Seoul Guide: Planning Your Trip

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A capital city for more than two millennia, Seoul draws in visitors with its food, culture, history, and highly-coveted cosmetics, among other things. Whatever the reason for your visit, you won't be disappointed by your trip to South Korea's bustling, vibrant capital. Get ready for your vacation with this complete guide including what to do, where to stay, and essential travel tips.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: While crowds are bigger, the weather in Seoul is at its most pleasant during spring and fall.
  • Language: Korean
  • Currency: Won. 1,100 won is equivalent to $1.
  • Getting Around: The Seoul Metro is fast, reliable, and covers a majority of the city and surrounding areas. What the subway doesn't reach, above-ground trains and buses do.
  • Travel Tip: Buy a tourist T-money card, you get discounts on dozens of attractions, and it's good on the subway, buses, KTX trains, and in convenience stores.

Things to Do

Shopping, eating, and exploring the city on foot are the most common things to do in Seoul, as in any major city. Because of the city's extensive history, there are several palaces and historic neighborhoods ready to explore. Seoul is also filled to the brim with cosmetic stores where you can get very cheap, high-quality skincare products. The primary commerce areas also have dozens of street stalls selling cute socks and trendy clothes.

  • Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest of Seoul's five grand palaces. It was the former home of Joseon kings, and after being painstakingly restored, it's an incredibly popular tourist attraction. It's free to enter the first gate of the palace and to walk around the surrounding parks, but there is a fee to access the inner palace walls. Many visitors put on hanboks (traditional Korean dress) to walk around the palace. After visiting Gyeongbokgung, continue your tour of Korean history by walking to Bukchon Hanok Village. The neighborhood is filled with traditional homes and is free to visit.
  • Namsan Tower is one of Seoul's most recognizable landmarks. The tower is at the top of a mountain and can be reached by hike or funicular. There, thousands of love locks are attached to fences and tree-shaped metal sculptures. It's exceptionally beautiful at night when you can see the sparkling city below, but be aware that you'll be sharing your view with dozens of couples.
  • Olympic Park was built when Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics. It is a massive park with museums, walking trails, and the eternal flame. Sports and nature lovers alike will Olympic Park.

Add to your itinerary with our articles on the best things to do in Seoul, the top temples, and the best museums.

What to Eat and Drink

Foodies will love eating their way through Seoul. Whether it's trying cheesy egg bread, chowing down on ddeokbokki and fish cakes, or tucking into some Korean barbecue, Seoul has dozens of options, ranging from traditional Korean fare to international cuisine. Side dishes called banchan are served with all restaurant meals. The exact number of banchan that you will receive varies, but some sort of kimchi is guaranteed. While Korean cuisine is very meat-heavy, vegetarians and vegans will still be able to find restaurants that fit their needs.

As far as alcohol goes, South Korea is most well known for soju. It's readily available at almost all restaurants and convenience stores for less than 2,000 won (around $2). Soju pairs especially well with barbeque and fried foods. For a very Korean mixed drink, add a shot of soju to your glass of beer to make somaek. Makgeolli is another popular Korean alcohol. It is a type of rice wine and while it's not as widespread at soju, it's worth a try.

Find out where to eat with our article on the best restaurants in Seoul.

Where to Stay

Gangnam: Made famous overseas by PSY's viral hit "Gangnam Style," this neighborhood has tons of restaurants, high-end stores, and is home to the largest underground shopping center in Asia, COEX Mall.

Hongdae: Hongdae is a hot spot for live music, bars, restaurants, and boutiques. The neighborhood is close to several universities, so the crowds skew younger, and it's no surprise for streets to be bustling well into the early morning.

Itaewon: This area is home to a lot of ex-pats, and as such, this is where you can find international restaurants and clothing in larger sizes. There are plenty of bars, cafes, and street art to check out. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art is in the area and has an impressive collection of traditional Korean and contemporary art.

Myeongdong: Myeongdong is a shopper's paradise. There are massive department stores along with smaller street shopping and dozens of cosmetics stores. Around a million people walk through Myeongdong every day, and it's an ideal place to taste some Korean street food.

Learn more about the city's different neighborhoods and the best hotels.

Getting There

Seoul has two major international airports to choose from, but a vast majority of international flights from the U.S., Europe, and Canada fly into Incheon International Airport, the newer of the two. Gimpo International Airport is still a viable option and is closer to the city (although, since both are accessible on the same train line, the 30 minutes saved may not be a significant deciding factor).

Culture and Customs

  • While Seoul is an international city and the number of foreign tourists is only growing, fluent English is not widely spoken or understood. That doesn't mean that you need to know Korean to enjoy the city; pointing and pantomiming is more than enough. However, some menus do not come in English, so having a translation app on your phone or knowing the Korean alphabet will come in handy.
  • Air quality in Seoul has worsened over time. Fine dust (called "hwang sa" in Korean) used to only be an issue during the spring, but now it's a year-round threat. Purchase an air filtering face mask in convenience stores or pharmacies and keep an eye on the air quality for the neighborhoods you'll be in each day.
  • Foreigners aren't held to the same cultural standards as Koreans, but it is considered rude to give or receive something, like money or a credit card, with one hand. You'll notice that store workers will hand your card back with two hands, and it's polite to receive it with two hands. Most employees will also bow when greeting customers. When that happens, you should return the bow.
  • Don't expect people to say "excuse me" when passing you on the street or when pushing past you on the train. It's just not a common practice in Seoul.
  • When you want to ask for more water or side dishes at a restaurant, you should call out for an employee. Saying "sajangnim" (boss) or "yogi-yo" (over here) is sufficient and is not considered rude. Some restaurants have a call button you can press instead.
  • If you don't see any spoons or chopsticks on your table, check the sides. There is usually a drawer on the side of a table filled with chopsticks, napkins, and spoons.

Money Saving Tips

  • When shopping at street markets, bring cash with you. While most places will accept cards, you will pay a 10 percent service fee.
  • A tourist T-money card is an excellent investment. It costs slightly more (4,000 won instead of 2,500 won), but it also gives discounts to popular attractions. Look for a card that says "Korea Tour Card" on it at the airport or in subway stations.
  • It's very easy to have an excellent meal at a low price in Seoul. Street food stalls sell rice cakes, fried foods, sweet and savory hoddeok, dumplings, and the list goes on. Restaurants in university neighborhoods like Hongdae or Sinchon also tend to be cheaper than in say, Itaewon or Gangnam.
  • Many stores offer VAT refunds for purchases over 30,000 won ($25), and some will process the return on the spot—rather than at the airport. Make sure you bring your passport and save your receipts to get the refund.
  • Some attractions like Gwanghwamun Palace have nominal entrance fees, but it's free to walk around the main gate.

Learn more about how to enjoy the city without spending a fortune by reading our guide to a budget trip to Seoul.

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