6 Essential Things to Do in Seoul, South Korea

Some Seoul for my Soul: Gyeonbukgong Guard

As summer rolled into focus last year, I counted down the days until I could take a break from the normal hustle-and-bustle and get lost in another country. I looked through the list of countries that I could fly to on a budget and bounced off a few countries like Thailand before I decided on the obvious answer. South Korea was to be my maze, and I to be the runner. So, I impulse-booked a flight to Seoul. Now, before I decided to deplete my savings for Seoul, I had just taken a breath-taking trip to Gunma, Japan to face my fears and possibly plunge to my death, but after some careful self-convincing, I budgeted until I had enough to blow on a week in Seoul.

Indoctrinated into the K-drama and K-pop frenzy in the “golden age” of Korean pop music and culture in 2008, I always wanted to visit South Korea and see if it lived up to all the hype. Well, the results are out, and I’m already planning my next trip there. Seoul is a K-pop lover and city-girl’s dream–the fast culture, winding streets backlit with high-rises and never-ending nightlife. Coming from small-town Fukui, I was ready to stay out all night, every night, until I had to go back. The city didn’t disappoint. Every night there was something to do, eat and see.

Luckily, I traveled with a fellow teacher and K-Pop lover, and we were able to get the most out of our time there. On our list were a couple of must-sees and dos like wearing a hanbok, seeing the major palaces, taking a peep into North Korea, and eating our weight in deliciously spicy Korean food. I didn’t get to do absolutely everything I wanted to do there and I only saw just a glimpse of life in Seoul, but there are at least six things to do there during your trip to South Korea. 

Where to Stay

Hands down, if you’re looking for a bustling nightlife scene full of young university kids, Hongdae is the place to stay. While I wouldn’t recommend the hostel I stayed at, I recommend you make Hongdae your main base during your time in Seoul. My friend and I made sure to stay out as late as possible for two reasons, (1) the hostel we stayed at was not up to our standards, and (2) Hongdae has so much to offer even at two in the morning. Hongdae is your quintessential college town. If you walk towards Hongik University, you’re bound to find Korean BBQ and fried chicken restaurants still open late into the night and the occasional rowdy group of students stumbling out of nightclubs. If you walk the other direction towards the main shopping area of Hongdae, there’s live entertainment by k-pop star hopefuls, shopping, nightlife and even more late-night food.

As for accommodations, if you’re a seasoned backpacker who’s lived out of their backpacks or roughed it in the wild for weeks, then maybe where I stayed, Kimchee Guesthouse Sinchon, will meet your standards. It’s cheap (at about $20 USD a night), full of young kids trying to make it in Seoul, and in a convenient location. However, if you’re used to at least a standard 3-star hotel or value neatness and cleanliness, then maybe that guesthouse is not for you. I’ve done some more research and here are some alternative places to the Kimchee Guesthouse brand:

1. Hongdae: Huayuan House

2. Hongdae: BINGO HOUSE 

3. Chungmuro: K Guesthouse Seoul City

4. Myeongdong: Step Inn Myeongdong

Alley in South Korea
Some Seoul for my Soul: Hangdae
Kpop Dancers in Hangdae

What to Do

1. Visit the 5 Grand Palaces

South Korea’s “grand palaces” are Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung, and the designation also includes Jongmyo Shrine. For foreign visitors, you can enter these six beautiful locations for free if you’re wearing a Korean hanbok or other Korean traditional clothing. If you’re not wearing traditional clothing, admission into the palaces range from $1 to $3 USD. My friend and I were able to see three of the six grand palace locations: Changdeokgung, Deoksugung and Gyeongbokgung. The palaces were beautiful to look at, but the overall architecture of the palaces are very similar. After back-to-back days of palaces, they began to mix together. The palaces that I remember the most, however, were Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung. I was able to experience the former in a hanbok and I caught the various ceremonial performances at the later. At Gyeongbokgung Palace, there are three “changing of the guard” ceremonies and the largest occurs before the Heungnyemun Gate. You can visit the tourism website for the ceremony times, but there are no ceremonies on Tuesdays.

Changdeokgung Palace

6 Essential Things to Do in Seoul, South Korea: Changdeokgung Palace
Architecture of Changdeokgung Palace
Some Seoul for my Soul: Hangbok Experience
Some Seoul for my Soul: Hangbok Experience

Gyeongbokgung Palace

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2. Wear a Hanbok

Have you ever watched a Korean historical drama and came away with so many questions about how Korean women lived their lives wearing puffy dresses all the time? Well, you can experience that while visiting the Five Grand Palaces and living your best k-drama life! 

Hanbok are traditional clothing for Korean men and women. ‘Hanbok’ means “Korean clothing,” but the hanbok of today is modeled after what was worn in the Joseon Period are worn for formal ceremonies and festivals. Hanbok for women consists of a cropped linen top with long sleeves that covers the upper-half of the torso and a skirt with pockets while hanbok for men consists of the linen top and pants. 

My travel partner and I booked our Hanbok experience through Oneday Hanbok on their online website. We were able to pick our hanbok colors based on our size. In Korea, I was about a medium to large (gotta love the chest), but I still had a good selection of styles to choose from. My friend, on the other hand, was about an American extra large, so there was less variety for her. We could also choose accessories and hair adornments there as well.

We rented our hanbok for 24 hours at about $28 USD a person. When you rent, you must leave your I.D. and a $10 USD deposit that you’ll get back after you return your rented items. There are more rental places other than Oneday Hanbok, but if I were to go to South Korea and rent a hanbok again, I would rent from there.

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3. Visit the Bukchon Hanok Village

The Bukchon Village is traditional meets modern as you can walk through streets of traditional Korean houses called “hanok” and eat at trendy and modern cafes in the area. In this area, my friend and I tried a delicious seafood restaurant that offered meals like bibimbap with oyster fried rice. There’s a lot of cute cafes and restaurants in the area, so be sure to stop into one of the traditionally-designed places and take some cute shots in your hanbok as you eat!

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4. Visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)

A year before North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-In shook hands at this historic location, I took a tour through Korridor Tours to visit and learn about the DMZ. We took the tour that went to the DMZ Theme Park, the DMZ Museum, and through the tunnels connecting the north and the south for about $100 USD. We opted to skip going to the actual building that sits on the parallel line, but I recommend seeing as much of the area as possible.

UPDATE: As of 2020, if planning on visiting the Freedom House and Bridge of No Return, access has been restricted due to the current unstable relationship between South and North Korea.

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5. Hike Namsan and see N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower can be seen from all over Seoul, so we had to venture up Nam Mountain to see the tower. There are a few public buses that can take you up and down the mountain, but we hiked the mountain instead. It took us about an hour or two to walk up the mountain at a leisurely pace, and locals were there doing night exercises. If you don’t mind some sweat, hiking the mountain is a treat.

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6. Drop Serious Cash on Korean Fashion and Cosmetics

One of the most popular reasons people go to South Korea is for it’s fashion and cosmetics, and looking at the general population on the streets, you have to dress to impress. The street boutiques and mid-to-high-end stores all have the most trendy clothes, accessories, and make-up for cheap and expensive prices. My friend and I bought cosmetics and clothes from Etude House, Innisfree, TONYMOLY, Missha, Holika Holika, Indibrand and Teenie Weenie. 

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Where to Eat

Ever heard of the mukbang? Then you’d know that food in Korean culture could rival K-pop culture. Being in Seoul and staying in the trendy college neighborhood of Hongdae, you can eat whatever kind of food you want at all hours of the night.

My first night there, my friend and I tried the quintessential Korean fried chicken experience, chimaek. What is ‘chimaek?’ It’s deliciously double-fried chicken and beer! We also ate the fan favorites like bibimbap (rice bowl), kimbap (Korean sushi), pajeon (fried pancakes), jjigae (stew), and ddeokbokki (rice cakes) and drank the coveted Soju.

Having devoured all episodes of TvN’s first season of “Let’s Eat” (a Korean drama centered on eating), I was prepared to gain a couple of pounds to for the full-on eating experience. While we were traveling, we mostly relied on what we saw as we walked around and what we could read. Both I and my travel partner know at least elementary Korean, so we were able to read and figure out what restaurant sold what kind of food. Since Google Maps doesn’t really work in South Korea, I wasn’t able to bookmark any of the places we went to. But, if you walk around, you’re bound to find something delicious.

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How to Get There

Let’s be real here, I’m a teacher, meaning my budget is…frugal. I usually try to book the cheapest flights, stay in the cheapest accommodations (without sacrificing comfort, of course), and enjoy as many experiences without breaking my wallet. For my travels around Asia, I have been using Peach Air. Peach Air is a discount airline based in Japan. From any major city in Japan, you can fly to almost anywhere in Asia. 

For my prefecture, teachers don’t usually get to book their flights at the most cost-effective time, so I usually look to Peach to give me an affordable and moderately comfortable flight. For this trip, I took the local trains from Fukui to Kansai International Airport in Osaka. At about ¥3,000 JPY, the local trains, although slow, cost about half the cost of taking the shinkansen (bullet train) and express trains. I flew into Incheon International Airport for about $300 USD without much hassle, and from there it was subway trains, buses, walking and the occasional taxi for the rest of the trip.

Useful Tips

Including the 6 things to do listed above, most things (food, attractions, etc.) in Seoul are in English, so you don’t need to know Korean to get by. However, I recommend you learn at least the most basic of phrases and important vocabulary (e.g., dietary) to make the most of your trip. 

Google Maps doesn’t work in South Korea. This means that although you can open the app and see the map, you can’t get directions, information, or bookmark anything. Instead, try Naver Map if you have some grasp of Korean. Naver Map is what everyone in South Korea uses to get around. If you can’t read Korean, certainly use Google Maps to at least see where you are in the city.

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Have any questions or comments about traveling in South Korea, comment below!

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