Seoul Travel Guide
South Korea’s capital city of Seoul is both fiercely modern and uniquely old school. Belonging to a country isolated and under military dictatorship until the 60s, both the capital and the country have undergone rapid growth since embracing globalism, tech and democracy. A sprawling hub of contrasts, Seoul is where sleek skyscrapers and 5G WIFI rise high over serene palace compounds flanked by ramshackle hanok villages. Where a riverside bike path can either lead you to a fish market or a K-pop concert, and where cosmetic surgery adverts plaster the sides of lean-tos selling boiled eggs and kimbap. While Korea is ultra-quick to pick up on trends, the country remains behind neighbouring nations when it comes to LGBTQ rights, as conservative Confucian roots die hard and politicians pander to Christian fundamentalists. Despite this, increasing international influence and openness among the younger generation has helped create space for queer events and wider acceptance.
The best hotels in Seoul
A spa visit is one of the best things to do in Seoul to escape the hectic K-tropolis
Things to do in Seoul
No matter the time of day or night, there’s always a plethora of things to do in Seoul. In addition to strutting the neon streets, belting out classics in a coin Karaoke booth or coming down from pork belly BBQ ecstasy, you should also aim for a gallery or two to soak up some culture. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art set on a hill above Itaewon, presents modern Korean masterpieces alongside international classics. Punto Blu meanwhile, is an open-concept space located in Seongsu-dong, both a working studio and dynamic social bar that brings together emerging artists and travellers. Swap canvas for wood and make a trip to the innocuously named Korea Furniture Museum, actually said to be the city’s best museum, for its panoramic views, palatial design and an impressive range of rare furniture.
Seemingly no end to what man can do with wood, Changdeokgung Palace is your next stop off, allowing a glimpse at Joseon Dynasty era royal architecture and pristine grounds. Arrive at the right time to witness the flamboyant guard changing ceremony, as men wearing lavish jade costumes and severe expressions arrive on horseback wielding tasselled weapons.
If that doesn’t get you hot and sweaty enough, a traditional spa surely will, one of the best things to do in Seoul to escape the hectic K-tropolis. Spa for Men at the Four Seasons Hotel is the ultimate retreat, complete with a wet and dry sauna, relaxation areas, Goldilocks-style baths, and even a number of beds to nap on before getting a rejuvenating ‘Mankind Facial’.
While at street level there is no shortage of things to do, a trip to Seoul would not be complete without elevating yourself a little. Boasting spectacular hiking trails on Bukhansan, the big daddy of the north, as well as Gwanaksan and the smaller, easier Ansan, Seoul’s temple laden mountains provide the perfect escape from the endless transmission of K-pop below, allowing you to finally discover why they call this place the Land of Morning Calm.
What to see in Seoul
When asking the question of what to see in Seoul away from the crowds, consider Ikseondong, the lesser-known neighbour to Insadong and Bukchon, offering a simultaneously traditional and hip array of hanok teahouses, artist cafés and vintage shops in an area once saved from demolition by locals and since becoming a haven for art, indie music and traditional Korean architecture.
Another vibrant neighbourhood just east of Changdeokgung is Hyehwa-dong, home to independent roasters, arts and handicrafts, morphing into a hub of theatre, student dining and hidden record bars at night. While waiting for dusk to fall, venture up the hills towards Ihwa Mural Village and the historic Naksan park, to see a section of Joseon Dynasty fortress wall.
Dongdaemun is another district that undergoes a personality change at night. While the sun shines, the Design Plaza, a silver beast of a landmark, stuns with her unconventional curves and various exhibition spaces dedicated to Korean design. At night, the surrounding area comes alive with a surfeit of markets, malls and wholesalers, as well as traditional Korean cuisine served by overenthusiastic grandmothers over at Mukja Golmok.
Running 11 kilometres through Jongno, the Cheonggyecheon Stream is a marvel of urban mapping and Seoul city guide must-see. A once trash-logged highway, the stream is now a sunken urban oasis perfect for romantic walks and moments of calm. Need to be indoors? One of the best places to visit in Seoul on a rare rainy day is undoubtedly the mall, where you’ll find top-notch restaurants, movie theatres and arcades as well as the usual retail fare. The Coex Mall, in particular, amazes visitors with its 2,800 square meters, multi-storey Starfield Library. Featuring towering 13-meter high shelves and a viewpoint-cum-reading space on the first floor, this library is the embodiment of a low-key afternoon.
While drinking tea is nice, Koreans understand that sometimes you’ve just got to pet a furry animal
Of all Seoul points of interest, enjoying Korean cuisine is perhaps the pinnacle. For Michelin stars look no further than Mingles, a sublime Asian fusion restaurant in Gangnam-gu that serves up modern interpretations of Korean classics. For authentic style dining, take the BBQ tongs into your own hands at a samgyeobsal restaurant, where sizzling pork belly cooks at your table and soju is mixed with beer without judgement. One such great late-night spot for BBQ and other raw beef delicacies is Saebyukjib, a buzzing 24-hour joint frequented by K-pop stars and those in search of definitive after-party munchies.
At Hangaram near hanok village, traditional temple cuisine is served on low tables in an old style Korean home, while Makgeolli is generously poured from brushed gold teapots. If you’re wondering about the vegetarian places to visit in Seoul, the bad news is that although traditional meals like Jiggae, Galbi and Korean fried chicken are virtually everywhere, it can get tricky finding a non-meaty meal in the capital. Thankfully, when Korea does vegan food, she does it well. The Plant Café in Itaewon is an example of this exceptionalism, bringing Balinese vibes to a menu of peanut butter smoothies, salads and falafel burgers.
In the dedicated expat hood of Haebangchon (AKA HBC), The Royal Food & Drink is one of Seoul’s rare great brunch spots, replete with a fine cocktail menu and guacamole breakfast bagels. Around the corner, Takeout Drawing is a café for cake and art lovers. As well as showcasing local art, it also prides itself on its fancy presentation. For tea, Dawon Traditional Tea Garden in Insadong is impressive, as one of the oldest tea houses in the city, where local artists come to sip jujube tea in the fragrant breeze of the cherry blossom garden below.
While drinking tea is nice, Koreans understand that sometimes, sometimes you’ve just got to pet a furry animal. To cater to this, Seoul hosts a whole range of animal-themed cafes, from rabbits to meercats. Thanks Nature Café in Hongdae not only rustles up iced waffles and bingsu (traditional shaved ice) in all flavours, it also features a sheep’s pen for petting. Unbahlievable really.
Shopping in Seoul
Rather than fearing the North, Koreans are in fact more concerned with being seen as outdated and unstylish. For this reason, most districts of Seoul have a distinct shopping hub. Hongdae remains a favourite among students and travellers seeking urban style, notably at stores such as 87MM and Åland. Myeongdong meanwhile is a place for beauty-conscious shoppers with a soft spot for bargains, street food and Chinese-Korean fusion. If wholesale face masks and honey-buttered cashews don’t pique your interest however, hunting down the various boutiques scattered through Jongno and Insadong might. Knockers, a small family-run boutique selling high-quality made-to-order clothing, claiming to be masters of ‘man-styling’, also offer a gentleman’s quarters serving up cigars with your favourite tipple.
South of the Han River, Korea’s elite can be found treading designer shopping strips. Aside from Gangnam and Apujeong, neighbouring Sinsa-dong, while still oozing wealth, is a little more understated. Head to Garosu-gil to brush – freshly chiselled – cheeks with Seoul’s it-crowd and discover the area’s famed concept stores. One such hard-to-miss, moss-covered store is home to Tom Greyhound Downstairs, a store which takes on a theatrical aesthetic to contemporary chic men’s apparel. Nearby, renowned Korean sunglasses brand, Gentle Monster constructs an interactive high-fashion space to get lost in.
Design enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the DDP Design shop in Dongdaemun, while Teo Yang Shop near Bukchon Hanok Village is a veritable treasure trove of luxury interior design. Finish off your day with a visit to HERR, one of a few places bringing back the local barbershop culture that fizzled out in the 80s. Located close to Yongsan-gu, HERR’s highly trained barbers and stylists bring a bespoke experience, which, combined with a shoeshine and a premium whiskey, makes it well worth the won.
Of all the party places to visit in Seoul, Cakeshop in Itaewon takes the biscuit
Just minutes away from Dongdaemun Plaza lies Jean Frigo, a tiny cocktail bar cutely posing as a fruit store so as to not concern elderly local residents. Walk in through a set of refrigerator doors and you’ll find yourself in a sophisticated two-level bar where bartenders craft fruit platters and sumptuous cocktails. A short, inebriated shuffle west will lead you to Cobbler, another craft cocktail joint famous for its vintage hanok décor and elegant ambience as much as its top mixologist staff and VIP clientele. While there’s no menu, upon arrival you’ll receive drinks recommendations alongside a piece of cobbler pie, because, why not?
Two cocktails (or more) down and you may be feeling ready to explore Seoul’s small yet burgeoning gay scene; traversing both Itaewon and Jongno. Q Bar is one of the city’s newest, premier LGBT venues, hosting Itaewon-based parties until 5 am on weekends, featuring dancers and performers, DJ sets and a lounge area. A/V Take C meanwhile is a bar style venue of expansive glass and great views in Jongno. Despite being more geared towards the local gay scene, ever popular among adorable Korean bears, foreigners are welcomed with open arms to enjoy the amazing soju cocktails and relaxed atmosphere.
Don’t stay all night, however, because there’s drama to be had elsewhere. Of all the party places to visit in Seoul, Cakeshop in Itaewon takes the biscuit, with event organiser Shade fast gaining a reputation for hosting extravagant, drag-filled LGBT club nights for party-goers of all persuasions. If you’re still not ready to tap out, then top off your night in style, at Gangnam’s award-winning Club Octagon, vaunting high profile DJs of house, trance, hip hop and techno until dawn.
Photo: Valery Rabchenyuk
RYSE, Autograph Collection
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art | Photo: Hankoo Lee
Punto Blu Gallery
RYSE, Long Chim Bar