The last few months have been so much fun showing off our home away from home to our wealth of visitors and revisiting places across Korea. We have enjoyed seeing the country through new sets of eyes and of course being with the friends and family we so sorely miss. We also seem to have found a new love for the capital city. With over 4 visits under our belts we have established quite the perfected tour and thought we’d share it with you today. Whether you have 12 hours or 12 days in Seoul, there is always time to be enchanted by this crazy, expansive and surprising city.
The itinerary below is a vague 1 day plan. We sadly didn’t have a lot of time with our guests, so wanted to spend it as wisely as possible. With quite a bit of walking, we think the following highlights make for a really enjoyable day seeing each side of this multifaceted capital.
Whether you are coming straight from the airport like us, or from closer in Seoul, a great starting point is the Cheonggyecheon stream, easily reached from Eljiro 3 station on the green line.
The stream was recently revived for the benefit of the public, after years of being sadly hidden by an overpass, and is now a place to find many people reaping those benefits of an enjoyable stroll and some fresh air. Lined by trees and kept beautifully clear, it’s a really pleasant place to start a walking tour of Seoul. It always strikes me how well Korea uses it’s space, particularly in providing areas for public enjoyment, and this is a great example of that.
Once you reach the Cheonggye plaza and the huge purple shell, take a right and you’ll find yourself in Gwanghwamun Square. The large square houses two huge statues of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-shin, and leads you past the national museum and toward Gyeongbukgung Palace. As well as providing a little insight into Korean history, it makes for another great stroll and some people watching.
If you have some time or are a museum buff, make sure to stop in the museum, otherwise head straight to the Palace. Gyeongbukgung Palace is Seoul’s biggest and, in our opinion, most beautiful palace.
As with so much of Korea’s history, the palace is remarkably well restored and, set against both Inwangsan mountain and Seoul’s high rises, is unlikely to leave anyone unimpressed. Wander the grounds at your leisure, not forgetting to head to the lily-strewn lake near the back of the complex.
Easily reached from Gyeongbokgung, is the Bukchon traditional folk village. Placed on a hill overlooking many of Seoul’s downtown areas and parts of the Palace, the streets of Bukchon are lined with traditional Hanok houses, still lived in today. Again, wonderfully restored, the buildings are a beautiful nod to the past and are incredibly photogenic.
Next up on this Seoul highlights tour is Insadong, a short walk down from Bukchon, past the large paintbrush statue- a reminder of this areas huge art scene. The main street through the Insadong area makes for yet another nice Seoul walk, taking in the many shops selling traditional wares and stands selling traditional snacks. Wandering into the adjoining alleys you’ll find traditional tea rooms, art galleries and restaurants. Down one of the first alleys on the left is a restaurant with a ‘pub’ sign outside which does brilliant bimimbip and prawn wonton soup. The owner is really sweet and the classic Korean dishes make for a delicious lunch.
For those with a sweet tooth, keep a lookout for Korean Honey String candy, recognisable by the confectioners making it fresh at their stands and usually singing as they do so! This royal desert is made from water, sugar, maltose and white vinegar, stretched into thousands of hair-thin strands and wrapped lovingly around a centre of crushed peanuts. They are delicious! Don’t miss out on seeing how they’re made before buying a box for only $5.
After a lot of walking around, it’s time to sample Seoul’s very simple Subway system. Head from the nearest station into the shopping district of Myeongdong. Here you’ll be struck dumb with the amount of people, lights, shops and foodstalls. It can be pretty overwhelming but, taken at a slow pace avoiding too much hustling and bustling, is an interesting view into Korea’s obsession with modernity and shopping!
When it does become too much, make your way towards exit 1 and hop on the jam-packed N Seoul Tower bus to begin a really enjoyable, if a little sweaty, trip up the Namsan hill. Despite the ludicrous amount of walking this tour has already forced upon you, I really recommend walking up over taking the cable car. At the weekend especially, the queues for the cable car are monstrous and you’ll still have to be standing on your feet in line. I definitely think it’s better to take the fresh air approach and tackle those steps! You can always take a break every 5 minutes to stare out at the increasingly good views on the way up. It shouldn’t take longer than 40 minutes.
Unless you are a marathon walker, you should hit the summit around sundown and can stay at the top, either venturing up the tower or wandering around the love-lock filled square, admiring the views of this ridiculously large city. The first time we visited we made it up the tower and were blown away by the views, we could not believe just how big Seoul is, with mountains and skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. It’s not too expensive and is well-worth queueing, unlike the cable car. Be sure to stay up until the sky darkens and the millions of lights begin blinking into the night. It somehow makes it appear even bigger, if that’s possible.
A handy tip is that there is a convenience shop at the top where you can buy a cheap beer to enjoy with the view!
By now you will probably be hungry so it’s time to head off the hill and toward Hongdae. A quick bus from Namsan takes you to Myeongdong station where you want to get the metro to Hongik University. With a dizzying array of eateries, both on and off the street, it’s up to your taste buds to decide what you want to eat in this buzzing student neighbourhood.
One great choice if you want to get a little more culture in before the day is out, is to head to a Magkeoli bar. There are a great few off the main pedestrianised street, perched above the shops and looking over the crowds. You can usually recognise it by them by their wooden exterior and inviting open windows. Order some Magkeolli and Kimchi Pajeon for a very Korean drinking session. If you’re still hungry, Samgyeopsal with Soju or chicken with beer, are also great, classically Korean, combinations and this area is full of them.
If your tired feet can handle it Hongdae is the place to be for a night out, although stay away from TRON- it’s full of teenagers!
Hongdae is also a great area to find budget accomodation, our usual choice for a night in Seoul. For the backpackers and single expats among you, Kimchee Guesthouse is an extremely cheap option. They are friendly, cleanly and have eggs for brekky.
On our most recent stay in Seoul we stumbled upon Bounce guesthouse and are unlikely to stay elsewhere again. The Singaporean/Korean couple who own this place are by far the kindest, most welcoming people we have ever met at a hotel anywhere. Their level of service is above and beyond- they really make you feel at home. They also have dorms, but the downstairs apartment has a twin room and a 4 bed with a double that is private enough for couples and families.
Each and every traveller has their own sightseeing desires so from here on out is up to you what to do, depending on the length of your stay. However, breakfast at Chloris tea and coffee shop in Hongdae cannot be beat!
Despite being a megatropolis Seoul boasts some wonderful natural scenery, so spending a day in one of it’s parks or hiking one of it’s peak are great choices. And if you are intrigued by Psy and what the hell he’s been singing about, head to Gangnam where we can recommend the puppy cafe and Bongeunsa temple.
Do you have any plans to explore Seoul? Have you been to Seoul? What were the highlights for you?