When one of my closest friends invited me to take a slight detour on my way back to Canada, my answer was simple: YES! Why? It meant I would be spending 5 days in Seoul, South Korea! My best South Korean friend decided to show me around in her incredible city and here are the top things to do, eat and enjoy!
1. Enjoy Drinks in Huam Dong’s Rooftop Bars
Head to Huam Dong to enjoy some hipster drinks with a breathtaking view of Seoul city. This area was once known for its wealthy Japanese settlers who built modern houses during the annexation. Then, after the Korean war, many North Koreans sought refuge there. Because of this, the architecture in this area is very different and interesting. Today, Huam Dong has transformed into a laid back area where young people come to have coffee or drinks. The area stands on steep land which allows for the beautiful view of the city, day or night.
2. Drink Traditional Tea in 익선동 Ikseon Dong
While strolling the narrow streets of Ikseon Dong, I stopped at a charming tea house and tried some Korean traditional tea. If you are seeking a good detox, go for the medicinal one that contains nuts and grains and all that good stuff. Or pick something more flowery, citrus-y or fruity. Drinking Korean traditional tea is a whole experience as you can choose to sit on the floor at Korean traditional low tables and enjoy your tea with side dishes of Korean sweets such as rice cakes or hagwa.
3. Sing your Heart out at Karaoke
You wouldn’t have the full Korean experience if you had not tried a Korean style Karaoke! In Korea, you do not have to go up on stage in front of an oblivious, drunk audience: you take your friends to an small room where you get to perform with each other only! This is good news for those who are more introverted or shy. I spent most of my nights singing in Korea until I completely lost my voice on my last night: that’s when I shouted at my friend to put on a Bonnie Tyler song as these chances do not come twice!
4. Cool off the Summer Heat with some Korean Shaved Ice 팥빙수 (pat bingsu)
I always viewed shaved ice deserts as exactly that: a bowl of shaved ice. So, why would that excite me? I was so wrong! Shaved ice is probably one of the best deserts you can ever have in the summer! In Korea, Koreans traditionally top their shaved ice with red beans, rice cakes, ice cream and fruit. The secret ingredient is the condense milk they give you on the side to add to your ice. So sweet, creamy and delicious!
5. Rent Traditional Costumes (Hanbok): King or Escort?
Seoul is known for two main tourist attractions: the Gyeongbok Palace and the Bukchon Hanok Village. I will talk about these places shortly but first: dress up as a traditional Korean princess or King? Yes, please! Before you visit these two places, make sure to go to the nearest costume rental shop and pick your favorite dress. There are plenty of different designs, fabrics, styles and accessories to choose from for both genders. This was such a fun experience, especially having the ladies in the shop dress me up, braid my hair and pick matching accessories for me: I felt so pampered! And it only costs around $15 to rent the costume for 3-4 hours which is plenty of time to walk around the palace and the village.
6. Stroll around the beautiful The Gyeongbok Palace 경복궁 (gyeongbokgung)
Once you have your costume sorted, make your way to the the Gyeongbok Palace. The palace was built by the Chosun dysnasty, six centuries ago! Within these walls, you will find the homes of the Kings, the household workers and the government employees of the time. The historical architecture is intricate and beautiful. You can easily spend 2-3 hours strolling around and enjoying the immensity of it all. The palace was destroyed twice in history: during the Imjin War ( (1592–1598) and during the Japanese invasion in the early 20th century. It was later restored and preserved. Today, the palace stands majestically and attracts millions of tourists from all over the world every year. The President’s blue house is not too far from here, so go have a peak at that as well!
7. Don’t Forget to check out the Museums!
The palace grounds are home to the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea. Personally, I only had time to visit the Folk Museum that I found to be really educative and entertaining! The museum shows the history of Korea is a very artistic way and includes thousands of artifacts and recreations of houses, work places, and the evolution of lifestyle of Koreans along the years.
8. Discover the Bukchon Hanok Village 북촌한옥마을
Next stop: Bukchon Hanok Village! There will be a lot of walking uphill here so many sure you are ready for it. I loved the narrow streets garnished with green trees, the traditional houses and, especially, the view of Seoul from the top. You will find nice gift shops and food places here too. I enjoyed a full Korean lunch with a crazy variety of free Banchan (Korean side dishes), including raw marinated crab, pickled vegetables and, of course, different styles of Kimchi. People still live in this village so you will find signs around asking you to be quite ans respect the residents 🙂
9. Walk along the stream at 청계천 (Cheonggyecheon)
If you are looking for a nice relaxing walk in downtown Seoul, just follow Cheonggyecheon stream. This stream was restored after previously been covered in concrete during the development of the city. Now it has become a popular recreation space and often has some interesting exhibitions placed along the stream.
10. Korean BBQ anybody?
Another important experience to tick off your bucket list when is South Korea is Korean BBQ (barbecue)! Probably one of the most fun and delicious activities I had in Seoul, Korean BBQ is popular among Koreans and tourists. The restaurants are vibrant, busy and loud with waiters rushing around to check that you have everything you need. Choose from a variety of meats and have fun cooking them on the grill right in front of you! If you are unsure about cooking times, a waiter can help and guide you. How to savor this meal? Wrap your perfectly grilled meat, rice, sauces, raw garlic and kimchi tightly in a lettuce leaf and eat it in one bite! Chase it with some Korean beer or soju or a cocktail of both (Somaek)!
11. Try some Chimaek (치맥 )
Had a late night singing at the Karaoke Bar and feeling peckish? How about some Chimaek?! Forget everything you know about fried chicken because I am about to introduce you to KOREAN FRIED CHICKEN. This will probably be the best piece of fried anything you have ever put in your mouth. You can enjoy it on its own with some salt on the side or marinaded in your favorite sweet spicy sauce to make it even more addictive. Koreans love pairing their Fried Chicken (chikin) and Beer (maekju) leading to the creation of a new word: Chimaek!
12. Go to the Street Food Market 광장시장 (gwangjang market)
Did you know that you can try Korean Street Food at the EXACT same food stalls (Gwangjang market) Gordon Ramsay visited during his Seoul trip? That’s what I did! I sat at the exact same spot and enjoyed some freshly made Kimbap, spicy rice cakes and fish cakes. I was even hand fed Kimbap exactly as Gordon Ramsay was so it seems the tradition has remained! Other exciting discoveries at the food market were Pajeon (Korean pancake) and Yukhoe (Korean steak tatare). This place is heaven for foodies.
13. Try Seoul’s night life in 이태원 Itaewon
I decided to go pub (bar?) crawling in Itaewon and ended up in a bar called Fountain. I thank the stars for luring me into that place (although the entrance is so beautiful anyone would feel compelled to walk in). Decorated with majestic chandeliers and, you guessed it, fountains, Fountain bar is very unique with its baroque and more modern decor. I was pleasantly surprised with a full night show with dancers, drag queens, magicians and acrobats. A quick google search showed some bad reviews for this place but, I must say, I had one of my greatest nights there! Make sure to try different bars around the area, you might find another gem I missed.
14. Taste the freshest seafood in 노량진 수산시장 (noryangjin seafood market)
Everyone loves their seafood fresh. In Seoul, you basically pick your fresh seafood still alive from their own little fish tanks! The variety of sea creatures you can find at the Noryangjin Seafood Market is just insane: prawns, crabs, lobsters, clams, mussels, sea urchin, octopus, squid, you name it, they’ve got it! Be careful when walking through the market as the sellers are quite eager to sell their products to you first.
Once you pick your seafood vendor, they will pack your seafood and you can go eat them in the eating area available on the floor above. There, the cooks will help you decide how you want your picks of the day cooked: grilled, boiled, steamed, souped, and more. You are then seated and they bring the dishes, as well as side dishes, to you ready to eat. The best way to try fresh seafood is by having them sashimi (sliced thinly and eaten raw): it was an adventure for my taste buds. I also tried some delicious spicy fish soup and buttery grilled clams, yummm.
Here you go: My list of things to do in Seoul, South Korea! I had always wanted to visit this city and the experience was way above my expectations. I look forward to visit again and also try other places in Korea! Seoul is definitely one of the most vibrant, safe, modern and exciting cities I have visited on my travels!
Until next time,