Two years ago, pretty much exactly, I spent a week traveling around Seoul for the Spring Holiday / Chinese New Year. With the new year here again (新年好 / New Year Goodness!) and, one of my favorite events, the Winter Olympic happening in South Korea, I’ve found myself reminiscing a lot on my time there. Seoul, South Korea is by far one of my favorite cities I’ve ever spent time in. I spent the first half of my trip traveling solo before a friend met up with me, and I found it a totally enjoyable (and friendly) city to travel around alone in. So whether you’re looking to go on a solo adventure or planning a vacation with friends, here are some of my favorite things to do in South Korea:
- The cafes! Seoul is a great city for coffee lovers like me. There quality coffee shops all over the city and I made it my personal mission to see all of them. I was staying in the Itaewon-dong neighborhood (which I loved!), so there was lots of coffee shops within walking distance (my guest house was actually around the corner from a Dunkin Donuts, which I totally hit up because it’s been a very long time since I’d had an American style donut). Insa-dong and Hongdae are an easy metro ride away and also full of adorable coffee shops, cat cafes, puppy cafes, and shops. I spent my first few days exploring new neighborhoods by walking from coffee shop to coffee shop (I was in Seoul in the winter, so it was really cold and I appreciated the warmth of the coffee shops or a hot beverage to help keep me warm as I walked around). Before my trip, I created a map for myself of some of the special coffee shops I wanted to see, such as the cat cafe, a puppy cafe, and the Hello Kitty Cafe—which was as pink as you as your wildest dreams.
- The Night Life. My first night in Seoul, I was invited to a small birthday dinner at a local’s apartment conveniently in the famous Gangnam neighborhood. Start with one mellow birthday dinner, add a few bottles of soju and before you know it, you’ll be the only underdressed girl in the country’s most expensive night club at 4 a.m. I’ve gone clubbing in cities around the world and nothing compares to the clubs I’ve experienced in South Korea (or China for that matter). My second night, I was determined to keep it an early night when I headed out for a solo dinner in Itaewon (I ended up out past 6 a.m. There’s just that much to do, if you want.) If you’re looking to enjoy some of the cities best bars and restaurants, Itaewon and Hongdae are my two favorite neighborhoods to start your evening. Both neighborhoods are crammed with restaurants (of all types of food), bars, and breweries. If you’re looking for a fun themed bar, I’d hit up the Sherlock Holmes Bar in Itaewon. Probably my favorite thing I ate while in Seoul was bulgogi, not really a shocker but it was damn good! (I also had tacos from this hole in the wall place in Itaewon that were totally bomb, particularly since I was really missing Mexican food after 5 months of living without it in China).
- The Shopping. If you’re into shopping, Seoul will not disappoint. My first stop after arriving in the city was the Line Friends shop in Itaewon, I wanted to look at giant teddy bears and there’s a cafe at the top. I got ice cream, which is one of the things people recommended I do during my trip. It did not disappoint. I also went to LUSH every time I saw one, about three different neighborhood. I was on a mission to get a few beauty/bath products that I couldn’t buy in China (LUSH does zero animal testing on their products, so they are not allow to be sold in China, per Chinese regulations). I was also on a mission to get some Korean face masks (I got a few multi packs that from the Face Shop that are amazing). Korea is famous for it’s beauty products, so I definitely recommend picking up a few things while you’re there, but do be sure to read the descriptions. I avoided any product that was “lighten” or “brighting” as they are designed to help lighten your skin tone. Myeongdong and Hongdau are the neighborhoods I did most of my shopping while I was there, but there are lots of cool market areas. Definitely check out the Namdaemun market while you’re there.
- The Land Marks. One of the places I was really excited to see in person was Seoul Tower and the love locks. I’m drawn in by the city views and the multicolored spectacle of the locks (I think they are pretty). Seoul Tower has great views from both sides and is in the middle of a park that’s very pretty to walk through, so it’s worth seeing even if you aren’t as excited as I was about the love lock aspect. The palaces are also well worth it. There are five grand palaces in Seoul. I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung. They are very pretty to visit, even in the winter, and all fairly close to each other. There is also an ancient neighborhood to walk through in that neighborhood and a shopping district with street food and all sorts of cool shops. Because I was there during the Chinese New Year, I was able to take part in fun festivities at the National Palace Museum (right next to Gyeongbokgung). The War Museum is also nothing short of impressive. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Nah, a war museum isn’t really my thing,” go anyway. Not only is it just super cool to walk around, it’s just incredibly interesting.
- The Bath Houses. Seoul is famous for it’s spas and bath houses (jjimjilbang). In Seoul, a bath house is more than just hot tubs and massage tables. There are often restaurants, entertainment, steam rooms, lounge areas, etc. Some you can even stay in over night. It’s a great way to spend a day relaxing. (Be prepared for a fair amount of nudity at a bath house). Some of the most famous ones in the city include: Dragon Hill Spa, Spa Itaewon Land, and Spa Lei. (LUSH also has one if their spas in Seoul if you’re interested in a day a of pampering with your favorite LUSH products.)
- Outside of Seoul. If you have time to travel around outside of the city there are plenty of places just a train-ride away. One of the reasons I was drawn to visiting Seoul in the winter was to visit a hot springs (I’m a big fan of combining hot tubs and snow). Bugok Hot Springs in Gyeongsangnam-do (부곡 온천) and Damyang Resort Spa in Jeollanam-do (담양리조트 온천) were the two that I was most interested in visiting. If there is one thing that I heard over and over from people while I was in Seoul, it was to visit Busan (you can take the train there from Seoul). There is lots to do in this city, including an Aquarium, so you might consider spending more than just a day there. Yongin (also an easy train ride from Seoul) has plenty to see and do as well, including the Korean Folk Village and Everland Theme Park (which makes it a pretty popular city for tourist). If you’re traveling to South Korea in the summer months, consider take some time to visit the beaches. There are also lots of cool historical areas, such as the Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon or the Mangwolsa Temple. (I did not make it to any of the beaches, fortresses, or temples while visiting because I ended up a little crunched for time and I didn’t feel like doing that type of traveling in the winter, but I’ve heard they are most definitely worth checking out if you have the time.)
One of my favorite coffee shops Itaewon Best taco spot in all of Seoul. Found it while walking through Itaewon up to Seoul Tower Me at Seoul Tower Me at Line Friends (enjoying the ice cream) Taking part in Chinese New Year crafts at the National Palace Museum Gyeongbokgung Palace with some of the most amazing looking mountains in the background.