Finding an off the beaten spot makes any trip feel a tad bit more personal. Even if you’ve visiting a place with millions of tourists, your trip suddenly becomes unique when you don’t just do what everyone else does. Every year (with the exception of 2018), I’ve revised and republished what I honestly believe is the best countdown to the coolest things to do in Seoul and in Korea as a whole. However, I am still often asked to recommend “less touristy things” and well, the time has come. The style of this list will be similar to the “Eat this, not that” diet books which I never read, but thought were was a cool concept. Here are some touristy things to do in Seoul and their far less touristy alternatives.
Seoul Palaces -> Skip Gyeongbokgung, go to Gyeonghuigung
If you’re looking for a palace in Seoul to roam around all by yourself, there are a grand total of five. However, Gyeongbok, Changdeok, Changgyeong, and Deoksu all
get a fair amount of tourism, domestic and foreign. Gyeonghui Palace is the only one of the five that kind of flies under the radar, and it isn’t particularly out of the way or difficult to reach either. Admittedly, it is probably the least impressive of the big 5 and its odd slanted foundation isn’t exactly an architectural masterpiece, but it is really nice to walk around in peace without having to dodge a million tourists in hanboks taking selfies. This palace doesn’t even have an entrance fee and is conveniently located behind the Seoul Museum of History.
Outdoor Marketplaces -> Skip Namdaemun Market, go to Dongmyo Market
Back in 2010 when I first visited Namdaemun, it wasn’t really on the tourist trail. It was the place to go for a good deal on everything from cameras to knickknacks. While there are still deals to be had, it has exploded in popularity and with that, everything you dislike about “touristy places” including inflated prices and displaced shopkeepers.
Try Dongmyo’s Market instead. Once a sad and dying marketplace, it was locally revitalized by a few domestic travel shows who discovered what a gem it is. From pottery to refurbished Korean traditional instruments, Dongmyo isn’t really like most other marketplaces as it is more of a flea market. Sure, it doesn’t have the grandeur of the Namdaemun Gate as its centerpiece, but the weird shaman altar park (Dongmyo) is worth a visit.
Korean Street Food -> Skip Myeongdong, go to Daehak-ro
Street food is something everyone thinks about these days when talking about traveling to Korea. Gyerang ppang (an egg bread), hotteok (a pancake thingy filled with syrup), and dalk kkochi (chicken skewers) are all wonderful delights you didn’t know you needed in your life until now. They can actually be found pretty much anywhere, but are extremely popular in Myeongdong with lines and lines of street stalls all over. This was fine 10 years ago when the customers were only Koreans who kept prices low, but once the foreign influx started, prices went up and quality was not a priority. This is one touristy activity you want to skip.
Walk around Daehak-ro (literally, university street) instead. Located near SKKU (Korea’s oldest university) and surrounded by about 50 theaters (the play kind), this setting is perfect for those looking for a late night snack. You can find all the favorites listed above at a more local price with a more local feel.
Korean Buddhist Temples -> Skip Jogyesa AND Bongeunsa, go to Hwagyesa or Daegaksa
I’m not gonna lie, Buddhist temples in Korea all kinda look similar. In my list of things to do in Seoul, I definitely noted a pecking order, but that was mostly based on their importance, not their looks. Don’t care about all that and just want to see a cool temple? I recommend Hwagyesa and Daegaksa only because I have seen them rather thoroughly, but I’m sure there are 100 just like them all over Seoul. Both have the vibrant green colors, the stunning Korean bells, and of course, nearly no tourists.
Seoul Day Trips -> Skip Nami, go ANYWHERE ELSE
My loathing of the mystifyingly popular Nami Island is no secret. Whenever the Korea Tourism Organization has writers block and needs help, they need to look no further than the geniuses who turned this extremely unremarkable and uninteresting “island” into a thing. Practically, anywhere 1 hr from Seoul is more exciting. Throw a dart at a wheel with any of the following 5 alternatives:
- Paju Book City – Interesting area with tons of impressive libraries and over a dozen book publishers.
- Chuncheon – Sure, the dalk galbi (a chicken dish) in Gapyeong is good, but nothing beats where it came from.
- Suwon – The Hwaseong Fortress is a nice hike any time of the day or night.
- Yeoju – Learned all about King Sejong? He is buried here, and now there is a subway line that goes directly!
- Play Doci – Did you come in the summer but have never seen snow? Look no further than this indoor ski slope.
Yeah, it looks like those 5 were picked at random, but if you map them out, you’d see they are in 5 different directions out of central Seoul, proving that you can virtually go in any direction and get somewhere cooler than Nami, so for God’s sake stop going there.
Alright everyone, hope you enjoyed this and if you have your own alternatives to more touristic hot spots in Seoul, feel free to let me know in the comments below. There are more, so maybe I’ll do a part dos of this one.