Seoul isn’t one of the first Asian destinations for city trips – yet. Often standing in the shadows of Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei, Korea’s capital has a lot to offer that many might not even know about. Here are 12 reasons why you should visit Seoul at least once in your lifetime.
One of the best things about Seoul is that because of it being the country’s capital, you’ll find an abundant number of historic sites and attractions in the city. Gyeongbokgung Palace, for example, is an absolute must-visit when in town. The palace was built in 1395 and served as the home to Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings’ households, as well as the government of the Joseon Dynasty. You can also visit more recent historic sites, such as the War Memorial of Korea, dedicated to those who gave their lives during the Korean War. There is also a vast museum with over 10,000 artifacts on display at indoor and outside exhibition halls.
Seoul is a vibrant city – even more so when the sun has set and its population is eager to go out and have fun. In fact, South Koreans truly know how to have fun, as the local nightlife culture has developed a “station system” with a restaurant for dinner being the first station followed by bars, pubs, karaoke rooms, and more food and drinks as subsequent “stations.” It’s not rare that a night in Seoul ends after five or six – or more – different “stations.” Seoul has a multitude of fun nightlife areas, including Itaewon, Hongdae, and Gangnam.
Seoul is doing a fabulous job in keeping Korean culture and traditions alive. Take the National Museum of Korea, for instance. It displays over 12,000 artifacts in six permanent exhibition sections, including medieval and early modern history, calligraphy and painting, sculpture and crafts and Asian arts. You can also experience culture first-hand when wandering through areas like Bukchon Hanok Village, a lovely neighborhood made up of traditional Korean houses, or hanok. Here, you’ll find lovely craft shops, art galleries, and even traditional teahouses for the local experience.
South Korea is known for being an extremely technologically advanced country. Seoul, in particular, has shown an incredible passion for innovation in both technology and the architecture of its cityscape. Lotte World Tower, for example, opened in early 2017 and is now the tallest building in the country. What’s even more fascinating is its elevator. Traveling at ten meters per second, the double-decker elevator is the fastest of its kind worldwide. On top of that, it’s the world’s first elevator with animated screens on all sides and the ceiling projecting the development of Seoul from the Joseon Dynasty until today.
While the number of Buddhist believers in the country has been shrinking, making up under 20% today, Seoul’s temples are still shining as bright as ever. Spiritual at heart, the locals appreciate the traditional customs revolving around Buddhism and visit a temple regularly, especially the older generation. Foreigners will find that the local staff and monks living and working at the temples are open for discussion. So-called Templestay Programs are available throughout the country and even in the city of Seoul. Visitors can stay one or multiple nights, living like a monk at the temple partaking in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies.
Despite the increasing cost of living in the capital of Korea, travelers will find that it is still a lot cheaper to get by compared to North America, Europe, or Australia. Especially public transportation and meals at restaurants are much more affordable than Korea’s eastern neighbor of Japan. You can find a dormitory room on Airbnb in Seoul for as low as US$10 a night. This is what makes South Korea a great holiday destination in East Asia.
You might be surprised that Seoul’s neighborhoods are all very unique and different. Many tourists will find themselves in Myeongdong, for example, the shopping paradise of Seoul. Not only will you find multiple flagship stores here but also a multitude of funky themed cafés. Hongdae, is another hip area with a lot of student residents who attend Hongik University. The area is known for cheap eats, cheap shopping, and cheap entertainment – great for small wallets. Gangnam is Seoul’s poshest neighborhood. Here, you can shop for Louis Vuitton bags, a new Porsche, and the perfect nose in the same street. In whichever neighborhood of Seoul you’ll find yourself, you’ll always see something new.
It might surprise you that Seoul is one of the few megacities surrounded by tall mountains. That also means that countless hiking adventures are just within reach with the local subway. Bukhansan is the tallest mountain near Seoul, at 2,744 feet ( 836.5 meters ). Inwangsan and Namsan are other popular choices for local hikers. What’s great about these mountains is that you’ll always be rewarded with splendid views of the city once you’ve reached the top.
While you may think you have you had great Korean BBQ before, you won’t know what you are talking about until you’ve had authentic Korean BBQ in Seoul. One of the best BBQ restaurants in the city is Wang Bi Jib, serving high-quality marbled cuts of meat seasoned with light salt. Another local favorite is Seocho Myeonok, specializing in galbi jjim. This dish refers to meat slow-cooked in a beef broth. The dish is then served in clay pots with veggies.
Each year, millions of tourists from neighboring Asian countries come to Korea for one sole reason: shopping. They want to pick up the latest trends in Korean fashion, get their hands on high-quality Korean skincare products, and visit one of the many large department stores for the ultimate shopping experience – tax-free! In general, visitors can receive a tax refund at the airport when submitting their receipts at the tax refund booth. However, more and more tax-free stores are popping up in Seoul allowing foreign customers to get immediate tax refunds below a certain limit.
Whenever you visit, you’ll probably have a chance to take part in one of Seoul’s many festivals. In the spring, the Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most popular events for locals and foreigners alike. In early summer, Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated all over the country with large parades in Seoul and events at temples around the city. Many also enjoy the Ultra Korea music festival dedicated to electronic music with Korean and international artists. In the fall, the popular Fireworks Festival is held on Yeouido Island overlooking the Han River. In winter, Changgyeonggung Stream is decorated with seasonal light ornaments and is a popular destination for Christmas.
If there’s one thing Seoul has plenty of, it is quirky cafés. Themed cafés first came about a couple of years ago in Seoul’s Hongdae district with the first cat café. Today, the city is filled with themed cafés specializing in animals such as raccoons, dogs, sheep, or meerkats. Other cafés are themed according to a specific cartoon character, such as Hello Kitty or Kakao Friends. Whatever theme you are looking for, you won’t have to look long for a café in Seoul to please you.