Julia “bassenyourseatbelt” Bass is a native New Yorker living, writing, and teaching in Korea. She is a collector of collections—although some might call this hoarding, she calls it sentimentalizing. Coffee mugs, postcards, and scarves from around the world decorate her life. When Julia’s not writing, she is probably soaking or sleeping in a jimjilbang somewhere in Seoul. She’s also a regular contributor at Chincha?! and Seoulist – online ex-pat magazines in Seoul. Here are her top 10 things to see and do in Seoul.
Seoul is a city that needs no introduction, but I’ll give you one anyway. The ultimate example of a city straddling the old and new in a harmonious balance, South Korea’s capital mega-city will surprise and delight you, and will leave you wanting more. From spicy street foods at Gwangjang Market, to dozens neon-illuminated shopping centers, to tranquil temple complexes in the heart of the hustle and bustle, Seoul has so much to offer. Whether you’re an English- teaching expat living on the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, a backpacking college grad with a thirst for the novel, or a world traveling duo celebrating your 25th year of marriage, every site on this list is a must-see in Seoul. And don’t forget the travelers’ curse: the more you see, the more you want to see! There is always more to do, taste, and experience, in the land of kimchi, K-Pop, and K-risma. Koreans don’t do addresses! (Everything is about landmarks and maps.)
1. Insadong. A neighborhood that was inhabited by poets, artists, and liberal thinkers back in the day, this area is now home to a bevy of traditional tea houses, unique shops, winding,
cobblestone roads, and dozens of art galleries. (And lots of tourists, of course. But for good
reason!) Wander the streets, take photos and peek into the artisan shops. You’ll stumble upon the Buckchon traditional village, an area perched up on a hill encompassing a small neighborhood of old-style Korean houses, still inhabited by human beings. Amazing views and a nice display of what Seoul used to look like. (And what most of Korea still does look like – including many parts of where I live.) It’s a nice first-stop for many visitors: not insanely crowded with an emphasis on the traditional – you won’t find any chain stores or restaurants here. A lifelong Seoulite friend explained to me that the store owners in Insa-dong are insistent on keeping the area as homegrown and non-commercialized as possible. Return at night for authentic Buddhist “temple food.” I’d recommend Baru-gong-yang (Gyeon-ji-dong 71, Chong-ro-gu, Seoul, 02-2031-2081) where you’ll be treated to delicious vegetarian foods, herbs grown in mountains, and new flavors for everyone. After dinner, sample some tea at a the local teahouse, for which this neighborhood is famed. (Subway exit: Anguk Station, line 3)
2. Cheonggyecheon River. Almost like a narrow park that slithers through the city, the Cheonggyecheon River is a beautiful escape from the noise, crowds, and smells of Seoul - and all you have to do is climb down some stairs. Until 2005, the Cheonggyecheon was more like a sewage system than a river, covered by pavement and city life. Lee Myung Bak, then mayor of Seoul and now South Korea’s president, took on uncovering the Cheonggyecheon as his signature project, creating an awesome green space for Seoul’s inhabitants and visitors. It reminds me of New York City’s High Line Park – an abandoned elevated train track that is now an elevated park – in myriad ways. Not only do these two parks both posses an overgrown, all-natural aesthetic, but they are both the result of restoring pre-existing urban components into something green and enjoyable for the people. The Cheonggyecheon stretches 5.2 miles starting at Seoul’s City Hall, and can be accessed at several points throughout the city.
3. Gyeongbukgong Palace. This palace complex is the biggest in Seoul and definitely the most popular amongst tourists. Adjacent to Insa-dong and the head of the Cheonggyecheon, you’re bound to bump into the palace even if by accident. I’m not going to go into the history of it, because I’d basically just be copying this. Just look at the photos. (Subway exit: Gyeongbokgung, line 3)
4. Myeongdong. Lights. People. Lights. People. Neon. Neon. Neon. People. This is modern Asia. Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s (many) major shopping districts, with every imaginable type of store: from high-end designer department stores, to niche boutiques, to discount stalls, to chain stores. Anything you’re looking for can be found in this crowds-at-all-hours neighborhood. And if you’re not looking to shop, navigating your way through this district’s crowds, lights, and hagglers is an unforgettable experience in itself! (Subway stop: Myeong-dong, line 4)
5. Hongdae. My loyal blog followers know how I feel about Hongdae. It’s my favorite place in Seoul, hands down. Home to the city’s biggest art university, Hongik, the neighborhood breathes youth and creativity. Kitschy coffee shops, vintage dress stores, handmade leather notebook stands, strange graffiti – the best thing to do in Hongdae is wander, get lost, and find your new favorite café. (There’s a good chance it will have a hilarious theme!) If I were held at gunpoint and forced to compare Hongdae to a neighborhood in NYC, I’d have to say the East Village. Check out the Sang Sang Madang Art Center, which always has a new, interesting exhibit on display and also houses a wonderful design shop. On summer Saturdays, head to the park next to Hongik University for the weekly open-air art fair! You can find amazing handcrafted jewelry, painted sneakers, inexpensive portrait drawings, and more, all brought to you by university students. Hongdae is also known for its energetic nightlife. From dive bars to bumping dance clubs, it’s possible to satisfy your inner wild-child on any night of the week in Hongdae! Try starting off your night at Weolhyang 2 (월향 2호점), a makgeolli bar (Korean rice wine) that offers various types of flavored makgeolli at reasonable prices. Good prices, and you can sit outside. 352-23 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu | Map. (Subway stop: Hongik University, line 2)
6. Gwangjang Market. Supposedly the oldest and biggest market in Seoul, specializing in
textiles, eating dinner here is an experience to remember. Pick a bench, rested your rump,
and indulge in a Korean street food sampler: ddoekbokki (rice cakes with a spicy chili pepper
sauce), kimbap (rolls of seaweed with rice, cucumber, spam, radish, carrots, and more),
and pajeon (basically a Korean pancake with onion, garlic, and other veggies), and so much
more is offered in the heart of the market’s food area. Although a far cry from a “gourmet”
Korean meal, come to Gwangjang Market to indulge in the grittiest of Korean street food. The
make-your-own bibimbap (rice in a hot-pot with an assortment of vegetables, chilli paste, and
more) is very popular as well! (Subway stops: Jongno 5-ga, line 1, exit 8 or Euljiro 4-ga, lines 2, 5, exit 4)
7. Jimjilbang. Korean Spas In my year of life in Korea, I have had the pleasure of discovering yet another Korean expertise, the 찜질방 or jimjilbang—the Korean bathhouse or spa. There are tons of jimjilbang throughout Seoul and Korea, and people use them regularly to relax and rejuvenate. Spa culture is an important, engrained Korean tradition, and this becomes evident from the moment you nakedly and nervously tiptoe into the bathhouse for the first time. Spas cost between 8,000 and 12,000 won, and they are typically open 24 hours. After finding your locker and changing in the locker room, venture into the bathing room where you’ll spend the next few hours soaking in baths of differing temperatures with about 30 other naked Korean ladies (or men if that’s your thing). From boiling hot baths at 43 degrees Celsius, to peppermint and rooibos flavored baths (you can literally soak in a bath of tea!), to ice-cold baths, it’s a wonderful way to relax and experience Korean culture simultaneously. I highly recommend indulging in a Korean-style scrub, which will cost anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 won. Say goodbye to a lovely layer of dead skin, as a professional Korean scrubber manhandles you with their bare hands and a strong washcloth. The spas all offer dozens of services like this, from massages to pedicures to eyebrow threading. They may not speak English, but they’ll understand words like “scrub” or “massage,” or any internationally recognized gesticulations.
Where to Go:
In Seoul, I can personally recommend Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, Itaewon Land in Itaewon,
and the brand new Spa at Garden 5 in East Seoul. The internet is your friend—use it!
8. Ladies Only: Wedding Dress Café. One of my most memorable experiences in Seoul has to be my day at the Princess Diary Cafe, a “wedding dress cafe” where women come to revel in
femininity, sip on milkshakes and lattes, and take thousands of photographs in imaginary bridal bliss. Perhaps one of the girliest experiences you’ll ever have, choose a wedding dress from a massive wardrobe of options and the ladies in the store adjust and pin it up for you. There are hilarious accessories to pair with your bridal gown, like pirate hats and bunny ears, along with a selection of heels to choose from (only up to size 8.5, of course). Themed cafes are immensely popular in Seoul, this will not be the last post you read about a one of these gems. To try on the gowns, it costs between 10,000-30,000 won, depending on the gown. 10 bucks for an afternoon of dress-up? Yes please! You are also required to order a beverage, and there is a nice selection of coffees, teas, and smoothies. They also had a make-up selection, but with 7 girls’ purses to choose from we didn’t really need to make use of it. Take exit #3 out of the Ehwa Women’s University subway stop, walk down to the little street just before the Starbucks and turn in and look up to your right – you’ll see the sign on a close-by building. (As for my male readers, I suppose you could have skipped this entire entry. If there’s a cafe in Seoul where men can try on Power Rangers outfits, Transformers body suits, and Darth Vader masks, I’ll be sure to report on it ASAP.)
9. Namsan Tower/N. Seoul Tower at Night. Resting at the top of a Namsan Mountain in the heart of Seoul, this tower is visible from most of the city on a clear day. While a daytime hike to the tower can be charming, I’d recommend heading to the tower at night for a truly magnificent view of darkened Seoul, lit up in all its glory! (Take subway line 4 to Myeongdong exit 3, use the road to the right of the Pacific Hotel and walk 10 minutes to the Namsan cable car.)
10. The DMZ. Before heading to Seoul, when you told your friends you were traveling to Korea, did anyone say: which one, North or South Korea? Well, now you can tell your…uh…misinformed friends that you actually had the chance to take a look at North Korea, up close at personal, at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Many tour groups run trips to the DMZ, and one full day-trip will cost about USD$96. This is a HIGHLY recommended, unique experience that most visitors to Korea rave about. I would recommend going with the USO-led tour , whose awesome tour guides will show you several sites around the DMZ. Be sure to book at least a month in advance.
Check out more from Julia Bass via her blog, bassenyourseatbelt.