A Solo Traveller’s Guide to Seoul

Theres a colourful, arty side of Seoul waiting to be discovered
There's a colourful, arty side of Seoul waiting to be discovered | © Thomas ROUSSEL / Alamy Stock Photo
Linda Dunsmore

The capital city of South Korea is a pulsating metropolis that combines traditional Korean ideals with modern architecture and young neighbourhoods. While it’s often overshadowed by bigger neighbours Beijing and Tokyo, Seoul has recently become one of the hottest cities in East Asia. If you’re planning on travelling to Seoul alone, here are the top places to add to your itinerary.

Thinking of joining a small-group tour instead of going solo? Our 10-day South Korea trip will take you around the country with other like-minded travellers, led by our Local Insider.

The best neighbourhoods to visit in Seoul

Gangnam

Yes, this is the home of Gangnam Style, but it’s not as dorky as you might think. In fact, Gangnam is the most modern district in the city – it was farmland until the 1970s – with Starfield COEX Mall, one of the largest underground shopping malls in the world, expensive high rises and the best plastic surgeons in town. Gangnam is split into several main areas: Cheongdam-dong, home to celebrities and expensive cars; Samseong-dong, home to the Bongeunsa Temple; and Nonhyeon-dong, home to quiet, back-street bars.

Looking for a place to stay? Check out our pick of the best hotels in Gangnam.

Get your shop on at Starfield COEX Mall, one of the largest underground malls in the world

Insadong

If you have an artistic streak, you will fall in love with Insadong. This charming neighbourhood is home to local artists, teahouses, contemporary galleries and boutique shops. It’s the perfect spot for serious souvenir shopping, but you’ll also find historically significant buildings here, including the Unhyeongung Royal Residence and Jogyesa, an important Korean Buddhist temple. Read more in our guide to the best things to do in Insadong.

The arty district of Insadong is also home to the Jogyesa Korean Buddhist temple

Myeongdong

Shopaholics will faint when they see the seemingly endless arrangement of shops in this part of Seoul. Have you watched any Korean dramas? If so, Myeongdong will look familiar. It’s home to the largest department stores in South Korea, including Lotte and Hyundai, which means foreign shoppers can buy duty-free goods from high-end brands. In the evening, many visitors head to Myeongdong to grab a bite at one of the many local restaurants.

Want more? Browse our pick of the best places to stay in Myeongdong.

Peruse the shops of Myeongdong to pick-up high-end brands

Itaewon

Most travellers instantly feel at home in Itaewon: this part of town is the multicultural district of Seoul, home to a vibrant expat community. If you need a break from Korean food, this is the place to find impeccable international restaurants. On top of that, Itaewon also offers lots of nightlife with countless bars and pubs open until the early hours. For an inside take, find out what it’s like to live in Itaewon.

Find a large expat community in Itaewon plus late-night bars

Hongdae

This university neighbourhood is where the cool kids hang. Home to four big schools – Hongik, Yonsei, Sogang and Ewha – it’s no surprise Hongdae is the best place for quirky eats, cheap shopping and thrilling nightlife. If you’ve heard about the themed cafes in South Korea, this is where the idea was born.

If Hongdae sounds like an ideal base for you, take your pick from our roundup of great hotels in the neighbourhood.

Student-heavy Hongdae is a great place for kooky shops and fun nightlife

Where to stay in Seoul

Insa Hostel

If you’re looking for a budget stay that doesn’t skimp on character, Insa Hostel in the artistic Insadong neighbourhood is the ideal place. Opened in 2013, Insa benefits from being within walking distance of the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces as well as the Myeongdong neighbourhood. The rooms here may be simple, but the rooftop terrace, free breakfast and heated bathroom floors more than make up for it.

Makers Hotel

Brick walls, leather sofas and antique furnishings kit out this boutique hotel in bustling Jongno, the centre of Seoul for 600 years. Upstairs you’ll find stylish rooms with wood-panelling and simple decor; downstairs is the Common Cafe, a mid-century-style space, which serves a continental breakfast. With the metro station next door, there’s easy access the rest of the city.

Fancy a stay? A three-night stay in the Makers Hotel is included in Culture Trip’s carefully curated tour of South Korea, where you’ll explore Seoul and beyond over the course of 10 days.

The Shilla

The Shilla is one of the most sophisticated hotels in Seoul. Regularly voted as one of the top hotels in the world, it emphasises the harmony between modernism and tradition through elegant design and high-end facilities, which includes a luxurious spa, five restaurants and even a Korean sculpture garden. It has a peaceful setting on the outskirts of the city centre, but a free shuttle service will keep you connected to the sites.

Where to eat in Seoul

Mapo Sutbul Galbi

Koreans love BBQ. It’s more than just food: it’s a whole social ritual with friends and drinking. One of the best places to grab galbi (meat), is Mapo Sutbul Galbi. This family-owned place is best known for its marinated beef and pork and is one of the only places in town that uses plums in their marinade – giving the meat a sweet taste.

Sanchon

Even though Korean cuisine is relatively meat heavy, vegetarians won’t starve. One of the top addresses for first-class veggie food in Seoul is Sanchon. This restaurant was founded by a Buddhist monk and offers set meals with more than 20 dishes prepared to Buddhist standards. If you’re visiting in the evening, you’ll experience the daily Korean dance performance at 8pm.

Myeongdong Kyoja

Myeongdong Kyoja specialises in chicken kalguksu (noodle soup), served with sliced pumpkin, spicy onions and a unique kimchi that is the pride of the restaurant. This outlet has been serving customers in the Myeongdong neighbourhood for more than 50 years – its popularity is down to the outstanding hospitality: if you’re still hungry, just ask for a free refill.

What to do in Seoul

Visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

Many visitors like to get in touch with South Korean history. If that’s you, take a day tour up to the DMZ between North and South Korea, where the Cold War is still very much in existence. The zone is about 250km (155mi) long – head to the Joint Security Area (JSA) near the western end to head down the Third Infiltration Tunnel, try North Korean liquor and get a glimpse of the isolated nation.

Climb Bukhansan

South Koreans love hiking. With the staggering number of mountains and national parks in the country, it’s no wonder why. But don’t worry, you don’t need to travel far outside the Seoul borders to climb one of the most beautiful mountains in Korea. When you reach the top of Bukhan Mountain, to the north of the capital, you will be rewarded with breath-taking views of the city skyline.

Climb Bukhan Mountain for glorious views over Seoul

Explore Gyeongbokgung Palace

Central Gyeongbokgung was the main palace during the Joseon Dynasty. Built in 1395, it is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces of South Korea, with some 500 buildings and 7,700 rooms. Gyeongbokgung has been undergoing extensive restoration since the 1990s, and is today the most visited attraction in South Korea, hosting various events throughout the year.

The Gyeongbokgung palace is the most visited site in South Korea

Wander the narrow streets of Bukchon Hanok Village

Travel back in time in Bukchon Hanok Village. Featuring a collection of 600-year-old Korean houses, this traditional village is filled with teahouses, coffee shops, restaurants and boutique stores. Take a stroll through the narrow alleys; you can even wear traditional Korean hanbok dresses for unforgettable holiday photos.

Stroll through Bukchon Hanok Village to see a traditional way of life

Take photos in Gwanghwamun Plaza

Facing Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung palace, is its eponymous plaza. This area offers superb photography opportunities in the evening when the sun sets in the distance behind the main gate. The square also features a large statue of Sejong the Great, considered one of the most important kings in Korean history as he created the Korean alphabet Hangul.

Visit Gwanghwamun Plaza to pay homage to Sejong the Great, inventor of the Hangul alphabet

Practical tips for visiting Seoul solo

Getting around

Seoul has a convenient network of affordable subways and public buses that are easy to use. Taking certain subway lines during rush hour can be quite nerve-wracking though – this might be the perfect time to take an Uber. South Korea also has its own version of the convenient dial-a-ride service called Kakao T, which is also widely used.

Health and safety in Seoul

It is not recommended to drink tap water in Seoul unless it’s been boiled, but don’t shy away from trying street food as South Korea has a rich foodie culture. Locals love snacking on the go and you can best experience Korean flavours when out and about. South Koreans are extremely relaxed and it’s not uncommon to leave your camera on the table while ordering coffee or to give the waiter your phone to charge it for you – this level of trust makes South Korea a safe place to travel alone.

Solo travel doesn’t have to be an entirely lonesome affair. Join Culture Trip’s 10-day South Korea adventure for the chance to experience Seoul and beyond with a small group of travellers who are as culturally curious as you are.

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