What are the absolute best things to do in Seoul right now? Travelers from all over the world are coming to Korea in droves and asking that very question. With the explosion of interest in K Dramas, K Pop, Korean cuisine and so much more, there are many different ways to enjoy Seoul! But your time is precious so read on for the best ways to use it wisely.
I was born in Seoul, spent many summer vacations back in the motherland, and loved it so much that I lived there for a few years as an adult. However, there may never be a better time than now to visit this vibrant city as it experiences somewhat of a golden age. If you’re not yet convinced that Seoul should be at the top of your list of cities to visit, check out Don Liu’s 23 reasons why Seoul will be your next favorite city.
Rushing from site to site is definitely not the best way to enjoy the many splendors of Seoul, so my recommendation would be to choose a few of the wonderful neighborhoods that seem most interesting to you and spend time leisurely exploring and learning about each one.
Here are my recommendations for the best ways to maximize your next trip to Seoul!
1. Stroll through Seoul Forest & Seongsu-dong
Many people skip a visit to Seoul Forest, but this would be a huge miss. A marvelous creation that officially opened in 2005 as a result of an enormous combined public and private effort, Seoul Forest is a beautifully designed park that is located in Seongsu-dong, one of the hippest neighborhoods in Seoul.
Despite what Wikipedia says, Seoul Forest is not 3,000 acres, which would make it more than three times the size of Central Park in Manhattan! The actual size is about a third the size of Central Park and it feels more like the sumptuous Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
- Walk the perimeter of this beautiful park and enjoy a glimpse of how modern Korean locals enjoy their leisure time.
- Check out the Galleria Foret, twin ultra-luxury apartment buildings that are located in the northwest corner of the park. Galleria Foret is one of the most expensive condos in Seoul and home to many celebrities.
- Explore the lovely cafes and restaurants all around the park in Seongsu-dong. The area used to be a hub for warehouses and factories but many have now been converted into cool destinations for Seoul’s young and hip.
- Notice the juxtaposition of old and new and have a bowl of amazing old-fashioned, kongnamul gukbap at Bisabeol. Simplicity at its best, you need only tell the waitress how many bowls of soup you’d like to order since there is only one thing on the menu.
Seoul Forest nearest subway station: Seoul Forest Station Exit #5
2. Explore Insadong and her cool younger sister Ikseon-dong
You’ve probably heard of Insadong but do you know about its cool younger sibling, Ikseon-dong? Insadong is where you shop for Korean traditional arts and crafts and enjoy an immersion into traditional Korean arts and dining. Ikseon-dong is a more modern take on Korean culture and is considered one of the cutest, most Instagrammable areas of Seoul. With traditional hanok buildings and tiny alleys full of trendy boutiques, cafes and restaurants, this is definitely one of the best things to do in Seoul.
The maze-like streets of Ikseon-dong are full of unique concepts with shops operated by young artists and entrepreneurs. You can easily spend a half day at Ikseon-dong alone.
Browse the many galleries and shops for art and antiques. Both Insadong and Ikseon-dong are great places to get Korean souvenirs to take home.
Insadong nearest subway station: Anguk Station, Exit #6
3. Dive into Korean arts and culture in Hannam-dong
Located in the center of Seoul, the Hannam-dong area is full of elegant museums, shops, and restaurants. It’s also home to some of the wealthiest people in Seoul but in contrast to many other parts of the city, Hannam-dong’s residents enjoy proximity to the latest and greatest in the food and retail scene without the ostentation or crowds.
Another reason the Hannam-dong neighborhood is so desirable is because of its excellent feng shui, or poongsu jiri in Korean. An ideal property location according to Eastern philosophy has mountains behind it and a river in front, and many of the buildings in Hannam-dong have both these qualities.
- For some culture and history, go to the National Museum of Korea or the renowned Leeum Museum. Both are free, but you must reserve a ticket online for the Leeum. Explore the lovely neighborhoods that surround both museums.
- Have a fabulous lunch at the chef’s counter of 211 Table. You can order a la carte or leave it to the chef with their tasting menu.
- Walk around Hannam-dong and Itaewon and then have a cocktail at Pussyfoot Saloon. This chic lounge is a hidden gem and the drinks are accompanied by amazingly tasty truffle fries. We were served by a French bartender who had lived in Seoul for 9 years. Gets crowded, so go early or make a reservation.
- Have dinner at Michelin-starred So Seoul Hannam. Do the wine pairing or at least share one as we did. This was one of our favorite meals during our last trip to Seoul!
Leeum Museum Nearest subway station: Hangangjin Station Exit #1
4. Channel your inner prince or princess while exploring a Korean palace
Seoul is home to no less than five beautiful palaces that were used by the royal families of the Joseon Dynasty. They are stunning and embody the best of Korean traditional architecture. The palaces are free on national holidays as well as on the last Wednesday of every month, and also free for anyone wearing a hanbok.
All five are fairly close to each other but unless you are a big fan of palace tours, I’d recommend picking one or two and checking them out on the same day. Gyeongbokgung is the oldest and largest palace in Seoul, but my favorite is the Secret Garden section of Changdeokgung. You must get tickets in advance for the Secret Garden either online or at the palace.
- Go to Restaurant Jueun, and splurge on a lunch that is worth planning ahead for. Chef Park Ju-eun has created a wonderful tasting menu and has paid close attention to every detail of the establishment, including the elegant video art that spans the wall. Reservations are a must.
- Have coffee and pastries at the bustling Onion Cafe Anguk around the corner from Changdeokgung.
Changdeokgung and Onion Cafe nearest subway station: Anguk Station Exit #3
5. Do some high-low shopping at Namdaemun and Shinsegae
In the heart of downtown Seoul, you can experience some serious high-low shopping with a visit to Namdaemun Market and the adjacent Shinsegae Department Store. Check out the prices first at Shinsegae and you’ll see what a great bargain Namdaemun market is.
Even if you don’t like shopping, a visit to Namdaemun is still one of the best things to do in Seoul. There is something for everyone and even my husband, who is allergic to shopping, found some great hats at a fraction of the price you’d pay once they are exported to the US.
You’ll also find some delicious street food and souvenirs to bring or ship home. Most vendors take credit cards but you’ll likely get a discount for cash. Feel free to haggle if you are buying with cash.
- Eat tteokbokki and odaeng at a Namdaemun street vendor, and be sure to line up for hotteok!
- Most people shop for hats, souvenirs, accessories, and clothing, but you can also get Korean ceramics and banjja bronzeware dishes, bowls, and utensils. Shipping to the US is fairly easy.
- Getting prescription glasses in Korea is a smart thing to do as the cost is much lower than in the US. Order new glasses and/or change the lenses on existing frames at Angel Glasses in Namdaemun.
Namdaemun Market nearest subway station: Hoehyeon Exit #5
6. Take a walk back in time at Bukchon Hanok Village
This beautiful neighborhood of traditional hanok architecture is a must-see in Seoul, especially because the houses are actual homes where people live. Walk around the neighborhood but try to be respectful of the residents and keep the noise down.
- After a nice walk through the hilly streets and alleys, take a break at Osulloc Tea House at the base of Bukchon Hanok Village. Go to the top floor and marvel at the stunning mother-of-pearl cocktail bar. They serve non-alcoholic cocktails that come with adorable snacks including a delicious mini grilled cheese sandwich.
- For lunch or dinner, try Dooreyoo restaurant for elevated Korean traditional dining with a great view.
Bukchon Hanok Village Nearest subway station: Anguk Station, Exit #2
7. Explore Coex for the best things to do in Seoul on a rainy day
The Coex Center is home to three hotels, a luxury department store, a huge convention center, an aquarium, and the largest underground shopping center in Asia. It is also home to Coex Artium, a musical performance hall where you can catch concerts and musicals. The international art fair Frieze takes place at the Coex when it comes to Seoul, so check out the schedule of events to see what cool things are going on.
- Walk around to see the Starfield Library and the other shops, cafes, and restaurants of the Coex Center.
- Check out the Megabox movie theater which reimagines what a movie theater can be. There’s a great cafe and a bar where people hang out before and after movies.
- Eat at Changgo 43 in the Glass Tower building across the street from Coex. Enjoy amazing aged beef bbq on a cast iron grill, along with doenjang jjigae and bokkeumbap on the same pan after you finish the bbq (Changgo 43 has multiple locations).
Coex Nearest subway station: Samseong Station Exit #6 or Bongeunsa Station Exit #7
8. Take in the vistas with a hike up Namsan Mountain
Namsan, or South Mountain, offers some of the most beautiful panoramic views of Seoul. The hike up is more of a walk since the road is paved but it’s still great exercise. Enjoying the view from the top is one of the best things to do in Seoul, even if you don’t make it to the top of Namsan Tower (or N Seoul Tower) which requires purchasing a ticket and waiting for your turn.
- There are bathrooms and lots of food options at the top of Namsan.
- Take the cable car and elevator to get back down to the Namdaemun area.
Namsan nearest subway station: Myeongdong Station, Exit #3.
9. Enjoy the delightful world of Korean street food
A trip to Korea would not be complete without checking off a bucket list of delicious street food. You will be amazed at how much great food you can get for just a few dollars. There are so many wonderful options, but I challenge you to find my favorite: freshly baked hodo gwaja at Gwangjang Market. Shaped like walnuts, hodo gwaja was not even on my radar until my son bought a bagful and had me try a few.
Choose from delicious filling flavors: custard, cream cheese, or sweet red bean paste. All are amazing but the booth is not easy to find! I still think about those hot walnut pastries and can’t wait to go back and get a bucketful.
Here is a list of the best markets for street foods in Seoul:
- Go to Gwangjang Market for sujebi, kalguksu (including the famous Netflix kalguksu lady), bindaetteok, kimbap, soondae, mandu, hotteok, sikhae, soondae, and of course hodo gwaja.
- Go to Namdaemun Market for tteokbokki, eomok, kimbap, japchae, bibimbap, hotteok, and more.
- Go to Myeongdong for the latest variety of egg toast, roasted lobster and scallops, all kinds of skewers such as cheese tteok, candied fruit, potato spiral, octopus, and so much more.
Gwangjang Market nearest subway station: Anguk Station, Exit #6
Myeongdong nearest subway station: Myeongdong Station
10. Have a family (or friends) reunion at Hanwoori
If you have a lot of relatives in Korea, like I do, you might want to meet them all at once by reserving a private room in a restaurant. We did a ton of research for our gathering and had a wonderful 50-person dinner at Hanwoori Hanjeongsik restaurant in Gangnam.
Plan ahead if you have a large group and work with the manager to pre-select a menu. Our meal was a Korean traditional (hanjeongsik) 9-course menu which was awesome.
Hanwoori Hanjeongsik: 308 Dosan-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
11. Take a bus to nowhere
All of the buses are punctual and clean, and some of them, especially in Gangbuk, are adorable vintage-style “village” buses that are reminiscent of the 60s and 70s. Seoul is large but very manageable and every corner is interesting! If you have some downtime, hop on a bus and see the city. Make sure you have a T-money card which you can use on buses, subways, and even taxis. Taxis take credit cards, but buses and subways do not.
Buses stop running at around midnight, at which point you’ll need to catch a taxi.
12. See the best in fashion in Cheongdam-dong
K Pop stars have become the faces of some of the biggest luxury brands in the world and Cheongdam-dong is where many got their start and still hang out to shop and get their hair and makeup done. Cheongdam-dong and the neighboring Apgujeong are very upscale neighborhoods where you’ll see flashy buildings that house the top luxury stores, restaurants, galleries as well as the top beauty salons.
As for shopping, most luxury brands have harmonized pricing which means that they will cost about the same as they would in the States so while you might choose to skip the luxury shopping, definitely partake in the terrific restaurants.
- Have lunch at OhTongYong, a low-key, high-quality restaurant that has the most amazing seafood pajeon and uni bibimbap.
- If you’re in the mood for pasta, eat at Queen’s Park, a little bit of London in Seoul.
- Walk around the cute shops and art galleries. For a cheap chic meal, go to the food court in the basement of the Galleria Department Store.
- Have dinner at Jungsikdang (2 Michelin stars) or have lunch at Jungsik cafe to save $$.
- Have some impressive craft cocktails at Alice Cheongdam, a cute ‘hidden’ bar where the theme is Alice in Wonderland. Be prepared to wait in line especially after 9pm.
Cheongdam-dong nearest subway station: Apgujeong Rodeo Station
13. Feel the history of Gwanghwamun
Gwanghwamun Square is a public square with over 600 years of history. The main highlights of the square are the two huge statues, one is of King Sejong the Great and the other is of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin.
- Eat lunch at Gamchon, a place famous for its chadolbaeki soondubu.
- Have coffee and a croffle (unbelievably delicious!) at a Beethoven themed cafe called Coffee Teacher.
Nearest subway station: Gwanghwamun Station
14. Go to the Korean “Sauna” Every Day in Your Hotel
You might think you don’t have time to go to the fitness center, but going to the “sauna,” which is usually located next to the fitness center, is one of the best things to do in Seoul.
Not to be confused with the dry saunas of the West, Korean saunas refer to a facility where there are multiple hot and cold baths as well as steam rooms, dry saunas, and showers. Going to the “sauna” is a unique part of Korean culture that incorporates history as well as the Eastern medicine theory of subjecting your body to heat and cold.
In the old days, before everyone had their own private bathrooms with showers and tubs, there was a public bathhouse in every neighborhood where people would go regularly and use the hot and cold tubs to properly wash and refresh themselves.
Taking this culture to the next level, most of the more upscale hotels in Seoul now have luxurious Korean saunas located inside the hotels. Some hotels like Oakwood Premier Coex, where we stayed, offer free use of the sauna to hotel guests, but many hotels charge a fee for each use.
After a long day of exploring Seoul, you will love sinking into the relaxing hot bath of a sauna. Or you could start the morning with a refreshing soak to get your day off to a great start. Sometimes we did both morning and evening soaks but either way, make sure to finish with a refreshing cold bath for optimal health benefits!
If your hotel doesn’t have a sauna or if it is very expensive to use, ask the concierge for other mokyoktang or jjimjilbang options in your neighborhood.
Here are some tips for using your hotel sauna:
- You will be given a key at the registration desk. There are usually two locker areas, one for your shoes and one for your clothes and personal items. Your key should work in both areas.
- After removing all your clothes and putting them in your locker, keep your key on your wrist and head to a shower area to wash yourself before using the tubs.
- Enjoy the tubs and the various rooms, and then shower again to wash off all the toxins you just sweated out.
- Many amenities will be provided such as shampoo, soap, towels, lotions, brushes, hairdryers, and sometimes robes.
15. Revel in the nostalgia of an old school Korean restaurant
Insadong is full of wonderful traditional Korean restaurants, but anyone who grew up in Korea will remember what a treat it was to go to one of the larger more modern BBQ restaurants that were so popular back in the day. Many of the old restaurants have closed but some still exist in the same location as they did many decades ago. In other words, these are the places your parents and grandparents went to on special occasions!
- Woo Lae Oak has been serving consistently excellent North Korea style cuisine since it first opened in 1946 after the end of World War II. Get the bulgogi cooked on a traditional dome pan, and don’t forget to finish with a bowl of refreshing Pyeongyang naengmyun.
- Originally opened in 1939, Hanilkwan was relocated by the third generation of the owner’s family to its current location in Apgujeong. It is now a three-story modern building that houses a takeout banchan area as well as a main hall and many private rooms.
- Samwon Garden opened in the 1970s as a revolutionary ‘fancy’ Korean restaurant. It is still going strong today in Gangnam.
16. Get a comprehensive medical exam for a fraction of the cost (in the US)
Koreans are extremely health conscious and have invented the concept of a super-efficient comprehensive medical exam that takes a half day to complete. You will have a follow-up appointment with a doctor who will explain your results, and you will be given a binder with your data that you can take back with you and share with your doctor back home.
A “basic” exam will take three hours and will include things like an endoscopy, colonoscopy, blood work, and multiple scans. You can add and delete things a la carte, like a brain scan that will show you exactly what your brain looks like in case you want to know!
An endoscopy is especially useful because American doctors don’t normally order one unless there is a problem. Koreans have a higher rate of stomach cancer than other ethnic groups, so my Korean doctor was shocked that I hadn’t had one yet at my age. My endoscopy indeed revealed some issues with my stomach and, long story short, I will be drinking water before my morning coffee and will ditch my Advil habit for something that is easier on my stomach.
- There are many options for hospitals or clinics where you can get a comprehensive exam. Prices will range from $400 – $2,000. Try Asan Hospital or Samsung Medical Center if you want a VIP experience or go to a smaller clinic like Leaders Healthcare for a no-frills experience. Seoul National University Hospital is also a popular option but is often very crowded.
- You can make an appointment online and they will email you a confirmation. If you want to call to make an appointment, ask for English-speaking staff member.
17. Go to a Korean concert, K Pop and beyond
Yes, Koreans love K Pop as much as the rest of the world, and Seoul is the best place to catch some great live shows. But the Korean music scene goes way beyond just K Pop. Look online to see what artists are performing live while you are there. We were lucky enough to see Songgolmo, a hugely popular 80s band that was performing for the last time.
18. Get your skin fixed by a Korean dermatologist
Going to the hair salon when in Seoul is a no-brainer. But if you have any interest in improving the quality of your skin, you’re also gonna love the dermatology clinics in Seoul. Because Koreans are obsessed with skincare, the technology in Seoul is very advanced and the prices are relatively cheap when compared to similar services in the US.
Whether you want a simple facial that cleans out your pores, or you are interested in removing some sun spots, or even if you want to invest in some serious game-changing treatments, you should consider professional K skincare that goes a level above what any creams or serums can do for your skin.
- Go early in your visit to get a consultation and start any treatment plans that require multiple visits.
- If you want a simple facial that will brighten your skin, go for an Aqua Peel which was a favorite for the guys in my family.
- Removing moles or brown spots is very cheap and easy but will require you to wear small bandages on your face for a week, so consider doing this toward the end of your trip.
- Our favorite dermatologist, Dr. Marie Jhin, recommends Botox for erasing wrinkles. Korean botox is very simple and inexpensive and includes a free follow-up session for touch-ups.
- Check Naver for reviews of your local skincare clinic or ask your concierge for recommendations.
19. Get tax refunds immediately on your purchases
Shopping duty-free as a foreigner is a great perk of traveling abroad. But saving your receipts and filing the paperwork at the airport to get your tax refund can be a royal pain. Korea has taken away some of the pain of duty-free shopping by offering immediate VAT tax refunds at many of the larger department stores and chain stores throughout Seoul.
- The major department stores like Hyundai and Shinsegae, as well as chain shops like Olive Young will allow you to get your refund immediately if you show your passport at checkout.
- If you plan to get your refund at the airport, try downloading an app that will help you keep track of your receipts.
Bonus Best Thing to do in Seoul: Go to Paradise City Hotel at Incheon Airport
One of the best things to do in Seoul is actually a little outside of Seoul. Paradise City resort was featured in “Single’s Inferno”, and it was the “paradise” trip awarded to couples that successfully matched up. Lest you think this is your ordinary fancy hotel, get ready to be wowed.
In fact, there is so much to do here that you might consider spending the last night of your Seoul stay at this hotel which is 5 minutes from Incheon Airport. Just for starters, the founders of Paradise City Hotel are major art collectors and some of their best pieces can be viewed throughout the hotel. There are over 3,000 pieces of great contemporary art from blue-chip artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Jeff Koons, and Robert Indiana.
- Cimer Spa is a combination of mega swimming pools and Korean jjimjilbang. They were closed for maintenance on our last visit, so make sure to call to confirm that it’s open.
- There is a casino for foreigners if you like gambling. Must show a foreign passport to get in.
- Shop at the duty-free shops for Monster sunglasses which are about $100 cheaper than overseas. No tax makes the deal even sweeter.
- Restaurant Jueun: $$$ Elevated modern Korean in Gyeongbokgung area.
- Bisabeol: $ Kongnamul Gukbap in Seongsu-dong.
- Gamchon: $ Homestyle Chadolbaeki Soondubu in Gwanghwamun.
- Tteul-Alae: $$ Tiny homestyle traditional Korean in Insadong.
- So Seoul Hannam: $$$$ 1 Michelin Star elevated modern Korean in Hannam-dong.
- OhTongYong: $$ Get Uni bibimbap and haemul pajeon. Cheongdam-dong.
- Changgo 43 (multiple locations): $$ Great Korean beef cooked on cast iron.
- Oegajib Seollungtang: $ Great Seollungtang in Samseong-dong.
- Gwangjang Market: $ Sujebi, Kalguksoo, and hodo gwaja in Jongno.
- Namdaemun Market: $ Tteokbokki, bibimbap, eumok.
- Hanwoori Hanjeongsik: $$ Traditional Korean with many private room options in Nonheon-dong.
- Dooreyoo: $$ Modern Korean in Bukchon Gahwoe-dong.
- Jungsikdang / Jungsik Cafe: $$$$ 2 Michelin star modern Korean restaurant in Cheongdam-dong.