Seoul consistently tops lists as one of the best cities to visit in Asia. Nearly half of the population of Korea lives in Seoul (that’s 10 million people), and it’s the hub of Korea’s economy, politics, and culture. Whatever interests you – be it food, history, art – you will find it in Seoul.
The quality of life in this city attracts more than just Koreans. There is a healthy expat population making it a diverse and international city as well. After living here for nearly three years I can (without a doubt) tell you that it is one of my favorite cities in the world. I could spew out hundreds of reasons why you should visit Seoul – but why trust just me when you can hear from other travelers and bloggers who have called Seoul home.
I asked fellow blogging friends who have lived in Seoul (ranging from a year to over a decade) to share one thing they would suggest for anyone visiting the city. I asked them to share something that you may not find in a traditional guidebook, or how to take a classic tourist experience a little bit further. It could be a restaurant to eat at or a kind of food to try. A neighborhood to explore or an event to go to. An activity to participate in or a special place to visit.
Check out what some former and current residents of Seoul recommend you do on your visit!
Wear a Hanbok to Visit the Palaces
If you’re going to be visiting Seoul, you’ll likely end up touring the Grand Palaces that are scattered around the city, so why not do so in style? A popular activity with both locals and visitors alike is to rent a hanbok, the typical Korean dress of the Joseon period, which will not only make you feel like royalty, but will also give you free admission to the palaces. The cost of admission to all the palaces tends to be about the same as renting a hanbok (depending on the rental shop), so you’re not spending any extra money while having a really memorable experience. We visited a rental shop called One Day Hanbok, where we got to choose two different outfits to try on. For women it’s a two piece outfit consisting of a dress and short jacket, and for men it’s a three piece outfit that includes pants, a long sleeved shirt and a vest. Once we had chosen our hanbok, we grabbed a few additional accessories, and we were on our way!
At first, it might feel a little strange wandering around a modern metropolis wearing clothes from centuries past, however, we promise you won’t be out of place! Once you near the palaces, you’ll start to see visitors wearing the traditional Korean dress, so don’t be shy. If you need any more convincing, let me remind you that you’re going to end up with some of the best souvenir photos from your visit to Seoul!
Explore the Noryangjin Fish Market
A trip to Seoul isn’t complete until you’ve visited Noryangjin Fish Market – one of the largest fish markets in the world. I lived in Seoul for 18 months, and in my opinion, this is the best place to fully experience Korean culture in a nutshell. This 24-hour fish market covers 66,000 square meters in a warehouse-type setting that contains more than 1,000 different species of dish. Nearly everything is alive, swimming in tanks, such as clams, crab, flounder, shrimp, octopus, lobster, eel, etc.
Your negotiation skills are put to the test when you want to buy a fish, and as soon as it is sold, the vendor kills it with a sharp spear directly in front of you on the floor. Then, as the fish is flopping around, they put it in a bag and you take it to one of the many restaurants surrounding the market to get it freshly cooked! It’s the freshest of fresh. My favorite two things to eat at NorYangJin are the King Crab and the SanNakJi (Live Octopus!) I once ate an entire octopus in one bite, but I usually get it chopped up.
A Quirky Day in Hongdae
I can say without a doubt one of the most fun and quirky things to do is to visit the unique themed cafes and spots in Hongdae. This art and music district is surrounded by three universities so it’s young, hip and chic with an odd mish mash of places to visit. At least one day should be spent seeking out the street art and visiting places like Caface, a café where visitors take a selfie and it becomes the topping for a delicious latte. Koreans are widely known for being camera happy and selfie obsessed, so this goes right along with that theme.
After a good latte, visit The Galapagos an animal themed café with a chic twist. A tortoise wanders the floorboards, sugar gliders crawl around looking for grapes and lizards freeze at attention too. Of course the Hello Kitty Café is a must because it’s cute and oh so pink and then there’s the Thanks Nature Café which has yet another twist on the animal themed café by serving up waffles with two playful sheep. For something more interactive, check out Pole Pole where you can paint your own Matryoshka dolls over a cup of tea. These are just a few of the quirky fun spots to be found in the district of Hongdae.
Hike in Bukhansan & Picnic in Lake Park
Hiking is an outdoor activity that Koreans love to partake in. I really understood their love for hiking after hiking Bukhansan National Park and seeing the landscape and views for myself! Get up there early to avoid the crowds and make sure you bring some Kimbap and Makgeolli if you want to fit in with the locals.
When you’ve finished your hike in Bukhansan head to nearby Ilsan Lake Park.
Koreans are picnic pros. They have this activity down to a science and are more than prepared with all the picnic necessities. We took a page out of their books and stocked up on mats, chairs, eating utensils and more. Ilsan Lake Park is a perfect place to getaway from the city and into nature. There’s a massive lake and a track around the whole thing which makes for some great people watching. For an extra tip, head to this park during cherry blossom season for one of the best places in all of Korea to see this magnificent event.
Visit the Simone Handbag Museum
Garosu-gil is a trendy area of Seoul, a tree-lined street with plenty of clothing shops, coffee shops, and a Beverly Hills sort of vibe. It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s an entire building dedicated to the history of handbags and purses here.
Start on the third floor, pay the admission fee, and receive some info describing the exhibits in perfect English. The ‘muff’ purse from the 1950’s kept hands warm, while the gas mask bag from circa 1939 gave some peace of mind to the British woman who carried it. Even as practical companions, the intricacy on some bags harkens back to earlier eras. Up on the fourth floor, the exhibits here are shown in reverse chronological order, starting with the late 20th century and working back to the mid-16th century. These are original, valuable, and readily regarded as works of art.
The decorative workmanship is intricate, even dainty, and the earliest dozen or so exhibits are categorized as sweetmeat purses from across Europe. Recall that bathing wasn’t necessarily something done every day back in the 17th century – one would carry herbs or other sweet-smelling stuff to mask the BO). Others were incredibly tiny – one 19th century European ‘purse’ might be stretched in holding a 500 won coin, while others are likened to pockets that weren’t sewn into the clothing. Look for the lingerie bags that belonged to Queen Marie from Hanover – the actual lingerie is nowhere to be seen (how disappointing), but the bags remain for your viewing pleasure.
The fifth floor serves as a temporary exhibition hall – it’s small but worth a quick look. You’re not done yet, though – head back down to the first floor for the actual handbag store, or down to B1 for a cafe next to the museum souvenir shop. There’s some co-op space in the B2 level where Korean designers can work rent-free, but the highlight is further down in the ‘Material Bazaar’. If you’ve ever wanted to order your own custom-made purse, complete with your choice of material, here’s your chance!
Address: Seoul, Gangnam-gu, Sinsa-dong, 536-17 시몬느 핸드백 박물관 – 서울특별시 강남구 신사동 536-17 (GPS: 37.518996, 127.022983)
Admission: 5,000 won ($5)
Hours: 11am-8pm (Tuesday-Thursday), 11am-9pm (Friday-Saturday), 11am-7pm (Sunday), closed on Mondays. More info at simonehandbagmuseum.co.kr.
Directions –> From Sinsa station, head out exit 8 and walk along Dosan-daero for about 250 meters. Look for the tree-lined street (Garuso-gil or Dosan-daero-13-gil) and turn left onto it. Walk about 150 meters and the museum will be on your left – it’s one of the taller buildings around.
One of our favorite spots in Seoul that we would go back to time after time also happens to be a hidden nook and cranny not everyone knows about!
Ikseon-dong, aka Hanok Island, is smack in the center of Seoul and gets it’s named because of the small cluster of traditional Korean homes, hanoks, among the high rise buildings.
This area is awesome because you get to feel and visually see the juxposition where the old Korea meets the new.
In the cluster of hanok buildings, there are trendy restaurants, tea rooms, and bars that you can expect a line on the weekends frequented by locals.
The best part of Ikeson-dong would be its convenient location. Not only are you only a few minutes walk away from Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, but you’re extremely close to Namsangol Hanok Village and Namsan Tower.
You can spend a whole day in the heart of Seoul starting at Ikseon-dong and ending your day at the best view point in Seoul, Namsan.
If you only have a day in Seoul, we recommend visiting the up and coming Seoul hotspot, Hanok Island.
My favorite thing to do in Seoul, and something I think everyone should do, is hike Ingwan Mountain. It is not a difficult climb (more like a challenging walk), but it is here where you can really get a feel for how much nature is incorporated into the city. From the top of the “mountain” you will get a full view of the busy city below, but feel like you are miles away.
While you’re at it, pick up a bottle of makgeolli and kimbap from a convenience store/kimbab shop (there are a few right near the Dongminnimum Subway station at the base of the mountain). This food and drink combo is a staple for any hike in Korea and is so enjoyable sitting at the top watching the sun set over the city.
Directions: Go out Dongminnimun Station (Subway line 3), exit 3. Make your first left and walk uphill until you reach the entrance of the temple.
Eat at Tongin Market
Visit a Jimjilbang
My number one recommendation for anyone visiting Seoul is to spend a morning or afternoon vegging out in a Korean jimjilbang/sauna. Koreans love their saunas, and for many, it’s a weekly ritual. You’ll need to get your head around sharing hot tubs and saunas with a bunch of naked strangers. Once you do, your body will thank you for taking it outside of your comfort zone. Choose a sauna that is foreigner friendly, like the Dragon Hill Spa conveniently located next to the Yongsan Train Station. Signage is in English, so you don’t have to worry about wandering into the wrong locker room. Don’t miss a Korean body scrub that will have your skin glowing for days. For those who don’t want to get naked, you can enjoy the mixed saunas, salt cave, and ice room, fully clothed. Have a nap on the heated floors or enjoy a Korean lunch or dinner in the restaurant. To learn more about the jimjilbang experience check out my recent article Butt Naked in a Korean Jimjilbang.
Little Russia & Dongdaemun
I don’t even know how I found Seoul’s Central Asian neighborhood affectionately known as “Little Russia,” but this is a cool collection of alleys near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, Exit 5. Quite a few lovely restaurants in the area serve borsht, stroganoff, and other delicious Motherland offerings. Things start picking up at night, as Seoulites and foreigners fill their favorite drinking spots for a Baltika—Russia’s second largest beer—and some dessert.
You can start searching for Little Russia after visiting Dongdaemun Design Plaza—the wonderful 86,000 sq. ft building from some far-off future. This design hub is a wonderful place to visit throughout the day, but especially at night for its awesome light displays. Get lost walking around DDP’s art halls, museum, and design halls before your appetite dictates your next move. The area might seem small compared to Seoul’s other neighborhoods but you won’t get better Central Asian cuisine and beer or an example of Seoul’s limit-pushing designs.
Baseball & Tteokbokki
We found a love for the KBO league during our year in Korea because of the fan base that these teams have. Each player has there own song and dance and every time they are up to bat, the fans stand up and cheer. It is a very fun environment and very different from the way we cheer on our teams in the States. We loved going to the Nexen Heroes Gocheok Sky Dome because it’s a brand new indoor stadium, great for the summer heat and chilly winters!
When the baseball game finishes, head to a restaurant or street cart selling tteokkboki – even better, see if you can find a tteokkbokki buffet.
Tteokkbokki is a traditional rice cake accompanied with a thick spicy sauce usually sold as street food or in subway stations. The moment I found out about the Tteokbokki buffets, my life was changed. The buffets usually cost between $4-$10 and are stocked with rice cakes of all different shapes, sizes and types and other sides like garlic, kimchi, more veggies, meats and sauces. If you really want to show a friend some authentic Korean cuisine, definitely get them a scorching hot pot of tteokbokki!
Blind Alley – A Raccoon Cafe
Living in South Korea, you find yourself doing odd things, surprisingly sober. This is where I admit that I have a habit of frequenting themed cafes and convincing my friends that these cafes NEED to be added to their bucket list. In Seoul alone, you can find multiple cafes that not only serve Americanos but allow you to pose with Hello Kitty paraphernalia, dress up like a princess, play with sheep, or eat poop bread. Yeah, you read that right. For the record playing with a sheep is actually a bit boring, which is why I’m a semi-regular at the raccoon cafe — Blind Alley.
Blind Alley, is the place to go for tame adventure: the café is cozy, with a decent selection drinks/snacks, and the raccoons are quite affable (just mind your pockets!). I know it sounds a bit weird, but if you’re in Seoul, step out your comfort zone and check out a few of themed cafes. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss… and if raccoons aren’t your thing, go get cuddly with man’s best friend (yup, there are dog cafes!). Blind Alley Address: 서울시 용산구 청파동2가 63-20 (63-20 Cheongpa-dong2ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul) Directions: From Sookmyung Women’s University Station, exit 10, make a U-turn and take the first right. Keep following this road straight for about 5 minutes, passing through the tunnel and crossing at the intersection. Walk 5-10 minutes, Blind Alley will be on your right before you reach the university campus.
Eat Chicken and Beer
If you ask Korean Americans what is one thing you have to eat in Korea, it may hear that you should eat 치맥 (Chimaek). But what is it? 치 is short for 치킨 (Chicken). 맥 is short for 맥주 (maekchu) meaning beer. So 치맥 is chicken and beer.
Why is it better in Korea?
Chickens in Korea usually do not have a bunch of antibiotic and hormones put into them. This means the chicken is smaller, more natural, healthier and naturally juicy. It’s never over fried or under cooked. Korean fried chicken somehow always turns out perfect. Korean beer isn’t known as the best beer in the world. (I know many Korean Americans that refuse to drink it.) But it goes perfect with Korean fried chicken. But most of all, it’s a dish that is perfect to share with friends. Once you’ve had it in Korea, it won’t be the same anywhere else in the world.
Shopping in Seoul
There is endless shopping all over Seoul, but one spot you can’t miss is Dongdaemun. If you want the newest trends, they’ve got them at the best prices. It is also the largest wholesale shopping district in the world. I mean, in all my years frequenting Dongdaemun for shopping or for my fashion blog, I still haven’t completely visited all the markets. It’s massive and don’t get discouraged if you feel dizzy or get lost after walking around for a bit. Doota is one of their more expensive shopping malls right near the subway station, but for the cash savvy, there’s a more affordable shopping mall right next to it called Migliore.
One thing I can give you that you won’t find in a guidebook is professional fashion insight. In many areas they don’t allow anyone to take pictures, the clothes are in Korean sizes and therefore run small, and 98% of vendors don’t allow you to try anything on. If you wear a western small or a medium you’re probably set. If you wear a western large I recommend searching for boxy or flowy pieces. Thankfully Koreans don’t typically wear skin tight clothing, which makes more available for all body types. Finding tops is easy; it’s the bottom half that’s hard to match up. I share more tips and tricks on DistrictGal.com. Let me be your fashion guide! After a long day in Dongdaemun stop at any of the delicious Korean restaurants nearby or even try the street food. Korean friends have told me Dongdaemun street food is one the best in Seoul. It’s a guaranteed successful day trip in Seoul well worth your while!
Eat at Dubai Restaurant
In the heart of Itaewon, above Dunkin Donuts, you can find Dubai Restaurant. The Middle Eastern décor and background music, provide for as an authentic of an experience that one can have in a foreign country. The food at Dubai is excellent Middle Eastern Cuisine. The hummus is as fresh and tasty as one can get in Seoul.
On the weekends, many people usually do a lot of walking. This is my usual weekend lunch stop. In addition to a delicious menu, Dubai offers Shisha. Shisha is a flavored tobacco made with molasses that is smoked through a water pipe called a hookah. Shisha comes in a plethora of flavors, such as apple, mint, and chocolate. I’ve tried shisha numerous times and Dubai by far offers the highest quality. It takes about an hour to finish the shisha, which is the perfect amount of time to reenergize, but they will provide you with coals if you intend to stay longer. The hookah smoking takes place in a smoke room, so as not to disturb the diners. It’s great to with a friend for a chat, or just to relax alone while watching cricket.
I had barely heard of a cat café before planning on moving to Seoul. Once there, I was amazed at their café culture. Regular coffee shops, study cafes, book cafes, hello kitty cafes, dessert cafes, board game cafes, photography cafes, animal cafes and more. Anything you can think of, there’s probably a theme café for it in Korea. The popularity of cafes is likely for a few reasons:
1. They’re awesome.
2. Koreans often live with their parents well into adulthood and need a place to meet up with people (and play board games or hang out with cats)
3. Similar to 2, in that people need a place to hang out with their friends is that Korean apartments is that Korean apartments (particularly in Seoul) are quite small. Not exactly suitable for having people over.
My favourites are the board game cafes and animal cafes. These styles of cafes are becoming more and more popular in the west, but Korea takes it to the next level, especially with the animal cafes. Cat cafes and dog cafes are one thing. They’re fun, you get to cuddle with animals, socialize your dogs if you have one, and overall have a good time. Hopefully you found one that doesn’t smell too bad. Most dog cafes only have small dogs, or one random big one. If you’re a fan of larger dogs, check out “Bau House” in Sinchon.
If you look a little further though, you’ll find that there’s much more than just the ‘basic’ dog and cat cafes. You can find a few raccoon cafes all around Seoul and in the satellite city of Bucheon. There’s a “nature café” in Mapo-gu where you can feed sheep. Recently, a meerkat café popped up in the Hongdae area called “Meerkat Friends.” In most of the animal cafes you simply need to buy an over-priced coffee or drink. As there is no set entrance fee at many of them, this drink acts as your entrance fee. They’re typically between 7,000 and 12,000 won. Keep an eye on your drink though – some animals will jump on the tables and knock them over! So if you’re planning on living in or visiting Seoul and start to miss your pets – checking out one of the many animal cafes will give you your fill of animal snuggles. Just remember to de-lint on your way out!
Visit Silloam Spa
Going to Korea won’t be complete without trying the sauna. In Korea, we call it Jjimjilbang which literally means public heated bath. It is a communal bath area with some pools with different temperature. Some pools have healing effects that can soothe your body. You have to be naked inside the bath house. Yes, it’s a part of the experience! Don’t worry, men and women are separated. They will provide you a small towel for your hair. You can also hire someone to give you a body scrub, and a body massage. After the bath, you can wear the sauna clothes and try the different types of sauna rooms like the jade room, charcoal room, loess room, and ice room. The most famous sauna in Seoul is Dragon Hill Spa. I’ve been to a couple of Korean saunas, and I think that Silloam Spa is the best. I go there every month.