Seoul is an often overlooked tourist destination but the world is missing out on one of the most vibrant, friendly, and tech-savvy cities in Asia. I recently spent a few days in Seoul and dove headfirst into countless bowls of noodles, dumplings, and bibimbap. I watched as a whole side of beef was slowly butchered into bite-size pieces for BBQing, selected live seafood for breakfast, and had THE best vegetarian meal of my life. I tried makgeolli for the first time and drank too much shochu, local beer, whiskey, and cocktails. Oh, and I saw some sights in between. Here's the best of Seoul in 72 hours - make sure you arrive hungry and expect a hangover or two.
Start the day at Namdaemun Market, one of the most famous markets in Korea. The market has a lot of food options from giant mandu dumplings to marinated pork hocks. I suggest you venture into Kalguksu Alley, where half a dozen vendors are preparing handmade kalguksu noodles matched with complex and tasty side dishes including of course kimchi. It seems every meal in Seoul comes with a side of kimchi. The optional boribap (bibimbap with barley rice) for an extra 500 won is a must-try.
After a hearty breakfast, hit the main sights starting with the older and smaller Changdeokgung Palace. The secret garden inside the palace grounds is very beautiful but can only be seen on a 90 minute guided tour. Afterwards take a short 15-20 minute walk to the busier and grander Gyeonbokgung Palace to get a sense of how the Korean royal family lived. This is a big tourist attraction so expect bigger crowds.
Have lunch at Jaedong Soondubu (6, Bukchon-ro 2-gil, Jongno-gu), famous for its sundubu jiggae, a spicy tofu stew with seafood. Or try giant dumplings in hotpot at Sadong Myeonok (9, Insadong 8-gil, Jongno-gu) where you can see the dumplings being made in the kitchen through a window.
Wander down Samcheongdon-gil Road to walk off lunch. You'll see modern art galleries and boutiques sitting side-by-side with, and sometimes inside of, Korean traditional-style houses called hanok. Hike up the hill towards Bukchon Hanok village to see hanok that are still being lived in.
Your first dinner in Seoul has to be BBQ. For a local experience, take a taxi to Jamsil-dong near Sincheon subway station where there's street after street of BBQ joints. We chose one of the busiest places, Neulpureun Mokjang (34, Baekjegobun-ro 9-gil, Songpa-gu) where they serve only one type of meat - aged boneless beef ribs, lightly marinated and ready to go on the charcoal grill. Just choose how many servings of meat and bottles of shochu and beer you want.
For a more polished Korean BBQ experience, head to one of Two Plus restaurants in Itaewon (36, Itaewon-ro 27na-gil) or Gangnam (12 Dosan-daero 50-gil, Gangnam-gu). They specialise in high end hanwoo beef, which is like the Korean version of wagyu. The prices are on the expensive side but the premium meat and service (if you want they'll help you cook the meat) are worth it.
Itaewon is an expat-friendly area that’s known for its nightlife and some of my favourite bars are here. ATM (48, Itaewon-ro 54-gil, Yongsan-gu) is a hip, laid back bar that's popular with the trendy Seoul crowd well into the night. Why Not (2F 17, Daesagwan-ro 31-gil, Yongsan-gu) is a very good whiskey and cocktail bar that coincidentally has the same name as an LGBT bar in Itaewon, so make sure you know which one you want to visit. Magpie Brewing Co. (691 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu) is one of Seoul's most popular craft brewers. Their bar is very small inside, but on warm nights customers drink on the street outside.
If you're jet lagged and find yourself awake at 5am, go to the Noryangjin Fish Market to see the wholesale auctions unfold. Then for the more adventurous eaters, have breakfast afterwards. You can buy fresh seafood from any stall and then take your catch to one of the simple restaurants upstairs who will prepare it for you for a small fee. We had raw fish or hoe, stir-fried baby octopus and grilled scallops, all washed down with Hite, a Korean beer. This is also the perfect place to try live octopus if you're keen.
Take the subway from Noryangjin Station to the National Assembly (3 stops). Have a look at the impressive National Assembly building, then wander up Yeouido park towards the river. Walk along Hangang River to get a nice view across to the other side and of the skyscrapers on Yeouido island. You can also get on the water by taking one of the river cruises.
For lunch, take a taxi to Gangnam (“op, op, op, op, oppa Gangnam Style!” ), a wealthy area with high-end boutiques and department stores. The basement of department stores typically contains a market with groceries and fresh produce, and a food court with a variety of local and international options. We had soondubu jjigae (spicy tofu stew) at Gam Chon in the Galleria Department Store and kimbap (seaweed rice roll) at Kim Sonsaeng Kimbap in the Apgujeong Hyundai Department Store.
Spend the rest of your afternoon shopping to your heart's content. You'll find trendy boutiques on the tree-lined streets of Garosu-gil and the area around Dosan Park. After a long day of shopping, rest your feet and grab a beer at Mikkeller (33 Dosan-daero 17-gil, Gangnam-gu, mikkeller.dk), a Danish microbrewery that serves their own beers as well as craft beers from around the world.
Try modern Korean food for dinner. Jungsik (11, Seolleung-ro 158-gil, Gangnam-gu, jungsik.kr) is considered the original purveyor of modern Korean cuisine and its branch in New York City holds two Michelin stars. Full disclosure: we ate at Jungsik and were less than impressed. Other people rave about it so maybe they had an off day, but I didn't think it was worth the high price. Mingles (94-9 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, restaurant-mingles.com) is the up-and-comer and has surpassed Jungsik in the most recent Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings. Reserve well in advance for either restaurant.
Or for something a bit more casual and fun, Vatos Urban Tacos (14, Apgujeong-ro 12-gil, Gangnam-gu, vatoskorea.com) is popular for its Korean-Mexican fusion food. Think kimchi-carnitas fries and galbi short rib tacos. They're also known for their delicious and innovative Korean inspired cocktails.
Follow up a fancy meal with fancy cocktails in Gangnam. Speakeasy cocktail bars are very popular in Seoul right now so take your pick from Le Chamber (42, Dosandaero 55-gil), Alice (47, Dosandaero 55-gil) and Twelve Cheongdam (B1 26, Apgujeong-ro 72-gil). Or for a more lively atmosphere, Y1975 (30 Seolleung-ro 152-gil) has a DJ and an outdoor terrace. Expect a cover charge at all these bars.
Gwangjang Market is Korea's oldest market and is popular with locals for snacking. In particular, the market is famous for bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) - you can see vendors grinding up mung beans to make the pancakes. Grab one for breakfast and anything else that takes your fancy.
Then walk along the recently restored Cheonggyecheon stream towards Dongdaemun Market, a huge market filled with wholesale and retail clothing stores. Skip the market itself and go to the nearby Dongdaemun Design Plaza. You'll see an impressive, modern building and inside there are exhibitions and shops that showcase up-and-coming Korean products and designers.
Naengmyeon is a noodle dish from North Korea with cold buckwheat noodles in a light, chilled broth. It's deliciously refreshing on a hot day. You can try it for lunch at Pyeongyang Myeonok (207, Jangchungdan-ro, Jongno-gu) or Woolaeoak (62-29, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jung-gu).
After lunch take a taxi to the National Museum of Korea, one of the top 10 museums in the world. Inside you can learn more about the history and culture of Korea, and outside you can explore the beautiful Yongsan Park setting. If you have time, nearby is the War Memorial Museum of Korea.
Then just before sunset, take the Namsan Cable Car up to the top of Namsan mountain where the N Seoul Tower is located. Go up the tower to the observation deck, which offers gorgeous 360 degree views of the city - it's worth timing your visit to see the city bathed in golden light.
When you think of vegetarian food, you think light and not very flavourful. Not so at Balwoo Gongyang (5F 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, balwoo.or.kr), a Buddhist restaurant where you get course after course of delicious plant-based dishes. They use the freshest seasonal ingredients, fermentation techniques, and strong flavours like gochujang to produce the tastiest vegetarian food I've ever had. And don't worry about not being full - even the basic set menu is a lot of food. After dinner you can wander across the road to the colourful Jogyesa Buddhist temple.
Makgeolli is a Korean fermented rice wine that was traditionally drunk by farmers and has recently undergone a revival. It's milky, slightly sweet and fizzy, and usually lower in alcohol than wine. To complete the experience, have it at one of the rustic pubs in the old Insadong alleyways like Story of the Blue Star (17-1 Insa-dong 16-gil, Jongno-gu) or Nuruk Namu next door. Or try it at Wolhyang (30 Sejong-daero 21-gil, Jung-gu), a popular makgeolli chain.
We stayed in 2 different areas and hotels in Seoul - both of which I would recommend for different reasons.
IP Boutique Hotel in Itaewon is modern, budget friendly, and has all the essential amenities. It's centrally located for both sightseeing and visiting Gangnam, as well as being in the middle of great nightlife. Bonus: there's a great cafe Anthracite across the road. Book on Booking.com
The Shilla Seoul in Jung-gu is a beautiful 5-star hotel with faultless service. It's very convenient for sightseeing and shopping in Myeongdong, and a short taxi ride away from good nightlife. The only negative is that some hotel rates don’t include access to their outside pool in the summer. Book on Booking.com
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