Seoul, South Korea offers something for everyone where sights and attractions are concerned. Easy to get around thanks to an efficient public transit system and also pleasantly walkable depending on where you are, Seoul is a city made for laid-back exploring. Even travelers on a tight schedule or budget should find it easy to pack in a decent amount of sightseeing without having to worry about feeling too rushed. So where should you focus your attention when it comes to making the most of a trip to the South Korean capital? Whether you’re into history and culture, shopping, exploring the great outdoors, or stuffing you face with delicious street food, you won’t be disappointed with what’s on offer. If you’re headed to Seoul, here are some of the best things to see and do while you’re there.
Shop 'Til You Drop at Myeongdong
Exiting the subway at Myeongdong Station, it’s easy to see which direction to head – simply follow the throngs of people all heading to one of the primary shopping districts in Seoul. But despite the presence of so many shoppers, the area still feels organized and easy to navigate, whether you're browsing or buying (or both). You’ll find some familiar name brands here (from UNIQLO and Zara, to Nike and H&M), along with many Korean brands. Myeongdong is also a mecca for anyone on the hunt for Korean beauty and skin care brands, with store shelves lined with every conceivable product to keep skin looking young and healthy. These stores are usually generous with samples, so if there’s something you’re curious about, just ask. While many Korean beauty and skin care brands are available in North America, this is the place to stock up on any hard-to-find items.
And if you get hungry, there's some good street food to be found in and around Myeongdong. Keep an eye out for Korean egg toast, Hotteok (sweet Korean pancakes), deep fried squid, gimbap (Korea's version of sushi rolls) and Korean fried chicken just to name a few standout snacks.
Head to the Top of Namsan Seoul Tower
If you’re looking to get some photo-worthy panoramic views of Seoul, this is the place to do it. Originally created as a broadcasting tower, N Seoul Tower (as it’s generally called), is located at the top of Namsan Mountain. Take in those aforementioned views over the city with a quick elevator ride to the observation deck, or ride the Namsan Cable Car, which runs from the base of Namsan Mountain up to Namsan Seoul Tower.
Explore the Alleys of Itaewon
Itaewon is a must-see neighbourhood in Seoul for its diversity, ability to surprise and the abundance of bars, cafes and restaurants. Walking around Itaewon, it’s well worth peeking down the area’s narrow lanes and alleyways – because you never know what you’ll find. Maybe it’s a stunning piece of street art, or a tiny Italian restaurant with a shaggy dog snoozing on the stoop while wait staff sets up for dinner service. Itaewon is also home to Antique Furniture Street, which as the name suggests, is chock-a-block with shops selling beautiful antique housewares and furniture you’re not likely to find anywhere else. This is an ideal area to base yourself in on a visit to Seoul since it puts you close to public transit and in a neighborhood that always seems to be buzzing. There's great shopping here, too.
Walk Along Cheonggyecheon Stream
Seoul is bustling city, with something going on somewhere 24 hours a day. But relaxing respite can easily be found at Cheonggyecheon Stream, which runs through downtown Seoul. The 11-kilometre stream passes under nearly two dozen bridges before flowing into the Hangang River. This is a great place to come for a leisurely stroll by the water, a favorite activity among locals.
Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is probably Korea's most famous royal palace – and justifiably so. The massive complex is comprised of an impressive array of ornate structures and it’s worth spending at least three to four hours exploring the sprawling grounds. There are free guided tours in English daily at 11am, 1:30pm and 3:30pm. One-hour tours start from the information centre inside the Heungnyemun Gate.
Step Back in Time in Bukchon Hanok Village
Seoul may have a futuristic vibe and ultra-modern sensibilities in a lot of ways, but you can travel back to much simpler times with a visit to Bukchon Hanok Village. A hanok is a traditional Korean home and there are several villages you can visit in Korea, but the interesting thing about Bukchon Hanok Village is that although it’s a tourist attraction, it’s also a real residential neighborhood where people actually live. In addition to residences, many of the traditional buildings here operate as restaurants, boutiques and cultural centres.
Relax at a Jimjilbang
Feeling stressed from travel or battling jet lag? In need of some serious relaxation? Put a visit to a Korean jimjilbang (sauna and spa) on your list of things to do in Seoul. But if you’re picturing a traditional spa, you’re in for a bit of surprise. A jimjilbang, like Dragon Hill Spa (one of the most popular in the city) are usually open 24 hours a day and offer the chance to unwind in various saunas, soaking baths of various temperatures, and opt for body treatments from scrubs to massages. There are even nap areas should you want to snooze between soaks, and most have restaurants for post-relaxation refueling.
Learn Everything There Is to Know About Kimchi at Museum Kimchikan
Kimchi goes with or on nearly everything in Korea. The country’s go-to condiment is the focus at this museum and curious visitors can learn about the history of kimchi as well as how its made, the many methods for making the spicy side dish and the many different varieties. If you book in advance, you can also try your hand at making your own kimchi to take home.
Take a Free Walking Tour
Exploring on foot is often one of the best ways to get a sense of a new city. But if you prefer a bit more structure to your stroll, you can sign up for a free walking tour. "Seoul City Walking Tours" is a free program offered by the city of Seoul wherein you sign up online and then get to see some of the city’s top attractions on foot with an expert local guide. Tours offer a great way to get to know the city better. Just note that reservations need to be made at least three days in advance via the Visit Seoul mobile website and spots fill up quickly on weekends, holidays, and during peak season (April, May, September, October).