So, you’ve just stepped off the plane at Incheon Airport. It’s your first time in Korea and you are ready to spend the next 24 hours in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world. With so much to do, and so little time, taking on the big city can seem overwhelming.
We asked readers for their opinion on the top 10 places to visit during a single day in Seoul. The result is an itinerary that will have you challenging your taste buds, touching history, and tapping into the pulse of one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
Stop #1 Noryangjin Fish Market
After spending hours in the sensory deprivation of an airplane, there is no better place to start your authentic Seoul experience than to jump in feet first at the Noryangjin fish market. The 66,000 square meter facility has over 700 stalls selling fresh octopus, squid, prawn, and almost anything with a set of gills that lives under water. Dining here is as close to a choose-your-own adventure as culinary experiences get.
After browsing around the stalls and haggling with the hawkers, make a selection of whatever intrigues your palate. Then bring it to one of the restaurant stalls and they’ll grill it, steam it, or turn it into fresh sashimi right in front of you.
These chefs operate on a “nothing goes to waste” philosophy. After cooking up your catch, they take the leftovers and serve them up in a spicy broth. It’s the perfect meal to fuel you up for a long day of sightseeing.
How To Get There: Ride line 9 and take exit 1. Keep walking until you see the entrance to the Fish Market on your right.
1 (the dark blue line) to Noryangjin station and take the only exit following the bridge across the tracks until you reach a rooftop parking lot. Take the stairs down to the fish market.
Stop #2 Gyeongbokgung Palace
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself standing in Seoul 500 years ago. It’s hard to picture the city with no high-rises, no city lights, and no stretches of traffic.
As one of the great relics of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbokgung palace offers visitors the chance to interact with Korean history. Originally built in 1395, it was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of the late 1500s and later restored. It’s still home to some of the most stunning and traditional architecture in Seoul and is often touted as the most beautiful palace in the city.
The changing of the guard ritual is performed hourly between 10 am and 3 pm, while traditional dance performances are held throughout the day.
The W3,000 entrance fee to the palace will also get you into the nearby National Folk Museum and the National Palace Museum.
How To Get There: Take line 3 (the orange line) to Gyeongbokgung station and take exit 5.
Stop #3 Bukchon Hanok Village
Seoul is a Sim-City of sorts. One day you may be shopping in a vintage clothing store only to discover just days later it has been replaced by a trendy new coffee shop.
This rapid development is the engine that drives Seoul and it’s part of what makes living here such a dynamic experience. While the city has seen much of the old replaced with the new, Bukchon Hanok Village is an area where tradition is being preserved.
Hanok, a traditional-style home characterized by intricate wooden frames and slated rooftops, have almost disappeared from the city save for the few small regions designated as government heritage sites. Nestled between Gyeongbokgung palace and Changdeokgung palace, the village is lined with hanok, many of which have been converted into commercial facilities and accommodations. Stroll through the narrow, seemingly haphazard alleys, and you’ll find plenty of hidden gems in the form of shops, restaurants, teahouses and cultural centers.
A map marking eight of the best photo opportunities in the area can be found at any of the information booths. Gahoe-dong Alley, the sixth photo spot, offers one of the best views of the hanok against the backdrop of Seoul high-rises.
How To Get There: Turn left as you exit Gyeongbokgung Palace and walk for about 10 minutes until you reach Anguk station. Coming out of exit 2, walk straight for approximately 5 minutes and you will come upon an information booth that offers visitors a map of the area.
Stop #4 Insadong
The last stop on the more traditional leg of the 24-hour tour, Insadong is an art lover’s paradise and a great place to shop for souvenirs and refuel.
During the Joseon Dynasty, the area was dominated by dohwawon (도화원, schools for artists). Today, that tradition is alive and well, with a few modern twists.
The main road is a 700-meter stretch lined with small art galleries, craft stalls, antique stores and traditional Korean ceramic shops. Among the more common things for sale are parchment and calligraphy materials, hanji (한지, traditional paper), hanbok (한지, traditional clothing), tea, and accessories. Make sure to duck into the side alleys as they are filled with some of the most unique shops in the area.
Ssamzigil Mall, near the center of the main road, is probably the best place to find crafts made by younger artisans. The entrance is an open courtyard usually occupied by stalls showcasing weekend arts and craft exhibitions. A walk up the winding staircase provides ample opportunity to browse through some of the more modern shops. The rooftop has a great cafe to rest your feet before you continue on your Seoul adventure.
How To Get There: Insadong is a short walk from Bukcheon Hanok Village. Use your map to find your way back to Anguk Station and take exit 6. Walk straight until you reach a tourism information booth where you can get a map of the area. From here turn left to find yourself on the main road of Insadong.
Stop #5 Namdaemun Market
Underground arcades, alleys clogged with street vendors, and multi-story buildings packed with wholesalers and small business owners.
Like so many of the markets in Seoul, Namdaemun is a multilayered labyrinth filled with hidden treasures best experienced by getting lost down its stairwells and side streets. It operates in a 24-hour cycle with retailers and small shops open from 7 am to 5 pm and wholesalers operating from midnight to 6 am.
There are over 1,000 shops selling clothes, shoes, fabrics, toys, souvenir trinkets, and imported food among others. Namdaemun Market is also an excellent place to sample some authentic Korean street food.
During the day the main road is packed with tents offering bindaetteok (빈대떡, mung-bean pancakes), manduguk (만두국, dumpling soup), tteokbokki (떡복이, rice cake in a spicy sauce) and more. Be prepared to wait in line though because the market gets crowded with hungry shoppers during the day.
How To Get There: Take subway line 4 (light blue line) to Hoehyeon Station and take exit 5. You’ll find yourself at Gate 6, the entrance to the main market street.
Stop #6 Seoul Tower
Perhaps the only place in Seoul (and possibly the country) where the view from the bathroom is a selling point, Seoul Tower is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Situated at the top of Namsan Mountain, it has earned a reputation for having the most breathtaking views of Seoul and the surrounding area.
A round-trip ticket on the cable car to the top of the mountain costs W7,500 (or you can walk if you’re into that sort of thing). Beside the observatory there are a ton of activities and sites to see. A fenced area at the base of the tower is a famous spot among the hopelessly infatuated.
Couples express their affection by leaving behind padlocks adorned with photos and sweet nothings believed to bring good luck to blossoming relationships. Other activities include a revolving restaurant, performance halls, exhibition rooms, or just a stroll around the park.
How To Get There: Take subway line 4 (light blue line) to Myeongdong station and take exit 3. Take the wide road next to the convenience store and walk straight passing the Pacific Hotel on your left. Continue walking until you reach a stairway and follow it keeping to your right. You will see a vacant parking lot on the right. This is where you will find the cable car platform.
Stop #7 Hongdae Free Market
Although Hongdae is an area most famous for its nightlife, a trip during the afternoon on weekends offers the opportunity to explore another one of the city’s unique markets.
Started in 2002, the open air market embodies the artistic free spirit of the district. Between 1 and 7 pm on Saturdays, the park across from Hongik University is packed with vendors selling handmade crafts.
While much of what is on sale is geared towards women (necklaces, rings, and other jewelry), the crafts are not the only reason to visit the market. The area also attracts street performers.
On any given weekend you’ll find dancers, singers, musicians and magicians creating a buzz of activity in the market. The Free Market only operates between March and November, so if your 24-hour tour lands in the winter months, this is one stop you may have to miss.
How To Get There: Take line 2 (the green line) to Hongdae University Station and take exit 9.
Stop #8 Korean BBQ
As far as food goes in Korea, barbecue is about as ubiquitous as it gets. You can hardly throw a stone without hitting at least one restaurant, whether it be a chain or a mom & pop shop. There is a simple reason for this phenomenon: Korean barbecue is awesome.
Where restaurants are concerned in Korea, looks can be deceiving. What might appear to be plain Jane or down right dodgy could be home to some of the most authentic cuisine in the city.
Generally speaking, though not always, price correlates with the quality of the meat so use this as a barometer when choosing a place to eat. A decent meal will run approximately W10,000-W15,000 per serving.
Keep in mind that most barbecue-style restaurants require a minimum order of two servings (since the meal is intended to be shared) so if you’re traveling alone, be prepared to eat a significant portion of meat. Since you’re going for the authentic experience, order at least one bottle of soju.
It’s the perfect drink to start the night of partying ahead of you.
Stop #9 Party in Hongdae
If the soju hasn’t hit you yet, don’t worry. Nightlife in Seoul typically starts late (12 am or later) and ends early in the morning so you are going to want to pace yourself.
As a university district built for the student lifestyle there is an endless sprawl of hofs (Korean-style pubs where you order drinks with food), bars, and clubs serving up cheap drinks and plenty of opportunity to socialize with Koreans and expats alike.
A great place to start the night is at Zen Bar. Tequila shots run just W2,000 and beer and cocktails are around W5,000 or less. From there you can move to any of the dozens of dance clubs. Some of the hot spots include Club Naked, Cocoon, Papa Gorillas, and Mama Gorillas.
Cover charges average around W10,000 but can reach W30,000 at some of the bigger venues depending on the night and the event.
You can also look into some of the live music venues. Club Evans features live jazz; Freebird features live, local rock; and V-Hall and Rolling Hall are larger concert venues that have attracted some of the bigger names in indie-rock.
A word of warning: the streets of Hongdae are a bit chaotic and it is easy to get turned around or lost. As a first timer, your best bet in finding any particular establishment is to ask for directions. Also, keep in mind that many places require ID so make sure to bring your passport.
How To Get There: Take line 2 (the green line) to Hongdae University Station and come out exit 9.
Stop #10 Jjimjilbang
Forget worrying about a hotel for the night. After a long day of sightseeing and a night of partying in Hongdae, a stop by one of Seoul’s jjimjilbang (찜질방) is just what the doctor ordered. Averaging in price between W6,000 and W15,000 for a night, these 24-hour full service spas are a cheap alternative to a hotel.
After grabbing a locker and changing clothes, head to the gender-segregated bathhouses to freshen up. These areas have shower facilities as well as wet service areas where you can get a full scrub down and massage.
After you’ve freshened up, hit the sauna to relax and let the stress of the day wear off. While every establishment varies in style, it’s standard to have unisex sauna areas with a number of rooms ranging in temperature. You can sweat it out in one of the hotter rooms or cool off (particularly in the summer months) in an ice room.
When you’ve finished pampering yourself, head to one of the common rest areas and enjoy a snack and nap before your morning flight.
Like barbecue joints, jjimjilbang are very easy to come by. But if you’re ending the night in Hongdae, the best place to go is Happy Day Spa, where W10,000 will buy you up to 12 hours use of the facilities.
How To Get There: The subway stops running after midnight, so you’ll have to take a taxi to wherever you decide to spend the night. Happy Day Spa is located at Seoul-si Mapo-gu Seogyo-dong 371-10 Gyusyudang Wedding Hall B1 (02-322-3399).