Cosmopolitan, cultural, and utterly fascinating, Seoul in South Korea is a megapolis that has something for every traveller. You don’t need to speak the language to get around with ease and it’s a welcoming place that bursts with history, art, cuisine, and more at every turn.
Planning a trip to Seoul? Once you fly into Incheon Airport, it’s very easy to get into the city via the subway, bus, taxi, or hire car. But then what do you do? Here’s your ultimate list of sights to see, fun local things to try, and delicious foods you’ve got to eat.
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Seoul’s Top 5 Most Famous Attractions
There are so many incredible places to see in Seoul. All the museums are worth a visit if you have the time, but nothing is more incredible than these historic landmarks that make Seoul so undeniably unique.
Seoul is home to 5 palaces spread throughout the city, a spectacular sight as they sit beside towering skyscrapers. You should try to visit them all, but if time is limited, don’t miss Gyeongbokgung Palace. The main entrance, called Gwanghwamun is where you’ll get to see the famed changing of the guard ceremony. The grounds feature gorgeous gardens and there are also 2 on-site museums with incredible artefacts.
If you have time for another palace, choose Changdeokgung Palace. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one that features a garden. To see the garden though, you must sign up for a tour so make sure you don’t miss out.
Surrounded by peaceful woodlands, Jongmyo is a Confucian shrine that is also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Touring inside, you get the chance to see things that belong to the rulers of the Joseon dynasty, including the ‘spirit tablets.’ It’s believed that the spirits of these ancient people live within a hole encased in the tablets. During the month of May, you’ll be treated to the famed ceremony of Jongmyo Daeje while there.
While it’s easy to get to the other palaces by subway, it is almost unavoidable not to run right into Deoksugung Palace. It’s right in the city centre. Walk by at just the right time and you’ll see the changing of the guard ceremony. This one really intrigues me, simply because the busy streets surrounding it make it hard to imagine that ages ago, Seoul was a very different place!
While there are many amazing sights in Seoul, when it comes to history, one that is more recent and deserves attention is a trip to the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone. This is a 4km-wide, 240km-long area that separates the North and South. You’ll see both armies on each side, firmly at attention to serve their countries. You can easily catch a day tour that gives you the inside scoop, picking you up from your hotel and taking you out of the city to see this historic spot.
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Seoul’s Top 5 Local Things to Do
It’s no fun to go to a new place and not do as the locals do. Between poking into museums and the historic places mentioned above, don’t forget to embrace Seoul for the quirky-cool place it is by doing these local things.
Taste the street food
True that we have a food section following below, one of the most fun activities in Seoul when acting like a local is to sample the street foods. You’ll find them in the underground subway stations or just outside them.
Cheap and delicious, these foods will have you eating like a local in no time. There are things that are very Korean like tteokbokki (spicy chewy rice cakes) and other things that will be more familiar, like waffles.
Act like a child
If you’ve taken your kids with you or you just want to feel like a kid in Seoul, you can find much to do that will make you feel like a local while embracing your inner child. Lotte World is an absolute hoot, a theme park that you can get to from Jamsil Station on the Seoul Metro. It will remind you of Disney in so many ways but with a uniquely Korean twist. The park spans an indoor and outdoor area, plus it also includes a museum.
Experience Korean theatrz
One thing many tourists don’t take the time to do is catch a play. They don’t realize you don’t have to understand Korean to thoroughly enjoy it. In particular, long-running shows like Jump and Nanta rely on nonverbal communication that will have you laughing until your sides hurt. They’re slapstick and silly, and absolutely wonderful to enjoy in the afternoon or after a big Korean meal.
Make time for norebang
‘Norebang’ is what they call karaoke in Korean. And before you think it’s anything like those sad bars back home where you’re forced to sing to a room full of strangers, think again. Norebang is one of THE biggest activities for Koreans of all ages. It literally translates to ‘singing room’ and it quite literally is a room you sing in. Some places are nicer than others which the cost will reflect, but if you choose a good one, you’ll be granted a room with your own stellar sound system and a massive book full of English song choices.
Best of all, if you push a button (a very common and handy item you’ll see in restaurants and businesses all over Seoul), someone will come to serve you a beer, wine, snacks, or whatever you’d like.
Seoul is the fashion capital of the world so it’s little surprise that shopping here is one of the best activities you can engage in. Not a fashionista? Not to worry as you can find the latest tech and other things to indulge your wallet with.
Underground malls and massive shopping centres are everywhere, not to mention boutiques. Don’t forget to indulge in one of the many skin care stores all around the city. Plus, there’s tons of art to find for a more unique gift or trinket to take back home. In the popular area of Insadong, galleries are everywhere!
Seoul’s Top 5 Foods to Try
To fully experience Seoul, you need to taste it. We’ve already discussed street food, but aside from that, what should you eat? You’ll see tons of Western-style restaurants in the popular shopping area of Myeongdong, but why bother? You can get those at home at any time!
It’s certainly fun to poke your head into places like Outback Steakhouse or California Pizza Kitchen to see what it’s like, but save your appetite for trying Korean foods in Seoul. You won’t be disappointed!
Korean BBQ restaurants are everywhere, and they’re usually the ideal place to kick off your evening out. Inside, the tables all feature charcoal grills. You order your meats and have to cook them yourself atop the grill. A personal vent extends down to suck up the charcoal fumes.
Along with the meats, a variety of fun sides, or banchan, come out to your table. Among them are lettuce leaves that you’ll use to wrap up your cooked meats. Korean BBQ is even better when you drink it with soju, a clear Korean liquor that’s slightly akin to vodka, or beer.
Kimchi and the Banchan Spread
As mentioned, banchan are side dishes and among them, kimchi is indeed the most famous. You can’t come to Seoul and not taste this spicy fermented cabbage. They eat it with every single meal (yes, even breakfast).
Kimchi is always a standard inclusion with your meal. Other banchan though vary per restaurant and even vary nightly. Sometimes, they include fried tofu, seaweed salad, fermented soybeans, potato salad, and other amazing delights.
Tip: You can ask for refills of the banchan too! Just try not to be greedy.
Pajeon is a savoury pancake made with green onions which are called ‘pa’ in Korean. They also contain seafood if you order the ‘haemul’ version. There are restaurants that only specialize in this, and it’s very common for Koreans to come to them on rainy days. They eat the pajeon and drink makgeolli, a delicious Korean rice wine. To drink it like a Korean, you’ll be given a small bowl rather than a cup.
Following kimchi in famousness, bulgogi is probably the next most popular Korean dish. It is made with beef that has been marinated with sweet and tangy ingredients for a tender bite. The sauce is superb over rice.
Rice isn’t automatically served though so you’ll have to ask for a bowl of it which is easy enough. It comes in a small metal bowl with a lid and can be super hot so watch your fingers.
Not a specific dish per se, but part of Korean cuisine is entrenched in Buddhist culture. Temple foods are not missed. The entire meal is vegan but it’s so delicious that even meat eaters won’t miss a thing.
In Insadong, you can find many temple food restaurants, though the ones that put on shows for dinner are the absolute best. Sanchon is one of the most popular of them all. You can go for lunch but during dinner is when they perform a traditional drum show.
Seoul’s 5 Quick Tips for Visitors
There are just a few more things you should know before you get on your flight to Seoul.
Practice with chopsticks
Koreans eat their meals with a set of metal chopsticks and a spoon. Even if you’ve used chopsticks before, the metal ones can be slippery and tough to get used to. And if you’ve never used chopsticks before, give it a try now before you get there and have to eat everything with a spoon.
You don’t have to use a squatty potty
While you will see squatty potties in Seoul, most bathrooms have regular toilets. You may find subway stations with bathroom stalls that feature both. In very rare cases will you be stuck with a squatty potty as your only option? If you do find one and can’t wait to find another bathroom, just squat over it and go!
You’ll be quite safe
Seoul is a very safe place. The people are nice and honest to the point that if you drop 1500 won from your bag (about the equivalent of US £1) they’ll tell you. There’s little to worry about with North Korea too. It can be overhyped in the media. If you have any concerns, make sure you check for any travel alerts for the area.
Practice your gestures
Korean is rather easy to read if you take the time to learn it. Few things are in English but you’ll find your way without a problem. You can get a subway map in English which makes life easier. Most Koreans are very friendly and nice and if you play a few charades, they will likely understand what you’re looking for and help you out.
Get the T-Money Card
If you’re spending 2 days or more in Seoul, get a T-Money Card. It’s cheap and helps make getting on the subway or bus so much easier. Plus, it saves you money. Some convenience stores accept it too which means you can stock up on your stash of Korean snacks!
Have a wonderful and safe time in Seoul!
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