Seoul is more of a business hub than a leisure city. It’s a progressive, modern city with a towering skyline and busy highways. Yet, despite Seoul’s 21st-century aura, the city has managed to preserve its historical and cultural identity. Among the things to do in Seoul are visiting centuries-old houses, grand palaces and mansions. There are festivals celebrating culture and history.
While Korea has no royal family, the annual Jongmyo Jerye (royal ancestral rite) is a colourful celebration that is led by the descendants of the last royal line and the festivities are embraced wholeheartedly by the public. Here are places to visit and some of the best things to do in Seoul.
- Things to do in Seoul
- 1- Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
- 2- Eat Kimchi
- 3- Explore Changdeokgung Palace
- 4- See the DMZ
- 5- Discover Bukchon Village
- 6- Hike Bugaksan Mountain
- 7- Shop in Itaewon
- 8- Escape to Cheonggyecheon Stream
- 9- Visit the Korean War Memorial
- 10- Haggle in Namdaemun Market
- 11- Go Shopping in Myeongdong
- 12- Learn Taekwondo
- 13- Watch A Taekwondo Demonstration
- 14- Hang Out In A Themed Cafe
- 15- Explore The Gangnam District
- Things to do in Seoul
Things to do in Seoul
1- Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
Of all the things to do in Seoul, visiting a palace is a must and Gyeongbokgung Palace is the grandest of the five surviving Joseon Dynasty palaces.
This was the former seat of power during Korea’s past dynasties is the most famous palace in the country.
Located at the northern end of Sejongro, Seoul’s main boulevard, it’s near the Blue House (Official residence of the South Korean president) and the US Embassy.
Built during the late 1300s, the palace has been repaired several times.
There are daily tours and English-speaking guides are available also.
2- Eat Kimchi
Kimchi is South Korea’s comfort food.
The spicy dish can be tasted in any restaurant and comes in different varieties.
You can learn about Kimchi at the Kimchi Field Museum, which has displays that spells out the different ways kimchi can be prepared.
You can even join a kimchi-making lesson at the museum.
Compared to other things to do in Seoul, making Kimchi is fun and informative.
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3- Explore Changdeokgung Palace
Another palace worth a visit is the UNESCO World Heritage Changdeokgung Palace, which is a 15th-century palace with a rich history.
It’s one of the more serene things to do in Seoul.
Discover the palace’s secret garden, with its tranquil pavilions and ponds.
It’s a tranquil spot to soak up some history.
4- See the DMZ
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is sometimes called the scariest place on earth, due to its proximity to the border of North Korea.
You can feel the tension at the border.
The DNZ draws significant numbers of tourists who go to get an eyeful of the military on both sides.
This has got to be one of the more unusual things to do in Seoul.
5- Discover Bukchon Village
If you want to experience life in a Korean village during the medieval days, head to Bukchon Village.
The village has a cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes.
It’s a culturally preserved village in one of the most highly advanced cities in the world.
It has alleys and beautifully maintained architectural designs, including courtyards, decorated outer walls and dark tiled roofs.
This village also has traditional cafes, art galleries and restaurants.
6- Hike Bugaksan Mountain
Hiking enthusiasts should head to Bugaksan Mountain, which is the mountain behind the Blue House.
There are several trails on the mountain.
You can visit the century-old gates and to Seoul’s ancient fortress walls.
There’s a lovely view at the top.
7- Shop in Itaewon
Itaewon is a quaint neighbourhood packed with bars, clubs and restaurants that dish up traditional Korean food at reasonable prices.
Itaewon also has shops that sell just about everything, from custom-tailored suits to jewellery, Korean pottery and furniture.
This is where you’ll find a thriving club scene so plan a good night out.
8- Escape to Cheonggyecheon Stream
There are still some tranquil spots in Seoul and Cheonggyecheon Stream is one of them. Walking at night is particularly picturesque.
The city lights give out a magical glow as you walk past mini waterfalls and across bridges.
9- Visit the Korean War Memorial
South Korea has a history of war and conflict.
To commemorate soldiers who fought for their country, the South Korean government built the Korean War Memorial.
It has a decent museum with displays about South Korea’s long history.
There are tanks, aircraft and guns on display.
10- Haggle in Namdaemun Market
Wind through the streets of Myeongdong to get to the massive Namdaemun market.
The market has myriad vendors selling clothes, shoes and accessories.
You could spend the entire day shopping but don’t forget to haggle.
The three-storey Starbucks Café is an icon in Myeongdong occupying some of the most expensive real estate in downtown Seoul.
It’s a popular central meeting spot for groups of all ages from teenagers to retirees.
Tuck into green tea frappuccinos and sweet potato cake while surfing the net using their free wireless internet access.
11- Go Shopping in Myeongdong
Myeongdong (or bright place) is living up to its name, as younger crowds flock to Seoul’s shopping mecca.
This noisy, chaotic and vibrant district has earned its stripes as Seoul’s trendiest shopping area.
Not only are the neon signs of Myeongdong indicative of the Chinese translation of its name but on weekends its streets are packed with an ocean of people buying, eating, partying or simply wandering around soaking in the lively atmosphere.
Teenagers have rediscovered this must-see shopping destination, which now has Seoul’s most expensive real estate.
The present site of the multi-storey Starbucks Café in downtown Myeongdong is believed to be worth 38 million won (HKD 250,000) per square metre.
It’s a massive shopping area with rows and rows of shopping malls, department stores and specialty boutiques that stretch endlessly from Myeongdong Station to Lotte Department store.
The major department stores such as Lotte and Shinsegae, are good places to do your shopping all under one roof.
Lotte has eleven floors overflowing with everything from jewellery, cosmetics, clothing, home appliances and furniture.
It even has a whole floor dedicated to duty-free shopping. Head to the main street for high-quality shopping malls like Migliore and U-too Zone, or well-known branded shops that offer both local and international brands like Levi’s, Bean Pole, Elkanto and Esquire.
Migliore might sound like an expensive Italian designer label but don’t be fooled by a name, it is a huge shopping mall that has over 1000 shops on 20 floors.
A favourite place for local office workers, it has the added advantage of English, Chinese and Japanese signs to help lost tourists find their way around.
In the side lanes of Myeongdong vast rows of cheaper clothing boutiques, no-frills shops and specialty stores are seldom empty.
The Korean restaurants, coffee houses and fast-food outlets are frequently crowded with shoppers from nearby Namdaemun market slurping bowls of noodles or sinking their teeth into juicy American hamburgers.
It’s clear that businesses in Myeongdong are targeting the youth market.
Dotted among the glitzy shops are internet centres such as the Mizy centre, short for Myeongdong Info Zone for Youth.
Mizy has an internet café, seminar rooms and a performing arts area.
Its reading room is well-stocked with books as well as English, Korean and Japanese magazines.
While shopping need not be seasonal, the most interesting time of the year to go to Myeongdong is during the Myeongdong Festival when parades, folk games and fashion shows add even more excitement to its energy-charged atmosphere.
The Festival is held twice a year during spring and autumn.
In sharp contrast to the modern vibe of Myeongdong’s shopping hub, Chinese Street has become home to quaint shops for tealeaves, books and spices.
The fact remains that whether you’re an enthusiastic shopper or not, there’s no doubt that Myeongdong is the place to visit to catch a whiff of Korea’s pulsating youth culture.
12- Learn Taekwondo
A taekwondo lesson is Seoul is the perfect cure for jetlag and one of the activities that will help you immerse yourself in South Korean culture.
It’s an interactive experience that will help you delve right into Korean culture while getting fit.
The beginner’s taekwondo lesson at the Gyeonghuigung Palace is run in English each day by a taekwondo master recognised by the World Taekwondo Federation.
The 5000-year-old Korean martial art has been Korea’s national martial art since 1971.
In the last decade, Korean taekwondo has gone global with an international reputation.
The federation has 188 member nations and 70 million people in active training. And the sport was an official event in the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympic Games.
The World Taekwondo Federation conducts a series of taekwondo events such as the annual World Taekwondo Hanmadang but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy a lesson in Seoul.
Here’s what my experience was like:
“Kick harder,” shouts Master Lee.
I twist my upper body so that my left side is facing him and lash out with my left leg as high and hard as I’m able to.
My foot makes contact with the punching bag.
It sounds impressive.
“Again,” he shouts.
I kick the bag harder, getting into the groove with a martial arts battle cry, repeating the move six more times.
A blast of energy shoots through my body; it’s a vast improvement from the tired jetlagged traveller who stepped off the plane the day before.
Even after one hour, the taekwondo lesson has done wonders for my jetlag and fitness.
At Gyeonghuigung Palace, white martial arts uniforms are provided and students don’t need any prior experience.
Along with three other students from Japan and Hong Kong, I learn the basics in an open-air courtyard.
We begin the lesson by learning the correct way of knotting our belts.
Then Master Lee has us on the floor doing stretches.
After the warm-up, the master puts us through our paces by teaching us routines involving punching, footwork, blocking and kicking.
The teaching is done in layers.
We repeat a set of moves until he’s satisfied, then we progress to another set of moves. Each set is more difficult than the last.
Finally, we practice four sets of moves as one complex sequence.
Throughout the lesson, Master Lee helps each one of us individually by correcting our posture, hand and leg movements.
Then a practical combat session follows.
My partner is an elderly Japanese man. I reach out and grab him by the jaw, as I’m instructed, and flip him onto the ground.
“Be careful. Are you fighting a war?” shouts Master Lee.
I soon learn taekwondo has as much to do with the mind as the body.
“Be peaceful; synchronize your movements with your mind,” he says.
It’s a tough instruction for a beginner to follow through on and I’m unsuccessful.
13- Watch A Taekwondo Demonstration
A large crowd has already gathered in the palace forecourt, drawn by the mesmeric beat of the Korean traditional janggu drum.
Musicians in lilac tunics, white pants, yellow, blue and red sashes dance around the courtyard playing an assortment of Korean traditional percussion instruments.
A trumpet blows and the students file onto the floor.
The demonstration begins with some of the basic movements taught to us earlier that morning, progressing into a complex sequence of showy demonstrations.
Their movements are fluid and impressive, displaying skill levels notches above my own earlier attempts.
Then senior students take turns to kick layers of wooden boards with their feet and chop through planks with their bare hands.
The crowd is mesmerised as a blindfolded student readies himself to kick an apple held by another student. I hold my breath hoping he doesn’t miss.
It’s obvious he’s practised this move hundreds of times; his foot makes contact and the apple bursts into a million pieces.
The crowd cheers.
Besides being a superb display of skill, the demonstration is highly entertaining, an hour well spent.
I leave with great intentions of signing up for a taekwondo class back home.
It seems like a fantastic way to get fit and lose weight. And you just never know, the fighting skills might come in handy.
14- Hang Out In A Themed Cafe
Dog cafes, magic cafes and games cafes are popular in Seoul.
15- Explore The Gangnam District
Seoul’s Gangnam district is a trendy area of Seoul that shot to fame when South Korean rockstar PSY became world-famous with his “Gangnam-style” tune.
The song is about the lifestyle of the hip, trendy and cool crowd in Gangnam, so make sure you hang around the neighbourhood and soak up the vibe.,
Head to Gangnam Station to watch a projection of the song on the big screen.