Seoul: The Fusion of Old and New in the Heart of South Korea
January 1, 1970
From a global traveler’s perspective, Seoul — South Korea’s capital city — is fast becoming a go-to destination. It brims with character, offering both first-time and more frequent visitors an extraordinarily kaleidoscopic and culinary experience without your ever having to leave its gates — some of them impressively real and still standing today. If you want the whole nine yards, you’ll need at least five days to squeeze in architecture, culture, food, heritage, and natural beauty.
When is the best time to visit South Korea?
Timing is an important factor in travel. By knowing which seasonal festivals to attend, you can broaden and deepen your experience. By planning your trip based on the climate, you can pack the right clothes. Proper attire makes a huge difference when you are trying to explore as well as appreciate an unfamiliar city. Most people are likely to suggest that the best time to visit Seoul is during fall due to the cool and crisp atmosphere that prevails between September and November. It’s the time to witness the incredible foliage and the country’s bountiful harvest at that time of year. Spring, however, is also mesmerizing as it sizzles and pops with colors and just the right amount of chill in the air. Winter in Seoul is particularly cold — more so than other destinations like Busan, the country’s second most populous city. Pestered by extreme heat and occasional typhoons, summer is the least recommended season during which to visit. For your home base, it’s best to pick a guesthouse or a hotel in downtown Seoul, which is at least 40 minutes away from Incheon Airport via the Airport Railroad Express (A’REX). Somewhere near Seoul Station or Hongik University Station is a good place to start.
Transport Options Around Seoul
Seoul’s subway network is one of the most complex yet organized in the world, making it easy for you to go from one tourist attraction to another. Download the Subway Korea App to monitor your train’s arrival and departure schedule. To skip the queues at ticketing booths, buy and top up your T-Money Card at the airport or any convenience store. You can also use the card for bus and cab rides. If you need to place calls while you’re in South Korea, you can rent a basic phone at Incheon Airport. This option is easy and inexpensive. Prepare to shell out somewhat more bucks if you want to rent a smartphone with a data plan or a WiFi hotspot egg. You’ll need to present your passport and credit card on each occasion. From the customary to the unusual, there are different routes of discovery to take:
Discover Seoul’s Ancient Sites
Spend a half-day exploring the residences of ancient royal families. For 10,000 won, you can get a ticket that admits you to the Jongmyo Shrine and the four palaces: Changgyeongung, Changdeokgung (including Huwon and the Secret Garden), Deoksugung, and Gyeongbokgung. All areas are closed on Mondays, except for Jongmyo Shrine and Gyeongbokgung, which are closed on Tuesdays. Not far away, time slows down at Bukchon Hanok Village. Here, you can take a stroll through alleys lined by traditional Korean houses called hanok. These structures showcase Seoul’s traditional charm. They become more memorable when captured together with autumn’s red and yellow leaves. After walking, recharge with a bowl of sam ye tang or ginseng chicken soup at Baengnyeon Samgyetang. This popular restaurant is found right at the village entrance. There are several spaces across Seoul to satisfy an interest in Korean art, culture, and history. Check out the exhibits at the SOMA Museum of Art in Songpa and the Horim Art Center in Gangnam. Visit both the National Museum of Korea and the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan. If you want to stay within one gu or district, make it Dongdaemun. It’s got Dongdaemun History & Culture Park, Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and Doosan Art Center, all within walking distance of one another.
Consider Seoul’s Parks for Recreation
Parks are a refreshing sight in the urban sprawl. They also provide a place for the locals to spend time with family members and friends, exercise, walk the pets, think, or just breathe. The best thing about them is that there are no entrance fees. If you have an afternoon to spare, go people-watching at the Olympic Park or the World Cup Stadium and Parks. Catch the sunset on the Han River at the Hangang Citizen’s Park (Yeouido) or the Yongsan Family Park. If you have the stamina, why not climb one of the four mountains surrounding Seoul? Take the Baegak Trail; a portion of the old city wall that has been preserved. It runs through Baegaksan (‘san’ means mountain) and offers a breathtaking view of the cityscape. Namsan is the more popular option because of its tourist-friendly services such as the cable car and observatory.
Enjoy Korean Traditional Dishes
While anywhere in South Korea can instantly become a foodie paradise, Seoul is the epicenter for neo-Korean and multicultural cuisine. The movers and shakers of the dining scene can be spotted in youthful Hongdae (Mapo), high-end Cheongdam (Gangnam), and cosmopolitan Itaewon (Yongsan), among others. These areas are also home to bars and clubs where you can drink the night away. Try the makgeolli, a sweet rice brew native to Korea, at any Sanchez Makgeolli branch. Or wash the sam yeo sal down with after-dinner drinks at Magpie Brewing Co.
No Seoul searching is complete without dropping by at least one of the traditional markets. The Dongdaemun Market is a stone’s throw away from the high-end Shinsegae Department Store. Yet, it pulls off the best deals on a variety of goods, from foods to gadgets to apparel. Enter the Pyeonghwa Market for more fashion choices. Local delicacies like tteok bok ki (spicy rice cakes), hotteok (sweet pancake), and eomuk (fish cakes) are best eaten in the markets or streets.
Visit Seoul’s Modern Restaurants and Malls
Go crazy over everything pink — except for the bread and beverage offerings — at the Hello Kitty Cafe branches in Hongdae and Myeongdong. See the impressive architecture at Ewha Woman’s University. Pay your respects to the long dead, as in Baekje-era long, in the Bangidong Ancient Tombs site. Or drink tea with Buddhist monks at the Bongeunsa Temple. The shopping streets of Myeongdong and Insadong are actually a maze. The stores at every turn are meant to corner you, especially those K-beauty brands. If you skipped the first Etude House or Face Shop, you might not be able to resist the three other Etude Houses or Face Shops in the next blocks. Shopping K-beauty products is what you came here for, right?
Whatever the season is, and whatever your preferences are, you will find something to discover in the heart of South Korea. Seoul’s fusion of the modern and the traditional makes it an exciting destination for international travelers. While trying on a hanbok for free at Gwanghwamun Square, look around and notice the plaza’s contemporary design. After snapping a selfie with King Sejong’s monument in the background, connect instantly to one of the public WiFi hotspots in the area. Here’s to hoping that when you leave, you’ll take home a piece of this present-day wonderland!