Seoul, Korea: Things To Do + Travel Tips
Even if you only have a couple of days to visit Seoul, it’s so worth it! There is so much to see, do, and eat! Here's a quick summary of Seoul travel tips and things to do. Highlights include open-air markets, the big fish market, and a beautiful art museum that's one of the museums from the Samsung Foundation.
Recently, our trip to Japan was nearly upended by typhoon season. We had to reschedule to our flights, and it was a blessing in disguise as we were able visit Seoul on both ends of the trip. I love Seoul! It is a fantastic place and I plan to visit more of Korea one day.
We stayed in a Courtyard by Marriott using hotel points and it was great -- much fancier than any of their locations in the US. Also, this hotel was in a great location in the city center across from the Namdaemun Market and close to a couple of subway stops. (The hotel is called Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Namdaemun.)
WHAT TO DO AND SEE:
Food tours and cooking classes: we booked a food tour with Ongo Food Communications but it was cancelled. They offer a lot of interesting food tours around the city and cooking classes too. I liked the idea of visiting neighborhoods that are off the tourist’s beaten bath. I was really bummed that Ongo cancelled, so I hope I have the opportunity to check them out in the future. If you’re like me and prefer to do due diligence on a tour company via Trip Advisor, here you go.
City Tour by Bicycle. We like to do half-day city bike tours when we visit new places and they provide a good orientation to the area and you cover much more ground than by foot. With that in mind, we booked an evening bike tour with Super Tour Korea, but unfortunately it was cancelled too – likely due to pouring rain the night our tour was to take place. As an aside, one lesson here is that as much as try you plan everything in advance, stuff happens while you’re traveling, and you just have to go with it. To find out more, visit their website here.
Markets! I love open-air markets and especially enjoy visiting them around the world. They are always entertaining and a great place to find local goodies to eat. I highly recommend a visit to one of the markets in Seoul to try some great local food, observe all the interesting things for sale (the vials of ginseng root in liquid are quite a sight), and enjoy all the energy in this city.
Namdaemun Market: This area features many stalls selling everything from food to shirts to purses, shoes, and ginseng. There are also plenty of stores below ground. The Namdaemun Market has an old-time feel in the middle of all of Seoul’s modernity. We came here several times and enjoyed the food including steamed dumplings with a kimchi filling, doughnuts and Korean barbecue. This neighborhood has a lot of character, so it’s fun to stroll through it – ideally, while snacking on a dumpling with kimchi filling. 😊 Read all about it on the Korea Tourism site here or on Trip Advisor here.
Gwangjang Market: This market has many food stalls. It feels like the kind of place you’d find Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) enjoying a meal. Be adventurous and try a few different dishes. We enjoyed coming here for breakfast and found a coffee place around the corner. Here’s a helpful post from Mark Wiens of Migrationology on this market, as well as the various types of dishes you can find here. (As a side note, Mark does a ton of food travel all over the world and especially Asia, so keep this in mind for other trip prep you do). The Seoul Metropolitan Government offers this page which includes the address and subway stops. And for those of you who prefer to use Trip Advisor, here you are.
Myeongdong Market: This is a busy and modern shopping area. However, many food vendors set up carts in the middle of the streets in the afternoon and evening. While the food here may not be the best (or the cheapest), it’s fun to come here to people watch and get a snack. And if you’re into Korean cosmetics and skin care, there are many of these shops. Here’s a good overview of Myeongdong with plenty of photos and a couple videos too. And here’s the scoop from Trip Advisor.
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. This was one of the highlights of our time in Seoul. You will see all kinds of seafood for sale including every size of octopus, every kind of fish, many varieties of crab, and some creepy things that look like detached thumbs (but are obviously something tasty to eat). Be sure to visit the new building as well as the old outdoor fish market next door. To eat at the restaurants upstairs at the fish market, you need to buy fresh fish/seafood from the vendors downstairs first. We learned this the hard way. When we tried to go to several of the restaurants, they kept shooing us away. Due to a language barrier, we couldn’t figure out why. At the 5th restaurant we tried, the proprietor told us to “go shopping” and send one of her employees to go downstairs with us to buy seafood. We chose a huge Alaskan king crab, and a small octopus. Here’s a comprehensive guide to this market with tips and photos. Here’s the scoop on Trip Advisor.
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art: After both of our tours cancelled on us, we quickly looked for other things to do. Also, since it was pouring rain, we wanted to find an activity that allowed us to escape the pouring rain. Luckily, through a little hunting on Trip Advisor, we found this gem of a museum! The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art features modern art from both Korean and western artists. It’s situated in 3 buildings. My favorite building was the modern one. The complex has a great location that is up on a hill in a fancy neighborhood in Seoul. And the connection to Samsung has tech benefits too: the audioguides are super high tech -- when you stand in front of a painting, the audioguide pulls up the description for that exact piece! Visit the museum’s website here and read about it on TripAdvisor here. Note: there is more than one Samsung Museum in town, so make sure pay close attention to the name when planning your transit.
Namsan Park and Mount Namsan: Huge hills (that are practically mini mountains) jut upward in central Seoul. Namsam Park is located on one of these little mountains. A visit here makes a good nature break from the commerce and action in the city. On a clear day, you can hike the 100s of stairs or take the aerial tram to the top of Mount Namsan for wonderful views of Seoul. You can also pay extra to go to the observatory at the top, but we didn't since the views were already great. We hiked all the way up and took the tram back down to save time. Find out more here or check out Trip Advisor’s entry here.
Bukchon Hanok Village: This area features traditional Korean houses (called “hanoks”) that are well-preserved. It's fun to stroll around here. Some tourists rent traditional clothes to walk around here and take pictures with the old village as the backdrop. We skipped the rentals and took pictures of the other folks who did, which was a fun way to enjoy the experience and save money! You walk up to the top of the hill of this area and are rewarded with nice views. One of the palaces (Gyeongbokgung Palace) is below. Korea Tourism offers this information and Trip Advisor has this.
Seoullo 7017: This is a former highway that is now an elevated pedestrian-only walkway with lots of plants. It makes a nice break from the busy city below. Seoullo 7017 is lit up at night too. Unfortunately, this will never happen in Seattle now that the Alaskan Way Viaduct was torn down. On that note, Seattle traffic is a good motivator to flee the city for chill nearby places like Whidbey Island. Learn about Seoullo 7017 here or via Trip Advisor here.
The War Memorial of Korea: This is both a Korean War memorial and museum. Most Americans are familiar with the Vietnam War, but less so with the Korean War. To learn about this war, we visited here. This museum features a good overview of what led to the war, what happened during the war, and what happened after the war through its various exhibits (some are interactive too). It also has some interesting artifacts like a car that used to belong to Kim Il Sung (1st leader of North Korea) that was captured (without him) and wound up in the U.S., as well as boats and tanks from various battles. Admission is free. Learn more here or on Trip Advisor here.
PRACTICALITIES: GETTING AROUND
Transit: To get around, use the excellent subway system. Taxis are pretty reasonable too. Buy a reloadable T-Money card at a 7-11 and put some money on it. You scan your card to enter the subway. We did not use a Korea Tour Card.
For more information on T-Money cards and how to use them to get around, visit these resources:
Get all the info on the T-Money card including what they look like, how to use them, and how to reload them in this blog post. The photos here are helpful too.
Read the info on the Visit Korea site (note: Ignore the info about the Korea Tour Card. This card gets you discounts on shopping. I’d rather just shop at stores that I choose to visit instead.)
And here’s another blog post that’s all about the T-Money card.
Happy travels! And if you have tips or suggestions for the rest of Korea beyond Seoul, drop me a line.