Seoul is an electric city. Whether you are here for a layover, a couple of days, or multi-week excursion, making the most of your time is essential.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, there is something to do and a place to visit in Seoul for you. From street food and mountaintop temples to traditional villages and finding peace in the city, it’s easy to experience Seoul with all of your senses.
If you’re planning a trip to Seoul and just want some inspiration, there is plenty for you to check out. I’ve also got itinerary suggestions for a couple of days in Seoul to one week. If you are heading beyond Seoul, there are plenty of things to do in South Korea including day trips from Seoul and one week itineraries throughout the country.
I hope this in-depth Seoul Travel Guide helps you plan an amazing experiential adventure to the land of morning calm. This is a special city for me, as I’ve called it home for the last 2.5 years. If you have any questions, please send me a message!
What is Seoul like?
Seoul is energetic yet calm. It’s modern yet historical. And it’s an urban sprawl, but with many pockets of nature. I like to compare it to NYC, yet it’s nothing like NYC. First, Seoul is huge. You can sit on the subway for two hours traveling from one part of the city to another. That’s why it’s very important to get your bearings and plan your days in the city accordingly. And even though it’s huge, it is so accessible. Public transportation is rampant and stretches for many kilometers past the city boundaries.
When visiting Seoul you will likely experience a huge range of feelings. In certain parts of the city, you won’t even know you are in Asia. While in other parts you will be so lost, and never see a word of English. It’s an incredible dichotomy that makes the city so special.
In general, Koreans are friendly. People will try and help you if you ask for it, though not many people will go out of their way if they see you struggling. Lots of young adults (teenagers and university students) as well as older Koreans may try and strike up a conversation with you on public transportation. They are just curious and probably want to practice their English. You will definitely run into a few ‘ajummas’. These are older Korean women who are known to do whatever they want, which typically means pushing their way to the front of a line.
Seoul is not as popular a tourist destination as other spots in Asia, though you will run into tourists depending on where you are exploring. As you explore the popular spots (palaces, museums, neighborhoods) you will definitely run into travelers.
You may be surprised to learn that finding an English speaking person (or at least someone who admits to speaking English) is hard to come by. Though most people know at least a little bit of English so that you can work together to figure something out. In Seoul, all signs are in English and many buses and subways have announcements in English as well.
Learning hangul (the Korean alphabet) is something that would really help you get by. It is not hard to learn, and can be mastered in a day or two before arriving in Seoul. This helps because many things are written in Konglish (Korean + English) and you may be able to figure out some things on menus and signs.
Hello: Anyeonghaseyo | Goodbye: Anyeonggyeseyo & Anyeonggaseyo
Thank You: Camsahapnida | Yes: Ne | No: Aniyo
One: Hana | Two: Dul | Three: Set
Seoul falls nicely in the middle range when it comes to expenses. It is not as cheap as countries in Southeast Asia, but it is a lot less expensive than cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong. A traveler of any budget can get by in Seoul.
Here is What You Can Expect to Spend on Average
Luxury Hotel Room: $200-$400
Traditional Korean Pension: $75-$100
Private Room with Bathroom in a Love Motel: $50
Bed in a Hostel Dorm Room: $15
Floor Sleeping in a Jimjilbang: $6
Korean BBQ Dinner: 8,000-20,000 per person ($7.50-$17)
Quick Meal at a Kimbap Restaurant: 5,000 per person ($4.30)
Street Food: 1,000-3,000 ($0.85-$2.50)
One Way on a Subway: 1,250 ($1.07)
Taxi: Starts at 3,000 and increases 1,200 per kilometer ($2.50+)
Express Train to Airport: 7,000 ($6)
Draft Beer (500cc): 3,500 ($3)
Bottle of Soju: 1,500 ($1.30)
Bottle of Makgeolli: 2,000 ($1.70)
Coffee: 2,000-4,500 for an Americano ($1.70-$3.80)
Won is the currency in Korea and as of February 2017 the exchange rate is 1,116 won to $1USD
No tipping in Seoul! Not anywhere. Not at restaurants, in taxis, or any services you receive.
There are four seasons in Seoul; hot summers, cold winters, and mild springs and falls.
Summer – Hot and humid. The month of July is technically the rainy season.
Winter – Winters are frigid in Seoul, but they don’t last too long. It usually starts to get cold at the beginning of December and by the beginning of March it starts to warm up. Seoul doesn’t get much snow, anything that falls is usually gone by morning.
Spring – March and April bring warmer weather, flowers, and dust. By May the weather is summer.
Fall – Temperatures start to dip in October which is when the leaves begin to change.
When Should You Go
There are things to do and see all year round, but May and October are the most ideal times to visit Seoul. The weather is pleasant and skies are predominantly sunny. Both of these months bring impressive natural changes (cherry blossoms in May and foliage in October). Summer is hot and humid (80’s and 90’s), while winter is cold (teens and 20’s).
WHAT TO SEE IN SEOUL
Seoul is known for culturally rich landmarks like palaces and temples, traditional costume, and delicious food. There are so many things to see in Seoul. You could definitely check the most famous sites off of your list with a day or two in Seoul, I would recommend spending 3-4 days in the city exploring all of the different corners. For in depth guides check out my book on 50 itineraries for Seoul (COMING SOON!).
THE BEST MUSEUMS
From world class art to history to funky and unique there is no shortage of Museums in Seoul.
National Museum of History | Seodaemun Prison | Owl Museum | Trick Eye Museum |
Since the city is thousands of years old, no matter where you go in Seoul you will experience a piece of history. One of the things I love most about this city is the blending of historic and modern in one cohesive unit.
Gyeongbokgung Palace | Changdeokgung Palace | Deoksugung Palace | Jongmyo Shrine | Bukchon Hanok Village |
Changdeokgung Palace Complex | Jongmyo Shrine | Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty | Seoul City Wall (tentative)
WHAT TO DO IN SEOUL
While a good portion of your time will be spent seeing the amazing sites that make the city so great, you should also spend time participating in activities, taking classes, and getting moving around the city.
It might surprise you to learn that Seoul has a ton of ways to get active outdoors. Nature is nicely integrated into the busy urban landscape of Seoul. There are many opportunities to get moving. There are so many ways to experience Seoul through the power of your own body. Discover the culture, and work off all that food through one of these active adventures.
Hike one of the 37 mountains in the city | Walk the Seoul City Wall | Bike Along the Han River | Try Taekwondo | Take a KPop Dance Class | Go on Neighborhood Walks | Play in one of the X city pools | Water Sports on the Han River | Walk the Cheonggyecheon Stream
Rich with history and culture, you can do more than just see the sights that make this city special. Immerse yourself in the culture of Korea by participating in one of these programs, performances, and experiences.
Participate in a Temple Stay Program | Rent a hanbok (traditional clothing) | Learn to read Hangul in a language class | See a performance of NANTA | Visit the jimjilbang (sauna) |
GO ON A DAY TRIP
It’s sweet spot in the northern part of the country + the amazing public transportation means Seoul is a good base for exploring surrounding places. All within two hours from the center of Seoul, these places make for excellent day trips out of the city.
Nami Island | DMZ | Chuncheon | Garden of Morning Calm | Suwon | Heyri Art Village | Pocheon
ATTEND A FESTIVAL
If you happen to visit during a celebration of some kind, participating in a festival is fun! The Korean festival scene is broken up based on the Lunar Calendar, and during each season you will experience something different.
Seoul Lantern Festival | Buddha’s Birthday Celebration | Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival | World DJ Festival | Hi Seoul Festival | Seoul Design Festival | Hangang Summer Festival | Everland Tulip Festival |
WHAT TO EAT IN SEOUL
WHAT IS THE FOOD LIKE?
The food in Seoul is quite diverse since it is a modern city. You can find any cuisine you want, as well as many restaurants that can accommodate to specific dietary needs. Korean food, in general, is fresh and healthy. Plan on eating a lot of rice, meat, soups and kimchi.
All meals are served with various ‘banchan’ which are small side dishes. These typically include soups, vegetables, kimchi, fish cakes, eggs, and jeon.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurants in Korea are typically focused on one specific thing. You can’t go to a restaurant and get steak or chicken or fish or pasta (unless it is a Westernized restaurant). Each restaurant specializes in one or a few dishes.
Korean BBQ Restaurants
The holy grail of Korean Restaurants. Every table has its own built in personal grill that is heated by gas or charcoal. You do all of the cooking, with some help from the wait staff. There are beef BBQ spots, pork BBQ spots and chicken BBQ spots.
Korean Fried Chicken Restaurants
Fried chicken joints in Korea are different from their American counterparts. The fried chicken in Korea, fried two times, results in extra crispy skin on the outside and tender meat on the inside.
These restaurants are essentially healthy fast food. Everything is made fresh, quick and cheap. You can walk in hungry and be out the door in 15 minutes (totally full) without a dent in your wallet. They have many options for food including rice dishes, soups, dumplings and noodles.
Street food in Seoul runs the gamut. There are some really tasty bites, some disgusting bites, and some just blah. The street food in Seoul definitely does the job when you are hungry and want a quick bite. It’s also usually eaten right at the street food cart. Obviously, everyone’s tastes are different so I encourage you to try it all!
Food Alleys/Food Towns
Seoul has it’s fair share of specific streets or neighborhoods known for a particular kind of food. Many of these places are where you want to go if you are seeking out a specific dish.
Tteokkbokki Town in Sindang | Naengmyeon Alley in Ojang | Pork & Beef BBQ Alley in Mapo | Sundae Town in Silim | Potato Soup Alley in Eungam | Sundubu Alley in Dobangsan | Jokbol (pig feet) Alley in Gongdeok
Markets are a great way to immerse yourself in the local way of life. They are also filled with fresh, local, and delicious things to eat. It may seem a bit intimidating at first, but don’t be shy, just walk up to a food stand and take a seat!
Mungbean Pancakes at Gwangjang Market | Fresh Seafood at Noryangjin Fish Market | Freshly Butchered Meat at Majang Meat Market | Banchan at Tongin Market | Kalguksu at Namdaemun Market
Food Experiences to Have
Besides eating all of the food in Korea, you can also experience the food culture with these delicious food-focused activities.
Take a Cooking Class | Go on a Food Tour | Eat Live Octopus at the Fish Market | Visit a Makgeolli Brewery | Eat at a Streetside Food Tent | Visit a Quirky Cafe | Check out a Food Festival
DECODING A MENU
Decoding a menu can be tricky if there are no English alternatives. At popular chain restaurants you will find menu items in English. But if you are looking for a real local experience, chances are the menu may be hard to read. You can do the old point and pray, but that doesn’t always work out the best. I also like to look around and see what other people are eating, then point to what looks the most appetizing.
In the Free Resources Section of the blog, I have a few printable cheat sheets for what to order in many Korean restaurants.
WHERE TO STAY IN SEOUL
You will find every kind of accommodation under the sun in the capital city of South Korea, so no matter your budget or interest you will find something that suits your needs. I would suggest staying somewhere in the center of the city so that it’s easy to get to all parts of the city.
NEIGHBORHOODS AT A GLANCE
Hongdae → A university neighborhood known for being creative, youthful and artsy. It gets busy at night as it is a popular party neighborhood. Stay here if you want to party.
Gangnam → A business neighborhood by day and party central by night known for being modern, busy, and lively. Stay here if you want to party.
Samcheong → A quaint neighborhood in the middle of the city, it’s quiet and filled with tea shops, art galleries, and cutesy shops. Stay here if you want to stay in a Traditional Korean Home.
Jongno → The heart of the city, where old Seoul collides with modern Seoul. Great restaurants, things to see, and transportation. Stay here if you want to be close to everything.
Myeongdong → Probably the most popular tourist spot in the city, it’s always busy and a popular spot for shopping and eating. Stay here if you like to shop.
Yongsan → Known for being the international neighborhood, this is where the US military base is as well as many of the global consulates. Stay here if you want to be in a more westernized neighborhood.
[For more info on the neighborhoods in Seoul, be sure to sign up for the Seoul Starter Pack ]
KINDS OF ACCOMMODATIONS
Hotels → Everything ranging 1 to 5 stars, your typical western-style hotel rooms.
Hostels → Budget accommodation with shared dorms or private rooms, the amount of hostels in Seoul is definitely growing.
Love Motel → Made for romantic rendezvous and room rentals by the hour, these are actually an affordable place to stay all over the city. They are typically clean and cheap, and are even themed. This is the accommodation in Seoul I almost always stay in.
Pension → You won’t find many in the city of Seoul, but pensions are popular out in the country. They are big rooms meant for many people (think a whole family or group of friends). You sleep on the heated floor.
Guesthouse → Usually about the same price as a love motel, guesthouses are often extra spaces in someone’s home.
Hanok Guesthouse → A hanok is a traditional Korean house where you sleep on a soft mattress on the floor. They are typically charming, calm and quiet, and a great way to experience how traditional Korean families lived.
Sauna/Jimjilbang → Cheapest accommodation in Seoul, you sleep on a heated floor in a common area.
BEST HOTELS IN SEOUL
I usually recommend booking a hotel on Booking.com, due to the number of choices offered. Agoda is also a popular booking site with many Seoul hotels, as well as Airbnb. I’ve picked a couple of my favorite hotels in Seoul below.
- Highly rated on all booking sites
- Central location in the Jung-gu District
- Great value
- Breakfast buffet
- Traditional Korean style home (hanok)
- Shared kitchen
- In Bukchon Hanok Village, right next to the palaces
- Breakfast included
- 5-star hotel
- Indoor swimming pool
- Great location in the middle of everything
- Great value for luxury
TRANSPORTATION IN SEOUL
With the largest subway system in the world, the transportation in Seoul (and South Korea) is world class. Buses, trains, subways and taxis are clean, efficient and relatively cheap.
GETTING TO SEOUL
Seoul has two airports, Incheon and Gimpo. Incheon is typically the international airport hub, while Gimpo is the domestic, though some flights to Seoul from China and Japan arrive at Gimpo.
Incheon is a 45 minute train ride from the center of Seoul, while Gimpo is 30 minutes.
From the airports you can take an express train, local subway, express bus, local bus, regular taxi or luxury taxi into the city.
GETTING AROUND SEOUL
I can honestly say this is one of the easiest cities to get around in. Public transportation is efficient, on time, and well marked. Downloading the Seoul Subway and Bus apps will be key to navigating your way around the city.
All subways make announcements in English, and some buses do as well.
When traveling through the city, you can purchase single ride fares at every subway station, but it is better to get a reusable T-Money Transportation Card. It’s a little bit cheaper to ride the subway/bus + way less of a hassle to keep getting single ride fares.
You can buy T- Money Transportation cards from any convenient store, or the kiosks in the stations.
There are self service reloading machines in every station (they speak in English) where you load up your card. These machines only take cash.
You use the same card for the subway and bus, as well as in taxis if you want. These same cards also work in most other cities around the country.
One way on the subway → 1,250
One way on a Blue/Green Bus (local) → 1,200
One way on a Yellow Bus (circular neighborhood) → 1,100
One Way on a Red Bus (express) → 2,300
Navigating the subway system and getting on the subway is extremely easy. There are plenty of signs everywhere (though you will be surprised how far underground you will walk!) telling you where to go. You swipe into the turnstile to get on the train, and swipe out of the turnstile when you get off. You can get pretty much anywhere in the city on the subway and it should be your preferred method of travel.
Buses are a little more complicated, as not every bus or stop has English signs or announcements. Buses also don’t stop at every station on a route if there is no one to pick up. That being said, buses are still a great resource for getting around the city when a place you want to go is a little bit out of reach for the subway.
The most important thing you have to remember is to swipe your card when you get on the bus, and swipe again when you get off (sometimes I forget!). If you don’t remember to swipe, your card may be charged extra when you use transportation again.
If you are unsure about using the bus, just ask the driver, or show the name of the stop you want to get off at. Then sit close to the front so he can tell you when it’s time to get off.
Taxi’s are a pretty inexpensive way to get around the city as well. Base fare starts at 3,000 and goes up 1,200 per kilometer traveled. All taxis will take T-Money cards, cash, or credit cards. You hail a taxi the same way you do in any other city, just flag them down!
*Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links. They do not cost you anything extra to book through but do provide a small commission to keep this website running.*
VISAS, HEALTH & SAFETY IN SEOUL
HEALTH IN SEOUL
Healthcare in Korea is so affordable! Even without medical insurance, a visit to the doctor will not break the bank.
Food preparation is taken seriously, so food contamination is not a huge issue. The water in Seoul has hard metal in it, so it is not ideal to drink (though if you do, you won’t get sick). All hotels and restaurants will have filtered water for you.
The air in Seoul is not the cleanest, you can stay a bit more healthy by wearing a mask. Check the air quality when you are visiting and plan accordingly.
No vaccinations are required to get into South Korea.
SAFETY IN SEOUL
South Korea is one of the safest countries in the world to visit. People are honest and crime is low. Obviously, you should be aware of your surroundings and belongings, but chances of things getting stolen or someone harassing you are slim. One thing you should be aware of is if you are out late at night drinking. People drink hard in Korea and they tend to lose their inhibitions a bit and might get loud mouthed with you.
The biggest issue we have run into is drunk people trying to start fights. Whatever you do, don’t engage, if you get in a fight with a Korean person (no matter who started it) the police will likely side with the Korean.
Many countries can visit Korea visa free for a certain period of days:
Americans – 90 days
Canadians – 6 months
Australians – 90 days
Check out this site for up-to-date Visa and Entry requirements
Wherever you are going, travel insurance is essential. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to skip to save a few bucks. I personally use World Nomads, as I have found their coverage fits my needs perfectly. There are tons of other travel insurance companies, though, so do your research and pick one that fits your needs.
RESOURCES FOR TRAVELING IN SEOUL
There are so many apps, books, and websites that will make planning your trip to Seoul as easy as possible
The Seoul Planner – COMING SOON!
Shameless plug for my own e-book here, but I truly believe that this planning guide is one of the best out there. There are three different ways to use the book – hands on, one hand on, hands off – which leads you through all the details in planning the perfect trip to Seoul.
I like to keep a Lonely Planet Guidebook on my ipad whenever I am traveling a new city. They do a great job researching and traveling the world, and their books are usually chock full of information. I’ve been led astray by their maps a few times, so I don’t recommend following the maps to a T.
I book all of my accommodations on Booking.com. I love the huge selection of different kinds of properties + tons of helpful reviews. I have literally never stayed somewhere that I didn’t have a good feeling about before hand.
I do my beginning preliminary research for flights on Skyscanner. I love that I can search flights to anywhere and at anytime. Plus all of the different options for where to book.
My go to website for travel insurance. They have quotes online, as well as helpful blog posts about traveling.
Great information on the city of Seoul from a local. Find tons of things to do in the city.
For all things Korean food, this is the website you want to check out. Plus, Daniel Gray, owns a couple of restaurants in Seoul you should check out.
The author of this blog is an expat who has been living in Seoul for many years. She offers a lot of great info on popular, as well as lesser known, bits of Seoul.
Seoul Subway App – The best app for navigating the subway system
Seoul Bus App – Track where your bus is on this helpful app
Naver Maps – Google maps are not as reliable in Seoul, everything is dominated by naver, so having their map app will give you the most up to date location info.
KakaoTalk – Go- to messaging app in Seoul, if you meet any locals..this is how you will communicate
Itour Seoul – The official app of the government, this shows your tourists spots and locations
Currency Convertor – The currency conversion is pretty easy in Korea (~1,000=$1), but it’s still nice to have just in case.
Google Translate – Necessary for communicating
SEOUL BLOG POSTS
I’ve been living in Seoul for 2.5 years and have racked up many blog posts about exploring this city. I hope these articles will help make your trip planning easy and successful.
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