Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a large metropolis where contemporary skyscrapers, high-tech subways, and fashion meets Buddhist temples, historic palaces, and street markets. We spoke with Marina, a Seoul local, to put together a 24-hour itinerary to best experience what Seoul has to offer.
Walk Along Cheonggyecheon Stream
Start your morning off right with a stroll along the newly reinvented, beautiful Cheonggyecheon Stream.
Until it was restored and reinvented in 2003, Cheonggyecheon Stream existed only as an abandoned waterway hidden under an overpass. Today, it has been transformed into a picturesque haven of natural beauty, bringing water and vegetation amidst the hustle and bustle of city life.
The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang River, with many attractions along the way.
Travel Seoul Like a Local
The best way to venture around the city like a local is by taking the metro.
Riding the subway in Seoul is an easy, fast and efficient way to get around the city. The entire system is both in Korean and in English so it is very simple for English speakers to get around the city with ease as well.
There are two main types of money cards you can use to pay for your trip, the T-Money Card and the Single-Use T-Money Card. The regular T-Money card is a much more practical choice, however, as it is cheaper for each ride and can be loaded and reused, rather than the single-use T-Money Card, which is more expensive each ride and has to be rebought for each trip.
Taste Some Local Street Food in Namdaemun Market
Opened in 1964, Namdaemun Market is the largest and eldest traditional market in Korea. The Market is a labyrinth of stalls selling a variety of clothes, glasses, toys, stationery, fine arts, accessories, flowers, and a wide variety of delicious authentic Korean street food.
While exploring Namdaemun Market, try hotteok – a Korean pancake/donut which comes in both a savoury and sweet version. The savoury version, which is rice dough stuffed with glass noodles and vegetables, then fried in a shallow pan until golden brown, is a must try while in Seoul.
Travel back to the Joseon Dynasty at Gyeongbokgung Palace
After filling up on some delicious street food, head over to Gyeongbokgung Palace to experience some traditional Korean culture.
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace was the first and largest of all the royal palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty. Gyeongbokgung Palace is also referred to as the Northern Palace because it is the furthest north compared to its neighbouring palaces, Changdeokgung (Eastern Palace), and Gyeonghuigung (Western Palace). Gyeongbokgung Palace is arguably the most beautiful out of all of the palaces.
When visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace be sure to arrive early in order to catch the 10:00 am opening of the palace gate ceremony and the guard changing ceremony.
After you experience the guard changing ceremony, head over to the traditional costume experience pavilion. It is free to try on the traditional costumes and will transport you back in time to the Joseon Dynasty. You have only approximately 10-15 minutes to take photos in the costumes so while waiting for your turn, be sure to set up your camera and think of possible poses and photo backdrops.
Explore the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace
Changdeokgung Palace was the second royal palace constructed after Gyeongbukgung Palace in 1405. It was the principal palace for many kings of the Joseon Dynasty and is the most well-preserved of the five remaining royal palaces. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
The grounds offer a public palace, a royal family residence building, and the rear garden, that boasts a gigantic tree that is over 300 years old, a small pond and a pavilion.
While at Changdeokgung Palace be sure to visit the secret garden, that was exclusively used by the royal family in the Joseon Dynasty. You can only enter the Secret Garden on a guided tour, so be sure to plan your visit wisely. The Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace is an extremely lush, peaceful, and charming place to explore for a few hours.
Treat Yourself to Tea in a Traditional Hanok
After exploring the palaces and royal gardens, head over to the Bukchon Hanok Village to treat yourself to some tea in a traditional Korean house and explore the ancient streets.
Bukchon Hanok Village reflects over 600 years of Seoul’s history. The village is situated between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace, and its streets are filled with traditional hanoks, which are traditional Korean houses. Hanoks were first designed and built in the 14th century during the Joseon Dynasty.
Today, many of these hanoks operate as cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses, providing tourists with the opportunity to immerse themselves in traditional Korean culture. If you want to relax and have tea in a traditional hanok, try Luden Loquen Café.
As there isn’t just one must-see street or particular highlight, you are free to roam the streets, take in the culture and heritage and explore what Bukchon has to offer.
Watch the Sunset from Bukhansan National Park
If you have time after the jam-packed day and are up for the hike, venture over to Bukhansan National park (approx. 45 minutes by bus from Changdeokgung Palace), and view the magnificent sunset after hiking the summit.
Located in northern Seoul, but still very accessible via public transportation, Bukhansan National Park is a mountainous oasis with lots to offer. The park, which covers more than 30 square miles, is home to towering granite peaks, valleys, miles of hiking trails, and about 100 historic Buddhist temples. Bukhansan National Park is a must-see for adventurers and nature lovers alike.
Cool Down with Cold Noodles and Delicious Korean BBQ
After working up a sweat hiking the summit at Bukhansan National Park, cool down with some traditional Korean cold noodles.
Cold noodles (Naengmyeon), are thin chewy handmade noodles made from buckwheat or sweet potatoes served in an icy broth which is usually made out of chicken, beef, or sometimes dongchimi, a type of pickled white kimchi. It is a delicious Korean treat.
For your cold noodle fix, try Yookssam Naengmyeon. Each bowl of naengmyeon is served with a side of Korean BBQ meat, so you are able to experience the best of both worlds.
Although South Korea may not be a bucket list travel destination for many people across the world, it should be. Being a place where bustling city life meets Buddhist temples, historic palaces, and street markets, Seoul packs a cultural punch that should not be missed.