This is the 2013 OUTDATED version of the top things to do in Seoul (maintained for sentimental value). Follow the link to the new TOP 50 Things to do in Seoul.
#30 Old Seoul Station
The Old Seoul Station started operation more than 100 years ago. It has recently been reopened to the public after years of remodeling. It currently sits right next to the modern Seoul Station train hub, the main train station to go anywhere out of Seoul, and is quite interesting to get a good view of the two buildings simultaneously from a distance. As they were built almost a hundred years apart, you can see the development of Korean architecture from 1900 (European based) to today (almost futuristic). Unfortunately, for the time being, there is nothing really inside the old building besides a few modern art exhibitions (which isn’t my type of art) so the pretty building (and a lot of imagination) will have to do.
#29 The Blue House
The Blue House is the official residence of the president of Korea. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out what it is as the name is so similar to the American White House (but I won’t go as far as to say it was copied, because I am not sure). Tours are offered through their official website, but if you didn’t plan ahead of time, this might not be logistically feasible. From the outside, you can’t really get close enough to take a decent picture (despite the “photo location” plaques on the ground that state otherwise). It is located directly behind the Gyeongbok Palace , which used to be the official residence of the Joseon Dynasty (1390s-1911) kings.
Itaewon is a district of Seoul that has some of the best foreign food in Korea. It is a hot spot for a lot of people who are living here long-term, and require a fix that is not Korean food every once in a while. It is also a major hub for night life, especially for foreigners. However, just like a Chinese person would not be too interested in visiting Chinatown in LA, I suspect most visitors came to Korea to see….Korean things… not foreign things. For that reason, this ranks so low on my list of things to do. If you do find your way here, it is a good place to pick up some souvenirs, and in many ways, has the same stuff you can find in Insa-dong (the main souvenir shopping district).
#27 Olympic Park and Sports Complex
This item has already been listed on a previous list, and the description then was as good as any, so here it goes again: There is something very exciting about being in a place where the Olympics were held. I remember going to visit the Bird’s Nest in Beijing in 2010 and still being mesmerized by knowing that Usain Bolt had shattered the 100m dash record in that very spot. Even though I was only two years old when the 1988 Seoul Olympics took place, it is amazing to be in the very stadium where athletes fought for nothing but national and personal pride and became either legends, or footnotes in the record books. The Olympic Park and Jamsil Sports Complex were built specifically for the Olympics and the Asian Games of 1986. While neither has seen major sporting action in a while, they are both well kept for tourists and local teams alike that play in those stadiums. Olympic Park is on Olympic Park Station (Purple Line 5) or Mongchontoseong Station (Pink Line 8, one stop from Lotte World). The Jamsil Sports Complex is on Sports Complex Station (Green Line 2, two stops from Lotte World in the opposite direction).
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#26 Lotte World
Like the Olympic structures, this item has also already been mentioned on this blog before. Here it goes again: I didn’t realize this when I was younger, but in California, we are really spoiled with fantastic amusement parks. Because of this, I would not have naturally thought of promoting an amusement park as something to do when you visit another country. However, having met people from other countries or parts the the US that aren’t as lucky, I thought, why not. Even if you don’t go for a full day, Lotte World routinely offers ‘foreigner only’ discounts and is worth the price. This theme park has managed to wisely utilize the limited space it has with quite a few rides. Half of the park is indoors, so it is a good thing to do if you are unfortunate enough to be in Seoul during a downpour. Lotte World is located on Jamsil Station (Green Line 2 or Pink Line 8).
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#25 The Hwangudan Altar, Hwangudan Gate, Stone Drums, and City Hall Building
These come as a joint entry because they are so close to each other, and quite honestly, I wouldn’t recommend them otherwise. They also happen to be right across from the Deokso Palace (coming up in the next list) so it is easy to make a quick stop at these sites.
The City Hall building has recently been rebuilt. It was closed for as long as I have been here (since 2009) and reopened in August 2012. It is a very pretty building and there are often events or rallies right in front in Seoul Plaza (the de-facto town square). The design looks much like the Old Seoul Station building, showing the deep influence of Western architecture in the last century.
The stone drums were built in 1902 to honor King Gojong of Joseon, the last effective king of Korea. The use of stone is seen as a sign of the art of the time, and one of the few original relics of the Joseon dynasty. Looking at them, I couldn’t quite figure out how they can qualify as drums. What would you hit stone drums with? Theories would be much appreciated!
The Hwangudan gate is the doorway that leads to the altar of the same name and the stone drums. It was originally located within Deokso palace, the last official residence of the Joseon Dynasty Kings, and held a huge series of structures for the ‘rite of heaven’ performance. One odd fact is that while it is now located to the right side of City Hall (if you are facing it), until 2007, it was mistakenly used as the door to a hotel because no one knew what it really was! You can easily see it from City Hall, or if you have really good eyes, across from the Deokso Palace entrance.
The Hwangudan Altar is the last remaining structure of this complex built in 1897. The king himself used to come to the altar and help perform the rite of heaven, a performance and tradition leading back to the Goryeo Dynasty, over a thousand years ago. The ritual ensures that Korea will have a good harvest and overall good luck in the following year. It should be noted that while it is under construction, it is scheduled to be reopened in May, 2013. This was a very surprising find as I have never seen it mentioned on any book or any website. Consequently, I was the only person here the entire time, so it is a nice hidden gem in such a busy city.
#24 Banpo Bridge Fountain, Hangang Park, and 63 (six three) building
The banpo bridge fountain is another entry I have already talked about in a previous post. It is the longest musical fountain in the world, and it lights up at night. It is located on the banpo bridge, which stretches across the Han River (the river that bisects Seoul).
The river park (Hangang park) is actually not a single park, but a series of parks along the Han, and are a nice calm place contrasting the rustle bustle of Seoul. From some parts of the Hangang park, you are be able to see the 63 building and the fountain at the same time.
At one point, the 63 building was the tallest one in Korea. It is a beautiful gold color and towers above all nearby buildings overlooking the Han River. While it does have an observation deck, I wouldn’t recommend it as it is expensive, and a better view can be had from the cheaper N. Seoul Tower nearby. What is important is what it signifies. The building was built in the mid 1980s, a very tenuous time in Korea. At the time, Korea was being ruled by the dictator Chun Doo Hwan. Despite social suppression, Korea was also undergoing a massive boom in productivity and technological advancements known as the “Miracle on the Han River.” In many ways, 63 building is seen as a symbol of this prosperity, despite tough times. Deep, I know!
Insadong is where you go and get your friends some trinkets and t-shirts with ‘Korea stuff’ on it. Now, some books will try to sway you that it is the “cultural center of Korea” which it’s not! About ten years ago, Insadong was started as a project to have culturally unique Korean things in one spot, for the benefit of both Koreans and foreigners. By traditional, I’m talking Korean paintings, calligraphy, and the like. That day is dead, long dead. As years went by and Insadong became more popular, rent prices went up, and those nice traditional stores are all but gone, or a facade of the real money maker, souvenirs. I am not trying to dissuade anyone from going here, but want to make sure you know what to expect. With that said, there are tons of things here you can take back to your loved ones. You can find anything from traditional coin pouches, hanboks (traditional Korean costume), Buddhist ornaments, or hand made (in front of you) notebooks made of ‘hanji,’ traditional Korean paper. It is also a good spot to walk around and try famous korean street foods. It is a very enjoyable area if you have never been here before so give it a try.
#22 Coex Mall and its Aquarium
Yet another item I have already covered before, here it is again, taking the #22 spot: Coex is the largest underground mall in Asia and contains a pretty cool aquarium that is much bigger than it looks from the outside. While I have since seen better aquariums in Japan, this one is nonetheless especially cool because of how close you can get to penguins. Less than an inch of glass separates you from them. Other notable animals include the giant pacific octopus, japanese spider crabs, a beaver (I don’t know why there is a beaver in an aquarium), and manatees. Besides the aquarium, you can also partake in some fine dining and shopping. Just outside the mall is also the large Bongeunsa Temple, possibly the largest one in Seoul.
Bukchon is a traditional Korean village in the heart of Seoul, complete with ‘hanok’ houses. Hanok is the term used to describe traditional Korean houses, still found today in most Buddhist temples within Korea. This village was for a long time, one of my favorite parts in Seoul because the houses are so beautiful and the food is usually pretty good. While it can be very crowded at times, it is nevertheless very worthwhile as it is a perfect spot to just walk around in the afternoon. It is located between the Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces, making it easily accessible, and a nice detour if you visit those palaces.
#20 Cheonggyecheon / Cheonggye Stream / 청계천*
Uh oh! There is an asterisk already on the first entry. When I first made this list, the Cheonggye Stream didn’t even crack my top 30. It is a nice little stream that runs along the top half of Seoul, but nothing extraordinary. So what made me change my mind? I remembered how the stream transforms during the lotus and lantern festivals. Twice a year (once in May, once in November), the Cheonggye Stream is decorated with huge lanterns in celebration of those festivals. There is also a parade of lanterns near the stream that passes in front of Jonggak Station (#16), but this way, you can see them at your own pace. If you visit Seoul during one of these festivals, make sure to pass by this stream at night time, and of course, don’t miss the parade!
#19 Seoul Fortress Wall (starting at Hyehwamun / Hyehwa Gate / 혜화문)
The Seoul Fortress Wall was the wall that originally surrounded the capital city of Seoul dating back to the formation of the Joseon Dynasty. It has been a part of Korean history since its completion in 1398, and as far as I can tell, the parts that remain are original (although with heavy restoration). A walk along the wall gives you a good sense of the historical part of Seoul and can lead to some pretty amazing views. The wall itself is very well preserved, and takes you through some parts of Seoul you wouldn’t otherwise think of visiting. I actually visited the wall today (April 7th, 2013) and the hike was as good as ever.
1) Here is a great map and instructions on how to hike the wall (Official Korean Tourism Site)
#18 Deoksugung / Deoksu Palace / 덕수궁
After all the time I have been in Seoul, I finally went to this palace about two months ago. As with most palaces in Seoul, and everywhere in Korea, it is definitely special. The Deoksugung Palace was the last of the four great palaces of Seoul, the others being Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, and Changgyeonggung Palace (in case you haven’t noticed, ‘gung’ means ‘palace’ in Korean). The last Joseon Dynasty kings (emperors) resided here, which is strange since it is by far the smallest of all the palaces. One interesting feature is a peculiar, western looking building that seems very out of place in the traditional looking palace. Since the palace was expanded towards the end of the 1800s, western influence resulted in that building being built inside of this palace. If you have not been ‘palaced-out’ in Seoul yet (after visiting the other three), swing by this smaller, low key palace. While not as grandiose, it is definitely less crowded, which is kind of a rarity anywhere in Seoul. Don’t forget to pass by the hwangudan altar and city hall across from Deoksugung (#25 on the first part of this list).
#17 N. Seoul Tower (N. 서울 타워)
One of the things people love to do when they come to a big city, is find a high vantage point where they can see the whole city. Cities like Hong Kong have a bunch of these, some literally across from each other. While the 63 building (#24 on the list) does have an observation deck, N. Seoul Tower is the best place to see all of Seoul. The tower is built on the top of Namsan Mountain (which is what the ‘N’ stands for, not ‘north’), in the top half of Seoul. To get to the entrance of the tower, you have to get to the top of the mountain first. For once, this is not easier said than done. Many guide books will tell you to take the cable cart to the top. This, in my opinion, is a terrible idea. The line for the cable car is usually over two hours. While the view is nice, the real view is from the top of the tower, so don’t waste two hours in line! The best way to get up there is to take one of the ‘Namsan’ buses (green color) off of ‘Chungmuro Station.’ They are much faster (maybe a 10 minute wait at the bus stop), much cheaper (1000 won), and the result is the same. The view from the top is really good, and it is one of those things in Seoul that open late, up to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
#16 Site of Bosingak / Bosingak Teo / 보신각 터 (Jonggak Bell) and Jongno-Gu
Jongno-Gu is one of the central districts of Seoul, with a lot of activity, and a good clash of new and old. While new restaurants open up faster than you can keep up in Seoul, Jongno also holds some of the oldest restaurants in Korea. It is a great area to just walk around and get some good Korean food. But, if you’re like me, you like monuments, things of cultural significance in addition to “just walking around.”
Jongno is also the district of the Bosingak Teo, which I’ve always called the “Jonggak Bell” because of its proximity to Jonggak subway station. This bell, in ancient times, was rung to signify the opening or closing of the city wall gates, as well as emergencies that arose. These days, it is only rung every new years eve by the mayor of Seoul, and other officials (sometimes including a top Buddhist monk). You can think of it like the crystal ball that drops on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, but with a lot more history. If you want to see the bell rung, come on New Years Eve, and join the million (not an exaggeration) Koreans. If you want to experience it in peace, come any other day, and it will be waiting for you quietly.
This entry actually happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site that I have already evaluated, so why isn’t it higher on the list? Maybe you should read that article first but as a summary, the UNESCO inscription includes 18 sites, and the best one I have visited is outside of Seoul. However, a World Heritage Site is a World Heritage Site, lets not be too picky.
The kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty were all well taken care of, even after death. They are all kept in tombs all over Seoul and Gyeonggi Province (for the most part), and despite repeated Japanese invasions, are all original and in pristine condition. Even though there are 18 sites, besides the one in the link above, they have all proven to be very similar, so a visit to any one of them would be enlightening. However, while they are definitely worth a visit, if you are going outside of Seoul, you might want to hold off and visit those instead.
#14 Dongdaemun Shopping Markets
I, like many of you, love a good deal. I hate to pay full price, and in the Dongdaemun Shopping Markets, you don’t have to. Dongdaemun is the first thing that comes to mind when people ask the question “where can I buy cheap…(anything).” Dongdaemun is a huge shopping district off of either “Dongdaemun Station” or “Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station.” Here is where you come if you want to find some cheap clothes, cheap food, or if you just like the idea of browsing around in market places, without really buying anything.
There is something alluring of marketplaces anywhere in the world. It is one of the oldest ways of commerce where that human touch interaction between salesman and customer is not lost, as often is in department stores. In Dongdaemun, you can bargain down prices for shoes, clothes, sporting goods, and more. In addition, some of the indoor sections of Dongdaemun are 24 hours a day, so after a night of clubbing in Hongdae (#11), you can swing by and buy something. It is also in the same area as the Dongdaemun gate (#12) and the Cheonggye Stream passes by here (#20).
#13 Sejong and Admiral Yi Museums
I am constantly surprised at how many foreigners and locals alike, who have lived here for years, don’t even know this place exists. If you have been here a long time, it is like finding the best restaurant ever on your own block. King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-Shin are the two, indisputably greatest heroes in Korean history. So, where are their museums? Shouldn’t they be in the center of the city for all to see. It turns out, they are!
The museums are located underground, directly beneath their famous statues on “Sejong-no.” This area, which is on my top 10, is always filled with people, but their museums are never crowded. I think it is mostly because no one knows where the entrance is! To get inside, there is a very seemingly unimportant door behind the golden statue of King Sejong. It leads to an underground museum that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the Korean heroes. There is also a replica of the famed turtle ship, a free 4D movie about Admiral Yi’s famous battle against the Japanese, and you can be taught to write your name in Korean with special calligraphy brushes, all for free! In addition, foreigners are allowed to write their name twice so they can leave one there, and take one home.
#12 Dongdaemun Gate
The Big Eastern Gate (‘dong’ means east, ‘dae’ means big, ‘mun’ means ‘gate’…you’re already learning Korean!) is the largest remaining gateway to the previously walled city of Seoul. It is one of the three remaining ‘great gates’ of Seoul, and by far the most impressive and accessible after arson severely damaged ‘Namdaemun’ and security is tight around ‘Bukdaemun.’ The Dongdaemun gate is simply majestic to view from a distance, or to climb to the top. It is open to the public, and is located at the center of the Dongdaemun Shopping Markets (#14). It is made mostly of stone, with a wooden pagoda at the top. For more than 600 years, it has left visitors in awe, and I predict you will be no different.
#11 Hongdae [Honggik University Area]
I am sure at least some of the readers were thinking, “does Seoul have any nightlife at all?” It sure does, and Hongdae is by far the best place to experience that scene. The area surrounding Honggik University (shortened to ‘Hongdae’) is full of bars, dance clubs, restaurants, street food, outdoor performances, and pretty much anything else you associate with ‘night life.’ While Gangnam has always had the fame of being the top nightlife spot, and a recent popular song (which shall remain nameless) has boosted that area’s appeal, Hongdae is, in my opinion, a better overall spot strictly for nightlife (don’t worry, Gangnam is on the top 10 for different reasons). If you feel the need to shake it until 10 in the morning (also, not an exaggeration, some clubs close that late), head over to Hongdae for a night of fun.
Note: If you do come as visitor, bring your passport. Due to constant scuffles and bad rep, people who are living in Korea and are US military are not allowed in many of the clubs here. Your passport serves as proof that you are here as a tourist and not a soldier. For other non-military expats, your Korean ID is proof enough.
#10 Namdaemun Market / Namdaemun Sijang / 남대문 시장
Namdaemun is another outdoor marketplace, much like the Dongdaemun Market (#14). There are two things, however, that set Namdaemun apart from other areas. First, while there are side streets, it is a much more easily navigable place, with one main road that runs straight from beginning to end. Many markets in Korea can be windy, and its easy to get lost. The second and most important reason is the food. Namdaemun has a huge variety of both Korean snacks/street foods, as well as main dishes. Most are very easy to find on the main street, so there is no real need to “know where to go.” Although the prices are a bit more inflated than in other places, Korea overall doesn’t have a concept of ‘supply and demand’ when it comes to ‘touristy areas’ so the price increase is mostly because of higher rent prices, and not an attempt to rip foreigners off. Go to Namdaemun with an empty stomach, and don’t be afraid to try the pig’s feet!
#9 Jongmyo Shrine / Jongmyo / 종묘
If my bias for world heritage sites wasn’t already obvious, here is some gas for the fire. To truly appreciate the Jongmyo Shrine, you probably should understand a little about Korean tradition and history. Under the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392-1897 (really 1911, but I won’t get into that), Korea followed Buddhism as a religion, but Confucianism as an ideology. In Confucian beliefs, when someone dies, their body and spirit separate. So, while the bodies of Korean Kings and Queens, also a WHS, are scattered all over Korea, all of their spirits have found their way into the Jongmyo Shrine.
If you just wander about in the Jongmyo Shrine without guidance, it is easy to view it as, albeit beautiful, just another Korean Palace. Because of this, most of the entries into the Shrine are with a guide only (English guides every two hours), which is highly recommended [exception: Saturdays are “free entry”]. In the shrine are tablets of every single king and queen of the Joseon Dynasty with the exception of two who are considered “terrible leaders.” The tablets describe all notable accomplishments of those kings and queens.
In addition, on the first Sunday of May (less than a month from now), there is a ceremony known as Jongmyo Jaerye. It is the ritual to honor the kings and queens of years past. It has been done in Korea for the past 621 years, and is considered, according to UNESCO, the oldest and most complete performance of its kind. In addition to Jongmyo being given WHS status, the Jongmyo Jaeyre was proclaimed an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Personally, I have been to Jongmyo twice, but have never seen the Jaerye performance. It will be my first time in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be sure to blog about it.
#8 War Memorial of Korea / 전쟁기념관
What do foreigners who have never been here know about Korea? Probably, more than anything, is the existence of a wonderful, peaceful South, and a belligerent and oppressive North. Actually, those points of views are a matter of perspective (except if you ask the UN), and for the most part, I’ll refrain from making political statements. Nevertheless, the Korean War comes to mind. This memorial is separated into two parts, an indoor and an outdoor museum. The outdoor is best seen in the daylight as there are many airplanes, tanks, artillery, and even a ship from the era of the Korean War. The sheer number of relics is extremely impressive. However, what some of you (who haven’t been following my blog) might not know, is that Korean history, didn’t start in 1950’s.
This museum holds relics and demonstrations going back since the beginning of humanity appearing in the Korean peninsula. There are stone weapons that were used in the Neolithic era on display, and an eye popping amount of ‘evidence’ proving why “Japan is so evil.” Suffice it to say, the North is not the South’s first time dealing with belligerence. In fact, it is not even the first time Korea has been split into multiple countries. This museum will tell you all about who Korea has fought, when, and why! What more can you ask for?
#7 Gangnam, Apgujeong, or Myeongdong “hyper-shopping” districts / 강남, 압구정, or 명동
If you have seen pictures of Seoul, and they show a very busy street with a million neon signs, shopping galore, and just insane crowds, you probably saw one of these three areas. Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Myeongdong are the main centers for massive, or “hyper” shopping in Korea. I saw that term used to describe the phenomenon, and it always stuck, because that is exactly what it is. While Myeongdong has some of the same stores you will find back in the US, or anywhere for that matter (Zara, Mango, Uniqlo, H&M), I am told that the styles are ‘very uniquely Korean,’ whatever that means. The honest truth is that I am not much of a shopper. I went on my first shopping spree in the last 5 years this winter, but try to shop as little as possible. Apgujeong and Gangnam have more boutique style places along with the chain stores, but tend to be more expensive overall. However, I rank these places so high for two reasons:
First, while it is not inherently me, I can’t deny that people like shopping. Every time I have had friends visit me in Korea, they want to go to the places they heard about that have insane amounts of shopping. I must also admit that the styles are more to my liking than anything I ever found back home, so if even I can enjoy it, I’m sure you will too. The second reason is what it symbolizes. These places, are sources of mass consumerism, and whether that is something you agree with or not, it is definitely a symbol of a modernized Korea. While it is difficult to believe now, as late as the 1980s, the US was beginning to doubt it backed the correct Korea. Poverty was up, democracy was still not implemented (military dictatorship), and in many ways, the South looked a lot more poor than the North! In just 30 years following the “Miracle on the Han” South Korea has become one of the top 15 economic powerhouses of the world. While it might be the 63 building (#24) that symbolized that growth, it is in reality Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Myeongdong that continuously display that economic strength.
#6 Bongeun Temple / Bongeunsa / 봉은사
Are there better or more important temples in Korea? Yes, Haeinsa, and Bulguksa, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Are there better ones in Seoul? Absolutely not, and its not even close. The Bongeun Temple, or Beongeunsa (guess what ‘sa’ means in Korean? Didn’t know this was a language site too huh?) is the biggest, baddest, Buddhist Temple in Seoul. It took me a few years of living here to declare that, but I’m pretty confident about that now. Considering its location in the heart of Seoul where space is limited and land prices are astronomical, it is quite large. Bongeunsa is a great temple to introduce foreigners (and locals) to the customs of Korean Zen Buddhism. It is an extremely well preserved temple that has stood for a thousand years. It offers free short English tours, more detailed two hour tours including tea ceremony practices (~$20), and a temple stay(~$60), for those wishing for an in-depth insight [more details here]. If that isn’t enough, there is an enormous Buddha in the back, with a huge praying area if you follow the path of the Buddha. In the words of a monk I met in another temple, “you don’t have to be Buddhist, to follow the path of the Buddha.”
#5 Sejong Street: Monuments to King Sejong and Admiral Yi and Gwanghwamun Gate / 세종로, 과화문
Probably one of the most iconic pictures you can take in Korea is on Sejong-no / Sejong Street. The street leads from City Hall to the Gwanghwamun Gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace. On the street, are monuments to the two greatest heroes of Korean history: King Sejong the Great, and Admiral Yi Sun Shin. From one point, you can see the two monuments, the gate of the palace, and Bukhansan Mountain in the background (pictured).
So…..who are these people on this street so special?
King Sejong the Great is one of only two kings to have earned the title of “great king.” He expanded Korean military and scientific knowledge. To his biggest credit, however, is the invention of Hangeul, the Korean writing system. Before Sejong, Koreans used Chinese characters to write the sounds of its language. Now, we have this man to thank for the wonderfully simplistic symbols you have seen in every entry (ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅㅁㄴㅇㄹ and so on), making at least reading Korean, very easy. Korean script continues to be the only wide spread language script in the world that can be credited so a single person.
How can someone top Sejong right? Have you ever heard of the Mongol Ghengis Khan or Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War? Some people consider Yi Sun Shin to be a greater military commander than either of them. He skillfully helped design and used the famed “turtle ships” to repel Japanese forces. His most incredible accomplishment came in the Battle of Myeongnyang where he defeated 333 Japanese warships with his 13 turtle ships, saving Seoul from a Japanese invasion.
Walk along this photogenic street don’t forget to pass by the underground museums (#13) and of course, Gyeongbok Palace (#….keep reading).
#4 Korean DMZ Tour including the Joint Security Area / 한반도 비무장지대 and 공동경비구역
For those of you who never pick up a newspaper, or are completely oblivious of international news, the DMZ is the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea. It is a zone 4 km wide across the entire peninsula, assigned at the end of the Korean War 1950-1953 to mark the border of the two countries. The zone is the most heavily guarded border in the world, separating two countries that are culturally, historically, and ethnically the same, but philosophically worlds apart.
Ok, this is not in Seoul, I cheated…so what! Actually, there is a very good excuse. There is no way you can just drive up to the DMZ yourself. You must arrive by tour bus, which usually leaves from Seoul. This is no ordinary tour though as it literally goes within eyesight of North Korean military officers. The tour includes a visit to the 3rd tunnel, Dorasan station, and the highlight, the Joint Security Area, or JSA for short.
The third tunnel was the third in a series of four tunnels discovered where the North Koreans were digging into the south, under the DMZ. It has been confirmed by defectors that this is where they planned to stage their ground invasion when the time comes.
Dorasan station is a very optimistic train station that links South Korea with Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. It has been built and retrofitted with immigration facilities. It is their hope that some day, relations will be normalized and people will be able to freely visit each other from either Korea. Furthermore, a nice map in the station shows that if this train station becomes operational, it would link South Korea to the train network across the entire Eurasian landmass.
The JSA is really the reason you should visit the DMZ. After a very intense briefing by a US military officer, you will be led to the literal border of the North and South. It is the one point on the DMZ where there is no fence, no barbed wire, no landmines, and one need only to take a few steps to be in North Korea. There are often North Korean soldiers looking at the tourists with absolutely no expression on their faces. This is where the famed blue buildings stand, where the UN comes to broker deals between the two countries as they have no official diplomatic relations.
#3 Changgyeong Palace / 창경궁 and Changdeok Palace/ 창덕궁
I have these two palaces together as a single entry for a number of reasons. In addition to their names sounding the same, they are also internally connected, as one does not have to exit the palace they’re in to enter the other. Furthermore, they look very similar on the inside, so I tend to consider them as just one really big palace.
Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung were royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1911). They are two of the four great palaces of Seoul with the other two being Deoksugung (#18 on the list) and… well keep reading. Many people consider Changdeokgung to be the most important palace in all of Korea, evident by being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is gorgeous with tiled ‘hanok style’ roofs, and not as crowded as you would expect, considering that everything in Korea is crowded. On the right side of the throne room in Changdeok, is the king’s office which has distinct blue roof tiles. It is because of this tradition that the current presidential house of South Korea (#29) is blue. These two palaces are quite large and would take a few hours to tour. There are a million picture worthy spots, especially in the spring time when the gardens have bloomed cherry blossoms.
#2 National Museum of Korea
Shamefully, it took me almost three years to visit this museum. Hey, I’ll be honest, while I like museums a lot, I have to be in the mood for them. Last February, I decided to give it a shot and was blown away. I had to return two more times within a week to finish it all. This massive museum holds some of the most important treasures in Korean history. Despite the fact that some European visitors might consider it small, if you take your time to look around, it will easily take from morning to evening.
This wonderful complex is very well organized in chronological order from bottom to top. It starts the story of Korea from the Paleolithic era when humans first arrived on the peninsula. From there, it takes you forward in time to the first dynasties in Korea, all the way to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1911. My only complaint would be that it had absolutely nothing on the era of Japanese occupation (1911-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), or modern Korea (1953-now).
The outside of the complex also has many original stone lanterns that have stood for over a thousand years. The centerpiece inside the museum is a large stone pagoda, and the top floor has lots of Buddhist art, including large Buddha statues. If you take a trip to Seoul, this museum is a must.
…but of course, there can only be one #1. So, the best place to visit in all of Seoul is….
#1 Gyeongbok Palace / 경복궁
If you have ever lived in Seoul, or have visited for any large period of time, this should be of no surprise. Gyeongbokgung is the absolute best thing to see in Seoul, South Korea. Despite Changdeokgung being a World Heritage Site, this is the best palace in Seoul. It is centrally located on the same street as Seoul Train Station (#30) and City Hall (#25). It is also the palace you bump into at the end of Sejong Street (#5) and is directly in front of the Presidential Blue House (#29).
As you cross the main gate of Gwanghwamun (#5 pictured), you come into one of the oldest and most beautiful palaces in the world. While it is a rebuilt replica(thanks Japan), lots of attention has been given to detail. The original palace was built before forbidden city in Beijing and was the King’s home until the construction of Changdeok Palace (#3). I can go on and on all day, but you can just browse through the pictures yourself. Of better yet, book your trip to Korea right now and put this on the top of your list to see for yourself.
Note: If you are visiting Incheon International Airport on a layover, they offer 2, 4, and 5 hour tours of the city at a reasonable price (which I can’t recall). The bus can leave from the airport, show you around, and guarantee that you wont miss your flight. But, seeing how you now know how awesome Seoul is, I am sure you will stay longer.
View Top 30 Best Things to do in Seoul in a larger map
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- Off the Beaten Path in Korea: Beyond Seoul and Busan - July 14, 2022