Seoul is a city where you could easily spend weeks without getting bored. We spent there 10 days and still did not manage to do everything we had planned to. Nevertheless, 3 days in the city + 1 day for the DMZ should be enough to explore all the main sights and activities. Winter is pretty cold and summer super hot, making it a bit less enjoyable to move around, so spring and autumn are your best choices when planning a trip to South Korea. Let’s have a look at some of my favourite places to visit in Seoul.
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Gyeongbokgung Palace and the other palaces of Seoul
Being the most beautiful out of the 5 palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, the Gyeongbokgung palace is definitely the number one place to visit in the whole Seoul. Despite having been rebuilt just in the 1990s after the decades-long systematic destruction by the Japanese occupants, it did not lose the charm of the original 14th-century complex. What does the palace lack in authenticity, it simply makes up for it in its beautiful design. I fell in love with the majestic gates and incredibly detailed red, white and green roofs. The palace is best visited during the cherry blossoms or the colourful leaves seasons, always playing with colours due to visitors wearing traditional Korean hanboks.
Maybe not as majestic as the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the other 4 palaces of Seoul (the Changdeokgung, the Changgyeonggung, the Deoksugung and the Gyeonghuigung palace) still offer a great insight into Korean culture and history. They are conveniently located within walking distance from Changdeokgung.
Despite not lying exactly in Seoul (thank God!), but about 50km away, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is undoubtedly a must-see. The tensest borderline in the world is one of the most intense places I have ever visited and one of the last remanents of the sad heritage of the Cold War. As it is a protected military area, you can’t really visit the DMZ on your own. It is obligatory to join one of the few organised group tours. They are not cheap, the prices range between 50 to 130 USD, depending on which parts of the DMZ you want to visit.
Bukchon Hanok village
Big palaces are not the only way how to deep-dive into Korean history. If you prefer to explore more ordinary Koreans’ lives, head to the Bukcheon Hanok village. It is a hard to miss area located just between the Gyeonbokgung and the Changdeokgung palaces. It offers dozens of traditional Korean houses called Hanoks, easily recognisable by their large wooden doors and white walls. Most of them have been reconstructed and serve as regular housing. However, some are open to tourists, and you can even stay in a few rebuilt to guest accommodation. Last but not least, the streets of the Bukcheon village are full of delicious street food which you simply definitely need to try!
N(amsan) Seoul Tower
Similar to the Tokyo tower, the N Seoul Tower, which opened in 1971, serves as one of the traditional symbols of the city. Thanks to its ideal location on the Namsan Mountain (providing it with a total above the sea level height of 480 m, out of which 283 m is accounted to the mountain), it offers excellent panoramic views all over the city. You can either walk up to the tower yourself or grab a cable car from Myeongdong. The tower itself is full of other attractions, including the Sentoy (toy) Museum or the Hello Kitty Island. You can also find a restaurant famous for its thousands of colourful locks placed there by Korean lovers on the foot of the tower.
The Lotte Tower is one of the newest contributions to the VIP group of the world’s tallest buildings and Seoul’s symbols. Built by one of the largest Korean business conglomerates – the Lotte group, it towers up to the height of 555 meters, which makes it the 5th tallest in the world. However, due to its unusual shape, many are often mocked due to resembling the Lord of the Rings Sauron’s Eye, ominously watching over the city. Go up to the 118th floor to enjoy some vertigo views from the world’s highest glass-bottom observation deck or shop in the many luxurious stores located in the Lotte Mall at its foot.
War Memorial of Korea
If history is your thing, then the War Memorial of Korea is a must for you. Basically, one large war museum is also a great follow-up to your visit to the DMZ. The most important part, of course, is the exhibition focused on the Korean war from 1951 to 1953. But you can also visit displays dedicated to ancient Korean warfare or their engagement in battles outside the Korean Peninsula. To be honest, sometimes, the museum can be a bit exhausting – especially with the Korean language making the names of all the battles less distinctive. The most exciting part is thus the display of war techniques from the Korean war outside the building, with its amazing collection of tanks and jets.
As Tokyo has its Shibuya, Seoul has its Myeongdong. A lively shopping and entertainment district, attracting hordes of both Korean teenagers and foreign tourists. No matter if you come to Myeongdong to shop on some high-end brands, enjoy kinky street food or have great meals in its many restaurants, you won’t get disappointed. Especially once it gets dark and you will be able to enjoy the shiny forest of neon signboards.
Just about 10 minutes walk up North from Myeongdong lies the Jogyesa temple, probably the most beautiful temple in Seoul. Besides the rich design, there are fantastic eye-candy decorations, regularly changing throughout the year. For example, when I visited it in November, it was full of animals made of colourful flowers. One more great thing is that you can actually join the daily temple life and activities during a temple stay – read more below.
Line Friends Cafe and Store
Wish to enjoy great coffee in a cozy yet super cool and stylised environment? The Line Friends Cafe and Store is probably your best option in the whole city. Based on the popular emoticon characters from the Japanese communication app LINE, the Line Friends Cafe and Store really has a story to tell. Each floor of the three-storey building is super stylised to create various situations for the characters, make you enjoy the place and buy more Line Friends merchandise. What is significant is that they actually make great coffee and food too.
The Racoon cafe and other animal cafes
Similar to Japan, the Koreans have a thing for cute animals. And as such, Seoul is full of various animal cafés. These are basically places where you can come, have a cup of your favourite beverage and observe or play with particular animals. And the selection in Seoul is probably even crazier than in Tokyo. Our pick went to Blind Alley Racoon Cafe. I have actually never seen one alive before, as they don’t live in the Czech Republic. But in Blind Alley, they not only have Racoons but a capybara and a little guinea pig too. You can also check a meerkat cafe, a sheep cafe, or one with turtles and sugar gliders from other options in Seoul.
Truly a unique experience you should not pass on if you have a bit more time to spend in Korea, other than a quick run through the main sights. Initially, a cultural program organised at the onset of the 2002 football World Cup, it nowadays includes 110 temples all around the country. It attracts more than 11,000 visitors per year. Its main idea is to allow the public to join the temple life and experience local monks’ everyday rituals and routines.
You can either join the program just for a few hours-long sessions or fully emerge yourself into the experience and stay in the temple overnight or even for several days or months. Suppose you are willing to give up a piece of your comfort. In that case, you will be rewarded with a truly enlightening experience. Joining the temple stay means joining the actual monks and following their schedule, including waking up early in the morning, praying and chanting several times a day, training various virtues and skills or eating the typical vegetarian temple food.
In ancient times, Seoul used to be a fortified city, surrounded by a large fortress wall with 8 massive city gates. The walls had to step down to the further expansion of the town, yet you can still find 6 out of the 8 original gates standing. The most famous is Namdaemun (the South Gate), also known as Sungnyemun, the Gate of Exalted Ceremonies. Unfortunately, just a few years ago, it had to be rebuilt entirely, as a crazy arsonist decided to set it on fire in 2008. Nowadays, back again in its full strength, it carries the title of the No. 1 National Treasure of South Korea, and it is guarded by a guard of honour in colourful traditional costumes.
The plan was to build a Disneyland in Seoul. Still, the developers haven’t managed to obtain the Disney license. In any case, Lotte World resembles its more famous Disney relative a lot, including the signature Cinderella castle. Divided into two parts – the Magic Island (outdoors) and Adventure (indoors), Lotte World is Korea’s top amusement park with everything you would expect from it. Including the long waiting lines for each of the attractions.
Until 2005, the Cheonggyecheon Stream existed just as a neglected waterway hidden by an overpass. Then, however, the city government decided to transform it into one of its show off projects and invested huge money into revitalising the area. Nowadays, the stream is still just a waterway going through the very centre of the city, but it looks very cultivated. It is used to display various cultural items or art pieces, usually located in the middle of the stream, combining the art with the natural water element.
Seoul offers a great variety of attractions for lovers of history, culture, coffee or quirky entertainment. But, of course, everyone will find their own kind of entertainment.