After graduating from university in England, life-long pals and country bumpkins Megan Odell and Natalie Fairbrother had only one thing in mind: travel. When a teaching opportunity arose, they kicked off their Wellington boots and headed out to explore the treasures hidden among the high rise buildings of South Korea’s capital city. Check out their recommendations for the best things to see and do in Seoul, then add your own.
Seoul is Our City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is Seoul Plaza (city hall) because it encapsulates Korea, old and new. The thriving business epicenter of Seoul towers proudly over the street vendors and Seoulites. The huge modern architectural designs provide a beautiful juxtaposition with neighboring Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grounds and temples of which date back to the Joseon Dynasty (still young compared to the mountainous backdrop).
Autumn is the best time to visit my city because the changing colors are breathtaking, the vibrant reds, oranges, and ochre yellows have to be seen to be believed. Autumn provides a welcoming pause between the sweltering summer and the intensely icy winter. Seoulites and expats alike venture out to explore the mountains that surround the city and admire the changing leaves from a peaceful perspective. Before heading back on the Jihachul (subway) to the hustle and bustle of city life, be sure to celebrate your hiking feat with a glass of makgeolli, Korean rice wine.
You can see my city best from Namsan Tower, which offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the city. Make sure to go at dusk to catch Seoul as the sun sets and the bright lights of the evening illuminate the city. The Namsan Tower also houses a gourmet restaurant with a price tag to match.
Locals know to skip Itaewon and check out Apgujeong instead. Like Itaewon, Apgujeong provides a diverse collection of restaurants, cafes, and clothing shops, but without being a tourist trap. In Apgujeong there are restaurants for every budget, the majority of cafes are independently run, and the clothes shops have a boutique feel with affordable prices.
Insa-Dong is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. Even though they are slightly more expensive than the mass markets of Dongdaemun, the souvenirs here are handcrafted by some of Korea’s finest artists.
My city’s best museum is the War Memorial of Korea, where tourists can learn about the Korean War (1950-1953) and Korea’s battle for independence. Outside the museum, a vast array of war equipment and artifacts stand alongside the poignant and deeply moving statues of troubled soldiers. It’s a good reminder that, despite Korea’s economic boom, the effects of war are still raw and personal.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s the Jihachul app. It has everything you need to know about travel times, destinations, routes, and more.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is the Children’s Grand Park and Zoo. Spring offers the best cherry blossoms in Seoul, summer invites young and old to soak up the long summer days, and autumn welcomes couples to stroll beneath the changing leaves before winter dusts the park with a blanket of snow.
My city really knows how to celebrate love because not only are there two Valentines Days (white and black day), Christmas is predominantly a day for lovers, too. Then of course there are the notorious ‘love motels’ scattered across the city. Chivalry is very much alive in Seoul as can be seen on Friday nights where men, adorned with bouquets, hurry to meet their beloved girlfriends.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they have an undying love for kimchi (the less said about this questionable side dish the better). Seoulites also have no shame in taking pictures of themselves with their latest smartphone handset no matter where they are or who might be watching.
For a fancy night out, I head to Gangnam — recently made popular by Psy’s portrayal of the classy Seoulite jaunt.
Just outside my city, you can visit Chuncheon, the city of beautiful lakes. Even the journey provides picturesque views of Korea’s natural beauty, and it’s just an hour’s ride on the Jihachul.
My city is known for being homogeneous, but it’s really very inclusive and intrigued by foreign visitors (a.k.a. waygoogins). Once you get past the staring and the personal questions, you will undoubtedly find the Korean people warm, friendly, and wholly generous.
The best outdoor market in my city is Seoul Folk Flea Market because it provides keen insight into Seoul’s past present and future. Those who are prepared to rummage will find antiques, furs, and electronics, but the opportunities for people watching alone justify a visit.
My city’s biggest sports event is baseball. Watch it at Jamsil Stadium for a chance to feel like one of the locals.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I grab a kimbap for under $2, a bottle of Soju for a $1 and head to Cheonggye Stream. The stream was uncovered as part of an urban renewal project so people could escape the sounds of the traffic only meters away. With impressive light shows and events, including the Seoul Lantern Festival, the stream offers the chance to enjoy nature in an urban setting.
To escape the crowds, I cycle along Hangang Park (you can rent them all along the River Han) to feel free and removed from the city buzz.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Stephen Fry because it is rich and awash with culture, but once the surface is scratched there is a poignant and prolific tale to be told.
The dish that represents my city best is bibimbap (rice and mixed vegetables), and makgeolli is my city’s signature drink.
Coex shopping mall is my favorite building in town because not only is it the biggest underground shopping facility in Asia, it offers a kimchi museum, a cinema complex, an aquarium, an airport, a wedding hall, and endless shops and restaurants that are open seven days a week.
The most random thing about my city is the pre-election dances that happen both outside and inside subway stations in an attempt to convince passersby to vote for their respective parties.
Hongdae Park is the best place to see live music, traditional and contemporary, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out Exit just next door where DJ’s crank out cutting edge tunes!
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Being told of an important deadline the day of an important deadline could only happen in my city.
In the spring you should visit Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens to experience a piece of paradise you’d swear couldn’t exist in Seoul (and watch the changing of the guards).
In the summer you should take a dip in one of the many outdoor pools that run along the River Han for some much needed relief from the sweltering heat.
In the fall you should visit Olympic Park to admire the autumnal colors, outdoor sculptures, and museums and galleries.
In the winter you should go ice skating in Seoul Plaza for a magical winter wonderland.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss Lotte World.
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which recently took over the world via YouTube.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because Seoul never sleeps, you can never do/see everything, and while the youth culture soars, traditions remain; young and old side by side.
Follow Megan and Natalie on Instagram @Megankodell and @Natty_with _Seoul respectively.