With a population of approximately 10 million people, we expected Seoul to be like any other big city - bustling and impersonal.
We were however pleasantly surprised with just how laid back the city can feel and also how relaxing and peaceful all the wonderful green public open spaces are, nestled between the busier city streets. The 5 days that we spent in Seoul went by in a flash and we definitely hope to return to explore more of what this vibrant city has to offer.
SEOUL CITY FORTRESS WALL
The Seoul City Wall is an 18.2 km fortress wall that surrounds the city, built during the Joseon Dynasty. One can walk along a long section of the wall all the way up to the top of Naksan Park. From the top of the park, you can enjoy an almost 360-degree panoramic view of Seoul. The clouds in the sky just played along perfectly as we reached the top of Naksan Park to enjoy the view and then sunset over the City of Seoul. This is definitely one of the things not to miss out on during your visit to Seoul!
IHWA MURAL VILLAGE & NAKSAN PARK
Although not on many tourist ‘to-visit lists’, Naksan Park has a lot to contribute to your visit to Seoul. You can approach the park either from Dongdaemun (intersection of metro lines 1 & 4) or from Ihwa Mural Village, where you can appreciate the artistic Village and its street art. Walking from Dongdaemun all along the historic Seoul City Fortress Wall, the view over the City of Seoul just keeps getting better and better. Once at the top of the park, you can look out in almost every direction over Seoul. This is also a great place to enjoy the sunset, there are even a few cafes where you can enjoy a beer with the sunset! We walked through Ihwa Mural Village, but to be honest, the street art didn’t blow us away. We would recommend approaching from Dongdaemun as you can start by seeing the Heunginjimun Gate and also appreciate the beautiful green hill in full bloom with pretty yellow flowers!
At first when we started to search for “Hangang Park” we were confused, as this name does not actually refer to one specific park, but rather to many parks along the Hangang River. Depending on exactly where in Seoul you stay, we would recommend just taking a stroll along the river through the nearest park. It’s wonderful how these green recreational areas have been created within an otherwise busy and built-up city. The Gwangnaru Hangang Park (which was closest to us), had a dedicated recreational aircraft area, with a racing drone course, a remotely operated aeroplane landing strip and a few drone launching areas. There was also a BMX pump track, a rollerskating course, many kids play parks and of course the official cycle track along the river.
LOTTE WORLD TOWER AND SHOPPING CENTRE
The Lotte World Tower was completed in 2011 and at 555 m tall, is currently the tallest building in South Korea as well as the 5th tallest building in the world. The building stands proud amongst the Seoul skyline as is even more beautiful and elegant up close than from afar. One can go all the way up to the Seoul Sky observation deck at 500 m high or you can just enjoy the ambience of the park, small amphitheatre and walkways around the tower and shopping centre. The shopping centre is modern and spacious, with every well-known brand name that you could imagine.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. It is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty and served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings' households, as well as the government of Joseon. Today, the palace grounds are open to the public to be able to explore the palace grounds and see many of the impressive palace buildings. If you arrive in traditional dress, you can enter for free! If not, there is a small entrance fee. The palace grounds are extensive and you can easily spend a few hours just strolling around admiring the expanse and grandeur of the place. Be sure to check the website for the times of the changing of the guards as this is a rather elaborate procedure and fun to watch. There are also free guided tours in a few languages, but we preferred to make our own way around the palace grounds. What really impressed us is how green the entire area comes across even though it is right in the middle of the city!
You should set aside at least half a day to do justice to your visit as the compound includes a couple of museums, ornamental gardens and some of Seoul's grandest architectural sights. Another option would be to combine your visit with a day-tour of the best of Seoul.
One of the Five Grand Palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung Palace is best known for its “Secret Gardens” which are actually not that secret as they can be visited, but by guided tour only! Many say that this is the most beautiful and favoured of the five palaces. If you are considering visiting more than one of the palaces, you should consider the combination ticket which is available.
Cheonggyecheon is a 10.9-kilometre-long urban renewal project which has taken an old polluted urban stream and transformed it into a modern public recreation space in downtown Seoul. Cheonggyecheon Stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, just off Sejong-ro Avenue. We wouldn’t advise heading here specifically, but it is a nice enough walk if you find yourself close by.
MYEONGDONG SHOPPING & FOOD STREET
The Myeongdong district is a popular and trendy area where particularly two of the main streets are always bustling, both day and night. The shopping area is one of the most expensive in the world, so don’t expect any bargains! There are food stalls lining the roads, as well as local and international restaurants and the neon lights really bring this area to life as the sunsets. If you are in the area, you will also find the oldest Catholic Cathedral (Myeongdong Cathedral) just nearby, which is a beautiful building perched on the top of a small hill.
DONGDAEMUN SHOPPING & FOOD MARKET
This large commercial district of Dongdaemun is filled with traditional market-style stores ranging from textiles to clothing and even hardware. There is a food market area, but we found the variety of foods available to be very limited. To be honest. We wouldn’t recommend heading here specifically, but it is a good place to end the day after catching the sunset from Naksan Park.
Namdaemun Market claims to be the largest traditional market in Korea! And in addition to this, it remains open ‘overnight’ from 11 pm to 4 am, although I’m not entirely sure who wants to be shopping during those hours?! Each section has hundreds of stalls, from clothing to handicrafts and accessories. IThe food section, though, is by far the biggest highlight and sports dozens of stalls selling sujebi (dough and shellfish soup), homemade kalguksu noodles, bibimbap (mixed rice, meat and vegetables) and special alley completely dedicated to fish dishes. Take note that different sections of the market have different opening hours – wholesalers are open all night and many shops open on Sunday. A good way to make the most of an afternoon in Seoul is to join a 4-hour tour taking in both the Namdaemun Market as well as Changdeokgung Palace.
SEOUL OLYMPIC PARK
Olympic Park was originally built to host the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Since then the park and surrounding facilities have been maintained and even enhanced with regular art displays for the public to enjoy. This is a great place if you just want to take a stroll in nature, have a picnic or even go for a run! We really enjoyed watching the locals enjoying yet another wonderful public space in South Korea.
NAMSAN SEOUL TOWER
Situated on the Namsan Mountain and within the Namsan Seoul Plaza, the 236.7m tall Namsan Seoul Tower reaches almost 480m above sea level, giving wonderful views over the city of Seoul. Visitors can reach the tower by means of a cable car and can then enjoy panoramic views from the Observation Deck.
These are mainly found within the city centre of Seoul but are starting to spread out as they gain popularity. Most cafes will charge you an ‘entry fee’ which will possibly include a small drink. The idea is that you are paying for the therapeutic benefit of spending time with these animals and if recent studies are to be believed, it may indeed be money well spent!
Unfortunately, our timing did not allow for us to visit the Demilitarized Zone. We did, however, do a fair amount of research on the various options available and would highly recommend that if you are considering this, that you plan in advance to be able to do the Joint Security Area (JSA) Tour rather than the multitude of half and full-day Demilitarized Zone Tours which are getting a bad reputation due to them being more of a ‘theme park’ style tour with little respect for the history and realities of this area. We would suggest doing your own research depending on which tours are available at the time of your visit.
Undoubtedly the highlight of any trip to the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom. An improbable tourist destination, it's here where the infamous Military Demarcation Line separates South and North Korea. Soldiers from both sides often stand metres apart eyeballing one another from their respective sides of the blue-painted UN buildings. You'll be taken inside the meeting room – where the 1953 truce was signed – the only place where you can safely walk into North Korea.
There are many "temple stays" available throughout South Korea, particularly within striking distance from Seoul. Most stays are one night / two days and personally I’m torn between wondering if this is just another touristy gimmick or if it is a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the life of a Buddhist Monk. If this is something you are considering, be sure to check reviews and compare a few options in order to have the best possible experience.