Seoul is the capital of South Korea, the lower portion of the Korean peninsula (the upper portion being North Korea). Seoul is a huge city located in the northwest part of South Korea on the Han River. I have been wanting to visit Seoul for a few years, and Dan and I finally pulled the trigger and visited for six days in November as part of a Seoul/Tokyo trip over our Thanksgiving holiday. I had a bit of a difficult planning our trip and figuring out what to see and eat, so here are the highlights of our trip, as two thirty-something American travelers who are certainly not experts on Korea! We loved our time, found Seoul to be a surprising budget destination, and we absolutely need to go back for the cherry blossoms!
FAVORITE SITES IN SEOUL
Korea, for whatever reason, is not as popular with travelers as its neighbors Japan and China, but we found it has just as much to offer, including in sight seeing!
The Palaces. In terms of “sites” in Seoul, its most famous are Seoul’s palaces, and there are two particularly famous, unmissable ones: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. These are the places that people visit and dress in Hanbok (the traditional, and GORGEOUS, Korean dress) for Instagram. We visited both palaces on the same day, walking between the two with a short stop for food in Bukchon Hanok Village. Even if you have limited time, I recommend visiting both of these palaces. Each are impressive and have loads of history. If you really must visit only one, my personal suggestion is Changdeokgung. It was more impressive in my opinion and has the magical Secret Garden (keep reading)!!
Tickets for entrance to the palaces are sold individually on site or in a “Palace Pack,” offering admission to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, Changgyenggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace and the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine for ￦10,000. We purchased the multi-pack ticket at Deoksugung Palace when there was no line on our first day in Seoul (it was right next to our hotel), which I would recommend to avoid lines at the more popular palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, especially in high season. The ticket office took credit card and the attendants spoke a bit of English. Maps of all palaces come in a laundry list of languages.
We started our temple touring day at Gyeongbokgung Palace, because it was closer to our hotel than Changdeokgung. We arrived right when it opened and beat most of the crowds, and we were able to take some great pictures without the crazy Instagram “influencers.” I recommend spending at least an hour exploring Gyeongbokgung, longer if you want to take lots of pictures or dress in Hanbok. If you are not on a guided tour, which are provided free on site, the free brochure and map provides a decent background. Be sure to pick one up a map and brochure at the ticket office. I would also note that the National Folk Museum of Korea is located right next to Gyeongbokgung Palace. We skipped this due to time, but it looked quite interesting.
If dressing in Hanbok for photographs is your thing, there are stores along the road next to Gyeongbokgung renting by the hour. There are also Hanbok rentals near Changdeokgung Palace and in Bukchon Hanok Village. We did not rent a Hanbok, but a lot of tourists and locals were doing this for photographs.
After Gyeongbokgung, our afternoon was spent exploring Changdeokgung Palace. We walked between the two palaces, with a stop in Bukchon Hanok Village for lunch (which is conveniently located right between the palaces). I got the impression that Changdeokgung Palace is larger and more important than Gyeongbokgung, but that’s just my view! What Changdeokgung Palace does have that Gyeongbokgung does not, is its own Secret Garden Tour! Just as exciting as it sounds, the Secret Garden Tour is an approximately 1.5 hour walking tour through a private section of Changdeokgung Palace and during the fall, when we visited, this is some of the best leaf spotting in Seoul! We missed the peak of the season by about a week, but still saw some gorgeous foliage. Tickets to the Secret Garden Tour were extra and booked online a few days in advance via Changdeokgung Palace’s website. See the “Steal Our Trip” section for more information.
Separate from Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, we also visited Deoksugung Palace on our fist day in Seoul. Deoksugung Palace is smaller and underwhelming compared to Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, so it was a good first stop. It was also directly across the street from our hotel and City Hall. Spend about 30 minutes here. Its honestly skippable unless you are in the area or have a lot of time. We missed the final two sites on our “Palace Pass” – Changgyenggung Palace and the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine – as we ran out of time and were a bit “palaced-out.”
Not near these palaces, but not too far either, is the super colorful Jogyesa Temple in Insadong. Jogyesa is a small working temple right in the tourist center of Insadong. Its free, photographic, and easy to visit, and it is definitely worth a stop on a visit to Insadong. You only need about 20 minutes to explore the entire temple. We visited on our first day (after Deoksugung Palace).
Gangnam. Made famous by that great, yet annoying, PSY song circa 2012, we could not visit Seoul without making a stop in Gangnam. Turns out Gangnam is THE upscale neighborhood in Seoul, filled with K Pop celebrities and fancy and expensive things. Its the place to see and be seen, and to spend lots of money. It was also about 45 minutes away from our hotel. If you can’t tell, I was not enamored with Gangnam. However, Gangnam is home to the beautiful and tranquil Bongeunsa Temple. We visited early one morning, and I really loved the beauty of Bongeunsa. I recommend spending about 30 minutes here. Entrance is free and the restrooms are atrocious.
Since we were already in the Gangnam area, we walked directly across the street from Bongeunsa to the Starfield COEX Mall, home to the Gangnam Style Statute and the IG famous Starfield Library. Neither me nor Dan expected to really enjoy these sites, but they ended up being quite impressive. The Starfield Library is that library, well bookstore, with the really tall book shelves. You’ve seen it on IG. Its actually very cool in person – both to photograph and to explore. The Gangnam Style statute is also fun, but it did not play music when we visited. Both sites and entrance to the Starfield COEX Mall are 100% free. But know that Gangnam is expensive as a whole so be prepared to spend extra for food and drink.
The Hongdae Neighborhood. Hongdae is just a cool neighborhood, and was probably our favorite place to hangout in Seoul. Its home to one of Seoul’s largest university and this area is happening with the kids and the Grammers. And its perfect for people watching. Hongdae is bustling at all hours on all days. Lots of lights. Lots of shopping. Lots of K Pop. It reminded me a bit of some of some of the crazy neighborhoods Japan, but to a lesser degree. Hongdae is definitely a fun, easy to navigate area to explore. Go here for cheap shopping, weird Korean things, to see aspiring K Pop performances on the street, and to hang out with the university crowd.
Street Art & Installations. I knew that Seoul had a lot of Instagram-famous spots, but I did not expect to continuously come upon cool art installations throughout the city. I thought this was really cool and while I did not post them all to Instagram, they were quite fun to photograph! If you’re really into this, a number of tour companies offer Instagram tours that are rather inexpensive.
Gwangjang Market. For foodies or Netflix fans visiting Seoul, a visit to Gwangjang Market is likely in order. This is the market from Netflix’s Street Food Seoul edition. Gwangjang Market is open daily and it receives a lot of tourists, so many of the “front and center” shops are familiar with tourists and cater to them. To get more a local flavor for the market, take a food tour, like we did. The tour allowed us to visit the market and eat at the famous stall featured on Street Food, but also enjoy some places that are not known by tourists. I also found a guide to be helpful, as the market is a working market and can be rather crowded and overwhelming. I am going to write a separate detailing our food tour and all the goodies that we tried!
SOME GREAT KOREAN FOODS WE ENJOYED IN SEOUL
Seoul is a fantastic foodie city. I knew this going in, but I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the food. It was so good that I didn’t even regret my decision to book three (yes, 3!!) food tours on this trip… I am going to write about my food tours separately, but here are some of my and Dan’s favorite Seoul eats!
Obviously, Korean BBQ. We love grilled meat! We dined at Restaurant 853 our first night in Seoul. The meat was excellent and it was an easy entrance for Westerners who don’t speak the language. Full review coming soon! We also went to two other BBQ restaurants while in Seoul. One was super local and the other was more tourist friendly (photo above). Foreigners who are not adventurous may want to start with the touristy ones to get a feel before diving into the local scene. I will also note, locals seem to cook their own BBQ, while staff gives tourists some extra help.
Koreans also love fried chicken, traditionally with beer, and they do a really good job with it! And yes, that was completely unexpected to me and Dan! Two easy Korean fried chicken and beer visits for foreigners are Eat Paradise in Bukchon Hanok Village, where Dan was literally crying due to the spiciness of the chicken, and Chicken in the Kitchen in Hongdae. The best, however, was at a local place that a friend introduced us to. I neither remember the name nor could I pronounce it, so these pictures will have to suffice! I would note that most of the fried chicken is “on the bone” (like fried chicken wing style) and cutlery, aside from a possible single chopstick if you’re lucky, is generally non-existent at these casual joints. A someone who hates to eat with her hands, I brought my own knife and fork to deal with the chicken!
Like Japan, the Koreans are totally into matcha flavoring, especially that from their beloved Jeju Island. Matcha flavored things, especially desserts and coffees, are very easy to find and a fun treat. There are a number of foreigner-friendly cafes touting matcha flavored goodies in Insadong.
My favorite meal (maybe, its too hard to pick just one!) in Seoul was yet another restaurant recommended by a friend – Sanullim 1992. Specializing in traditional Korean alcohol, Sanullim 1992 has excellent, excellent food. My favorite dish was this soft rice cake with Gorgonzola and salted pollack roe. It doesn’t look like much, but it was to die for. The fresh vegetables were also out of this world.
Desserts in Korea are also something else. I mean, they are gorgeous!! And while they are gorgeous, Koreans are not traditionally big on desserts, but the Instagram culture has made pretty desserts super popular and all over the city according to our tour guides. If you don’t eat any, at least take some pictures!
Finally on the food front, our hotel offered an unexpectedly good breakfast each morning in its lounge, starting the morning we arrived at like 5:00 AM! Two of our favorites were the beef bulgogi done in a sweet broth and their baked bananas. So ridiculously good and a nice complimentary surprise!
If you’ve read this blog, you know that Dan and I also like a good drink. Our favorite local tipple in Korea was Makgeolli, a milky white drink made from rice and served in a bowl. We tried an amazing champagne style one at Sanullim 1992 and several flavored ones throughout our trip. Definitely don’t miss when in Korea. Only the most mass produced ones are exported to the US.
SHOPPING IN SEOUL
Like Japan, Seoul is home to quirky little shops throughout the city. Very Instagrammable, quality varying. We enjoyed the somewhat touristy neighborhood of Insadong for shopping and people watching. This is definitely a good one-stop shop for Korean souvenir shopping.
We, well more so me, also enjoyed Bukchon Hanok Village between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace for shopping. This is another good place to buy Korean souvenirs and try Korean foods and drinks. And, while it is certainly touristy, Bukchon Hanok Village is home to lots of small quiet streets where you can easily loose the tourists.
Similar to quirky stores, Seoul is home to some quirky themed bars (animal cafes, a poop cafe (so bizarre), and I think a raccoon cafe). We largely stayed away from these quirky cafes, among others, but we did visit the Retrogame Bar in Hongdae for an evening. While the drinks were not fantastic, the games were 100%. We played Paper Boy and Aladdin on Super Nintendo!
And on the shopping front, if you are looking for Big Box Shops or upscale luxury goods, head straight to Gangnam. Lots of shopping there. Hongdae is also good for non-tourist-centric Korean shopping. For example, face masks, make up, Korean toys, etc. Things that locals buy, but that visitors may also be interested in. I got some great face masks in Hongdae at a good price. Myeongdong, close to our hotel, is also a good place for shopping similar to Hongdae.
WHERE WE STAYED IN SEOUL
We stayed across the street from City Hall at the Plaza Autograph Collection Hotel by Marriott. Most people knew the name of the Plaza hotel, but this area also goes by “City Hall” and is quite close to Myeongdong. The location of the Plaza Autograph Hotel was perfect for us – close to most of the sites that we wanted to see, as well as within walking distance of many shops and restaurants and located just above a busy Metro stop. Also, the Koreana Hotel, from where many, many big box tours depart, is only a five minute walk away. I am going to write another post about our time at the Plaza Autograph Collection Hotel, but we found it to be a good value and we would absolutely return. If you are more of a partier or solely into the Instagram culture, you may be more comfortable in the Hongdae or Gangnam neighborhoods.
SOME SEOUL TIPS AND TRICKS
While certainly no expert on Seoul, here are some memorable takeaways from our trip:
- Seoul is a HUGE city. It takes time to travel between different areas of the city. That being said, the metro is super clean and very easy to use. Take advantage of it; its the best way to explore the city. And, bring walking shoes.
- And on that note, download the free Naver app for your phone. Google maps does not work very well in Korea and Google maps are missing a lot of data (allegedly due to North Korean safety concerns). Naver is similar to Goole Maps (there is at least one other too) and works extremely well, even telling you how to navigate via the underground Metro passageways. Do note that even with Naver, names of all destinations are not translated into English.
- Its cheap to eat in Korea. However, many restaurants specialize in one particular type of food and just do not have other options. Those with dietary restrictions should do their research and bring something in Korean stating what you can’t eat if you really cannot eat it.
- Wine is super expensive in Seoul and the imports available are generally not that great. Bring some from home if you are a wine drinker.
- Most temples require visitors to leave shoes outside unattended. Be prepared to leave your shoes or miss the interior.
- If you’re in Seoul on a layover, we met multiple tourists on “layover tours” that even provided branded outerwear for customers to borrow while exploring Seoul on a layover. This is a good option for those traveling to warmer weather destinations with a layover in Seoul. I don’t have a link, but you should look into it!
- Many restaurants have large plastic bags at the table or under your chair. These are to store your winter coat, etc., while you eat. Use it – genius!
- Seoul does Christmas decor a lot better than I anticipated.
- Bring a knife and fork in your bag if you can’t eat with chopsticks.
- We learned that neither TripAdvisor or Yelp is big with the locals, so most of the higher ranked restaurants cater to tourists, meaning not authentic.
- Credit card was taken most places, including most taxi cabs. International ATMs were easy to find.
STEAL OUR TRIP
The Plaza: We stayed at the Plaza Autograph Collection by Marriott. The Plaza is in an excellent location and has its own pool and exercise room. Due to our Marriott status, we were upgraded to an Executive Level room and received complimentary lounge access.
Changdeokgung Palace: This website provides information in English regarding ticket costs and tours of the Secret Garden in various languages. Go here to purchase Secret Garden tour tickets when they go on sale 6 days in advance. There are only 100 tickets per tour and they do sell out, especially during the fall leaf season and spring Cherry Blossom season. As such, I highly recommend purchasing in advance. Our tour was very busy and it was not a super popular time to visit. Generally open 9h – 17h30, longer during the Summer. Closed every Monday. 3,000 Won entrance, half price for children. The Secret Garden is an additional 5,000 Won, half price for children.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: This website provides logistic information on Gyeongbokgung Palace and its free tours (no resy required). Generally open 9h – 17h, longer during the Summer. Closed every Tuesday. Arrive early for the best pictures without the crowds. 3,000 Won entrance, half price for children.
Deoksugung Palace: This website provides logistic information and history on Deoksugung Palace. Generally open 9h – 21h. Closed every Monday. 1,000 Won entrance, half price for children.
ZenKimchi Food Tours: The owner took Anthony Bourdain around Seoul. Enough said. However, we did two tours – the Korean BBQ and the History of Korean Alcohol – and they were both excellent. Highly recommended. Follow on IG for some good Korean food pics.
Secret Seoul Food Tours: This is the company that we used for a tour of Gwangjang Market. I also did a Secret Food Tour company tour in Paris; it was great! In short, Secret Food Tours contracts with local foodies/guides to run these tours. It turns out our guide runs his own tour separately from Secret Food Tours. Going forward, I will try to book directly with a guide, but Secret Food Tours does make it easy for foreigners looking to book a good food tour.
Restaurant 853: Korean BBQ restaurant in Insadong. This is an easy one for foreigners. I recommend having your hotel call for a reservation. Its one of the top restaurants on TripAdvisor if you want more information.
Eat Paradise: Hole in the wall (literally) on the main street in Bukchon Hanok Village. Try the spicy if you dare and don’t miss the freshly fried potato chips (in a resealable bag so you can eat the rest later!). No website.
Chicken in the Kitchen: 4-42 Wausan-ro 29-gil, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Open 16h – 00h, later on Saturday. Reservations not necessary. Easy place for foreigners to get the famous friend chicken and beer. The best way to get to this Hongdae location is via the Metro. No website.
Sanullim 1992: 60 Seogang-ro 9-gil, Changjeon-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoulul in Hongdae. The Gorgonzola rice cakes were on the Set A menu when I visited. Reservation recommended. Casual attire. No website.
Retrogame Bar: Nostalgic bar in Hongdae. Not too difficult to find. Game play is free with drink or food purchase. Surprisingly, no website.
Starfiled COEX Mall: Generally open daily 10h – 22h. Free entrance. This mall is huge so plan to send a while. Free entrance. Interesting food court in the basement.
ON A BUDGET
Seoul is a fantastic budget destination, especially compared to pricey Japan next door. Eat local, drink the local beer, Cass (its not bad!), and try the street food. Budget travelers will probably want to cut out the food tours, as those are expensive, but otherwise, a trip to Seoul will not break the bank. We found it to be a good alternative to neighboring expensive Tokyo.