Seoul is a thriving metropolis encircled by mountains with skyscrapers rising towards the heavens. The city is busting yet organised, with modern marvels growing side by side with centuries-old palaces and shrines.
A great deal of the credit for the well-ordered urban planning of Seoul can be given to the ancient Joseon Dynasty, which used great foresight when crafting the city into a capital way back in the 14th century.
The old Joseon Dynasty city, with its central main palace, is now the traditional downtown heart of Seoul where many of the most popular sights, hotels, and markets are to be found. One of the most interesting areas for visitors to explore is Insa-dong, filled with antique shops, art galleries, traditional teahouses, restaurants, and bookshops.
Across the Han River, the modern city is dominated by Korea's World Trade Centre and the Coex Mall, a shopper's delight. Even the island of Yeouido, in the middle of the Han River, is densely packed with high-rise buildings; this is also the base for the Korean National Assembly and the world's biggest Presbyterian Church.
Interspersed through the urban landscape are several lush, green parks, the most central being Namsan Park which encompasses the mountain of the same name just to the south of downtown Seoul. It's also home to the iconic Seoul Tower, which offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city and surrounding countryside.
Nightlife in Seoul has something to suit all tastes, from pub hopping to sedate sit-downs at traditional teahouses. Eating out is a feast for the senses in Seoul, with an enormous international variety to choose from, whether it is succulent steak, perfect pizza, multicourse gourmet, tasty tandoori, or, of course, classic Korean.
The jewel of Seoul's five historic palaces, Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 by Lee Seong-Gye. Founder of the Joseon Dynasty, he established the city as the capital of Korea. The magnificent rectangular palace now contains the National Museum of Korea and National Folk Museum of Korea, featuring royal apartments and staterooms, gardens, and elegant lotus ponds.
The pavilion features on the 10,000 South Korean won note. The palace is in a process of continual restoration as new archaeological treasures are uncovered and restored to their former glory. This historic palace complex consistently ranks as one of the best loved tourist attractions in Seoul.
Fun and thrills are the order of the day at Seoul's main theme park, drawing about six million annual visitors. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Lotte World is the largest indoor theme park in the world.
The park is divided into an indoor and outdoor section. Inside, Adventure Land covers acres of streets representing different countries filled with hundreds of activities, entertainment activities, shops, restaurants, and ongoing parades.
Outdoors, Magic Island offers thrilling high-altitude rides, laser shows, and pleasant walking trails around a lake, all set in the shadow of a fairytale castle. There is also an indoor ice rink and a fascinating Folk Museum, complete with miniature villages.
No visit to Seoul is complete without exploring the capital's heart and artistic soul. Known colloquially as Mary's Alley, the alleyways of the Insa-dong District contain antique shops and countless art galleries that delight collectors and casual browsers alike.
From ancient Chinese pottery to yellowed books and delicate jewellery, most visitors manage to find a treasured souvenir or special gift among the quaint stores. There are plenty of restaurants, taverns, and traditional teahouses in the area too, ensuring shoppers stay refreshed while seeking out treasures.
Namsan is the mountain that stands as a sentinel in the centre of Seoul, proving to be a popular recreational feature in the city. The route through to the top is not extremely high and hiking through the park isn't too challenging.
A cable car and stairway take visitors to the summit, where there are several attractions such as the Maritime Aquarium, botanical gardens, and fountains. Seoul Tower, at 1,575ft (480m), offers a fantastic view of the city and surrounds, as does its revolving restaurant.
Also set within the park, the Namsangol Hanok Village centres on five restored historical Korean homes. Depicting the environments of various social classes from the Joseon Dynasty, the village is a time capsule with a peaceful pond and pavilion set in the midst of the city.
Visitors can not only explore the houses, but also enjoy traditional tea, shop for souvenirs, browse traditional crafts, or try their hand at ancient games like neolttwigi (jumping on a see-saw) or arrow throwing. On weekends in summer, traditional wedding ceremonies are held at midday.
One of the Five Grand Palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung is set within a large park in Jongno-gu and the whole complex has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Located east of Gyeongbok, Changdeokgung is also referred to as the East Palace.
It was the favoured palace of many kings of the Joseon Dynasty and in accordance with the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, its buildings blend harmoniously with the natural landscape. At least 600-years-old, this historic site is one of Seoul's touristic gems. The colourful and intricate architecture is set in expansive gardens, a peaceful green place which is ideal for a meditative stroll.
Jogyesa serves as the primary temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. First established in 1395, Jogyesa is located in the district of Jongno-gu in central Seoul. In 1998, Jogyesa made international news when several monks occupied the temple for more than 40 days in a power struggle between factions of the Jogye Order.
A highlight of this attraction is a lacebark pine, an ancient white tree within its grounds said to be around 500 years old. The principles of Buddhism have been taught at this temple for more than a century and visitors keen to interact with the monks and learn something about their faith can join one of the temple's teaching programmes.
Jongmyo Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and celebrated as one of Korea's foremost cultural treasures. Built in 1394, it's the oldest Confucian shine in the world and often holds ceremonies, rituals, and traditional dance performances. Jongmyo is the official shrine of Korea's Joseon Dynasty, with it serving as the chief place of worship for the royalty of this line.
The shrine is made up of a number of halls as well as a small cloister, with its interior, roofs, and ceilings exquisitely painted and decorated. Jongmyo is the term used for a place where memorial services are performed and it's therefore unsurprising that the shrine is home to more than 40 memorial tablets of past kings and queens of Korea. Tourists visiting Seoul will find that Jongmyo is situated within walking distance of the Changdoekgang Palace and the two attractions can be conveniently combined while sightseeing.
A quintessential Korean pastime and a good everyday option for budget-conscious travellers, galbi restaurants are immensely popular places which are full every night of the week with locals, expatriate workers in Korea, and tourists.
The basic concept of galbi is simple: patrons sit around a private barbecue grill and order portions of raw, succulent pork, which they then cook themselves at their own leisure. Of course, over the course of the evening, the waiter will bring a seemingly unending selection of complimentary side dishes (banchan) to the table, including the ubiquitous national dish kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), a variety of jjigaes (soups), pajeon (pancakes), bean sprout salad (kongnamul), spicy soy bean paste (doenjang) and more.
Over and above the culinary experience of eating in a galbi restaurant, tourists will love the laidback atmosphere and unique social dynamic of cooking food with friends in a restaurant setting. Alternatively, solo travellers or newly-arrived expats will find that galbi restaurants are the perfect places to meet people and establish new friendships. Alcohol (usually consisting of soju or maekju, a type of beer) is always served at these establishments and is generally quite cheap.
Without doubt the most popular area of Seoul for foreign visitors, the gritty neighbourhood of Itaewon is one of Korea's coolest and most cosmopolitan urban enclaves. Located near the US army base in Seoul, Itaewon is full of great bars, restaurants, clubs, and shops.
Shopping in Itaewon is a unique experience, selling anything from fine tailored suits to cheap plastic jewellery and extremely rare vintage records to American football jerseys. The area is also celebrated for its wide range of restaurants. Aside from fast food joints and galbi restaurants, people can tuck into French cuisine, fine Indian and Pakistani curries, and thick steaks and racks of barbecue ribs.
As wonderful as Itaewon is during the day, it comes alive at night. Travellers will find an inexhaustible selection of clubs, bars, discos, karaoke rooms, and live music venues. Some of these are very upmarket and feature international DJs, while others are pretty seedy. An exciting and edgy neighbourhood, Itaewon is the perfect base for young visitors looking for an unforgettable big city experience in Seoul.
Many people may not think there is much to do in Seoul for children on holiday, but look a little closer and you'll discover that there is actually a surprising amount of fun activities and attractions for kids to enjoy.
Head to the Samsung Children's Museum will educate and captivate young minds, while the IMAX Cinema and Aquarium are both located close to the Grand Hilton Hotel. Lotte World Adventure Amusement Park will keep little ones entertained both indoors and outdoors, perfect for any season. They'll love the carnival shows, rides, rollercoasters, folk museum, and ice rink.
Head to Seonyudo Islet on the Han River for a day of fresh air, picnics, and games in the sun. It even features a small playground for kids to enjoy. Children's Grand Park in Neung-dong is great for families with youngsters as it features a zoo, aviary, circus, elephant rides, a giant greenhouse, and a small amusement park.
Seoul is classed as having a humid continental/subtropical transitional climate with four distinct seasons. Temperature differences between the hottest part of summer and the depths of winter are extreme. Summer (June to August) brings hot, humid weather with average high temperatures soaring as high as 85°F (29°C) on occasion; in winter (December to February) average low temperatures drop as low as 21°F (-6°C). The most pleasant seasons in the city are spring and autumn, when blue skies and comfortable temperatures are a sure bet. The city experiences heavy rainfall, but most of it falls in the summer monsoon period between June and September.
South Korea has a very distinct cuisine, which may take some getting used to for foreigners but provides an exciting and unique taste experience. The selection of Seoul restaurants is vast and varied, with everything from local specialities such as (pork or beef ribs cooked on a barbeque) to huge American cheeseburgers and exotic Moroccan kebabs on offer.
Options for eating out in Seoul range from cheap noodle stalls to fine-dining establishments. Travellers keen to mingle with the locals should note that Koreans like to share food and eating is a very communal activity. It's polite to accept offers to share food and friendly to offer to share in return.
The Itaewon entertainment strip has the best collection of Seoul restaurants, serving both local and international cuisine. Otherwise, good areas for traditional Korean food are Gangdong-gu and Yeongdeungpo-gu, while restaurants with international menus can be found in Gangnam-gu, Seodaemun-gu and Namdaemun.
Tipping is not customary in South Korea but some Seoul restaurants may add a service charge of 10 percent to the bill. Restaurant hours vary quite dramatically throughout the city and reservations are recommended for the more upmarket and popular venues, although it is generally possible to stroll into a decent restaurant off the street.
Don't miss the experience of dining at Sanchon or sipping tea in their attached teahouse. Run by a former Buddhist monk, this restaurant specialises in vegetarian dishes prepared with ingredients from the mountain valleys and flavoured with subtle herbs and roots. The menu features a perilla seed soup, radish mushroom and red pepper wraps, Goso-namul (seasoned goso, a wild vegetable favoured by monks), as well as a tofu stew and traditional Korean pastries. Traditional folk dancing every evening is made more colourful by Nong Ju rice beer or a glass of fruit wine. Reservations recommended.
Myeongdong Hamheung Myeonok is one of the best Seoul restaurants to go to for a relaxed naengmyeon (cold noodle) meal. Their sweet potato noodles can be enjoyed in a delicious oxtail broth or perhaps with spicy hwae (raw fish). Open daily from 9.30am to 10pm, reservations not required.
Tony Yoo is a Michelin-starred chef who aims to celebrate Korean food at his restaurant Doore Yoo. A fine dining experience set in a beautiful interior of wooden beams and stone walls, the surrounding neighbourhood with its many traditional Korean houses only add to the atmosphere. As one can expect from such a talented craftsman, the menu can vary. However, it is mostly centred on vegetable-heavy cuisine originating from the country's Buddhist temples, as well as modern reimaginings of traditional Korean cuisine using only authentic fermented sauces and pastes. There's also a foraging menu for those who ask a few days in advance. Open Monday to Sunday, 11h00 to 15h00 and 17h00 to 22h30.
Dugahun is found in the backyard of the Hyundai Gallery. Its name meaning 'very beautiful house', the premises have a wonderful old-fashioned style while its lovely outdoors area is ideal for alfresco dining. Menu favourites include the king crab, grapefruit and avocado salad, and the glazed beef tenderloin. Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and Monday to Saturday for dinner, reservations recommended.
Chinese cuisine is popular in Seoul, as evidenced by the large number of Chinese restaurants. One of the tried and trusted restaurants is Wan Chai, with its vast menu covering all the traditional favourites. Named after Hong Kong's nightlife district, Wan Chai is popular with young Koreans and serves tasty Chinese food in a relaxed environment. Highly recommended are the spicy noodles and spicy Hong Kong shellfish.
Opened more than 40 years ago, Baekje Samgyetang sits in the crowded Myeong-dong shopping area. Diners are seated on comfortable floor cushions around the restaurant's polished wooden tables and served traditional Korean cuisine, soups, and stews. Its samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) is best accompanied by a glass of insamju (ginseng wine), while other options include ogolgye tang (silkie soup) and dakbokkeum tang (spicy chicken stew). Open daily from 9am to 10pm. Reservations are accepted but not required.
The Flying Pan Blue is located in a quiet Itaewon alleyway, serving as a popular café set in a lofty building charmingly furnished with mismatched chairs and furniture. The menu includes many western favourites, like chicken curry sandwiches, Saturday brunch pancakes, bagels with cream cheese, poached eggs, and the delicious chocolate mud (brownies with wine sauce). Open from breakfast till 9.30pm Monday to Saturday, reservations recommended.
The annual celebration of Buddha's birthday is a delightful experience for visitors to Seoul. They are welcome to join in the many festivities and activities that take place in and around Jongno Street and the beautiful temples of the city, usually in early May each year.
Included is an exhibition of wonderful traditional paper lanterns that come in every shape and size, depicting various symbolic animals and objects. The associated Buddhist Street Festival is packed with activities, including folk dancing, traditional games, lantern-making lessons, and temple food tastings. The culmination of all the excitement is the spectacular Lantern Parade, when thousands of Buddhists carry their lanterns along Jongno Street.
On Valentine's Day in Korea, women traditionally buy chocolate for men. On White Day, a month later, the pattern is reversed, and women receive gifts. Popular White Day presents include white or dark chocolate, marshmallows, white clothing, jewellery, or objects of sentimental value.
As an extra twist, Black Day is held on 14 April, an informal traditional celebration during which single people get together to eat jjajangmyeon (white Korean noodles with black bean sauce) to commiserate not having received gifts on Valentine's or White Day.
At Daehanmun Gate outside Deoksusung Palace, visitors can watch the ceremonial Changing of the Palace Guard three times every day at 11am, 2pm, and 3.30pm. Each Changing of the Guard ceremony takes about 30 minutes.
Other highlights include a guard patrol ceremony held from Deoksugung to Sungryemun, and the Watchman Ceremony at the latter. These regal events are a must-see and provide a good opportunity to see the national military costumes and regalia.
One for the sports enthusiasts, the annual Seoul International Marathon progresses through the heart of the city. The marathon attracts competitors and spectators from all over the world. Visitors should take note that relevant traffic lights are restricted for the duration of the race and that certain roads are closed, which leads to some travel disruptions for those not participating. This slight inconvenience is more than compensated for by the festive atmosphere in the streets and the spectacle of so many people enjoying the race.
Summer in Seoul brings a number of the world's top rock bands to the Korean peninsula for the Pentaport Rock Festival in Incheon. The festival is usually held at the end of July and is scheduled to coincide with Japan's Fuji Rock Festival.
Visitors to Korea are able to enjoy many of the bands and artists scheduled to play at the more expensive Japanese festival for half the price. The Pentaport Rock Festival is held over three days, camping facilities are available and concert goers are advised to pack raincoats and gumboots.
The cosmopolitan city of Seoul is known for having quite a good nightlife, packed with just about every activity and all kinds of entertainment venues, and with a particular proliferation of karaoke bars.
Itaewon is the neighbourhood where most foreigners start their explorations of Seoul's night scene, and is known to be a very 'foreigner-friendly' district, with lots of international restaurants and bars and more English-speakers and expats than most of the city. The night markets in Dongdaemun see plenty of action, while Myeongdong is a great spot to start off the evening with a dinner or a few beers at one of the many cafés and bars. place to be seen in Seoul is at any one of the exclusive wine bars, clubs and expensive bars in Apgujeong-dong or Sinsadong, which attract a trendy crowd. The more relaxed, younger crowd tends to hang out in Gangnam, where plenty of Western-style clubs and bars can be found. Dongdaemun is great for a few quiet ales and a spot of theatre, or to stroll through a gallery. Hongdae is the best area for live music and great dance floors on which to move into the early hours. Whatever your taste, you can be sure to find something in Seoul.
Soju is South Korea's rice wine, traditionally served in small shot glasses and drank all at once with a shout of 'Gumbay!'. Although traditions often become blurred on the party scene, it is customary in South Korea for people to buy and pour each other's drinks rather than their own - those who don't want their drinks refilled should leave a bit of liquid in them.
Shopping in Seoul is an interesting and sometimes chaotic experience, with a vast selection of products, busy malls, and communication barriers. However, there are many bargains that make it worthwhile. Most shops stay open until 10pm and some markets are open 24 hours.
Myong Dong is the most popular shopping district, home to sports and fashion shops offering cheap and trendy clothes for young people. In Tongdaemun, Doota sells cheap beads, accessories, and shoes, as well as every imaginable type of fabric for homes.
Second hand goods are numerous at markets like the Hwanghak-dong Flea Market. Chang-anp'yong Antique Market treasures include paintings, calligraphy, and old chests, as well as stone and ceramic artefacts.
Seoul's biggest department stores are also in the Myong Dong area: Shinsegae, Lotte, and Hyundai. These dazzling emporiums stock everything under the sun, from cheap electronics to high end fashion. All feature labyrinthine grocery selections and popular food courts.
The birthplace of leading global electronics companies like Samsung and LG, South Korea is renowned for its cutting edge technology. The best place for it is Yongsan Electronics Market, where dozens of stores specialise in one or two of the latest gadgets and frequent sales mean excellent prices.
The Itaewon area has shops selling discounted designer clothes from brands such as DKNY, Nike and Adidas; stalls on the street sell hats and fake designer handbags. Apkujong has upscale department stores and boutiques, as well as the Kangnam underground shopping mall. Prada, Gucci, Armani, Stella McCartney and the Galleria are also found here.
The easiest and quickest way to traverse the crowded city is on the subway, which serves all the main areas of interest. Station signs are written in English as well as Korean, and most lines have English announcements too. Subways are extremely crowded during the morning and evening rush hours, but are generally safe, though plagued with hawkers and beggars. Tickets are bought from vending machines or at ticket windows. Buses are frequent and cover the whole city, but tend to be very crowded. Tickets can be bought on board, or debit tickets can be purchased. Taxis are readily available. Regular taxis (orange, white or silver) charge an initial fee and have a complex system of metering thereafter. Black luxury taxis, called Mobeom taxis, are superior both in condition and service.
Seoul attractions include historic temples and palaces, with some natural and cultural highlights. Preferred seasons for sightseeing in Seoul are spring and autumn with comfortable temperatures and blue skies. But in winter it's covered in snow and can be quite beautiful but cold. Heat and humidity in summer can be uncomfortable.
Seoul is home to three UNESCO-listed sites, as well as numerous other cultural treasures and some fun entertainment hubs. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites are Changdeokgung Palace Complex, Jongmyo Shrine, and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty. The Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395, is home to the National Folk Museum, as well as other sites of interest, is a great Seoul attraction.
The Namsangol Hanok Village is also a good stop, featuring traditional Korean homes from the Joseon Dynasty. The Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple founded in 794 AD, is one of a number of temples that offer temple stay programmes for visitors, allowing foreigners to gain insight into the way of life and the faith of the resident monks.
For a break from highbrow cultural sightseeing, visitors can ride the Namsan Cable Car to the summit of the mountain to see the maritime aquarium and botanical gardens, or visit Lotte World, the largest indoor theme park in the world and one of the most exciting Seoul attractions.
There are lovely antique shops and art galleries to be browsed in the Insa-dong alleyways and other fun shopping districts, and the Galbi restaurants are a recreational must with their expertly cooked Korean ribs.
The service is amazingly friendly and helpful in Seoul and there are support structures in place for confused tourists: cheerful operators at the 120 Dasan Center provide answers to any question you might have for free, 24-hours a day, in Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian. The number is 02 120.
The Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a roughly two mile (4km) stretch of demilitarised land that divides the Korean peninsula in two. The DMZ was established in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, remaining not only as one of the most heavily-armed and guarded territories on the planet but also as the last surviving relic of the Cold War.
Daytrips which leave from downtown Seoul include guided tours of North Korean infiltration tunnels and the site of negotiations between the warring countries called the Joint Security Area (Panmunjeon).
Upon entry, visitors are required to put their signature on an indemnity form acknowledging that they are entering a hostile area, where they face 'the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action'.
Another interesting aspect of the DMZ is that, due to the total absence of development in the area for nearly 65 years, the wider area has become the site of what must be the world's most unlikely wildlife sanctuary.
An area of serene and unspoiled beauty, the sanctuary is home to several rare and endangered species, such as Asiatic black bears, Siberian tigers, Amur leopards, and beautiful migratory birds. There are some hotels and hostels in the area for those who want more than just a tour.
Hop on a bus and visit Incheon, a major Korean port city on the West Sea. About an hour from Seoul, the surrounding irregular coastline and mountainous inland terrain provide a popular outdoor playground. While Incheon is home to an international airport, this doesn't stop it from being a charming little city surround by rice fields.
Since the days of the Joseon Dynasty, the city has been famed for its therapeutic hot springs and the downtown hotels all operate public bath facilities and swimming pools. Visitors bathe in the spa waters, hoping to enjoy relief from skin ailments, eye problems, neuralgia, and gynaecological disease. In the Incheon Ceramics Village, there are hundreds of studios and shops with kilns producing traditional porcelain.
Hwaseong Fortress is yet another of South Korea's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The fortress is situated in Suwon, south of Seoul central but still within the greater Seoul area. Hwaseong Fortress was completed in 1796 in order to protect the capital from Japanese invasions.
The three-and-a-half-mile (5.7km) fortress wall weaves in and out of the modern buildings and roads of Suwon. Visitors to Suwon can climb parts of the fortress wall and marvel at the intricate and often colourful architecture that makes this extraordinary stone edifice blend in to its surroundings in a typically Korean, harmonious fashion.
The Hwaseong fortress includes 41 watchtowers, the Great South Gate, Paldalmun, and Seobuk Gongsimdon. There are also some traditional teahouses in the vicinity of the most popular sections of the wall where visitors can stop for a refreshing cup of iced tea.
Everland is South Korea's version of Disney Land. This massive amusement park is situated on the outskirts of Seoul and is the perfect daytrip for visitors travelling with kids. Everland has a selection of rides ranging from heart stopping to sedate.
The amusement park hosts a variety of restaurants, a safari section, and a snow sledding area for winter visitors. There is also a fantastic water park called Caribbean Bay, a racing track, a golf course, and flower display gardens, as well as a twice-daily procession of cartoon characters and trapeze artists through the park.