Seoul has got to be one of the most vibrant and chaotically energetic cities in the world. There’s almost something youthful about South Korea’s capital, even though its roots go back over thousands of years. After all my travels, it still remains my favorite major city. There’s such a huge mix of old and new all within this one place that it’s impossible not to find something to love. If this is your first time visiting, it can feel a little overwhelming. We put together this little guide with tips and some of the best things to do in Seoul to help you plan your stay.
A first-timer’s guide to Seoul:
Quick tips on visiting Seoul for the first time
1. Learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet
We promise you, it’s a lot easier than it sounds and it will make your life exponentially easier. If you’re good with languages, you can learn it in an afternoon with one or two Youtube videos. There isn’t just one romanization that Koreans use, so you might find yourself heading in the wrong direction if you mix of your ‘j’ and ‘ch’ or ‘b’ and ‘p’ up.
2. Download the Subway app
Seoul has one of the most efficient subways we’ve ever used and it’s pretty cheap. This app, which comes in Korean and English, will help you plan out your route and even tell you which area is the best if you’re in a rush. It’s also very easy to take the subway from Incheon Airport and much cheaper than a taxi or bus.
3. Don’t rely on your usual navigation apps
Korea is very eager to protect its own companies, which is why ‘googling’ something isn’t that common for locals. Google Maps will also be more wrong than right since Korea won’t allow Google to use local mapping data. You’re better off using Naver or Daum Maps as long as you can read Hangul. Uber and other similar apps are also pretty useless as Korea prefers you to use their local taxis.
4. Remember that Koreans are incredibly helpful
Lost? Completely confused? Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Most Koreans will go above and beyond to help you even if they don’t speak a word of English or understand you. I’ve had everyone from a food stand ahjussi (middle-aged man) to a couple on a date drop what they’re doing to walk me where I was trying to go. The thing is though, Koreans pretty much mind their own business, so if you don’t ask, your lost face isn’t going to help you!
The best 5 things to do in Seoul:
1. Go café hopping
Seoul is the café capital of Asia! No one takes coffee shop culture quite as seriously as this country. If you can imagine a theme, it definitely exists somewhere in the city. A cat café? Plenty. A million Paris-inspired cafés (including at least three franchises)? One hundred percent. Want to sip a photo of yourself right off the top of your latte? Done. Make a list of all the different cafés you want to try and try to hit up at least one or two a day.
2. Go hiking
Did you know Korea is actually a pretty mountainous country? Right off the subway stations in Seoul, you can find plenty of gorgeous hiking trails. Bukhansan (or Mt. Bukhan) is the most popular option nearby. It’s especially stunning if you go in autumn.
3. Learn more about Korea’s history
Korea has an incredibly complex history and, if you’re interested, Seoul has plenty of places to learn about it. Whether you wander around Bukchon Hanok Village and take in the traditional style houses or pay a visit to the War Memorial of Korea, you’ll find plenty to help you understand this country a little better. If you have a full day, take a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel. It might feel very touristy, but it will also give you a pretty good insight into just how complicated things are between the South and North.
4. Have a crazy night out
You can’t visit Seoul and not take advantage of its buzzing nightlife. Start out at a Korean BBQ joint and order some kalbi or samgyupsal (types of Korean meat dishes). There are so many foods to try in Korea, but a BBQ experience is a must. Take shots of soju (Korea’s potent drink of choice) with your meal, and end the night at norebang (karaoke). Sing your lungs out to an array of songs and see how many ‘service’ or free minutes they add on.
5. Visit the palaces
The number one thing you have have to do in Seoul is to visit its palaces. They’re gorgeous examples of Korean architecture and you can easily dedicate a whole afternoon to each one. There are five overall but if you’re short on time, make Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung your main priorities.
This is really only scratching the surface when it comes to the best things to do in Seoul, but it’s a great place to start if you’ve never visited before. Get ready to fall in love with this crazy city!
Looking for more inspiration on travel in Asia? Read these posts next:
- A Beginner’s Guide to Tokyo: 20 Things to Know Before You Go
- My 10 Most Memorable Experiences in India
- 100 Incredible Places to Visit in Korea
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Have you been to Seoul before? What would you add to this list?