I traveled to South Korea with my son and my parents for my brother’s wedding. We spent ten fun-filled, action-packed days together in Seoul, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world with over 25 million people. We explored the city via the Seoul Metro and by foot the entire trip with the exception of taking a tour bus on a day trip to the DMZ (border with North Korea). Fortunately, we had my brother and his wife as our personal tour guides. It couldn’t have been more perfect. We all learned so much. I am very grateful for this experience and will cherish these memories forever. I can’t wait to share our adventures with you!
Here is the list of our top 10 things to do in Seoul. I hope you enjoy it!
10. COEX Mall and COEX Aquarium
The largest underground shopping center in Asia, the COEX Mall is part of a massive complex consisting of hundreds of stores, three hotels, convention centers, exhibition halls, food courts, the Megabox Cineplex (with 16 screens), Game Champ Video Arcade, a large bookstore called Bandi & Luni’s (try the foreign books section), the COEX aquarium, the Kimchi Museum and the Hyundai Department Store. The complex just underwent a major expansion that was completed in November 2014. Located under the Korea World Trade Center in the Gangnam-gu area of Seoul, this destination has something for everyone and is unlike anything you have experienced before. Click here for COEX Mall website.
A popular attraction within the mall is the COEX Aquarium. Home to over 40,000 marine creatures, it is enjoyable for the whole family. The aquarium has a theme called “Journey of Water” which emulates the flow of water from the Andean Mountains, through the Amazon rainforest to lakes, rivers, swamps, beaches, reefs and finally out to the depths of the ocean (14 zones total). A favorite of mine, the Doctor Fish exhibit allows you to place your fingers in a pool of Doctor Fish and allow them to nimble the dead skin. Another favorite and the most unique, is the amusing Fish in Wonderland exhibit showcasing fish in unusual fish tanks such as in a phone booth or a refrigerator.
Admission fees for adults are 22,000 won. Fees are less for youth and children. There are several ways to obtain discounts listed on the website. Click here for COEX Aquarium website.
Tip: This makes a great rainy day activity. Keep this idea in your back pocket for a day when the weather is not going to cooperate with your initial plans. No one will be disappointed! Crowds will be less during the week.
9. Dr. Fish Café
Themed cafés are very popular and prevalent in Korea. I think this concept is brilliant! You can bring your dog with to Bau House Puppy Café or just enjoy the company of the resident dogs. If you are missing your cat, you can visit a cat café such as Lily Cat Café or Cat Attic. How about Thanks Nature Café, a café with live sheep for petting? There is the cute Hello Kitty Cafés and the nostalgic Charlie Brown Cafés. Would you like to put on a fancy dress before you enjoy your green tea latte? Well, you can at a wedding dress café called Princess Diary. I’m Camper Café is a camping-themed café complete with picnic tables, tents, camping chairs and food cooked on an outdoor charcoal grill.
My favorite, Namu Guneul, is a fish pedicure café. Fish pedicures are illegal in America so, naturally, I knew I had to experience this in Korea. Found in Myeongdong, this multi-level café is across the street from Hotel Skypark Central. This café offers the unique Dr. Fish. For a mere 3,000 won, you can place your bare feet in a pool and enjoy the tickles of tiny fish nibbling the dead skin cells off your feet.
If that’s not enough, the café has insanely delicious honey bread which is free with the purchase of two drinks.
Tip: Themed cafés are fickle. They frequently change locations, open new cafés or close existing. This café existed in this location in February 2014. I do not know if it resides there today.
8. Bukhansan National Park
Just minutes from downtown Seoul, this free attraction is extremely popular with hikers and picnickers making it the Guinness World Record holder for “Most Visited National Park per Unit Area,” with over five million visitors each year. The name “Bukhansan” means mountains north of the Han River. This ecological oasis consists of forested areas, streams, three massive granite peaks (each over 2,000 ft tall), miles of hiking trails and about 100 historic Buddhist temples and hermitages. A must-see within this park is the ancient Bukhansanseong Fortress which was originally built in 132 AD, and then rebuilt using stone in 1711 to protect Seoul from invasions. The hikes can be a bit strenuous so plan accordingly, wear comfortable sneakers and bring water and snacks. The views will be worth your effort.
Tip: Pack a picnic and visit on a clear day during the week to avoid the crowds. Click here for website
This tourist hotspot has managed to retain its old world charm. Insadong is a quaint neighborhood ideal for exploring on foot. Consisting of a main avenue threaded with narrow alleyways, it’s filled with antiques dealers, art galleries, book stores, teahouses, restaurants, street vendors and specialized shops selling art supplies, pottery, music or furniture. You will feel as if you journeyed back in time to a simpler Seoul. This is the best area to find traditional Korean products such as hanboks (dress clothing), hanji (handmade paper), teas, pottery and folk crafts.
6. Namdaemun Market
The oldest and largest market in Seoul, the Namdaemun Market gets its name from the ancient city gate the market is located next to. Seoul was originally surrounded by a fortress wall to help defend the city, and Namdaemun (the Great South Gate) was the main southern gate into the city. The magnificent pagoda-style gateway dates back to 1398 and the popular market dates back to 1414. Because this market is so old, the streets were not made for cars. People use hand-drawn carts and motorcycles to transport their goods in and out of the market.
A popular tourist attraction, this open-air market is affordable and diverse selling a huge variety of items such as: clothes, kitchenware, toys, electronics, art, stationary, fabric, hats, socks, rugs, flowers, ginseng and imported goods. Many stores make the products themselves offering both retail and wholesale prices. I recommend sampling some of the delicious (and unique) local food amongst the dozens of food stalls.
Tip: Some retailers are closed Sundays.
Myeongdong is one of the primary shopping districts in Seoul. Across from the enormous Lotte Department Store (another fun place to visit) is an area of narrow streets and alleyways lined with restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, theaters, street stalls, brand name shops and department stores. Myeongdong is bursting at the seams with people shopping for chic clothes, shoes, cosmetics, jewelry and accessories. The streets are buzzing with energy, excitement and music! This shopping mecca is a must-see for any tourist.
Also nearby is Lotte World, the Myeongdong Cathedral and Myeongdong NANTA Theatre, all well-known tourist destinations. If you want to see the hilarious Cookin’ NANTA show, purchase your tickets in advance.
4. War Memorial of Korea
Here you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Korea’s wars. They have been invaded countless times by neighbors throughout history. The Korean War (1950-1953), of course, was the most recent conflict, and technically South Korea is still at war with North Korea since no peace treaty was signed. The museum houses over 13,000 items including airplanes, tanks and artillery pieces. Admission is free and you can plan to spend 2-4 hours depending on your level of interest in the exhibits.
Tip: Closed Mondays. Click here for website
3. N Seoul Tower
Located in the center of Seoul is Namsan (South Mountain) and perched atop is the magnificent N Seoul Tower. Marking the highest point in Seoul, the viewing platform of the 777 ft tower is the best place to take in the enormity of Seoul. N Seoul Tower is arguably the most iconic symbol in Seoul and a must-see national landmark. A visit can easily take a couple hours as the tower has gift shops, cafes, restaurants, observatories, terraces, a Teddy Bear Museum, the Wishing Pond, and the famous “love locks” (thousands of padlocks left behind by romantic couples).
To get there, you first need to get to the top of the 797 ft mountain, and I recommend you do this via cable car (8,500 won round trip). An alternative route up the mountain would be the many, many stone steps where you can find benches along the way for resting. On a nice day, I would suggest you buy a one-way ticket for the cable car up the mountain and walk the steps down to enjoy the view and the nature. The observatory costs 9,000 won for adults and 7,000 won for children.
2. Gyeongbokgung Palace
Built in 1395 by the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Gyeongbokgung is arguably the most famous and beautiful palace in Seoul. In Korean, it translates to “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” Gung means Palace, so you may see it called Gyeongbok Palace or just Gyeongbokgung.
Gyeongbokgung has been severely damaged and rebuilt several times in the past 600 years. It was the largest of the five palaces in Seoul. Currently about 40% of the original buildings have been restored. The palace consists of hundreds of beautiful pavilions, halls and buildings within spacious walled grounds.
To learn more about traditional Korean culture and the life of the royal family, you can visit the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum which are also located on the grounds of the palace. We found both to be nice facilities and quite interesting.
Seoul is home to five royal palaces. I only visited Gyeongbokgung, however my brother and sister-in-law also recommend Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung. A visit to at least one of these three palaces is a must-do for all tourists!
Tip: Check the hours in advance for English tours and make sure to catch the reenactment of the Changing of the Royal Guard. Gyeongbokgung is closed Tuesdays. Click here for the website
1. Day trip to the DMZ
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton described it as “the scariest place on Earth.”
Just 34 miles north of Seoul is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5 mile wide strip of land 155 miles long dividing North and South Korea. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the actual border between the two countries, runs right through the middle of the DMZ. This is the most heavily fortified border in the world, brimming with watchtowers, razor wire, landmines, tank-traps and heavy weaponry. The abandoned village of Panmunjeom straddles the MDL and is the home to the Joint Security Area (JSA). It was here the armistice (truce) was signed in 1953. This was not a peace treaty so technically the North and the South are still at war.
If you have the opportunity to tour the DMZ, you should take it. It is informative, powerful and moving. Two friendly American soldiers led our tour group, and we always felt completely safe. I would not have brought my 12 year old son with if I had any reservations. This is a once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget.
The only way to visit the DMZ is with a tour group and you must book your tour in advance. There are several companies that offer tours. We chose the USO and couldn’t have been more pleased. Full day tours cost $92 for civilians and $46 for military. Highlights include Panmujeom (and the JSA), the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station, all very interesting and well worth every penny! You MUST bring your passport.
I will be dedicating an entire post to our DMZ tour in the future so stay tuned.
Tip: Full day tours are best. Make sure your tour includes Panmunjeom as this is where you get to see the North Korean soldiers and cross into North Korea via a conference room that straddles the MDL.