Seoul is the unique capital of South Korea that perfectly blends new technology, thousands of years of history, and religion. From Korean BBQ, to shopping, to visiting war zones, Seoul has everything to offer visitors.
Seoul is such a fascinating blend of traditional and modern. The city is an exciting blend of local markets, large department stores, street food, high class dining, and friendly locals that always seem to be working hard or partying hard.
Here is a list of 16 things you should try to do on your first visit to Seoul.
Watch a moonlight rainbow fountain show
A bridge that also features a water and lights show? Yep.
The Banpo Bridge, which spans the Han River, is famous for the unique Moonlight Rainbow Fountain Show.
During the show, music is played while water is pumped from the river below through dancing nozzles that are illuminated by LED lights. The most beautiful part of the show is watching the water fall back down to the river.
The show runs from May to October with three shows on weekdays and six to seven shows on weekends.
Visit a traditional market
Traditional markets in Seoul offer visitors a great taste of real Korean life.
These types of markets are similar to farmers markets in other parts of the world. In Seoul, traditional markets are filled with stands usually manned by older generation Koreans. These stands sell all types of goods including meats, vegetables, pickled items, street foods, seafood, clothes, are more.
As you walk through these busy marketplaces, you will rub elbow to elbow with pushy ajummas (older generation Korean women) who are looking for bargains.
Traditional markets are an important part of the history and culture of Korea, and even more so as Korea moves towards more modern and larger shopping complexes.
Some of the more popular traditional markets in Seoul include Dongdaemun Market, Namdaemun Market, Gwangjang Market, Gyeongdong Market, and Gyeongdong Market.
Sample some tasty street food
One of the best things about making a trip to Seoul is for the street food.
Most street food in Seoul is clean and safe, so if you have no fear, stop by any one of the thousands of food carts that line the streets at all hours of the day.
Some of the most popular street foods include tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), gimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed), sundae (blood sausage), odeng (fish cakes), Pajeon (pancakes stuffed with various ingredients) and twigim (fried goodies).
Some great places to sample street food include Myeongdong, Namdaemun Market, and just outside Konkuk University Station on Seoul Subway (Line 2 and 7).
Myeongdong is the place to go for shopping.
Many of the usual international brands can be found here including Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, and Forever 21 but the most interesting shopping can be found at Shinsegae and Lotte, two large department stores with multiple locations.
The area is one of the most visited places in Seoul and is packed at all hours of the day, mostly with Japanese and Chinese tourists, young people on dates, and tourists who want to experience the lights and energy of Korea.
Myeongdong is also a great place to experience Korean street food. If you are a novice, just walk around and see what looks good.
Most who visit Myeongdong do so to shop or eat, but if you are in the area, Myeongdong Cathedral is worth the visit.
One of the first things people think of when visiting Korea is the Korean BBQ.
BBQ restaurants can be found literally on almost every street in Seoul. You will know when one is nearby when you smell the delicious aroma in the air.
If it is your first time eating at a BBQ restaurant, be sure to try samgyeopsal (pork belly), bulgogi (marinated beef), galbi (marinated short ribs), and dak (chicken).
If you don’t know what you are doing, friendly restaurant staff will usually help you or even cook your meats for you.
Shop, shop, shop til you drop
If you love to shop, then Seoul is your city. The entire city is a fashion mecca.
Large department stores such as Lotte and Shinsegae are located all across the city. These large shopping complexes feature everything from high end fashion to the latest fashion trends popular with young people. Some of these department stores feature restaurants, large food courts, movie theaters, and even aquariums. Almost everything in your price range can be found at these shopping centers.
For those who are looking for bargain prices, head on over to one of the traditional markets such as Namdaemun Market or Dongdaemun Market. Dongdaemun Market is massive with over 20 shopping malls and 30,000 shops. If you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist.
If you are looking for cheap but unique secondhand items, try Seoul Folk Flea Market, Hongdae Free Market, Seocho Saturday Flea Market, and Yongsan Flea Market.
Some of the most expensive shopping in the city can be found south of the Han River in Gangnam where those with endless bank accounts shop. Be sure to check out Garosu-gil and Cheongdam where you might even catch a Korean actor out shopping and spending a fortune.
French fries is to America as kimchi is to Korea.
Each Korean eats over 40 pounds of the dish per year, which not surprisingly is the national dish of Korea.
The fermented dish is made using cabbage, spicy red pepper powder, ginger, garlic, radishes, and scallions. The mixture is then fermented in pots underground for months. The finished product is a spicy and tasty fermented cabbage dish.
Most restaurants serve kimchi as a side dish to the main meal. You can also find many varieties for sale at markets all across Seoul.
Go for a hike at Bukhansan National Park
To the north of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is Bukhansan National Park, one of the most visited national parks in the world.
The park is popular for its many hiking trails, hidden Buddhist temples, scenery, streams, nature watching, and granite peaks.
Access to the park from downtown Seoul is simple and quick. At noon you could be in downtown Seoul and by 1:00 PM you could be hiking on a mountain trail.
Easy access from Seoul means that the park can be crowded on weekends, so if you can, visit on weekdays.
Visit a royal palace
Seoul features five palaces that were used by the royal family during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897).
The largest and most popular palace is Gyeongbokgung Palace which was first constructed in 1395.
Spending a day wandering around one of these palaces is a great way to learn about the history of Seoul and how it became the city it is today. The palaces are also a great display of Korean architecture.
If you are not a big fan of history or architecture, you will still enjoy the beautiful and colorful buildings that make for great photos.
Play with cats at a cat cafe
Yes, this is not a joke. Seoul, like many other cities in Asia, has cat cafes.
Most of these cafes require that you order one drink, usually coffee or tea. Your purchase allows you to stay for as long as you wish while you play with an assortment of furry kittens and fat cats who love attention.
If cats aren’t your thing, you can also find dog cafes in Seoul. If you don’t like pets, I’m sure you can find a pet free Starbucks.
Take a day trip to the DMZ
No trip to South Korea is complete without experiencing a trip to the DMZ. The DMZ is a heavily fortified buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.
It is here where both countries stand face to face, technically still at war.
If you want to visit the DMZ, you will have to book a tour. I recommend the USO tour which visits the Joint Security Area Visitor Center, 3rd Infiltration tunnel, Bridge of No Return, DMZ Pavilion, Dorasan Station, and Panmunjom.
Panmunjom is the name often used to describe the border where both countries face each other. It is here where discussions and meetings take place inside blue buildings that straddle the buffer zone. On the tour, you will be able to enter one of the blue buildings.
Walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream
Cutting through the heart of Seoul is Cheonggyecheon Stream.
During the Joseon Dynasty, a natural stream flowed here. The area was covered in concrete and turned into an elevated highway during the 20th century. In 2003, the area was restored back into a stream.
Today, walking paths border the stream which runs 7 miles through the heart of downtown Seoul. It’s a great place to go for a stroll while walking past many tourist attractions.
Going for a walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream is a great way for you to escape into a little slice of nature from the concrete jungle of the crowded city.
Stay overnight at Buddhist temple
Many temples in Seoul offer Templestay programs which allow anyone to stay overnight in the temple while spending the days learning about traditional temple life.
These programs aim at helping the public and foreigners in understanding Korean Buddhism
A typical Templestay program allows participants to take part in activities such as ceremonial services, Zen meditation, a monastic meal, tea ceremonies with monks, painting, folk games, crafts, and hiking.
A few of the temples in Seoul that offer the Templestay program are Myogaksa Temple, Geumseonsa Temple, and Bongeunsa Temple. Rates vary from around 50,000 to 70,000 won per person.
Eat the freshest seafood at the Noryangjin Fish Market
If you are looking for the freshest seafood in Seoul, then make your way to the Noryangjin Fish Market.
Over 700 vendors sell all sorts of seafood, 24 hours a day. If it swims in the ocean, it is sold here.
The best time to visit is early in the morning around 5:00 AM when wholesalers try to score the freshest seafood and the best prices during their morning auctions.
If you make a purchase from one of the vendors, you can take your seafood to a nearby restaurant where they will prepare and cook your food for you for a small fee.
Be awed by panoramic views of Seoul from the N Seoul Tower
The N Seoul Tower is one of the most iconic sights in Seoul.
For a 360 degree view of Seoul, head up to the observation deck of the 777 foot building. From here, visitors have an amazing view of the buildings of downtown Seoul and granite mountains peaks of Bukhansan National Park to the north and to the south the Han River and Gangnam.
The best way to get to the N Seoul Tower is by cable car. The cable car leaves from a station not far from Myeongdong and climbs 1,984 feet to the base of the tower at Namsan Park.
Sing until the early hours at a noraebang
There are thousands of noraebang, meaning karaoke or singing rooms, all across Seoul. Originating in Japan, karaoke is now considered more popular in Korea.
Noraebangs are popular with young people and work colleagues. They come to relieve stress while drinking a few bottles of sochu and singing their hearts out to popular English and Korean songs.
If you visit a noraebang in Asia with a group of friends, you will get your own private room which makes for a fun experience without embarrassing yourself in front of strangers.
Noraebangs cost about 12,000 won per hour.