Our experts recommend the top attractions in and around Seoul—with advice on how to get the most out of your visit.
Gyeongbok Palace (Palace of Shining Happiness)
“The scale of this palace is staggering.”—Alan Timblick, head of Seoul Global Center. Against mountainous backdrop, fairy-tale views of Seoul’s oldest, largest palace—lily ponds, pavilions, curved roofs—demand photography. Tip: Leave through the back gate and stroll past the Blue House, Korea’s presidential residence. Gyeongbok is a landmark itself. Tel. 82 2 3700 3900; fee. www.royalpalace.go.kr
Biwon (Secret Garden)
“The best example of a Korean traditional garden in Korea.”—Robert Koehler, editor, SEOUL Magazine. Changdeok Palace’s attached Biwon (Secret Garden)—a pleasure garden for royalty—now a green lung behind youth-focused zone of Jongno. Guided tours only in garden: English tours at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. Tip: Stroll in the area around the left side of the garden’s walls, the last significant cluster of occupied, traditional houses in the city. Tel. 82 2 762 9513; fee. www.cha.go.kr
“Monks always pick the best sites in the hills.”—Alan Timblick. Tranquility on tap in a mountainside Buddhist temple in the heart of the city. Tip: Ascend the trail behind the temple to the summit where there are spectacular views over the grim colonial-era Seodaemun Prison, towards the eerie Guksadang, or Shamans’ Shrine, on the face of Mount Inwang, across the valley. San 1, Bongwon-dong; tel. 82 2 392 3007.
Seodaemun Prison History Hall
“Feel the pain of modern Korean history.”—Robert Koehler. Grim, Japanese-built colonial-era lockup; later housed pro-democracy figures under the authoritarian regimes. Includes graphic displays of Japanese atrocities. 101 Hyeonjeo-dong; tel. 82 2 363 9750; fee.
Seoul Museum of History
“The transformation of Seoul from medieval city to modern metropolis.”—Robert Koehler. Modern museum, heavy on design and technology, light on stuffy displays. Tip: Visit here before you visit the palaces to get the history behind them. 50 Saemunan-gil; tel. 82 2 724 0114; fee. www.museum.seoul.kr
War Memorial of Korea
“Experience Korea’s turbulent, war-torn past.”—Robert Koehler. Self-described as the world’s largest war memorial, it is actually a giant modern museum devoted to military history, notably the Korean War. Tanks, planes, guns, and the famous “Brother Meets Brother” statue grace the forecourts. 8 Yongsan-dong 1-ga; tel. 82 2 709 3139; fee.
“A completely different vista of the city.”—Alan Timblick. River cruises depart from various areas along the Han River. Most convenient location is on Yeouido Island. Tip: Take a night cruise, when the city lights up, and the endless ranks of concrete apartments are invisible. Follow signs to the dock from Yeouinaru subway station. Tel. 82 2 3271 6900; fee.
“Where nature grew from the city’s concrete.”—Oh Se-hoon, mayor, Seoul. In 2005, this 3.6-mile (5.8-kilometer) historic stream was restored by then-mayor, now-president Lee Myung-bak. With all kinds of scenic attractions along its sunken banks and bridges crossing its waters, this is the only way to walk through downtown’s concrete canyons; in central Seoul. english.seoul.go.kr/cheonggye/
“Where you buy gifts for the folks back home with that distinctive Korean flavor.”—
Michael Breen, author, The Koreans. This pedestrian-friendly arts and crafts district also is known for traditional food and drink. Tip: Come on Sunday; it’s closed to cars, and various performances take place. Exit Anguk subway station, or Jonggak subway station. Tel. 82 2 734 0222.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“Feel the peculiar passions and enthusiasms of Korean youth.”—Oh Se-hoon. Sprawling, youth-focused nightlife district: Sea of neon populated by hundreds of bars, cafés, restaurants, and DVD parlors. Tip: Once Sinchon winds down after 1:00 a.m., hop in a cab and hit the clubs around the nearby Hongik University district, a five-minute ride away.
“Almost like a scene from the early Star Wars.”—Alan Timblick. Chaotic, 600-year old labyrinthine market. Haggle for clothing, ginseng, and household goods; language is not a barrier. Prepare to get temporarily lost. Tip: Liveliest after dark, especially 4:00 a.m. when the retail traders arrive to wheel and deal.
“Where Korea’s vibrant modern culture transcends words.”—Robert Koehler. Wacky, nonverbal performances have taken off in Seoul in recent years. Nanta and Jump are perennial favorites, each with its own theaters.
“Great spot to enjoy jogging, trekking, or just views”—Oh Se-hoon. Forested mountain in city center, complete with parks, nature trails, cable car, and a tower with café, viewing platform, and revolving restaurant. Tip: Take a taxi around the ring road after nightfall for incredible views of Seoul glittering at your feet. Some of Asia’s finest jogging tracks are in Namsan Park opposite the Hyatt Hotel. Fees for cable car and tower entrance.