South Korea… the land of… Exactly. The land of what? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear South Korea? I won’t lie. I didn’t know much about the country besides where it is located and a vague flavour for their food. Back home there’s a Korean restaurant near me, but who knows how authentic it would be. When I booked my flight on a whim, I had one picture in my head. But when I arrived and researched things to do in Seoul, the experience was completely different.
I thought Seoul would be similar to Tokyo, which I visited a few years earlier. But it wasn’t. Seoul is calmer, a bit cleaner and has better nightlife. It also has lesser known tourist attractions, fewer neon signs and electronic surprises. Intrigued?
How to get to Seoul
I flew to Seoul from Munich in Germany and it took about nine hours. During my flight, I decided to choose a Korean meal. That spelled the beginning of the disappointment I experienced with the local cuisine. The airport was a bit chaotic but before we knew it we boarded the train and were bound for our hotel.
Make sure you get cash before you head out to the train at the airport. You can only pay with cash at the machine and it will save you time retracing your steps to the ATM. Also, remember that you pay a deposit for your ticket. You can get it back again in special machines upon arrival. More money to put towards amazing experiences and things to do in Seoul.
It was 5am in Seoul and 11pm back home, so you can just imagine how challenging everything sounded at that time!
Where to stay in Seoul
When I was looking for a hotel in Seoul I considered Gangnam, which is more of a business neighbourhood with modern and familiar hotel names. Itaewon, the centrally located area that is popular with tourists, has plenty of international restaurants and bars, and Hongdae is popular for art, nightlife and many karaoke bars.
We prefer to do our travelling during the daytime rather than making longer journeys at night after a few beers, so we booked our hotel in the last district near Hongik University.
The RYSE, Autograph Collection hotel was impressive from the beginning. On the ground floor, it had a very stylish and cosy coffee shop and restaurant. The check-in lobby was a few floors up and our room was almost at the top, where there was also another restaurant. The room was very spacious with a massive bathroom, a nice sitting area and a very comfortable bed. The view was good, overlooking the busy street, but the windows were strong enough that the noise didn’t bother us at all.
What to do in Seoul
Exploring the hip area of Hongdae
On day one we didn’t plan anything big. We took a little nap after arriving and after that, we went to explore the area around the hotel. First stop: coffee! I had no idea that this drink is so popular in South Korea! There was coffee shop after coffee shop. We chose a place called Astronomers Coffee and it was very fresh, so definitely pay it a visit.
Hongdae is a more hipster area near the university. Known for its great party scene, expect to find cheaper places to stay and great shopping. We wandered around the main street, checking out the souvenir shops, street food and unique spots. In the evening, we met some locals and other travellers for food and soju – the traditional drink.
Eating out in Seoul
The first meal we had in South Korea was fried chicken. The place we went for was a random pick from the street and it had many different flavours and options. What I liked in Korean restaurants was having a little button on the table that you press when you’re ready to order.
We went for honey-glazed boneless wings. It was good, but I did find it to be fatty.
Later in the evening we also tried what we’ve heard is a popular snack here – cheese corn and soup.
Ticking off big ticket things to do in Seoul
On the first day I planned a long walk to tick off some of Seoul’s main attractions. Our first stop was the university, but on the way we passed the Changcheon dong district, which I hadn’t heard of before.
It was full of colourful signs, interesting-looking bars and narrow streets that made you want to wander down them. We didn’t stay there for a long time, not knowing what things to do in Seoul could be found there, and carried on to the university.
The Ewha Womans University is one of the top five universities in Korea. As the name suggests, it’s a female only university aside from a few international male students. I found it when I was searching for instagrammable places in Seoul and I can see why it was put on that list. The campus was designed by French architect Dominique Perrault. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful universities in the world with a perfect mixture of modern and European architecture.
Iconic bridges and markets
Getting to our next stop was quite varied. The beginning was boring, with a long street full of cars, no different from any other street in the world. Then we crossed the beautiful bridge Seoullo 7017 highway, that was rebuilt into a futuristic promenade with many trees and flowers. Amazingly, you can even play the piano there!
After descending the bridge, we arrived at Namdaemun Market, which wasn’t all I expected it to be. I anticipated a cool, interesting and crazy Asian bazaar but I found normal clothes, shoes and handbags. Maybe I didn’t find what I was looking for because this market is quite well known.
Nearby was the Myeong-dong district – a modern district with exclusive brands, international chain stores and delicious Korean street food. We looked for Stylenanda Pink Pool Café. This is a boutique with a cafe, which used to be a swimming pool, and everything is pink and blue. I ordered a cotton candy smoothie, which was quite sweet but drinkable.
The views from Seoul Tower
Next stop, Seoul Tower! This is a television and observation tower on top of a 262m hill overlooking the entire city, located on the mountain of Namsan. From the side we arrived from, you can either walk up or take a cable car. We decided to walk and halfway up I did regret my decision! It wasn’t long but there are just so many stairs.
The N tower was under construction but you can still see the 360-degree city skyline from the hill. It was incredible and definitely very instagrammable. It also makes you appreciate just how big the city is. You can find many shops and cafes, as well as the bus that takes you down the hill to the Itaewon area, which was our last destination of the day.
We agreed to walk down and it was so beautiful. We spotted a wonderful street with an amazing cherry blossom tree. It was just perfect! The descent wasn’t too hard and at the bottom, we walked through a really interesting residential area.
After all that time on our feet, we were tired and hungry. But knowing that the Itaewon district is famous for international restaurants, we started to check out our options. Since my husband is a big chicken wings fan, when we spotted Nekkid Wings I knew that’s where we would have dinner tonight. The food was well worth the challenge finding the place.
Nightlife in Seoul
That day even though we had just a little energy left we decided to explore the nightlife. We’d heard the area where we were staying is famous for a great party. Through an app we found some locals and other travellers got together for drinks.
The culture of drinking in Seoul is great! People meet in the bars or in the park, drinking soju, talking, dancing and singing! They love singing over there. You can find a lot of karaoke bars! It’s a completely different atmosphere, where you see shy hard working people during the day and relaxed and happy people during the night.
Discovering a unique café culture
Seoul has many great cafes. There is a sheep cafe, Hello Kitty cafe, poop cafe but also dog cafes – and I knew I had to go to one of those! Luckily there was one right near our hotel so we went there on Saturday morning. This place is free to get in but you have to buy a drink to help this place to operate.
The experience was just amazing. Bunches of super cute dogs were running around the room asking you to pet them! Those places are made for Koreans to relieve the stress and I can see why it works. I wish there were more places like that around the world.
Nearby we found a great ramen place where we had lunch. Then we headed to the train station to go to Gangnam district. This is where you find a famous statue with the same name as the popular song everyone knows – a must for things to do in Seoul. It was a long journey and finding the statue itself wasn’t easy, but we got to the right side eventually.
A few photos later we walked around Gangnam. It’s definitely a richer part of the city with the largest Korean corporations located in tall buildings, many international restaurants, hotels and luxury shops. I am glad we decided not to stay there during our trip as everything seemed so far apart.
One of the most popular dishes in Korea is Korean BBQ. I usually try to find a place that has good reviews on the internet, and this time it was the same. Restaurant 갈비살 전문점 홍대 도마 was not far from our hotel and luckily, despite its popularity, we didn’t have to wait for a table. Unfortunately that was the only positive impression.
I don’t remember exactly but I believe that the menu was in English so we didn’t have a problem with the order, but nothing was described at all. After a while, we had a so-called grill delivered with a few side dishes and a steak. Nobody helped us understand anything but we had to deal with it all ourselves.
I had no idea what was on my table, except for the meat which we cooked by copying the table next to us. It was quite disappointing and a very expensive experience. If I get the chance to come back to Korea, I will certainly find some locals to help me.
History and tradition in South Korea
For the last day, we explored the traditional and historic part of the city. We started with the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is considered the most beautiful in Seoul.
Built in the fourteenth century at the behest of King Tojeo, then destroyed by the Japanese during the war, today it is partly rebuilt and open for visitors. It has lots of pavilions, gates, wonderful gardens, ponds and both the National Museum and the Folklore Museum. We didn’t go inside but we watched the Royal Changing of the Guard. It is a great parade to see.
From there we went to Jogyesa temple which was located nearby. This place is considered a symbol of Korean Buddhism. It was one of the most colourful places I’ve seen, painted in different hues and filled with beautiful lanterns.
A culture twist
Changing the tone completely, the next stop was a poop cafe. It was a little overrated in my opinion, the coffee was ok, it was very crowded and the selection wasn’t that great but it was a fun experience. It was located on the top of an open style shopping centre.
Returning to the cultural part of the trip, our last stop in the area was Bukchon Village. This part lies in the picturesque hills and is one of the last places where you can see those traditional old wooden hanok houses that come from the Joseon dynasty.
Bukchon is located between two palaces, and it’s one of the most expensive places to live right now. You can also find galleries and shops with traditional handicrafts and souvenirs. It was a great place to spend Sunday walking and admiring the Korean culture.
We didn’t have time to visit Changdeokgung Palace, which is also in the area. It’s the second largest palace in Seoul and it’s listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
It’s fair to say we had a great four days exploring South Korea. There are so many things to do in Seoul! I learned a lot from the locals, I made some friends and I experienced wonderful attractions. I definitely would love to go back there, especially to try more food and master the art of Korean BBQ! Was four days enough time to see most of the city? I believe so. It really is a city you must visit!
Is Seoul how you imagined it to be?
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