Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, I took many aspects of my hometown for granted. This is my first summer in back after going away to college, and the visit has made me realize how much I missed my city and my life as a regular teen in Seoul. Here is an insider’s guide to Seoul, filled with a list of my favorite places and things to do here!
Granted, in such a bustling and constantly changing city, my range of knowledge remains relatively small; I can’t guarantee a full guide covering the entirety of Seoul. Help me out and tell me your favorite places in the comments below!
|A Local’s Guide to Seoul, South Korea|
Best time of Year
Late May till early June is ideal. It’s the most perfect weather of the year: not full of pollen and yellow dust like in April, and not too hot and humid like in July (it’s monsoon season). Not to mention that late May is still finals season for all Korean students, meaning the popular sites won’t be as crowded as they usually are.
Recommended Number of Days
4 days would be enough to enjoy portions of Seoul, but I would recommend a whole week for the full experience. Seven days is a good number to visit all the hot spots in the city, as well as spend some time shopping or relaxing.
Recommended Number of People
2 to 3 people to help coordinate and plan your trip, as well as enjoy your stay as a group.
Getting Around/Apps to Download
Grabbing a taxi can be convenient, but sometimes the subway will get you around faster. You can download an app on Google Play called KakaoMetro that will show you the map of the metro system, a live update to what time the next train will arrive at your station, and an interactive function that helps you calculate how long it will take from one stop to another.
Eat, Drink, Stay, See, Acquire
*Starred places are highly recommended
- *마녀주방 (Witch’s Kitchen): A Western-Korean fusion food style restaurant decorated in a Halloween theme. Be sure to try the ringer cocktails, drinks that flow down from a plastic IV bag into your glass. I also highly recommend the sweet potato cream pizza, with a sweet potato spider on top, and kimchi fried rice, garnished with a skull shaped fried egg.
- *요멘야 고에몬 (Yomenya Goemon): I think I came to this restaurant four times within the last three weeks. Yomenya Goemon serves Japanese style pasta and omurice (omelette with rice). Their best dish is the The wait line is long (I waited over an hour once) but I will assure you it was worth every minute.
- *갤러리로얄 (Gallery Royal): Unlike most of the restaurants on this list, Gallery Royal is not as well known. This place is an absolute favorite of mine, and a hidden gem of Seoul, if I should say so myself. The first floor is an exhibition site for home interior design, and the second floor is a semi-formal restaurant. Brunch is popular amongst the few lucky ones who know of this place, but I would say the dinner course is the real deal. Medium cooked tenderloin comes with an assortment of vegetables and garnish. Pair that with a glass of French wine and *mmm*
- 아비꼬 (Abiko): Japanese curry chain restaurant. Choose your type of curry, the spiciness level (0-4) of curry, and toppings. My favorite is the level 0 herb chicken curry with cream cheese croquette and garlic flake toppings. The level 0 has no spiciness at all, the chicken bits in the curry is just the right amount of tenderness that goes so well with the savory curry, rice, and cheesy croquette. Abiko is so popular that it opened a store in NYC!
- *새마을식당 (Saemaeul Restaurant): You can’t miss Korean-BBQ when in Korea. You will easily find Saemaeul pretty much anywhere you go. The yultan bulgogi (spicy marinated beef) is the most popular dish on the menu, along with 7 minute kimchi pork stew. The stew comes with a bowl of rice and seaweed flakes; the bowl will be empty before you know it! The link is in Korean, but the photos of the best dishes is immune to any language barrier.
- 자연별곡 (Jayeon Byeulgok): The best way to try a little bit of everything is going to a buffet. Jayeon Byeulgok specializes in traditional Korean cuisine- buffet style. Although the menu has seasonal changes, but year-round favorites are bossam (boiled pork) with an array of greens and sauces, and Chungmu-style kimbap. (Kimbap are rice rolls filled with vegetables and meats. The concept is very similar to Japanese maki.)
- 두끼 (Dookki): Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) is a classic Korean street food dish. Dookki specializes in tteokbokki, DIY style. Choose the rice cakes, toppings, and sauces of your choice, stick ‘em in a pot and get ‘em going! Don’t worry; employees are there to help you if it’s your first time.
- *마켓오 (Market O): A five course lunch menu (with steak as the entree!) for less than $30? Yes, please. Uninterested? That’s okay, go for the beef and mushroom risotto, or the mentaiko (pollock roe) cream pasta with grilled salmon.
- *주택 (Jootack): This guesthouse theme restaurant is the perfect place to have brunch and coffee. See if you can grab the Jootack Hamburg Steak, since they only sell ten a day! I ordered the said dish, along with aglio olio pasta. Perfect for a first meal of the day on a lazy Saturday.
- *목포집 닭도리탕 (Mogpojib): This restaurant has been featured in several TV shows for its delicious braised spicy chicken (닭볶음탕), made with chunks of savory boiled chicken and vegetables.
Drink and Dessert
- *오설록 (Osulloc): Osulloc specializes in a variety of green tea. Their blended tea series include green or black tea infused with different flowers and fruits. My favorites are the red papaya black tea and the Jeju tangerine green tea. Check out Osulloc’s aesthetic Instagram as well!
- *빌리엔젤 (Billy Angel): Billy Angel Cake Company sells not only cake, but macarons, cookies, and other desserts that will definitely satisfy your sweet tooth. I highly recommend the carrot cake, made with cream cheese frosting, and the mango milk in a glass bottle.
- A R T C: Can’t choose between coffee or wine? Have both at A R T C. This red brick style cafe completely blends into the alley it’s located in (Hint: There is a red telephone booth right in front of the entrance). A R T C holds events and exhibitions, which is why everything about this place is so aesthetic. Sit back on a comfortable couch with your friends and enjoy a cappuccino, a red wine sangria, and some mocha tiramisu cake.
- *Kakao Friends Ryan Café: This cafe is located on the third floor of the biggest Kakao Friends flagship store in Korea. Kakao Friends are emoticon characters featured in the most popular Korean messenger app, KakaoTalk. The characters became so popular that they have been used for various products and commercials, and opened dozens of stores across the country. The Ryan Cafe features a cute bear character named (take a guess) Ryan, and offers delicious treats, including yuzu flavored cupcakes, raspberry macarons, and fresh milk ice cream, all endorsed with the Kakao Friends theme.
- *인사동 (Insadong Tea House): The ultimate traditional Korean style tea house. The interior looks like a traditional house, complete with carved stone seats and wooden beams on the ceiling. Try the sanghwacha (쌍화차), a hot tea made of dry materials such as cinnamon, dates, and other traditional herbs. It’s also topped with pine nuts, walnuts, and even a raw egg if you want! You can also have yumilgwa (유과), or Korean sweets.
- SUSU Café: Be sure to take a bunch of photos with your friends in this cafe. SUSU takes on a garden theme, so the entire shop is adorned with greenery. Enjoy a relaxing coffee break in the forest, smack in the center of the city.
- *설빙 (Sulbing): The ultimate Korean dessert cafe. Sulbing specializes in bingsoo, a popular shaved ice dessert with a variety of toppings. The most popular bingsoo is the injulmi bingsoo (인절미 빙수), shaved milk ice topped with roasted bean flour and tiny bits of mochi. You can also get the matcha bingsoo, or the strawberry bingsoo, where the bowl is piled high with slices of strawberry, drizzled with condensed milk.
- Starbucks: You might be thinking “Starbucks? But that’s everywhere!” But there are a few drinks on the menu that you will find only in Korea. Avocado lovers will definitely adore the avocado blended. While you’re there, try the cherry blossom latte and the hoji tea latte (hoji is oven roasted green tea) as well.
Guesthouses are popular choices when it comes to looking for a place to stay. Similar to Airbnb, guest houses, or hostels, are cheap and well-furnished so that your nights are comfortable and safe. Many places are as cheap as less than $15 a night! The most popular ones are located near Hongdae and Myeongdong, two of the most popular shopping streets and tourist attractions in Seoul.
- According to Booking.com, Comet Guesthouse Iteawon has an “Exceptional” rating of 9.6, with 224 verified guest reviews. Most highly rated for its free WiFi and comfortable beds, Comet Guesthouse is also said to be one of the best rated in Seoul for its convenient location and negotiable price.
- The Ryu Guest House Gangnam is also a popular choice with a “Wonderful” rating of 9.3 and 142 verified guest reviews. Ryu Guest House is walking distance from Apgujeong subway station, a hot spot for shopping and fun. Many of the reviews compliment the host, Danny, to be wonderful, helpful, and attentive.
- If you’re looking for somewhere a little fancier to stay in, Hotels.com recommends the Oakwood Premier Coex Center. This 5-star hotel has a “Superb” rating of 9.0, and 185 reviews. Oakwood places you in one of the most popular spots in all of Seoul. The hotel is part of COEX, an enormous shopping mall, complete with stores, restaurants, a convention center, a public library, a movie theatre, and an aquarium. The Jamsil Olympic Stadium is also nearby, where the 1988 Seoul Olympics were held. The stadium is currently in use to hold concerts and festivals.
- The Shilla Seoul is also another highly recommended hotel. With an “Exceptional” rating of 9.4 and 805 reviews, The Shilla is complete with a luxurious spa, sauna, and outdoor pools. There is even a small underground shopping mall! The Shilla is close to many traditional sites and main tourist attractions, such as the Gyeongbok Palace (see below) and the National Museum of Korea.
- 경복궁 (Gyeongbok Palace) / Subway Stop: Gyeongbokgung (Line #3/ Orange Line): Arguably the best place to experience the full traditional Korean experience. Built in 1935, Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces, and the main one of the Josun Dynasty (1392-1910). Receive free admission if you wear a traditional hanbok to the palace! You can rent one from stores nearby.
- 북촌 한옥마을 (Bukchon Hanok Village) / Subway Stop: Anguk (Line #3/ Orange Line): A traditional folk village in the middle of the city. These homes that have been preserved for centuries are now open to public, many houses, or hanoks, operating as traditional Korean tea houses, restaurants, and more, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the ultimate urban life of Korea that was the norm hundreds of years ago.
- 뮤지엄 김치간 (Museum Kimchikan) / Subway Stop: Anguk (Line #3/ Orange Line) or Jongno 3-ga (Line #5/ Purple Line): The Insasong district is overflowing with museums, galleries, and exhibitions that will draw you into the beauteous artifacts of Korea. The Kyung-In Museum of Fine Arts and the Beautiful Tea Museum are highly recommended, but the Museum Kimchikan is a definite must. It is a museum dedicated to kimchi, a traditional spicy side dish made of salted and fermented cabbage. Kimchi is not only a staple food in daily meals, but also the face of Korean cuisine. Labeled under UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and one of CNN’s world’s top 11 food museums in 2015, the Museum Kimchikan is a go-to.
- 강남역 (Gangnam Station) / Subway Stop: Gangnam (Line #2/ Green Line) or Shinbundang Line (Dark Red Line): Gangnam Style, anyone? There a tribute stage dedicated to Psy and his single that was the first video ever to hit a billion views on Youtube. But that’s just the beginning: two streets separated by a boulevard is bustling with stores, cafes, and restaurants.
- 잠실 롯데 타워 (Jamsil Lotte Tower) / Subway Stop: Jamsil (Line #2/ Green Line or Line #8/ Pink Line): As the tallest building in Seoul, the Lotte World Tower is easy to spot from almost everywhere around the city. The 123 story glass skyscraper is home to the first Hard Rock Cafe in Korea, the Guinness World Records largest LED cinema screen, and Seoul Sky, the observation decks from the 117th to the 123rd floor, with sections that have transparent glass floors (not recommended to those with acrophobia).
- 가로수길 (Garosu Street) / Subway Stop: Apgujeong or Sinsa (Line #3/ Orange Line): Garosu gil (street) is often known as the “artists’” street, lined with eccentric designer stores, colorful coffee shops, and flashy pop-up stores. Even the rows of trees are decorated with “tree sweaters” or draped with fairy lights!
- 명동 (Myeongdong) / Subway Stop: Myeongdong (Line #4/ Light Blue Line): The ultimate shopping street for foreigners. Find yourself surrounded by people speaking more languages than you would have thought (mostly English, Japanese, and Chinese). Don’t forget to visit the “street food alleyway” to try a variety of savory and sweet snacks.
- COEX Mall / Subway Stop: Samsung (Line #2/ Green Line): Gangnam doesn’t just stop at the station by the same name. It’s actually an entire district on the south end of the Han River, with Gangnam literally meaning “south of the river.” Stop by COEX mall for some more shopping, more food, and the internationally renowned Starfield Library.
- *Giordano: Although originally from Hong Kong, Giordano is one of the leading and most popular apparel retailers in South Korea. Giordano offers casual and semi-casual wear for men and women.
- *SPAO: Whatever SPAO releases, it always becomes the trendsetting style amongst young adults. This casual and business casual clothing brand also regularly collaborates with other franchises, such as Pokemon, to release clothes with fun and cute graphic designs (I have a super cute navy sweater with Jigglypuff embroidered onto the front).
- Bang Bang: This casual wear brand is so huge in Korea that there is even an intersection road in Gangnam named Bang Bang Intersection, in which there is original Bang Bang store that stands four stories high since the 1980s.
- 8seconds: Commonly known as the “H&M of Korea,” 8seconds blew up in popularity when G-Dragon, member of one of the most famous Korean boy band group, Big Bang, modelled for the clothing brand.
- *TBJ Play: If you’re looking for something that says “I’m not too showy, but I’m really cool and chill,” TBJ play sweatshirts and t-shirts should be your next go to.