10 best things to do in Seoul
1. Mount Bukhan: hiking it up to Seoul’s highest point
With a vast majority of the landscape in South Korea being mountainous, it’s no wonder mountain climbing is an immensely popular sport for Koreans. While the more famous peaks and ranges may be found outside of Seoul, the capital city’s own Bukhansan (or Mount Bukhan) is the highest peak in Seoul at 836.5 meters above sea level and is a challenging but rewarding climb for veterans and first timers alike. There are many routes to the different peaks but no matter which one you decide to take, the breathtaking views of Seoul and the surrounding areas on top will be an experience in itself. On the way down, reward yourself at one of the locally operated eateries. Chilled noodles, kimbap and makgeolli (a fizzy alcoholic rice wine drink) tastes heavenly in the mountain air and you deserve it after a long hike! Mountain climbing is also one of the best ways to experience the kinship and warm camaraderie of Koreans and don’t be surprised if you make new friends on your hike while getting offered snacks and drinks along the way. Be sure to bring plenty of water and dress appropriately.
2. Dragon Hill Spa: relax and wash away your stress
Just like the famous saunas of the Scandinavian countries, Korea has its own upgraded version of bath and relaxation centres called jjimjilbangs. These establishments are found all over Seoul and are popular with the young and old alike and will usually bring in a mix of families, couples and friends. Once you pay the inexpensive fee, you’ll be given keys to your locker and a set of cotton T-shirt and shorts to change into. Once you change into the uniforms (in separate men and women’s sides) and lock your clothes and belongings in your locker, grab a towel and follow the signs to the shared common area, which will be nice and toasty! From here, choose from a multitude of rooms to enter and sweat it out with varying temperatures and properties (salt room, jade room, charcoal room, etc) each of which is supposed to provide a unique health benefit. In between the different rooms you can relax and watch TV, lull on the many floor mats scattered around or grab a snack and refreshing drink from the cafeteria. Once you’re done sweating it out, go back to your locker room area, peel off your sweaty uniforms and go soak in the many different tubs and saunas. If you want the real experience, pay a small fee and get yourself a scrub from one of the professional scrubbers and watch as all your dead and dirty skin goes down the drain leaving you squeaky clean from head to toe.
3. Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market: seafood at its freshest and finest
Dragon Hill Spa: relax and wash away your stress
This immense wholesale seafood market is one of Korea’s largest and can trace its origins back some 80 plus years. Shops are lined up in row after row with tanks filled with almost every living thing there is from the sea – and all caught fresh! Survey what you’re looking for, compare prices, haggle and pay and you’ll soon have, in your hands, some of the freshest seafood you can get in Seoul. While raw sashimi fish, fish stew and shellfish are common and popular items, you can be adventurous and try out unique items such as sea squirt, raw small octopus, sea cucumbers and more. Don’t worry about getting your hands dirty as your seller will prepare your purchased seafood according to how you want it. You can even choose to eat it there at the fish market as your shop will prepare and/or cook your seafood and serve it to your party with all the fixings for a small flat fee.
4. Sinsa’s Garosugil: shop like the locals do
While Myeongdong on the north side of the Han River may be the popular destination for tourists to get their shopping fix, Seoul’s fashionable residents will be spotted in Sinsa’s Garosugil getting their shopping done. The street features a number of boutique shops and independent stores selling everything in the latest trending styles and accessories. You’ll want to dress your best while you’re here as seemingly everyone looks as though they stepped out of a fashion magazine. It’s also a great place to people watch and to get a grasp of what’s the in style and ‘look’ in Seoul at the moment. In between shopping, there are plenty of popular eateries and coffee shops to get you rejuvenated for even more retail therapy.
5. Han River Park: countless fun along the river
To escape the hustle and bustle of the urban life, the various Han River parks offer activities for all ages and interests. Bike paths are found all over to satisfy cycling enthusiasts as are jogging paths for runners looking to get their exercise in with a great view along the river. Various playgrounds and plenty of grassy fields make the parks popular for families with young children while bike rental services, duck boat rentals and other services make the parks popular with couples. As the sun sets in warmer seasons, friends and families can be seen laying out picnic blankets and enjoying conversation and food. And with Korea’s unrivalled food delivery system, one can order anything – from fried chicken and beer to pizza – to be delivered quickly to where you are and with no delivery fee.
6. Bukchon Hanok Village: a glimpse of traditional Korea
Seoul’s skyline is a bit uninspired and mostly dotted with high-rise apartment buildings. But for a glimpse of traditional Seoul, Bukchon’s Hanok Village offers visitors a look at what home life was like in the past. These simple yet highly efficient and beautiful traditional homes were the centre of the importantly regarded family life in Korea’s Confucian culture, and the simple and tranquil beauty of these homes can be enjoyed in a picturesque setting in this village. Many of the hanok buildings here have been renovated into eateries, tea shops, stores and more, offering visitors a perspective from the inside as well. Homestays in a hanok home here are another popular and unique option for visitors.
7. Gwangjang Market: eating and shopping at Seoul’s oldest market
Established in 1905, this traditional market holds some 5,000 independent shops and vendors selling everything from silk to satin and high quality hanbok (traditional Korean clothing). The goods are all high quality yet at a fraction of prices elsewhere, due to many of the shops being wholesale vendors and some even owning the factories where the goods are produced. After marveling at and getting lost in the maze of shops, make your way over to the market’s central ground level where countless stalls, shops and vendors will sell all sorts of traditional Korean bites from blood sausages to spicy rice cakes and more. Particularly famous is the bindaeddeok, a savory pancake made from ground mung beans, vegetables and meat, fried and served piping hot. Enjoy it with a bottle or two of makgeolli, a fizzy alcoholic rice wine drink, and get more than your belly’s fill for a very cheap price. The setting is as rustic and authentic as you can get!
8. Tea and art at Kyungin Museum of Fine Art
Coffee may be the rage for Koreans these days but tea and tea culture has been a part of Korean culture for centuries and the Kyungin Museum of Fine Art is a wonderful place to enjoy tea in a beautiful environment. The renovated traditional Korean home not only serves a variety of seasonal and unique Korean teas but also houses a small art gallery with exhibitions rotated frequently. The tranquil and beautiful outdoor garden changes in look and feel by season and by the time of the day, so it’s well worth making a return trip in the future. The museum’s location in an alley off the main busy road of Insadong makes it a perfect escape to clear one’s mind and calm your spirits over a nice cup of fine tea.
9. Fine Art at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
This private museum is often overlooked by visitors but is well worth a visit for one of the best art collections in Korea. The museum is well organized and easy to navigate with plenty of English explanations and audio guides available to purchase. Beautiful traditional and modern/contemporary Korean art take centre stage here while the rotating special exhibits are frequently lauded by local art critics. The architecture of the two museum buildings is also a crowd pleaser, having been designed by renowned architects Mario Botta and Jean Nouvel.
10. Itaewon Nightlife: burgeoning nightlife centre of Seoul
Though long been dogged with a shady reputation, the Itaewon district has undergone a renaissance in recent years and is now one of Seoul’s most popular eating and drinking spots. While the international cuisine and diverse demographics make Itaewon a fun enough place to be during the day, it’s the nightlife here which has truly exploded onto the scene, challenging traditional nightlife hotspots such as Gangnam and Hongdae. Trendy lounge bars, such as Between, fill up fast as the sun begins to set and expect long lines for the area’s most popular clubs, such as B1, on weekends. Even if a loud and bumping club isn’t your scene, there are plenty of other lounges, bars and clubs catering to different crowds, music tastes and more to fit the bill so you and your friends can party like the locals do – to the wee hours of the morning.