The cosmopolitan, dynamic city that is modern-day Seoul has arisen from a storied and complicated past. Set on a peninsula—with Japan to the east and China to the north and west—Korea has developed a distinct cuisine, language, and identity. To learn about about its captivating culture, pay a visit to one or all of the capital's many museums.
If you have time to visit only one museum on your visit to Seoul, make it the National Museum of Korea. As South Korea’s largest and most all-encompassing museum, the impressive, sprawling building houses approximately 15,000 pieces dating from prehistory up to the modern era. Expect national treasures from Korea’s ancient royal kingdoms, a collection of art from neighboring Asian countries, kids’ activities, and a variety of rotating programs and exhibitions.
What will soon become obvious on your first day in Seoul is that the country is a little obsessed with kimchi, a spicy, pickled cabbage that is prevalent in traditional Korean cuisine. Learn more about the beloved national food during a visit to Museum Kimchikan, located in the historic area of Insadong. Not only can you explore the history of kimchi on a self-guided or docent-led tour of the museum, you can also participate in workshops dedicated to the making and tasting of this UNESCO-recognized culinary tradition.
Situated on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, you'll find the National Folk Museum of Korea (pictured above). Topped with an elegant pagoda, this concrete building houses thousands of historical artifacts pertaining to the daily lives of Koreans throughout the centuries. A bulk of the museum is dedicated to farmers and the country's agricultural history—but there’s also a section detailing the elaborate rituals of the upper class from birth to death. Also notable is the open-air section of the museum, which resembles a traditional village dating from the 19th century. Museum entry is free with a ticket to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
To get a feel for Korea through the lens of fashion, visit the Hanbok Museum. The hanbok, which is traditional Korean clothing, consists of a billowy blouse and high-waisted, floor-length skirt for women, and a short or long vest paired with voluminous trousers for men. The museum’s 300 items range from simple hanboks worn in daily life to the colorful, intricate costumes donned only for holidays and special occasions. The museum’s hours can be quite limited, so confirm it's open before you visit.
The main branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is set an hour south in the Gwacheon area, and you can reach it via the complimentary roundtrip museum shuttle. If you're pressed for time, the Seoul location is worth a visit for any self-proclaimed art lover. Although the industrial-style open spaces have the brushed concrete and exposed pipes typical of modern art museums the world over, the exhibits are mainly Korea-centric, showcasing cultural and societal themes unique to the peninsula.
Prior to the invention of Hangeul, the collection of characters that form the Korean written word, only upper-class Koreans could read and write using Chinese characters. In the 15th century, King Sejong the Great created Hangeul in order to promote literacy among the common people. Because this unique alphabet now has its very own holiday in Korea, it’s fitting that it should have a dedicated museum, too. Visitors will experience interactive exhibitions and historical artifacts, and there’s even a Hangeul-themed playground for kids.
Set in a striking, colossal building, the War Memorial of Korea is a must-see for veterans and history buffs. The museum possesses over 33,000 artifacts from the Korean War, 10,000 of which are on display at any one time in both indoor and open-air exhibition spaces. Take a walk through the vast halls to see replicas of weapons, large military equipment, and Korean War sculptures, plus displays and information about other wars in which Korean soldiers were dispatched.
Commissioned by and named after the late Lee Byung-chul, former president of the Samsung Group, the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art comprises Byung-chul's extensive art collection. Displayed in the eye-catching, otherworldly constructions of renowned architects Maria Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas, the museum's traditional Korean art is mixed with modern and contemporary creations by both Korean and international artists. Tours are available in English on the weekends, or you can listen to an audio guide in English at any time.
Set in a handbag-shaped building in the fashionable Sinsa-dong district is the Simone Handbag Museum. Featuring handbags mainly from Europe and the United States, the museum showcases the history of women’s changing lives through fashion. The bags range from dainty, Tudor-period sachets to streamlined, modern purses designed by Fendi, Gucci, and Chanel.
Seoul features five grand palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung, and Changgyeonggung. Many visitors to Seoul never make it past Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the largest and most well-known of the bunch. If you don't have time to visit the other four, you can learn more about them at the National Palace Museum. Displaying royal relics from the Joseon Dynasty (which lasted from 1392 to 1910), the museum features artifacts ranging from household items and furniture to weapons and medical tools.