A lot of people ask us what they should do when they travel to South Korea and we’ve written a lot of long emails over the years listing all our favorite things to do. We decided that rather than continuing that, we’d write it all down on the blog and give people a URL to visit. Without further ado:
Some general tips and must-dos:
- Seoul’s metro is the cleanest, most efficient public transit I’ve ever seen. It’s a complex network, though and the Metro trip planner is your friend. It is in Flash, unfortunately, but we also had success with Google Maps and Naver Map.
- Here are a bunch of links I found useful while we were living there. Hopefully they all still work.
- If you’re there on a Saturday, you must see the band Soundbox. They play in a park in the Hongdae neighborhood. It’s right here. They usually start at sundown. There’s also a weekly art market there earlier in the day.
- Eat at Myeongdong Kyoja. Listen. This place is amazing. You must eat the giant bowl of kalguksu (칼국수) and steamed dumplings (만두). It’s a sizable portion of food so if you’re fresh off the plan and super hungry, it won’t disappoint. There will be a line. There are two locations, this one is the original.
- Walk through Insadong (인사동) to Jogyesa temple (조계사) (or the other way around). Insadong is a center for traditional arts and though it can be heavily touristed, it’s a short walk that’s well worth a trip. Jogyesa is large Buddhist temple in the center of Seoul. Especially if you’re there around Buddha’s birthday or one of Korea’s holidays, the grounds are gorgeous and rich with history.
- Shop the Namdaemun market at nighttime. It’s a fine market during the day, too, but the nighttime experience is one-of-a-kind. Here you’ll find souvenirs, handicrafts, and all kinds of traditional food. It’s also close to Myeongdong so if you happened to be there for dinner, you can just roll right on to the shopping.
- Head to Gyeongbokgung for the changing of the guard ceremony. This ceremony was started in 1469 during the Joseon Dynasty and has been reenacted since 1996 in strict accordance with tradition. Take a walk through the palace and the National Folk Museum on the grounds afterward to learn about the history of the Korean people.
- Take a stroll down Cheonggyecheon stream (청계천), a 7 mile long stream that runs through the heart of Seoul. 3.6 miles of it was designed into a park. Access it and walk upstream from City Hall. The stream, and the park that follows its floodplain, is the result of a major daylighting project to demolish a highway and restore the natural stream, a tributary to the Han.
- Eat some latenight Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), Korean bacon, grilled at your table. Need we say more.
There’s a ton more to do if you have more time in the city. Here’s our master list.
Things for a longer trip:
- If you want to get a massage, there’s a chain called “Foot Shop” that we love. $20-$40, cheaper with cash
- If you want a spa day, ask around for a jimjilbang (짐질방) or look for the ♨️symbol (though that sometimes is also used for love motel, so watch out for that)
- For the Filipino Market, here’s the location according to Foursquare, and here is the area on a Google Map. Go out exit 1 and follow the main road up around to the right. You should see a big Catholic church on the right side of the street. The market is near there. More on the Filipino community in Seoul here.
- Food blogs that might have good tips: Zen Kimchi, Seoul Eats
- Eat some Jajangmeyon (짜장면)
- 김가네 I’m pretty sure is a big chain but they have great kimbap.
- Triangle kimbap is amazing
- Galbi. Pork (돼지갈비) or chicken (닭갈비) are our favorites. Grilled at the table, you’ll find galbi joints everywhere. Our favorite is in Ilsan, let us know if you head there.
- Bibimbap. Particularly dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥). Dolsot means stone pot. It comes out sizzling, usually with an egg on top.
- Cold buckwheat noodle soup, or mul naengmyeon (물냉면), is great on a hot day.
- Jjigae are also great on a hot day for completely different reasons.
- Dubu kimchi is tofu, kimchi, and bacon. Excellent combination.
- Eat lots of kimchi. It’s good for the soul (and hangover prevention).
- Mandu, korean dumplings, are abundant and delicious. The red ones are filled with a kimchi mixture and we recommend them 💯.
- If you want American comfort food, Itaewon is the place to go. I don’t know that I’d go there for much else.
- Run, bike, skate, walk, or otherwise move your body along the Han River trails.
- Go for a bike ride. All the rides I can recommend start in Ilsan, near the Jeongbalsan metro station. I’m sure if you do some research you can find more.
- Bukhansan National Park is a great hike, we did it over chuseok when nearly everything else was closed. The park is accessible from the metro. We hiked bagundae peak, though I can’t remember the exact name of the trail. Strong recommend.
- Go for a hike along the Seoul Fortress Wall and check out the Buamdong neighborhood.
- Explore Samcheongdong, great little hip neighborhood.
- Go to a movie! They have honey popcorn and you get to reserve your seat in advance. Plus the films are usually subtitled (not dubbed) so you get to enjoy the English standard soundtrack.
- Childrens Grand Park has a free zoo! With super active big cats!
- In addition to the Gyeongbokgung recommendation above. tour the other palaces. It might sound kitchy and touristy, but they’re gorgeous grounds full of Korea’s fascinating history.
- Hank’s Bookstore is a good place to shop for books about Korea written in English.
- Bukchon Hanok Village is a nice slice of preserved old city stuff
Day or weekend trips
- If you only have time for one short day or weekend trip from Seoul, the Incheon islands might be the easiest. Eulwang Beach is a sleepy town on the airport island. It is, apparently, not so sleepy in the summer. The next beach over, Wangsan, is a little sleepier but also has excellent food. Eat the seafood kalguksu (해물칼국수) or try your hand at raw fish. There are many other islands to visit depending on how much time you have.
- Busan. Here’s everything we have to say about the city. It’s worth at least a weekend if not longer. We went for the Busan International Film Festival, it’s usually in early October and a good excuse to head down there. There’s also good hiking around there and a temple stay in Busan that, I think, you can hike to. Haeundae beach is always a popular spot for people who like beaches.
- If you’re in to K-Dramas, enjoy biking (and have one), want to see workaday life in a smaller place, or are curious to see where we lived for some reason: Head to the Jeongbalsan station and shoot us an email for specifics. Highlights of this area include Lake Park and it’s aptly named Spectacular Musical Fountain. If you have a bike, you can ride around the lake, and connect up to some trails that head into Paju. I’d go back just to ride those trails again.
- Gwangju is a cool town and an easy bus ride from Seoul (probably train too, but busses are cheaper), and nearby is the Boseong Tea Planation — strong recommend.
- Sokcho is a good time: great hiking, beautiful coastline, delicious seafood. Seoraksan National Park is walkable from the city (though you may want to take a cab).
- Gyeongju is an historic pre-unification city with a ton of history. If you’re there in cherry blossom season (which I think you will be) go here. It’s crowded but still a lot of fun. They also have a few places where you can get an amazing Eat a meal called baekbansik (백반정식) or han jeongsik (한정식). A little more about that here: http://www.maangchi.com/blog/thirty-banchan and about the city on our blog.
- Andong Folk Village is worth a trip and Juwangsan National Park is a short side trip from there. Excellent hiking and beautiful scenery especially in the fall. Do the Joo Bong Trail, with incredible views along the way to a heart-shaped pond and waterfall. Here’s the exact itinerary we did when we went. (Though we’d recommend leaving earlier and staying an extra night either in Andong or somewhere along the way if you can swing it.)
- If you have more time, head to Jeju. We never made it but it’s supposed to be amazing. If you’re feeling more adventurous, head to Dokdo, Korea’s disputed rocks in the East Sea (A.K.A. the Sea of Japan though you won’t see it called that much in Korea).