In 2010 I left Toronto, and everyone I knew, to move halfway around the world and moved to South Korea. Over the next year, when I wasn’t teaching English to Korean school children, I set out to discover what the metropolis had to offer. Many hours were spent exploring the gigantic city, and after careful consideration, these are my top 10 activities you can’t miss in Seoul.
A few weeks ago, one of my cousins asked me for recommendations on things to do in Seoul, South Korea. I had spent a life-changing twelve months teaching in Incheon, a city less than an hour away from the capital, so I had quite a few suggestions.
As I wrote out my recommendations I was hit by a wave of nostalgia, and wanted nothing more than to jump on a plane and revisit South Korea. As I’ve never shared my Seoul suggestions on this blog, I thought it’d expand on it and make it a full fledged post.
So here they are, my top 10 activities you can’t miss in Seoul!
Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
This was literally my first stop after checking in with my recruiter less than 48 hours after my plane landed at Incheon International Airport. This palace was erected by the Joseon dynasty in the late 14th century, and served as the main palace for this royal line. Under the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, Sejong the Great, Korea saw many advances including the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which increased literacy in that era.
Visit Gyeongbokgung to admire traditional Korean architecture, see the changing of the guards in traditional Korean outfits, or to check out the National Folk Museum of Korea which is located on palace grounds.
Have Fun in Hongdae
If you want to party, Seoul’s Hongdae district has what you’re looking for. This vibrant district is filled with bars and clubs that will provide an unforgettable night out that lasts until morning. Located near Hongkik Unveristy, this area caters to the whims of 20-something students looking for fun.
If you’re not into the party scene, you should still try to stop by Hongdae. The neighbourhood is a popular daytime hang-out for locals because of its gourmet eateries, art markets and galleries, and charming cafes (including a Hello Kitty cafe!).
Wander through Bukchon Hanok Village
Stepping into this picturesque neighbourhood is like a going back through time. These traditional homes, known as hanoks, were constructed during the Joseon dynasty and have more or less remained the same over the centuries. Though some still serve as regular homes, a number of these beauties have been transformed into cultural centres, restaurants, and tea houses. For an extra special experience, you can book a stay in hanoks that have been converted into guesthouses.
Eat Your Weight in Kimchi
Korean food is hands down one of my favourite cuisines. If you haven’t experienced a Korean Barbeque before, you’re missing out. These types of restaurants are found on nearly every street and, like the name implies, requires patrons to cook their food themselves over a hot grill.
If you’d rather not cook your food yourself, order a hot bowl of bibimbap (rice with eggs and assorted vegetables) or one of my favourites, dak galbi (a spicy dish made of chicken, sliced cabbage, sweet potato, scallions, onions, perilla leaves, and rice cake).
To accompany your meal, most Korean restaurants will also give you free side dishes, called banchan, which almost always includes kimchi (fermented cabbage). This dish has been a well loved staple in Korean kitchens for centuries, but this year it’s taking the international stage and been declared one of the international food trends of 2015.
Shop Like the Locals
Korean culture makes going on a spending spree very easy. For starters, if you’re in Seoul, you’re never too far from a mall or a shopping district. For me, the most unexpected shopping commercial centres were the ones in the metro stations. I’m not talking about little kiosks offering sweets or coffee, these were huge areas dedicated to selling purses, shoes, bags, hair accessories, and even electronics.
Two of the best known shopping areas are Dongdaemun and Myeongdong. In the Dongdaemun area browse the shopping malls, department stores and smaller indie shops. Myeongdong, another large shopping district, is open 24 hours a day so you can shop the night away if your heart so desires.
My other favourite shopping areas include:
- Ewha Women’s University: The area surrounding South Korea’s first educational institute for women has become one of the most popular shopping areas in the city. Spend a few hours browsing through the plethora of affordable and stylish shops. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, choose from a selection of local or international cuisine at the many restaurants in the vicinity.
- Garosugil Street: Known as “Europe in Seoul” this adorable shopping area is a great choice for those looking for something special. The shops here are a bit more chic and artistic, offering specialty items not found anywhere else in the city. In addition to great shopping, Garosugil is also home to lovely art galleries, cafes and restaurants.
Step into North Korean Territory
The end of the Korean War resulted with two Koreas, the South and the North. Access into North Korea is strictly monitored, and illegally trying to enter that country could land you in a labour camp. However, you can legally step onto North Korean soil at the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) which is an area that is run by both countries. You must go with a tour company, and make sure to follow the rules while there to avoid trouble.
I did NOT do this while in South Korea, and totally regret it! I kept putting it off, and next thing I knew a year was up and I was heading back to Canada. Many of my friends did go, and they all had really good experiences.
Pick up Gorgeous Souvenirs in Insadong
Insadong is a central neighbourhood that houses over 100 art galleries. Head here to check out traditional goods on display including ceramics, paintings and sculptures. It’s the perfect place to pick up souvenirs for loved ones, such as traditional stationery, hand crafted goods or art pieces. If you’re in luck, you may also catch the parade of Koreans wearing their traditional outfist walking through the main street.
Sing Your Heart Out
As many Filipinos will tell you, a party ain’t a party unless someone breaks out the karaoke machine. Growing up all my relatives owned their own karaoke machines so we could belt out our tunes in the comfort of our homes. I didn’t even realize having a karaoke machine at home wasn’t a normal North American thing until high school! That said, the Korean karaoke experience was very different from what I was used to.
For starters, when you go to the Noraebang (the Korean name for karaoke bar) you don’t sing in a large room filled with strangers, like at most Western karaoke bars. Instead you and your friends rent out a private room that you have all to yourselves. There is also food and drinks available that you can order and the staff will bring directly to your private room. Most places rent by the hour, but prices range from super cheap to high-end depending on where in Seoul the noraebang is located and what extras are included.
Get Naked with Strangers
If you’re a Korean drama fan, you probably know public baths are an important cultural experience. These spas, called jimjilbangs, are very popular places to hang out with friends and family, and entail stripping down to your birthday suit and getting into pools of water with strangers. Luckily, the ‘naked area’ is segregated by gender, so it doesn’t feel too weird.
After spending a few minutes in the various pools (ranging in temperature from boiling hot to freezing cold), you can opt to get scrubbed down by an old Korean lady. It will hurt like hell, but your skill will feel sooo soft afterwards.
Once that’s out of the way, you get to put clothes back on and head to the communal area which will have a number of saunas to try out. Depending on the fanciness of the jimjilbang, other amenities may include massage chairs, a karaoke room, snack bars and even internet cafes.
Put a Lock on It
For a magnificent panoramic view of the city, make your way to N Seoul Tower, situated at the top of Namsan Mountain. Hop on the Namsan cable car at the base of the mountain (located in central Seoul) to get to the top. Once there, take in the views or eat at rotating restaurant on the premises.
If you’ve made the trip with a lover, make sure to bring a lock. Similar to the locks placed on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris, couples place ‘locks of love’ here to symbolize their undying feelings for each other.
Have you been to Seoul? What was your favourite thing to do? If not, which activity looks the most fun to you?
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