Best Things To Do in Seoul
In a city of more than 10 million people, it should come as no surprise that many of Seoul's top attractions involve escaping the crowds and reconvening with nature. The city is filled with pockets of serenity like the peaceful gardens of Changdeok Palace or the mountain temples of Bukhansan National Park. Of course, if you're looking to dive headfirst into Korean culture, the city will willingly oblige: Party all night with the college kids in Hongdae, chow down on some traditional kimchi in Insadong or shop 'til you drop at Dongdaemun Market. Or, if you're feeling daring, visit what former President Bill Clinton called "the scariest place on Earth" – the Demilitarized Zone. Seoul's got some soul for everyone with a healthy dose of curiosity.
Updated April 4, 2017
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Home to five warning beacons and a protective city wall during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Mount Namsan now hosts a park and a smattering of tourism sites like an aquarium, a library and a bevy of beautiful walking trails.
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Bukchon Village occupies the hilly neighborhood between Gyeongbok Palace and Changdeok Palace in north-central Seoul. The neighborhood has the largest collection of privately owned hanoks, or traditional Korean homes with tiled roofs and stone floors, in Seoul. Not only that, but these 900 hanoks date all the way back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). While a stroll through Bukchon Village may feel like a trip through the ages, the neighborhood is not frozen in time. Some of the hanoks are still private homes, but others have been converted into tea houses, coffee shops, cafes, art galleries, inns and museums. It is not uncommon to see a Korean couple on a date in a hanok-style restaurant or for tourists to stay in a hanok guesthouse (like the Anguk or the RakKoJae). Even if you're not bedding down in Bukchon, recent travelers strongly recommend a visit regardless.
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Located in northern Seoul – but still quite accessible via public transportation – Bukhansan National Park is a mountainous oasis in a bustling metropolis. The park, which covers more than 30 square miles, is home to towering granite peaks, forest-laden valleys and miles of hiking trails in between, as well as about 100 historic Buddhist temples and monks' cells. The historical must-see, though, is Bukhansanseong Fortress, a Joseon stronghold. You also won't want to skip the 5-mile mountain wall that runs along the park's rocky terrain. The fortress was built in 1711 and served as a place of refuge for kings in times of emergency (rebuilt on the foundations of the original, which dates back to A.D. 132). Bukhansan's proximity to Seoul, its natural setting and its historical significance combine to make it the park with the most visitors per square foot, according to the Guinness World Records. That means it can get extremely crowded, especially on weekends.
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Changdeokgung may not be the oldest or largest of Seoul's five Joseon Dynasty palaces (that honor goes to Gyeongbokgung), but it is the most intact. Originally constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace for the king at the time, Changdeokgung, like its sister palaces, was largely razed during the Japanese invasion of 1592. After its reconstruction in 1610, however, the palace served as Korea's principal palace about 270 years after for 13 different kings. Of all the Joseon palaces, Changdeokgung is the longest lived-in residence for the royals. It's this historical significance, in combination with its architectural style and layout (it's lauded for being built around the land's geography, instead of adjusting the land to construct the buildings), that earned Changdeokgung the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
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The neighborhood surrounding Hongik University in west-central Seoul is a hub for Korean youth culture. Hongdae beckons to college students and other young adults with its propensity for self-expression and all-around alternative atmosphere, not to mention its plethora of bars, clubs, shops, restaurants and cafes. And because Hongik University is especially renowned for its arts programs, Hongdae is a noticeably creative area. You don't have to stroll far to find art galleries, walls adorned with street art and students singing or selling their craft on the sidewalks. Join the throngs of college students and tourists to hunt for unique souvenirs at Hongdae's two weekend markets, both held in the playground near the university's entrance. The "Free" Market takes place on Saturdays and the "Hope" Market on Sundays, both from about 1 to 7 p.m.
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In this quaint central-Seoul neighborhood, you can find everything from hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) to herbal teas to calligraphy supplies. About 40 percent of Korean crafts are exchanged in Insadong, though ceramics are the prized goods here. Insadong's alleys, which are lined with street vendors, wooden tea houses, galleries and restaurants, stretch from the Anguk-dong Rotary to Tapgol Park. By shopping here, you'll be contributing to centuries of Korean history – Insadong was central to painters during the Joseon Dynasty and continues to be a hub for artistry today.
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The ornate Gyeongbokgung (Gyeongbokgung Palace) was originally built in A.D. 1395 and served as the focal point and governmental seat of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). In Korean, its name translates to "Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven," but its history seems to paint it as anything but blessed. Gyeongbokgung was destroyed in 1590s during a Japanese invasion, after which Korea's rulers abandoned the palace and set up camp about a mile east in Changdeokgung (Changdeok Palace). That is, until King Gojong began Gyeongbok Palace's restoration during his reign (1852-1919). The site once housed some 500 buildings. But the king's efforts were for naught: Another Japanese invasion resulted in the demolition of the majority of the complex. Restoration of the twice-destroyed palace began afresh in 1990, and visitors today can once again marvel at its magnificent architecture, lustrous grounds and historical significance.
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Dongdaemun isn't just a market – it's a shopping mecca. Encompassing 10 city blocks, Dongdaemun features 26 malls, 30,000 specialty shops and scores of wholesale stores, making it place to go if you need, well, anything. Make sure to get a map of the district. With all the options available, there's no way you're going to be able to navigate this overwhelming, multi-street shopping complex without some guidance. Though if you want to try, you'll have plenty of time: Dongdaemun Market is open 24 hours per day and many shops stay open till as early as 5 a.m.
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A UNESCO World Heritage site, Jongmyo Shrine is one of the oldest and best-preserved Confucian royal shrines in the world. Built in the late 14th century, the Jongmyo Shrine served as a place of worship for kings part of the Joseon Dynasty. Here, royal family members would come to carry out ancestral rites for deceased king and queens as well as pray for the state and its people. The shrine was later destroyed during the 16th-century Japanese invasion of Korea but rebuilt during the 17th century. Little has been changed since.
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A mere 35 miles north of Seoul, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 148-mile-long, 2-mile-wide swath of land marking the division between North and South Korea. Running close to the infamous 38th Parallel (the final front in the Korean War), the DMZ was set up in 1953 as a buffer zone between the two warring countries. The Military Demarcation Line – the actual border between North and South Korea – has been heavily manned on both sides by military personnel ever since. And though there have only been a few minor military altercations in the past 60 years, tensions remain between the two sides. In fact, since the DMZ was set up through an armistice and not a peace treaty, North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war.
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Lotte World may not be as magical as Disney World, but it is home to the largest indoor theme park in the world. Recent travelers said that if you have children in tow and you're not averse to a little Korean kitsch, it's a good place to spend the day. With high-octane roller coasters like Atlantic Adventure and attractions catered to youngsters like Lotty's Kidstoria (a whimsical room filled with "Alice in Wonderland" characters), Lotte World entertains thrill-seekers and budding adventurists alike. If you're planning a weekend visit, keep in mind that Lotte World's lines can get very long during peak visiting hours. Fortunately, there are two solutions: Visit Lotte World on a weekday or go after 4 p.m. – lines will be shorter, and your ticket price will be reduced. Aside from Lotte World Adventure indoor theme park, Lotte World is home to department stores, a folk museum, a bowling alley, an ice rink, parades and an outdoor adventure theme park located in the middle of Seokchonhosu Lake, Magic Island. Regardless of what time you visit or what you decide to do inside Lotte World, be prepared to pay. Travelers said everything from Lotte World's version of a Disneyland fast pass to snacks were pretty pricey.
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