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A City Break in Seoul

In this travel guide for Seoul, we will go over everything you need to do to plan a city break to the buzzing capital of South Korea. If you're looking for things to do in Seoul, how to get around, or where to eat in Seoul - we have you covered!



CONTENTS




 


About Seoul


Seoul is the capital city of the Republic of Korea, known in the West as South Korea, and known locally as just Korea. It's a sprawling grey mass that houses almost 10 million people.


In comparison to other Asian cities I have visited, Seoul feels modern, neat, clean, and very quiet. However, if you've seen the movie Parasite, you'll know that some parts of the city 'Banjihas' and poverty are present, just not in view.



A small street in Seoul with traditional houses
The pretty streets of Seoul
 


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Why Seoul?


My pal Summer from the UK moved to Seoul a while back to work as a Chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant called Evett. With me being in the Philippines and just a mere 4-hour flight away, after two glasses of cheap wine I birthed the idea of nipping over to visit her for a few days.


I had never been to Korea before or even considered it in all fairness, but it felt spontaneous and I wanted to catch up with Summer and try some new food, so a Seoul city break seemed like a perfect idea!


It was a nice respite from the matted hair and grubbiness of beach life in the Philippines, with no mosquitoes, humidity or endless sand to contend with, a crisp spring weekend city break in Seoul was an exciting prospect!



 


Getting to Seoul


For your Seoul city break you'll probably fly into Incheon airport, which is TWO HOURS from the city centre by public transport. A flight from Manila in the Philippines to Seoul Incheon cost me £100 for a return ticket with Cebu Pacific.


You can catch a bus or train from the airport for £2-£6, but these do not run between 12:30am and 5:30am. So if you arrive in the wee hours as I did, you can order an Uber for 40,000₩ (£25) or grab a regular taxi outside for about 65,000₩ (£40). A taxi might take you 1h15 to reach your accommodation in central Seoul.


Be aware you will need your destination address in Hangul for Uber - which can be quite confusing as a whole new alphabet. Ensure you hook up to the airport Wifi to make onward travel arrangements before leaving the terminal.


Korea currently has no 'Covid requirements' whether you're vaccinated or unvaccinated, and it is now entirely 'mask-free', but you will need to get a K-ETA before you arrive. This is an entry permit for people who can visit Korea visa-free, it costs £6 and should be submitted at least 48 hours before arrival.


*UPDATE: From April 1, 2023 to December 31, 2024, visitors from the UK and several other countries no longer need to obtain a K-ETA to enter South Korea visa-free*


Jonggak station solar garden
Train stations in Seoul are on another level! This is the solar garden at Jonggak Station.

 

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE for Korea, I did what I always do, which is browse Travel Supermarket and choose a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.


 


Getting around Seoul


The subway system in Seoul is extremely efficient, and there are buses, and of course Uber.


Get yourself a T-Card from any local convenience store to use public transport. Most people don't speak English here, so just mime the action of a T to the cashier and they'll grasp what you mean. I topped up my card with 10,000₩ (£6) and it lasted me for three days (transport is very affordable!)


Google Maps is very hit-and-miss in Seoul, and whilst you can look up your location, it is not actually capable of forming directions for you. For this you'll need to download an app called Naver which will help you find your way from A to B all around the city, it's straightforward to use, but again a lot of the place names are in Hangul so it can be dizzying to look at initially.


Free Wifi is available virtually everywhere in Seoul, on all public transport and in all shops, you can just hover outside and tap into any network without a password. This is super handy for finding your way around!



The Seoul skyline from Namsan Park
The Seoul skyline from Namsan Park
 


First Impressions of Travelling in Seoul


Gosh, it's so quiet! Even on the busiest streets and in the subway during rush hour, I always felt like I was the loudest person, and those of you who know me are aware I am actually quite softly spoken!


Age comes before everything here, and even though people are generally polite, don't be surprised by a quick shove from an older lady to get you out of the way. Otherwise, you'll be basically invisible, as locals have little interest in tourists, again unlike a lot of other Asian cities I have visited, such as in India where you are practically treated like a celebrity.


A lot of stuff happens underground, and if it looks like an entrance to an underground car park, chances are it's actually something far more exciting like a secret mall filled with eateries, hairdressers, and clothing stores! The same goes for the subway, where stations are rarely just tube stops, they are also filled with services like ATMs, juice bars, and even perhaps a botanical garden to spend your lunch break.


If you feel claustrophobic from high rises and grey vistas, you can easily nip out of the city to the surrounding mountains and to Bukhansan National Park. That being said, Seoul has worked hard for the last decade to soften its industrial edges, by making new buildings more design-forward and creating public green spaces all along the Hangang River that flows through the centre of the city.



people gathered in Seould city library
Seoul City Library
 


Things to Do and Places to See during your Seoul City Break



BUKHANSAN PARK

~ HIKING & NATURE


Just an hour's train ride from the city (or 20 minutes by taxi), Bukhansan Park is the top destination for hiking in Korea, and one of the most popular things to do in Seoul.


Entrance is free, and there are various trails to choose from, all offering vistas of gorges, granite peaks, and crystal-clear rivers.


To find a hike that suits your ability, I would suggest visiting AllTrails, who provide details of the 66 different trails on offer in Bukhansan Park, but be aware that walking in the park is not allowed at night.



NAMSAN PARK

~ PICNICS & STROLLS


Namsan Park is the largest park in Seoul and is well known for its beautiful walking trails, especially the cherry blossom trail which is at its most spectacular in early April.


Here you can enjoy various gentle hikes and picnic areas with a view of the Seoul skyline, with the option to get a cable car to Namsan Tower at the top of the hill and make your way down on foot. This will cost 11,000₩ (£7) and will last about 30 seconds, I personally didn't think it was worth it, it just depends on how much you dislike walking uphill!


People sitting on benches in Namsan Park
Namsan Park

HONGDAE NEIGHBOURHOOD

~ NIGHTLIFE & CREATIVITY


Hongdae is in the Mapo-gu district of Seoul on the western side of the city and is known for being an artsy area holding three universities. Student life brings a youthful ambience, making Hongdae a hub of creativity and fun!


You'll get the best of Hongdae if you visit later in the evening - I rocked up at 6pm and I just felt a bit too keen. Before bar hopping, you can head to ZZang games, a 4-storey amusement arcade, or better yet warm up your palate at 10Wells - a super cool liquor shop with a bar and tasting counter.


We tried a variety of Korean drinks - including Persimmon wine and Makgeolli! Being looked after at 10Wells Bar was one of my favourite things I did on my Seoul city break.


A tasting glass of cloudy Korean liquor, Makgeolli
Makgeolli

ITAEWON NEIGHBOURHOOD

~ SHOPPING & NIGHTLIFE


Itaewon was once the home to a USA army base, and Itaewon’s main street and narrow alleys crisscrossing the hilly neighbourhood were once lined with bars, nightclubs and shops all catering to American soldiers.


Since the army base was shifted elsewhere, a flux of young Koreans have moved in, but it is still considered a global village and the most internationalised and touristic part of Seoul. In fact, it's the only place where I saw other foreigners during my 3-day stint in the city.


Nowadays it's a lively area filled with high-end shops and trendy restaurants, and if you're looking for services that cater to foreigners e.g. Mexican food or hairdressers who are able to curate Western hairstyles, you'll find it all here.


The narrow alleyways of Itaewon are also sadly the site of the 2022 Halloween crush that killed 159 people, which seems quite unbelievable and I am sure will be talked about for a long time. I won't go into detail, but those interested can read more about that here.



The lobby of the Mondrian Hotel in Itaewon
The lobby of the Mondrian Hotel in Itaewon

GWANGJENG MARKET

~ STREET FOOD & GOOD TIMES


Join the locals during the after-work buzz from 5pm-7pm for the best atmosphere, in Seoul's biggest traditional street market. Some stalls are take-away only, whilst others provide little plastic stools where you can huddle around and taste new flavours, whilst sipping on Makgeolli, a milky, sparkling rice wine that is incredibly palatable and much lighter than beer.


Gwangjeng market is a must for anyone enjoying a city break in Seoul. Some market stalls have 'Netflix' posters because they have been featured on a food show for serving authentic and quality dishes.


A lot of vendors churn out the same dishes, so do a lap and take your pick of which looks the most appetising. We gorged on crispy mungbean pancakes, kimchi dumplings and honey Hotteok, which is a pancake stuffed with honey and pumpkin seeds. If you're feeling more adventurous, try the Gorgonzola or fish Hotteok instead!


Half eaten honey and pumpkin seed Hotteok
Honey Hotteok

Korean blood sausage known as Sundae is a big thing - and whilst I am a fan of Irish black pudding, this stuff just looks a bit too flesh-like for me. If you flap around the menu for too long the vendors may just start serving you what they think you should try, so be quick to order if you don't want to be thrust a bowl of pig-head soup that you can't bring yourself to chow down!


Anthony Bourdain says that if you visit a country you should eat and enjoy whatever you are served with humility and gratitude, but no amount of politeness I have can make me chew and swallow a Balut (this is a common dish here in the Philippines where I am writing from, which is developed duck embryo).


The after work buzz at Gwangjeng Market
The after work buzz at Gwangjeng Market


WAR MEMORIAL & MUSEUM

~ A LITTLE HISTORY


I have said 'a little history' with intention because the war memorial and museum in Seoul wasn't quite what I was expecting. I have been to museums like this before, like the partition museum in Amritsar, that is like walking through a good history book... with artefacts and letters written to and fro at the time, you really can have a little understanding of why things transpired the way they did, and what it was like to be a regular person during that monumental event in history.


The war museum in Seoul felt like a celebration of South Korea and its 'saviours', the USA, very obviously leaving out any atrocities or suffering occurring from the actions of 'the good side'.


In my opinion, a good museum highlights all the facts, rather than being 100% biased. Don't worry, I am well aware that the British history books are A LOT worse at speaking the truth in this regard, and nevertheless, I did enjoy the museum and reading about Korea's history as a country.


Entry is free and the museum is closed on Mondays.



The front entrance of the war memorial and museum Seoul
War Memorial & Museum

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA

~ I didn't go here :)


This is the flagship museum of Korean history and art, which unfortunately I didn't have time to visit, but here is what their website says:


The National Museum of Korea is the most representative and extensive in the Republic of Korea. The museum holds an immense collection: it has more than 310,000 historically valuable and highly aesthetic relics ranging from the Paleolithic Age to the early 20th century, and more than 12,000 masterpieces of its collection are always on display in its permanent exhibition hall.


Entry is free and it is open every day from 10am-6pm.



ZEST & EVETT

~ COCKTAIL BARS & FINE DINING


This is one of my favourite things I did on my Seoul city break.


So if you're feeling fancy, and you want to see Seoul's food and drink scene at its finest and most creative, you can head to Zest for cocktails, followed by Evett for dinner.


Zest is in the Gangnam district of Seoul, nestled firmly on the official list of Asia's Top 50 Bars. Now listen here, when people want to go out for cocktails I always try to steer towards a wine bar, I don't think I am a cocktail person as I find everything too rich or sweet... but.


MY LORD these drinks are good. Let's start with the Caprese cocktail, you know that juice leftover on the plate from a Caprese salad? Balsamic with tomato juice, a hint of milky mozzarella and the scent of basil? Imagine that in a cocktail, one that is served light and clear like a martini! The craftsmanship is mind-blowing!


We went for one cocktail and ended up having five. At £15 a pop, this is pricey for Seoul, but a regular price for the UK. The bar's earthy tones, smooth music and wonderful staff will keep you comfortable for the whole night long.



Zest cocktail bar in Gangam
Zest cocktail bar in Gangam

So let's move on to Evett, a Michelin-starred restaurant also in Gangnam. My friend Summer is a chef there, so, of course, we had to try it. They offer a tasting menu using only Korean ingredients, and being from a Michelin restaurant background, I am perhaps more critical than your average customer.


Honestly, these were flavours I couldn't even comprehend, let alone compare to anything else I had ever tasted. The beef blood sorbet with locally foraged flowers was surprisingly delicious, as well as the tea-tree plate cleanser garnished with five ANTS.


Too many courses to relay here, but I'll just say if you have the cash to spare, it's going to be a memorable dining experience for sure. I paid £110, which included three glasses of wine and a 50% discount on food, so you do the maths.


Beef Blood sorbet by Evett
Beef Blood sorbet by Evett

INSA-DONG NEIGHBOURHOOD

~ PRETTY STREETS & TRADITIONAL TEA HOUSES


Insa-dong is a vibrant neighbourhood in Seoul which turned out to be my favourite area in the city to walk around. The main strip in Insa-dong is pedestrianised, and you can stroll the pretty streets popping into handicraft shops and maybe a traditional tea house.


We chose Shin Old Tea House, which is very discrete from the outside, but once you go through the door you'll be greeted by a cosy room with heated floors and filled with antiques and knick-knacks. I perched on a floor cushion and ordered Jujube Tea, which was like a sweet date soup, along with Hangwa; a Korean snack of puffed rice cakes with honey.


Jujube Tea and Hangwa from Shin Old Tea House
Jujube Tea and Hangwa
 

Not sure what to pack for your trip to Korea? Check out the I Dream of Mangoes article:



 

All in All


I loved my city break experience in Seoul, and I would say that 3 days is the perfect amount of time to explore the highlights of the city. It would be awesome to travel further afield and see what else South Korea has to offer... maybe next time!


If you are incorporating Seoul into a wider Korea itinerary, I recommend booking public transport with 12go Asia - as they are super reliable and serve lots of routes in South Korea.


 

"I'm a big believer in winging it. I'm a big believer that you're never going to find the perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I'm always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary."

~ Anthony Bourdain


 

Thank you for reading my post: City Break Inspiration, a Travel Guide for Seoul. If you enjoyed the read, please consider subscribing to my blog where I post articles every week about my current travels around the world.


Looking for more city break inspiration? Read my post on the 5 best cities in the world!


Happy Travels

xxx



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Disclosure:
I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. That being said, I only link to products I use and love.

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