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.
But most people visit Namsan Park for its panoramic views of Seoul. To scope it out for free, visit Palgakjeong, an octagon-shaped viewing pavilion that boasts alluring vistas of the city. For an even more breathtaking sight, shell out a few won to get to the observation platform atop N Seoul Tower, Namsan Park's real showstopper. Recent visitors said that on clear days, the view from 1,574 feet up is spectacular. Out on the sky deck, you can't miss the thousands of padlocks attached to the fence; couples lock them there as symbols of everlasting love (bring your own lock if you're feeling romantic). For an extra-special experience, reserve a table for dinner in the rotating French restaurant, n.GRILL, on the tower's top floor.
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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.
Travelers found the neighborhood to be picture-perfect and a lovely stroll. Make sure to bring sturdy walking shoes though, as the site is pretty hilly and takes a couple hours to cover in its entirety. Some reviewers say that because of Bukchon Village's popularity, it's best to visit early in the morning or late at night to avoid crowds. Regardless of what time you visit, keep in mind that this is still a residential area, so you'll need to heed the signs posted around the village about noise. To get the most of Bukchon Village, stop by the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center for information on walking tour routes and attractions to see within the village.
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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.
If it's panoramic vistas you're after, try trekking up Baegundae peak via the Bukhansanseong trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park. From the top, you're in for a great view of Seoul and lands beyond – unless the city is shrouded in smog, which does happen occasionally. Recent visitors do warn that this hike is not for the faint-hearted; the rocky path requires strength, endurance, very sturdy hiking shoes and patience (the trek is estimated to be a 3.5-hour round-trip hike). If the Baegundae hike sounds too strenuous, you might want to consider another one of Bukhansan's trails (don't worry – there are plenty that are equally rewarding).
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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.
Visitors say that the vibrantly painted structures of the palace grounds are marvelous, but the rear garden – called "Biwon," or the Secret Garden – is nothing short of spectacular. Covering about two-thirds of the 110-acre attraction, the landscaped garden features a lotus pool, fountains and pavilions surrounded by 56,000 species of trees and plants, including a single tree that is more than 300 years old. Visit in the fall to witness the changing foliage, or in the spring to see the trees burst into bloom.
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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.
Night owls should head to Hongdae on "Club Day" – the last Friday of each month. On this day, revelers can club-hop among the neighborhood's hottest spots for only 15,000 won (about $14). Also, since Hongdae sits at the epicenter of Seoul's burgeoning underground and indie music scene, make sure to stop by one of the many live music venues that participates in Club Day as well.
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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.
Recent visitors lauded Insadong as a great place to buy cultural souvenirs, but they also appreciate its fun atmosphere. Guests say there are always lots of people coming to and fro as well as street performers and artists hanging around, waiting for interaction. For a trip back in time, visit Insadong on the weekends when motor vehicles are prohibited on its winding streets, adding to its quaint, Old World vibe. While the atmosphere is undoubtedly fun, visitors suggest those wanting to experience Insadong without crowds come during the weekdays.
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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.
Recent visitors said the Gyeongbokgung palace is a must-see for anyone interested in Seoul's Joseon Dynasty. Travelers loved learning about the history of the palace and how it played into the larger story of both Seoul and South Korea. Visitors also admired the beautiful yet extensive grounds, saying you'll need at least a couple of hours to see everything the palace has to offer. Reviewers also recommended bringing walking shoes and if you have flexibility with your schedule, to visit when the changing of the guard ceremony commences (the ceremony is held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day the attraction is open). The only thing that put off some visitors was the touristy nature of the site, noting that crowds, especially on the weekends, can hamper a visit. Try to stop by during a weekday or plan a morning visit to avoid sharing the attraction with loads of other sightseers.
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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.
Most of the malls in Dongdaemun feature a mix of retail and wholesale shops, though it's good to know which sell the most of what. The best way of navigating this mammoth fashion hub is to split the area up by Jangchungdan-ro, a big street that runs through Dongdaemun Market. West of Jangchungdan-ro, you'll find malls that appeal more to tourists. Doota (located in Doosan Tower), Migliore, Good Morning City and Hello apM sell a mix of retail and wholesale items but have multilingual information desks and currency exchanges. East of Jangchungdan-ro, you'll find more malls that sell more wholesale than not. These include Designer's Club, Gwanghee Fashion Mall and Nuzzon. Though if all you're after is wholesale, hit up Pyeonghwa Fashion town north of the Doosan Tower. When your stomach starts to rumble, head over to Mukja Golmok, which translates to "Let's Eat Alley." There, you can find a smorgasbord of Korean cuisine.
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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.
The structure is composed of multiple buildings, including the main shrine (Jeongjeon) and the Hall of Eternal Peace (Yeongnyeongjeon). To this day, people congregate around the shrine once a year for the "Jongmyo Jerye" ritual, in which they honor the ancestors of the Joseon dynasty. The ceremony, which takes place the first Sunday of May, includes songs and dances that date back 600 years, making it one of Korea's prized Important Intangible Cultural Properties, not to mention one of the world's oldest complete ceremonies in the world.
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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.
You may think a daytrip to the DMZ is a fool's errand, but it is actually an extraordinarily popular thing to do when visiting Seoul. A number of companies run tours to Panmunjom, an abandoned town that straddles the Military Demarcation Line where the famous Joint Security Area is located. It was here that North Korean, South Korean, Chinese, American and United Nations diplomats signed the Korean War Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953. Visitors are invited to place their feet on either side of a line that runs along the building's floor separating the two nations – one foot in South Korea and the other in North Korea. Tourists can also peer out at the mysterious country to the north through mounted telescopes.
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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.
Lotte World welcomes visitors year-round from 9:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day. Regular admission tickets cost 36,000 won (about $32) for adults and 29,000 won (about $26) for children. However, if you plan to stay all day, you should consider purchasing admission to all of Lotte World, not just the indoor theme park. This all-inclusive ticket grants you access to all of Lotte World's facilities and costs 52,000 won (about $47) for adults and 41,000 won (about $37) for children. After 4 p.m., all-inclusive tickets cost 41,000 won (about $37) for adults and 32,000 won (about $29) for children. There are also discounts for students and seniors, while children younger than 3 can enter for free. Located south of the Han River, Lotte World can be reached via Jamsil Station on Subway Lines 2 and 8 (Exit 4). For more information, visit Lotte World's official website.
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