Everybody loves a Cinderella story, and over the last few decades, Seoul has certainly proven to be just that. Having literally and financially pieced itself back together after the Korean war to emerge as not only a lynchpin in Asia’s business and financial scene, but as an international tourist destination as well, Seoul is now at the ball, dancing with the prince in glass slippers.
And if you’re worried about it turning into a pumpkin after midnight, don’t be – because Seoul’s nightlife is every bit as a charming and alluring as its daytime attractions.
Whether you’re marvelling at the natural beauty of Mount Inwang, home to South Korea’s most impressive temple complex, or staring, awestruck, up at the Namsan Tower (which, although it has been pipped at the post as the tallest skyscraper in Asia, still packs quite a visual punch), Seoul is sure to impress. A city of 23 million souls, Seoul has the enthusiasm and hospitality of a country town. Its residents delight in visitors, and the charming, quirky, almost childlike joy of its population belies the violent history it has suffered.
Soak up history at the Namdaemun Gate (currently being restored to its former glory), shop up a storm at the world-class boutiques of Apgujeong or delight in the array of incredible food on offer all over the city. It’s charming, invigorating, innovative and exciting.
In short, Seoul’s got soul – and is set to live happily ever after.
24 Hours In Seoul
Seoul. Gorgeously chaotic Seoul. As motley as bibimbap and fiery as gochujang, the capital of South Korea is a complex, savoury stew. One most difficult to grasp in 24 hours. The second-largest metropolis on the planet has come a long way. Indeed, it is nigh on impossible to imagine what Seoul was like before the “Miracle on the Han River”; that modern allegory of seismic financial reform that shepherded a dud post-war economy to a trillion dollar economy in less than four decades. Heady, intoxicating stuff. The fact that Seoul has sufficient economic clout to compete with the likes of Tokyo, London, Paris and New York, however, is just a statistic. For the average visitor, what makes the city so compelling a travel target is how all that financial growth and subsequent surge in confidence manifests Seoul’s singular swagger. The vibe of the city is purposeful, optimistic and brash. You can feel it in the smoky university gamer dens, aromatic and nocturnal gogigui shops, phantasmagorical malls, ultra-luxe golf clubs, hip boîtes of Hongdae, chaebol-lifer soju dives and in bold new urban development plans, like Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park. It all makes for one tantalizing prospect. With that, try to scratch some of these items off your Seoul itinerary.
Seoul’s Top 10
10. Gyeongbokgung Palace One of the largest palaces from the Joseon Dynasty. Walk the paths and soak up the opulence.
5. Seven Luck Casino This place is huge and a bit of a marvel. Not a gambler? No prob. Shop around and eat, instead.
9. Dongdaemun Market Stalls and stores that stay open all night bring in bucket loads of locals and tourists every day.
4. Beautiful Tea Museum A gem (especially for those wild and wacky tea fans). Peruse beautiful ceramics and enjoy a cuppa at the café.
8. National Museum of Korea A fascinating introduction to the history and culture of the now-divided nation.
3. Shinsegae A multi-storey department store with luxe brands at the top and genuine Korean food at the bottom.
7. War Memorial of Korea A touching place filled with the memories and pain of the past dealt with in a sensitive way.
2. Bukchon Hanok Village Walk the cobblestone paths and go back in time in this picturesque area.
6. Namdaemun Market Clothing and accessories galore, yummy street-food and the place to bag a cheap digital camera.
1. Myeongdong The banking and cultural centre and vibrant shopping area set in the heart of Seoul.
- National Museum of Korea – This is the largest museum in South Korea.
- Gyeongbokgung Palace – This beautiful historic site also houses the National Folk Museum of Korea.
- Changdeokgung Palace – This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates from the 1600s and offers a secret garden tour.
- Seoul Fortress Wall – The stretch of ancient wall from Mt Bugaksan to Inwangsan may be the best preserved in Seoul.
- War Memorial of Korea – These exhibits and statues provide historical perspectives on Korean wars.
Seoul Art & Culture
- Nanta Theatre – The free comedy performance about preparing a wedding feast is Korea’s longest-running show.
- Leeum Samsung Museum of Art – This beautiful building houses traditional Korean art and modern Western works. Cheonggyecheon – This once-polluted stream is now a place to walk and appreciate art and the beauty of Seoul.
- Insadong – This traditional neighbourhood is the place to go to experience Seoul as a local.
- Hanok Stays – A number of guesthouses offer hanok stays, or accommodations in traditional Korean houses.
- Samcheong-dong Bukchon – There are many little shops and great coffee shops here.
- Lotte Mart Seoul Station – This mall offers modern shopping, although not cheap prices.
- Myeongdong – This beautiful mall has been described by many as a shopper's paradise.
- Gwangjang Market – This market is a prime destination for food lovers and popular with tourists and locals.
- Namdaemun Market – This street market sells charming goods to remind you of Seoul.
Gay & Lesbian Seoul
- Trance – Foreigners and locals mix at this Seoul nightclub, with its own special drag queen entertainers.
- Why Not? – There’s no reason not to dance here until the sun comes up.
- Barcode – This friendly pub welcomes gays from around the world.
- Soho – This crowded, mixed nightclub offers a stage and stripper poles for the uninhibited.
- Queer-Bar – This easy-to-miss cellar bar is a great place for weeknight drinking.
- South Mountain (Namsan) Park – This beautiful park has a cable car leading to the distinctive N Seoul Tower.
- Bukhansan National Park – This large park offers great hiking in a scenic surrounding.
- Han River Boat Cruise – A day or night cruise on this river provides great city views.
- Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs – Ancient ruins where Korean kings and a queen are buried.
- 63 City – This skyscraper features sky-high city views and Sea World.
- Tour the grand Seoul World Cup Stadium, even if there are no football games scheduled.
- Watch an exciting game of Korean baseball at the Jamsil Baseball.
- See the top FC Seoul football team play at Dongdaemun Stadium.
- Cheer for your favourite horse at the Seoul Racecourse Park.
- Learn the basics of taekwondo, Korean’s national sport, at the famed Kukkiwon.
A bustling international locale with a plethora of eateries, drinking holes and shops within its boundaries, if you’re into faux Vuitton, this is the place for you Itaewon boasts the dubious status of being one of the best places in the world to bag imitation designer wares. Come nightfall, this place (while still fun) can turn a tad seedy. Strip clubs and prostitutes bring in busloads of drunken lads with their seductive siren songs, so be warned. But if you feed on the sordidness and feel like a good dance, Club Volume, one of the hottest clubs in the city is well worth a visit.
This hipster-heavy area around Hongik University is perfect if you’re looking for cool cats to chill with and a stack of stores with funky goods on offer. Since it’s such a young area, the nightlife is intense and the parties here stretch well into the wee hours.
Once the home of aristocrats and royalty, this upmarket end of Seoul is now packed with art galleries and stores selling handicrafts. Start with some shopping and follow it up with a stroll through the Jogyesa Temple and the Bosingak (a pretty bell pavilion). After you’re done and dusted, take in some people-watching with a truly excellent drop at one of the local teahouses.
The most affluent area of Seoul offers high-end restaurants and world-class shopping. It is home to the famous COEX Mall, a complex that also houses an aquarium, movie theatre and games centre. Apgujeong, Seoul’s answer to Beverly Hills, can also be found in Gangnam. If you want to check out fake boobs, fancy wheels and Korean incarnations of Paris Hilton, this is the place to be.
The highlight of this place? Lotte World (Seoul’s answer to Disneyland)! It’s a mammoth recreation complex that’s home to the largest indoor amusement park in the world, plus an outdoor theme park called Magic Island. For those with more refined tastes (or delicate stomachs), there is also a range of quality museums and art galleries in the area.
Seoul Eat & Drink
Club NB This hip-hopper’s haven is a club with flava. Get drunk and get your dirty dance on.
Elbon – The Table Found on the second level of the luxe department store, Elbon, this is officially one of the world’s top 50 restaurants. The chef is said to be crazy, but it’s clearly working. Sinsa-dong
Dal A plush yet cosy Indian restaurant serving up curries with class. Gahoe-dong
Bar 153 You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in the heart of Manhattan. Opulent surroundings with a glam clientele that put on the NYC style.
Palais de Gaumont Fine French fare amongst a sea of crystal and chandeliers.
Sanchon A meat-free heaven. The chefs churn out dishes in Buddhist-temple style. Eat like a king – er, monk!
Bada Sikdang A fusion of Korean and Western cuisine will meet your every food expectation. They don’t have chairs, though, and everyone sits on the floor.
8 Steps A major favourite with locals and tourists. Relax in the open courtyard or revel in the throbbing hum of the restaurant for the French and Italian-inspired menu. Samcheong-dong
Il Vino Rosso Imagine a traditional, English room with home-style Italian on the menu, smack bang in the middle of Seoul. Hooam-dong
Samwon Garden A picturesque place nestled in a gorgeous garden and frequented by Korean VIPs, this place serves traditional Korean chow.
Seoul Lunar New Year brings the city to a halt every year with massive celebrations. A great starting point for visitors are the festivities at the Seoul Namsan Traditional Theatre. January or February of every year, depending on the calendar.
If you find yourself freezing your caboose off during winter in Seoul, take the time to head to Gangwon for the Sokcho Seorak Snow Festival. Snowmen are built, sleighs are ridden, ice sculptures are licked and fireworks explode during this tourist favourite February.
The Lotus Lantern Festival marks the birthday celebrations of Lord Buddha and is one of the most vibrant parties of the year. The night lights up with rows and rows of lotus-shaped lanterns and an outdoor-stage and markets entertain the crowds. The date of the event varies slightly but always falls in May.
Hi! Seoul Festival in Hangang Park every May sees Seoul residents coming together to celebrate their city’s brilliance. This event is famed for the cultural performances on show as well as the general bonhomie it inspires throughout the city.
Visit the Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival in July for some hilarious mascots (one’s called Bummy and the other one’s a chilli pepper) and good ol’ childhood reminiscing. Check out the exhibition to learn about Korean cartoons and their roots. Plus, your friends back home will love you forever if you buy them a Bummy shirt!
When To Go
Winters are torturously cold and summers are uncomfortable hot and humid, so spring (March to May) is the best time to visit. Watch Seoul bloom with fresh cherry blossoms and azaleas while you soak up its warm sun.
- Average spring temperature: 18°C (64°F)
- Average summer temperature: 28°C (82°F)
- Average autumn temperature: 10°C (50°F)
- Average winter temperature: -2°C (28°F)
What To Miss
Time for a lesson in South Korean etiquette! Koreans are incredibly polite, sensitive people and will be greatly offended if you don’t follow the rules when it comes to manners:
- Unless you’re close friends or familiar with each other, don’t touch a South Korean person in any way. No playful slaps on the back or pats on the shoulder.
- Don’t point at things or people with your index finger.
- If you’re a guest in someone’s house, take your shoes off and leave them in the designated area. Make sure you bring some form of gift, whether it be flowers, fruit or chocolate.
- When accepting or passing something over, always use your right hand and be gentle – no grabbing!
- When greeting, always bow to the person of higher status.
- Never refuse food or a drink.
Avoid being wiped out by a car or bus by always using crossings and being ultra-careful. While Seoul’s residents stick closely to social etiquette, traffic rules are notoriously ignored.
If you really value your sobriety, you may want to rethink your visit to this city. Koreans are big drinkers and pretty much always follow their meals with a lengthy drinking session. One of their favourite tipples is soju, the infamous rice wine that’ll put you straight on your back after a few shots, to much raucous laughter from your Korean drinking buddies. You have been warned…
The subway (Seoul Metro) is one of the most advanced underground systems in the world and the way most people make their way around the city. A ‘Traffic Card’ represents the best value for multiple trips. There is also a bevy of colourful buses and a train line (Korail) at the ready.
The capital of South Korea, much like the rest of the country, is a phenomenal success story. The economic strides made by the once moribund backwater over the past half century amount to a recovery nearly without precedent. As a result, one can no longer discuss international business concerns without mention of South Korea and indeed, Seoul.
The city is a major lynchpin in the social and financial fabric of Asia. With a metropolitan area of 23 million people, with a bullet, Seoul precedes only Tokyo in urban population in the world. While not necessarily for people on a travel budget, Seoul offers a sumptuous array of tourist pleasures.
Mount Inwang is home to the most famous temple complex in Seoul and has put South Korea on the map for housing one of the most beautiful temples in the world. Shaman rituals still take place at the Guksadang shrine and a network of trails run past unusual rock formations and ancient fortress walls.Namsan Tower
While the Namsan Tower is no longer the skyscraper of record in Asia, it still affords the most impressive views of the vast Seoul cityscape.National Museum of Korea
The National Museum of Korea is a paramount experience as the best education in the history of the complex nation, with priceless Imperial relics from a variety of periods.Royal Palaces
Seoul contains no less than five former royal palaces, of which Gyeongbok-gung is the most important and pristine, despite destructive raids by the Japanese in 1592 and 1910.Namsan Park
Namsan is a landmark icon in Seoul. The mountain park sits in the centre of the city and offers a spectacular panoramic view. With botanical gardens, a wildlife refuge and aquarium, the cable car ride to the top is well worth it.Olympic Park
Olympic Park is a vivid reminder that Seoul did indeed put on a memorable Summer Games in 1988. The scenic park contains a sculpture garden, grassy spaces, trails, open air concert venues and is easily accessible via the subway.Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun is a traditional street market that comes to life after sunset with phenomenal food stalls.Yongsan Market
Famous as a technologically-progressive city, Yongsan Market is the best place in Seoul for cutting-edge electronics.
Lunar New Year
Celebrations in South Korea to mark the Lunar New Year in January or February bring the country to a standstill. Seoul's Folk Village is the place to be for the premier national holiday, with traditional performances on hand.International Drum Festival
The Seoul International Drum Festival, held in October or November in front of City Hall and the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts, is the paramount display of a traditional and venerable Korean art form.Lotus Lantern Festival
The Lotus Lantern Festival commemorates the Buddha's birthday every May with traditional and contemporary celebrations in and around Jongno Street in Seoul.Hi Seoul Festival
The Hi Seoul Festival is a spring carnival in April or May with a diverse itinerary of events throughout the city. From music and dance performances to light shows, fireworks and food fairs, the popular festival has it all.
Seoul has a humid continental climate with four seasons. Monsoon rains accompany the intense summer heat and the winter months receive regular snowfall.
- Winter (December to March) -7-10°C
- Spring (April to May) 7-23°C
- Summer (June to September) 17-30°C
- Fall (October to November) 3-20°C
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