Seoul certainly is a super fun place to visit. Here are my top tips for making your first visit a success.
In this post, I will talk about what you should consider prior to visiting Seoul, what to bring and prepare, and how to get the most of your stay depending on your interests (history, culture, foodie scenes, shopping, hipster Korea, etc).
As some of you might have gauged from previous blog posts, I am a European based in Seoul. I came to Korea a little over four years ago and prior to that, I had been living in London, Brisbane and Neuchâtel for work and study, so do note that I am approaching the subject through the lens of a European nomad.
This post was in part inspired by fellow bloggers Saima and Angela, who discussed the things they love about Seoul and their top tips for visitors, respectively. Much love to you ladies! Do check out their posts once you’re done reading mine! 😉
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have a number of international friends visit and I have thoroughly enjoyed showing them around. Here’s what I learnt along the way:
Before You Book Your Trip:
Here are some interesting aspects I’ve noticed throughout the years. Ask yourself the following before you pay for flights and accommodation:
- Extroverts and US Americans in particular seem to love visiting Seoul. They find the nightlife riveting and the neon lights stimulating. They love the mix of the traditional and the futuristic that Seoul brings to the table, they love the convenience of all the services on offer and they appreciate the outstanding customer service you are bound to encounter anywhere you go.
- On the other hand, Europeans and introverts tend to have a hard time really falling for Seoul. They cannot get used to the slightly rustic mannerisms that might be on display at times (e.g. if someone bumps into you on the tube, they will just move on past you rather than apologise). Don’t take things personal. No one is trying to assault you. People are just busy with their lives.
- If you are vegetarian, vegan, require special diets owing to your religion, don’t like fish products, don’t like garlic and/or don’t like spicy food: Most Korean dishes – the tasty ones in particular – will feature meat, seafood, garlic and hot chili peppers in one form or another. See below for some regular food that you can expect to eat.
- If you are a picky eater, either find accommodation where you can cook your own food, or prepare to pay higher amounts of money when eating out at specialty restaurants, or prepare to eat really bland, boring food the entire time.
- It is not impossible to cater to your specific diet, but you will find it trying finding food that is right for you. Manage your expectations accordingly and don’t get upset if your tastebuds/religion is not catered to anywhere you go. Most restaurant owners that I have encountered are unwilling to change their dishes on request or they simply are not familiar with the concept of customising dishes. Again, no one is trying to offend you.
- Korea is not Japan. Also, Korea is not like it is portrayed in K-Dramas and K-Pop videos. PSA for the people in the back: Korea is not Otaku Central. People here go out and socialise, and by socialise I mean eat and drink and talk and joke around and then they go clubbing (for the younger generation) or go to karaoke (for the over 30s like Yours Truly). If you’d rather be introspective and reflect on your life choices while on holidays, Japan might be a better fit. Furthermore, the culture is very different from that of Japan’s. Please don’t come to Korea expecting Japan 2.0. It just does not work that way.
- Plus, I have seen lots of people get somewhat disappointed when they find out that Korea is not a 24/7 live Hallyu spectacle. People are generally good-looking, well-groomed, dress well and take very good care of themselves regardless of age, but not everyone looks like a K-Pop idol here. Candy floss hair, holographic trousers, neon lip tints and chunky jewellery are most certainly the exception rather than the norm – usually, people here don’t like to stand out too much, in my opinion. Also, not every guy acts like the fellow in your favourite K-drama series.
When to Visit
You may also want to pick the best season for your trip. Korea has four distinctive seasons; the summers are hot and humid with temperatures around 30-35 °C whereas the winters can go as low as -20 °C though they are usually around -10 °C most of the time.
Therefore, I’d highly recommend you visit sometime in spring/early summer (late March- end of June) or autumn (early September – end of October) or else you’ll be a sweaty mess or freezing while you’re here.
In spring, you can watch the cherry and plum blossoms bloom – a truly gorgeous spectacle! -, and in autumn, you’ll have ample opportunities to enjoy the warm Indian summers, foliage and admire the turning of the leaves. Temperatures will be mild and rain will only come sporadically.
Once Your Trip is Booked
Google and their ilk are not welcome in Korea and Google in particular as Korean companies have competed for Korean citizens’ attention through a wide range of tactics and providing specialised & localised Internet services and apps.
Here are some essential applications you should consider downloading before you come to Korea:
- Naver Map: This service is available in English and allows you to find your way around just like Apple Maps and Google Maps. ///Do note that Google Maps does not work properly in Korea.///
- Papago: This translation app has voice and image recognition and the translations are spot on. Forget Google Translate, which does not work at all for Korean.
- KakaoBus for long distance as well as short distance buses, KakaoMetro for the tube/subway and KakaoTaxi for an Uber-esque experience – for finding your way around.
- KakaoTalk for messaging all of your new-found Korean friends. EVERYONE in Korea has KakaoTalk. If they say they don’t, they don’t want to talk to you. Believe me.
- If you are into makeup and skincare shopping while you’re here, look no further than 화해 – if you speak Korean, your experience will be infinitely better. I use this aggregate review website all the time.
- Mangoplate will help you find the best restaurants in your area much like Yelp does.
- Naver is kind of like Google in Korea and is your one-stop shop for reviews, addresses and the like. Results are in Korean only though so beware.
Dress Codes/Dressing for the Seasons
- As for packing clothes, bring whatever you like but if you choose to wear very low-cut tops as a woman, prepare to get some stares as showing off your cleavage is rather uncommon. Micro skirts and daisy dukes that show off your butt cheeks are fine though. Just different beauty standards I guess. No one will openly attack you or say anything though, so you do you.
- Spring and autumn are super mild, jeans and a top will suffice. In winter, prepare to bring your warmest winter clothes and boots. If you’re planning on visiting in the summer, try to find the airiest, fluffiest clothes in the lightest fabrics available or else you will die of heatstroke exacerbated by high humidity levels that will make you feel as though you’re wading through hot tomato soup.
Once Your Plane Has Landed
- If you are living in the 21st century, you will need Internet. You could of course live off/mooch off the free Internet that is widely available on buses, on trains and at coffee shops. Or you could go to one of the ubiquitous Internet counters that can be found everywhere and get a portable pocket WIFI. The service outlets are everywhere you turn at the airport, you cannot miss them.
- To help you get around and also pay for some services, go on over to the closest convenience store (GS25, CU, Emart 24, 7/11, etc) and get yourself a rechargeable card called T-Money Card. If you say T-Money card, everyone will know. They cost somewhere between ₩2,500 and ₩5,000 for ones with special designs.
- I would advise to refrain from renting a car for the city unless you’re planning on leaving for day trips, as Korean drivers are WILD and the public transport system is the absolute BEST (cheap, convenient, always on time, climate controlled, spotlessly clean, free WIFI) that I have ever used.
- Side note: ₩1,000 has ~roughly~ the same buying power as £1, $1 or €1 in my personal experience. So when converting in your head, just remove the last three digits and Bob’s Your Uncle.
- If you are unsure how to find your way to your accommodation, make your way to one of the many tourism and customer service outlets at the airport. They will help you find the right train or bus and they will help you with any other enquiries you might have.
On Your First Day
No matter where you have come from, I would venture to guess that you will be knackered. Be kind to yourself, show yourself some #selflove (cue eye roll – I hate the term – but that is for another day, another blog post) – and indulge in the following:
- Unpack and take a walk around. Familiarise yourself with the bus and underground stops nearby, the convenience stores and services in your area.
- Visit your nearest jjimjilbang (찜질방 – public bathhouse, usually costs somewhere between ₩9,000 and ₩16,000), get naked, soak in the pool, use the steam saunas or dry saunas. Included in the price are usually the use of the pools, saunas, ice rooms, and sometimes game rooms too.
- If you dare, let yourself get scrubbed down at the jjimjilbang by the resident gentleman or lady massage therapist. This service is called 세신 (seh-shin, costs somewhere around ₩15,000 and ₩30,000) and involves a scrubby mitt being rubbed all over your body minus your face and privates. Your dead skin will gather in little piles all around your body as the lady/gentleman scrubs you as though they were trying to tear you limb from limb. Your skin will be the softest it’s ever been.
- Korean bathhouse culture really deserves a post of its own. If you want to make the best of your experience, do check out Lonely Planet’s comprehensive guide over here. NB *** If you have lots of skin tags, consult with the massage therapist first. My friend who visited me recently had a lot and some of them bled afterwards, though she might be an exception as I have never heard of anyone getting hurt from this scrub before I went with her.
- Once you’re all clean and relaxed, treat yourself to a movie in one of Seoul’s hyper modern movie theatres. The most common chains are CGV, LotteCinema and Megabox. They usually have at least one English language movie (albeit with Korean subtitles) and also children’s films on. Snacks and drinks tend to include healthy options like dried fish and cold teas, though of course you can still pig out with traditionally Western calorie bombs if you so desire.
For History and Culture Buffs
- Personally, one of my favourite thing about Seoul is visiting the many temples, and I am not even a practicing Buddhist! They’re just that gorgeous! You will also be delighted to hear that all of the museums are free or come in at ₩1,000-2,000 only.
- My top tip for experiencing Korean culture first hand would be to book a 1-day or 2-day temple stay. I recently went to Bongeunsa (see below) for 2 days and it was an absolute dream even for a long term resident such as myself. We got to experience sutra writing, a tea ceremony, we prostrated, meditated, did yoga, went on a temple tour, sat in on a Buddhist early morning ceremony and experienced temple food (vegetarian but spicy), all of which came down to ₩70,000 per person including the overnight stay.
- Bongeunsa temple is an absolute must in my opinion. THE temple in Seoul, and it is always visited by foreign dignitaries. It is huge and features a lovely Buddha statue overlooking the temple premises at the top of the smaller shrines dotting the area.
- You can actually walk from Bongeunsa to Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs, the truly impressive grave sites of a couple of Joseon dynasty kings and queens. Last time I went, admission was ₩2,000 per person.
- Jogyesa temple is another beauty. Slightly smaller than Bongeunsa, but with gorgeous trees, lanterns and statuettes strewn throughout the premises.
- Gyeongbokgung Palace – this is the main palace in Seoul and beautiful to tour. Guided tours are available.
- The Story of King Sejong museum – this one explains all about King Sejong, a king who is revered for coming up with the modern day Korean alphabet. It’s just a few metres away from Gyeongbokgung Palace, too. It’s got loads of dioramas if that is your thing.
- While America has a white house, Korea has a Blue House called Cheonghwadae, which is where the president resides. You cannot go inside for security reasons, however you can tour the premises, which are beautiful.
- Bukchon Hanok village is home to traditional Korean houses called hanoks. There are lots of smaller arts and crafts shops dotted around the area. On the weekends, you can find heaps of Korean youngsters trying to get that perfect Insta shot, posing either in front of a mural or in front of one of the hanoks.
- If you’re ok to travel slightly outside of Seoul for about 30 minutes by bus, do consider visiting Namhansanseong, a historical mountain fortress. Recently renovated and carefully preserved, this mountain fortress gives you a good feel for what life in Korea would have been like in Joseon dynasty age Korea.
- Honourable mentions go to the DMZ and Namsan Tower. I have not visited either – shock! horror! – but I’m told they’re good fun. I will definitely go visit with the next friend who wants to make their way over to Seoul!
If you’re a Hipster and/or You Like to Think You’re a Bit Arty…
… then look no further than:
- Ikseondong. Ikseondong is like a super fun adult playground made up of renovated hanoks. The entire district is dedicated to all things fun and going out-related: Restaurants, clothes, jewellery, whimsical stationary shops, cafes, pubs and bars. If you’re a couple out on a date night, this is where you should go to have all of your dating, dinner and dessert needs fulfilled.
- Lotte World Tower in Jamsil has a skywalk in what is the tallest tower in Korea. Personally, it was not for me as I have a fear of heights, but if skywalks and lookouts are your thing, this one would be great fun. As you ride up in their custom lift, you are treated to quite a spectacle as the insides of that lift are decked out in screens that start projecting technicolour renditions of your surroundings as well as Korea in general. The views are grand, obviously. Seokchon Lake is nearby, a beautiful artificial lake surrounded by trees which is particularly beautiful to visit either during cherry blossom and plum blossom season in spring
- Itaewon and Noksapyeong are kind of like the foreigner towns in Seoul, rooted in the fact that Itaewon used to be where the US Army barracks were located (they have since moved to Pyeongtaek outside of Seoul in Geonggi Province). All the hottest new restaurants are there and it’s big on nightlife, boutiques selling anything from sex toys to handmade silver jewellery and everything in between that’s foreign. If for whatever reason you miss the cuisine of your home country, you’re bound to find a restaurant serving your country’s food in either of those areas. Namsan Tower is pretty close.
- Mullae dong has sprung up in recent years as the craft beer culture district of Seoul. This district used to be known mainly for its manufacturing and industrial complexes, however it has really come into its own thanks to arty-farty murals everywhere and hipster pubs, restaurants and cafes. The closest I could liken this to might be London’s Bermondsey area. Still very different but I somehow got a similarly industrial hipster vibe from both Mullae and Bermondsey.
- Anguk station has the aforementioned Jogyesa temple nearby and is also close to Insadong, Changdokgeung Palace, Bukchon’s hanok village and the National Museum of Contemporary Art Seoul. If you want to go souvenir shopping for all the loved ones at home without breaking the bank, Anguk would be perfect for you. If you are a tea lover, be sure to visit the huge O’Sulloc tea shop – O’Sulloc is my absolute favourite tea brand in Korea. All their teas are breathtakingly delicious and they make fantastic gifts too. There is a large artist’s colony/real life Etsy shopping experience nearby called Ssamzigil, which features a random assortment of arts and crafts artisans selling whimsical stationary, accessories, home decor, bags, jewellery, glasses and so forth.
If you like Parks, the Riverside and Nature
Most neighbourhoods and most palaces will feature some arrangement of parks and greenery. I would particularly recommend:
- Children’s Grand Park; this park has a free zoo (!!! great if you are travelling with kids !!!) and also boasts beautiful nature views. Do note that the animals are taken inside for their own safety on very hot or very cold days.
- River Han is this huge river flowing through the heart of Seoul that looks more like a lake than a river to be honest… it’s that big! In summer, tradition dictates that you bring a picnic blanket or a beach tent, set up shop, bring beer and order spicy Korean fried chicken to snack on as you spend hours talking with your friends, overlooking the water front.
- Seoul Forest (Seoul Soop) is a park with a waterfront, outdoor sculptures, pop-up shops and a variety of eateries. Pretty to visit on a date.
- The Cheongyechon stream is a 10 km stream and part of an urban renewal project. Festivals such as lantern festivals are often held there.
- Seoul Olympic Park near Jamsil features lots of open spaces along with open air art courtesy of SOMA Museum of Art, whose building you can also go visit on the premises. Another museum in the park is the Baekje museum, which focuses mainly on ancient Korean history.
If you’re into Shopping and a bit of Silliness along the Way
- The area around Konkuk university is great for when you’re a student and/or on a budget. Cosmetics, clothing, secondhand book shops, weird snacks and Korean street food: It’s all here. If you like, you can go visit one of the many dog cafes and cat cafes around Konkuk university station. Don’t miss Common Ground – it is a nightlife hot spot composed entirely of blue containers and it features niche designers and up-and-coming shops. It also features an extensive China Town district.
- Hongdae (Hongik university) is much like Konkuk university, only a bit bigger and more hipster if that is humanly possible. You also get to see live K-Pop performances from idol wannabes. If you are a big kid at heart, check out the Trick Eye Museum while you’re there. It lets you take silly pictures in silly poses, pretending you’re being eaten by a shark and some such things.
- The space around Hyehwa university feels a bit more intimate and arty than Konkuk and Hongdae, yet is still great for shopping and nightlife. If you are into visiting art galleries being hosted by up-and-coming artists, do make Hyehwa one of your spots to visit as you can find some beautiful treasures tucked away in some of the alley ways and you get to meet many of the artists yourself as they show you around their studios.
- Garosugil is one of the more touristy shopping districts with many cosmetics and clothes shops. For some reason, all the shops on Garosugil only cater to really tiny, petite women though! It also has the most beautiful handbag museum. The building itself is shaped like a handbag and goes by the name of Simone Handbag Museum, the entry fee is ₩5,000. It features handbags from around the world, modern ones as well as ancient ones dating back to the 16th century. I loved this museum in particular due to how beautifully curated the pieces were and with how much love they were displayed – and I don’t even like handbags that much!
- If you are nocturnal, do consider Dongdaemun night market for your clothes shopping needs and Namdaemun night market as a more traditional Korean market experience with street food, household and grocery items.
- Jamsil Lotte Mall is one of the biggest shopping centres in Seoul, and is located next to Seokchon Lake and Lotte Tower. This is where you’d go for all your department store shopping needs but it also has a cheapo underground shopping mall and one of the largest book shops that I have seen in Seoul, which is part of Kyobo book shops. You can also opt to visit Lotte Adventure World – a theme park that has both indoors as well as outdoors areas. My favourite part about it is that it has PF Chang’s, a US American chain of Western style Chinese food, and that it has a 4D cinema experience inside called FlyVenture. Other than that, you can also experience a variety of rides and VR experiences inside. They have parades on on most days if that is something that you like. An ice skating rink is housed one level below.
You may also choose to visit the following:
- The Gangnam station area could be fun if you are into concrete everything, it’s not for me personally, though they also have a Gangnam Style sculpture where you can take silly pictures if you so desire.
- Myeongdong is one of the most touristy places in Seoul. I cannot personally recommend it due to it being so crowded but I heard it’s good for bargain hunting.
Did I miss anything important?? Let me know in the comments as I might add useful tips to the post as I go along. 😄
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