With a fizzing K-Pop scene, cut-price beauty emporiums and late-night norebang (karaoke) bars, the capital of South Korea is one of the most exciting cities in Asia. Come for a few days at least and you will find a mix of traditional and modern thrills with countless attractions and sites to explore. Here are the top must-visit attractions in Seoul.
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Bukhansan National Park
South Korea is only the size of the US state of Kentucky yet it manages to squeeze in 22 national parks. One of these is Bukhansan, just beyond the outskirts of Seoul. It is a great place for leisurely hikers: make it up the lush Bukhansan Mountain at your own pace to discover an amazing view of the city.
Seoul has not one but five main palaces. Painted in hues of red and jade, Gyeongbokgung is the largest and arguably the most important. Often compared with the Forbidden City in Beijing, Gyeongbokgung also houses the National Folk Museum of Korea. If you wear hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for men and women, your visit is free. You can rent your costumes in the city.
This new public square lies in front of Gwanghwamun Gate, the main gate to the impressive Gyeongbokgung Palace. The square features a statue of King Sejong the Great, the inventor of Korea’s Hangul alphabet. Visit on a sunny day and you can enjoy the view of the soaring green hills beyond Seoul’s skyscrapers.
A short walk to the east of Gwanghwamun is Changdeokgung, the second-largest palace in Seoul. This palace is liked for its “secret garden” of temples and pavilions. Changdeokgung is especially popular in spring, for cherry blossom, and autumn, when the colour of the leaves is dazzling. Visit early in the day and it will be so peaceful you can imagine what it was like centuries ago.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung lies a hillside village of more than 400 hanok – traditional Korean houses. Bukchon is loved by Instagrammers, who often wear traditional hanbok dress when they roll up for photoshoots. The village has a sprinkling of cafes and restaurants as well as shops selling crafts and souvenirs. You can find traditional teahouses near by.
This 10km-long stream in the heart of the city serves as an exhibition and festival area. Especially at Christmas, but also for holidays including Buddha’s birthday and the Lantern Festival, the waterway features illuminations and artworks. With its rows of foliage and splashing water, it can feel so tranquil you can forget you are in a city of 10m people.
N Seoul Tower
On Namsan Mountain, in the centre of the city, is the N Seoul Tower. The mountain is 243m above sea level and is the capital’s second-highest point. Go up the 236m tower to experience breathtaking views by day or night. There is a digital observatory and revolving restaurant. Don’t forget to look for the love locks left by couples to signify the promise of their relationships.
Namdaemun Market, Seoul
The largest traditional market in Korea, Namdaemun Market is the place to shop for cheap goods as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. It is also the perfect spot to graze – don’t miss the spicy tteokbokki rice cakes or the mung-bean pancakes, prepared while you wait. The market is open through the night from 11pm to 4am.
Seoul’s hectic shopping district of Myeongdong is a magnet for anyone who craves Korean fashion or skincare. You will want to stock up on revitalising facial masks as well as delicious honey-butter-almond snacks. Myeongdong is also the place to go to find quirky themed eating places, including the Hello Kitty cafe.
Seoul’s largest recreation complex is home to the world’s biggest indoor theme park as well as an outdoor amusement park called Magic Island, all linked by a monorail. Lotte World, which is to the southeast of the city centre, has a luxury hotel, a national folk museum, sport facilities and cinemas. To add life and Seoul to your trip, make your way here.
National Museum of Korea
More than 3m visitors a year come to the National Museum of Korea, the country’s largest museum for Korean history and art. That makes this institution one of the most-visited museums in the world. If time is tight make sure you see the golden treasures from the Great Tomb of Hwangnam and the intricate gilt-bronze Baekje incense burner, which resembles a lotus bud on a dragon-like pedestal.
This will probably be the most colourful temple you will ever see – the exterior is bright red, jade, blue and yellow. Inside are three golden Buddhas. As the visual fanfare suggests, the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism is one of the most important in the country. It was founded at the start of the Joseon Dynasty in 1395. Visit during Buddha’s birthday in May and you can join Korean visitors taking part in the festivities.
According to Unesco, Jongmyo Shrine is the oldest and most authentic of the surviving Confucian royal shrines. Painted in a rich red hue, it is next to Changdeokgung Palace and is dedicated to kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty. This is one of the capital’s cultural highlights and is definitely worth an hour or so of your time.
Is this a bridge too far? It is certainly wonderfully over the top, and the Guinness World Book of Records names it as the longest “bridge fountain” on the planet. The Moonlight Rainbow Fountain is lined with jets that take water directly from the river. Coloured lights flash in time to pumping music. It is a multi-hued spectacle that you will not forget in a hurry.
Thanks to Psy’s viral single Gangnam Style, the titular neighbourhood has become the most famous part of Seoul. You cannot visit without taking a selfie beside the Gangnam Style statue. The real draw, though, is the nightlife. With its trendy restaurants and swanky cocktail bars this area comes into its own after dark.
Superstar Psy is not alone in putting Gangnam on the map. The area is also home to the COEX Mall, the world’s largest underground shopping centre. There are hundreds of stores, two food courts, a Megabox movie theatre, the COEX Aquarium and a huge book shop. It is also home to SM Town, a K-Pop museum with themed cafe and hologram shows.
War Memorial of Korea, Seoul
The Korean War dominated the world’s headlines for three years from 1950. To find out about it, visit the War Memorial of Korea, opened in 1994 on the site of the army headquarters. Six indoor exhibits pay tribute to the history of the conflict, which involved 58 nations fighting against North Korea and China. Outside there are displays of military equipment and memorabilia.
This strip of land will make you shiver… and think. The DMZ divides the Korean peninsula and is the border between North and South Korea. Created in 1953 as a buffer between communism and capitalism, it is a surviving slice of the Cold War. Just 48km (30mi) north of Seoul. It can only be visited on an organised tour – you visit the DMZ on day three of Culture Trip’s 10-day trip to South Korea. There are observation towers from which to peek into North Korea.
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul
Here is a pleasant way to while away an afternoon: even the structure is a work of art, created by global architects including Rem Koolhas and Jean Nouvel. The garden is an attraction too. Step inside Museum 2 to find Western hits by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. In Museum 1 there are Korean masterpieces, including calligraphy, paintings and ceramics.
With its tapering eaves and rippling roof tiles, this is one of the eight gates in Seoul’s fortress wall. Heunginjimun translates as “gate of rising benevolence” and is located in the Dongdaemun district. The gate was built in 1398 in the style of the late Joseon period. Top tip: see it lit up after dark.
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