Things to Do in Seoul
Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no man’s land known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. As the only divided nation on earth, only 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) separate the North from the South in what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile (241-kilometer) long zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease fire that put the Korean War on hold.
The area is quite safe for tourists and is probably the most fascinating day trip you could possibly take from Seoul. While touring the DMZ, you’ll get the chance to visit the Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjeom. When the North and South met for peace talks during the Korean War, they met in Panmunjeom, and it is here that you can really feel the tension as North Korean soldiers gaze down at passing tourists from their side while South Korean soldiers stare back.
Most commonly referred to as the Northern Palace because of its location compared to the other palaces of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung is a stunning reminder of the Joseon Dynasty, with elements of the complex still intact from that time, despite the wars and occupations that have since happened. The Gyeonghoe-ru pavilion and Hyangwonjeong pond are gleaming examples of that reminder, helping Gyeongbokgung become arguably the most stunning of the five palaces.
Originally built in the 14th century, the main gate of the palace is the only thing dividing the once royal quarters from one of the busiest parts of the city. The grounds of the palace contain a number of structures you may not see all of on your first trip, including Geunjeongmun (the Third Inner Gate), Geunjeongjeon, (the Throne Hall) and Sajeongjeon (the Executive Office). The palace also contains a royal banquet hall, a royal study, and of course, the queen's and king's quarters.
Offering one of the most beautiful panoramic views in the city, the 777 foot (236.7 meters) Namsam tower, or N Seoul tower, in Seoul is an opportunity for visitors to see just how much the South Korean capital has grown over the years.
Featuring a nice array of restaurants serving local food, including one that revolves, and a gift shop, you can take a cable car up the mountain the tower is located on and enjoy the views from various observation decks. Another option is to hike up to the tower through Namsan Park, which features paths and viewpoints. It's photographer's dream; try and catch the city flashing below the mountainous backdrop day or night.
Though it was first opened to the public more than 30 years ago, it was reopened as a cultural landmark in 2005 and now offers art exhibitions, movies, performances, a children's center and even a bakery, making it a cannot-miss destination.
Insadong (Insa-dong), Seoul’s cultural and artistic hub, is the place to go to shop for local crafts, visit a traditional Korean tea shop or catch an impromptu street performance. The quaint neighborhood, located in Jongno-gu district, houses one of the largest antiques and craft markets in the country.
The area’s name dates back more than 500 years when Insadong was two separate towns divided by a small stream. The wealthy Korean residents who called the towns home were forced out during the Japanese occupation, and the new residents established Insadong as an antiques trading post. Today, Insadong’s collection of cafes, galleries and shops attract domestic and foreign tourists to the area. Many of the restaurants and shops are housed in the original historic buildings. You’ll find nearly half of Korea’s antique shops and nearly all of its stationary shops in Insadong. Keep in mind that many galleries in Insadong close on Sundays or Mondays.
Bukchon Hanok Village is a lovely residential neighborhood located between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces, and is full of traditional hanok homes. It is a place that perfectly embodies the heritage and culture of South Korea.
Famous for once being the residences of high-ranking government officials, the village is now a peaceful destination for visitors looking to taking a stroll through its comforting alleyways and calm, picturesque scenery. Boasting more than 600 years of history, the village reflects that of the tranquil views and nature of neo-Confucianism. It currently houses a museum and various craft shops tucked away in its back alleys, built in a uniform way where gardens meeting on adjacent properties seem to make the whole idea of property go away. Located just at the mouth of the village, the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center is a great place to get the low-down on not only the village itself.
Named for the blue tiles that cover the roof, Seoul’s Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae or Cheongwadae) serves as the presidential home, much like the White House in Washington, DC. Set in an old Joseon Dynasty royal garden, the Blue House sit with Mount Bugaksan as its backdrop in a spot deemed auspicious. Built in the traditional Korean architectural style, the Blue House has more than 150,000 tiles on its roof, each formed and baked individually and thought to be strong enough to last for centuries.
On a tour through the grounds of the Blue House, you’ll get to visit some of the gardens, as well as the main building where the President of the Republic of Korea lives and conducts business and the State Guest House, all while learning about the tumultuous history of the country. You can see the Military Honor Guard and Band perform every Saturday at 10am just outside the Blue House as well.
Shinhuengsa Temple, the oldest Zen temple in South Korea, was built by a traveling Shilla monk by the name of Jajang Yulsa in 652 AD, and has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt many times since. The current incarnation of the temple dates back to 1648. Located in Seoraksan National Park near the Sokcho entrance, the temple features a three-level pagoda, 1,400-year-old, an original stone Buddha statue and a newer bronze Buddha statue depicting a 33-foot (10-meter) seated likeness of the Buddha. Visitors looking for a more in-depth temple experience can participate in Sainhuengsa’s Temple Stay Program, which provides tourists the opportunity to spend two or three days in the temple living the typical life of a Korean Buddhist monk.
Spanning more than 310 miles (500 km) at about 0.62 miles (1 km) wide, the Han River (Hangang) is one of the most important rivers in South Korea. A full-on tourism destination, a warm or even brisk day affords you the chance to explore the well-groomed pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths. Take the kids around as visitors and locals alike enjoy the soothing ambiance of the river beside while jogging, fishing or just hanging out in one of its many cafes. If you are so inclined you can even jet ski.
The Hangang Park also has playgrounds if you just want to sit and relax while the kids use up some energy. Unfortunately there are no real restaurants, but it is still a great place to picnic with the family or a loved one. One of the more popular things to do here is to take a boat cruise for a relaxing ride around, or for special occasions, boats can be booked a night soiree.
More Things to Do in Seoul
Many travelers visit Hongdae, the area surrounding Hongik University in Seoul, for its nightlife, the best in the city. On weekend nights, the district comes alive as Seoul’s youth come out in force to dance, drink and generally have a good time. With dozens of bars and clubs within a few block radius, Hongdae offers a little bit of everything, including easy-going taverns. Dance clubs where the music rages until the sun comes up, underground karaoke dens and themed cocktail bars.
If you’re in Seoul on the last Friday of the month, called Club Night locally, you can pay a flat fee to enter about a dozen different clubs, with one drink on the house in each. It’s a good deal even if you only plan to visit a few of the bars. While the city’s best nightlife spot, the area around Hongik University is quite charming by day as well, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays when markets spring up selling Korean handicrafts and souvenirs.
Famous for being the only major temple within Seoul, Jogyesa Temple serves as the center of Zen Buddhism in Korea and houses Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. The temple was established in 1910 but the main shrine wasn’t built until 1938. Many of the trees in the courtyard in front of the main temple have been standing there for more than 500 years. Each June, Jogyesa Temple hosts Buddha’s birthday celebration, sometimes called the Lotus Lantern Festival, when the whole complex gets adorned with colorful lanterns. The temple is colorful even without the extra decorations, and is well worth a visit any time of year, particularly given its convenient location near many of Seoul’s historic attractions. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism in Korea, stop by the Central Buddhist Museum to see a sizable collection of paintings and artifacts and the Center for Foreign Visitors where English-speaking Buddhist guides will gladly answer your questions.
One of Seoul’s most ambitious revitalization projects of the past several decades has been to transform the Cheonggyecheon stream into one of the city’s best outdoor pedestrian areas. Cheonggyecheon, a small stream passing through downtown Seoul, was restored in 2005 to give the city a desperately needed outdoor area. The project included the installation of extensive walking paths, 22 bridges, a large central fountain and several murals and art installations featuring the work of local artists. The stream now stretches nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers), so you’ll usually be able to find a place to sit and relax.
In a city that was once largely devoid of natural spaces, Cheonggyecheon is one of the best places in Seoul for walking, people watching or simply taking a break from a walking tour of the surrounding historic district. During the summers, the city hosts cultural festivals and concerts as part of the Cheonggyecheon Cultural Festival.
Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s first and oldest covered market, was originally the place to come to buy traditional Korean clothing items, like hanbok. While the market still specializes in textiles, it’s become one of Seoul’s biggest street food hot spots, where foodies can sample nearly any type of Korean cuisine under the same roof.
In the food court area, dozens of vendors pack tightly together, busily preparing a quick meal for shoppers passing through. The variety is astounding, but bibimbap (a Korean rice dish with ground meat and vegetables), dumplings and savory mung bean pancakes are always safe and tasty bets. If you happen to be in the market for a tailored silk dress or set of high quality bed sheets, head upstairs to the wholesale shops where you can get nearly anything custom made at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in some of Seoul’s high end shopping districts. Most of the shops close down on Sundays, but the food court remains open.
While most people are familiar with the Korean War, fewer realize how wrought with conflict Korea’s history really is. The War Memorial of Korea documents this history with a focus on the country’s relationships with North Korea, China and Japan. Calling it a memorial is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually a full-fledged museum housed in the former headquarters of the Korean Infantry.
The eight main exhibits house an extensive collection of equipment from the Korean War, including tanks, guns and military planes, as well as a series of sculptures and paintings depicting patriotic war efforts. If you only have time for one exhibit, make it the Korean War exhibit. Technically, the Korean War is still going on, and tensions run hot between the North and the South, rendering the information here particularly relevant.
Built in 1405 by King Taejong, Changdeokgung Palace was designed to blend harmoniously with the natural environment. While much of the complex was destroyed by fire in the Japanese invasion in 1592, it was rebuilt in 1609 and has since been restored to its original splendor. The main palace of Gyeongbokgung was also destroyed in 1593, and for 300 years beginning in 1609, Changdeokgung served as the seat of power while Gyeongbokgung was being rebuilt. It served as the seat of royalty again in 1907 by King Sunjong, the last king of Korea.
UNESCO designated Changdeokgung Palace a World Heritage site in 1997 for its unique palace architecture. It’s the best preserved of Seoul’s five remaining Joseon palaces, with the royal family residences, public area and gardens open to visitors. The palace is beautiful throughout the year, but the trees of the extensive gardens become extremely picturesque in autumn when their leaves turn shades of yellow and red.
If you need to do any shopping in Seoul, whether it be for clothes, housewares, jewelry, appliances or souvenirs, you’ll find it for a good price somewhere in the packed alleys and streets of Namdaemun Market. Ginseng, outdoors gear, imported goods and kitchenware can be bought throughout Seoul, but Namdaemun Market in particular seems to specialize in these items. For a uniquely Korean gift or souvenir, you can have a traditional stamp with your name spelled out in Korean made in minutes from one of many stamp stalls throughout the market.
Korea’s largest traditional market has been open since 1964 and hasn’t really closed since. Wholesale shops stay open throughout the night, and by early morning, the market is already busy as locals pass through to do their shopping. Namdaemun is also a great place to sample some Korean street food; you’ll find the greatest concentration of vendors in Noodle Alley and Restaurant Alley.
This well-preserved village is home to five restored traditional Korean houses, as well as a quiet pond and a picturesque pavilion. Though some consider this destination a bit too touristy, others say the rebuilt homes from the Joseon Dynasty perfectly illustrate the daily lives of locals during ancient times.
Travelers can wander through the homes of both peasants and kings while they explore typical life. A traditional craftwork shop offers travelers the chance to pick up traditional games and historic replicas. On weekends visitors can take part in a traditional wedding ceremony and sometimes catch other performances, like kite flying and the five-colored experience that showcase local dance and culture.
Travelers to Korean Folk Village can wander some 250 acres of natural South Korean landscape dotted with 260 replica houses from the Joseon Dynasty. A trip to this remote destination offers visitors a colorful and lively look into the nation’s rich history, unique culture and lengthy past.
Learn more about local foods and traditional clothing while exploring the workshops and open-air attractions at Korean Folk Village. Then stop by the Folk Museum and Art Museum where guests get an up-close and informative look at the handmade baskets, brass wares, musical instruments and embroidery the Joseon Dynasty was known for. Daily traditional dance and live music performances are worth checking out and rustic scenery is worthy of a photo album all its own.
Mt Bukhan, also called Bukhansan, is a mountain just north of Seoul with three distinct peaks. It is not only an easily recognizable landmark overlooking the city, but also part of the Bukhansan National Park and a popular hiking, bird watching and rock climbing destination. Climbing Mt Bukhan is one of the more popular day trips from Seoul and every Saturday and Sunday morning, Seoul’s air-conditioned metro cars are crowded with hikers decked out in colorful hiking equipment heading in that direction. At the base of the mountain, spicy fragrances saturate the air where countless food stalls are selling everything from dumplings and bulgogi to hardboiled eggs and kimchi. Sustenance for the steep climb to the main peak Beagunbong and refreshments for the returning hikers. The South Koreans not only visit Mt Bukhan for the nature and a breath of fresh air, but also for the many temples and shrines spread throughout the national park.
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