Seoul is bright. It's lively. It's cute. It's colorful. And I'm pretty sure it never sleeps.
It's a massive city of about 10,000,000 inhabitants and it feels as though there's never a dull moment. Sure, you can find moments of solitude on mountaintops (more on those later) but I guarantee even there you'll see a few grandmas with a bottle of soju and their portable grill having a little picnic from the summit.
Having the chance to live in Seoul was a dream come true that I never even knew I had until arriving. I actually ended up teaching English in South Korea because my now husband, then boyfriend wanted to move to Japan and I wanted to move to Vietnam. Somehow South Korea became our compromise and we were so thankful it did.
If you get a chance to move to South Korea, take it, but if not, traveling to Seoul is well worth it, too. With that, let's dive right into this mini travel guide to Seoul, South Korea to help you prepare for your first trip here.
General Seoul Travel Tips
In general, the best recommendation I can give you for Seoul is to take public transportation and walk. This city is so vibrant with so much to do that exploring it by foot or by metro is the best way to see it all. I highly recommend downloading KakaoMetro. This will help you navigate the metro and plan out your route.
Know that although many of the younger generation speak English at a high level, much of the older generation does not. The Korean language can be a very tricky one so get the basics of but I recommend learning a few basic words and phrases that will help you get around, and most importantly, enjoy the delicious food Korea has to offer. I recommend Mondly for language learning.
Whether or not you need a tourist visa to enter into South Korea will depend on your nationality. You can review the full list of countries and entry requirements here. A majority of countries, the US, EU, and UK included, are rewarded 90 days of visa-free travel. Canadian citizens can get up to 6 months.
For a longer stay than this, you'll need a visa to be able to do so. More likely than not, that would mean getting a job in the country that will sponsor you.
Seoul gets 4 real seasons. Expect a balmy, hot summer, a stunningly crisp fall, a freezing cold winter, and a rainy yet picturesque spring. Depending on when you visit Seoul, you'll want to be sure that you pack accordingly because trust me, there is nothing mild about the seasons here.
Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket.
Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. I plan a trip to a destination knowing that I want to do a sailboat trip or food tour and wait until the day before to book only to realize it’s not available the day I’m in town. Don’t make that mistake - if there is something you know you want to do - book your tour in advance.
Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.
Great Seoul Neighborhoods (Dongs) to Visit
Seoul is divided into districts (gu) and those are further divided into neighborhoods (dongs). With nearly 500 neighborhoods to choose from, it can be a little overwhelming when deciding where to stay and what areas to visit. Know that staying in one of these neighborhoods might be costly but if you book a hotel near a train station or along a convenient bus route, you can save some money and still get anywhere you want to go in the city.
From my personal experience, these are my favorite neighborhoods in Seoul and ones you should spend some time in.
Hongdae is a busy university neighborhood. This area is a lot of fun and absolutely jam-packed. There are a lot of fun cafes and shopping overflowing onto the streets. It's also a big bar district so if you're looking for a fun night out, Hongdae won't disappoint.
If you’re looking for skincare products, this is the neighborhood for you. Not only is this the best place to pick up souvenirs or goodies for yourself, but it’s also home to the best street food. It’s a high-end area, so the street food matches that (think street grilled lobster and ice cream with fresh honeycombs in it).
This neighborhood is along the river and is super modern. The biggest attractions in the area are the Lotte World Tower and Lotte World. The tower gives you great views of the city and also has a glass floor you can test your heights on. Lotte World is an amusement park and an aquarium.
Insa-dong is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Seoul. It's trendy and centrally located and offers a lot of boutique shops, restaurants, and bars. This area feels clean, cool, and very aesthetically pleasing. The shopping and food is typically more expensive here than say in Hongdae but if it's a vibe you're chasing, you might find it worth it.
Ok, if I'm being honest, Itaewon isn't a personal favorite but many people love this area so I wanted to include it. It's near the US military base and by far the most foreigner-friendly area since those who work and live here tend to speak more English than in other areas. This neighborhood is also known for its nightlife scene and can get pretty wild late at night. Personally, I prefer other areas of the city, but if you're looking for a place that's more "Westernized," visit Itaewon.
Fun Things to Do in Seoul
Visit a Number of Themed Cafes
The cafe culture is so vibrant in Korea. There are themed cafes for almost anything you could imagine (even poop!). Pretty much, if you have an interest in mind, there’s probably a themed cafe for it. There are also a ton of animal cafes where you can play with the animals while you sip your drink. I was a frequent visitor to the dog cafes, and while I can't speak of the treatment of all the animals in all those cafes, these dogs were incredibly loved and well looked after.
Let Loose at an Arcade
The arcade culture is also super strong in South Korea, only rivaled by that of Japan. You won’t have to look far to find an arcade that you can pop into for an hour or two and play some quick games. Whether you're a solo traveler or with a group, this is a fun activity to let loose and have some mildly competitive fun.
I was completely unprepared when we first landed in Seoul to see that the city is surrounded by some pretty beautiful mountains. I knew it was going to be a mega-city but I didn't realize it would also be a fantastic place for a nature-lover like me. Since South Korea's public transportation is so extensive, you can most likely get to any trail head with a short walk from a bus stop or train station. Just know that the trails can get crowded as hiking is a popular pastime for the older generation in Seoul.
If you're not up for a big trail but do want to get views of Seoul from above, head to N Seoul Tower. You can drive, take the shuttle, or walk to the tower but many opt to take the cable car instead. The tower is in Namsan Park so you'll still get your fair share of green space from the city center.
If you don't want to go up, go around. The Han River cuts Seoul in 2 parts and is the perfect place to go for a long (or short) bike ride. You’ll get great views of the city and there are plenty of places to rent bikes in the area, just off the bike routes themselves. Along the river you'll also find plenty of food stalls or shops to buy some goods to have your own picnic on a nice day.
Foods You Need to Try in Seoul
Now for my favorite part - food in Seoul! No trip to South Korea is complete without eating too much each and every day you're here. Even if you've grown up going to Korean BBQ places in your hometown, nothing quite hits like the real thing. Plus, there are plenty more delicacies that you can only find here.
Foods to Try at a Restaurant
This is one you might have heard of before. It’s a big bowl of rice with loads of toppings, including a fried egg on the top. It’s a really filling yet healthier meal than some of the other options you’ll want to try. It hails from Jeonju but you can find tasty bowls of it throughout Seoul, too.
Korean Fried Chicken
Some say this is the original KFC, who’s to say! As someone from the South of the US, I can't say that eating fried chicken was high on my list of Korean must-trys but man, do they do it well. The fried chicken in South Korea is usually covered in different sauces instead of served plain like I'm used to so it makes for a completely different experience.
Korean BBQ restaurants are all over the city and, from my experience, are all delicious. I’m not a big meat eater and never eat beef and I still loved joining in at these restaurants. You’ll get to pick your cuts of meat and the meal will come with a load of different sides (banchan). To me, the banchan is really what shines here and I could fill up on those alone while whoever I was dining with could dig into the grilled meats.
These are thick noodles with a dark bean sauce. I know that might not sound appealing, but these noodles are seriously fantastic. Jajangmyeon are typically the cheapest option on the menu so if you're trying to watch your budget while visiting Seoul, this is a tasty way to do it.
My personal favorite menu item on the list- I love japchae. Japchae is another noodle dish but this is made with glass noodles, loads of veggies, and sometimes meat (if preferred). These provide a really balanced meal with loads of soy sauce flavor.
Saving the weirdest for last! This is a raw octopus that’s so fresh it still squirms! It's a really wild experience and if you like trying strange things while traveling, I’m not sure you’ll be able to beat this. Octopus are my favorite animal, so ethically, I'm a bit wary of this but if you want to try a true South Korean delicacy while in Seoul, you might be hard-pressed to outdo sannajki.
Did someone say dessert? Bingsu is by far the most popular dessert you'll find in Seoul. So much so that not only do many restaurants offer it but there are also plenty of cafes dedicated to this and nothing more. At its core, bingsu is just shaved ice with a milk base. Not quite an Icee, not quite ice cream but something uniquely in between. You can choose from a variety of fruit flavors and options like chocolate, red bean, matcha, etc.
Common (& Delicious) Street Food
Tteokbokki is a common street food made of thick pieces of rice cake (they look like short, fat, chewy noodles) in a spicy sauce. Some are spicier than others, so you’ve been warned! You can find street food vendors selling this all over the city. Some will even put cheese on top.
You can think of this as Korea’s sushi, except instead of raw fish, it’s a rice and seaweed wrap with pickled veggies and meat or tuna salad. This gimbab with tuna salad was one of my go-to lunches if I didn’t pack my meal for work.
Mandu are Korea’s dumplings. There are so many types, some steamed, some grilled, some deep-fried and they have all sorts of fillings. It's easy to find mandu sold on the street all over the city or you can easily pick some up at the grocery store to prepare for yourself for an easy meal in.
Odeng is a skewered fish cake. At first I was hesitant to try this one but once I did, I got hooked. They often sell it at train stations so it's an easy and quick snack to grab on the go.
Ohhh, how I miss egg bread! It’s really as simple as it sounds, it’s a small bun with an egg on top. These are really common in Myeondong so keep your eyes peeled if you visit this neighborhood.
South Korea loves them some corn dogs. They go the extra mile though and like sugar on theirs (still with ketchup). You can also find ones stuffed with cheese and black squid ink varieties. They’ve taken the classic corn dog and made it way better in my opinion.
My husband has a sweet tooth so this was his go-to street treat. It’s like a hot pancake that's filled with honey, sugar, peanuts, and cinnamon. It’s really common in the winter and might be harder to find in the summer.
Drinks to Try in Seoul
Know that you're full, you need to make sure you don't get thirsty. While of course you can find all of the regular drinks you can expect to see all over the world, these drinks are Korean at their core and worth trying:
- Soju: Soju is Korea’s answer to Sake. You can buy it in bottles cold really anywhere - from restaurants to small convenience stores. It comes in different flavors but I personally like “Fresh.” Careful though, soju has a way of sneaking up on you!
- Makgeolli: This is another alcoholic drink common in Korea and also found at any store. It’s much more unique, given its white color and kind of chalky flavor. It’s also a rice wine but tastes completely different from soju.
- Banana Milk: Also easy to find this is exactly as it sounds: banana-flavored milk. Kids in Korea absolutely love this drink and while I typically loathe banana flavored things, I did enjoy this milk as a random sweet treat.
- Hot Tea: While Vietnam takes the cake in cold tea options, South Korea has you covered with hot tea. Don't worry, you'll find more than enough coffee shops if you need more caffeine but their variety of hot teas will leave you with a tough decision to make.
Enjoying Traveling in Seoul
While there is so much more to see and do in Seoul - from day trips to the North Korea border to dressing up in a hanbok at Gyeongbokgung Palace - as promised, this was a mini guide to help you jump start with your travel plans and learn about things not always mentioned in the "top things to do" articles.
Walk a lot, go shopping, eat as much Korean food as you can, and soak up the bright and exciting culture that South Korea has to offer in Seoul.