Seoul Travel Guide Part 1
I visited Seoul with Matt and his extended family for the first time last month and I wanted to share our Seoul travel guide! It was a short trip since I could only take a week off for vacation during this particular rotation but it actually felt like a sufficient amount of time. We left Friday night and returned the following Sunday, so we had 7 full days in Seoul. We had so many good recommendations from friends and of course Matt’s family, many of whom still live in Seoul, and I think we got a good mix of cultural experiences, eating, and of course, shopping too! Everything in Seoul is so clean and new, and the subway gets you everywhere you would want to visit. Here are all my favorite places in Seoul, split up by region.
NOTE: This post ended up being so huge I had to split it into two! Part two featuring places south of the River to come soon. That will be a shorter post since I stayed north of the River so that’s where I spent most of my time.
(Special thanks to my dear friend Jennifer Lee for all her Seoul recs, some of which I adapted here! Check out her awesome skincare and baking blog here)
We stayed at the Four Seasons in Gwanghwamun (“Heart of Old Seoul”) which is the city center north of the Hangan River that runs through Seoul. Here there are a ton of financial buildings, the main square where protests for and against the President were happening every other day, and also the starting point of Cheong-gye-chung, a beautiful 3.5 mile stream and park more than 15 feet below street level that is a peaceful and scenic walking area. Matt and I walked this stream a few times and it’s a nice romantic stroll during the day or at night.Gwanghwamun is also a stone’s throw away from Gyeongbokgung Palace, where you can participate in an English tour and visit the National Palace Museum or the National Folk Museum of Korea. Several people rented hanbok (traditional Korean wear for women and men) in the streets around the palace and then did photo shoots all around the beautiful palace grounds. It looked like fun!
Once you finish with the Palace, you can amble along the streets of Samcheongdong-gil, which is just outside the Palace walls. This is a cute street lined with free art galleries, cafes, boutiques, and tea shops.
Also side note: If you love speakeasies, check out the speakeasy Charles H. Bar in the basement of the Four Seasons. The decor brings you back to another era like the 1920s and they have specialty drinks from famous cities around the world. I got to drink my favorite Ramos Gin Fizz! We came here multiple nights because the ambiance and the drinks were divine.
Insadong / Bukchon
Insadong is a cultural neighborhood consisting of a main street lined with stores selling traditional Korean souvenirs, arts and crafts, trinkets, and snacks. I picked up some souvenirs for my family members here at an affordable price. There are also tons of hanbok shops where you can rent a hanbok for the afternoon to take pictures in. This is definitely a touristy area, but worth visiting on a weekday when it’s more quiet. Our friends recommended visiting the famous O’sulloc tea house, but we didn’t get a chance to go.
After ambling around Insadong, you can walk up the hill to Bukchon, one of my favorite neighborhoods from the trip. This area is another cultural neighborhood that is a maze of quaint alleyways, home to the country’s biggest collection of traditional Korean homes (hanok). A lot of people were dressed up in hanbok to take pictures here, which made for some very unique shots! We spent a while getting lost in here, wandering around the hanok. Several hanok were turned into tea houses, perfume ateliers, cafes, and museums, so you can go in and visit several of them. After leaving Bukchon, on our way to Changdeokgung Palace, we stopped by a tiny hole in the wall Italian restaurant called Pasta, which was some of the best pasta I’ve ever had!
Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden
This palace is gorgeous in of itself (I recommend taking the English tour to learn more about the history and culture of the palace), but the real gem here is Bi-won, or the Secret Garden. You have to pay to come on the English tour here but it is worth every cent! The garden is so beautiful, even in the winter when no flowers were blooming. I can only imagine how stunning the whole place is in the spring or fall. This was Matt’s favorite site to visit in Seoul; do not miss a chance to see this pretty garden!
This area is in the far northwest corner of Seoul near two large universities, including Hongik University, an art school, so it is packed with young people. Think streets lined with affordable boutiques selling clothes and accessories, ridiculously cute and artsy cafes, live music, and delicious bar food. I bought one of my favorite finds from the trip here, a bell sleeve navy floral print dress! Just be forewarned: the majority of these street shops do not allow you to try on any clothing, so you need to be okay with approximating the fit in front of a mirror.We visited a really cute dessert cafe called Be Sweet On, which is decorated like a library. A famous huge Karaoke building can also be found here, called Sul Noraebang, that is open 24 hours a day. My friends told me that there is also a trick eye museum in Hongdae with optical illusion paintings; we only came at night so didn’t get a chance to check it out!
This neighborhood is located next to the US Army base so there are lots of expats and foreign shops, bars, and clubs here. This area is another one of my favorites because of plethora of cute cafes and dessert bars. I highly recommend checking out Glamorous Penguin, Passion 5 (huge gelateria, bakery, patisserie, chocolaterie, and macaron shop that looks like Paris Baguette on steroids), and Take Out Drawing. I also had amazing Korean bbq here at Maple Tree House which is located right next to Itaewon subway station. I don’t know what the scene is here at night, but I would guess it gets pretty loud and rowdy with clubgoers.
This place is like skincare and cosmetics shopping heaven! Think multiple streets of skincare, clothing, and cosmetics shops, with all the major brands you would want to sample like Skin Food, innisfree, Banila, Etude House, Tony Moly, The Face Shop, Olive Young (a skincare/cosmetics store like Ulta or Sephora that’s practically on every block), and more. There were also many stores that sold ONLY sheet masks – think stores with hundreds of different brands of sheet masks! Make sure to bring your passport because anytime you spend over 30,000 won (~$30 USD), your purchases can be duty free. I recommend coming to Myeondong at night, because the roads are lined with Korean street food vendors. Nothing like munching on ddukbokki (rice cakes in a spicy red sauce), chicken on a stick, egg bread, and more while contemplating which face creams to buy.
This used to be the highest building in Seoul, and the top of the tower still contains sweeping 360 degree views of the city (I sound like a real estate agent…I’ve been apartment hunting too long!). You can take a well-paved, scenic hike up the stairs to the tower or you can take the cable cars, which we did with our nieces. Once you’re at the base of the tower, you can see the thousands of locks that couples chained to every inch of the fences surrounding the tower. The locks and iphone cases all have messages with different languages written on them; some even have pictures! If you’re into this kind of thing, bring a lock with you to avoid the $10-$20 locks sold there. Check in with the information booth when cultural performances will occur at the base of the tower. We caught a Samulnori (traditional Korean drum and dance) performance followed by Korean warriors demonstrating their knife and spear skills. Of course I got volunteered to go up in front of the crowd to try to spear a piece of bamboo…and hilarity ensued. Glad everyone was entertained by my inability to carry a spear!!
A shopping paradise, or nightmare, depending on what kind of shopping experience you’re into! Dongdaemun consists of huge multi floor department stores crammed with shop after shop after shop with vendors pulling you in every direction. There are two types of malls here, made for consumer and wholesale. The consumer friendly department stores like Migliore and Doota are designed to sell single pieces to shoppers, whereas the wholesale malls require you to purchase multiple items in one go. Usually, retailers from China or Japan come and buy in bulk from the wholesale shops. When you walk into the wholesale malls like U:Us you see large plastic bags everywhere where vendors are shoving goods into bags to ship out. The crazies thing? These malls are open until 5 or 6 am in the morning. You can literally shop until you drop. I felt like I was going to pass out halfway through; it was really sensory overload and all the clothes started blurring together. The vendors are also very pushy, but note that they will budge if you bargain with them. Personally, I couldn’t handle this shopping experience. We arrived around 11 pm, the usual time these places start getting busy, and left around 2 am. I wasn’t able to buy a single thing because it was too stressful >_<
This semi-covered market is walking distance from Dongdaemun but is an entirely different flavor. The shops sell Korean souvenirs, hanbok, trinkets, and as you venture deeper into the heart of the market, the stalls turn into kimchi, fresh fish, and vegetable shops. The center of the market is a huge indoor food court. This was street food heaven! We feasted on bin dae dduk (mung bean pancake), gimbap (Korean sushi made with radishes and pickles, usually vegetarian), ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes), japchae (sweet potato noodle stir fry), and kalguksoo (hand-cut noodles in savory broth). It’s not the most sanitary place but hey it’s street food, it’s super cheap, and you get the real “Korean” experience.
Stay tuned for part 2, a guide of what we did south of the Hangang river!