See also: Where to stay in Seoul
Culture wraps thick around every street, shop and social interactions; for all of Seoul’s explosive growth in recent decades, its strict traditions and national pride shadows every step. And this all-encompassing Korea-ness isn’t expressed through grand monuments and heritage sites; rather, it seeps through the everyday food markets, trendy spaces and budget entertainments. Approach Seoul through this list of local attractions and characterizing sites for a rounded insight into this evolving city. Here's the best things to do in Seoul:
A refreshing perspective of Seoul
Keep low under the bridges of Seoul for a cooling stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream. Spanning between Cheonggyecheon Museum and Seoul City Hall, this kilometers long walk is outfitted with restored bridges, water fountains and observatory decks. It is also famous for its annual lantern festival and collaborative exhibitions with local artists.
Touring Gyeongbokgung Palace
Step into the airy linen and intricate embroidery of Korea’s traditional hanbok dress and conquer the historical spread of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Wood and stone pillars, pagodas and buildings are well-preserved, retaining the original structure of what was Joseon Dynasty’s main royal palace in late 1300s. To further illustrate life in Joseon Dynasty, replicas of artifacts are exhibited at the National Folk Museum of Korea within Gyeongbokbokgung Palace grounds.
Gather spiritual calm at Bongeunsa Temple
Despite the city grown around it and its largely restored properties, Bongeunsa Temple retains a sensitive grace and peaceful ambiance. Spread out over a forested area, this complex of small temples deliver intricate paint work and wooden detailing. The quiet life it exudes is further supported by the thousands of paper lanterns strung around the property. The show-stealer however, is definitely the circular arena that houses the big Buddha statue and its smaller companions. Bongeunsa Temple also offers a temple stay program for those curious about the daily practices and blessings.
Immerse in culture at a Hanok Village
Namsangol Hanok Village recreates the slanted tiled roofs and low partitions of traditional Korean architecture to perfect the cultural classroom. Try your hand at calligraphy and the careful motions of making hanji (traditional paper) and experience the life of past artisans. A smaller scale Hanok dwelling is located in the neighborhood adjacent to Gyeongbokgung; Bukchon Hanok Village a popular choice for tourists and one of the best things to do in Seoul. But do be quiet and respectful – there are people living behind these walled residences.
Shop until you drop at Dongdaemun
You haven’t seen retail heaven until you’ve spent 24 hours in Dongdaemun. Catering to huge crowds 24/7, this district proffers bountiful retail and wholesale shopping. Between Lotte’s general goods, Doota’s eclectic mix local brands and adjacent shopping malls stacked with budget clothing stalls, you’ll have to cash out for an extra suitcase of trendy purchases. Dongdaemun History & Culture Park sits at the center of it all, exhibiting creative and concept brands and housing a LINE store. It is the venue of Seoul Fashion Week, inviting models, K-stars and designers to the fashion event of the year.
Picnic alongside Hangang River
Cutting through the heart of Seoul is Hangang River and its lengthy bankside park space. Friendly gatherings are abundant on the patches of grass, fried chicken takeout and the sharp kick of soju the key to exuberant conversations on a chill day out. You might even spot water-sporting facilities on certain stretches of park, such as kayaks and water-skiing. Skateboarders casually wheel around scattered squares on emptier days, but short-term visitors may prefer the jogging tracks for some early morning activity.
Hunting down street food
From deep fried, potato-heavy eats to soupy fish cakes and tangy pomegranate juice, street food in Korea caters to every taste. Cheap, bite-sized and saliva inducing, throw away diet plans for the stall vendors along Myeongdong’s main shopping street. You can also find these delicious bites at any traditional market.
Experience the university student life
Ever wonder what it’s like to live in Korea? The university trinity of Yonsei, Hongik and Ehwa Women’s University reveal a tantalizing glimpse of young adult life in Korea – late-night barbecue, cheap partying and some of the best boutique fashion you’ll find across Seoul. In particular, the streets surrounding Sinchon and Ehwa Station are rife with budget bites and cafés, providing fuel between your shopping frenzies. The campuses of Yonsei University and Ehwa Women’s University also demands attention, decorated with unusual architecture (such as Ehwa’s sunken plaza) and European-styled buildings.
Wander in Seoul Forest
Royal hunting grounds turned a multi-faceted recreational area; Seoul Forest is a welcome swathe of outdoor classrooms inclusive of the Experiential Learning Park and Marsh Plant Garden. A collection of botanical gardens and bird observatory, these two quadrants offer a calm and settled atmosphere. The Ecological Forest is home to common wildlife such as elks, chipmunks, ducks and moorhens with an observatory for closer viewing. The Cultural Art Park in contrast presents smooth pavement and curated landscaping for skateboards and water play, inviting families out under the ever-changing foliage.
Delve into Changdeokgung Palace’s Secret Gardens
Just a few blocks away is the exquisitely designed Changdeokgung Palace, built ten years after Gyeongbokgung. One of the “Five Grand Palaces” of Joseon Dynasty, it is arguably one of the most beautiful heritage sites in Seoul. While Changdeokgung shares the same red pillars, elaborated roof edging and paved grounds of its counterparts, its Secret Garden emulates an earthy beauty and hidden serenity. One of Seoul’s less-explored gems, it is a highly recommended to-visit spot for those who want to step away from conventional attractions.
Reach the skies at Haneul Park
Surveying the massive World Cup Stadium like a paradise on clouds is Haneul ‘Sky’ Park. With lush fields of soft, sweeping grass that bleed from silver to a burnished red in autumn, it is one of Seoul’s most beautiful and peaceful nature retreats. For more diversity, check out its sibling parks within the overarching World Cup Park. Sunset Park, Nanji Stream Park, Nanji Han River Park and Peace Park offer up bicycle paths, streams and short hikes as alternatives to Haneul Park’s maze-like grasslands.
Up high at Lotte World Tower
Standing at 555-meters and a total of 123 floors, Lotte World Tower is among the tallest buildings in the world and first on Seoul’s list. A solid base shoots up to a narrowed top, presenting a modern architecture. Visitors can traverse through Lotte World Mall for an enjoyable duty free spree, or enjoy an astounding stay at its luxury Signiel Seoul hotel. The highlight of the tower however, is the Seoul Sky observation deck. Positing at 500 meters, it grants clear visuals over the city.
Eat up at a traditional food market
Gwangjang market located within Dongdaemun is one of the oldest and largest eateries in Korea. Up and running since 1905, it is packed with over 5000 stalls! Traditionally a textiles market, majority of its second floor vendors is fabric sellers. Still, interspersed are food stalls tempting passerby with classic comfort foods like sundae (Korean sausage), bibimbap (mixed rice) and mung bean pancakes. If you’re raring for a smaller food-centric experience, Tonging Market’s narrow streak of stalls will do.
Connecting with nature at Bukhansan National Park
Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for a breaking 5 million visitors per year, Bukhansan National Park is surprisingly accessible. Its multiple entrances are short commutes from Seoul and neighboring cities; plot your trail depending on convenience. Characterized by its plentiful gorges and clear streams, the national park sets motivating targets such as shelters, temples, old fortresses and peaks that reach 865 meters. Popular courses include Bukhansanseong Course and Bogukum Course, both featuring waterfalls and shady oak clusters. Open all year for a multitude of seasonal delights, visitors can enjoy comfortable hikes from dawn to right after sunset.
Seek thrills at an amusement park
The Big Three of Seoul’s amusement parks come in at Lotte World, Everland Park and Seoul Land. Lotte World are for those who prefer short commutes as it is located inside of Seoul, whereas Everland Park is a drive out towards Gyeonggi-do. It is worth a day trip! Thrill-seekers can catch their adrenaline spikes on world-spinning rides or stay grounded for performances. You can also make waves at trending Caribbean Bay to offset summer heat. Since Everland Park and Caribbean Bay are adjacent to each other, why not make it a full-day excursion for a two-in-one?
Seek a bird’s eye view at N Seoul Tower
Recognizable by its pointy peak and wrap-around observatory tower, N Seoul Tower has gained further acclaim as a place for romantics. Not only will you fall in love with the Seoul at your feet, couples can leave behind tangible proof of their love round the tower’s base. Aptly named Locks of Love, this dedicated area witnesses couples and friendship groups with hopes of lasting relationships. Visitors can then cozy up at Palgakjeong Pavilion for more stunning views. Marking one of the highest points in Seoul, it is the perfect spot for sunset views.
Explore the slopes of Itaewon
Home to majority of Seoul’s expats thanks to its proximity to an American military base, Itaewon is the hub for foodies. Among the traditional Korean roasts is a throng of international cuisine. Running from nuttier Mediterranean tastes to the lime and avocado heavy Mexican, the delightful diversity also shares in meatier South African fare and fusion restaurants. Mixed into the restaurant-dominated slopes are also vintage spoils and crafty trinkets ready to be bought home.
Scale up at fashionable Apgujeong
Toting large department shores, top-tier hair salons and in close proximity to upper-class Gangnam, this district is best described as ‘luxurious’. Rodeo Street and Garosugil Street are familiar names for the fashion-forward, populated by creative concept brands and edgy designers. More infamously, Apgujeong is recognized as the epicenter of plastic surgery. But with big entertainment names like SM Entertainment based around the area, you’re more likely to join in the fan-crowd for potential idol sightings. Hang long enough around Apgujeong and you’re guaranteed to meet a K-entertainer or two.
A taste of nostalgia at Insadong
Insadong’s charm lay in its blend of time stamps; the myriad of wooden shop fronts offset against the looping walkway of Ssamzigil complex. Based in Ssamzigil complex alongside boutique shops and homeware are local jewelry artists, and a small rooftop garden. Out on the streets are restaurants serving traditional foods like stone pot bibimbap and pig trotters. Minimized skincare and cosmetic stores are featured in the far end, although it is Korea’s beloved pat-bingsu shaved ice dessert and hand-made trinkets that gift Insadong a distinctive local flare.
Experience Seoul’s luxurious Gangnam district
The central business district of Seoul, Gangnam is populated by grand chrome office blocks and residences of the upper class. Modern and upscale, you can expect skyscrapers and designer brands teaming up for sleek aesthetics. It is also home to Starfield COEX Mall, conjoined with a gigantic convention and exhibition center which hosts international expos and conferences. Daytime entertainment also leads underground to Gangnam Underground Shopping Street, a budget parallel to the luxury shops up top. Come night time, the stylish and proper district transforms into one of VIP nightclubs featuring the country’s best DJs.
Learn about Korea’s modern history at the DMZ
The DMZ, or formally the demilitarized zone, is a significant marker of South Korea independence. A divisive buffer between North Korea and South Korea that remains a constant reminder of post-war sentiments, it bisects the Korean Peninsula in a fairly even split. Military presence is guaranteed to guard against border squabbles; it is safe for visitors as long as you keep to sanctioned zones and pay attention to your guide. There are several tours to choose from, the most popular being the Panmunjeom area. Recently opened hiking trails now reveal previously forbidden areas. Visiting the DMZ requires guided tours and fixed itineraries, and there are strict nationality restrictions. Do some research beforehand to ensure your access.
Finding uncommon designs at Common Ground
If you’re on constant look out for hipster hang out spaces and cool urban projects, Common Ground is worth a visit. Comprised of around 200 popping blue containers stacked to form a recreational complex, Common Ground quickly gained popularity with nearby Konkuk University students. Food trucks are parked in the central square market, but there are restaurants on the third floor terrace for proper meals. Exhibitions and performances are frequent fixtures, although the main draw lies with the quirky and young brands inhabiting the interior. If creative market spaces are your jam, you’re going to love it.
More shopping at Myeongdong
An unmissable tourist district, Myeongdong is the place to go if you get homesick in a matter of days. Communication has never been easier, shopkeepers chat you up in any combination of Chinese, English and Japanese. Providing the best exchange rates in the area, you are no doubt set for a day of commercial fun! Skincare and clothing brands range between super local to international names, and you can pick up dorky hats and accessories at street stalls. But the best has yet to come. As evening hits and the bright signage come to life, so do the street food vendors along the main shopping avenue. Indulge in spicy rice cakes and greasy cheese-baked goods to fuel a second wind of shopping, or hydrate with fresh pomegranate juice.
Blending nostalgia and chic at Samcheongdong
Located off-side Gyeongbokgung Palace is the charming neighborhood of Samcheongdong. The main street is lengthy and lined with baby gingko, setting up a beautiful autumn walkway. Boutique shops, cafés and restaurants develop from street level up the gentle slopes on two sides, building a layered texture of quaint food-and-shop stop. Cultural influences focus on the culinary, with traditional Korean cuisine being majority. Afternoon tea option are more relaxed, offering both traditional Korean desserts like red bean topped shaved ice as well as western styled treats such as soufflé pancakes. Shops however are juxtaposed, older-styled exteriors in direct contrast to cute designs and modern concepts within.
Watch live performances at Hongik University
The streets surrounding Hongik University Station are flooded with trendy youths seeking fast fashion and cheap bargains. A hub for the hip and cool, edgier fashion pieces spill out onto the streets on metal racks and mannequins. Restaurants and cafés slide neatly into storied buildings and in-between slots to keep the energy high. But it is the young talent that people flock here for. Dancers and musicians alike battle it out for the biggest crowds every night, transforming the area into a pseudo performance arena. Cheer them on by singing along and loud applause, and leave a tip or two to show your appreciation.
Wash away your toils and stress at a Korean bath house
Definitely round off your trip with a visit to a jjimjilbang! This Korean bath house is the solution to all your cumulated aches and exhaustion. Slide into the colorful garb and knot up your towels like goat horns before opening up your pores at the sauna room. If you’re drowsy, grab a cold drink at the refreshment corner before settling in for a nap. Dare the full body scrub under the rough but professional hands of the “scrub masters” and shed the dead skin. You’ll emerge feeling fresh and beautiful – and ready to do it all over again.
Relaxing at a café
Coffee and sweets culture run abundant in Seoul; you’ll find at least one café per street. Tom & Toms Coffee, Ediya Coffee, A Twosome Place and Café Benne are just few of the chain coffee that also serves waffles and conventional pastry. Snazzy cafés take over the streets of business districts, whilst cozy, hipster and uniquely themed cafés tend toward university districts. For a well-deserved afternoon tea, Yeonnam-dong is the ultimate café provider. Located just beyond Hongik University’s main street, Instagram worthy shops are right around the corner.
Noraebang the night away
Head bang to the latest indie rock, or show off your groove to your favorite K-pop hits. Noraebang, Korea’s nightly pastime, presents a version of karaoke that’ll have you shimmying until dawn breaks. For the most budget-friendly venues, look toward the university area of Sinchon. If you appeal to the aunties or uncles managing these humble establishments, you may even receive “service” – up to two or three hours of extra singing time.
Meet the mermaids at COEX Aquarium
Dive to the depths of COEX Aquarium’s fourteen discovery zones, all displaying an array of vibrant corals and marine life. The highlight of Gangnam’s mall-and-exhibition-center combined, it brings childhood dreams to life with its daily mermaid shows.
Get cheeky at the Trick-Eye Museum
Scramble around for the perfect angle to capture the cheeky paintings and interactive displays of Seoul’s infamous Trick-Eye Museum. You’ll find yourself hanging above the snapping jaws of a shark, and hanging off a steep cliff-side. Few steps forward; you’re dining on the balcony of a romantic European city. Evoke your camera smarts – it’s important to catch the right angle! Now boasting a VR ride to complement your Indiana Jones backdrops, this Trick-Eye Museum will transport you to other worlds in the blink of an eye.
Visit Seoul Arts Center
Lastly on our list of the best things to do in Seoul is the Seoul Arts Center. Established with the aim of fostering ties between the Korean and international art scene, Seoul Arts Center has become a leading Arts Academy. The complex houses an Opera House, Music Hall, the Hangaram Art Museum, the Hangaram Design Museum and the Seoul Calligraphy Museum. As the museum titles might suggest, emphasis is put on promoting traditional art forms. This dedication to local art and culture is exemplified by the design of the Opera House, shaped in the rounded form of a traditional Korean hat, the gat.