South Korea’s capital offers a great mix of traditional and contemporary activities, urban sprawl and scenic sights, with delicious restaurants and top-notch shopping to boot.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea with a population of about eleven million inhabitants, is an assault on the senses. Even small streets find themselves quite alive with frenzied activity by day and searing neon lights after sunset, while eardrums are set pounding by clamoring shop assistants and the night time thump of a thousand karaoke rooms. Restaurants serving Korea’s delectably spicy national dishes lure you in with their amazing aromas and tastes.
In just 50 years since the Korean War (1950 – 1953), Seoul has become the world’s 10th-most economically powerful city and second-largest metropolitan area. It’s a fascinating city blending ancient with modern, where towering skyscrapers, modern architecture and K-pop meets Royal Palaces and street markets.
With its own pop culture, fashion and identity, the mega-city is one of East Asia’s major culture-defining capitals along with Tokyo, Taipei and Beijing. Needless to say, South Korea is booming, and at the center of all that excitement, is Seoul.
Best time to visit Seoul
Like other regions of South Korea, the capital of Seoul’s climate can be distilled down into four distinct seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter), and each is culturally important in Seoul.
Late spring (March to May) and late autumn (September to November) are generally the best times to visit Seoul, when there is little rainfall, skies are clear, and temperatures are mild. What’s more, the delicate cherry blossom of spring and vivid hues of autumn leaves are visually stunning.
The colder months, December to February, are less appealing to most visitors that can make travelling at these times cheaper. As well as being less crowded and costing less, many of Seoul’s highlights are even better in the winter months.
Getting to the city from the airport
There are several different ways to travel from Incheon International Airport to downtown Seoul. The most popular ways include taking the Airport Railroad Express (AREX), Seoul Metropolitan Subway, airport limousine buses, and taxis. Among these, the Airport Railroad has the benefit of avoiding traffic on the roads, allowing tourists to arrive at their destination at a specific time.
The Airport Railroad Express runs directly from Incheon International Airport Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 to Seoul Station, with no stops along the way. On the other hand, the airport buses make it easy to reach a variety of tourist attractions and hotels throughout Seoul. Click here for more information.
Seoul can largely be divided into two parts- the older and more historic Gangbuk (“River North”) and the newer and more affluent Gangnam (“River South”). The Han River divides the two right down the middle.
You’ll find most tourist sites (like Gyeongbokgung, Insadong, Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, Seoul N Tower, and Itaewon) in Gangbuk. But to get a feel for modern Seoul’s clubs, nightlife, shopping, and fashion, Gangnam is where it’s at. Gangnam’s per capita income is about double that of Gangbuk’s.
These are the top 5 districts in the city: Myeongdong (best for shopping), Hongdae (best for a hip youthful scene), Insa-dong or Jongno (best for culture), Gangnam (best for luxury shopping), and Itaewon (best for nightlife).
If you want particular hotel names per district, I prescribe that you read my ‘Where to stay in Seoul‘ article.
How to get around
By Subway – Seoul’s subway system is very efficient, well-connected and cheap. To save time and make the most of the fares during your stay, it’s best to invest in a T-Money card. This is a stored value smart card that you can recharge and use between buses, train and subways, while saving you KRW 100 per journey.
This card can be purchased at most convenience stores and subway stations. You can top it up with any amount you want at recharge stations found at every subway stop. If there’s any amount left over at the end of your trip, you can have it refunded at a convenience store or refund station (minus a KRW 500 service charge).
However, you can actually avoid paying the cost of acquiring this card (KRW 3,000) if you have a Discover Seoul Pass (which I will discuss in the next section below).
Note: The subway does NOT operate for 24 hours
By Bus – The city also has an extensive and well-connected bus service that similarly makes use of the T-Money card. The buses are, however, quite a bit more confusing to navigate for foreigners than the metro. Other than at major stops on major routes, bus maps and loud speaker announcements are generally only in Korean. On top of the language barrier, there’s a whole array of different colored buses you’ll need to figure out to make sure you’re getting to the right place. Just remember to tap your card before exiting the bus or you’ll be charged the maximum fare possible on that bus’s route.
By Foot – Seoul is virtually impossible to explore by walking alone; however, certain neighborhoods are best enjoyed on foot and some degree of walking will be necessary to explore the city.
By Taxi – There are various taxi types in Seoul and in order to learn more about them and their corresponding fares, read here.
Seoul City Tour Bus – This double-decker tour bus, run by the city of Seoul, is an economical and efficient way to see the city’s major tourist destinations. The main downtown tour starts in front of the Donghwa DFS in Gwanghwamun, but you can jump on at any of the 28 stops.
The buses leave daily, every 30 minutes from 9am to 7pm with a full tour taking 2 hours. Tour guides speak English, Japanese, and can get by in a few other languages. They also provide headsets with information available in five languages. Just look for the red, white, and blue Seoul City Tour Bus signs in front of any of the 28 locales. A 1-day pass costs KRW 10,000 for adults, KRW 8,000 for children, and you can purchase tickets at the Gwanghwamun counter or on the bus itself.
What benefit do I get from Discover Seoul Pass?
Discover Seoul Pass is an amazing cost-effective card that is offered only to foreigners. With Discover Seoul Pass, you can visit over 30 popular tourist attractions for free during 24, 48, or 72 hours, and receive additional discounts for performances, duty free shops, and more even after the pass has expired.
If you get a Discover Seoul Pass, you don’t have to buy a separate T-Money card because the pass already has this function. Plus, even if this pass’ validity period has expired, you can still use it as a T-money card for buses, subway and taxis. You only need to load it, and if you don’t use all of that load, you can refund the balance.
Note: Using your Discover Seoul Pass a T-Money card for public transportation does NOT activate it. The Discover Seoul Pass will only activate when you first use it on its listed attractions.
To get the best rate for a Discover Seoul Pass, you can purchase it online (it’s available in 24H, 48H and 72H options), and then pick it up either at Incheon International Airport or at Myeongdong’s Tourist Information Center.
What to do in Seoul
To give you an idea what you could do in Seoul here is a short guide for you
- Explore the world’s most heavily guarded border
We have entered the world’s most protected border and witnessed the spine-chilling tension between North and South Korea. Excited as it may sound, there are few things you will keep in your mind when you decide to visit this area […]
If you’ve got guts and a desire to get a snippet into one of the most closed countries on earth, read our ‘The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)’ article, packed with detail and list of approved tour agencies.
- Visit one of the five Grand Palaces
As far as the other four palaces go, you can buy separate entrance tickets to each, or you can just buy combination ticket for palaces that gets you into them all. These can be bought at any of the palaces and you have a month to use them. While most people choose to see just one or two of them, it’s definitely doable to hit all five over the span of a few days. If you’re feeling super energetic, you can even do it all in one long walking tour. Another option is buying a Discover Seoul Pass.
- Visit a museum for FREE
Seoul has dozens of fascinating museums, and some of them can be visited for free. The most popular admission-free museums in Seoul include the War Memorial of Korea, the National Museum of Korea, National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, National Folk Museum and Agricultural Museum.
- Shop till you drop
Without a doubt Seoul is heaven for shopaholic, with many shops around to satisfied your needs or wants such as Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, Insadong, Yongsan Electronics Market, Garosugil, Times Square, Gangnam Subway Station, COEX Shopping Mall, Cheongdamdong and many more.
- Indulge on Seoul’s mouth-watering street food
Seoul is essentially an open-air restaurant in itself. Cheap, hearty, and delicious, there’s no shortage of delectable street food in Seoul! As you explore the lively pathways in Seoul, make sure to please your palate with its irresistible street food, like the classic chicken skewers, fishcake on skewers (odeng), seaweed rice rolls (kimbap), sweet pancakes (hotteok) and spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki).
- Get lost in a maze of traditional houses at Bukchon Hanok Village
They don’t call Bukchon Hanok Village as one of the world’s most photogenic neighborhoods for nothing. Perfectly preserved and picturesque, this 600-year-old urban environment is made up of a ton of traditional wooden houses and small alleys that offer a glimpse of the past.
- Be amused by the themed cafes in Seoul
Themed cafes are commonplace these days, but the ones in Seoul have a wide array of intriguing and unique themed cafes, including Sheep Cafe, Doll Cafe, Raccoon Cafe, Ho Ho Myoll Cafe, Poop Cafe, Cat Cafe, Banji Cafe, Hello Kitty Cafe and many more, you are basically spoiled for choice!
- Night out in Seoul
From bar hopping in Hongdae, club party in Itaewon, night clubs in Gangnam to the upscale clubs and lounges in Cheongdamdong, or try your luck in Seven Luck Casino COEX. Just pick what interests you.
The list of top things to do in Seoul could go on and on. If you want an overview what to do in Seoul, I suggest that you read our ‘Things to do in Seoul’ article.
Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.