Even though Seoul is one of Asia’s most modern cities, with a towering skyline and busy highways, it’s also a city that is rich with history. In fact, one of the best things about Seoul is that its 21st-century architecture blends with its historic temples, palaces and mansions to create a strong cultural identity that is dripping with history.
Contemporary museums are packed with artefacts and stories about a fascinating past. There are festivals celebrating culture and history all year round. While South Korea has no royal family, the annual Jongmyo Jerye (royal ancestral rite) is a colourful celebration led by the descendants of the last royal line.
Seoul is also a cool city that never sleeps, with massive markets where you can buy anything from clothing to traditional Korean medicine. Hip precincts sit side by side with ancient palaces and temples, making this city a pleasure to explore. Here are places to visit and some of the best things to do in Seoul.
- 35 Things to do in Seoul
- Palaces in Seoul
- Outdoor Attractions in Seoul
- Korea War Attractions
- Seoul Markets and Shopping
- Seoul Cultural Experiences
- Contemporary Attractions in Seoul
- 21- Enjoy a Night Out In Gangnam District
- 22- Ride To The Top Of Seoul Tower
- 23- Discover Incheon
- 24- Explore Dongdaemun Design Plaza
- 25- Visit Lotte World Tower
- 26- Hang Out At KT&G Sangsang Madang
- 27- KStyle Hub
- 28- Ihwa Mural Village
- 29- National Museum of Korea
- 30- National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
- 31- National Hangeul Museum
- 32- Seoul Museum of History
- 33- Ahn Junggeun Memorial Hall
- Seoul Food
35 Things to do in Seoul
Palaces in Seoul
1- Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
Of all the things to do in Seoul, visiting a royal palace is a must, and Gyeongbokgung Palace is the grandest of the five surviving Joseon Dynasty palaces.
The palace 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 (the official residence of the South Korean president) and the US Embassy.
It was built during the late 1300s and repaired several times because it has been an important building throughout South Korea’s history.
There are two museums to visit while exploring the palace: the National Palace Museum of Korea is near Heungnyemun Gate, and the National Folk Museum is near the Hyangwonjeong Pavillion.
There are daily tours, and English-speaking guides are available also in Gyeongbukgung Palace.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is at161 Sajik-ro, Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
2- Explore Changdeokgung Palace
Exploring Changdeokgung Palace is one of the top things to do in Seoul because it influenced South Korean architecture and landscape development.
The 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage Changdeokgung Palace is rich in history and a tranquil escape in this modern city centre.
Changdeokgung played second fiddle to the main palace (Gyeongbokgung) until the Japanese invaded and burnt down both palaces in the 16th century.
Changdeokgung was reconstructed first and became the main seat of the Joseon dynasty for 250 years.
The sprawling 58ha complex has buildings and landscaped gardens with tranquil pavilions, ponds and more than 56,000 plants, including maple, ginkgo, oak and plum trees.
Changdeokgung Palace is at 99 Yulgok-ro, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
3- Discover Changgyeonggung Palace
In 1483, the ninth king of the Joseon Dynasty built Changgyeonggung Palace as a residence for the wives of the former rulers.
Changgyeonggung Palace is compact when compared to other palaces in Seoul and connects through to Changdeokgung Palace.
Many buildings were destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.
Curiously, the Japanese invaders chose to build a zoo on the site.
Changgyeonggung Palace is at Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
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- Korean Temple Stay Experience
4- Learn History At Deoksugung Palace
Deoksugung Palace was once the home of Grand Prince Wolsan, the brother of 15th-century Joseon Dynasty ruler King Seongjong.
In 1593, during the Imjin War, Deoksugung was used as a residence for the royal family.
It was recognised as a ‘palace’ in 1611 when Gwanghaegun took the throne.
Deoksugung Palace means “palace of virtuous longevity” and once stretched across a large area with many buildings.
These days, few of these buildings remain, although it’s a good thing that some have been preserved as a memory of a formerly important royal residence.
Deoksugung Palace is at 99, Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul.
5- Soak Up The Serenity of Bongeunsa Temple
Bongeunsa Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple built during the 10th year of Silla King Weongseong’s reign (794).
In 1498, Queen Jeonghyeon refurbished the temple and renamed it, Bongeunsa Temple.
The temple was relocated during the reign of King Myeongjong and has 3,479 Buddhist scriptures.
Bongeunsa is home to the Jeongdaebulsa Buddhist ceremony, where monks holding scriptures on their heads march while reciting Buddhist rites.
Bongeunsa Temple is at 531, Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul.
Outdoor Attractions in Seoul
6- Hike Bugaksan Mountain
There are several mountains around Seoul, including Namsan, Naksan and Inwangsan.
Hiking enthusiasts should plan to hike up Bugaksan Mountain, which has several trails, century-old gates and Seoul’s ancient fortress walls.
The 342m granite mountain’s drawcards are the Hanyangdoseong (Seoul City Wall) and Changuimun Gate, one of the four gates of the Joseon dynasty castle city.
Bugak Skyway is a road trip through the forest along the mountain’s northeast ridge, leading to the Palgakjeong octagonal pavilion, where there’s a panoramic view of Seoul.
Bugaksan Mountain is at 42, Changuimun-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
7- Escape to Cheonggyecheon Stream
Even though Seoul is a massive megacity, there are still some tranquil spots, and Cheonggyecheon Stream is one.
This 11km public recreation space is an urban renewal project on the site of a historic stream that flowed before the city’s rapid economic development.
The stream connects the Cheonggye Plaza cultural centre and flows beneath 22 bridges into the Hangang River.
Walking around the area at night is particularly picturesque.
The city lights give out a magical glow as you walk past mini waterfalls and across bridges.
Cheonggyecheon Stream is at 1 Cheonggyecheon-ro, Seorin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
8- See The Cherry Blossom Trees Along Seokchon Lake
Since 1971, the accumulation of silt created by the Hangang River project has accumulated to form an artificial island and Seokchon Lake.
The lake is the centrepiece of several attractions, including the artificial Magic Island that is part of the Lotte World Adventure theme park.
Seoul Norimadang is an outdoor venue for events and shows, while the walking paths on the east side of the lake are perfect for admiring the scenery.
The best time to enjoy the lake’s scenery is when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Seokchon Lake is at 136, Samhaksa-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul.
9- Seoul Botanic Park
Seoul Botanic Park combines a botanical garden and park with a lake, gardens and forest.
The park has a variety of plants from 12 cities around the globe and is a green city space.
It has educational programs, cultural events and is a relaxing attraction to unwind and enjoy nature.
Seoul Botanic Park is at 161, Magokdong-ro, Gangseo-gu, Seoul
Korea War Attractions
10- See the DMZ
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, and the DNZ draws significant numbers of tourists who go to get an eyeful of the military on both sides.
The DMZ is the area that separates North Korea from South Korea and was created by pulling back forces 2km (1.2 miles) along each side of the line.
The line is 240km (150 miles) from the west to the east, the mouth of the Han River to the town of Kosong in North Korea.
The village of P’anmunjŏm was where peace discussions were held during the Korean War.
Exploring the DMZ is one of the more unusual things to do from Seoul.
Korail operates the DMZ train between Seoul and two destinations in North Korea, Dorasan and Baengmagoji.
11- Visit the Korean War Memorial
South Korea has a history of war and conflict, so learning more about how war has shaped the nation is one of the top things to do in Seoul.
To commemorate soldiers who fought for their country, the South Korean government built the Korean War Memorial.
It has a museum with 33,000 items and displays telling the story of South Korea’s long history.
Six halls and an outdoor exhibition showcase tanks, aircraft and guns used in the Korean wars.
The Memorial Hall has paintings and sculptures to remember those who lost their lives at war, and there’s an entire gallery focused on the Korean War.
The War Memorial is at 29, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.
Seoul Markets and Shopping
12- 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 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 the 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 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 vast shopping mall with 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.
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.
Missy 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 exciting time of the year to go to Myeongdong is during the Myeongdong Festival.
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.
13- Haggle in Namdaemun Market
Traditional markets are everywhere in Seoul, and if you only have time for one, haggling in Namdaemun Market is one thing to do in Seoul for a modern cultural experience.
Wind through the streets of Myeongdong to get to the massive Namdaemun market, where you myriad vendors sell clothes, shoes and accessories.
It’s not difficult to spend the entire day shopping in this market and if you’re not keen on shopping, wander through the market to soak up the sights and sounds.
Namdaemun (Great South Gate) has been operating since 1964 and the oldest market in South Korea.
It’s located next to the historic south gate and is also one of the largest markets in the country.
Namdaemun Market is at 21 Namdaemunsijang 4-gil, Hoehyeon-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul.
14- Shop in Dongdaemun Market
Dongdaemun Market is a vast area spread around one of South Korea’s famous landmarks, Dongdaemun Gate.
This wholesale and retail shopping district has 26 malls and thousands of shops selling various items, from fabrics, clothes and footwear to electronics, toys and leather products.
Dongdaemun Market is open 24 hours a day and its night market is fantastic.
The area’s food alley, Mukja Golmok, is a top spot to chow down to a delicious local dish.
Dongdaemun Market is at 253, Jangchungdan-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul.
15- Shop in Itaewon
Shopping in Itaewon is a fun thing to do in Seoul.
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.
Itaewon is where you’ll find a thriving club scene, with dance clubs, pubs and bars, so plan a good night out.
16- Visit Seoul Medicine Market
Yangnyeong Market is one of the top medicine markets in South Korea.
Medicine shops have operated here since the 1960s, and two-thirds of South Korea’s traditional medicine changes hands in this market.
Korean medicinal herbs sold from hundreds of medicine shops at the market include milk vetch roots, a variety of ginseng, dates and herbal potions.
Red ginseng is popular for restoring energy, while Youngji mushrooms are used to prevent diseases.
Seoul’s medicine market may not be the place for those concerned about animal rights as other strange remedies include mulberry root, cactus fruit, freshwater shrimp, frogs and terrapins.
Seoul Yangnyeong Market is at Yangnyeongjungang-ro, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul.
Seoul Cultural Experiences
17- Experience a Temple Stay At Jogyesa Temple
Jogyesa Temple in the centre of Seoul is a major Buddhist temple in South Korea and the headquarters of the Jogye Order.
This Buddhist temple also offers temple stay programmes, where anyone can go and stay to experience the teachings of Korea’s largest Buddhism sect.
The temple is also home to cultural assets such as a historic seated Buddha statue in Daeungjeon Hall and the 500-year-old Baeksong, a white pine tree.
One of the most exciting times to visit is during the annual Lotus Lantern Festival.
Jogyesa Temple is at 55 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
18- Discover Bukchon Hanok Village
Wandering around Bukchon Village is one of the best things to do in Seoul to experience life in a South Korean village during medieval days.
The village has a cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes.
It is unique because it’s a culturally preserved village in one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.
Bukchon Hanok Village has alleys and beautifully maintained architectural designs, including courtyards, decorated outer walls and dark tiled roofs.
This village also has traditional cafes, tea houses, art galleries, restaurants and guest houses.
Bukchon Hanok is also home to museums, such as the Seoul Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, Donglim Knot Museum, Han Sangsu Embroidery Museum, Bukchon Asian Art Museum, and Owl Museum.
Bukchon Village is at 37, Gyedong-Gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
19- Learn Taekwondo
A taekwondo lesson in 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 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 and has gained a global following in the past decade.
The federation has 188 member nations and 70 million people in active training.
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.
At Gyeonghuigung Palace, white martial arts uniforms are provided, and students don’t need any prior experience.
Taekwondo demonstrations are also offered.
They begin with some of the basic movements then progressing into a complex sequence of showy demonstrations.
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, and the atmosphere is electric as the apple shatters into pieces.
Gyeonghuigung Palace is at 45 Saemunan-ro, Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
20- Watch A Street Festival
Attending a cultural festival is a fantastic thing to do in Seoul.
Listen to the mesmeric beat of the Korean traditional janggu drum as musicians sashay around a palace courtyard or a city square playing an assortment of Korean traditional percussion instruments.
Contemporary Attractions in Seoul
21- Enjoy a Night Out In 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.
This cool skyscraper district is an excellent place for a fun night out bopping to the techno music of celebrity DJs, drinking soju rice wine or cocktails.
Dining options range from local eateries that serve delicious Korean fried chicken to fine-dining restaurants.
22- Ride To The Top Of Seoul Tower
Seoul Tower is 236m high, and as it sits on Namsan Mountain, it’s 480m above sea level.
It’s one of the tallest towers in Asia and a distinctive landmark of Seoul that was built as a television and radio broadcast tower in 1969.
Admire the city of Seoul spread below your feet from one of the Observation Decks or the Roof Terrace.
There are several restaurants, including Korean restaurant Hancook and French fine-dining restaurant n-Grill.
Seoul Tower is at 105, Namsangongwon-Gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.
23- Discover Incheon
Visit the gleaming uber-contemporary city of Incheon, home to Incheon International Airport, a casino, golf course, Incheon Fish Market and Songdo Central Park.
The park is a lovely waterscape offering boat tours, canoeing and water taxi rides.
It’s also a cultural precinct with performance halls and galleries.
Incheon’s islands, such Yeongjong and Muui-dong, are known for their beaches.
Songdo Central Park is at 160, Convensia-daero, Yeonsu-gu, Incheon
24- Explore Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (or DDP) is a futuristic urban design project created by Zaha Hadid and Samoo.
Its unique curving architecture has featured in numerous South Korean films and television series.
It’s a major convention and exhibition venue and has an art hall and a museum.
The design lab is an incubator for upcoming designers, and the design market offers shopping and cultural experiences.
Dongdaemun History and Culture Park is a step back into the Joseon Dynasty era when the region was once a military training ground.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza is at 281, Euljiro, Jung-gu, Seoul.
25- Visit Lotte World Tower
Lotte World Tower is a 123-story tower that is 555m high and home to Seoul Sky, which is the highest observation deck in Korea.
It also houses luxury hotel Signiel Seoul, a healthcare and fitness centre and a financial centre.
The Lotte World Mall is an impressive entertainment hub with shops, an aquarium, a music hall and the largest multiplex in Asia.
Lotte World Tower is at 300 Olympic-ro, Jamsil 6(yuk)-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul.
26- Hang Out At KT&G Sangsang Madang
KT&G Sangsang Madang is a funky seven-story cultural complex in the trendy Hongik University precinct, which is packed with cafes and galleries where young people hang out.
Sangsang Madang is a modern glass and concrete building that houses a creative space for artists.
It’s a top spot to buy a local gift or creatively designed product made in Korea by local artists.
The basement art cinema screens foreign films, and there’s a cafe and a restaurant too.
KT&G Sangsangmadang is at 65 Eoulmadang-ro, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul.
27- KStyle Hub
Discover Korean culture at the uber-contemporary K-style Hub, which houses a tourist information centre, experiential zones and exhibition halls.
It’s a place to learn about Korean life and culture, including the country’s food, modern culture and etiquette.
KStyle Hub is at 40 Cheonggyecheon-ro, Da-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul.
28- Ihwa Mural Village
Ihwa Mural Village has brightly painted murals and one of the key villages with street art in South Korea.
The buildings, telephone poles, staircases and fences have been creatively woven into becoming part of an attractive streetscape.
70 artists took part in this public street art project to beautify one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Seoul.
The artists created eye-catching street murals, including a painting of Mount Naksan, rabbits, angels and a cheerful flowery staircase.
Ihwa-dong is a working-class daldongnae or’ moon village’, because of its location on a hill offering clear moon views.
Ihwa Mural Village is at 49 Naksan 4-gil, Ihwa-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Museums in Seoul
29- National Museum of Korea
The National Museum of Korea is a massive museum home to 220,000 artifacts that showcase the rich history of Korea.
There’s a Children’s Museum, pagodas and other stone artworks in the garden.
Collections include objects from Korean history, from the Paleolithic period through the Gorguyeo Kingdom, Silla Kingdom and Ballhae Kingdom.
National Museum of Korea is at 137 Seobinggo-ro, Seobinggo-dong, Yongsan-gu.
30- National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History houses exhibitions from the late 19th century to the present day.
The eight-story museum has permanent exhibition halls, special exhibition halls, seminar rooms, lecture halls, a rooftop garden, a museum shop and a cafe.
The four permanent exhibitions have 1,500 artifacts on display, including the Declaration of Independence and items belonging to soldiers who died in the Korean War.
There’s a rotating roster of exhibitions on culture, history, politics, and the Children’s Museum is great for kids to learn about the history of Korea.
The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is at 198 Sejong-daero, Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
31- National Hangeul Museum
Discover the secrets of the Hangeul alphabet at this museum dedicated to the Korean language.
The Hangeul alphabet was created in 1443 and has 28 letters consisting of consonants and vowels.
17 consonants reflect the shape of the vocal organs when pronouncing each letter, while 11 vowels are different configurations of the three vowels representing the elements of the universe: the sky, the earth, and humanity.
The National Hangeul Museum has intriguing exhibits, such as handwritten novels and letters.
There Children’s Museum and Learning Center offers Hangeul writing lessons.
National Hangeul Museum is at 139 Seobinggo-ro, Yongsandong 6(yuk)-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.
32- Seoul Museum of History
Seoul Museum of History tells the story of the evolution of Seoul from prehistoric times to Seoul today.
The city’s rich history goes back 2,000 years, and displays at this museum include the transfer of power from the Joseon Dynasty to the colonial era through to the Republic of Korea.
Seoul has been Korea’s capital for more than 600 years, and the museum has several buildings and halls.
Seoul Museum of History is at 55 Saemunan-ro, Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
33- Ahn Junggeun Memorial Hall
An Jung-Geun Memorial Hall pays homage to An Jung-Geun, who fought for Korea’s independence from Japan and assassinated Ito Hirobumi.
The Japanese executed Ahn for the assassination of the Japanese official in 1909.
The memorial hall has 12 exhibition galleries, an auditorium and a library.
An Jung-geun Memorial Hall 91, Sowol-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul.
34- Taste Korean Street Food
Korean street food is tasty and full of flavour. Mung bean pancakes, spicy rice cakes (Tteokbokki) and Korean fish cake (Odeng) are some of the delicious Korean street food to try.
Also, look for Korean fried chicken (Chimaek) and deep-fried hot dogs covered in bits of french fries (Tokkebi).
South Korea’s street food is not only a tasty treat but is part of pop culture.
35- Eat Kimchi
Eating kimchi is one of the things to do in Seoul you should not miss.
Kimchi is South Korea’s comfort food, and the spicy fermented cabbage dish can be tasted in any restaurant and comes in different varieties.
Learn about kimchi at the Kimchi Field Museum, which has displays that spells out the different ways kimchi can be prepared, or join a kimchi-making lesson.
Compared to other things to do in Seoul, making kimchi is a fun way for most people to immerse themselves in Korean culture.