Exploring Seoul, South Korea – Guide to Culture, Food, Coffee & Fun

It’s been five years since I first visited Korea and between that time I had forgotten how great of a place it is to visit. The foreignness, culture, food, and excitement of this place are things that make this country great. Here should be high on everyone’s bucket list. My main goal of this visit was to get LASIK eye surgery so that my vision could be corrected, but after the surgery I had planned for a week recovery and follow-up visits, which gave me just enough time to see lots of things around. Even though I have a tendency to not visit places twice (which I think I should revise), I can say that coming here a second time was almost better than the first. I got lucky this time as there was perfect weather for hiking, the yearly cultural festival was just starting, and there wasn’t any specific itinerary to follow, which left lots of time available to explore. 

And I just happened to explore on one of the most interesting days. It was the start of the Spring K-Royal Cultural Festival and there were so much going on in the city. This made for an exciting day. Although my plans were only to see one of the palaces because I had hiked Bukhansan National Park and climbed two of the peaks/walked over 25,000 steps the day before, I ended up visiting all three main palaces, and had a great time. These photos from above were from my second to last day (a Sunday 4/28/24). Here you can see Deoksugung Palace and the changing of the guard, which happens twice a day at 11am and 2pm. It’s directly outside the metro station, just 100m away, which I think is awesome that it’s so accessible. This was the start to a great day of cultural exploring where so many exciting things were happening around the city including: changing of the guard, the yearly Spring K-Royal Culture Festival, dance performance, local volunteer groups, outdoor library, food & coffee everywhere.

Places Visited & Helpful Tips:

  • Use Naver Maps instead of Google Maps to navigate the city. It’s timely and you can see in real time the train and connection rides that you’ll take when going to a certain place.
  • Use Papago App to translate between Korean and English (or your preferred language). Google translate is good for using the camera feature to translate signs and images.
  • Get a T-money travel card for metro and bus use.
  • Definintely try Hanbok costume. This is one thing I love about Korea because you are invited to try on traditional wear and take pictures and it’s not something that is frowned upon or kept selectively away from non-Koreans. It’s really inviting and also fun to try.

Seoul is a city where you don’t need a specific itinerary. There’s so much to do and see and it’s all accessible by the metro or train using a T-Money Card and the Naver Maps app. The best is to at least make it to one of the three main palaces and see where the sights take you. One note is that if you do go to the changing of the guard at Deoksugung palace, they give time at the end of their guard ceremony to take photos with the performers. There’s even workers there who will take your phone or camera and help take photos of you with the different actors FOR FREE, which I think is super cool and different from many other tourist places. I.e. the photo above is taken by one of the workers, and it’s one of my favorites.

The main palace is called Gyeongbokgung and it’s a must do, and likely one of the best starting points for your trip. Here, or around any of the palaces, you can rent a Hanbok, which is the traditional costume wear of Korea. This makes for great photos and a feeling of being like a royal. I highly recommend doing this. From this palace, you can venture off to many other close places. Bukchon Hanok Village is the next logical place to visit as it’s close by and has good food and cafe and scenic views of old houses within the metropolis that is Seoul.

Besides the palaces, it’s also a good to see the other parts of the history of the country. You can visit the National Museum of Korea and the War Memorial of Korea. Both are free to visit and you’ll gain a lot of insight on things that are rarely taught in our western history books. 

As mentioned earlier, the Hanbok costume rental is a key part of the visit to Seoul. Just keep in mind that Korea does get cold during the winter and so you may not want to be walking around that much during that time. It also gets hot and humid during the summer, and so you’ll likely not enjoy that part of the year here as well. Spring and fall months are best.

Safety in Korea is super high. While you should take normal precautions everywhere you visit, Korea is a place filled with tons of CCTV cameras and so your stuff is guaranteed for the most part, safe. I can’t say the same for places like India or less well off countries.

South Korea, is also well known for it’s famous dermatology, plastic surgery, and even LASIK (the reason I went here in the first place). There’s the Gangnam Medical Tourism Agency that can help and various other companies that can help you with many procedures and help with translation, the follow-up visits, and making your stay enjoyable. Here’s my review of my SMILE LASIK surgery for those interested in this procedure.

And importantly is the food. Korean food – at least in my opinion – is some of the tastiest and filling and most wholesome food there is. It’s a good value compared to the US because you can get a full meal for around $7. There’s banchan with most dishes, which are sides like kimchee and bean sprouts and fish cake, and these are all you can eat. Every restaurant will have their own banchan and so it’s exciting to see what you’ll get at each new place. You can either self-serve yourself more or ask for more from the server. Most of the restaurants are run by older women and you can see their hard work throughout the day, especially at anywhere that says 24 hours open. For that reason, I admire these food places. Plus, you’ll mainly just have to go to a restaurant that has images of their food and just point to the dish. English is limited and it’s exciting to see what comes out. I’ve only been disappointed once when I thought I was ordering bibimbap, but instead got bean sprout soup.

Many of the museums and palaces and cultural attractions are free or are low cost (maybe $2-5 USD to enter). And you’ll also see lots of lockers, which you can use to store your bags while you walk around the exhibitions. 

Shopping is also really big here and you can explore many markets. Some you’ll have to bargain, while others are set price. If there’s no fixed price then always ask for a lower price. And as a side note, you can try so many good coffee shops. They take their coffee game seriously. Note that if you do order a late, it will come out sweet unless you say no sugar.

Some guides recommend the Secret Garden in Changdeokgung, but you may want to skip it because you have to reserve far in advance and then you’ll be guided along with maybe 100 other tourists and not be able to explore the site on your own (which I guess preserves it from being trampled too much by people). I’d recommend going up to the fortress walls at Naksan Park, which is great for escaping the city, but still close by.

If the weather is good, then you can have a picnic at the parks around the city. Bring some food and a blanket and maybe meet up with some Korean friends that you make. Note that Seoul does have high pollution during certain times of the year. Check the air quality before going out and potentially wear a mask while outside.

I don’t think there is a full inclusive list of everything to do in Seoul and the neighboring cities, but some other recommendations might be to try a traditional Korean sauna, to go for a hike outside the city, explore the night-life and drink with some of the workers who have finished a long day of labor, and try all the Korean food that you can – especially Korean BBQ. 

If you have any other recommendations for Seoul, leave them in the comments below.

Location:

Seoul is the main city in Korea and it’s easily navigable by bus, train, metro, taxi or walking. You’ll fly into ICN airport and then can stay in different areas of the city in order to get a different experience. I was both in Gangnam for the eye surgery and then in another part more west. They were completely different, but most of my time was spent above the river in the main tourist and palace area. If you have a favorite area in Seoul, then leave a comment below!

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