I recently traveled to South Korea for the first time back in August 2014. It was a great experience and a bustling Asian metropolis that I would go back and visit again. Seoul is different from most large cities that I’ve been to in Asia. It has a coolness and style to it that is different than Japan or China. The city still embraces its traditional heritage and is as clean and safe as Singapore. Here is my general itinerary for the 3 days that I spent in Seoul.
Hostel: The Closest Hostel in Hongdae
Days: Thursday – Sunday
Airline: Air Asia from PHL to ICN
Getting Around: Seoul Metro – it’s super convenient, clean, and easy to navigate. You never have to take a taxi around, even from the airport. There are machines everywhere for single rides, when you are done with the fare, return your card in the machine and get 500 won back.
1) Gwanghwamun Square – 광화문광장
Train Station: City Hall
This area is a long beautiful stretch in the center of the city that approaches the Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s a beautiful walk where you can see neighboring museums, a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the statue of King Sejong, fountains, and plaques commemorating historical events in Korean history. In the background, you can see beautiful mountains. This is also a place of occasional protests, there were some protesters camped out in the beginning of the square. Read more here about it’s historical significance.
2) Statue of King Sejong – 세종대왕상
Train Station: City Hall
In the middle of Gwanghwamun Square, there is a giant statue of King Sejong, who was credited in creating hangul or the modern day Korean language. It’s an easy quick photo op with this famous statue.
3) Sejong Museum of Art – 세종문화회관 미술관
Located across Gwanghwamun Square, there are two entrances to this museum. One entrance is underneath the King Sejong statue and the other is across the street towards the left of the statue (if you are facing it). The museum is free and quite small, so you can see all of the exhibits pretty quickly in 1 hour or less, depending on if you choose to read everything. The museum contains historical information about King Sejong’s accomplishments during his rule such as creating hangul and building up the Korean army.
3) Gyeongbokgung – 경복궁 (景福宮)
This is one of the largest palaces in Seoul. It’s easy to walk around and enjoy for 3 hours or more. The grounds are very vast and there are many buildings and lakes. The cost is 3,000 won and the hours are 9 am – 6:30 pm in the summertime (June-Aug) and 9 am – 5 pm in the other months. I heard from locals that this was one of the best palaces in Seoul to visit and one of the largest, so it was definitely worth it. Check out the official site here in English to verify hours and information.
4) The National Folk Museum of Korea – 국립민속박물관
Connected to the back entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the entrance to the museum is free. Inside, you will find exhibits explaining the way of life of ancient Korean people through art, writing, and historical artifacts such as clothing and pottery.
1) DMZ Tour
Definitely the coolest historical places that I’ve visited ever. It was so rich in history (past and current) that it was amazing to say I’ve actually experienced it. There are two different tours I would recommend: 1) JSA and DMZ OR 2) DMZ. I wish I would have done the JSA/DMZ tour because that one you actually get to step foot on North Korean soil and view the actual dividing line between North and South Korea. However, it takes at least 3 days to process your approval by the North Korean government, so do this at least a week in advance to get a spot and get your approvals. I didn’t know and unfortunately just did the DMZ portion. There is one point of the tour where you can see into North Korea and if you pay attention, you can tell it’s all propaganda and a fake city. The whole tour lasts about half a day, but it’s definitely interesting!
There are only 3 tour companies that I am aware of that do the JSA/DMZ Tour. The USO one is the most popular and the cheapest but books out the furthest in advance, DMZ Tours, and Panmunjom Tours. You will definitely need your passport when going to this tour, so don’t forget it.
2) Namsan Cable Car – 남산 케이블카
Taking the cable car will bring you to the top of Namsam Mountain where you can see the N Seoul Tower and all of Seoul from a high point. The park at top is really lovely to walk around and is a popular date spot with local Koreans. Warning though, especially on the weekends, the line for the Cable Car is ridiculously long. I waited 1 hour 15 minutes just to get into the cable car, so don’t do this if you’re in a hurry. Also tickets RT cost 8,500 won or about $8.50. Check out the Namsan Cable Car site for more information.
3) N Seoul Tower – N서울타워
Located at the top of Namsam Mountain, N Seoul Tower is a communication and observation tower. I personally did not go to the top because you could get great views of the city without having to go up the observation tower. However, if you are interested, there are several restaurants inside and the observation tower on the 3rd floor. For more information on pricing and hours, check out their site here.
1) Gwangjang Market – 광장시장
A trip to Seoul is not complete without eating some amazing street food and experiencing Korean cuisine. Gwangjang Market is one of many located throughout the city where you can walk around and eat to your heart’s content. Just sit down in any stall and point and order what everyone else around you is eating. There are so many choices that you cannot go wrong, try everything! Hours and information can be found here.
2) The War Memorial of Korea – 전쟁기념관
After a nice lunch, take the subway to the War Memorial of Korea. This is a giant museum and park with some really cool military history. There’s a park that is completely free where you can climb into old fighter jets, battleships, missile launchers, and tanks. You can easily spend 3 hours here or more if you want to see every exhibit. The best part of visiting this place is that it’s completely FREE. Check out more info about visiting on it’s website here.
3) Myeongdong – 명동
A giant shopping area where you can find street food, clothing, and people galore. It’s just a fun little area to walk around and to experience the craziness of shopping in Asia. Also, the Myeongdong Catholic Church can be found in the district if you’d like to see Western religious influences on an Eastern country. The Korean Tourism site has lots of information in regards to the area here.
4) Gagnam – 강남
Made famous because of Psy’s Gagnam Style song, this area is the ritzy, rich area of Seoul. Gagnam is similar to Beverly Hills, where you will see lots of high-end shopping options and well dressed people. Don’t be surprised if you see lots of young women and sometimes men with bandages on their face. Cosmetic surgery is super common in Korea and accepted. Many who can afford it will go to various places throughout Gagnam. Going here is a little bit out of the way from most other places in Seoul. Only come if you want to do some shopping, eating, or going out to bars/clubs, otherwise, it’s not really worth the extra effort to go. Check out more information here.
5) Hongdae Hongik University Street – 홍대
Now if you really want to experience fun and reasonably priced food options and clubs/bars, you must come to hang out in Hongdae. Lots of young locals like to gather here to go out on the weekends. If you walk by the main square, you are guaranteed to see street performances and the occasional free lance DJ creating his own club in the streets. People drink and smoke openly here, yet it’s quite safe. The funniest part about hanging out in Hongdae is after the subway closes down at around midnight, you will see people hanging out getting drunk food or passed out, sleeping on the streets until the trains open back up at 4am. It’s incredibly comical yet no one bothers them or steals their wallets or phones. It’s a sight to see, so make sure you’re out late enough to witness the drunks. Korea has a huge drinking culture, so be sure to experience it. There’s a really funny blog out there that posts pictures of the funniest sleeping drunks, called Black Out Korea. Maybe you can join the ranks.