Seoul, South Korea is one of the largest cities on earth. It is actually known as a ‘megacity’ because it’s population soars above 10 million. If that isn’t impressive enough, more than half of South Korea’s inhabitants reside in the Seoul Metropolitan Area (including suburbs like Incheon and Gyeongi), making it the second largest metropolitan area in the world at 25 million residents. With it’s 2000 year old history and unique Asian culture, no wonder travelers today are making plans to visit this vibrant city.
SEOUL CITY GUIDE CONTENTS:
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Population: 10.44 million within the city (over 250,000 of those are foreigners)
Currency: South Korean Won (KRW)
Language Korean (otherwise known as Hangul)- however a good majority of the public speaks a little English as well.
Getting Around: The easiest way to see all of Seoul is by taking the Metro. A day pass is 15,000 won ($15 USD), and can also be used for bus fare. Once you have reached the district of your choice (via public transportation), its pretty easy to walk to your final destination. Subway stops are literally every couple kilometers, so do research ahead of time for places you want to visit, and where the closest stop would be to it.
Tipping: Tipping is not practiced in Korea. If you stay at a fancy hotel or dine at a nice restaurant, you may notice a 10% service charge on your bill. That will be your gratuity. If you try to give a tip to your taxi driver, odds are he might be super confused, as taxi drivers don’t typically speak English very well. By nodding with your head, giving a little wave, and saying “gahm-sah-hahm-ni-da.” (thank you) he should recognize the fact that you really don’t want your change.
Climate: Spring and fall are the best times of year to visit Seoul weather-wise. Summer tends to be very hot and humid with little breeze, where winter tends to be bitterly cold and dry. It can be brutal walking around Seoul in either the summer or winter seasons, so be sure to plan accordingly.
WHERE TO VISIT
Gyeongbokgung Palace: This palace (known as one of the biggest and most beautiful palaces in Korea) was built in the 1395, but was later destroyed in the Japanese Invasion (1592-98). Restorations to the palace’s 7,700 rooms began in 1852,and finished in 1912. If you’re wanting to jump right into Korean culture, this may be the place to do it! Its a beautiful representation of Korean history.
ENTRY FEE: Adults 3,000 won/ Children & Youth 1,500w won
Lotte World: A Guiness World Record holder for largest indoor theme park in the world, visiting Lotte World is a must! With over 6 million visitors a year, this theme park stays busy. It’s proud to offer: a full size ice skating rink, a folk museum, multiple parades a day, outdoor extension of the theme park (more fun attractions!), and thrilling rides!It’s a magical land worth going to. Just do your best not to visit during a holiday or (if you can help it) the weekend. You’d be surprised at how crowded it can get!
ENTRY FEE: Adults 46,000 won / Youth 40,000 won / Children 36,000 won / Infants 12,000 won
Everland: Yet another gigantic theme park in Korea (even bigger and better than Lotte World). Everland is a world-class theme park, with a layout similar to Disneyland: fantasy buildings, zoo animals, fairgrounds, rides, live music, restaurants and more! Whether you hop aboard an African safari bus, or stroll through it’s award-winning flower gardens, Everland has a little something for everyone.
ENTRY FEE: Adults 46,000 won / Children 36,000 won
N. Seoul Tower: If you plan on getting a taxi to Seoul Tower, just be sure to call it by it’s other name “Namsan Tower.” It’s located within Namsan Park (which is absolutely gorgeous by the way), and apparently just telling a taxi driver “Seoul Tower” wasn’t enough, and we spent 40 minutes running around back alleys and google translating to find the correct place. Dumb. Seoul Tower is a beautiful lookout of the city, filled with city information, restaurants, a love-lock area, and two observatories! Be sure to go right before dusk so you can see the city light up -absolutely gorgeous.
ENTRY FEE: Teens and Adults (Ages 13-64): 7,000 won / Children (Ages 4-12): 3,000 won / Senior (Ages 65+): 5,000 won
War Memorial of Korea: To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about the Korean War before moving to Korea. Because South Korea is such a small little country, you can still feel some of the direct effects of the war on the citizens of Korea. Families were completely split apart with the division between the North and the South.I wanted to visit the Memorial to learn a little more about the war, and also to pay respects to those who served and gave their lives.
On a lighter note, you can actually climb all over the tanks, planes, and artillery that was used in the war! It’s such a cool thing to experience!
ENTRY FEE: Free for everyone!
DMZ: Since we’re talking about the Korean War, it’s important that I mention the next Seoul travel destination: the DMZ. If you’re in for a little adventure, you can book a tour (which you’ll have to do ahead of time), and spend most of the day smack dab in the middle of a war zone (remember, N. Korea and S. Korea haven’t ever signed a peace treaty). You’ll be driving through mine fields, taking a few steps into North Korea, and will also have the opportunity to purchase items actually from the other side! You’d be crazy passing up this opportunity, and it’ll be something you can talk about for years to come!
TOUR PRICE: 40,000 (tour of one area) – 130,000 (tour of all areas) won. I’d recommend the full tour.
Hongdae: If staying up all night dancing to the music is for you, Hongdae is where you want to be. A popular spot for 20-30 year olds, this area of Seoul screams ‘fun.’ Is the night scene not really your thing? No worries, you’ll still want to visit the art-laden streets of Hongdae during the day for a unique experience!
Seoraksan: Hands down, the most gorgeous location in South Korea. Seoraksan National Park is a 3-4 hour drive from Seoul, and worth every minute you spend sitting in that bus (clearly only go if you have the extra time). There are campsites and hostels lining the entrance of the park, so if you decide to stay more than 24 hours (recommended), it’ll be easy to find a spot to lay your head.
Wake up very early in the morning to be first in line to ride the cable car up to the top of the iconic mountains for a stunning view. I bet it’s gorgeous at sunset too! There are also miles and miles of breathtaking hiking trails to enjoy.
ENTRY FEE: Adults 2,500 won / Middle to high school students (ages 14-19)1,000 won / Elementary school students (ages 8-13) 500 won
CABLE CAR FEE: 9,000 won
WHERE TO SHOP
Myeongdong: World-renowned as Seoul’s fashion and cultural hub, if you shop anywhere in Seoul, it has to be Myeongdong. This one square kilometer district can see more than two million visitors a day. Myeongdong stores sell mostly mid to higher end items, but you’ll also find a multitude of street vendors that sell really cool things for a cheap price as well!
Insadong: Needing to purchase a few souvenirs for friends and family back home? Insadong is definitely the place to go, as you’ll find shop after shop chalk full of traditional Korean trinkets and souvenirs. Be sure to try some green tea ice-cream or a giant potato stick while you’re in the area! Insadong is also filled with art museums and shows and gives off an ‘artistic, peaceful vibe,’ which is a dramatic contrast from the rest of Seoul (think crazy busy all the time).
Yongsan Electronics Market: This is where you can purchase any and ever kind of electronic known to man. With over 20 buildings and 5000 stores, you’re bound to find a good deal. Korean-made products generally cost 20% less in Yongsan than other retail outlets, while imported items can be as much as 50% cheaper. Most store owners speak fairly good English, so you don’t have to worry about confusing them with asking questions. I purchased my Canon 5D Mark ii and a few lenses from Yongsan, and was able to get them at a crazy good price!
Gangnam: Home of the Coex Shopping Mall which is the biggest underground shopping center in Asia, with a full aquarium (whale sharks!), Kimchi museum, 16 restaurants, theaters, arcades, and more! You’ll also find plenty of dog and cat cafes in Gangnam; just in case you’re needing a little furry love (and coffee)! Gangnam is home to the richest and most famous, and celebrity sightings are common. Let it also be known that Gangnam is expensive. If you’re wanting to go somewhere for dinner and not spend a pretty penny, you might just want to pass this one all together.
Dongdaemun: Bartering/Haggling is iffy in Korea. Sometimes you can get away with it, and other times you’ll have shop owners spit in your face. But if bartering is something you’re really wanting to try, the Dongdaemun district might just be your golden ticket! There are over 20 shopping malls in this little slice of Seoul, and most of which sell their clothes as wholesale (meaning a lot of other stores in Korea purchase their items from this location). The only shop you are strictly forbidden to barter in is Doota. Just remember that name! An extra bonus? A lot of the stores and malls are open almost 24 hours a day! So that means, if you feel like shopping at 3:00am, go for it.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Jjimjilbang: If you’re wanting a true Korean experience, you have to visit a Jjimjilbang (aka public bathhouse). The part about being naked tends to turn quite a few people off (don’t worry it’s a segregated bathhouse), but if you’re wanting a cheap place to stay the night, cheap snacks, and a nice spa, this may be your golden ticket. If you’re traveling with a partner of the opposite sex, don’t worry, the sleeping rooms are communal as are the gaming and food areas. You’ll have to don these silly looking gym outfits after bathing, but that just adds to the experience!
PRICE PER NIGHT: 6,000-15,000 won (24 hour stay).
Guest Houses: Basically the same thing as a hostel, but can be a little more traditional if you find the right one. Guest houses are literally remodeled family houses turned into sleeping quarters. Most of the rooms are communal, but you can sometimes find private rooms. Most guest houses are located near downtown or tourist areas, which makes them super convenient to stay in.
PRICE PER NIGHT: 20,000-30,000 won
Love Motels: Yet another great Korean experience you just have to experience once or twice in your life. ‘Love Motels’ are ‘pay-buy-the-hour’ rooms…if you know what I mean. The rooms are full of all kinds of ‘goodies’ for you to witness and experience
this is getting awkward, but they’re cheap and literally everywhere, and that’s why we’ve stayed at quite a few during our time in Korea. I would strongly advise you not to bring children to a Love motel (not even sure if they’re allowed?). All that being said, the rooms actually are relatively clean, and have cool lighting features (think black lights, wall lights that change color, lighted ceiling murals…and more)! The smell of cigarette smoke is always a given, so if you cannot stand that, don’t buy a room. Also note that a lot of the ‘cheap’ hotels on Agoda for Seoul and surrounding areas are actually love motels.
PRICE PER NIGHT: 30,000-90,000+ won
Higher-end Hotels: A large majority of the nicer hotels are actually located in Gangnam (Park Hyatt, Renaissance Marriott, Intercontinental). They will, for sure, charge you a pretty penny for everything! That being said, if you check out Priceline’s Name Your Price hotel finder, you can get absolutely insane deals! We stayed at the Renaissance Marriott one night for 75,000 KRW instead of it’s normal asking price of 345,000KRW!
PRICE PER NIGHT: 120,000-2,000,000+ won
SOMETHING TO EAT
Itaewon: If you’re an expat living in Korea or another part of Asia, you’re going to want to visit Itaewon. Known as the district ‘all the foreigners go to’, you might as well just add yourself to that statistic and pay a visit with an empty stomach. Visit a quaint french restaurant for breakfast, hit up Mexican for lunch, and do Brazilian BBQ for dinner! You can also find American-style pizza as big as a tractor, specialty burger joints, Turkish kabobs, Indian, Italian, and even South African restaurants in Itaewon. I’m making myself hungry thinking of all this amazing food.
Gwangjang Market: South Korea is famous for it’s amazing (and cheap) street food. Although you can find street food practically everywhere, Gwangjang Market is the epicenter of it all. Come hungry, come eager to try new things, and come with your pockets full of change! Gwangjang Market is Korea’s oldest daily market (established in 1905), so you’ll also be able to score your self some amazing souvenirs to take back home! The food stands are open from 11am-11pm daily.
Noryangjin Fish Market: Not for those who can’t stand strong smells, the Noryangjin Fish Market is quite the sight (and smell) to behold. Noryangjin opened in 1927 and remains one of Korea’s largest seafood markets. You’re bound to see all sorts of sea creatures: octopus, snails, sea cucumbers, squid, crabs, clams, and just about any other sea-dwelling creature that swims, slithers, or sits. After finding something you’d like to purchase, you can even eat it right on the spot as sashimi prepared by one of the location restaurants for you. If you’re super daring, you can give eating live octopus a try! It’s considered a Korean ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood if you can eat a whole wriggling baby octopus. (no. thank. you.)
YOU HAVE TO TRY: Here’s a list of a few Korean dishes you have to try while visiting!
Kimchi (kim-chi)-duh. This national Korean dish (consisting of fermented peppers, cabbage, and other vegetables) is so popular, it would be almost impossible not to be offered it at least once or twice as a free side dish at a restaurant!
There are actually quite a few different kinds of Kimchi, where some are more spicy than others. Be sure to have some rice or water next to you to help cool your mouth after you first bite! I’ve learned that you either love it or hate it…there’s no in-between.
Bulgogi (bul-go-gi)-Yet another traditional Korean dish, this one is a little more palatable with its’ sweet sauce put on Korean beef and barbequed. McDonald’s even sells a bulgogi burger for those of you wanting a cheap option. Bulgogi is one of my favorite Korean dishes.
Tteokbokki (tteok-bok-ki)-Spicy, hot, but super addicting and yummy! You can either get it plain with just rice cakes, fish cakes, and sweet chili sauce (don’t be deceived) from a street vendor, or buy it in a restaurant as a stir fry with rice cakes, cabbage, onions, garlic, pork or chicken, and other vegetables. I really don’t like spicy foods, but somehow, while living in Korea, I couldn’t get enough of Tteokbokki. It’s such a spicy dish- I always ended up sitting there with tears streaming down my face as I shoveled in as much as I could with my two chopsticks.
Yangnyeom Chicken (Yang-nyeom)– If I didn’t add this one to the list, Derik would have never forgiven me. A popular street food amongst kids, it’s also snatched my husband’s heart (or mouth). Yangnyeom chicken is fried chicken mixed with Tteokbokki and various sauces. You can get yangnyeom chicken in super spicy chili sauce, super sweet chili sauce, and some sort of spicy garlic sauce (my favorite).
Hoeddeok (hoe-ddeok)– As Yangnyeom chicken is to Derik, Hoeddeok is to me. You can find this yummy pancake treat basically everywhere, and around a Hoeddeok cart see tons of kids begging their moms for 1,000 won to buy one or two. Hoeddeok is a pancake filled with all kinds of yummy-ness. My favorite was the cinnamon and sugar filled pancake, as it’s pretty much the closest thing you’ll find the Cinnabon on this side of the world (yet for a fraction of the price). You can also get Hoeddeok filled with seeds, red beans, cream. I’m not sure how you ask for specific ones as the ladies that sell them don’t really speak English. Just stand around long enough until you see her make a new one, and point to it giving your head a nod and a smile so she knows which one you want.
Bibimbap (bi-bim-bap)– The word ‘Bibimbap’ literally mean ‘mixed rice’ in Korean. There’s no surprises or shocks in this dish: it’s literally steamed rice topped with all sorts of vegetables, a little sauce, and an egg. If you’re wanting to get away from the traditional Korean spice (hello heartburn), this might just be the perfect dish to do that with. It’s colorful (perfect for pictures), never comes in a size other than large (perfect for sharing), and it’s relatively cheap!
LEARN THE LANGUAGE (SIMPLE WORDS)
Thank you: gahm-sah-hahm-ni-da (감사합니다)
You’re Welcome: chon-mahn-eh-yo (천만에요)
Yes: neh (네)
No: ah-nee-oh (아니요) Crossing your arms in an ‘x’ in front of you helps strengthen your “No.” The bigger the better!
Please: ju-se-yo (주세요)
Goodbye: ahn-nyong-hee ga-se-yo (안녕히 계세요)
This guide is built from my time and experience in South Korea. All opinions are my own. There are several other locations to go to, places to sleep, foods to eat, and things to do within Seoul, so be sure to check out other sites like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet for more suggestions!