35 Things To Do & Eat in Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, Korea is now one of the top 10 most visited cities in the world. And for good reason. Korea is a nation that has risen from a tumultuous, war-torn past to become an influential face on the global scene. I’ve been living in Busan for 4 ½ years and have visited Seoul on a few occasions. I thought it only appropriate that I do a “things to do travel guide” for Seoul while I’m still here. After all, I am Seoul Tee, and these are the Red Dragon Diaries. So without further ado, here are 35 great things to do and EAT in Seoul, South Korea.
There are many palaces to be seen in Korea, but in my own personal opinion, Gyeongbokgung is the finest. The palace grounds are a vastly stretching visual which includes multiple gates, courts, pavilions, bridges and ponds. As with most travel attractions, the best time to visit is in the warmer months when everything is in bloom or changing color. It will really enhance the views. Each of the halls and structures has a purpose, whether it be a king or queen’s quarters, a banquet hall, library, or ancestral shrine. There is also a changing of the guards ceremony which gives you a chance to see the historical attire in living color. If you choose any palace to visit in Seoul, keep Gyeongbokgung at the top of your list.
National Folk Museum (at Gyeongbokgung)
The National Folk Museum is located within the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. It has thousands of artifacts which showcase the daily lives of the common Korean citizen of yesteryear. The main exhibitions include the history of Korean people, the Korean Way of Life, and the Lifecycle of Koreans, as well as other halls. This is a great presentation and also a great place to cool off in the summer and warm up in the winter.
Dak Bokkeum Tang (Spicy Braised Chicken)
You know that if the term “spicy” is in the name of a Korean dish you’re in serious trouble. Dak Bokkeum Tang is very spicy chicken and veggie stew. This had carrots and potatoes. Towards the end they add rice and seaweed flakes for a delicious way to polish it all off.
A popular market in Seoul is Namdaemun. It sells goods such as clothing, kitchenware, imported goods from China, ginseng, and fishing gear. It is a very large and sprawling area and is a great way to spend time and to see what shopping habits are like for the average local Korean in that area. It’s also next to Namdaemun Gate. One of the Eight Great Gates of Seoul.
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market
Noryangjin is one of the largest fish markets in Korea. You don’t need to like seafood to see that this place is awesome. It’s rough around the edges and the real deal in seafood galore. Endless types of shell fish, flounder, crab and lobster, seaweed, shrimp, and octopus. Some of the lobsters I saw there were huge, and I’m from New England. This is a great stop to see the authentic side of Seoul.
Sang Hwang Sam Gye Tang (Ginseng Chicken Soup in Mushroom Broth)
Sam Gye Tang is chicken and ginseng soup. This version is made with mushroom broth. Usually the broth is thinner and clearer. Sam gye tang has a whole chicken in it and is common all throughout Korea. It’s stuffed with rice and is a very hearty meal. I wished for Florida weather.
War Memorial of Korea
The War Memorial of Korea is a reminder of the ultimate sacrifices of many that made possible what we know as modern-day, independent South Korea. The museum has exhibits that pay homage to all facets of previous wars including fallen soldier memorial halls of all nations, history, military development, and large equipment artifacts. This is quite possibly one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever visited both in scale and detail. As you venture through each of the 8 exhibits, you will receive a true sense of magnitude, the impact of war and what was required to establish the state as it stands today.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
In contrast to the multitude of historical attractions Seoul has to offer is Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP. The futuristic design stands out amongst the standard malls and markets of that area. It houses convention and exhibition halls, a history hall, and design gallery. The complex is huge and will provide for a new photo op at every angle. Take some time to see an exhibition to make your visit complete.
Galchi Jorim (Braised Hairtail and Radish Soup)
This spicy dish, galchi jorim, is braised hairtail fish. It looks like an eel and tastes great, but be ready for bone city. Have patience. Also included are stewed radishes that help to balance out the spiciness. It can also be served with a side of steamed egg. It’s a very flavorful dish that many Koreans love to indulge in. Maybe you will too.
N Seoul Tower
Seoul Tower is the highest point in Seoul. It’s used for TV and radio broadcasting and is the very best way to get magnificent views of Seoul proper. The N stands for New or Namsan. It’s 236 meters tall and is situated atop Namsan Mountain. You take a very entertaining elevator ride up to the observatory deck where you can find a rotating restaurant, gift shop, small museum, and great views of Seoul city. Do it on a clear day for the best views.
Namsan Cable Car and Elevator (to N Seoul Tower)
To get to Seoul Tower you can take a bus, walk the hill, or take the cable car. It’s not cheap, but in the freezing cold I didn’t feel like walking and taking a bus was too drab. The ride up offers really great views of the city so it’s a fun way to get there.
To get to the cable car, you can take this slanted elevator located at Namsan Tunnel #3. It brings you to the front door and helps you to avoid any walking if you’re lazy like me.
Hae Jang Guk (Ox “Hangover Chaser” Soup)
One of my favorite soups in Korea, Hae jang Guk, is called the hangover chaser. It’s made with meat from a pig’s spine, and sometime sliced pieces of ox blood. The other main ingredient is the same cabbage used to make kimchi, called napa cabbage. On top was a generous portion of black pepper to give it some extra kick. This is a satisfying, filling bowl of soup.
Jogyesa is the head temple for Zen Buddhism in Korea. It is located in central Seoul and is a definite must see attraction. The temple halls are incredible both inside and out and during Buddha’s Birthday the lanterns are an impressive sight to behold. Both day and night views offer their own unique visuals. The locust trees onsite are thought to be nearly 500 years old. The statues and 7 storey pagoda are memorable sights at this popular temple.
Gwangjang Market is said to be Korea’s first market. It sells essentially everything, but there is a high concentration of fabric-related goods there. There are many food stalls in gwangjang, and the main food attraction is bin dae tteok, or mung bean pancake. I’ve always said that markets are one of the best ways to get a feel for real Korean culture.
Bin Dae Tteok (Mung Bean Pancake)
At Gwangjang Market are several vendors selling this awesome freshly fried mung mean Pancake. It’s similar to a deep fried potato. It’s crispy on the outside, and soft and potatoey on the inside and is great during cold weather. It’s very easy to indulge in these snacks. Don’t eat too many.
Hobak Juk (Pumpkin Porridge)
Hobak juk is my favorite porridge in all of Korea. Pumpkin. It’s like a thick stew version of mashed pumkin with chunks of ricecake called tteok that gets very gooey and chewy in the hot porridge. This hits the spot in the cold weather.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Changdeokgung is the other palace I would recommend other than Gyeongbokgung if you have to choose from the five grand palaces. Again, you can see the impressive palace gates, multiple halls for various members of royal family, pavilions, ponds, and other impressive facilities. As with other palaces in Korea, Changdeokgung had to be reconstructed due to damage during the Japanese occupation. Thankfully, it is once again a beautiful sight to behold.
Secret Garden (at Changdeokgung)
The Secret Garden is adjacent to Changdeokgung Palace and was a retreat of solitude for royal family members. Access to the Secret Garden is by guided tour only and takes about an hour and a half to complete. This is definitely one of those places that is better left for warmer months to get the most out of the ambience.
Yuk Gae Jang (Shredded Beef and Fern)
Spicy is as spicy does. Yuk gae jang is shredded beef with fern, along with other veggies like bean sprouts, maybe potato or radish, scallions, and egg in this case. I always love when they serve this at my school when I have a cold. This dish is spicy hot, flavorful and healthy eating.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jongmyo Shrine is a preserved shrine dedicated to past kings, queens, and other royalty of previous Korean Kingdoms. It is set between two of Seoul’s main palaces and reenacts the worship services of past kings from the Joseon Dynasty. Visiting the Jongmyo Shrine is done through guided tours only, available in both Korean and English.
Myeongdong and Sogong Shopping Districts
There are so many shopping districts in Seoul. This includes both above and below ground shopping areas. Two that are very popular are located very near to each other. Myeongdong is one of the largest in the city and has a variety of products and store fronts for every taste. Myeongdong also extends underground where more shopping adventures can take place. Sogong underground shopping center is near Myeongdong and will provide additional choices with ceramics, clothing, ginseng, and accessories galore.
Kimchi Jigae and Donkaseu (Stewed Kimchi and Fried Pork Cutlet)
Kimchi jigae is stewed kimchi. Usually made when kimchi is starting to get old and a little sour. For lovers of tart food, you will like this. It can have pork in it as well, like with mine. I also got donkaseu, which is a popular Japanese food by a similar name. It’s also wildly popular in Korea. How can you not like fried pork cutlets?
National Museum of Korea
For the Korean history buffs out there, this is the mecca in Korea. The National Museum of Korea is three large floors with exhibits that cover ancient Korea, calligraphy and paintings, and sculpture and crafts of Korean Buddhist culture. There is also an exhibit featuring artifacts from other Asian cultures. What I appreciated about the National Museum of Korea was the variety. I was never left feeling like I was looking at many of the same things. I also really liked the huge pagoda in the main floor hallway.
Insadong is an interesting shopping district in that it mixes traditional with new goods. All of the modern stores and products can be found, but along with those you can find traditional art products and galleries, teahouses, and traditional restaurants. Insadong offers great variety and if you are patient, you can find many interesting things to do and buy. That said, it’s also just a great place to do your regular shopping for the new and now things.
Yeong Yang Dak Juk (Nourished Chicken Porridge)
Yeong Yang Dak Juk is rice porridge with chicken in it. Porridge, or juk, of all kinds is very popular in Korea. I came to Seoul during the coldest snap of the year, so this was the right choice. Some salt and pepper and you’re doing great.
Bukchon Hanok Village
The traditional styled houses, or hanoks, are found throughout the streets and alley ways of Bukchon. Many of the homes date back to the Joseon Dynasty and give a feel for what the atmosphere was like in those days. The houses now act as restaurants, tea houses, cultural centers, and guest houses. It’s a great way to get a glimpse of what it was like to walk around in the old days of Korea.
Dongdaemun Gate is one of the Eight Great Gates of Seoul. It was the east gate of Seoul and now stands rebuilt and impressive as one of the main attractions of the city. It offers more in the way of historical significance than entertainment value as some other attractions. Still, Dongdaemun, and the other gates, are great visits and make for fantastic photos.
Galbi Tang (Beef Rib Soup)
Growing up, we just called it beef rib soup. And, that’s exactly what it is. Beef short ribs in broth. Simple and awesome. Sometimes cellophane noodles can be added as in this case. Along with many side dishes, or ban chan, this is a very simple but truly Korean meal.
Bongeunsa is a Buddhist temple located in Gangnam. It is a sprawling temple compound set at the foot of Sudo Mountain. There are various temple shrines and statues, and a temple stay program is available to experience monk life for a short time. Bongeunsa is one of the nicest temples I’ve seen in Korea and is a great contrast to the modern Gangnam setting.
The trickeye museum uses many 2D paintings that appear to be 3D when photographed. Take a picture next to one and it will look like you’re actually in the painting. It’s a great place to get some memorable photographs that will blow people’s minds. Also, head over to the ice museum, a number of settings made strictly from ice. In the summer, it’s great. Winter, not so great. There is also an adults-only love museum for those feeling a little naughty. The trickeye museum is a fun and entertaining stop.
Seodaemun Prison History Museum
One of my favorite visits in Seoul. It serves as a memorial to Koreans held prisoner under Japanese rule for supporting the independence movement. It gives a vivid presentation of what prisoners went through and reminds us all that war, slavery, and imprisonment are things of evil. Seodaemun is off the beaten path, but an attraction that I highly recommend visiting.
Home of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, Olympic Park gives a view of what it must’ve been like to attend this major sporting event. There are multiple arenas where events took place, and a walkway around the park where people today can take leisurely strolls. It’s very peaceful considering it’s in the middle of a huge metropolis. Also located in the park is the Olympic Museum commemorating Team Korea’s success at these very games.
Obviously not located in Seoul, DMZ tours typically commence there. You can only go to the DMZ through a tour, and there are dress codes. Shoes, pants, and a decent shirt. Nothing too skimpy for the girls or you won’t be permitted. I did the complete list of DMZ destinations including Imjingak, the 3rd Tunnel, Dorasan Station, Panmunjeom, and the Joint Security Area. If you’re in Korea, come to appreciate freedom and peace by visiting the DMZ.
Seoul Global Cultural Center
The Seoul Global Cultural Center was established as a location for cultural exchange activities between Korean residents and foreigners of all nations. There are many activities to do here including arts and crafts, K-Pop dance lessons, and trying on hanboks. There are many resources available for getting around Seoul and receiving a primer on Korean culture.
The COEX Mall complex is a huge facility for business-related conventions and exhibitions. The multi-floor structure has several levels above and below ground. Underground is a shopping mall, aquarium, movie theatre, and kimchi museum. A great place for business personnel, families, and of course, travelers.
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