Seoul South Korea, the capital city, has experienced rapid growth and it’s culture is both young and vibrant because of it. With k-pop music and food dishes that are unique to only South Korea, David and I knew this was a city not to miss. We spent a week exploring neighborhoods, taking cultural tours, and shopping for beauty products – I would be lying if I said this only happened once a day… trust me they’re alluring!
We boiled down our trip into the highlights for you. Take our suggestions or discover new one’s on your own, either way Seoul will leave an impression on you.
Places to See
Explore the tiny alleyways that make up the ancient streets of Seoul. Find a walking tour to take you around the passage ways or discover the maze on your own. Here you feel set apart from the hustle and bustle of what Seoul has now become.
With one home preserved as a museum, learn how Koreans cleverly heated their homes in the winter months and the importance of gravel on walkways. After a couple of hours walking, take a seat at a cafe and enjoy other tourists taking in the sites, some wearing traditional clothing to capture the perfect traditional Korean selfie.
Take a walk through the grandest palace that remains in South Korea. There is a lot to see and many amazing corners that would be hard to discover on your own. We recommend booking a free walking tour online. These are truly free tours, and will not even accept tips (but I heard sometimes they will take small gifts of coffee on a break).
Don’t miss the King and Queens divided courters and a favored concubines house within the palace (scandalous?). The stories are rich and the remains are impressive.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Take half a day to explore an exhibit at the Art Museum. Each exhibit is charged separately. While we were there they were hosting Smithsonian photography winners from the past decade. We stayed for hours enjoying photos from around the world. It encouraged us to see each moment in our journey through a new lens. Every person on the train or animal in a tree was a perfect moment in time. If this moment is captured or left only as a memory, we are blessed to have witnessed it.
Make sure to get a look outside once the sun has gone down and see the unique architecture of this building lit up at night. This modern building is quite a site to see.
Where the intersection of street food and shopping collide into a perfect merriment of tourists and locals. There are tons of neighborhoods around Seoul that will have a scattering of similar stores and street food but here it all comes together in one place. With some of the best prices on street food, local crafts, and beauty products, Insadong really has it all. Come here hungry and with plenty of extra money.
The DMZ (Demilitarization Zone – Korean Border)
Get a view of North Korea and walk through the secret tunnels that were dug in hopes to invade South Korea. The tension between the borders is palatable. Learn the history between the two countries and what led to their divide by taking a tour with Cosmojin Tours. Our guide was informative and open to any questions. The tour departs early in the morning and arrives back downtown Seoul by late afternoon. With the lowest price we found at $40 USD per person, we felt we had gotten a great value.
Other tour highlights include a stop at Freedom Bridge and a train station, both were built as an invitation reaching out to North Korea to become one unified country. Along the drive you will also get a great view of the rolling hills that cover the border between the two countries. Here you can clearly see where the border lies by the lack of trees on the North Korean side. Due to restricted resources, the citizens need to burn wood to heat their homes. Seeing stark differences like this you begin to understand how opposite lives are in these neighboring countries.
With 24 hour markets you are bound to bump into several each day as you explore the city. These markets are a foodies dream with unique dishes that will surely challenge your eyes and stomach. If you are wishing to take a step on the wild side, try a bowl of silk worm larvae, BBQ pigs feet, or a live octopus. David and I did not feel inclined to step up to these challenges. If you are looking for a less shocking assortment of Korean dishes read on 🙂
Things to eat
There is no doubt Koreans love their food. Around the tables in markets and restaurants you will see families and coworkers gathering together over many dishes and often several bottles of Soju. Sit among the locals and order as they do. Below are our favorites:
Korean BBQ (gogigui)
You will see many restaurants offering Korean BBQ. We literally followed our noses and found a great spot late at night. The experience is just as enjoyable as eating. With the grill right in front of you, you are the chef for the night. Try wrapping the cooked meat in lettuce add onions and dip in the provided sauces. Take time to enjoy all the flavors that our laid out in front of you. This is a meal and a culinary experience.
Bibibop means “mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables“. I loved this dish at Bibigo (a local chain restaurant with 8 locations in Seoul) with English menus and several options to customize the bowl to whatever you feel comfortable trying.
Crispy potato pancake (pajeon)
A perfect potato pancake is crisp on the outside and gooey in the middle. Find these at most food markets and make sure to get a rice wine (makeolli) to wash it down.
Korean fried chicken (chimaek)
A staple in the late night food scene. This fried chicken is crisper and less greasy than the fried chicken we eat in the states. It’s served with pickled vegetable and paired with local favorite, Cass Beer.
Spicy Rice Cakes (tteokbokki)
If you like spicy this is the dish for you (I personally felt like my lips were hit with acid). Fermented soy beans cylinders and red chilies in the sauce give this dish its extra kick and then a punch. David ate them daily and it does have an amazing texture, so I enjoyed them after the sauce was mostly stripped from the rice cake. This is something you will see all over South Korea and often sold in small cups for a great walking snack.
You can find these iconic child size drinks at any convenient store. They also come in melon and strawberry. We had several a day, there is no text in English, but you can’t miss them.
South Korea has it’s own set of teen celebrities and their images are EVERYWHERE.
We stopped by the new Psy Gangnam Style statue – which plays the song and flashes lights when you walk by it. Korea attributed his hit song to spreading kpop interest internationally.