The Best Things to Do in Seoul
Seoul is a vast metropolis with an efficient public transportation system. In addition to major sites like temples, museums, and palaces, the city boasts unexpected gems including nature trails and mazes of alluring backstreets.
161 Sajik-ro, Jongno 1(il).2(i).3(sam).4(sa), Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
This “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was once the heart of Korea. It was the power center of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), and was originally built in 1395—some new digs for a new dynasty. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace is a complex of buildings—a throne hall, the king’s living quarters and more—a sort of city inside a city, accented by gardens and pavilions. The Japanese flattened the place in the 1590s, and the site remained a ruin until a complete reconstruction in 1867 brought back more than 500 buildings. At the Gwanghwamun Gate, soldiers, beautifully costumed in red robes, still perform the changing of the guard. Seoul has other palaces, but this is the one to see if your time in town is limited.
Dosan-daero 13-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
No, it’s not your imagination. Everyone—men, women, children, even dogs—dresses up in Seoul. Sure, you’re bound to see the odd denim-clad dud, but on the whole you’re more likely to spot bow ties and blazers or blouses and heels walking the streets on a daily basis. If you like a little glitz and glamour in your people watching, head over to Gangnam (yes, the one immortalized by Psy in the song of the same name). Sip a cappuccino at any of the myriad cafes as you watch dolled-up ladies and dandified gents strut their stuff.
Cheonggyecheon, Jongno 5(o).6(yuk)ga-dong, Seoul
Located below street level, the public space Cheonggyecheon offers an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul. The area is part of a massive urban renewal project in which an old elevated highway was cleared to reveal the stream below. To find the entrance, look for Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture Spring Tower, which resembles a giant unicorn horn, and from there you can enjoy a serene 3.6-mile walk that meanders past art installations, graceful fountains, and green rest areas. Duck out at any point on one of the 22 overhead bridges that cross the stream, or walk to the end of the trail and visit the free Cheonggyecheon Museum to learn more about the area.
105 Namsangongwon-gil, Yongsan 2(i)ga-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Look to the top of Seoul’s 860-foot-tall Namsan Mountain and you’ll see the N Seoul Tower, which rises an additional 777 feet. This aerial perch is the highest point in the city and offers incredible views. Far below, Seoul sprawls out like a toy wonderland, while, on a clear day, North Korea lurks on the horizon. N Seoul Tower also boasts the world’s highest mailbox, so after taking in the views, buy a postcard and send it to someone special.
South Korea, Seoul, Jongno-gu, Gahoe-dong, 계동길 49-23
Meaning “a place where one can enjoy the traditions of times past and rest one’s soul,” Rak Ko Jae certainly lives up to its name. Styled after a Chosun Dynasty–era house, the 130-year-old hanok (traditional Korean house) was used by a secret society during the Japanese occupation of Korea before World War II as a place to study and preserve Korean language and culture. In 2003, a master architect, designated by the Korean government as a “Human National Treasure,” renovated the hanok, and now it’s one of the most picturesque places to stay in all of Korea’s capital. Stepping through the gate into the peaceful courtyard feels like going back in time, and the lotus pond, yellow-mud sauna, and traditional Korean cuisine only add to the anachronistic feeling. Guests staying at the small and intimate Rak Ko Jae can take part in many elements of traditional Korean culture such as making kimchi, trying on a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), or experiencing an afternoon tea ceremony.
An integral part of Korean culture, jimjilbangs, or bathhouses, offer much more than just a trip to the spa. Most are open 24 hours, functioning as a place for people to unwind and socialize. Expect unisex areas equipped with pools, showers, and massage services, all to be enjoyed in the buff. Those who find being nude in front of strangers intimidating can spend time in the coed saunas and relaxation rooms or at the in-house café. For a quintessential experience, head to Dragon Hill Spa, located outside of Yongsan Garrison. A Western-style jimjilbang, it’s akin to an entertainment complex, with amenities like arcades, karaoke, and movie theaters.
Euljiro 7(chil)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
This sleek, silver structure looks as if an alien spaceship had landed in the middle Seoul. It all makes sense, however, when you realize it’s the work of the late architect Zaha Hadid. Completed in 2014, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (known to locals as DDP) set several new design standards—there are no straight lines or angles to be found in the entire cultural complex. Today, the building and surrounding park provide a space for the exchange of ideas through exhibitions, conferences, and pop-up shops. It’s also the site of Seoul Fashion Week. For a magical experience, visit at night when the entire building is illuminated in a patchwork display and the field behind Exhibition Hall is aglow with more than 25,000 LED white roses.
137 Seobinggo-ro, Seobinggo-dong, Yongsan-gu, 서울특별시 South Korea
The National Museum of Korea is the largest museum in Korea and houses a comprehensive collection of Korean cultural artifacts that tell the story of Korea’s fascinating history, from ancient days to the modern era. There’s also the Children’s Museum—not only a wonderful playground and play space for children but also an impressive interactive exhibit that teaches children Korean history and heritage. Best of all, admission to the museum, including Children’s Museum, is free.
29 Itaewon-ro, Namyeong-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s War Memorial Museum is a massive complex that can easily eat up a history buff’s whole day. The big-ticket items—tanks, planes, missiles—are outside; inside is a complete history of military actions in Korea. One really cool thing is a replica of Admiral Sun-shin’s “turtle warships,” ironclad fighting boats used in the 16th century. The bulk of the place is taken up with the Korean War, with tons of films and photos that can get a little overwhelming for the unprepared. Korea was a suburb of hell from 1950 to 1953, and no punches are pulled here in showing just what it was like. It might be best to head for a park after your visit, to decompress and remember that it’s always business as usual for the trees.
240 Olympic-ro, Jamsil 3(sam)-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The world’s largest indoor amusement park, Lotte World gets more than 7 million visitors annually. Seasonal festivals like the Rio Samba Carnival and the Happy Christmas Party dictate the themes of the daily parades and performances, while tons of rides—both indoors and out—keep guests entertained all day long. Other highlights include mega playgrounds, an ice-skating rink, a monorail, a folk museum, and, of course, lots of shopping. Visit on a weekday when it’s less crowded and lines are shorter, and remember to grab a map at the entrance in order to navigate the multilevel complex.
Dongjang-ri, Jangdan-myeon, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Located between the two Koreas in the Civilian Control Zone along the 38th Parallel, Dorasan station has recently awakened as though from a spell. Once only used as a showcase boasting of hopes for reunification between the divided peninsula for visitors who passed through on designated DMZ tours, the station is now the last stop on the DMZ tourist train from Seoul. Twice-daily trips from the southern capital to the border bring visitors to the doorstep of the Hermit Kingdom and finally give Dorasan station a reason for that gift shop. Next stop Pyongyang?
25 Olympic-ro, Jamsil 7(chil)-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
A unique cultural event, Korean baseball games are fun even for the sports-averse. The Korea Baseball Organization consists of 10 teams that play from April through October, competing to win the Korean Series. Games go way beyond athletics, with cheerleaders encouraging the audience to participate in singing, cheering, and dance contests. Instead of overpriced hot dogs and beer, spectators bring their own snacks or buy affordable food such as fried chicken, shrimp chips, and ramen noodles, plus Western standards like burgers and pizza. Equally reasonable, tickets cost just $7 to $10.
Few people associate a wired city like Seoul with nature. However, South Korea’s capital is nestled amid 37 mountains, putting the great outdoors just a bus or subway ride away. Thanks to its location within the city, Bukhansan holds the Guinness World Record for the national park with the most visitors per square foot. You’ll find numerous trails of varying difficulty leading past temples, ancient fortress walls, waterfalls, and golden Buddha statues. The park is also home to Baegundae, Seoul’s highest peak, which offers a challenging but fun day-hike with a perfect picnic spot and bird’s-eye views of the sprawling metropolis.
Seoul Forest is the city’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park. Divided into five unique areas, it covers a massive 12.4 million square feet, making for an oasis in the middle of the city. There’s no shortage of activities for families here—children can feed deer in the Ecological Forest, view rare insects in the Butterfly Experience Zone, or spot rabbits along park trails. In the summer, they can escape the oppressive heat at the Jumping Fountains. While the kids cool off, adults can stroll the sculpture park, picnic by the lake, or rent bikes and explore the forest’s many gardened paths.
South Korea, Seoul, Myeong-dong, 명동2가 명동길 26 중구 서울특별시 KR
Opened in 1997, Nanta is the longest-running show in Korean history. Similar to Stomp, it’s a nonverbal musical that people of all ages and nationalities can understand. The comedic story follows a frantic kitchen staff as they prepare for an impending wedding banquet. In addition to impressive percussive performances with cooking equipment, the 90-minute show incorporates many opportunities for audience participation. It’s become so popular that it now plays at two theaters, one in Myeongdong and another in Hongdae. Each venue offers an afternoon and evening show, with a third added on weekends. It’s recommended that you buy tickets in advance as seats sell out quickly.
35-4 Insadong-gil, Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
When most people think of Korean cuisine, the first food that comes to mind is usually kimchi. In addition to being the country’s national dish, the spicy, fermented vegetable condiment has been shown to contain many health benefits. Learn even more about it at Museum Kimchikan, located in Insadong. Fun for children and adults alike, the museum features interactive exhibits about the history and process of making kimchi, culminating in a little tasting room with several varieties to sample. The small entrance fee includes an audio guide and complimentary hanboks (traditional Korean clothes) to wear inside the facility. If you plan to visit on a Wednesday or Thursday, secure advance reservations for a kimchi-making class.
60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Opened in 2004, the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art seeks to bridge the past, present, and future of art. The sleek complex consists of two wings, one dedicated to traditional Korean works and the other to international contemporary art. The traditional wing is shaped like a reverse cone, with a spiraling walkway that winds through galleries of ancient paintings, calligraphy, and crafts. In stark contrast, the glass-and-steel contemporary wing was built without supporting posts, encouraging viewers to move freely among distinctive works by Basquiat, Olafur Eliasson, and Takashi Murakami. The experience continues outside on the parking lot deck, where there is a polished sculpture garden.
55 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno 1(il).2(i).3(sam).4(sa), Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Constructed in 1910 as the head temple of Korean Buddhism, Jogyesa is a spiritual sanctuary that’s free to the public. Visitors can wander around two 500-year-old trees in the courtyard, then head to the main hall, known as Daeoongjeong, to see three giant golden Buddhas. For a deeper look at monastic life, arrange an overnight temple stay online. Jogyesa is at its most vibrant in May, when it transforms from an oasis to a hub of festivities. The monks hang thousands of colorful lanterns to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, and the temple hosts the Lotus Lantern Festival, which kicks off the famous parade.
99 Yulgok-ro, Jongno 1(il).2(i).3(sam).4(sa), Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Changdeokgung Palace is a prime example of pungsu, a style derived from the principles of Confucianism that harmoniously blends architecture with the surrounding landscape. Originally built in 1412 as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung eventually became the main seat of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s most celebrated empire. It was especially beloved for its huwon, a landscaped garden of pavilions, ponds, and pagodas. Today, the only way to see the huwon is to take the 90-minute Secret Garden Tour. Afterward, pay the extra fee to view the remaining 60 percent of the complex.