Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Trip to Seoul
One glimpse of Seoul and you’ll know why it’s trending. There is no city in the world more adept at finding a fad and, with mind-boggling speed, blowing it up and putting it on every street corner and back alley. If you see it in Brooklyn today and it’s even remotely cool, you’ll likely see it in Seoul tomorrow.
World-class dining? Check. Museums and galleries? Check. A nightlife that never stops? I mean, we did rank Seoul the number one party city in the world, so. South Korea’s capital is a whirlwind of action, a high-energy hub of 10 million residents who fully embrace the work hard, play hard mentality. And since South Korea is small, with Seoul a mere four-hour train ride from even the farthest-flung city, it’s easy to go full vacation mode and explore the country at large. Allot enough time. I recommend at least a week, so you can really “do” Seoul and also take a day trip or two.
The blazing neon, the blaring K-pop, the beckoning street food, the beautiful natural escapes -- and the shopping, oh, the shopping! There are many reasons why Seoul is on our list of 19 places to go in 2019. See for yourself.
Walking around Seoul can feel like a competitive sport
Except worse, because there are no rules. There’s no sense of directionality, as in “you walk on your side, I’ll walk on mine.” Pedestrians are pushy, motorcyclists are certainly not concerned about your safety, and the “sidewalks” are really just extra parking spaces for cars.
Take it in stride (!) and bask in the bedlam. Half the country has packed itself into Seoul’s greater metropolitan area. Getting around the city can be hectic, but it’s a pleasure in its own way.
Luckily, public transit is easy to find and cheap to use
With more than 20 subway and extension lines, and hundreds of bus routes, to say that Seoul is well connected by public transit is an understatement. And despite its rapidly rising cost of living, transit is still cheap -- usually only KRW 1,250 (about US $1.05) a ride. Buy a T-Money transit card and load it up at the station kiosks, or stop inside a CU or 7-Eleven and ask the clerk to do it for you. The touch-card will work on every subway, bus, and taxi -- not only in Seoul, but nationwide. The super handy KakaoMap, KakaoMetro, and KakaoBus apps will help you navigate, and the Kakao T app will let you order a cab even without a Korean credit card (just select the “pay to the driver” option).
For the most part, a trip on the metro will get you within a short walk of your destination, and faster than a taxi in traffic ever could. But if you’re out late and the subway isn’t operating, do hail a cab. You’ll know the driver is available when you see the red 빈차, or “empty car,” sign illuminated in the windshield. The meter starts at KRW 3,800 (about US $3.15).
The best neighborhoods to check out in Seoul
Seoul is made up of 25 districts, situated north and south of the Han river that divides the city in half. While none of them will leave you high and dry in terms of places to sleep, eat, and drink, certain areas are more quiet and residential, and others offer better access to the action.
If you’re here to party (you’re here to party, right?) post up in Hongdae or Itaewon, where going club-, lounge-, and bar-hopping is as simple as walking out your front door. Just be warned it will be loud at all hours of the day and night. Drinking is basically a national pastime.
If you’ve come to Seoul to go on a fevered unrestrained shopping spree, visit Myeongdong or Gangnam (yeah, that Gangnam). To explore the city’s history and culture, Jongno is the heart of old Seoul, home to royal palaces and traditional hanok homes. (To stay in a hanok, which are characterized by wide wooden floors and tiled roofs, book a guesthouse in Bukchon.) And if you’re looking for a more laid-back experience, try Mullae on the west side, or Seongsu on the east side, which are kind of like the Brooklyns of Seoul.
Where to stay
Lodging options are wide-ranging -- hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and Airbnbs abound. There’s the affordable and the not-so-affordable. There’s the so-called Western style, with beds, and the more traditional Korean style, with sleeping mats on the floor.
If you opt for an Airbnb, note that many Korean bathrooms don’t have bathtubs or shower stalls. Essentially the entire bathroom is your shower stall, so the whole floor is wet after you wash. That’s where those plastic sandals come into play (most Airbnb hosts will provide them).
Fashion is a big deal here
In Seoul, it’s all about dressing to impress… though not quite to stand out. The herd mentality is rooted deep in the culture here, and K-style is no exception. Korean idols dictate the trends; once a celebrity wears something, it’s minted a must-have and the masses rush to copy it. You might notice that everyone around you is wearing slightly different versions of the same styles. Last winter it was long puffer coats. Right now it’s hair clips, and dresses layered over shirts.
But for all its trendiness, Seoul is still a conservative creature. Travelers might attract unwanted stares for low-cut shirts, bare backs, and exposed shoulders -- especially in more traditional areas, outside the touristy neighborhoods of Itaewon, Hongdae, or Gangnam. (Yet, somehow, micro-minis and short shorts are totally fine.)
Tips for communicating with locals
Most South Koreans understand elementary English, and while they might be shy about practicing with you, you can absolutely get around the city without any extensive Korean skills. Still, don’t be that lazy American tourist who makes zero effort to speak the language. Take the time to learn a few basic phrases: “annyeonghaseyo” (“hello”), “juseyo” (“please”), and “kamsahamnida” (“thank you”).
South Koreans are a proud people; when an outsider shows an appreciation for the local customs, food, and language, locals usually respond with praise and a warm smile -- and maybe even a freebie or two at a restaurant.
That being said, South Koreans are, by nature, an insular bunch. Having connections and a proper introduction are important here, so it can be tricky for foreign travelers to make fast friends at a bar -- if you like companionship, it’s not a great place to travel solo. Locals might be up for a light-hearted chat, but it’s more likely they’ll keep to themselves.
Wear your stretchy pants and get ready to eat
Food is the heart of South Korea -- an essential part of family, friendship, and business. You’ll find everything from the flashiest and fanciest of fine dining to the homey and humble. Some of Seoul’s many Michelin-starred restaurants sit a stone’s throw from mom-and-pop diners, street-food stands, and kitsch cafes.
For BBQ, there’s Byeokje Galbi and the popular chain Hanam Pig. For fine dining, try Jungsik Dang or fusion joint Mingles. You can also dig into some international fare -- you’ll find delicious Moroccan food at Casablanca Sandwicherie and Morocco Cafe, Mexican cuisine at Elpino323, and Italian at Ricetta.
At most restaurants, it’s perfectly acceptable to call over the waitstaff with a shout -- “yeogiyo!” or “here please!” -- or push the button sometimes installed on the tabletops. Also, there’s no need to tip.
Essential Korean dishes you can’t leave without trying
No matter your gastronomic pedigree and preference, you’ll find something to suit your tastes. But there are the quintessential Korean dishes that should be on every traveler’s eating itinerary: Samgyeopsal and galbi barbecue, grilled right at the table and bundled in lettuce bites. Bibimbap (mixed rice and vegetables), topped with an egg and spicy gochujang sauce. Haejangguk, samgyetang, and other hearty and comforting soups. Kimbap (sushi rolls). All the banchan side dishes. And all-you-can-eat kimchi, of course.
For a culinary adventure, try sannakji (live baby octopus), jokbal (pig’s trotters), and boendaeggi (boiled silkworm larvae).
And then there is the street food. (Insert drooly face emoji here.) The market areas of Myeongdong and Dongdaemun may have the best selection of snacks, but you’ll find street stalls most anywhere you go in Seoul. Some treats to keep an eye out for: ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes); gochi meat skewers; cheese “corndogs” coated in sugar; gyeranbang (egg bread); twikim (breaded and deep-fried vegetables and dumplings); hoddeok (pancakes filled with syrup); cup chicken; ice cream-stuffed waffles…. the list goes on and on.
Be on the lookout for food-and-drink pairings
Partake in the charming food-and-drink pairings that South Koreans hold so dear. Some popular combos: pajeon (savory green onion pancakes) with makgeolli (fermented rice wine) -- best had on a rainy day, according to tradition; Korean-style fried chicken and maekju (beer) -- a combination known as chimaek; grilled meats with soju or somaek (a mix of soju and maekju). Walking around, you’ll spot many establishments dedicated to serving these pairings.
Seoul might be the greatest drinking city on the planet
For South Koreans, drinking is an indispensable part of socializing and bonding with everyone from your friends to your boss. And, in Seoul, there is a party for every type, for every occasion, on every day of the week. So pick your poison(s) and brace yourself -- a night out in South Korea goes ‘til sun-up and is conducted in cha, or rounds (up to five) hopping from establishment to establishment. The whole affair can sometimes span longer than a full workday.
Round one might be BBQ and somaek. Round two is usually at a bar, whether it’s for spirits, cocktails, or craft beer. For a comprehensive introduction to soju and makgeolli, go to Mr. Ahn’s Makgeolli in the Gyeongridan neighborhood, north of Itaewon, where you can order from a wide spectrum of strengths and flavors. For a sampling of some of the city’s best cocktails, Bar Twelve (XII) -- so named because, well, it only seats 12 -- has locations in Gyeongridan and Cheongdam.
If craft beer is your drink of choice, go to The Booth, The Hand & Malt Taproom, or Magpie Brewing Co., some of the O.G. Korean craft breweries that helped popularize specialty-style brews in the land of Hite and Cass.
But since you’re here in Seoul, do sample the light stuff, too. Settle in at a neighborhood hof, or Korean pub (hello, round three!), where it’s customary to order anju (the food that’s to be consumed with drinks) along with your pints and pitchers. Another fun local thing is to grab a few cans of beer at the convenience store and enjoy them on the patio outside, or to sit at a pocha (a plastic tarp-covered tent) on the street for drinks and anju.
That’s right, drinking in public is legal in Seoul
Seoul also has top-notch hookah bars, vinyl bars, and takeout bars, where you can get bagged drinks to go. That’s right, public drinking is legal South Korea. While it’s not advisable to get carried away with the public inebriation, a measured amount is also not something locals will find particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, you might be the one surprised at the state of the streets at five in the morning -- people packed in like a sardine can, cans and bottles everywhere.
End the night with clubbing and karaoke
For round four, head to a club. Clubbing aficionados should make Hongdae and Itaewon their top two stops. Hongdae is the area around Hongik University, and it has everything from the divey to the divine. Club FF is one old favorite. Also recommended are Henz Club, Club Aura, and Madholic. Itaewon is the foreigner mecca of Seoul due to the old US Army base located there -- you’ll find Cakeshop, Boombar, and other hip-hop and R&B hotspots.
And for round five, there is what might be the most beloved South Korean drinking experience of them all: noraebang, the country’s version of karaoke. Rent a private room, order drinks, select your jams, grab that tambourine, and sing your heart out. You can find a noraebang joint in any corner of the city, ranging from the luxe to the low-key.
If shopping is your thing, Seoul is your city
Outdoor bargain stalls and fast-fashion malls, underground markets, luxury department stores, high-end boutiques, vintage shops… Seoul’s got it all. Even Incheon International Airport (ICN) ranks among the best shopping airports in the world.
Ground Zero for shopping is Myeongdong, where you can pick up all the most popular fashions and indulge in the K-beauty scene. Popular cosmetics and skincare stores include Etude House, Too Cool for School, Aritaum, Missha, Nature Republic, Innisfree -- just to name a few. If you want to try the latest Korean beauty treatments, like pore vacuuming, head to Whoo Spa near Sinsa Station. And to get the Korean spa and sauna experience, there’s Dragon Hill (budget-friendly) and Sulwhasoo (much less so).
For upscale shopping, check out Rodeo Street and Garosugil -- brand-name streets in one of Seoul’s most wealthy areas, Gangnam. For the hip and trendy, head to Common Ground, a shopping center built out of shipping containers, near Konkuk University. For the traditional and time-honored, Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, and Kwangjang markets. And for a mall with an aquarium, library, cinema, casino, and even a kimchi museum, there’s Starfield COEX at Samseong Station.
Take advantage of Seoul’s best parks and hikes
Seoul may be best known as a sprawl of cement and concrete, but it also reserves space for some of the largest urban parks in the world. Enjoy an evening light show along the Han river -- where you can rent a pedal boat (KRW 15,000 or US $12.60) or listen to live music on a cruise ship (starting at KRW 16,700 or US $14.00). Or take a stroll through Seoul Forest, Yongsan Family Park, or Olympic Park, with green lawns perfect for picnicking and winding pathways for exploring on two wheels.
For a stunning view of the capital, head to the northern part of Seoul to Bukhansan National Park. (To get there, go to Gupabal Station exit 1, transfer to bus 34, 704, or 8772, and get off at the Bukhansan Mountain stop.) Hike up Baegundae peak, 840 meters above sea level. It’s a moderate-intensity two-hour hike, with the most challenging bit at the end, where climbers will need to hold onto ropes to reach the summit. It’s well worth the effort, though -- climbers will be greeted with a panoramic view of verdant treetops set against cityscape set against more mountains. With mountainous terrain covering 70 percent of the Korean Peninsula, hiking is a truly cherished activity here.
Swing a day trip or two
To truly understand the peninsula’s division, be sure to see the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where you can go to the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom, peer into North Korea, and explore one of the underground tunnels the North dug into the South. Other good day-trip options include Nami Island, known for being the set of one of South Korea’s most popular dramas, and Busan, the nation’s second largest city, situated on the southern coast.
Leave time for a little history, too
Because much of Seoul was destroyed during the Korean War and multiple Japanese invasions, not a whole lot of its infrastructure is actually original; most of it has been rebuilt. Still, there are the old parts of town, which provide some of the best glimpses into the country’s dynastic past.
Wander through the National Folk Museum and National Museum of Korea for a lesson on the early Korean kingdoms of Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1897) and the Korean Empire (1897-1910). Tour the palaces that housed the royal family, including Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung -- each are filled with pavilions, lakes, gardens, and gates. These mammoth structures, painted in striking reds and greens, are some of the most iconic landmarks of the country. Also worth a visit is Jogyesa, Seoul’s biggest Buddhist temple.
The best time of year to visit Seoul is spring and fall
The weather in Seoul is not always agreeable. Winter is frigid. Summer feels like a swamp. At about the same latitude as the central States, Seoul’s weather and seasonality more or less mirror New York City’s. Aim for September-October or April-June, when temps range a comfortable 55-85 degrees.
Air quality, however, is a concern all year round. You’ll spot locals wearing white or black masks to fend off the fine dust. In recent years, Seoul’s pollution levels have reached carcinogenic heights, on some days exceeding the World Health Organization’s exposure limits. If the smog is bad and you want to sport a mask too, you can find one at any convenience store or pharmacy.
A few other things to keep in mind for your trip
While authorities say the tap water is safe, no one actually drinks it. This is likely out of greater concern for the pipes it runs through than the quality of the water itself. You can buy the 2-liter bottled stuff for about a dollar at the convenience store.
Seoul has a complex trash disposal system that has led to a shortage of public bins. If you get a coffee to go, be prepared to walk for miles with an empty paper cup before finding a place to offload it. If you stay at an Airbnb and are responsible for taking out your own trash, be mindful of the rules: separate recycling from waste, and the compostable from the non-compostable.