South Korea’s vibrant capital is bustling with museums, shopping, nightlife, and acclaimed restaurants, juxtaposed with Buddhist temples, sprawling palaces, and graceful historic homes. And while Seoul offers visitors vast itineraries that could take weeks to fulfill, it’s only a fraction of what the country has to offer.
Head outside Seoul to explore towering peaks, ancient tombs, coastal cities, and national parks, many reached within a three-hour ride on the KTX high-speed rail line.
Visit N Seoul Tower
In the center of Seoul lies Nam Mountain (sometimes written as Namsan), which is topped by a needle-like tower visible from almost every point in the city. While N Seoul Tower provides Seoulites with their navigational bearings, it gives visitors 360-degree views of one of the world’s largest megacities. At the top, you’ll find an observatory, a gift shop, thousands of love locks, and various eateries including N Grill. This chic, revolving restaurant, offers diners French fare and fine wines as they gaze at the twinkling lights along the Han River, and the horizon beyond stretching towards the North Korean border.
When an armistice was declared to end the Korean War in 1953, a border was created dividing Korea into North and South. Called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, this barrier roughly divided the Korean peninsula in half, and to this day serves as the marker that separates the two countries. However, the term Demilitarized Zone is a misnomer, as the borders on each side of the DMZ are among the world’s most heavily armed.
Surprisingly, this tense locale is one of Korea’s most touristed hot spots, with daily DMZ tours to Dora Observatory, Panmunjeom, and the Joint Security Area departing from Seoul, as well as a designated train service from Seoul Station to Dorasan Station, the last stop before the North Korean border.
If you’re looking for the perfect Instagram photo to capture your trip to Seoul, look no further than Bukchon Hanok Village. This charming neighborhood in north-central Seoul is filled with graceful hanoks—traditional Korean houses that feature gently sloping roofs and intricate wood and tile accents. The picturesque village is often used as a backdrop in many Korean TV dramas, and the area also offers multiple guesthouses, tea shops, and restaurants that allow visitors to get a taste of Korean culture.
Explore the National Museum of Korea
Just north of the Han River in Yongsan Park lies the National Museum of Korea. Set in an imposing modern building, the vast museum is filled with national treasures ranging from prehistoric times through the various dynasties and into early modern times prior to Japanese occupation in 1910. The collection also includes paintings, calligraphy, crafts, and sculptures, plus a gallery that features artwork and cultural objects from various Asian countries.
Ride the KTX Train
While the KTX high-speed rail is an extremely efficient mode of transport whisking travelers from Seoul to Busan in roughly three hours, it’s also a tourist attraction in itself. Korea’s version of the “bullet train,” the KTX travels through the Korean countryside on a north/south route at roughly 190 miles per hour. From the peaceful train car (noise is strongly discouraged, and speaking loudly will incur a stern rebuke from train staff), watch as wetlands, mountains, and rivers whiz by, allowing visitors to glimpse Korea’s gorgeous landscapes.
On Korea’s northeast coast lie the jagged peaks, vivid foliage, and stunning hiking trails in Seoraksan National Park. The area was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1982 and has since become one of the country’s most visited national parks. The vast network of well-marked trails is a hiking enthusiast’s dream, and paths wend amid craggy boulders, tranquil ponds, and misty waterfalls. Autumn is the most popular time to visit, when the fiery foliage sets the forest aflame with color.
Shop at Namdaemun Market
If you’re looking for a true cultural experience in Seoul, check out Namdaemun Market. Namdaemun is Korea’s largest traditional market, with more than 10,000 vendors purveying everything from clothing to kitchenware, and souvenirs to street food.
The market consists of a collection of narrow streets and alleys, some covered, that sprawl across multiple city blocks in central Seoul. Notable purchases include hanboks (traditional Korean dress), ginseng, and calligraphy stationery, as well as classic street food from the 24-hour food area, which includes specialties like hotteok (sweet or savory filled pancakes), mandu (steamed or fried dumplings), and tteokbokki (chewy rice cakes served hot in a spicy red chili sauce).
Wander Around Gyeongbokgung Palace
Perhaps Seoul’s most famous site, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and arguably the most beautiful of Seoul’s five royal palaces. Built during the Joseon Dynasty in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace endured fires, sacking, and rebuilding over the years, with the current structure having been restored in the 19th century. The grounds feature gardens, temples, ponds, and paths through cherry trees, making it the perfect place to see fluffy pink blossoms in the spring.
Memorable sights in Gyeongbokgung Palace include the Changing of the Royal Guard ceremony, the National Palace Museum of Korea, displaying over 20,000 relics from Seoul’s royal palaces, and the National Folk Museum of Korea, which showcases historical artifacts used in Korean people’s everyday lives.
Sunbathe on Haeundae Beach
If you didn’t know better, it’s easy to mistake Busan’s Haeundae Beach for the famed Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Both feature a stretch of crescent-moon shaped sand backed by towering skyscrapers, and both are filled to the brim with beachgoers during the high season.
Similarities aside, Haeundae Beach is famed for a wide array of cultural events and festivities that take place throughout the year, including the Sand Castle Festival, and the Busan Sea Festival, which has performances, dance parties, and fireworks displays.
Go Back in Time at Daereungwon Tomb Complex
The city of Gyeongju is Korea’s ancient capital and the final resting place of many Silla Dynasty kings and queens. Their unique tombs have been discovered underneath towering, grass-covered burial mounds in the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, and overflowing with artwork, weapons, and other artifacts.
Footpaths crisscross the otherworldly tomb complex, and visitors can enter the Cheonmachong Tomb, which displays a replica wooden coffin filled with ancient gold, jewelry, and armor.
Dive Into the Past at Bulguksa Temple
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju is one of South Korea’s most important cultural destinations. This sizeable Buddhist temple built in 528 B.C. now holds seven national treasures, and features impressive examples of Silla Dynasty-period Buddhist architecture.
The 2,500-year-old temple is still operational today, and interested visitors can join a temple stay program where they will join in day-to-day life with Buddhist monks.
Learn at Gyeongju National Museum
History buffs will appreciate a visit to Gyeongju National Museum, which houses thousands of significant artifacts from Korea’s ancient Silla Dynasty. The streamlined museum features jewelry, weapons, artworks, statues, bells, pottery, and other items excavated from the nearby tombs and historical sites in the former capital. There’s also an outdoor exhibition space and a children’s museum, plus a miniature replica of the ancient city. Nearby is Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (formerly Anapji Pond) a stunning complex that was part of an ancient Silla Dynasty palace.
Spot Cherry Blossoms at Seoul Grand Park
At the foot of Cheonggyesan Mountain is Seoul Grand Park, a wide open green space situated on the city’s southern edge. The park itself contains the Seoul Zoo, Botanical Garden, and Seoul Land amusement park, as well as plentiful paths, tranquil forest areas, and campsites. But perhaps Seoul Grand Park is most beloved for its annual Cherry Blossoms Festival, which takes place for two weeks every April when the trees are in full bloom.
Eat at Jalgachi Fish Market
The southern port city of Busan has long been known for its lively fish trade, the largest of which is Jalgachi Market. Seafood lovers can wander the crowded aisles, where persuasive female vendors (known as jalgachi ajummas, with “ajumma” meaning a middle-aged woman) hawk the freshest catches of eel, abalone, and mackerel. Sample it raw, visit one of the many on-site restaurants, or head over to the dried fish zone to take away a snack for later.
Indulge at Dragon Hill Spa
Koreans take bathhouse culture seriously, and a great place to experience it in Seoul is at Dragon Hill Spa. This extensive temple of cleanliness, relaxation, and rejuvenation is split into various zones, each fulfilling a different requirement. The “Main Zone” features a replica Chinese royal palace and offers various relaxation activities, the “Sauna Zone” has numerous gender-segregated steam rooms, and the “Healing Zone” features exotic locales such as the Ice Room, the Pyramid Meditation Room, and Nephrite Jade Energy Room.
There are also more classic spa offerings, such as hydrotherapy pools, massages, body and nail treatments, and fitness classes. A restaurant, an outdoor pool, a game room, and a movie theater complete the package.
Island Hop to Jeju
Head south to the island of Jeju, called the “Hawaii of South Korea,” for spectacular sunrises over the UNESCO World Heritage Site Seongsang Ilchulbong Peak, a 5,000-year-old volcanic cone rising up from the sea. The island is also known for Hallasan—an active volcano and the country’s highest peak—as well as black pork barbecue and abalone, which is often caught by the island’s famed female free-divers.
Get Inspired at Dongdaemun Design Plaza
It may look as though a giant spaceship landed in central Seoul, but it’s really the Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by Zaha Hadid. The sleek, futuristic silver building gleams in the sun, blinding passersby on the outside, and houses five distinct areas on the inside; the Art Hall, Museum, Design Lab, Design Market, and the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park.
The vast multipurpose space is used as a venue for trade shows, conventions, fashion shows, exhibitions, concerts, and performances. The Design Lab supports emerging Korean designers, while the Design Market, which is open to visitors 24/7, features shopping and cultural experiences.
Marvel at Hwaseong Fortress
Another of Korea’s impressive historical sites is Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress. This landmark UNESCO World Heritage site dating from the late 18th century was built by King Jeongjo as a memorial to his father. The 3.5-mile-long fortress wall was constructed very scientifically for the time, using advanced building practices and state-of-the-art design meant to help defend against enemy attacks.
Take a walk along the walls and marvel at its magnificent engineering, or ride the tourist trolley modeled after a royal vehicle used by King Gojong.