One of Asia’s most lively and modern cities, there’s so much to see, do, eat, and experience that you’ll need to visit again and again to really get to know it. But for all its modernity, there’s plenty of spots to pause, reflect, and explore. From traditional villages to K-Pop heaven, we highlight the best of a city offers the best of all worlds in this guide to the best things to do in Seoul.
Set across 110 acres, Changdeokgung Palace, is a gorgeous place to spend a few hours, not least because of the beautiful secret gardens.
First built around 1400, during the Joseon Dynasty, it was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt a few centuries later. Today it remains an impressive piece of architecture and a chance to explore Korean history.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular with visitors so it’s worth planning ahead. The palace’s remarkable gardens are only accessible by a guided tour, limited to 50 people at a time.
If you’re a seafood lover then head here at mealtimes and feast on a bounty of fresh produce – you can either buy it ready to eat from the stalls or buy it live to bring home, or even take to one of the restaurants in the market who can slice and dice it if you like it raw, or cook it up into a delicious meal. Busan Ilbeonji, on the second floor of the market, is popular with locals and tourists alike. If you’re really visiting for the Instagram experience then the place is liveliest in the early morning from around 3am, when the fish auctions begin.
If you’re craving a slower pace and some serenity, head out early to this adorable village dating back as far as the 14th century.
Home to a hotchpotch of some 900 hanok — traditional Korean houses — it’s a real joy to amble through the old streets and take in the beautiful tiled roofs, distinctive walls, and distinctive doors. It’s still inhabited but locals are friendly and a visit provides a unique window into a hidden side of Seoul. It is possible to arrange walking tours with English, Chinese, and Japanese among the foreign languages offered.
This Buddhist temple is the last thing you expect to find in glamorous Gangnam, but it’s a real joy to view especially against the backdrop of skyscrapers and modernity. First built in the 8th century, it’s had multiple makeovers, but still retains an old world charm. Set on a hill and surrounded by trees, it’s a perfect lunchtime escape.
This stunning restaurant nestled in the centre of Seoul’s vibrant Insadong area is a must visit. The fare is vegan, Buddhist temple food and dining here is as much about experiences as it is about the cuisine. It’s tucked away off the main thoroughfare and walking in is almost instantly calming. The atmosphere is charming, tables are low and guests must remove their shoes. The menu features everything from traditional Korean vegetables to seaweed, mushrooms, rice and kimchi, and is all served in individual bowls to share and mix as you and your companions see fit. If you go in the evening there is often a traditional dance performance at 8pm.
This is where Seoul’s young, hip, and beautiful hang out. If you’re craving a night out, here you’ll find cool restaurants, live street performances and every type of bar you can imagine. Ho Bar is a tourist favourite where anything goes, and often until well into the early hours. Expect dancing on tables and a raucous atmosphere. For something a little lighter, then Owl’s Rooftop is a good bet. It has live bands, excellent traditional food, and a great range of local and international drinks. Plus the outside space is an excellent people watching spot.
Get lost in the winding alleys of Insadong, one of Seoul’s best loved areas. Here you’ll find art galleries, teahouses, as well as a coterie of options for fans of Korean Hotpot, and Korean Barbecue. The stalls and souvenir shops offer almost every conceivable tribute to the country – from flags to the traditional national dress. It’s hectic but worth visiting, though keep a close eye on younger children as it is easy to get lost in the crowd.
For those that prefer luxury labels and the world famous skincare brands then Myeongdong, the bustling neighbourhood where all the high-end malls are, is the place to shop.
A kaleidoscope of colour, smells and noise this enormous night market is not for the faint of heart. Here you’ll find a dedicated street (locally known as ‘Let’s Eat Alley) selling classics such as rice rolls, grilled fish and dumplings. There are plenty of discount clothes and inexpensive handicrafts making it a dream for bargain hunters, but it would take days to fully explore what’s on offer.
Another good evening option is the N Seoul Tower in Namsan Park. It’s a nice way to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
It surprises many to know that Seoul is ringed by mountains and there are several walking trails accessible from the city. Arguably one of the best places for a hike is Bukhansan. There are three peaks to choose from, the tallest of which – Baegundae – is more than 830m. The terrain swings from forest to rock and in the colder months, the paths can be icy, so appropriate footwear and gear is a must. As hiking is a beloved pass-time of Seoul’s residents, it’s best to go during the week when most of the city is at work.
Almost 70 years after it started, the Korean War, is technically still ongoing as no peace treaty has ever been signed. However an Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 160-mile stretch of no-man’s land separating the North from the South, was created.
It’s a heavily manned border – but it has also long been an unlikely tourist hotspot, easily explored on a day, or even half day trip, from Seoul.
It’s only possible to visit through an official tour and most involve a visit to the Nuri Peace Park and Mount Odu Observatory, which offers views into North Korea.
Where To Stay:
A Seoul stalwart, The Shilla has long been a magnet for the rich and famous, with Tom Cruise and Bill Gates among the stars who have stayed there. It’s set on a hill downtown next to the beautiful Jangchungdan Park, and vast sculptured gardens. This is a great place to escape to after a day exploring the often frenetic city. For those that prefer boutique hotels, then Makers Hotel is a great option. Definitely one for design lovers, it has a vintage vibe but with plenty of mod cons.