Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a must-visit for those who enjoy shopping and eating. With so much history, culture, and cuisine to explore, the possibilities can be overwhelming. I've visited this fascinating city twice and here's a 3-day itinerary on my recommended top things to do in Seoul as well as some tips and tricks for planning your travels!
Accommodations. Hotels are both plentiful and affordable across Seoul. The top priority in booking a hotel is making sure it is near a subway line. Many hotel entrances are right in front of a subway exit. You should book a hotel that is no more than a block or two away from a subway station. If possible, book a hotel near a subway station that has multiple lines connected to it. This will make your travels more efficient if you have fewer transfers to make. For example, Jongno-3 ga connects to lines 3, 1, and 5. Or for a unique experience, try living in a traditional Korean hanok in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.
Upon arrival. There are two main airports in Seoul. Most visitors arrive via Incheon International Aiport. Some visitors who are flying within Asia or domestically may arrive in Gimpo Airport.
Purchase a pocket wifi or SIM card. By the checked baggage area you should spot several stands that offer pocket WiFi devices or SIM card rentals to travelers. These will range from $5-$10/day depending on type and availability. You can reserve them in advance online, but I’ve had no problem securing either on the day of arrival. I recommend renting a pocket WiFi if you are traveling in a group so everyone can share both the WiFi and costs. However, if you are traveling alone or plan on splitting up with your group, a SIM card may be more convenient.
Purchase a T-Money Card. Visit a convenience store within the airport to purchase a T-Money Card. This is a rechargeable transportation card that can be used on subways, buses, trains, taxis, and even in some convenience stores. The subway is the easiest way to travel within Seoul and the T-Money Card will allow you to quickly hop on and off the subway without digging for spare change each trip.
Take the AREX to Seoul Station. If you are arriving at Incheon International Airport, taking the AREX is the easiest way to get to Seoul’s city center. An express train takes 43 minutes and costs approximately $8 while an all-stop train takes about 53 minutes for ~$4. From Seoul Station, you can either take the subway or a taxi to your hotel. You can also take a taxi directly from the airport, which will cost about $50-$70. Limousine buses will also take you to major areas and hotels in Seoul for about $15. These two are great options if you have a lot of luggage.
Download the Subway Korea app. Rather than spending time locating a map on the subway or figuring out the fastest route, download the Subway Korea app from iTunes App Store or the Google Play Store. The app provides real-time transit info, a timetable, transfer info, and more. A must have!
Shop in Myeongdong. If you are searching for Korean cosmetics, Myeongdong has all the popular brands in one place. Find Etude House, TonyMoly, Banila Co, MISSHA, Innisfree, Laneige, and more all in Myeongdong. Explore ART BOX for some cute gifts to take back home or try trendy Korean fashion from stores like ALAND and Style Nanda.
Eat street food in Myeongdong. While shopping, grab a bite to eat from the many small stalls or side shops located in the main shopping area. More stalls tend to open up in the evening as well. Grab a foot-tall ice cream cone, a tornado potato ( a delicious potato spiral that has been fried and seasoned), dragon beard candy, hotteok, dalgona, egg bread, bingsu, and more!
Visit a cafe. Myeungdong has its fair share of unique cafes. Take a visit to the Hello Kitty Cafe for a drink and food decorated in your favorite kitty cartoon. Or visit actual kitties by going to a cat cafe for the small price of one drink. If cats aren’t your thing, there’s also a puppy cafe. There are generally no time limits on animal cafes, so enjoy your unlimited cuddles!
Enjoy a scenic view from Namsan Seoul Tower. From Myeungdong, it’s a short walk to the Namsan Cable Station. The cable car costs about $6 round trip and will take you up to Namsan Park. If you’re up to the challenge, you can also hike up the beautiful 1-mile journey. Once you arrive, purchase a ticket to the observatory for about $10 to enjoy a 776-foot scenic view of Seoul. If this area seems familiar, you might have spotted it in a Korean drama as many famous stars have declared their undying love by “locking” their love via lock to the fence nearby the tower. You can purchase your own lock of love in the gift shops.
Grab dinner at Gwangjang Market. Gwangjang market is street food heaven. Make sure to try bibimbap, mung bean pancakes, jap chae, and kimbap. If you’re adventurous, many stalls also serve live octopus. They cut up a live octopus fresh to order, and it’s still squirming around by the time it enters your mouth. Make sure to chew well! You’ll also find hundreds of varieties of kimchi and ban chan here, everything from the traditional pickled cabbage to spicy mini crabs.
Sing all night at a Noraebang. If Namsam tower didn’t make you feel enough like a leading star in a romance story, head to a Noraebang to show off your K-pop chops! Noraebangs, or karaoke rooms, are plentiful all around Seoul. If you don’t speak any Korean, don’t worry - most venues offer a wide selection of popular English songs. The song lists are updated frequently so you can belt out your most favorite recent top 40 song. Also, Noraebangs never close so feel free to sing all night to the early morning. Order a few rounds of soju or makgeolli (a delicious Korean rice wine) and ask a local to teach you how to play a few popular drinking games.
Recover with a bowl of Samgyetang. If you’re feeling drained from the night long singing and drinking, recover with a steaming hot bowl of Samgyetang at Tosokchon. This hearty dish features a chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, garlic, and jujube. Tosokchon is famous for being a favorite of a former Korean president and for its traditional atmosphere. The restaurant is housed in a traditional hanok and seating is on cushions placed on the floor. Arrive before the 10 AM opening time to avoid a long wait and to enjoy a full breakfast before a day of exploring.
Rent a hanbok and pose at Gyeongbokgung. Before heading over to the royal palace Gyeongbokgung, rent a hanbok from one of the stores nearby to gain free entrance to the palace and some unique photos! There are many choices around the palace area. Choose from hourly or all-day rental options and the staff will even help ladies pull their hair into a traditional Korean up-do.
If you don’t rent a hanbok, the entrance fee is still very affordable at ~$3 for adults. If you are planning to visit more than one palace, you can get a combined ticket for a discounted rate. Try to catch the Changing of the Guards ceremony at either 10 AM or 2 PM. Take a self-guided tour of the palace or a free English tour.
Explore the gardens of Changdeokgung. If you still have your hanbok on, you also get free entry into the Changdeokgung Palace! A UNESCO World Heritage site, the gardens, and pavilions of this stunning palace are absolutely gorgeous. I recommend paying the extra ~$5 fee to join the Huwon Tour to view the Secret Gardens!
Enjoy lunch in Bukchon Hanok Village. From Changdeokgung, it’s a short walk over to the Bukchon Hanok Village. This area contains traditional Korean houses called hanok that date back to 14th century Joseon Dynasty. This is another great place to take pictures in a hanbok or explore the many alleyways that contain restaurants, tea houses, art galleries, and souvenir shops.
Go souvenir shopping in Insadong. Also nearby the royal palaces is a wonderful area called Insadong. This street is full of art galleries, craft shops, specialty clothing shops, calligraphy, street food. and more. It’s a great place to grab a few souvenirs for friends back home.
Get your Gangnam Style. You may have heard about Gangnam first through the popular K-Pop “Gangnam Style" by PSY. PSY was born and raised in this district known for its trendy and hip culture. Garosu-Gil in Sinsa-Dong is where you will find the trendiest art galleries, cafes, and clothing boutiques. Take a stop by Gentle Monster. It’s a luxury sunglasses brand with some high sticker prices but it’s also a living art piece. Every few months, the theme of the of the store changes to a new concept. Then they tear it all down and start over again. Past themes have included building a giant corn field or ping pong tables added throughout the entire store with a machine throwing balls. As these exhibits are always temporary, it’s fun to catch one while you can!
Afterward, head over to Apgujeong Rodeo Street. This street is known for its luxury & designer clothing stores and trendy fashion. If you’re feeling fancy, grab a cup of coffee in Cafe Dior by Pierre Herme. K-Pop celebs, TV and film idols, and other stars are often spotted on this famous street. Many of the celebrities frequent the trendy hair salons and a few K-Pop stars own cafes in the area.
Enjoy pork belly at Hanam Pig House. Hanam Pig House is a popular chain restaurant that specializes in creating the best pork belly you will ever taste. Their specialty is a black pig that is raised on volcanic water and fresh veggies. Samgyupsal, a dish of thick fatty slices of pork belly meat, is easily found in many Korean bbq restaurants. “Sam” refers to the number 3, which refers to the three layers found in pork belly. However, Hanam also serves “ogyepsal,” which means an extra thick and extra delicious 5 layer pork belly. The waiters cook the pork in front of you and even use a special laser thermometer gun to make sure the grill is at the perfect temperature before laying down the meat. They pretty much have it down to an art form here.
Party in Hongdae or Itaewon. The Hongdae area is near the Hongik University and is known for its underground indie culture, clubs, and night entertainment. You can also go in the daytime to enjoy lively street performers and explore the Hongdae Mural Street for paintings and graffiti. It also houses numerous cafes, galleries, and trendy fashion shops. Itaewon is known as the international district of Korea. You’ll find cuisines from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and more. True to its diverse nature, Itaewon is filled with bars and clubs with unique themes like American-style bars with beer pong, Irish Style pubs, or a tropical cocktail bar called “Bungalow” which has swings and sand in the rooms to create an indoor beach.
Stock up on snacks at Lotte Mart. If you are heading to Seoul Station to take the AREX for your departure from Korea, there’s a convenient department store called Lotte Mart. This is a great place to use up any Korean Won you may have left and to bring back some snacks for friends. This giant department store features two stories filled with all the Korean snacks you may desire. Stock up on honey butter chips, Pepero, and Choco Pies. If there is any makeup you forgot to buy or if you’ve found extra room in your luggage, there’s a full cosmetics section with your favorite brands like Etude House and Tony Moly. They even have lockers for you to store your luggage in while you shop!
I hope this guide was helpful for your travel planning. Seoul is a city with a lot to explore in culture, food, and shopping. You could spend a month in the city and still only cover a small percentage of its many types of cuisines. However, this guide provides a comprehensive taste into this amazing city. If you have extra days, I recommend exploring some other areas outside of Seoul such as The DMZ, Busan, Jeju Island, and Nami Island.