Seoul is a youthful, vibrant city in South Korea that deserves more recognition as a great place to spend anywhere from a weekend to a several months. If you go for just a weekend, there’s no shortage of things to do or see.
Here are some items for your itinerary to consider:
History. Each of Seoul’s grand palaces are worth a look, whether to see the changing of the guard or the back garden of Changdeok Palace. At Bukchon Village, Seoul’s largest cluster of privately owned traditional homes, there’s plenty of time to wander the alleys and lose yourself in a little imaginative, back-in-time dramascape. When you come back to present day, spend some quality time at the small galleries. The War Museum is also great for history buffs, and is all the more poignant since Korea is technically still at war.
Get lost. Seoul’s subway system rivals Japan in terms of sheer confusion, but it is cheap! It goes everywhere, which is great since Seoul is very spread out. While the locals’ level of English is lower than that of Thailand, Koreans are incredibly friendly people and will be willing to provide whatever help they can. If you lose patience, taxis are affordable as well. Some great neighborhoods to explore are Insadong, which is quite touristed but not a tourist trap. Apugujeon and Garosugil Street are more upscale, with luxury shops and Western-style cafes, bars and restaurants. Hongdae is filled with students and a great art scene. Walking up Namsan Hill or around the plaza at Seoul Tower rewards you with lovely views of the city and the always well-dressed people.
Sleeping. Staying in a traditional guesthouse is affordable around US$50/night, a basic but cool experience. Unlike Japan, Korean houses have insulation and, even better, heated flooring, so the “basic” descriptor is a bit misleading. The bed is just a rolled-out quilt on the bamboo floor. For a really local experience, shell out around US$15 for a night in a Korean spa, or jimjulbang. There are spas for both men and women, and these places are awesome. Each room in the spa has something different that’s good for your body – a charcoal bath, a jade bath, a waterfall bath; the list goes on. You can have a woman scrub all the dead skin off your body, or, depending on how posh the place is, watch a movie, work out or just chill in the jacuzzi. There’s also the option of sleeping, too. You’ll lock away all your clothes and goods in a locker after check-in and be left with a robe, so you don’t need to worry about your things.
Shopping. Much like the food (although that’s a post for another day), you can’t talk about Korea without talking about shopping. Try Namdaemun for a traditional, loud and crowded Asian market experience. After, soothe your nerves by opening your wallet in Myeongdong, or Coex, the longest underground mall in Asia, or Times Square Mall, where you can watch 4D movies, or… you get the point. If beauty products are your thing, make that a large part of your budget, because this is your mecca. My personal favorite brand is 3 Concept Eyes, which never met a color it didn’t slap on a product, and Nature Republic, whose aloe vera gel I buy in bulk.
Overall, Korea is cheaper than Japan but more expensive than Singapore or Hong Kong, so serious budgeting is in order.
What do you like to do, see and buy in Seoul?