Seoul honestly blew my mind. The 38th annual Asian Medical Students’ Conference drew me to the South Korean capital, but I ended up falling in love with the city and vow to come back. Seoul is a vibrant and bustling city enjoying the fruits of a growing economy, all merged with an interesting history, beautiful culture, and mouthwatering food.
This huge city can feel overwhelming and it is important to figure out what you want to see, do and eat before you tackle it. There is no shortage of things to do in Seoul so make sure you have enough time to see them all. I was in Seoul for a total of 10 days, and although most of these days were taken up with the conference, it still did not feel like enough. I would recommend a solid 4-5 days in Seoul to make sure you get a full experience.
After my time in Seoul I realised how under-appreciated it is as a destination in the travel world. This is a destination which will, I hope, exceed your expectations. Below are the top 10 things to do in Seoul which you should make sure you see when you are in South Korea. The names of each attraction are also written in Korean at the bottom so you can show a taxi driver, or if you need help with directions.
About: Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest palace in Seoul and was first created in the late 1300s. A beautiful series of palatial buildings, gardens and temples is complemented by people strolling around in traditional Korean hanbok dresses.
Price: 3000 won (or free entry if you are wearing traditional dress)
Opening: Closed Tuesdays. Nov-Feb 09:00-17:00, Mar-May 09:00-18:00, Jun-Aug 09:00-18:30, Sep-Oct 09:00-18:00
In Korean: 경복궁
About: A famed food market in Seoul is heaven for foodies and novices alike. With plenty of stalls and choices for food, there is an abundance of Korean foods to sample. Not only is the food fantastic but the market itself is also a sensory experience. With hundreds of locals eating on wooden benches under hanging fluorescent lights and fragrant foods sizzle on the hotplates, makes for a wonderful experience.
Opening: general stores 08:30-18:00, restaurants 08:30-23:00
In Korean: 광장시장
READ MORE: South Korean Food: Foods You MUST Try In South Korea
Namsan and N Seoul Tower
About: N Seoul Tower is iconic and can be seen from almost all corners of the city. Sitting atop Namsan, the tower provides epic panoramic views over Seoul.
Price: 10,000 won for the observatory
Opening: 10:00 - 23:00 (24:00 on Saturdays)
In Korean: 남산서울타워
TIP: make sure that when you go up the tower it is not raining and visibility is good, otherwise you will not see anything. The view at dusk and night time is particularly spectacular.
About: Myeong-dong is the most colourful of Seoul’s shopping areas. Packed full of Korean cosmetic shops, cafés, and clothes stores, it is an amazing area to stroll through for shopping enthusiasts as well as travellers loving a sensory overload. In the afternoons and evenings, and the neon lights turn on, street food stalls set up to feed the hungry visitors.
Opening: all day
In Korean: 명동
About: The largest Buddhist temple in Seoul is serene haven within the busy metropolis. Filled with lanterns, incense and lotus flowers, it is a beautiful temple to behold. Visiting in the evening allows you to see the temple in all its brightly coloured glory. Jogyesa also does Temple Stays where you can immerse yourself in the life of a Buddhist monk, including meditation lessons and 4am wake ups.
Price: free, donations recommended
Opening: all year round, 24 hours a day
In Korean: 조계사
About: Insa-dong is a traditional area in Seoul nestled between the two main palaces. With beautiful winding streets, hundreds of shops selling traditional wares, and an abundance of Korean food, Insa-dong is a wonderful place to wander. Don’t forget to visit the multi-storey shopping building, Ssamziegil, which has a wonderful floral installation and lots of handmade Korean wares.
Opening: Insa-dong street is open all day
In Korean: 인사동
About: The summer palace is one of Seoul’s most iconic and peaceful attractions. Nestled within beautiful gardens, the palace buildings demonstrate traditional Korean design. Although smaller than Gwanghwamun Palace, this palace, in my opinion, packs more of a punch.
Price: 1000 won
Opening: closed Mondays. Feb-May and Sep-Oct 09:00-18:00, Jun-Aug 09:00-18:30, Nov-Jan 09:00-17:30
In Korean: 창덕궁과 후원
About: The mighty Han River flows through the city of Seoul and is spectacular to behold. At night it is particularly stunning as the bridges and the skyline lights up. It is possible to cycle by the river, or you can enjoy a Chicken and Beer experience.
Opening: all day
In Korean: 한강
READ MORE: South Korean Food: Food You MUST Try in South Korea
Gangnam (By Night and Day)
About: The namesake of Gangnam Style, the lavish suburb of Gangnam truly has to be experienced to be believed. With an unbelievable number of fancy cars, small dogs, and cosmetic surgery clinics, it is a luxurious corner of the city. By day you can people watch or enjoy some high-quality food, and by night you can enjoy the famous Gangnam nightlife.
Opening: all day
In Korean: 강남
About: Namdaemun is the largest traditional market in Korea and is filled with anything you could ever want. Exploring the many alleyways can be an enjoyably confusing experience. This is a true Korean market experience so don’t be afraid to bargain!
Opening: open during the day, but also from 23:00-05:30 (next day)
In Korean: 남대문시장
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
About: The spaceship-looking building appears out of nowhere and is a wonder to explore. Containing a museum and design shop, there is plenty to see here. However, the building itself is unique enough to justify the trip there.
Opening: Tue-Sun 10:00-19:00 (with Wed and Fri 10:00-21:00)
In Korean: 동대문디자인플라자
Traditional Hanok Village
About: There are a couple of traditional Hanok villages in Seoul. These villages are no longer inhabited but provide an insight into life in old times. The houses are perfectly maintained and set up like traditional houses, complete with kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms. After visiting two Hanok villages, I preferred the smaller Namsangol Hanok Village which had less visitors and enabled a better look around. The most popular, and still recommended, place to visit is Bukchon Hanok Village.
Price: free (Namsangol and Bukchon), a free tour must be reserved for Bukchon at dobo.visitseoul.net
Opening: Apr-Oct 09:00-21:00 and Nov-Mar 09:00-20:00 (Namsangol),
In Korean: 남산골한옥마을 (Namsangol), 북촌한옥마을 (Bukchon)
About: Running through Seoul is the Cheonggyecheon Stream which was covered over until recently when it was modified and reopened. Set below street level, walking by the stream is a lovely evening experience. Many people gather by the stream to look at the fish and dangle their feet in.
Opening: all day
In Korean: 청계천
Visit the DMZ and JSA
About: Although not strictly in Seoul itself, most tours leave from the city and it is less than an hours’ drive away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) make up the border between North and South Korea. A tour of this area provides a great insight into the tensions between the nations, and the hardship faced. You can read more about it here: Visiting the DMZ from Seoul.
Price: $40 - $200 USD
Website: various tour operators, I used VIP Travel.
READ MORE: Looking Into North Korea: Exploring the DMZ
This is not an exhaustive list as there are plenty more things to do in Seoul, but this is a fantastic starting guide. All of these locations were personally visited, vetted, and recommended, by Travel Textbook.
Been to Seoul or have questions? Comment below – I would love to hear from you!