Best things to do in Seoul
Find out more about those top places in Seoul
By turns traditional and futuristic, Seoul is where the old and new of South Korea collide in spectacular fashion. While the city seems to be racing towards the future, relics of Korea’s dynastic heritage are nestled among the glass and concrete jungle. Chief among these are the traditional ornate wooden houses of Bukchon where patterned walls and ornate roofs provide a dramatic contrast to the high-rises next door. Beyond this, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Changdeokgung Palace is Seoul’s most spectacular building and the city’s 14th century fortified walls are a reminder that the city was one of the most important of the medieval world. Despite this traditionalism, Seoul is also one of Asia’s most rowdy cities with a never-ending supply of grungy dive bars to drink soju in and neon lit K-Pop karaoke lounges. What is more, the country’s tumultuous contemporary history is never far away with the Demilitarized Zone separating the country from its hermetic northern neighbor within easy reach.
Seoul’s premier attraction is undoubtedly the UNESCO listed Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. While the eunuchs, princes, concubines and government officials that once inhabited the vast collection of palaces, courtyards, temples and fortified walls are long gone, it remains an architectural wonderland that will leave you speechless. A whole day is required to see the entirety of the palace.
The most popular and controversial day tour from Seoul is to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which is located barely 50 kilometres from the capital city’s centre. The undisputed highlight of the tour is to Panmunjeom where stony faced North and South Korean border guards face off against one another round the clock and you will get to see the room in which the 1953 truce was signed.
Although built as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, many think that Changdeokgung actually surpasses its big brother in terms of architectural splendor and tranquil gardens. The palace was originally built in the 15th century and remained in use well into the 1900s. Tours of the complex and the adjoining secret gardens, known as Huwon, are spread across the day but make sure to book in advance as they are limited to fifty people.
For those interested in the Korean War, there is no better place to visit than the gigantic War Memorial of Korea, which is the country’s largest museum. Richly documenting the 1950-53 conflict, the museum makes stellar use of documentary footage and original artifacts to create a gripping narrative that spans three floors. Guided tours are available twice a day and are one of the most rewarding experiences in Seoul.
Getting lost in Bukchon’s maze of traditional streets, which are lined with hanok houses, is one of Seoul’s most atmospheric experiences. While the area is one of the most popular with tourists, it has retained its graceful old world charm that stands at stark contrast to the fast-paced modernity exuded by the rest of the city. For the best experience, visit the Bukchon Cultural Center before embarking on a walking tour of the picture-perfect streets.
To sample some of South Korea’s most mouth-watering food, take part in a tour of the atmospheric Gwangjang Market. Containing upwards of 300 food stalls serving everything from kimchi to the fresh seafood and mung bean pancakes, tours will take you to the best stalls that are known only by locals.
Atop Namsan Mountain is the iconic N Seoul Tower, which provides panoramic views of the vast South Korean metropolis. For the best views, come early in the morning or at sunset, when the city is bathed in a delightful orange glow. What is more, make sure to take the cable car to the summit of the mountain, as this makes for an unforgettable experience.
South Korea’s premier art gallery strikes the perfect balance between contemporary and modern art in its vast collection. Amongst the highlights are installations by the late Korean artist Nam June Paik and Western masters, including Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. At the weekends free tours of the museum cherry pick the best of the collection and help you interpret these groundbreaking works.