Seoul is the thriving capital of South Korea. It is the beating heart of the emerging economical as well as cultural capital of the world with global brands like Samsung and BTS. April and October are the best time to go. The weather is ideal, generally dry with high of 18°C in the day time. Below is our recommended itinerary and travel tips for an amazing 7 days in electrifying Seoul in South Korea.
Day 1: Wonder About Myeongdong
Make Myeongdong your base and you can start the itinerary on your doorsteps. This is the best introduction to Seoul as Myeongdong is the centre of K-beauty and Korean food. Half of the shops sell cosmetic, beauty and skincare. Homegrown local brands like SkinFood, Etude House, Nature Republic, Too Cool for School and Innisfree will be 2nd nature to you by the end of the trip. The other half of the shops are occupied by Korean fast fashion retailers, cafes and restaurants.
It will be overwhelming at first, but pace yourself at Myeongdong and let it all soak in. There is so much to enjoy and experience here that we you spend the whole day here – which is what we did. With Korean mandu (dumplings) and kalguksu (chicken soup noodles) from Myeongdong Kyoja, BHC fried chicken, coffee and shaved ice dessert from Subling Cafe food breaks in between sampling beauty products, it was the perfect start to our Seoul adventure. The shops are in an area bordered by Myeongdong 2-gil, Toegye-ro, Myeongdong 10-gil and Eulji-ro. If you are getting here by train, go to either Myeong-dong Station or Euljiro 1-ga Station. You can start off at Lotte Department Store if you are coming in from Euljiro 1-ga Station.
But just as you thought you are done, the street food stalls starts popping up at 4pm along pedestrianised Myeongdong-gil and Myeongdong 8-gil. The food selection is endless. Make sure you try the egg bread, grilled cheese lobsters, fishcake on skewers and all the rest! Prices are around ₩1,500 to ₩5,000 per serving and are pretty consistent across all the stalls. It normally finishes around 11pm.
If you still have room in your stomach for dinner, check out Wangbijib (map) for some Korean BBQ. Indulge in assorted premium Korean beef which includes tenderloin, sirloin and belly (150g for ₩36,000) and beef ribs marinated in soy sauce (250g for ₩35,000).
Myeongdong is the best area for money exchange. I would recommend planning ahead and changing one lump sum at one of the many banks in the area. You will get a much better rate than the hole-in-the-wall money changers on the high street. But, do note that the banks will only exchange USD and EUR. GBP is accepted at the Hana Bank close to Euljiro 1-ga Station.
Day 2: Immerse in Ikseondong and Experience K-pop Firsthand at Hongdae
We kicked off the 2nd day with Ikseondong (map), a relatively new kid on the block in Seoul. It is a square maze of pedestrianised alleyway lined with restored 1920s traditional houses/shops. They are now occupied by hipster art, fashion and food entrepreneurs. Ikseondong will give Shoreditch in London or Williamburg in New York a run for their money.
It is all about handmade, handpicked and non-mass production here. The fashion boutiques are an art gallery to itself. Products are craftfully showcased in meticulously staged shelves/platforms. The cafes/restaurants are a showpiece of creativity and one of a kind. We spend half the day at Ikseondong, headed off a couple of hours after munching down dumplings at ChangHwaDang (map).
Ikseondong is located north of Myeondong, with Jongmyo Shrine to its East and Insadong to its West. Closest train station is Jongno 3-ga. It is a short walk from Exit 4. Do plan your route in advance as it is not clearly signposted.
From hipster cool, we headed over to Hongdae in Mapo-gu district for some indie cool for the 2nd half of the day. It is a bit more raw and edgy, a bit more youthful, as this is the heart of Hongik University. Hongdae is best known for it live street performances. Come in the evening and you will see young fans gathering around to scream their hearts out at up-and-coming K-pop superstars. Best to join in and enjoy the singing, the dancing and the mesmerising eye contacts as well as the gyrations.
If you do need other attractions, Hongdae is brimming over with cafes, pubs, bars, street food stalls and most importantly karaoke clubs. Sing your hearts out after indulging in one of the many amazing restaurants or street food stalls. There are also plenty of shopping – you will find everything you need to look like a K-popstar. Hongdae is a lively, hip and trendy university town of Seoul. It is best experienced in the evening or night when this place comes to its elements.
K-pop wannabes performances are on Eoulmadang-ro between Hongik-ro and Yanghwa-ro. Main shopping street are on pedestrianised Eoulmadang-ro which runs parrallel to Hongik-ro 3-gil. Follow Eoulmadang-ro south and you will find pubs, bars and karaoke clubs.
Make sure you indulge in one of the amazing looking cakes at Caffe Yam (caffeyam.modoo.at). You will be spoilt for choice for restaurants in Hongdae. We had amazing BBQ at Choigozip Hongdae and would recommend Hongdae Dakgalbi to experience student dining or enjoy pork knuckle at Myth Jokbal Hongdae (mythjokbal.co.kr).
Day 3: Ponder Historical Past at Changdeokgung Palace & Bukchon Hanok Village and Shop at Samcheongdong
After two days of retail therapy and food indulgence, we pivot into some history for Day 3. We are going to Changdeokgung Palace (cdg.go.kr) as it is the well-preserved of the 5 palaces in Seoul. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a big open park with painstakingly maintained 15th century buildings rich in Korean ruling monarchy history. This is the place to admire Korean architecture brilliance, scientific prowess and design excellence. It is also a place to learn about Korean culture – what’s the significance of the mountain and river to buildings, why are there 3 entrances to every buildings? There are many spots where you can sit down, relax and ponder about what’s life would have been like for the royals who lived here for the past 600 years.
The Secret Garden is a must see and can only be accessed as part of a 90 mins guided tour for ₩5,000 per adult. I would recommend booking these in advance on their website as there are only 4 English tours per day and each tour is limited to 100 people. Tour times are 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 3.30pm. Tickets can only be booked 6 days in advance.
For the Palace Building area, make sure you time your visit to participate in one of the free complimentary guided 60 mins tour. There are two English tours daily – 10.15am and 1.15pm. No booking required. Just wait at the meeting point that is clearly signposted near the main entrance. Tours in Korean, Chinese and Japanese are also available. The palace is closed every Monday.
After spending the morning in the Palace, our next destination is Bukchon Hanok Village – a hilltop village of traditional Korean houses juxtaposed against modern skyline of Seoul in the backdrop. From the Palace, head towards Bukchon-ro and grab some light lunch as it is a 30-mins uphill trek from here. We got some croissants, brioche, cinnamon rolls and muffins from Wood & Brick (woodandbrick.co.kr). There are plenty of shops to look at along the hike. It is mostly residential houses towards the top. The view from the top (Bukchon-ro 11-gil) is unique and perfectly captures old vs. new or traditional vs. modern or maybe even good vs. evil….Take the time to enjoy and admire it (while you catch your breath).
Next, set your GPS to Cafe Brezin (map). There is a staircase from Bukchon-ro 5na-gil which is a great shortcut to this cafe in the heart of Samcheongdong. If weather permits, treat yourself to some coffee/tea and cakes and enjoy the view from the rooftop terrace at Cafe Breezin. Once rested, enjoy the rest of the evening darting in and out the wonderful and unique selection of fashion/ homeware boutiques and cafes along Samcheong-ro, heading back towards main street Yulgok-ro or Anguk train station. Make sure to try a delicious egg sandwich at Egg Drop (map) on Bukchon-ro 5ga-gil.
We wrapped up the night with a hearty dinner at Hwangsaengga (hwangsanga.modoo.at) (reservation recommended). It is a homely restaurant with all the traditional Korean dishes – mandu (dumpling), kalguksu (noodles), bossam, pancake, mushroom hotpot and delicious boiled beef.
Day 4: Shop for Fresh Seafood, Learn at War Memorial of Korea and Have a Beer at Itaewon
Noryingjin (susansijang.co.kr) is a huge wholesale fish market in Dongjak-gu district, south of River Han. But unlike most wholesale fish markets like Billingsgate in London or Tsujiki in Tokyo, you don’t have to get up at 4am for it. It is open up to 10pm and in fact busiest on Thursday and Friday evenings. Be prepared to be bombarded with sales pitches for everything while you are struck in awe with the vast variety of fresh seafood that’s available. After exercising your haggling skills to no avail, head upstairs with your fresh seafood to find a restaurant that will cook them. They will charge a per head service fee as well as a charge for each dish preparation. Make sure you try the live baby octopus!
Our next stop is the War Memorial of Korea (warmemo.or.kr) in Yongsan-gu district. Admission is free. There is a large fleet of neatly arranged tanks, artillery vehicles, fighter jets, a war ship and even a huge US B-52 bomber in the outdoor museum. You are welcome to climb into some of them for the perfect selfie. Inside, you will find historical artefacts, documents, sculptures and paintings from the Japanese invasion, Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War and of course the Korean War. We learnt a great deal of the trial and tribulations of wars, the desire for unity and peace in Korea. This is a great launch pad for our tour to Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in a couple day’s time.
We rounded off the day at Itaewon, the nightlife centre of Yongsan-gu district. This is the opposite of Koreantown or Chinatown in Western cities as this is where you will find Irish pubs, Mexican tacos, Spanish tapas, American smokehouse in the heart of an Asian city. Most of the bars and restaurants are on Itaewon-ro 27 ga-gil (behind Hamilton Hotel). A street made popular by American GIs during their stay in the Korean war and a tradition kept up by expats in Seoul today. But before you get merry with the alcohol, start your visit to Itaewon on Bogwang-ro, also known as Antique Furniture Street, to scavenge through the bric-à-bracs and antique furnitures on this street before they close at 7pm.
Itaewon is home to one of the branch of my Top 5 restaurants in Seoul – Maple Tree. It is a modern, sleek, more up-market Korean BBQ restaurant. Top quality beef, pancake and attentive service.
Day 5: Street Food Galore at Namdeamun Market and Reflect at Jongmyo Shrine and Admire Handmade Products at Insadong
Right next to Myeongdong is Namdaemun Market (namdaemunmarket.co.kr), Korea’s largest traditional market. This is a heaven for Korean’s street food, it is lively and full of energy. You get to sit around the stalls and sample all the beautifully presented delicious food, reminded me of the night food market in Marrakech and Kuala Lumpur. The food market is sheltered, hence, will be open come rain or shine. Best to snack along the way. Make sure you try the hotteok (a deep fried dough with savoury or sweet fillings), eomuk (fishcakes), tteokbokki (rice cakes), cold noodles, beef bone soup, mung bean pancakes and red bean dessert. I fell head over heels for the crispy seaweed biscuits 🥰.
But Namdaemun Market is not just about food. There are apparently just over 10,000 stalls/shops selling everything and anything. You will find ginseng, kids clothes, costume jewelleries, shoes, kitchen utensils, military clothings, beddings, opticians, stationeries, cameras and the list goes on and on. Most of the shops are wholesalers but also sell to retail customers. Orientate yourself using the 6 gates that surround the market as landmark.
After all the excitement, we jumped into a taxi and made our way to the more contemplative Jongmyo Shrine (cha.go.kr), just south of Changdeokgung Palace. It is another UNESCO World Heritage site and is the oldest Confucian shrine built during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 14th century. Kings and queens from the dynasty used to come here to worship and pay respect to their ancestors. Here you will find multiple traditional buildings, stone-slab paved courtyards and walkways and serene open green spaces. The buildings are subdued, calm and peaceful, especially when compared to the decadent palaces. Another great place to learn about Korean historical culture and rituals.
Visits to Jongmyo can only be made as part of 60 mins guided tours with exception of Saturdays and last Wednesday of every month. You are free to explore by yourself on those days but I would recommend the guided tours to fully appreciate the significant of the shrine. English guided tours are available at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm and you can purchase the tickets at the entrance. There is no online reservation. Tours in Japanese, Korean and Chinese languages are also available. Closest train station is Jongno 3-ga.
As the sunsets, we walked across to Insadong. Insadong is the centre of art and design in Seoul. The key focal point is Ssamziegil, a 3 storey building with an open courtyard which is home to over 70 shops predominantly owned by aspiring designers promoting their unique/handmade products. Start your adventure at Tapgol Park and move northwest on Insadong-gil to the Trick-eye Museum, Beautiful Tea Museum, Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art and Ssamziegil.
We wrapped up the night with a buddhist-temple inspired 13-course vegetarian dinner at Sanchon (sanchon.com). Step into the restaurant and you will feel that you have been transported back to ancient Korea. There have a beautiful dance performance at 8pm. Make sure you made a reservation in advance.
Day 6: Experience the Best Cold Crab and Style-up at Gangnam
No visit to Seoul is complete without dropping by Gangnam to experience the inspiration behind the pop phenomenon that put Korean music on the global scene. Gangnam is an up-market part of Seoul. It is home to high-end global luxury brands as well as local designers. Depending on how much western brand shopping you like to do, you can spend half or a full day in Gangnam.
We started our day in Gangnam with melt-in-your-mouth crab at Pro Soy Crab (prosoycrabweb.cafe24.com), close to Sinsa station. This is the institution to come to indulge in these Korean specialty dish – premium grade blue crabs marinated in soy sauce for 3 days. They don’t come cheap at ₩78,000 for 2 medium size ones, but it is worth every penny 🦀.
From there, we headed over to Dosan-daero 13-gil to Apgujeong-ro 12-gil, also known as Garosu-gil. Spoil yourself with the many cafes and boutiques and don’t deprive yourself of a visit to the Simone Handbag Museum. Do make a note to visit Gentle Monster’s (South Korea’s global sunglasses brand) flagship store on Apgujeong-ro 10-gil. Have a blast trying out all the funky out-of-this-world sunglasses.
If you want to spend the rest of the day in Gangnam, jump into a taxi at the end of the street and drive 3 mins to Apgujeong Rodeo Street (Apgujeong-ro 50-gil) – a youth culture shopping street. Experience one of the 1st up-market shopping area in Seoul inspired by Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive. Here you will find local brands intertwined with global brands like Dr. Marten’s, New Era, lululemon, Vans and Converse.
Walk back to Apgujeong Station via Seolleung-ro 157-gil and Seolleung-ro to explore Galleria (dept.galleria.co.kr). This is the Harrod’s of Seoul and you will find collections from all the global luxury brands. Make sure to check out K-Star Road after Galleria, Seoul’s version of Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead of stars, the street is lined with cute teddy bear statues of K-pop idols, known as GangnamDols.
Wrap up the day at Starfield COEX Mall (starfield.co.kr), Asia’s largest underground shopping mall. The highlight here is the mesmerising two-storey tall library bookshelves.
Day 7: Ponder about Unification with a DMZ Tour
Day 7 is all about a half-day group tour to the Korea Demilitarilised Zone (DMZ). There are many operators which you can book the tour with online. The tour bus picked us up from our hotel at 7am and returned us to Seoul City Centre at 1-2pm. We paid £45 per adult for it. The highlight of the tour is the walk down one of the four infiltration tunnel (70m below ground) allegedly dug by the North Korean for invasion. At the end of the tunnel, we were 25m from the North Korean border.
In addition, the tour also brought us to an observation platform – Dora’s Observatory. Through the telescopes available here, we were able to see firsthand the two villages in the DMZ, Peace Village in the North and Daeseong-dong in the South as well as the Kaesong Industrial Region (a special zone in North Korea where South Korean companies are allow to build factories and hire North Korean workers).
The final stop for the tour was Dorasan Station. It is a fully functioning train station which will be the gateway to Pyeongyang, North Korea and into China, connecting the Trans-Korea Railway, Trans-Siberia Railway and the Trans-China Railway if peace is achieved one day. On the way back to Seoul, there is a non-obligatory stop-off at the Korean Ginseng Centre. They do a well drilled small education tour of the different types of ginseng – no hard selling was involved. Pretty educational I thought. There is also the full-day as well as private tours option depending on how much you want to indulge or learn about the history.
Do bring some drinks and snack for this tour as there aren’t much time and options for these during the tour.
Other worthy attractions we didn’t cover that you can consider including:
- North Seoul Tower – enjoy unfettered view of Seoul from this 236m tall observation tower
- Dongdaemum Design Plaza (DDP) – be awe-inspired by the modern iconic landmark designed by Zaha Hadid
- Everland Resort or Lotte World – get the heart racing at these theme parks for all ages
- Museum of Korea – immerse in Korea’s fascinating history and admire the relics and cultural assets
Other Travel Tips:
Most places have English translations, but that may not be the case in some of the food markets. Don’t worry and just order the same as the locals do and you will be more than fine.
Seoul is quite a hilly city, hence, may be quite a challenge if you are travelling with older folks. Please plan accordingly and include plenty of rest in between.
Do seriously consider taking taxi when you move about from one area to another. It is great value, you will save time and you will also see more of the city. Beware when using the trains as it can be quite a walk to get to the platforms.
If you would like to read more about Seoul, below are links to Amazon for some additional reading materials.
As always, let me know what you think of the itinerary. Happy to answer any other questions that you may have.