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Help Me Plan My Trip To Seoul, South Korea

by on October 25, 2012 · 51 comments

in Trip Reports

I’ve never been to Seoul – what should I do there?

As I mentioned in this post, I have a one-way JFK to Hong Kong first class ticket on Cathay Pacific that I booked with 75,000 pre-Avios British Airways miles; and now that I’m adept at booking Korean Air awards using Ultimate Rewards, I figured I’d have TPG editor Eric meet me in Seoul for some Gangnam-style fun the first week in November.

I’ve never been to South Korea before, but I hear it’s a fascinating place with plenty to see and do, great food (I’m looking forward to some spicy bibimbap) and interesting fashions (if PSY is to be taken as an example).

Some of the bibimbap I want to enjoy on my trip – I hope it’s spicy!

I’m going to be there for three days, and apart from checking out a few hotels and taking a tour to the Demilitarized Zone on the border with North Korea, I haven’t made any plans yet.

That’s where you come in. My readers always have fantastic suggestions no matter which far-flung corner of the world I’m headed to next, and I bet a ton of you have some great ideas for how I should spend my time and what I should see while I’m in Seoul.

Please leave your comments below with your top picks of what to do while in Seoul, or Tweet me or leave a comment on Facebook, and if any TPG readers are around, I’d love to meet you while I’m there, so let me know!

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  • Jimgotkp

    Seoul has a lot of great restaurants but most of them require you to speak Korean since the employees either don’t speak English or are too shy and nervous.

    Koreans are really into their fashion and clothing. They are also very weight conscious as well which you will notice…

  • http://twitter.com/keith_mar Keith Martin

    How/where did you book your DMZ tour? Will be there on an award ticket too the following week, so will read the replies here with great interest!

  • Grant

    CoEx Mall is a nice spot to hang out if you want to experience the mall =)

  • Casey Martin

    Seoul is an amazing city! I go there often for work! Go to the top of the Namsan tower, it has stunning views of Seoul and all around, go to Hyehwa area (it’s a local university area with a great atmosphere), do Itaewon (though touristy), and shop in Meyong Dong…. but definitely learn a few Korean words before you go, not many people speak English!

  • Corey Malone

    I didn’t really enjoy Seoul =[
    I hope your visit is better though. Live it up

  • http://traveljunkette.com/ Susan @ Travel Junkette

    You’ve got to go to a jimjilbang (Korean sauna). They were my absolute favorite part of living in Korea — there’s even a great one in the Seoul airport!

  • KK

    -I recently took the tours at Jongmyo Shrine and Changdeokgung Palace and really liked both. At the palace make an advance reservation for the English tour of the secret garden – it’s beautiful. If you hit up Changdeokgung I don’t think you need to also see Gyeongbokgung Palace. If you want you can see the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace without actually entering, I believe, and it’s close to the canal.

    -Take a walk along Cheonggyecheon (the canal).

    -We took the gondola up to Seoul Tower at night but didn’t go up the tower itself (costs extra and the view is plenty good from the base of the tower).

    -Eat patbingsu, shaved ice with milk (and traditionally beans but you can get other stuff on top)

  • Anon1

    Check out the Samsung museum of modern art.
    In terms of neighborhoods, spend a couple hours walking around Bukchon hanok village, which is an area in Seoul near Gyeongbok palace, which is itself one of the main tourist attractions because of the guard ceremonies.
    Seoul has a few other interesting neighborhoods, look up Hongdae, Dongdaemun, Myeongdong. (Hongdae is not to be missed). Check out what Wikitravel has to say about them for a preview.
    Gwangjang market is a great place to absorb some korean atmosphere (and food).
    Above all, you need to meet Koreans to go drinking and eating with. This is seriously the most fun you will have in Korea.

  • Minna

    For sightseeing, check out: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheonggyecheon (artificial river/art), Bukhansan (hiking)

    For marketplaces/shopping: Myeongdong, Dongdaemun

    Great food/neighborhoods: Samcheongdong, Garosugil, Insadong, Apgujeong & Cheongdamdong – which are in Gangnam – so you can check out the meaning of the song ;)

    hope those are helpful! I was just there a year ago – Seoul in the fall is amazing!

  • sam

    If you’re gonna visit the DMZ, you should seriously consider blocking off three extra days to visit the DPRK. I took the trip in late 2010 through a British agency called Koryo Tours.]

    Visiting a Stalinist time capsule is something that might not be possible in a few years and was one of my most memorable adventures. You’d also get to review Air Koryo’s Beijing – Pyongyang route!

  • http://www.thefitworldtraveler.com/ Mike

    Stay at the park Hyatt near coex.

    Make sure your DMZ tour is a USO sanctioned one or else your stuck going to boring old infiltration tunnels rather than the JSA Area.

    For food try some Sam-gyup-sal or Korean BBQ, there are a ton of them around.

  • JC

    HIGHLY recommend a food tour with Seoul Eats (http://www.seouleats.com/ongo-tours/korean-night-dining-tour/) I have done two of them and they are a blast. Great way to experience some great (and bizarre) korean food.

  • CincyWorldTraveler

    I’ve gotten some great rooms at the InterContinental Seoul COEX i.e. on the club floor. Do the DMZ tour but compare the various brochures and talk to your concierge – there are some variances. I don’t know if they still allow it, but on one of the itineraries you were able to visit a negotiation room where the actual border runs right through the middle. On my first visit (business trip), I did a full-day city tour which went to a palace or two, the Seoul tower area, a temple, possibly a cultural museum, and a general drive-thru of the highlights. That was nice for getting an overview of the city. Definitely check out some authentic Korean BBQ – our client took us to a local place that was fab (again, see if your concierge can recommend a non-tourist restaurant).

  • christine

    I second getting as much korean bbq as possible. Pork Belly and Kalbi!

  • clare

    We stayed at the Lotte World hotel which was interesting because it was attached to a massive shopping mall / food court / indoor amusement park. Very Korean and a nice place. Check out the Korean Temple food restaurant in the main tourist area. Oh, and the last night we stayed at the Sheraton out at the airport on cash and points and it was FANTASTIC. Get a water view room, it was spectacular.

  • Chris

    Go to a Korean sauna bath. Really unique experience

  • gangnam style

    temple stay – definitely a must do in SK

  • LOU

    My niece lives there! She is having a blast! She posted the other day a picture of a restaurant all Toilet theme. Very nice and clean and modern though.

  • Joseph

    A definite must see!!! is…. NANTA – at the MyeongDong NANTA Theatre – a unique cooking/dancing/performance – like nothing you’ve seen before.

  • Firstwi

    I would like to recommend (i) Gyeongbok Palace and Secret Garden in the old downtown where you can taste the Korean history and fabulous traditional architect, (ii) Namdaemun market near the old downtown where you can see energetic Korean people and buy some cheap & nice goods, and (iii) Noryangjin fish market near Han river, which is very unique and huge market, where you can buy live fish and enjoy seafood at nearby restaurants.

  • draggy

    I would like to recommend (i) Gyeongbok Palace and Secret Garden in the old downtown where you can taste the Korean history and fabulous traditional architect, (ii) Namdaemun market near the old downtown where you can see energetic Korean people and buy some cheap & nice goods, and (iii) Noryangjin fish market near Han river, which is a very unique and huge market, where you can buy live fish and enjoy seafood at nearby restaurants.

  • Ben

    I second the Sauna Bath, it helps if there is someone there to help explain it or take you through it. I recommend taking a look at the Lotte department store, and see the indoor amusement park if it’s still there. It’s one of those things where everything is done to excess.
    If you like sushi, you must find the “live” fish restaurants or sushi bars, order the “live” octopus but “chew very thouroughly, you could die.” as one of my Korean friends warned me. Bipimbap comes cold or “tolsot bibimbap” is hot. It’s good either way. If you don’t see it on the menu, or a picture on the wall, ask “bibimbap ee-say-o?” and they’ll let you know. Bulgogi is good too.
    I think Itaewon is the area near the American military base that has some raunchy bars to check out at night and also near there is the War Memorial which is a interesting museum dedicated to the Korean war, a bit different than what I learned in American schools, or watching MASH. The subway system is great and easy to get around with signs in english and korean. Have fun.

  • msp2anywhere

    You already have what was to be my #1 recommendation- the DMZ tour, so my second recommendation is to actually steer clear of Itaewon. I lived in a rural area south of Seoul for two years, and can say that the Korean culture is rich and the Korean people are warm, friendly, and short. So duck. Everywhere.

  • Mark

    Regarding the DMZ tour, make sure you get one that will take you to Joint Security Area-Panmunjom – not all DMZ tours to that. The USO at Camp Kim (5 min walk from Namyoung Station; next to the Kaya Hotel and open to the general public) has the best Panmunjom tour in my opinion. All tours will offer an overpriced late lunch. If you are staying at the Westin Chosun, you have lots of options on foot. Insadong for traditional arts/crafts, Myeongdong for dining/full price retail shopping (check out the basements of the department stores, particularly Lotte and Shinsegae), and Namdaemun Market for discount/flea market type shopping.

  • Paul

    As a Seoul native, I would strongly recommend you visit Namsan Tower (also called N Seoul Tower), located in central Seoul. If you go at night, you can have a beautiful view of the whole city from the top. Also, they have excellent food!

    For more info: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264550

  • Bemi

    Meet me in Hong Kong :-) we can have lunch/afternoon tea/dinner together :-)

  • BasedinHK

    Same. let us know when you’re in HK!

  • Steve

    I was in Seoul last month, and really enjoyed it. Just be sure to book a DMZ tour well ahead of time; you can’t do it at the last minute. The Seoul subway system is great; don’t be overwhelmed by the multitude of lines. All signs are bilingual; buy a stored value card and wave it at the turnstiles. Also there are good free apps to show you how to get to station A from B.

  • Lee

    samgyetang (or ginseng chicken soup) is so good too

  • Jane

    Noryangjin Seafood Market! It is the largest seafood market in Seoul. You can try your live octopus there, which will be fresh! If you go somewhere around 4-6am (I know, it’s super early), then you can watch them auction fish. Myeong-dong Street Market is a great cultural, street market experience. Great street foods and cheap alcohol in the area (the district houses a women’s university so cheaper prices). Try dduk bokki (spicy rice cake) on the streets there. It’s 10x better than dduk bokki at the Korean restaurants in the States (even my homemade version). If you like shopping, check out Doota mall. It closes at 5am and it’s open 20 hours on Sundays. Maybe I’ll run into you. I’m going to Korea next month.

  • Jack

    Food: Galbi (Braised Beef Short Rib), Pork Belly (Sam-Kup-Sal), Bulbogi (Teriyaki marinated thinly sliced beef). Have this with Korean beer (OB or Hite – bit closer to Japanesse beer than German) and Pork Belly & So-Ju (Distilled Korean rice wine – must with Pork Belly). Spicy Chicken (Dak-gal-bi) they will cook it in front of you – this also goes well with So-Ju.
    Western foods are also very good…Seoul is a very trendy place…you will see many western food with a Korean twist. Hamburger, Pizza (Korean Pizza Hut has sweet potato pizza – it’s really really good – not as greasy as US pizza), Coffee (Paul Basset), must try out Starbucks…pricey compared to US but unique experience – many stores are 2~3 stories high.

    Places: Ap-Gu-Jung (Heart of Gangnam – filled with luxury shops and trendy restaurants – super pricey), E-Tae-Won (near the US army base in Seoul – used to be a place mostly for Foreigners but now it’s one of the most trendy places – culturally diverse and many western places with Korean twist), Nam-Dae-Moon (Korea Traditional Open Market meets Western Luxury Shopping Malls – The Namdaemoon market is a very unique and fun place, if you need eyeglasses or sunglasses, this place is super cheap. This place is also close to Myung-Dong – most popular tourist spot in Korea – a lot of Japanese and Chinese vistors) and finally Hong-Dae-Ip-Gu (Hongik University – Most popular among college students and many live music places).

    Such as fun place…three days will go super fast…

    Have safe trip and always enjoying your blog.

  • http://brianherbert.com brianherbert

    Mark is right, the best DMZ tour is the one sponsored by the USO, which is run by Koridoor. You can get information for that here: http://www.koridoor.co.kr/bbs/board.php?bo_table=travelInfo&wr_id=221

  • http://brianherbert.com brianherbert

    I saw some commenters mentioning NANTA as a good show to see. I’ve seen both that and Jump, and I must say Jump is better.

    If you go to Gyeongbokgung Palace, make sure you go a few blocks away to Insadong and check that out. You can get a lot of souvenirs there and they usually have a group there playing traditional Korean music on the street.

    If you want to see the madness of club nightlife, you can check out my neighborhood, Hongdae. I’ve been there for almost two years and haven’t been in a club yet but the crowds at night there are unbelievable. They also have silent dance parties on the street some Saturday nights (everyone wears headphones so you can’t hear the music).

    Also, make sure you go to a makeoli jib, which is a little bar/restaurant where you can drink some traditional makeoli (so delicious). Alternatively, you can find a guy pushing a cart around selling it for super cheap ($1-3). Exhibit A: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mavtq6LWkr1ru21xeo1_500.jpg

    There’s so much to do, the people are so nice, the public transportation is the cleanest, cheapest and most efficient I’ve seen anywhere in the world. You’re going to love it.

  • MaryE

    In fact, the first week of November is a great time to come. The fall leaves are gorgeous and the Seoul Lantern Festival is on:
    http://tinyurl.com/8k8vrov November 2nd to 18th

  • Can_I_Try

    VISIT:

    Gyongbuk Palace – The royal palace on the north side of Seoul. As with any historical site, you really have to read up on it or go on a tour. I would say it’s definitely more for history buffs.

    Insadong – Outside Gyongbuk Palace lies Insadong, a somewhat touristy area with various shops selling local crafts, gift shops and street food vendors.

    Sinsa-dong Garosugil – A mix of New York City’s Soho and Greenwich village – A tree-lined street filled with small clothing shops, restaurants and of course cafes. It’s a good area to walk around at night too.

    Dongdemun – More of a wholesaler shop. Similar to NYC street markets, with many vendors selling the same items.

    Myongdong – Huge outdoor shopping area, but with larger merchants/brands

    Itaewon – Ex-pat central. Lots of restaurants, bars, and shops with “large” sizes for Americans

    Nanta – Entertaining show mixing cooking with comedy. Lively and gets the crowd involved, bringing people on stage.

    Seoul tower – A bit disappointing. You get a good view, but Seoul doesn’t have the skyline of an NYC or HK. Plus you need 2 tickets to get to the top (tram up the mountain then up the tower) and tons of lines. 90% of my time at the tower was spent waiting on lines.

    DMZ tour through USO – Didn’t make it here, but heard the best tour is through the USO. And make sure to go to the Joint Security Area (JSA), where South Korean and North Korean soldiers [have staring contests] watch each other.

    EAT:

    Food in Seoul is pretty amazing, and with any major city, options range from food carts and stalls to expensive restaurants. If you want whatever the locals are eating, head to KwangJang Market. Here you’ll find a bunch of food stalls selling everything from fresh seafood to pancakes and dumplings.

    Most busy areas will have some sort of street food. I grabbed some grilled octopus while in Myongdong, but couldn’t bring myself to get the french fry-covered hot dogs.

    One last place to mention: Vatos Tacos in Itaewon – A Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant serving up some mean kimchi fries. People go nuts over it, but if you’re from NYC, it’s similar to Korilla or any of the other Korean/Mexican fusion trucks.

    http://can-i-try.com/2012/07/23/a-sampling-of-food-with-a-side-of-culture-seoul/

  • Sterling17

    Was in Seoul last week and didn’t have to wait at all for the Seoul Tower — I imagine November will be a good time to go as well. We took the bus to the top rather than the tram — also scenic and much less expensive.

  • Can_I_Try

    Oh nice, we went in June – peak tourist season…definitely played a part in my experience.

  • Rick

    Hey Brian, I’m the guy at the Chicago seminars who had just been to the Park Hyatt Seoul and the Park Hyatt Tokyo. In Seoul, we took a good food tour through Ongo tours: http://www.ongofood.com/taste-tour/ The Korean night dining tour was good.

    If you have the time, take a morning or afternoon to hike along the old fortress walls. It provides for some great views. Here’s a link to a site with walking directions: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=1060925

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280970118 David Shefchik

    I lived in Seoul for about 5 months, so I’ve been all over the city. Some of my favorite spots:

    Food:
    Gyeongdong Market in Dongdaemun. They have any kind of food you can imagine in these sit-down stalls all over the place. I suggest sitting down and getting the sundae (blood sausage) and chokpal (boiled pigs feet), both totally delicious. You definitely need to take chances with the food because the best munchies in Korea are the stuff they don’t have at just any random BBQ joint in the US.

    There’s also a chain of bbq spots all over Seoul that specialize in Makchang gui, which is grilled pork intestine, and my absolute addiction the entire time I was there. I probably ate it at least twice a week and it’s in my top 10 all-time favorite foods.

    Kimchi jigae (super-spicy kimchi stew, sometimes with seafood). They have this everywhere.

    Drink:

    Don’t drink OB or Hite like the guy above says, it’s all about Cass. It tastes just like how Korean beer should, light with a little ricey flavor. It’s also nearly impossible to find in America (I’ve tried).

    Soju is amazing with spicy food, and it’s really fun to drink with a group of people. Try some Makgeolli too.

    Buy a bottle of Milkis at a mini-mart. Holy cow, this stuff is good. It’s a non-alcoholic milk-based soda and you can’t get it here. You’ll thank me later.

    Entertainment:

    Hongdae: A trendy bar/restaurant/shopping district surrounding Hongik University, really cool area with lots of stuff to do, great for people watching and walking around.

    Itaewon: Ex-pat central. Filled with foreigners and Korean girls that want them. Really fun clubs if you’re into that, a lot of international food and interesting people.

    If you’ve never been to a traditional Korean spa/bath house I suggest you give that a try. It’s an awesome way to unwind for a few hours after a day walking around and one of the coolest things I did while I was there.

    Spend an hour or so in a PC-Bang if you can. It’s a really cool cultural phenomenon that’s pretty uniquely Korean. It’s like 2 dollars per hour or so and they have all kinds of tasty snacks and drinks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280970118 David Shefchik

    I found a lot of restaurants had pictures and the employees/servers are very helpful using what few English words they knew

  • Wfjt333

    Ditto on the Korean sauna baths, Insadong, and Nanta, highlights of our study tour two summers ago when both North and South Korea were in the World Cup. Seoul is a clean, friendly, easy to navigate city – thanks to their stint at hosting the Olympics, most signs are in Korean & English. See the Southgate market, riverwalk, and Gyeongbokgung Palace. Traveling south out of Seoul the mountains reminded me of the Smokies, and may be full of fall foliage right about now. I really enjoyed that place!!

  • scott

    I’ll be in seoul during those dates! and using points i’ve earned from reading this blog! are you by any chance doing a meet up? if I happen to spot you, (hey, it could happen) i’ll be sure to say hi!

  • Casey J Galvin

    I have to say, while Insadong is worth checking out, I think Samcheong Dong is the more revealing area around Anguk Stn to check out. It’s adjacent to Insadong, and definitely worth checking them both out while you’re up there.

  • Visiting SK Now

    Lots of good suggestions in the comments, so I’ll try to add some new ones. Had a chat with a friend yesterday who has worked in Seoul as a journalist for nearly five years now. Having spent some time there myself (and in Korea, in general), we both agreed it’s not really a tourist city. N Seoul Tower, the temples, the palaces…they’re all great, but nothing unique to Korea. I think what makes Korea a great travel destination is that you can immerse yourself in society, and you won’t be hounded as a tourist. So check out some sights during the day, but make sure to get out at night and get yourself some delicious eats and local drinks (the beer is mediocre, don’t get your hopes up).

    A few specific thoughts:
    1) Use public transportation. You can take a train from Incheon Airport to the city center for less than $10 and in less than one hour. Likewise for the subway; it will cost about $1 to go anywhere. Just be aware it shuts down at midnight on the weekends (I believe 1 am on the weekdays). Cabs are fine, I’d be very surprised if you somehow got cheated (exceptions exist, of course).

    2) Don’t confine yourself to higher end eating. Eat your BBQ in a tent and your snacks on the street. Don’t worry about the language barrier, it’s very surmountable. Also, you can drink the tap water.

    3) Go to Busan (writing this from there now). I know you’re specifically going to Seoul, but you can take the KTX train down to the second largest, coastal city in about 2.5 hours. Have a meal at Jamgalchi Fish Market (again, language is not a problem), check out Haeundae Beach and why no one will ever call Korea the Thailand of East Asia, and climb up to a viewpoint on the surrounding mountains. There’s a W in Busan, along with other higher end properties.

    4) Definitely agree with the sauna/jjimjilbang. It’s great.

  • Sean

    Jeju island is worth visiting, although you have to take an hour flight from Seoul. It is very exotic island and Joongmoon complex is pretty cool place to hang out. They have Hyatt and other western holels but I recommend trying Shilla hotel or Lotte hotel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/junho.a.oh Junho Austin Oh

    I also recommend Gangnam stn. and Cheongdam-dong if you want to enjoy nightlife in Korea.
    You can savour quite different mood comparing to Hongdae. If possible, experience it and think about their difference by yourself.

  • SeoulMan

    Smithsonian Magazine (November issue with honest Abe on the cover) should be your #1 choice from the airport newsstand. Their article “Seoul Finds Its Soul” provides a very insightful glimpse into the city and Korean culture.

    Enjoy your visit!

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  • http://seoultrip.net/why-seoul/1-day-itinerary-see-the-top-seoul-tourist-sites/ Chris

    I thought going up to Namsan Tower was a great way to see the whole city. Hopefully on a clear day! I’d pass on Gangnam and head to Hongdae when night came…

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