S eoul has it's own incredible identity. A beautiful mix of traditional culture, with ultra modern pop-culture, incrediblely unique local food (Bulgogi, Hoeddeok, Kimchi, Bibimbap) and beautifully kept historical and religious sites, dotted between ultra-modern architecturally designed buildings.
We spent a whirlwind 72 hours in Seoul (see my blog post on our 72 hour Itinerary!) in September, hopping across the 605 square kms that is Seoul, from site to site, restaurant to street food stall, shopping street to traditional village, rooftop bar to side street beer. And while we could've spent SO much longer there, I really did feel like I got such a great feel for Seoul in 72 hours.
I planned extensively before we left and researched... alot... so I thought i'd put this all down on paper for anyone who may be interested! As always, every location mentioned on this blog post is pinned on the map at the bottom of this post.
If you haven't made it to Seoul yet, I'd highly recommend it. Don't let a lack of time hold you back... it's doable in any which way!
Most international / long haul flights land at Incheon International Airport (ICN). ICN is an incredible airport and has won multiple Skytrax Awards, including 1st, 2nd or 3rd Worlds Best Airport since 2012. As expected, immigration, security and baggage is efficient and we were out in arrivals within 45 minutes.
ICN is quite far from the city centre - around 60 kms. You can catch a taxi, uber, bus or two types of trains - the all-stops “AREX” which takes 59 minutes to Seoul Station or the AREX Express Train which takes 43 minutes. We took the Express Train (and waited 30 minutes more… you do the math haha). But the benefits of the AREX Express trains are:
The AREX Express was quick, clean and super comfy. And free wifi was obviously a big plus.
Getting around Seoul is SUPER easy. I personally think Seoul's subway is the easiest to navigate in the world. It's super efficient, clean, safe and well connected. Before you leave the airport terminal station, get yourself a T-money card and load some money onto it ($20 AUD lasted us 3 days). You can use the rechargeable smart card for any transit service in cities all around Korea (except for the AREX Express).
Google Maps doesn't work in Seoul due to security reasons, so you need to download another map app (the best we found was Naver Map). It's fully integrated with the Seoul subway system so will give you walking, driving and public transport directions. Uber also works really well in Seoul, although most of the cars are just public taxis, which you can get from taxi stands also. Otherwise, when visiting sites close together, walking is a good option. The city is enjoyable to walk around, pavements are good and the streets are clean and pretty.
Usually when researching where to stay in Seoul, four main areas come up:
We chose to stay in Myeondong (specifically the hotel L7 Myeondong by Lotte) and it was honestly the BEST location. Myeondong is so lively, day or night. There is lots going on, it's very central and on the #4 line that takes you right through the middle of Seoul. Our hotel entrance is literally 20 metres from #4 line exit 9, was funky, fun, and reasonably well appointed. The Premium rooms with Namsam views were definitely worth the extra $20 a night - the views are beautiful, day or night. The hotel also has a great rooftop bar.
I spotted a few other great looking hotels during my research, including:
Air BnB also had some great options in Seoul, particularly if you were staying longer and needed a bit more space / washing machine / kitchen.
I've listed our favourites we personally visted below, but there are TONS more pinned on the map at the bottom of this post that I came across during my research, that look amazing but we just didn't get the time to visit!
The coffee shops and dessert cafes in Seoul are definitely my favourite in Asia. They are so creative! Think cafes hidden behind vending machines, 2D cartoon drawn cafes, or just top quality bakeries in traditional houses (Hanoks).
Seoul is famous for its street food, and rightly so. Our favourite street food spots were:
The foodie scene in Seoul is huge. Here's some of the best I came across:
Seoul also has a huge drinking and party scene. You won't find it difficult to find a watering hole!
I've pinned all of the sites we planned to see, or wanted to see, on the map at the bottom of this post. My top 4 favourites are listed below. In addition to these, you should definitely check out:
Wander the quaint streets of Bukchon Hanok Village to get a feel for the traditional life of Seoul. The beautiful narrow streets are lined with preserved 400 year old traditional houses called Hanoks, which are still lived in to this day. The neighbourhood, albeit very touristy, is actually still an active residential area. If you come extra early, you will beat the swams of tourists. It's definitely one of my favourite places in Seoul.
Start from the bottom of the hill at bukchon-ro 11-gil and climb your way up through the gorgeous little streets. Stop for a coffee at the top at Bukchon Best Prospect, and look out across the tops of the 400 year old tiled rooves, out to the mountains surrounding Seoul and the sky scrapers in the distance.
As a juxtoposition to Seouls aforementioned traditional Bukchon Hanok Village, Myeongdong is one of the many places Koreans and tourists alike come to play. Think shops full of anything you could ever dream of (international fashion brands, local vintage stores, homegrown cosmetics... plus food stalls, casual eateries, awesome coffee shops, plently of bars, hotels, restaurants, threatre shows etc etc... oh and a Catholic Cathedral...
Dont leave without visiting ultra pop-culture stores Style-Nanda and Urban Space.. There are shops here for everyone and the vibe is always electric. It's particularly exciting after 7pm when the food stalls come out, the music gets louder and the streets get busier.
Definitely my favourite area in Seoul, Ikseon-dong is actually one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Seoul but has recently taken off with locals using the tiny buildings within the narrow alleys to establish new businessess such as gorgeous cafes, brewerys, restaurants and shops selling crafts, jewellery and unique handicrafts.
The atmosphere is young, funky and fun. There are lines outside of almost every cafe and restaurant so book ahead or be prepared to wander for a while until you find something! We were lucky enough to stumble across Craft-Roo just opening, and were not dissapointed. We came back the next day to have a beer at Art Monster and pickup some drawings from a local artist.
You could spend half a day wandering the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace and surrounding museums including National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea. This 13th century palace was once the capital of Korea and the Joseon Dynasty. Since then, it's been abandoned, destroyed and restored multiple times, the last being in the 1980's.
Tip: Don't start from the main Gwanghwamun Gate (due to the long lines) and instead enter from Geonchunmun Gate or Sinmumun Gate. Sinmumun Gate also offers great views of Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House), the residence and office of the president of Korea.
A bit of chaos, a strong local culture, good street food, fun street side bars, rooftop cocktail bars, some of the best restaurants in the world, fun, bright light, busy and loud shopping streets, as well as quaint pretty side streets and vintage boutiques, oh and an epic cafe culture.
Whether you have 3 weeks or only 3 days, this city is worth visiting. It won't dissapoint.