The Seoul City Guide is a quick access playbook to Seoul’s best-kept secrets.
Before Gangnam was ever in style, this East Asian megacity was already on its way to a modern renaissance, careening towards a hi-tech future at unrivaled speed. Today, Korean pop music (K Pop) has broken into mainstream stage, Korean makeup is regarded as the highest standard of beauty, and Korean oversized fashion can be found on the racks of the biggest name brands around the world. But as you walk down its densely packed streets, with establishments piled in chance-medley, you won’t feel an absence of soul among the cutting-edge design. The deep-seated traditions of Korea’s past can be found in its graceful hanok villages and the Buddhist stone reliefs carved into Namsan Mountain. Seoul is a harmonious blend of electrifying outward appearances, with sightly skyscrapers and neonlit shops, and a serene interior tucked away in the myriad of neighborhood backstreets.
✱ INSADONG (인사동)
Watch Korean culture come to life on this animated walking street, paying homage to Korean culture through the sales of traditional handicrafts. It is frequented by tourists for its one-stop Korean shops, where you can eat like royalty, and by the locals for the street food stalls that flank both entrances of the street.
Not-to-miss: Find the Dragon Beard singing candy makers and stay for their musical performance, sung as they make spools of honey and rice flour candy, timed to the entirety of their entertaining tune.
✱ NAMSAN SEOUL TOWER (서울 타워)
Situated atop the city’s highest point and offering the most stunning views of Seoul in its entirety (especially at sunset) is Seoul Tower (also called N Tower). Inside the tower is a rotating restaurant accessed by one of two ways: either cable car or a lengthy hike up.
✱ HONGDAE (홍대)
Experience freedom the way crazed-university students do in the area surrounding Hongik University where every weekend is run amok with expats and undergrads alike looking for good times and the best thing is, the party never ends.
The partygoer finds paradise in the district made famous by Psy in his infamous song, where the stylish go to be seen as it is the it-scene for people who insist that elite clubs should charge outrageous cover fees as to keep the common-folk out.
✱ BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE (북촌)
Take a step back in time when you visit this cluster of traditional wooden homes of yore, known as hanoks, amidst the modern architecture of present-day Seoul.
✱ MYEONGDONG (명동)
Feed your shopping addiction in the shopping district of Seoul, dedicated solely to the capitalist enterprise of spending, a favorite pastime for all Koreans young-and-old.
✱ GYEONGBOKGUNG (경복궁)
Hidden away by stone walls is the royal palace, an ancient landmark hailing from the Joseon Dynasty and celebrated for its stately palatial grounds with elegant pavilions and gardens.
✱ ITAEWON (이태원)
Longing for a taste of home? There’s no judgment in the expat-friendly neighborhood, with international offerings catering to every palette and a burgeoning nightlife scene typically capped by some Korean comfort food.
IF YOU’VE MASTERED THE FOREMAN GRILL
- GRILLED SALTED PORK BARBEQUE – While there seems to be no shortage of barbecue joints in Seoul, this one in Hongdae does things a little differently. Instead of a classic grilltop fired by charcoal or heated by gas, this restaurant warms up smooth, flat stones that act as their grilling platform and juicy cuts of locally-sourced are cooked to perfection. Roast some vegetables (the mushrooms are best) to keep the meal balanced. Nothing enhances the grilling experience moreso than a couple of shots of soju, Korea’s number one liquor. Ask for kalmegisal, the most tender part of the pig. (331-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Hongdae District)
IF ELBOW-TO-ELBOW MOMENTS DON’T DETER YOU
- GWANGJANG TRADITIONAL MARKET – Feast on an array of local favorites in Seoul’s oldest traditional market. In this arena, the best players have the most seats filled so “do as the Romans do” and you won’t regret it. Before you are intimidated by the maze-like food operation, a great starting point is at the stalls selling bindaeddeok, a deep-fried mung bean pancake paired with the local tipple, makgeolli, a bubbly rice wine. (88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu)
IF “THE CATCH OF THE DAY” IS HOW YOU LIKE YOUR SEAFOOD
- NORYANGJIN WHOLESALE FISH MARKET – Trust in your nose and let the overpowering scent of the ocean lead you to this giant seafood warehouse booming with activity, especially in the early hours of the day. Once inside the building, you’ll see row after row of freshwater tanks and tables topped with ice displaying every marine animal under the sea. The ajumas (old Korean ladies) compete with one another in intense yelling matches to sell their inventory. Compare and haggle – all your buys will no doubt be fresh, the more alive the better they say. Once you secure your desired items, head over to the second floor where restaurants will prepare your catch for a fee but be warned – it does get very pricey fast! A plate of delectable sashimi will never fail you. (13-8 Noryangjin-dong, Dongjak-gu, off Subway Lines 1 and 9)
IF YOU HAVE AN INSATIABLE SWEET TOOTH
- SULBING – While many places advertise themselves as “THE” Korean Dessert Café, no establishment warrants the definite article more than Sulbing. Here, the two highlights of the menu are patbingsu (shaved ice dessert) and injeomi toast. Their patbingsu is unlike any other: instead of using shaved ice, they use shaved milk, which creates a richer taste profile. A bowl usually starts at around 8,000 won but the portion is plentiful and the toppings are ornately, and gratuitously, piled on. Go for the Berry patbingsu: layers of sweet yogurt are interspersed in the icy goodness hidden under a luscious confit of cranberries, strawberries, and blueberries. They also give you a side of condensed milk to drizzle on. (39 Insa-dong, Jongno-gu)
In Korea, coffee drinking has been transformed from mere necessity into an amusing outing where cats roam around at the Cats’ Playground, sheep bleat outside the Thanks Nature Café, and lovers are suited up for a mock wedding at Café Drama. You can even try your hand at jewelry making while sipping on a mocha at Hongdae Ring Café. But here are my favorite cafes in the city:
✱ YEONNAM 223 (also known as CAFE연남동223-14) The black and white interiors of this cafe looks like something straight out the pages of a comic book. The 2D design was actually inspired by the KDrama,”W – Two Worlds,” where the protagonists go between the real world and alternate reality set in a fantasy cartoon land. While the menu is unimaginative, the aesthetic makes up for the slim drink pickings. You cannot stay if you don’t purchase a drink. (223-14 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu Seoul)
✱ ZAPANGI (자판기) Fitting christened Zapangi, the Korean word for “vending machine,” you access this cafe through a sham bubble gum pink vending machine. Inside, you’ll see the whole gamut of Pinterest baking trends, from mermaid ice cream to unicorn cupcakes, on display. (79, World Cup-ro 13-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul 04014, South Korea)
✱ ARRIATE LA MAISON DE FLEUR (자판기) Sip your color-changing lemonade underneath a vision of hanging gardens, with edison lights strung between the dried bouquets of lavender and chrysanthemum. The also have succulents for sale. (520 Nonhyeon-ro, Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul)
✱ SEOULISM (서울리즘) The SEOUL sign on the rooftop is what draws Seoulism’s clientele, with a clear view of of Lotte Tower and Seoul Sky Observatory framing the letter statue. But before you even get to the hotel, admire the quirky common spaces, with an indoor patio framed by floor-to-ceiling french windows and a Victorian parlor. (435 Yes Building 1, Floor 6, Baekjae Goboon-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul)
✱ DRAGON HILL SPA – For less than 16,000 KRW, wash every care away at this multi-floorjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse), with soothing herbal waters to cure every ailment known to man and saunas filled with the energizing powers of different minerals such as jade, amethyst, and even Himalayan salt (40-712 Hangangno 3(sam)-ga, Yongsan-gu).
✱ THE STARFIELD LIBRARY – A unique concept, this librarian-free library set inside Seoul’s largest underground mall is a sight to behold. 50,000 books and magazines line the shelves of this two-story bibliotecha and the 13-meter bookshelf is unmissable. English reading materials are scarce but it won’t stop you from taking a seat and admire this impressive collection of tomes at 955-9 Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu.
✱ THE DMZ – Access an actual “No Man’s Land” and what Bill Clinton described as ‘the scariest place on earth’ under a guided tour to The Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily armed border dividing North and South Korea. Make sure the tour schedule includes the Joint Security Area, where North and South Korean infantry are in a relentless visual standoff.
✱ LOCKS OF LOVE – In the mood for love? Make a romantic gesture that speaks of the permanence of your heart with a padlock scrawled with the name of you and your sweetheart and add to the ever-growing collection located at the summit Namsan Mountain.
✱ CHEONGGYECHEON STREAM – Take a serene stroll on the banks of this stream, which has an otherworldly ambiance due to its pseudo-subterranean setting making it the ideal place for every couple looking for a moment of privacy in a city with millions.
✱ IHWA MURAL VILLAGE – This is one of the very few ‘daldongnae’ (달동네) or ‘moon villages’ left in Seoul. Painted across neighborhood buildings are beautiful works of street art. Don’t go searching for the famous fish and flower steps — they have sadly been removed due to misconduct by tourists. My blogging friend Hallie runs an Airbnb Experience tour of Ihwa Mural Village–learn more about it here.
✱ THE WAR MEMORIAL OF KOREA – If you ever need a reminder on the current state of affairs, visit this museum dedicated to Korea’s military enterprises both past and present for a rude awakening. You can also walk around a graveyard of decommissioned tanks and ships which ironically doubles as a children’s playground. (29 Itaewon-ro, Namyeong-dong, Yongsan-gu)
✱ JAMSIL BASEBALL STADIUM – Did you know that Korea has over eleven professional teams in its league? Share the stands at the home of the LG Twins and Doosan Bears with some of the world’s most hyped-up fans. By the end of the game, the catchy chants for each player will be stuck in your head (10 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu).
✱ THE WORLD’S LARGEST…. – Go big or go home. Seoul is home to a number of world record holders such as the world’s largest movie theater screen, CGV Starium Theater at Times Square Mall (Seoul-si Yeongdeungpo-gu Yeongdeungpodong4-ga 441-10) and the world’s largest indoor amusement park, Lotteworld (240 Olympic-ro, Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu).
Seoul is teeming with fun things to do! Create your own bucket list while you’re there with help from these resources!
👉Have you ever been to Seoul? Share your tips for seeing the city in the comments below!
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