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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is a city built on innovation and commerce. Combine the two and you get Common Ground, the world’s largest container shopping mall. Developed by the design firm Urbantainer, the project was intended to revitalize unused land in the Gwangjin neighborhood. Now, 200 stacked, prefab blue containers stand on the site, helping connect the community with creativity. Independent boutiques in the Street Market and Market Hall areas lure shoppers, while gourmands head to the terrace restaurants and food trucks in the courtyard. A never-ending lineup of events is also on offer, from DJ nights and performances by emerging musicians to pop culture exhibits sponsored by Toy Republic.
Myeongdong is a dizzying shopping mecca where every major Korean cosmetic and fashion brand has a store—or several. The Korea Tourism Organization estimates that more than 1 million visitors pass through the area every day. Anchored by the Lotte and Shinsegae department stores, Myeongdong is packed with stalls and shops, both above- and underground. Don’t worry about a language barrier—most salespeople speak English and will even try to lure you in with the promise of free goodies like sheet masks. (Remember to bring your passport to qualify for tax-free refunds at participating locations.) At night, the energy intensifies with mazes of neon lights and vendors selling street food like rice cakes, egg toast, tornado potatoes, dumplings, steamed corn, and anything that fits on a skewer.
16 Noksapyeong-daero 46-gil, Itaewon 1(il)-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Known as Seoul’s “Global Village,” Itaewon is where tourists and expats come to play. A diverse, English-friendly neighborhood, it evolved thanks to the nearby U.S. military base Yongsan Garrison. The area’s main road, Itaewon-ro, is a typical commercial street lined with big-name stores and restaurants, but the real charm of the neighborhood lies in its gils, or side streets. The alley behind the Hamilton Hotel functions as Itaewon’s unofficial pub row, while Noksapyeong-daero is lined with antique stores selling vintage goods left by American and European soldiers. Also worth a stop is the Seoul Central Mosque, atop one of the neighborhood’s highest hills and surrounded by Middle Eastern restaurants and international grocery stores, and Bogwang-ro, an inconspicuous side street bursting with boutiques and cool cafés.
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.
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.
지하 200 Sinbanpo-ro, Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Not only is the Express Bus Terminal a major transportation hub, it’s also the site of Seoul’s largest underground shopping mall. Attached to the subway station, Goto Mall sprawls for a half-mile and houses more than 600 stores. When visiting, wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a shopping spree. The west end of the mall is a haven for savvy fashionistas seeking inexpensive but trendy Korean clothing and shoes, while the east end features home goods, furniture, and plant stores. After working up an appetite, head to the corridor in the basement of the luxury department store Shinsegae, where there are several gourmet food stalls.
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.
161 Sajik-ro, 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.
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.
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.