Eclipsed in reputation by its more sinister Northerly neighbour, South Korea, a country rich in natural beauty, incredible food and genuinely kind and welcoming people, is emerging into a well-deserved limelight of its own thanks in part to the iconic PSY and his famed Gangnam Style. But there is more to the country than K-Pop and for the uninitiated, the best starting point for Korean explorations, are at its heart, in the capital Seoul. With a population of over 10 million, it’s a sprawling metropolis of various neighbourhoods defined as much by their food specialisms as their location. With language barriers, unpronounceable district names and an overwhelming amount of sights to be seen, the below guide is an attempt to condense the experiences and information you require to make the most of 48 hours in Seoul.
Keeping in mind that a city of this scale is best tackled area by area, a truly adventurous tourist should try and explore them all, seeking out the most symbolic sites in each. If you’re limited on time – pick the ones with the sights that appeal the most to you…or where the best restaurants are!
Insadong and around
Insadong is an ideal entry point for tourists with its winding alleyways curving off the central, eponymous antique street providing the perfect terrain for mooching and allowing the smells and intricacies of the city to seep into your skin, infecting you with a desire for further exploration. North of here (between Bukchan-ro and Samcheongdong-gil), Seoul’s famed coffee shop culture will have you reaching for a brew at every possible moment. If a more traditional teahouse experiences whets your thirst rather than the trendy offerings lining most streets, an un-missable world of delight awaits at the timeless Dawon tea house within the Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Whilst most of Seoul is a monumental juxtaposition of modern towers of steel versus well preserved relics of distinctly Korean buildings, the labyrinth of traditional Korean one-storey houses that stand in their undisturbed entirety perched on a hillside, serve as a monument to the Seoul of old. Few still function as dwellings whilst others, unaltered on the outside have transitioned into boutique shops and trendy office spaces. With a nod to the Korean love of tea, Cha Masineun Tteul, on the most Western edge of the Hanok serves up delicious pumpkin rice cake and local teas to cross legged diners in a tranquil environment.
The city is dotted with remarkable architectural entities in the form of palaces, seemingly at every turn. For those with limited time to spare but a desire to peer into the regal past of Korea the two most impressive palaces by far are Gyeonbokgung and Cheongdeokgung Palaces. Approach the former from the impressive Gwanghwamun Square and Gate in order to truly marvel at its splendor and scale. For Cheongdeokgung, plan ahead to slot into a scheduled tour of the breathtaking secret garden at this World Heritage listed palace.
Myeongdong and Namsan
For the shopoholics seeking a Western refuge of familiarity, the wide streets of Myeongdong provide ample opportunity for retail therapy. If souvenirs hold more appeal, the stalls at the eclectic Namdaemun market are a safer bet. Regardless of your shopping preference and irrespective of your desire to follow the tourist hoards, an ascent up the N Seoul Tower provides an informative and unbeatable birds eye view of the city. Skip the queue for the tram to the top by walking the winding path up the hillside amongst verdant greenery and puffing locals. Follow the modernity of the looming tower with a distinctly Parisian gesture, locking a lovers’ padlock to the already crowded fence. End your day with an amble along the pedestrianized banks of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which cuts through the heart of the city hosts a remarkable lightshow daily at 7pm and 9pm under Gwangton Bridge.
The meteoric rise of K-Pop globally is almost singularly down to PSY’s famed Gangnam Style song. The quirky, edginess you would imagine from the aptly described Gangnam style is evident in the hipsters and their hangouts adorning the tree lined street of Garosu-gil. A bustling through fare with boutique shops, restaurants and achingly cool vibes. If a stroll around here leaves you feeling antiquated, follow it with a stroll around the tombs at Seonjeongneung Park or soak up the tranquility at the secluded hillside Buddhist temple, Bongeun-sa.
This expat enclave is a little overrun with Western restaurants and shops so instead broaden your horizons by visiting the Korean War Memorial Museum with an interesting focus on the Korean War amongst other battles. Alternatively, bring out your inner culture vulture at the architecturally impressive Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
If Gangnam didn’t ignite your inner teenager, head to Hongdae to marvel at the K-Pop student style as you wonder the streets of this trendy student hub.
If the sun is shining, rent a bike or some roller blades and explore either the perimeter of this urban island.
Along with the sites and the people, the food promises to be the highlight of any visit to Seoul. The easiest way to ensure a comprehensive coverage of the city’s culinary delights is to focus on one dish at a time.
Bibimbap (assorted vegetables and meat on rice)
A Korean staple, available at most restaurants but for a modern youthful take on this favoured dish try a branch of the hip chain Bibi-go. For something more classic head to Bab just off Wausan-gil by the Hope Market in Hongdae
The Koreans love to cook their own food, so often restaurants are set up with diners around a central tabletop barbecue where you can cook a variety of meaty delights. There are quite honestly thousands of places to sample this famous cuisine but if you’re looking for somewhere local, cheap and cheerful try Hwanggeumjeong, right by Anguk station Exit 2. For specific recommendations for individual types of barbecue, look at the Bulgogi and Gilbi suggestions.
– Bulgogi (marinated beef cooked on the barbecue)
Undoubtedly the best place in town is Gae Hwa Oak with two branches – one near the Galleria mall in Apyujeong and the other by Garosu Gil.
– Gilbi (Barbecued beef ribs)
Whilst most bulgogi serving establishments will offer Gilbi its best consumed at a specialty restaurant, notably Seochomyeonok. The neon lighting and floorside seating barely hints to the mesmerizing flavours in the meat, whose spicy sauces were soothingly calmed by the accompanying naengmyon (buckwheat noodles served cold in a broth with mustard).
Kimbap (Korea’s version of sushi)
A dish evocative of childhood meals for Koreans and hence best experienced from the aptly named School Food on Garosu-gil.
Samgyetang (spring chicken slow cooked and stuffed with chestnuts, garlic and ginseng)
The queue and prolonged waiting times are testament to the quality of dish and length of cooking time found at the ever populat To Sok Chon.
Modern Korean Food
Head to the famed Jung Sik Dang (which also has a NYC outpost) for a molecular take on Korean food. Or for something really interesting and challenging to your tastebuds try out Sandang where the flavours will push your conceptions of Korean food
Hofs (German inspired beer halls)
The Koreans have a fondness for liquor, and whilst regional varieties such as Soju can be found everywhere, head to one of the city’s many hofs to guzzle down beer and feast on fried chicken along with the post work masses.
Seoul is a trove of the undiscovered waiting to delight the willing tourist and broaden your horizons of what Asian cities have to offer. For all its selling points, it is famously hard to navigate by the outsider, so some final parting tips to further enhance your stay:
- Use the subway to get around; it’s incredibly efficient and quicker when travelling long distances. Buy one-way tickets and remember to return your ticket to the return machines when you arrive to get your deposit back.
- Always travel with your destination’s address written in Korean to show cab drivers, and even then it’s common that they won’t be able to find it. So take a phone number and be willing to rack up your roaming charges as the cab driver phones the restaurant directly.
With a full stomach and aching legs, Seoul promises to challenge your preconceptions and open your eyes to the vibrant and bustling capital city and its wonderful and inimitable charm.