Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a huge metropolis where modern skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture meet Buddhist temples, palaces and street markets. Notable attractions include futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a convention hall with curving architecture and a rooftop park; Gyeongbokgung Palace, which once had more than 7,000 rooms; and Jogyesa Temple, site of ancient locust and pine trees.
Seoul (pronounced “Suh-Ool”, not “Soul”, and DEFINITELY NOT “See-Ole”) is the largest city and capital of the Republic of Korea (also known as “South Korea”). When including Incheon and the surrounding suburbs, Seoul is the second largest metropolitan area in the world (after Tokyo) with over 25 million people. It is only one-twelfth the size of Beijing in terms of area, but has a larger population. This makes for a very crowded city with lots of traffic. While New Yorkers or Parisians may get used to the pushing and shoving in the subways at rush hour or the occasional bumping into strangers in the busy shopping malls on the weekends, it can be a new experience for people used to a more sedate and relaxed lifestyle. Seoul is a bustling 24-hour neon light-filled mega city and it’s a place where you can always find somewhere to eat or drink at any time of the day in almost any area.
Being the epicenter of over 5,000 years of Korean history, you can still find remnants of ancient Korean civilization here and there. This is despite two destructive Japanese invasions (16th century), forced colonization and cultural annihilation by Japan (1910-1945), and the devastating Korean War (1950-1953). Before all of these tragic episodes in its history, Korea had one of the most advanced civilizations in the world having invented the world’s first movable type (200 years before Gutenberg), water clock, astronomical observatory, and ironclad ship (known as the “turtle ship”). The legendary King Sejong also promulgated the invention of the amazingly easy-to-learn and scientifically logical Korean alphabet known as hangul (which was recently selected by the Cia-Cia tribe in Indonesia as their writing system for its efficiency and accuracy). In the late 19th century, Seoul even became the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone, and telegraph systems all at the same time.
But most Koreans only think of the painful episodes of the country’s past and, as a result, Koreans are eagerly looking forward to making a new future almost to an obsessive point. That’s why you’ll see a lot of signs saying “New” this or “New” that. And that’s also what makes Koreans one of the most forward-looking and, at the same time, most impatient people in the world. Everything is pali pali (or “faster faster”) in Seoul.
Getting into Seoul is easy. Incheon International Airport, ranked the best airport in the world by Skytrax in 2012, has one of the fastest immigration and baggage claim you’ll ever see. If you’re lucky (and flying first or business class), you can literally get out of the airplane and on a bus heading to the city in less than 10 minutes sometimes. Right outside of the airport building are buses taking you to Seoul. You can choose between the standard bus (9,000 won per adult and 5,000 won per child, free for children 5 and under) and the deluxe KAL bus (15,000 won per adult and 7,500 won per child, free for children 5 and under). Check the schedule and prices here. You can purchase your ticket at the ticket counter outside (cash or credit card). Bus attendants will help you with your baggage and you can purchase a ticket from them or after boarding the bus (cash only). Getting to downtown Seoul will take about 45 minutes when there’s no traffic, but can take up to an hour and a half on a Friday afternoon with lots of traffic. A standard taxi (usually a Hyundai Sonata with varying level of service) will cost about 60,000 won and a deluxe taxi (black luxury car with excellent service) will cost 100,000 won and up to downtown Seoul.
Having said all that, one of the most efficient (and possibly the least expensive) ways to travel between the airport and anywhere in Seoul is to take the AREX train right inside the airport. While you can purchase an express ticket directly to Seoul Station in downtown, to save money (and only spend an additional 10 minutes) you could purchase a regular “commuter” ticket to either Seoul Station or any other station in between, including Gimpo Airport (where you can get directly on Subway Lines 5 & 9). For more information, visit the web sites for AREX and Seoul Subway.
Other handy transportation sites:
Seoul can largely be divided into two parts- the older and more historic Gangbuk (“River North”) and the newer and more affluent Gangnam (“River South”). The Han River divides the two right down the middle. You’ll find most tourist sites (like Gyeongbokgung, Insadong, Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, Seoul N Tower, and Itaewon) in Gangbuk. But to get a feel for modern Seoul’s clubs, nightlife, shopping, and fashion, Gangnam is where it’s at. Gangnam’s per capita income is about double that of Gangbuk’s.
Here are some of the top things to do in Seoul arranged in a 7 day itinerary. The symbol “*” means a highly recommended or must-do.
Day 1: Touristy Things
Gyeongbokgung (*) is the main palace in the city. It is located at Gyeongbokgung (line 3) and Gwanghwamun (line 5) subway stations. This is the heart of Seoul as you will find the Sejong Performing Arts Center, the Admiral Yi Sunshin statue, and the U.S. and Japanese embassies. The presidential Blue House is located on the hill behind Gyeongbokgung, known for its ideal feng shui positioning. Entrance is 3,000 won and there is often a changing of guard ceremony outside the main entrance. Inside you will find the throne of the Korean king, a meditation pond, and other buildings used by the royal court. The palace and grounds are very modest compared to the grandeur of the Forbidden Palace or the Palace of Versailles, reflecting the smaller size of the Korean kingdom and the Confucian nature of the court. You can also visit theNational Folk Museum (in the rear) for free where many Korean traditional costumes and the various kinds of kimchi are on display. Nearby Tosokchon is a famous Korean restaurant servingsamgyetang (chicken soup with a whole chicken, rice, ginseng, etc.), open from 10am to 10pm. There is usually a very long line during busy hours. If you don’t want to wait, try as an alternative Goryo Samgyetang near the Sejong Performing Arts Center.
Samcheongdong is a quaint neighborhood of small cafes and shops located within a short walking distance of Gyeongbokgung. Just stroll down from the National Folk Museum and turn left when you exit the grounds. This is a nice place to just wander around and maybe get a bowl ofpatbingsu (shaved ice topped with sweet red bean, ice cream, condensed milk, rice cakes, and fruit) at one of the cafes after looking at some of the unique shops there. You will also find theBukchon Hanok Village here on the way to Insadong.
Samcheonggak (*) is an exclusive fine dining Korean restaurant located on top of a hill near the presidential Blue House. It was once used by former president Park Chung Hee as akisaeng (Korean-style “geisha”) house for entertaining high-ranking government officials. Besides the modern main dining hall, there are also beautiful hanok (traditional style house) buildings that can be used for private functions such as weddings or banquets. This where many of Seoul’s elites, especially politicians and business leaders, meet to have a power lunch or hold an aristrocratic introduction of their marriageable offspring. It also occasionally serves as a location for filming Korean drama and movie scenes. Samcheonggak’s set menu price ranges from 50,000 won to 150,000 won per person. The pricier set menus feature Korean royal cuisine with dishes such as shinseollo (royal hot pot). Take a taxi there (only 5,000 won from Gwanghwamun or Samcheongdong) and return by boarding the free shuttle bus service that leaves every hour for Anguk subway station. Be sure to ask when the next bus leaves before you sit down to eat, so you won’t to have to wait an entire hour.
Huwon (“Secret Garden”) is located within Changdeokgung only steps before from heading into Insadong. It is a six-acre garden, first built in 1623, filled with woodland paths, lotus ponds, and pleasure pavillions. Definitely worth the visit, if you have the time. To visit Huwon, you must be on a guided tour (offered in Korean, English, or Japanese). The three-hour tours start at 10am, 1pm, and 2pm. Closed on Mondays.
Insadong (*) is where you’ll find traditional Korean arts and crafts such as celadon pottery and ink drawings. There are quite a few art galleries here as well. This is the place to buy that souvenir for friends and family back home. Be aware that many cheap imports are sold on the streets and it is best to buy authentically Korean items in a reputable shop. Always check to see where the product is made in before making your purchase decision. To be safe, go to Insa Korea which has a couple of dozen stalls with reliable sellers. Prices are all marked and very fair and you can even ask for a 20% discount if you purchase several items at a single stall. You can walk to Insadong from Samcheongdong and have a nice lunch at one of the hanok restaurants. The main road is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only area on Sundays. Street vendors sell cornhotteok (pancake with honey and sugar inside) and other traditional desserts and snacks.
Ssamziegil (in Insadong) At the centre of Insadong lies a building called Ssamziegil which has been marked as the “Special Insadong within Insadong”. One highlight of Ssamziegil are the ramps that allow you to do window shopping while climbing comfortably towards the top. The surprise does not end at the top though. When you arrive at a little pathway accompanied with two fences filled with love notes and locks, walk inside and find yourself at the top of a staircase. Keep walking down the staircase and you will be met with more shops. Keep walking down another level, and you will be met with a neoprint shop which rents free hanbok costumes. There is a huge range of traditional costumes available, including the Joseon King’s costume. Complete your costume with a nice traditional hair accessory and you are ready to take neoprints!
Cheonggyecheon is the city’s $900 million urban beautification project that “restored” the stream that used to run through downtown (but was later paved over with a highway ramp and filled with merchant shops below the ramp). Although the stream runs in the reverse direction of how it naturally runs and water is artificially pumped in, Cheonggyecheon has helped revitalize the downtown area bringing in families visiting on the weekends, tourists walking from Insadong to Myeongdong, and office workers who want to relax and have a beer after work at one of the many pubs nearby. You can dip your feet in the water after a long day’s walk before heading to Myeongdong.
Myeongdong (*) is Seoul’s busiest area teeming with tens of thousands of people at any given time. There are hundreds of shops here and you can find Korean cosmetics stores like The Face Shop, Missha, Etude House, Skin Food, and Nature Republic as well as the Ralph Lauren-like Bean Pole. Be sure to stop by O’ Sulloc for a nice warm green tea capuccino or refreshing green tea ice cream. There are also many street vendors selling snacks like ddokbokki (rice cakes with oden in a spicy red sauce) and, at night, the pojangmacha (tents with tables) open where soju (Korean vodka), makgoli (white rice wine), and various hot and cold appetizers are served. Some good appetizers to try are sannakji (live baby octopus chopped up to be dipped in sesame oil or hot sauce), dakdongjib (chicken gizzards stir-fried with onions and bell peppers),golbengi (conch in hot sauce with vegetables), sewoogui (salted and grilled shrimp), andnajkibokkum (spicy stir-fried octopus). Plenty of people watching and shopping to do here. In addition, the B1 level food court at Lotte Department Store is not to be missed with its delicious snacks (be sure to try some fresh Korean pastry). You can also buy that kimchi or gim (dried seaweed) you always wanted to bring back home here. Nearby hotels: Westin Chosun Hotel, Lotte Hotel, and Ibis Myeongdong Hotel.
Seoul City Tour Bus circulates 26 key tourist stops in downtown Seoul where you can hop on and off as much as you want. The bus comes by every 30 minutes and stops at places like Gwanghwamun, Seoul Station, Itaewon, Myeongdong, Seoul N Tower, Changdeokgung, etc. A one-day pass costs 10,000 won and is valid from 9am to 9pm. There is also a night bus at 8pm for 5,000 won. You can purchase tickets in front of the Donghwa Duty Free Shop near Gwanghwamun subway station. Closed on Mondays, except for Mondays that are national holidays and Mondays during the summer season.
Meteor Youth Voluntary Club offers free customized tours by Korean college student volunteer guides who want to practice their English and show you their country. You can decide when and where to meet to start the tour.
Day 2: City Lights
Seoul N Tower is the highest point in the city. You’ll need to take a cable car to its base and then one of the elevators to get a magnificent 360 degree view of Seoul. Admission to the tower is 7,000 won. Around the grounds of the tower is a steel fence covered with locks bearing the names of couples who have promised their everlasting love to each other, a Seoul tradition often seen in Korean television dramas and movies. Nearby hotels: Hyatt Hotel and Hilton Millennium Hotel
Noryangjin Seafood Market (*) has the freshest seafood in Seoul. It’s open 24 hours, meaning you can go at any time, choose what you want, and take it up to any of the restaurants upstairs to have them prepare it for you. Prices fluctuate and you’ll have to bargain. Local crab known as kkotge (or “flower crab”) are in season in the spring (plump and egg-filled females) and fall (smaller, but sweeter males), generally costing about 30,000 won per kilo (or about 15,000 won per crab). If kkotge is not available, then you can get an expensive king crab (imported from Russia) for anywhere between 60,000 to 120,000 won per kilo, depending on market prices. Pick up a couple of other things like abalone (for sashimi or to be butter-fried), shrimp (to be salted and grilled), oysters (to be eaten raw), or for the more adventurous, try sannakji (live baby octopus chopped up and still squirming – to be eaten dipped in hot sauce or sesame oil – careful to chew plenty before swallowing as it can get stuck in your throat and you can suffocate to death), monggae (ascidian for sashimi) or gebul (urechis unicinctus for sashimi). Take your loot upstairs to Hwangje Restaurantwhere you can order a bottle of soju and finish it all off with delicious maeoontang (hot spicy fish stew). For more detailed information, please see the Noryangjin Seafood Market traveler article.
Han River Cruise is a nice way to see the city at night. Just a short taxi ride from Noryangjin Seafood Market, you need to go to Yeouinaru (there is also a subway station there) and make your way to either Nodeul Port or Jinseong Port. The ferry does not take reservations. Tickets are only 9,000 won per person. It’s not a luxury cruise, but you’ll be able to see the 63 Building in all its golden glory and the Banpo Bridge’s colorful water and light show. The boat is full of couples and visitors from outside of Seoul, but there are increasingly groups of foreign tourists and friends on these tours now. It is overwhelmingly couples on dates though and, without a partner, you may feel like you’re the only single on a Korean “Love Boat”.
Gwangjang Market opened in 1905 and is Korea’s first permanent market. The second floor sells silks and textiles, but the ground floor is where there are countless open stalls selling all kinds of snacks and other foods made by expert hands. Recommended choices are the warm and tasty bindaetteok (fried mung bean pancake) at 5,000 each and overpriced “mayak” gimbap (“addictive” seaweed-wrapped rolls of rice with vegetable fillings) at 3,000 won for eight small pieces. The market is mostly frequented by elderly folks, but an increasingly large number of tourists are visiting to taste the affordable dishes available here. Food quality is mediocre at best, service is generally poor and unfriendly, surroundings are quite dirty, and it is difficult to find a seat on weekends. Most food stalls are open until 11pm, but schedules vary.
Korean Night Dining Tour takes you to the back alleys of Seoul in a personally guided culinary tour led by American guide and foodie Daniel Gray. All food and beverages (including alcohol) are included in the price of 88,000 won. In a small group of three or more, you will experience real Korean food with real Korean people all with enlightening commentary by Gray. Customized tours and Japanese-speaking guides are also available.
Day 3: Arts & Crafts
National Museum of Korea is the sixth largest museum in the world. The museum is divided into three floors. On the first floor is the Archaelogical Gallery, displaying 4,500 artifacts from the Paleolithic to the Unified Silla era, and the Historical Gallery, featuring the culture and history of the Joseon and other periods. The second floor contains the Fine Arts Gallery One, containing about 900 pieces of traditional and religious art, and the Donation Gallery, which has 800 pieces of donated art from private collections. The third floor holds the Fine Arts Gallery Two containing over 600 pieces of Buddhist sculpture and craftwork. The Asian Arts Gallery is also on the third floor with nearly 1,000 pieces from Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.
The Korea House is a traditional Korean restaurant, located in a hanok building complex in the northern part of Mt. Namsan near Myeongdong, that also serves as a cultural arts center. Established to promote traditional Korean culture to tourists, The Korea House offers traditional hands-on cultural programs, including kimchi making, hanji craft, and traditional dance. Programs last about two hours. Though the classes are conducted only in Korean, foreigners can take part in most programs (except the traditional tea ceremony class) as it is easy to follow the demonstration of the instructors. To participate, simply choose a program and time and then call to make a reservation. In addition to these courses, the traditional art performances of The Korea House are also popular among international visitors. Currently, there are eight regular programs offered, ranging from traditional music to dance and traditional vocal art. The Myeongin Myeongchang performance, only available during the 7pm program, features some of Korea’s top artists performing traditional dance and music. Most performances have subtitles in English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is situated in Itaewon and showcases national treasures, as well as modern art ranging from Mark Rothko to Andy Warhol. There are also a few giant Louise Bourgeois spiders. The European-designed building is architectural artwork in its own right. You can also find a permanent installation of Baek Nam Jun’s video art. Renting an audio guide (for 2,000 won) is recommended.
Jeongdong Theater (*) is a Korean traditional performing arts center located behind Deoksugung Palace which is across the street from city hall in downtown Seoul. It is within walking distance of the Seoul Plaza Hotel and also very close to the Westin Chosun Hotel, Lotte Hotel, and Myeongdong Ibis Hotel. This is the place to experience traditional Korean music and dance performances. There are different programs, depending on the night, such as gayageum (zither-like string instrument) and pansori (female vocal music storytelling accompanied by male percussional). Everything is beautifully done with great lighting and sound effects. After the main performance in the theater, the audience is invited to join the samul nori (“farmers’ music and dance”) outside in the courtyard. This is great fun as people can dance with the band. Tickets are 20,000 won for standard “A” seats and 30,000 won for premium “S” seats. Shows start at 8pm every night.
O’ngo Food Communications offers easy-to-learn two-hour cooking classes in Insadong. Learn how to make bulgogi (stir-fried beef), hamul pajeon (seafood pancake), or kimchi, depending on the class you choose. Intermediate and professional courses for chefs are also available.
Learn How to Make Kimchi and other Korean dishes at Korean cooking classes. Learn how to make tteok (rice cake) or kimchi at the Tteok Museum for 30,000 won and 50,000 won, respectively. Yoo’s Family can also teach you how to make kimchi (45,000 won) or a home-cooked meal (60,000 won).
Learn How to Make Hanji and other Korean traditional crafts such as masks, fans, embroidery, orhanbok (traditional Korean clothing). Classes are available in Insadong or at places like the Korea House, Gahoe Museum, and other locations. Hanji is a Korean traditional handmade paper that is made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree. Masks and fans are also quite common in Korean arts and culture. Fees for classes are generally between 30,000 won and 50,000 won.
Popular live musical/dance performances: Nanta and JUMP
Day 4: One Night in Seoul
Itaewon at night is a real mixed bag of GIs, English teachers, gays and lesbians, hookers, tourists, Russian strippers, Nigerians, Bangladeshi, and just average Koreans who want to be in a more “free” atmosphere. Lately it’s starting to become a very hip place to party on the weekends with celebrities occasionally dropping by a club to have an impromptu show. Bar Between is one of the hottest restaurant/lounges in the city. Just go to the Hamilton Hotel which is at the epicenter of it all and walk around to see what interests you. A lot of clubs and bars will have people spilling out into the streets on busy nights. Club Rococo, located in the IP Boutique Hotel, is one of the newest clubs in Seoul with a goodlooking, young crowd on the weekends. Pulse is the most popular gay club.
Hongdae is short for Hongik Daehak (“daehak” meaning university) and naturally you’ll find a lot of college students here. M2, a large club playing hip hop and dance, is one of the mainstays in Hongdae. Many clubs and bars feature indie bands or live art performances. Hongdae also has some hip cafes and shops as well as the famous Luxury “Su” Noraebang (private karaoke rooms).
Gangnam has been the traditional club and party area for many years. You can find many Korean-style “night” (short for “night club”) here where you will need to reserve a table with a bottle of whisky, this costing 300,000 won and up for up to four persons per table. The crowd here is mostly in their 20’s, with even teens occasionally sneaking in. Nearby at the Ritz Carlton Hotel is the ultra-elite Club Eden where models and celebrities can sometimes be spotted. Other hotspots are Club Octagon, Club Answer, Club Ellui, Club Mass, and Club Heaven.
Cheongdamdong has upscale clubs and lounges where a bottle of beer can cost you 15,000 won or more. The Cheongdamdong Hill has many of the more exclusive locations such as Queen’s Park and Cafe 74, while down at Rodeo Drive is more open to the masses.
Casinos (open 24 hours and only for carriers of foreign passports) are located in the Hilton Millennium Hotel, Sheraton Walkerhill Hotel, and the Seven Luck Casino at COEX.
For more information about nightlife in Seoul, see the “Clubbing and Partying” article here at TripAdvisor.
Day 5: DMZ Tour
DMZ Tour gets you right to the border crossing with the last Stalinist state in the world, North Korea. Tours can be arranged through your hotel or the USO. Korail also runs a DMZ Tour on Saturday, the tour includes roundtrip transportation and access to Dorasan Station, the Dora Observatory, the 3rd Tunnel (tram tour), and Imjingak. Cost: 53,000-79,400 won (depending on station of origin). The DMZ is the most heavily armed and fortified border in the world. A total of one million troops are stationed on both sides of the DMZ. Considering the North Korean border is only 40 miles away from Seoul, you may realize why keeping peace on the Korean Peninsula is so important to the safety of Seoul citizens. When North Korea threatens to make Seoul “a sea of fire” at any provocation, they mean it. This is because North Korea has thousands of heavy, long-range artillery cannons aimed at the city, making its citizens instantly vulnerable at the outbreak of war. During the tour, you will get a sense of the tension at the border.
Day 6: Day Trip
Suwon Folk Village is located in the city of Suwon which is a one-hour train ride from Seoul. You can get a glimpse of the past here as actors re-enact traditional Korean peasant life. This includes a traditional Korean wedding, folk dancing, and seesawing. It’s really an open air museum where visitors can participate in daily tasks such as making rice cakes or handicrafts.
Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built in the late 18th century. So it’s a relatively new structure in Korea’s long history, but provides a good look at what Korean fortresses looked like prior to the modern era. King Jeongjo apparently built this fortress to prepare for a move of the capital from Seoul to Suwon. To get there, take the #1 subway line southbound all the way to Suwon. The total fare from downtown Seoul is only about 1,500 won.
Day 7: Shopping
Myeongdong (*) is jam-packed with people on the weekends. It is mostly full of young Korean couples on dates and Japanese/Chinese tourists shopping for Korean cosmetics or a mobile phone key chain bearing a photo of their favorite Korean celebrity. The shops are very mainstream and you can find both international brands (Adidas, Nike, Ralph Lauren Polo, Uniqlo, Zara, H&M, etc.) and local brands for clothing and accessories (Bean Pole, Zio Zia, Polham, Esquire Shoes, etc.) and cosmetics (The Face Shop, Missha, Etude House, Skin Food, Nature Republic, etc.) Korea’s own fast fashion brand 8Seconds is very popular and reflects many local trends. There are also the Migliore and Hi Harriet shopping complexes which have many shopping stalls like Dongdaemun. Also in Myeongdong are the Lotte and Shinsegae Department Stores. Shinsegae is not as crowded as Lotte and offers a more relaxed, upscale shopping atmosphere. Lotte, near the Myeongdong entrance, has a mega complex of buildings- the main Lotte Department Store, the upscale Avenuel, the Young Plaza for young fashion, Lotte Duty Free, Lotte Hotel, and the Lotte Cinema. The Lotte Cinema houses the ultra-luxurious Charlotte (pronounced “Sha-Ro-Te” in Korean) movie room (25,000 won per person on the weekdays and 30,000 won per person on the weekends- reservations required) where you can watch the latest release in a fully reclinable electronic chair, order food/drinks, and even get a blanket from one of the attendants when the air-conditioning gets too chilly for you. Popular restaurants: Myeongdong Gyoja (steamed dumplings), Andong Jjimdak (spicy steamed chicken), Nosabong Arirang (BBQ and traditional Korean)
Dongdaemun offers nearly 24 hour shopping and a chance to practice your bargaining skills. Doota, Migliore, A/PM, and Good Morning City are large shopping complexes that house hundreds of stalls operated by individuals and small businesses. This is fast fashion at its best. Trends change every few months and it’s all reflected right here. Doota is a bit more upscale compared to the rest and forbids bargaining. It also houses shops operated by some of the hottest local designers, so prices are generally higher. The other places will have salespeople calling you, even grabbing your arm, to get you to buy something and because there are no price tags, you’ll have tobargain your way to the price you want . A short sleeve t-shirt will usually cost about 18,000 won and a pair of jeans about 50,000 won. So not the cheapest, but there are some items you won’t find elsewhere in the world. This is young Korean fashion, fast and cheap. Most of the clothing, however, can be repeatedly found over and over as you move from stall to stall. Sizes are ultra-slim and rarely do they offer anything larger than medium size. Dongdaemun has its own size system where a medium usually means a small. Doota is open 10:30 until 5:00 the next day, except when they are closed between 11pm Sunday until 7pm Monday. The other stores have similar schedules.
Itaewon has larger sizes and mainly caters to American tastes (NBA jerseys, etc.) You’ll find a lot of fake items on the street, but these are cheap knockoffs that look so fake the police don’t really bother the vendors. It’s funny because you can see a vendor selling fake Nike t-shirts right in front of the real Nike store. There also many fake upscale brands sold here, too. But the real class “A” quality fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags are sold by the guys hanging out on the street whispering “Handbag?” to passersby.
Yongsan Electronics Market is the largest electronics market in Asia. The electronics building next to Yongsan Station (train and subway) has many stalls selling digital cameras, handheld game devices, MP3 players, laptops/netbooks, etc. There is also the main Yongsan Electronics Market and other shops nearby.
Gangnam Subway Station has many office buildings, hagwons (education centers), and mid-range shops (Etude House, Skin Food, Giordano, Adidas, Apple Store, etc.) and places to eat and drink. So it is full of office workers and students during the weekdays. Be sure to check out any one of the many Media Poles lined up on the main street of the Gangnam subway station. You can view the weather, bus schedules, and news on the interactive touch screens of these 15 foot tall digitalized towers. You can also take a photo which you can edit with cute designs and instantly e-mail to your friends back home. This is NOT the “Gangnam Style” that Psy sings about though. You can find the real Gangnam Style in Apgujeongdong, Garosugil, and Cheongdamdong (see below).
Apgujeongdong is an upscale neighborhood where Seoul’s trendsetters go to shop, drink coffee, and people watch. Most stores cater to younger tastes (D&G, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.) and you can see all the beautiful rich kids walk by (or rather drive by… in their dad’s Ferrari) from the second floor of De Chocolate Cafe in the heart of Apgujeongdong’s own Rodeo Drive. The fashionably decoratedThe Galleria Department Store has two buildings- the main building (housing Vivienne Westwood, Z Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Dior Homme, Gucci, etc.) and the luxury building (housing Chanel, Hermes, Dior, Botega Veneta, etc.) If you take a taxi to Apgujeongdong (the subway stop by the same name is a 15 minute walk away), ask the driver to drop you off at “Galleria”.
Garosugil (“Tree-Lined Street”) in nearby Shinsadong (near Sinsa subway station) is a street full of trendy shops, cafes, and restaurants. It used to be a quiet street where fashionable young moms with baby strollers would sip coffee and shop for kiddy clothing and it’s got a quasi-European feel to it and is very popular with couples in their 20s and 30s. However, now it is overrun on the weekends with just about everyone, including trendsetters and tourists. In fact, most of the crowds that used to frequent Rodeo Drive have now moved en masse to Garosugil, making it very crowded with BMWs, Porsches, Maseratis, and Ferraris on the weekends. Try Italian restaurants like Paper Garden and Buccella for Sunday brunch.
Cheongdamdong is probably the most luxurious shopping area in Seoul. Going up the hill (heading east) from The Galleria Department Store, you’ll find Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Versace, Loro Piana, and the grass-covered building of Anne Demeulemeester which resembles a Chia Pet. There are also several “multi-shops” like the ultra-hip Corso Como, designed just like the one in Milan, that sell various brands and items all under one roof. The hill up from the Coach store is where the wealthy and young meet for coffee and drinks at places like Queen’s Park and Cafe 74. Here a cup of coffee can cost up to 15,000 won and if you pull up in anything but an S-Class or 7-Series, your car may be parked by the valet in the side alley away from discriminating eyes of Seoul’s bourgeoisie.
COEX Shopping Mall is a decent alternative for a rainy day. There is a movie theatre complex, fast food restaurants, and many mid-range shops, especially with local brands. It is located at the Samsung subway station where the Park Hyatt Hotel, Oakwood Hotel, and the two InterContinental Hotels are situated.
Times Square is the largest shopping mall in Korea. Located at Yeongdeungpo Station, Times Square is a modern Hong Kong-style “Urban Entertainment Lifestyle Center” that houses a sprawling shopping mall (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Paul Smith, Polo Ralph Lauren, The Gap, local Korean brands, etc.), numerous restaurants and cafes, CGV Multiplex theatres, Shinsegae Department Store, Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, E-mart discount superstore, Gyobo book store, Amoris wedding hall, two office buildings, an outdoor rooftop garden, and a spa. The mall often hosts b-boy dance and other performances in the main hall. Operating hours are from 10:30am until 10pm.
Located within walking distance is the Hi Seoul Youth Hostel , a brand new building built by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to encourage younger travelers to visit the city. The hostel has 95 rooms, an Internet lounge, kitchen, laundry, and even a bakery. Hi Seoul Youth Hostel also offers free tours by volunteer college and high school students who want to practice their English.
Dragon Hill Spa is one way to wrap up a full day of shopping. Located next to Yongsan Station, it is a 24 hour spa and hangout place for young couples, families, and some tourists, too. It costs 10,000 won for entrance. First you will take the elevator to the segregated saunas where you can shower, bath, and relax in the hot and cold tubs. Then change into the t-shirt and shorts given to you at check-in to join the rest of your party in the main lobby where you can sip iced tea while watching TV with other people. There are also various kinds of steam rooms, some very, very hot. And there is an Internet cafe, DVD theater, massage parlor, restaurants, swimming pool, and BBQ patio. At night, you can rent a blanket and sleep overnight in the segregated dark rooms above the saunas. But sleeping on a mat on the hardwood floor with 30-40 strangers, some who snore very loudly, is NOT recommended.
Outside of Seoul
CNN’s 50 Beautiful Places to Visit in Korea (with photographs)
Amusement Parks- Lotte World (inside Seoul), Everland (in Yongin which is near Suwon), Caribbean Bay (a waterpark located next to Everland)
Ski Resorts- Yongpyeong Ski Resort, Hi-One Ski Resort, Phoenix Park, Vivaldi Park (also has spa and waterpark facilities)
Beaches- Sokcho Beach (Sokcho), Haeundae Beach (Busan), Jungmun Beach (Jeju)
Mountains- Soraksan (Gangwondo Province), Jirisan (Jeollado Province), Hallasan (Jeju Island)
Spa/Waterparks- Hilton Namhae Golf & Spa Resort (exclusive suites priced 450,000 won and up), Waterpia, Ocean Castle, Vivaldi Park
UNESCO World Heritage Sites- Gyeongju (Seokguram grotto, Bulguksa temple, and Cheomseongdae observatory), Hahoe and Yangdong villages, Haeinsa Temple (world’s most complete collection of Buddhist scriptures), and Gochang/Hwasun/Ganghwa Dolmen Sites
1. Ask younger people, especially college students, for directions. They are more likely to speak English and help you.
2. Kindly ask the hotel front desk to write down all of your destinations in Korean and English on a piece of paper. For places other than major destinations, it is advised to print out a map. Show this to taxi drivers.
3. Watch out for motorcycles and scooters on the sidewalks or alleys. Although this is illegal, there is rarely enforcement of the law.
4. Pay at the counter at restaurants. Only Western-style and hotel restaurants take payments at the table. There is no tip (except at hotels which automatically add a service charge).
5. When with Korean friends, you should pour each other’s drinks when the glass is nearly empty. It is considered rude to pour your own drink or ignore the empty glass of your drinking partners. This rule only applies to alcoholic beverages.
6. For free translation service at any time (24 hours and 7 days a week), call the Tourist Information Hotline 1330.
Dial the BBB Volunteer Service for Translation toll-free 1588-5644 and press #. You can then ask the volunteer translator what you want to say and hand your phone to the person you want it said to. Useful when communicating to taxi drivers. If you don’t have a phone, ask the taxi driver to dial the number. This service is available in other languages besides English, too.
Popular Items to Buy
Ginseng (the airport has the best prices and quality), celadon pottery (go to a reputable shop in Insadong), wooden masks to hang as wall decorations (Insadong or the airport), green tea (department stores are probably your best bet), kimchi and gim (again department stores- they will package it properly for you), electronics (Yongsan), clothing (Dongdaemun), cosmetics (Myeongdong), soju (convenience store or mart), makgoli (department store or mart), bokbunja(raspberry wine- department store or mart), and bekseju (higher quality soju- convenience store, mart, or department store).
Bibimbap (mixed rice with beef, egg, and vegetables) 6,000-8,000 won
Samgyeobsal (pork bacon barbecue) 12,000-14,000 won
Bottle of soju (Chamiseul or Cheoumcheoreom brands) at a restaurant 3,000-4,000 won
Bottle of local beer (Cass or Hite brands) at a restaurant 4,000-5,000 won
Bottle of imported beer (Corona or Heineken brands) at a bar 8,000-10,000 won
Glass of gin martini at a bar 12,000-15,000
Bottle of champagne at a club 150,000 won and up
Bottle of scotch whisky at a club 200,000 won and up
Bus/subway ticket 1,000 won
Taxi ride for 15 minutes 7,000 won (standard taxi) or 15,000 won (deluxe taxi)
Bus from/to airport 9,000 won (standard bus) or 14,000 won (KAL bus)
Taxi from/to airport 60,000 to 80,000 won (standard taxi) or 100,000 to 120,000 won (deluxe taxi) + includes highway toll of 10,000 won paid by passenger
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton