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Top 20 Highlights of Seoul for the first time visitor

The most photographed street in the Hanok village of Seoul called Bukchon

Travel Diaries: South Korea, Part 2.

Welcome to my Seoul highlights!
Here I’m going to list my personal recommendations, based on the short time I spent wandering around the city. And I’ll add a few tips as well.
See the bottom of this page for links to Part 1 and Part 3.

First thing to mention is the DiscoverSeoul pass.

DiscoverSeoul pass – 72 hours

A very convenient way to visit most of my Seoul highlights. I reserved mine before arriving through an online service.
There are 3 “flavours” available, 24, 48 and 72 hours. I think it’s a bit of a bummer, because it forces you to rush to see as many attractions as you can in a limited time (though it starts counting from the first visit not from when you buy it). But you get good discounts or even free admissions and sometimes can skip the queues as well. Oh, and you have a one-way AREX ticket included as well (that’s the train from the airport to the station).
The relative app was slow and buggy when I used it, but it was useful to keep track of the time left and to mark the places I wanted to see.

T-money

Another benefit of the DiscoverSeoul pass is that it also functions as T-money card, so you don’t have to buy a separate one and you can use buses, subway and taxi with no issues. T-money is an electronic contactless payment system: you top up the card at convenience stores or kiosks and then you use it to pay your journey on public transports. It’s also valid in some affiliate stores, like Starbucks, CVS, etc. And if you have a small amount of money left in the card when you leave Seoul, you can get a refund (but you must get it before you go through passport control at the airport).
It even works with public transports in surrounding cities, like Suwon (which I mention as day trip in another post).

You can buy it beforehand via Klook at a convenient price. Even more convenient if you register via my referral link, because you get some money off your first purchase: https://www.klook.com/invite/PQR2V (only works for new registrations). Or you can buy it from the official site.

If you only need a T-money smart card, without the benefits of the DiscoverSeoul, you can buy it at convenience stores or ticket machines in most subway stations.

Going around

When using the buses in South Korea you must tap your card when you hop on. But also remember to tap when you hop off, because it discounts the next travel in case you need to catch another bus. This can save you a lot of money.

The subway works smoothly (and you have 4G coverage and wifi all along) and the announcements always include English as well. A couple of things I noticed:
– some stations are really big and you might have to walk a lot to get to an exit or change trains;
– way too many exits don’t have escalators, unfortunately;
– ticket machines might not be near every exit.
The line 9 has both slow and express trains so check which train goes to your destination before boarding on the first you see.

My go-to app to wander around Seoul was Google Maps. I had Citymapper installed as well, which was always very efficient in every city I visited in Europe but was not working so well in Seoul. At least not for me, because I was inputting my searches in English but the maps were mostly in Korean so the app got confused a lot. Might work well if you’re Korean, I guess.
Google Maps gives you all the information you need, whether you walk or use public transports, and it keeps an offline copy of your search (for a limited time) so you can keep referring to it without consuming bandwidth.
I know from YouTube videos that some didn’t have a good experience with Google Maps. It wasn’t my case at all, but feel free to add more options in the comments below.

Logistics sorted, let’s go with my Seoul highlights:

Namdaemun gate

photo of Namdaeumn gate at night, with light trails due to lots of traffic
Namdaemun Gate at night, so much traffic!

I’m starting with this because it’s the very first thing I saw after I left the train station. 🙂
The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, is one of the eight gates in the fortress wall of Seoul which surrounded the city in the Joseon dynasty. The gate is located between the train station and Seoul Plaza, and the historic 24-hour Namdaemun market is right next to it.
The pagoda you see on top of the gate today is a restoration of the original one, which was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul but went destroyed in an arson in 2008.
You can also find it under the name of Sungnyemun, but it’s argued that this name was forced in by the Japanese empire, so people prefer to refer to it as Namdaemun.

Markets

If you want to fully experience Seoul, you must visit the markets. From street food to clothing, and everything in between, markets play a huge role in the lives of the Seoulites. And there are markets that really only come alive at night: you hear the phrase “the city that never sleeps” used quite often, most notably in New York, but I found this to be very true in Seoul.
I went to visit 5 of them:

Myeong-dong market

First one, and most visited because it was close to where I stayed, is the Myeong-dong market. It’s a popular tourist favourite, gathering big brands stores, lots of street food stalls, restaurants and the famous Korean cosmetics shops all in one neighbourhood. The area is busy all day long, but it’s after sunset that the crowds flow here. Doesn’t stay open all night though, so if you feel a midnight craving, you must look somewhere else.

Namdaemun market

The historic Namdaemun market (one of the oldest in South Korea) stays open 24h, although not every shop and it can be a very different experience from day to night.
It’s divided in “streets”, each serving a specific niche: there’s one for jewellery, one for bags, one for kids, etc. You can find almost anything you need in here, provided you don’t get lost in its web of small alleys and hidden corners.
This market is also on the Seoul list of Asia’s 10 greatest street food cities for the hotteok, the famous Korean pancake.

Dongdaemun market

I must admit I was completely lost here, so I haven’t managed to visit it all. This large market is divided into five shopping districts and a shopping town. It features about 30,000 speciality shops, so you can imagine how I lost my way here. The larger area I visited sells fabric, clothes, shoes and leather goods but you can really find all sorts of goods here.
Traditionally, this was THE night market, open from 1am to 1pm, but now it closes at 5am so no morning coffee here anymore (opens for lunch though).

DDP night market

In Dongdaemun you can also find the Design Plaza (more on that below), which has its own market on Fridays and Saturdays. Here you’ll find some of the best food trucks, handmade items, buskers and fashion shows. It’s very popular with the younger generation and it’s great fun.
It’s part of the network of Bamdokkaebi night markets running from March to October, which originated in Yeouido, so now…

Yeouido – Bamdokkaebi

The Bamdokkaebi Night Market first opened in Yeouido in 2015, so it’s fairly recent, but it became immediately popular and expanded to 4 locations the year after (including the DDP one above). Its name means something like the market that “opens at night and disappears by morning”
In Yeouido, you’ll find a lot of street food and handmade items, but also performances. I know it’s not Korean, but I had one of the best Pad Thai here!
It’s worth a visit even only for the location, as it sits on the South bank of the Han river and you’ll have a nice view from here. In fact, it’s where you can most easily see couples and families enjoy the breeze from the river, rest in their camping tents and have BBQ.

Hongdae flea market

a photo of a main street in Hongdae, with shops on the sides
regardless of the market, Hongdae is a very nice neighbourhood to visit or stay

Last one in this list, the Hongdae flea market is only open on Saturday from March to November. Even though it’s a flea market, nothing here is second-hand, but it’s actually all original and new handmade items. On top of that you can find artists, performers, musicians and what’s great is that everybody is keen to spend time presenting their art to the visitors, so you can have a long friendly chat with locals and immerse more in the Korean culture.
In Hongdae I also found a small vietnamese restaurant which had the best phō I ever tasted outside of Vietnam. As soon as I’ll recall its name I’ll update this post.

Extra: chilli trade market

I honestly don’t know if this is a regular thing, but I accidentally found myself in the middle of it and loved the vibe. Just in front of the city hall, people were buying huge bags of chilli, even 3-4 at a times, and it looked to me as if they were going crazy with the trade.
Nice photo opportunities there!

The 5 Grand Palaces

Gyeongbokgung

a building of Gyeongbokgung palace on a small lake
this is only a small part of the palace, and it’s so gorgeous

The most impressive of the 5 Seoul palaces, this was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty.
In the early 20th century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed by Imperial Japan. Since then, the walled palace complex is gradually being restored to its original form. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex.
If you would like to read more about it, check the WikiWand page.

Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung

The two palaces stand back to back, with a gate in the separating wall providing direct access between them.
Changdeokgung is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the most favored palace of many Joseon princes. It retains many elements dating from the Three Kingdoms of Korea period that were not incorporated in Gyeongbokgung. One such element is the fact that the buildings of Changdeokgung blend with the natural topography of the site instead of imposing themselves upon it.
This palace also includes the beautiful Huwon (‘rear garden’) which now features over 26,000 specimens of a hundred different species of trees. some of which are over 300 years old.
Changgyeonggung was largely destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century then torn down methodically to make room for a modern park.

Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung

The last two palaces are much smaller than the above three.
Deoksugung, like the other Palaces in Seoul, was intentionally heavily destroyed during the colonial period of Korea. Currently, only one third of the structures that were standing before the occupation remain. Today, it has a modern and a western style garden and fountain and the Changing of the Royal Guard, in front of Daehanmun Gate, is a very popular event for many visitors.
Most of Gyeonghuigung was lost to two fires that broke out in the 19th century, then the Japanese dismantled what remained during their occupation. In the palace grounds today are the Seoul Museum of History and The Seoul Museum annex of art.

Hanok Villages

the most photographed street of Bukchon Hanok village in Seoul
Bukchon Hanok village most photographed street

Bukchon

Bukchon Hanok Village is home to hundreds of traditional houses, called hanok, that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. Today, many of these hanoks operate as cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses, providing visitors with an opportunity to experience, learn and immerse themselves in traditional Korean culture.
It’s a very popular spot, so if you’re into photography you might want to get here early in the morning.

Namsangol

Namsangol opened in 1998 on the north side of Namsan Mountain in the center of the capital. This village has five restored traditional Korean houses, a pavilion, traditional garden, performance arts stage and a time capsule plaza, making it a perfect spot for both locals and tourists to take a leisure walk.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

One entrance of the DDP building in Seoul
come on, it looks like a spaceship indeed

Now for something more modern…
The DDP, or the “spaceship” how I called it in my Instagram story, is a major urban development landmark designed by Zaha Hadid. It is now the centerpiece of South Korea’s fashion hub and a popular tourist destination.
The art hall works as a launching platform for the Korean creative and cultural industry and operates as a key space for conventions, trade shows, exhibitions, fashion shows, concerts, and performances.
As I mentioned above, it also hosts a night market

National Museum of Korea

This is the flagship museum of Korean history and art in South Korea and is the cultural organization that represents Korea. It attracts over 3 million visitors annually, which makes it one of the most visited museums in the world.
If you ever find yourself visiting Seoul on a rainy day, this museum would be my best recommendation. And it’s so big you can easily spend the whole day without visiting it all. Check the official website for info and exhibitions here.
There’s also the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), which didn’t have a great exhibition when I went so I’m leaving this as a side note.

Namsan Park and N Seoul Tower

The N Seoul Tower on top of the mountain
while my camera was on the tripod shooting the sunset, I turned my iPhone on the N Tower…

Namsan Park is the public park of the Nam mountain. It’s maintained by the city government and has panoramic views of Seoul. Seoulites have a true passion for hiking so this is a very popular spot among locals, as well as among the tourists going to visit the N Seoul Tower.
Many visitors ride the Namsan cable car up the Mt. Namsan to walk to the tower. N Seoul Tower’s height reaches 480 metres above sea level and was built exactly 50 years ago. It opened to the public in 1980, after the observatory deck was added.
Today, the N Seoul Tower is divided into three main sections: the N Lobby, N Plaza, and the N Tower. You’ll find shops, a revolving restaurant and of course the observatory deck.
Fun fact: most buildings in Korea avoid having fourth floors so you’ll see the elevator/staircase jump from 3F to 5F.

Moonlight Raibow Fountain at Banpo Bridge

Light effects and water nozzles on a side of the Banpo bridge in Seoul
the colourful light effects on the side of the Banpo bridge

The Moonlight Rainbow Fountain is the world’s longest bridge fountain, and sets a Guinness World Record with nearly 10,000 LED nozzles that run along both sides, shooting out 190 tons of water per minute. The show goes on for 20 minutes, 4-6 times a day depending on the season, and sometimes fireworks are lit as well.
Here I met one of my Instagram friends, @ks_kyung, who was also there taking lots of photos of the bridge

Cheonggyecheon stream

The Cheonggyecheon steam is a gorgeous artificial stream that flows through Seoul. You can spend a hot day strolling alongside the stream and cooling off under the bridges, admiring the architecture along the way.
At night, the stream turns into an hotspot for musicians and displays impressive water light shows.

Camping in the city and outdoor BBQ

Camping culture in South Korea is really big, and people hop on every chance to go out, place a tent and start barbecueing. Any park along the Han river is a good spot but Yeouido is where I found most people. If you make friends in Seoul and want a glimpse of Korean life, you must do it!


This is only a list of highlights from my first visit to Seoul. There’s plenty left to do that I haven’t listed here, because I only passed through neighbourhoods (like in Gangnam) or didn’t really have time to visit (like the Lotte Tower or DMZ).
I focused more on meeting people and I spent a lot of time with my own photography, which means I have reasons to go back and see all I missed.

Also, read about my journey to Seoul in Part 1 (with tips and conclusions) then go to Part 3 for a couple day trip ideas.

Now that I tickled your interest with some of Seoul’s highlight, why don’t you start looking for your next booking? 😉
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