the mild weather. Summers can be very hot, and winters equally frigid.
Tipping: Tipping in South Korea isn’t common, and is therefore not expected. In some instances, the tip can be seen as insulting and may be returned.
WiFi Access: You’ll find WiFi at upmarket cafes, and of course, hotels. I had pretty good WiFi in my Airbnb as well- moderately fast at 20 up and 15 down.
SIM Card Options: Cost for a week long SIM in South Korea surprised me- it was nearly $33 USD for a 10-day SIM at the Incheon airport. Surveying the price cards, I saw it was more expensive to get a SIM than portable WiFi, which was only $22 USD for unlimited use. Sure, you have to return it, but at the cost saving of $10 USD, and for unlimited use, I decided it was worth the minor inconvenience of having to return a rental.
Picking up a SIM or hotspot at the airport is critical if you want to have service. Unlike other countries in Asia, I’ve heard you can’t grab one at a convenience store- they won’t sell to tourists. And, I’ve also had friends tell me they had zero luck going directly to cell provider stores, too.
Packing Necessities: I wouldn’t advise packing anything for Seoul you wouldn’t need for other countries/destinations. Pack according to weather and season, and bring comfy walking shoes- Seoul is huge. If you’re a beauty buff, leave space to bring home goodies- the beauty shops are epic.
Would you ever visit Seoul? What would you add to this ultimate guide to Seoul, Korea?
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