Seoul has often been overlooked on the global city scene, with many travelers bypassing South Korea’s capital en route to more touristed Asian cities like Tokyo or Beijing. In the past decade, though, Korean cuisine, culture, and even beauty products have gained an international following, thrusting Seoul into East Asia’s limelight. From the city's ancient royal palaces to its Michelin-starred restaurants and splashy K-Pop-inspired karaoke bars, here’s how to experience 48 fantastic hours in Seoul, South Korea.
Day 1: Morning
7 a.m.: Incheon International Airport is like a mini South Korea, with local cuisine, cultural activities, and even a traditional spa tucked inside. You may be tempted to look around upon arrival, but save the airport explorations for departure day and follow the (clearly marked) signs to the Airport Railroad. From there you’ll take the 45-minute express train directly to Seoul Station, the capital’s main transportation hub, which links all areas of the city via the easy-to-navigate subway.
10 a.m.: Store your bags until check-in at the streamlined, playful Aloft Seoul Myeongdong hotel in the buzzing, neon light-filled Myeongdong shopping district. Inside, you'll find the trendy WXYZ Bar, which features live performances by local artists.
Next, immerse yourself in Korean culture with a makgeolli brewing class run by the Sool Company. Over the course of two hours, you’ll receive an overview of the different kinds of Korean alcohols; sample home-brewed makgeolli; and learn the basics of brewing, from washing the rice all the way to the final filtering process. You’ll leave with a take-home kit to recreate the brewing experience in your own kitchen.
Day 1: Afternoon
12 p.m.: After class you’ll need sustenance before the serious exploring begins, so dive into Myeongdong’s crowds and make your way to one of the area’s many street food vendors. Try tteokbokki (rice cakes covered in spicy soybean and red chili sauce), kimchi mandu (Korean dumplings stuffed with minced pork, onions, and fermented cabbage), or pajeon (traditional pancakes) filled with anything and everything from squid to green onions.
1 p.m.: After lunch, travel back in time at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest and most striking of Seoul’s five main royal palaces. The grand structure was originally built in 1395, then subsequently destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 19th century. Don’t miss the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a colorful reenactment of yesteryear that occurs twice daily.
Korean history comes to life as you explore the sprawling gardens, lakeside pagodas, and colorful architecture, even more so if you decide to stroll the palace grounds wearing a hanbok. These traditional Korean dresses date back to the 14th-century, and consist of voluminous blouses and floor length, high-waisted skirts (or trousers) in bright colors. Renting a hanbok for a few hours is all the rage, and rental service Hanboknam has various outlets throughout Seoul. The Gyeongbokgung Palace location offers 300 different hanboks to choose from, plus hairstyling and photo shoot services.
3 p.m.: Just a few minutes’ walk from the palace’s main gate, Insa-dong is a traditional neighborhood filled with narrow alleys, souvenir shops, and the gently curving dancheong (painted roofs) of the impossibly charming hanok (old-world Korean houses). Though a little touristy, the area's many welcoming teahouses make for an ideal afternoon break, not to mention the perfect Instagram photo since you’re already dressed appropriately. Try Dawon (Traditional Tea Garden), which is set in a historic hanok on the grounds of Gyeongin Museum of Fine Art. For a more comprehensive tea experience—including a lesson on tea history and shop for purchasing tea-related accouterments—check out Beautiful Tea Museum. Be sure to return your hanok rental on time, as you’ll be charged for every 10 minutes you’re late.
Day 1: Evening
5 p.m.: Near the palace is the Cheonggyecheon Stream, a seven-mile-long manmade version of an ancient stream—thought to exist before rapid urbanization took place in Seoul following the Korean War. Though it’s surrounded by concrete and high-rises, the stream feels like a peaceful oasis, with waterfalls, rock formations, and the occasional bird bathing in the shallows. Dusk is a popular time to grab a beer from one of the nearby convenience stores and people-watch as you stroll along the stream’s wooden boardwalks.
8 p.m.: Ride a cable car to the top of Nam Mountain, then grab the elevator up to the observation deck of N Seoul Tower for a 360-degree view of the city. On a clear day, it's said you can even catch a glimpse of the North Korean border 32 miles away. As the lights begin twinkling far below, take a seat for dinner at the exclusive N Grill, a fine-dining restaurant featuring French and Korean fusion cuisine. The Michelin-starred British chef Duncan Robertson serves up specialties such as Korean beef tartar with wasabi sauce and duck confit wrapped in caramel cannelloni—all paired with wines chosen by a French government-certified sommelier.
11 p.m.: No trip to Seoul would be complete without a visit to a noraebang (singing room). These pay-by-the-hour karaoke rooms range from hole-in-the-wall dives to glitzy multistory establishments, complete with food and beverage service. Two high-end options include Hongdae district's Luxury Su and Gangnam's Cube Music Town, both replete with polished furnishings, ornate chandeliers, and of course, plenty of microphones. Add a few bottles of soju (traditional Korean liquor) to the mix and you’ll be forming your own K-Pop band in no time.
Day 2: Morning
11 a.m.: For those in need of comfort food after a night on the sauce, a trip to Itaewon is in order. Known as Seoul’s most multicultural district, Itaewon is home to the city’s main international food scene. Vegetarians and vegans will love Plant Café & Kitchen, a plant-based eatery known for wraps, burgers, and bowls—plus a toothsome selection of cakes, tarts, and sweet treats. Fusion food is also popular in Itaewon, such as Coreanos Kitchen's Mexican-Korean kimchi burritos and galbi beef tacos.
Day 2: Afternoon
1 p.m.: Nothing spells relaxation like a jimjilbang, a Korean bathhouse where steaming saunas, invigorating pools, and waterfalls create a blissful world. For over a thousand years, Koreans have used these public bathhouses not only as a means to get clean, but as social gathering places to chill out with family and friends. After rotating between the hot, tepid, and cold pools, relax in one of many saunas, indulge in a massage or scrub, or sleep in a special napping room that has heated floors and sleeping mats. Also boasting cafés, karaoke rooms, salons, fitness centers, and even libraries, jimjilbangs provide hours of good, clean fun.
Two popular bathhouses to try are Silloam Fire Pot and Dragon Hill Spa, the latter of which offers psychedelic jewel rooms where walls of jade and amethyst are said to emit healing rays. One thing to take note of: Most bathhouses have rules that ban swimsuits and require you to shower before entering the pools or saunas. Bathhouses often have strict "no tattoo" policies, but that rule is relaxing in some establishments.
3 p.m.: After you’ve recovered from the steam and freshened up in your room, grab a bite at Myeongdong Kyoja, a local favorite. This simple, long-standing eatery is known for its steaming bowls of bibimkuksu (a traditional dish of noodles with sesame oil and spicy pepper paste) and kongguksu (noodles in cold soybean soup), a godsend on a hot summer day.
4 p.m.: Myeongdong is a K-Beauty lover’s dream, with skin care stores purveying everything from snail hand cream to caviar eye serum. Try the sheet, eye, and foot masks at All Mask Story, and the food-based lotions and potions at Skin Food. For the most diverse selection of products across all brands, check out Olive Young, which is considered the Sephora of South Korea.
Day 2: Evening
6 p.m.: The Four Seasons Hotel Seoul is an anchor of glamour in the bustling capital, and should be included on every itinerary. Of particular interest is the Charles H., a speakeasy-style bar tucked away in the hotel’s lower level. Decorated in jewel tones and art nouveau architectural details, the bar embodies the bon vivant spirit of its namesake, Charles H. Baker, a 1920s American author and globetrotter known for his cocktail writings. Named the "Best Bar in Korea" on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019 list, drinks of note include Ms. Frida (Bianco Tequila, grapefruit, lavender cordial, bergamot, and tonic) and Hoffman House #2 (Navy strength gin, plum wine, jasmine, and oak bitters).
8 p.m.: Head south across the Han River and you’ll find yourself in the swanky Gangnam neighborhood, packed with plastic surgery clinics, designer boutiques, and Seoul’s most expensive real estate. Dinner is at DOSA, a minimalist space with an open kitchen, colorful art pieces, and Michelin-starred cuisine by acclaimed chef Baek Seung Wook. Meals are served tapas-style, and focus on modern Korean ingredients in unique combinations—think abalone with tofu and kelp, acorn-fed pork with endive kimchi, and eel rice with avocado and lotus root. There’s also an extensive wine list and an elegant vegan menu.
11 p.m.: A nightcap is in order, and what better way to close your 48 hours in Seoul than by sampling traditional Korean liquor? Set in a homey house, White Bear Makgeolli Shrine, features over 300 varieties of Korean spirits sourced from across the peninsula. Choose from soju, cheongjiu, and makgeolli—and if you're feeling hungry, try pairing your drink with bar snacks such as lobster ramen and chewy chicken feet.