With over 600 decades of history packed into this modern city, Seoul has something for everyone. Seoul is a city of contrasts. It’s chaotic, yet serene. Modern, but ancient. A massive urban landscape, with plenty of nature.
Don’t let the rows upon rows of monotonous apartment buildings fool you. Seoul is much more than an ‘urban jungle’. With a little digging, this Asian city is an incredible place to explore. Whether you like to eat, want an active adventure, are a history buff, or love art – you’ll find what you love in Seoul.
Make your way down a back alley to find old men drinking soju at a local food joint. Hike one of the 30 mountains surrounding the city. Wander the crowded aisles of a traditional market. Step out of your comfort zone a bit and experience the culture of South Korea.
So without further ado here are the ten best things to do in Seoul, South Korea.
Go for a Hike
You don’t often include epic hiking when exploring a city. Seoul is different. Mountains surround the city, and public transportation gets you to any trailhead. When you’re in Seoul, tackling a hike should definitely be on your itinerary, as it is one of best things to do in Seoul.
The city proper has four mountains connected by a (mostly) restored fortress wall. The wall stretches 18 kilometers around the city center. Hiking along it is the most accessible hike in the city. Even better, Bukhansan National Park sits outside the city limits (about a 20-minute subway ride). It has incredible hiking trails for every level, including the third highest spot in South Korea. Baegundae Peak is a popular and challenging hike that offers fantastic views of the city.
Discover Authentic Art in a ‘Mural Village’
As you explore the neighborhoods and cultural enclaves of Seoul, you’ll notice an attempt to liven up bland architecture and run-down buildings with art. Artists around the city seek out ways to beautify the streets and practice their craft. This has resulted in many small ‘mural villages’ throughout the city. For awesome photos, and to experience the artsy side of Seoul, check out some of these mural villages:
- Ihwa Mural Village in Hyehwa Neighborhood
- HBC Art Valley in Haebongchon Neighborhood
- Mualle Mural Village in Mualle Neighborhood
- Apgujeong Graffiti Tunnel in Apgujeong Neighborhood
- Hongdae Graffiti Boards + Mural Street in Hongdae Neighborhood
Make Furry Friends at an Animal Cafe
Cat and dog cafes seem to be popular all over the world these days. Seoul takes it a step further. Now, you can nuzzle up to more exotic animals at sheep cafes and raccoon cafes. Yes, raccoons act like lovable cats, and sheep watch you sip your coffee. It’s a uniquely Seoul experience, and worth a stop. If the thought of raccoons running around your feet doesn’t entice you, you’ll find dog and cat cafes in just about every neighborhood.
Explore the Noryangjin Fish Market (+ Eat Squirming Octopus)
Stroll past the flopping fish, squirming eels and giant rouge crabs at the Noryangjin Fish Market – the largest wholesale fish market in Seoul. See the seafood vendors call out to potential customers, and (if you’re lucky) watch the daily fish auctions. Besides experiencing the atmosphere of a local fish market, there is one other thing that tops the list of best things to do in Seoul: eat octopus.
Sannakji (small octopus) is served with its tentacles still wiggling. With each piece you eat, you’ll feel the tentacles sticking to your tongue and cheeks. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a common food experience for Koreans.
Sing at a Karaoke Room Late Night
The Noraebang (pronounced nohr-ray-bahng) is a private singing room. Get a group of friends together (or meet new friends) and sing your heart out. The rooms are typically reserved by the hour, but depending on how well you sing, extra time may be added! You’ll find all kinds of singing rooms throughout the city, from basic to luxury. My favorite is the Luxury Noraebang in Hongdae. It has floor-to-ceiling windows so people outside on the street can watch you sing!
Relax at a Jjimjilbang
The traditional Korean spa is the jjimjilbang. Jjimjil = heated bath + bang = room. So it translates to heated bath room.
The jimjilbang is a huge part of the Korean culture where generations of women and men gather on separate sides to bathe. Sweat it out in the sauna, relax your muscles in the hot tub, shock your body in the cold pool, and get a full-body scrub down. The only caveat is that everything is done completely nude. This may be a bit of a shock if you’re coming from a western country.
Jimjilbangs are all over Korea. Many gyms, hotels and apartment buildings have jimjilbangs in the basement. They are a great place to relax and de-stress, though they can take some getting used to. Look for signs that say: 짐 질 방
Spend a Day in Dongdaemun
Dongdaemun is a neighborhood right in the northern central part of the city. It’s well-known for being a fashion and retail hub. There is so much going on in the Dongdaemun neighborhood, missing it would be a shame. Architecture lovers will enjoy the Design Plaza – a futuristic building filled with art exhibits. Foodies will love eating their way through Gwangjang Market and Little Russia. History buffs will enjoy seeing the fortress wall and Seoul’s Great Eastern Gate. And everyone will experience the culture of Korea through the many shops and alleys throughout the neighborhood. Plus, whether you like shopping or not, the energy that pulses through this neighborhood well through the night is exciting.
Eat a Meal on the Floor
When in Seoul, experience the traditional way of Korean dining – on the floor. Many restaurants have low tables where diners take off their shoes and sit on the floor. The reason is because the heat comes from the floor, so sitting closer to the heat source keeps you warm. Try a traditional teahouse in Insadong, where you sip tea from the comfort of a cushioned floor. It’s fun to eat the Korean way, though too much of it may leave you with a backache!
Explore a Traditional Neighborhood
Intertwined with the modern buildings of Seoul are pockets of traditional neighborhoods. These ‘hanok villages’ represent what Seoul was before the post-Korean War modernization. Sadly, they are quickly being replaced by new buildings and new residents.
The most popular example of a traditional neighborhood is Bukchon Hanok Village. The government and the residents have restored most of the traditional houses (hanoks) and turned the neighborhood into a popular tourist destination. While it is very interesting to see, I prefer a more authentic experience like Ikseon-dong. It’s run-down – tangled wires hang above the streets and plaster peels off the buildings. Shops and restaurants don’t cater to tourists, and it feels real. Sadly, this neighborhood (and other similar neighborhoods) is likely doomed – so visit while you can!
Get Active Along the Han River
The Han (Hangang) River is the artery of Seoul; cutting right through the center of the city and pulsing with life. Hanging out along the Han River is one of the best things to do in Seoul, as the city has poured millions of dollars into the development of the river. You can walk, run, bike, and rollerblade along the paths that run parallel to the river. You can also jet ski, water ski or windsurf in the actual river (when the weather allows). When you’re finished with your Han adventure, grab some fried chicken (from one of the delivery men driving around) and have a picnic.
Where to Stay in Seoul
Here are our top recommendations of hostels and hotels in Seoul. All are centrally located, highly rated and have excellent facilities.
- Best Hostel: Backpackers INSIDE
- Best Budget Hotel: Starhostel Dongdaemun Suite
- Best Mid-Range Hotel: ibis Styles Ambassador Seoul Myeongdong
- Best Luxury Hotel: Lotte Hotel Seoul
- Best Airport Hotel: Grand Hyatt Incheon
This lively city has so much to offer for every kind of traveler. Whether you love getting active, learning about history, or eating everything, I know Seoul will not disappoint.