Like any other international metropolis, Seoul eludes full understanding. You could live here your whole life and still not see everything. When visiting, it takes at least a week to catch the rhythm of the city, at least two to start feeling as if you can manage yourself here.
But what do you do when you have less time than that to spend in Seoul–say, a long weekend? I recently had the chance to test it out when two friends came to visit for five days–three whole days total. It’s exhausting, and you should apologize to your feet in advance, but it’s possible to see a bit of all parts of Seoul that will leave you satisfied with your time here but also open to the idea of coming back. Below, I’ve broken down my sightseeing/city-experiencing recommendations by type of experience (culture, nature, nightlife, shopping, food).
Experiencing the historical culture of Seoul means palaces and traditional villages. Korea has a vibrant dynastic history, with no fewer than three royal palaces in Seoul to choose from. The traditional villages are more like small neighborhoods within the city that have preserved the traditional hanok architecture of residences of yore.
Gyeongbokgung is THE royal palace. It’s massive and photogenic. You’ll probably get tired before you see everything. As you wander into the lovingly restored buildings, don’t forget to look up at the color bursts of geometric designs painted on the ceilings and beams. A worthy alternate to Gyeongbokgung is Changdeokgung, one subway stop away on Line 3 (Anguk Station). Changdeokgung is smaller, but it has a “Secret Garden” that was a lush and restful escape for past royals. If you come at the height of Seoul’s autumn–late October to early November–the garden will be aflame with color.
Access to Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung can be bought separately, but they are part of a 10,000-won ($10) integrated admission ticket that also gives you access to Deoksugung and Jongmyo Shrine, in case you’re into that sort of thing.
For additional culture, swing by either Bukchon or Namsangol Hanok Village, which are close to Gyeongbokgung and Namsan, respectively. These carefully preserved neighborhoods reflect traditional Korean architecture. Namsangol is set up as a tourist attraction, but Bukchon is more genuine, as people still live there.
Nature / City Views
One of the things that most surprised me about Seoul when I moved here was how convenient it is to access nature. Like any good ancient Asian capital city, Seoul was built within a ring of mountains. On weekends, public transportation is packed with people in hiking gear heading out for day hikes around Seoul.
On a long weekend, my recommendation for some moderate hiking and nice city views (on clear days) is Namsan, at the heart of the city. It’s the hill that N Seoul Tower is built on. Enjoy the carefully cultivated grounds of Namsan Park, snap pictures with the other tourists at the foot of the tower, and if your timing is right, you may even be able to catch the hourly cultural dance/martial arts/music shows held in the pavilion right next to the tower.
Maybe you’ll have a different opinion than me, but I enjoy walking along Cheonggyecheon Stream, which cuts through “downtown” Seoul and is close to many famous sights and neighborhoods: Gyeongbokgung, Namdaemun Market, City Hall, Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, etc. It’s a modest looking stream with some pretty serious history, having first been a tenement neighborhood for migrant workers, then a covered sewage repository, before the government decided to uncover it, clean it up, and make it into a center-city refuge.
Alternates / Add-Ons:
Slightly tougher on the cardiovascular system than Namsan but as easily accessible, with a rewarding view from the north of Gyeongbokgung and the “Blue House,” which is where the current South Korean president resides. I must have climbed Inwangsan half a dozen times during my time in Seoul, because it’s so easy to get to (Line 3, Dongnimmun Station) and can be done in half a day.
The lifeblood of Seoul, the Han River cuts through “old Seoul” (north of the river) and “new Seoul” (south of the river) and is an extremely lovely place to spend a few lazy afternoon hours. Bike rental stations are everywhere along the river (3,000 won, or $3, an hour) and is a good way to feel more like a local while still seeing some great iconic views of Seoul.
Here’s how to choose between your three best options for convenient, yet varied, nighttime fun:
Hongdae: University district. Youthful, energetic, foreigner-friendly.
Itaewon: U.S. military hangout turned chic “it” spot for the young, moneyed, and beautiful Koreans. Classy pubs, music venues, great international restaurants, clubs varying from the grungy (Gold Bar) to the high-end (Club Mute). English spoken everywhere.
Gangnam: Contains more exclusive clubs than your wallet can handle. Clubs often have a cover charge (average 30,000won) and feature pulsating house music or international DJ acts. Downsides: the clubs are far apart, and it can be difficult to catch a cab later in the night.
Particularly among Asian tourists, Seoul is considered a shopping mecca, and you could certainly come to Seoul with the sole intention of shopping and eating all weekend long. Here’s the breakdown on some of the most well-known shopping areas:
Insadong: This is the prime souvenir shopping street, a 1.5km-long stretch of shop after shop selling essentially the same (kitschy) tourist-aimed merchandise. The building Ssamzigil has some slightly more unique (and correspondingly more expensive) home goods and accessories stuff.
Hongdae / Ewha / Sinchon: Much like Hongdae nightlife is young and trendy, so is its shopping. Cheap socks and sweaters burst out of stalls, and you will practically trip over the number of pairs of shoes being sold. We’re talking entire streetfuls of shoes here. And when you get tired of shopping, it’s easy to find a quirky cafe to sit down at.
Myeongdong: Bursting at the seams with tourists on the weekends, but this is a good place to go for the more recognizable international fashion brands. Later in the afternoon and on into the evening, food carts with the most tempting treats will line the streets.
Okay, I’m not a foodie. I can subsist on the blandest, most unvarying of foods, as long as it doesn’t consume too much of my time or brainpower. However, there are just some dishes that are part of the experience of visiting Seoul, that I made sure my friends got a taste of during their time here:
Korean BBQ: Follow your nose, or the crowds. You can’t go wrong with this.
Bibimbap: The meat, vegetables, and rice mixed dish that originated in Jeonju, a city in central South Korea.
Bulgogi: Beef stewed in a sweet and soupy sauce.
Cafe culture: Take some time to rest your feet in one of Seoul’s numerous unique cafes, which are especially plentiful in the Hongdae district. Sure, you’ve got your regular big chains everywhere, but the unique ones try to differentiate themselves with theme, decor, food offerings… you name it.
Overrated! — Everyone knows about Gangnam (thanks, Psy), but in truth, it’s mostly a bunch of big business buildings, with not much “Seoul” to it. (See what I did there?) Oh, but the shopping must be great, you say. Uh, I guess, if you come all the way to Seoul just to shop for the internationally known brands that you can find in just about any city in the world. In short, you’re better off spending your time elsewhere.
So there you have it! My suggestions to getting a taste of Seoul in 3-5 days. Mix and match the above options to focus more on the types of activities you like. You can also take a look at some sample day itineraries I put together below (these are tried and tested because I often find myself wandering the same places over and over again):
For Culture-City Life-Shopping-Food: Gyeongbokgung – (Cheonggyecheon) – Myeongdong
For Nature-Culture: Inwangsan – Bukchon Hanok Village – Gyeongbokgung
For View-Culture-Shopping: Namsan – Namsangol Hanok Village – Myeongdong