In this city guide, I've curated a list of what to eat, see, do, and where to shop. To see photos from my trip to Seoul, head over to my Seoul Travel Diary.
Useful tips & resources
Familiarise yourself with all the major districts first with this useful map. You’ll probably spend most of your time in Samcheongdong, Insadong, Myeongdong and Gangnam. I’ve also mapped out all my recommendations on a Google Map - please do use it! Download it as an offline map so you can access it without Wifi.
For transport, the subway is probably the cheapest and most convenient way of getting around Seoul. You have to purchase a ticket at vending machines and when you leave the station, return the ticket using the same machines to get back your ticket deposit.
Start your day in the north around Bukchon Village / Samcheongdong. Eat tteokbokki, rent hanboks, visit the royal palace, take a break in one of the many charming cafes or tea houses. Head to Insadong to do some shopping and end in Myeongdong. I'd dedicate an entirely separate day to Gangnam since it's on the other side of the Han River.
For traditional royal multi-course meals, go to Philkyungjae, which is housed in an exquisite 500 year old building (pictured on the right) or Chaegundaam, the most famous vegetarian / temple food restaurant in Korea. The restaurant uses natural organic ingredients “to sooth the body and soul” (see photos from my dining experience here).
If you want Korean fried chicken and beer (chimaek), order from Two Two Korean Fried Chicken or BBQ. Tip - if you can't order yourself because of the language barrier, you can ask friends / hotel concierge to order for you (which is what I did. Desperate times call for desperate measures!)
Mukshidonna tteokbokki is probably the most famous restaurant in Seoul for tteokbokki (rice cakes). I recommend having it for lunch before or after renting hanboks at Bukchon Village since it's in the area. You can choose what ingredients go into the tteokbokki stew e.g. cheese and spam.
For kimchi jiggae (kimchi stew) & samgyeopsal (BBQ pork belly), go to Eunjujeong. Only kimchi stew is served at lunch, both stew and pork belly are offered at dinner; go at 8:30pm to avoid queues. Guldari Sikdang is also very popular but is a bit isolated from major attractions. This restaurant has been operating for over 40 years. “A set of kimchi jjigae cost KRW 7,000 and comes with rice and assorted side dishes...Here at Guldari Sikdang, you can ask for both the rice AND the kimchi jjigae refill if you order the amount of food according to the number of the headcounts you have. There is no limit on free refills. It is really eat-all-you-can at KRW 7,000.”
I have a huge soft spot for Korean desserts, namely shaved ice (bingsu). Head to Sojukdoo or Meal Top for more traditional bingsu with red bean, or give Cafe Bora a try if sweet potato bingsu interests you. Baekmidang 白味堂-1964-백미당 does an incredible organic milk soft serve - you've probably seen it in my Seoul Travel Diary. There are numerous branches dotted around Seoul and you'll often find them in the food basements of department stores. Sobok does very Instagram-worthy minimalist aesthetic soft serve (photo above).
The Dior cafe is situated in Asia's largest Dior flagship store. With pastries and beverages from Pierre Hermé, this show-stopping cafe is worth visiting especially if you're a fan of high fashion. Go earlier during the day as they have limited stocks of sweets. Opening hours here.
Gwangjang Food Market is a traditional market with endless lines of small stalls and vendors selling everything from fresh vegetables and meats to kitchenware and even clothes. See here for 6 foods you should try at the market (including live octopus/squid!)
Give this luxury high-end food court a try - it's where I had the best cold noodles (naengmyun) of my life. When you order food, you're handed a beeper that you place on a signal reader built into the table. You'll have your meal delivered to you when it's ready. By far the most high-tech food court I've ever visited!
Last but not least, if you're after street food, head straight to Myeongdong. See here for a comprehensive guide to over 50 different types of street food. Look out for foot-long ice creams & hotteok (dessert pancake made of sugar, honey, nuts and cinnamon).
To see & do
Major sights & activities
Rent a hanbok at Hanboknam (opening hours 10am - 8pm everyday). You can rent the hanbok for 1.5, 2.5 or 4 hours. Go earlier in the day if you can as there is a larger range of hanbok designs to choose from and like their Facebook page before going as it gives you a discount. Stroll around Bukchon Village to see traditional houses called hanok and visit the royal Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Make sure you take time to amble around Samcheongdong as it’s a really charming area with lots of small boutique, art galleries and quaint cafes.
If you're going to Seoul in the spring, you can see cherry blossoms at Yeongdeungpo Yeouido Park. Another very scenic area is Cheonggyecheon Stream. The Korean war left Cheonggyecheon surrounded by disintegrating squatters in the 1960s and 70s. It underwent mass renovation to become the charming recreational area it is today - think of it as the South Korean version of The High Line in New York.
Visit N Seoul Tower at Namsan Park for a commanding view of Seoul’s skyline. I’d recommending visiting later during the day to catch the sunset. It's a popular location with locals for dates and as you walk around, you might notice lots of “love locks” hanging from the fencing around this area.
If Japan has owl cafes, then South Korea has sheep cafes. I didn't get the chance to go but I'm definitely visiting next time - the sheep are absolutely adorable!
For design and art museums, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art and Museum SAN are very popular. Museum SAN particularly caught my attention as it is located on a serene rural mountainside surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery.
South Korea is great for cosmetics shopping . In terms of clothes, for mid-high end brands you're better off shopping in Hong Kong / Japan because it's cheaper. For lower price ranges, visit boutiques in Myeongdong. I didn't get to do much shopping while in Seoul but you can see the following links for tips: (1) (2) (3)
Ssamziegil shopping arcade in Insadong has lots of boutique clothing shops, arts and crafts stores, restaurants. “One of the best places in Seoul to purchase traditional Korean art, products, and other souvenirs, as it is filled with antique shops, art galleries, traditional stationery shops, handicraft shops, pottery and porcelain shops, bookstores, and art supply stores. Insa-dong is also home to many traditional restaurants and tea houses.”
Korea is also well-known for grand department stores - the main branches are on the southern side of Han River in Gangnam or Apgujeong but they have multiple stores around the city. Big names include Shinsegae, Hyundai (make sure you get bingsu at Meal Top), Lotte and Galleria department store (high-end; get Baekmidang 白味堂-1964-백미당 milk soft serve here!) COEX is both a shopping mall and an entertainment complex (there's an SM entertainment theme park here! FYI, SM is one of the big three entertainment (KPOP) agencies in South Korea, the other two being YG and JYP).
I hope you find this guide useful - please sign up to the newsletter, like the Facebook page and share this post if you did! Let me know if you have recommendations for Seoul as I'll probably be visiting again soon. Thanks for reading. :)
Shout-out to Jae, Minji, June and Jun - thank you for checking my recommendations!