You know a city is pretty special when you leave feeling like you could live there. This was the case for me after spending five amazing days in Seoul recently.
From kimchi to K-Pop, Seoul’s got it all going on. If you have plans to visit this South Korean metropolis – or if you’re in need of inspiration for your next city break – here are a few highlights and tips from my trip…
Where to stay
As is the case with many big Asian cities, decent hotel accommodation is pretty pricey in Seoul. Keen to be central but not wanting to shell out big bucks for a small, below-average hotel room, we decided to scour airbnb for a place to stay. We struck gold with Daysom Guesthouse, a traditional Korean hanok thought to have been built about 120 years ago. Although not very big, it was cute, comfortable and easy to get to via airport limousine (i.e. airport bus). We were close to bus stops, subway station entrances, as well as just a five-minute stroll to Changdeok Palace.
I’m a big fan of airbnb, having only had positive experiences with the platform. If you haven’t used the site to scope out accommodation options before, it’s worth doing (especially in big cities) as I think you’re more likely to get a better feel and understanding of the place.
Seoul is sprawled so location is key. Have an idea of the neighbourhoods you want to spend time in and the things you want to do before you book anywhere.
What to do
There’s no shortage of things to do and places to go in Seoul.
Exploring the Gyeongbok Palace and the Changdeok Palace is worthwhile. While Gyeongbok (closed on Tuesdays) is the bigger, more famous of the two, I actually preferred Changdeok – there were less people and the ‘secret garden’ (which you need to buy an extra ticket and be part of a tour group to visit) is beautiful.
The N Seoul Tower is a place that doesn’t seem to get much airtime but is worth a visit. Accessible by cable car or bus, the area around the base of the tower has basically become Seoul’s answer to the Love Lock Bridge in Paris. Hooked along railings and handle bars, thousands of colourful padlocks and have been popped and locked for the world to see. While it might not have the same romantic vibe as its French counterpart, it’s a fun spot to take photos and chow down on churros. The view is good too.
Bukchon Village was one of my favourite pockets of Seoul. Utterly picturesque, this neighbourhood is made up of beautifully restored hanoks with what feels like an endless array of little shops, cafes and galleries to discover. I could have happily spent hours there.
We decided to check out the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea). Booking a tour was easy to sort the day before (our airbnb host lined it all up for us). Because it was just a half-day trip, there wasn’t much down time which I liked. The history between the North and South is really interesting so factoring the tour into our trip was time well spent.
If you’re a culture vulture, you can’t go past the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Literally heaving with groundbreaking installations and exhibitions, this gorgeous museum was a definite Seoul highlight.
If you want absolute confirmation that you’re not a cat person, go to a cat café. We visited Cat Playground in Myeongdong and I didn’t touch a single cat (a good effort considering there were 46 of them sifting around). I found watching the ‘cat people’ most entertaining. I’m glad I ticked the cat café box but won’t be rushing back to one any time soon.
Where to shop
Seoul’s shopping scene is really impressive. South Korea is incredibly fashion-forward and pretty fearless when it comes to style. I loved discovering Korean brands (most of which I’d never heard of) and exploring the independent boutiques dotted along the streets in most neighbourhoods.
I found the best places to shop were Garosugil (a very trendy part of town lined with street-level boutiques), Myeongdong (basically Seoul’s answer to Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay but bigger and busier) and Hongdae (student-ville with massive flagship locations for New Balance, H&M, Forever 21 etc).
Aside from clothes, South Korea is a mecca for cosmetics and beauty products. I fell in love with Too Cool For School – kind of like Kiehl’s but cheaper.
Eating and drinking
In terms of café culture, Seoul schools Asia. Seriously. I was in awe of the number of gorgeous, independent cafés serving great coffee and good food. Two of my favourites were Wood & Brick in Jae-Dong (near Bukchon Village) and Talk Service in Gangnam-gu.
We found Gangnam great for bars – there are lots of little spots to grab a drink (just be sure to look above street-level to find them).
If you’re not keen for Korean food, you’re bound to find something to eat in Itaewon (along the main pedestrian street behind the Hamilton Hotel). This place reminded me of a slightly cleaner, toned down version of Lan Kwai Fong.
I loved Seoul and can’t wait to go back. It’s definitely one of the best city breaks I’ve had since living in Asia. Add it to your travel ‘to do’ list’!