To some extent, Seoul is similar to Beijing. Both are national capitals. Both have a long, fascinating history. Both attract tourists in the million, and both combine elements of the present and the past into everyday life. You may have checked websites brimming with travel tips or bought a handy guidebook to the most famous sights, but for those making a repeat visit – or just interested in taking a less conventional route – here are four alternative options for your stay:
1. Sample Traditional Dishes
If you’ve just come to Seoul for kimchi, give yourself a slap in the face. Although the spicy fermented vegetable is a symbol of Korean food culture, it’s easy to find everywhere – and in case you haven’t heard, a lot of it is made in China.
The daily local diet in Seoul is quite traditional, and most people aren't dining on the nation's famed barbecue regularly. Samgyetang, a ginseng chicken soup, is one of the top recommendations. Seeking the most authentic example is often a mission for foodie tourists.
In Chebu-dong, heart of the city, is a restaurant that offers both a traditional recipe and an atmospheric ambiance: Tosokchon Samgyetang. Located inside a building designed in the hanok (traditional Korean house) style, patrons take off shoes as they enter and sit cross-legged in front of the table, before diving into the warming, health-giving stew.
Another noteworthy repast is the soy crab, which might as well be called the superstars’ favorite, judging by the ubiquitous photos of celebrities eating the crustacean in every eatery vending this delicious dish. One of the best-known soy crab restaurants is Pro – it’s so popular among Chinese that a branch opened in Shanghai earlier this year.
2. Explore the Local Fashion Industry
Seoul is not the place to buy luxury brands. There are thousands of brilliant indie designers who are devoted to changing the fashion industry. You can find plenty of these boutique outfits in Garosu-gil, located in the notoriously chichi Gangnam District. Leafy gingko trees on both sides of the street dapple the sunlight, creating a romantic scene for visitors as they shop.
Speaking of sun, one of our favorite places in this area is Gentle Monster, a local sunglasses brand. It’s not so much a shop as it is a gallery, showcasing different concepts on its first floor in eye-catching displays. It’s classic Garosu-gil.
3. Hit the Bar!
Don’t underestimate nightlife in Seoul. No matter what you are looking for, Seoul can provide it all the time, any time. Even the famous clothes markets in Dongdaemun are open until 5am – and are often crowded at midnight.
Visiting Seoul without experiencing nightlife is like touring Guangzhou and not trying dim sum. Honestly, it’s fascinating. And diverse.
To illustrate that point, there’s even an area of Seoul famous for being the place where Western expats go to party (and where many also live). Itaewon has ubiquitous cafes and bars, with many of the latter hiding underground. Start at Magpie Brewing, a secretive craft beer hangout where you can boost your energy with coffee-flavored pints.
If you’re looking for love, Una’s flashing LED floor attracts dozens of dancing party girls. Epilepsy not your thing? Slow things down at the metropolis’ oldest jazz bar, All That Jazz, where live shows ease patrons into a chill mood.
Before midnight, visitors to Itaewon can pop a squat and stare up the alleyways at the glittering N Seoul Tower while swigging a drink al fresco. Alternatively, head over to the broadcasting structure earlier in the evening and actually ascend it for a panoramic view from the city’s highest point.
4. Visit Korea’s Answer to the Forbidden City
Almost every visitor to Seoul pays their respects at Korea’s answer to the Forbidden City, Gyeongbokgung. This is often followed by a stroll through the Bukchon Hanok Village, located just a stone’s throw away. While these are definitely not to be missed, also consider enjoying a free exhibition at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and supporting local designers by visiting the Art & Craft zone.
Transportation is probably the most difficult part of visiting Seoul. Most people don’t speak extensive English – or Mandarin for that matter – so make sure you have a good map, as asking for directions might be more confusing than clarifying.
Metro is the primary and most convenient form of transportation. As in China, it’s efficient and easy to use. Taxis are expensive and explaining where you’re going to bus drivers can be problematic.