South Korea intrigued me for long time with its unique blend of heritage and technological development; you can see imperial palaces and ancient temples nestled between modern skyscrapers, visit traditional tea houses and modern Korean cuisine restaurants, spot Koreans wearing traditional hanboks when visiting historical sites and as well as people donning the last trends when walking through the liveliest Seoul’s district.
When planning my (short) visit to Korea I wanted to discover different sides and aspects of life in Korea, exploring various neigbourhoods of Seoul, observing the locals, using public transport, usual supermarkets. I visited both historical districts and national monuments as well as modern business districts. This approach gave me some vague idea and impressions about the country. Of course, one needs to stay in the country longer, see many places outside of the capital in order to able to say what is South Korea really like (and this still would be subjective), however, curious travellers can still spend few days in Seoul to catch a glimpse of what the country is like. South Korea is still relatively less touristic than other Asian countries and thus I think that there was less typical tourist attractions and commercial traps and the authentic experience waits for the visitors behind every corner.
How to get to the South Korea? (Ferry between Japan and South Korea)
Most of the people will come to the South Korea by plane but if you want to combine your trip with a stay in Japan, you can also take a ferry from Osaka or Fukuoka to Busan. This can be a nice option if you are ending your stay (or starting) in Kyushu or Osaka. The ferry is very comfortable way to travel between those two countries and allows you to avoid a bothersome luggage weight limits when you travel by plane. The travel time differs depending if you choose fast or slow ferry, one should book in advance for good fares. We have decided to travel this way on a slow ferry (Camellia line) and found the trip very relaxing. You can book a whole cabin for you or stay in the shared one, all options had possibility to sleep (even if the journey was during the day). You can have a nap, walk on the open terraces or stay in the common area and have some snacks. Most of the passengers were Koreans and we didn’t see many oversees tourists, however I don’t know how the situation looks like in a faster ferry. The boarding procedures are quite straightforward and we didn’t encounter any issues during the entire journey which I find very enjoyable.
When arriving to Busan, you can walk comfortably trough the special corridor bridge (overground) which connects the ferry terminal with train station. The best way to go to Seoul (and many other major cities) from Busan is by the bullet train. The Korean train tickets’ prices are not dynamic so you can book your train the last minute and still pay the same fare. I recommend this option since due to the weather conditions on the sea or slow/fast disembarkation you can never be sure the exact hour of arrival (our ferry arrived on time). If you’re first time in Busan you may also need some extra time to navigate in the terminal and the train station (which is connected with the commercial center). In the ferry terminal you can also purchase SIM cards and withdraw some cash, so this can also take a little bit of time.
When is best to come to the South Korea?
In my opinion the best time to visit the country is spring and autumn, the temperatures are moderate and pleasant, the weather conditions stable, ,the blooming nature and autumnal colors ensure the spectacular views since in the Far East the landscape is very taken very carefully, it’s an inspiration for the artists, invitation for contemplation or even a part of the house since traditional homes open up to the views through the vast windows and the landscape is “a part” of the interior decoration.
How to move around Seoul?
Seoul is a vast city and the best way to move around is by using metro. The metro system is easy to navigate and names of the stations are written up in Latin alphabet. The staff is always around but English can be an issue. Koreans are also very helpful and if the notice the troubled visitor, come and ask if they can help. Note that the metro service ends around midnight. An important fact is that the Google Maps navigation doesn’t work in Seoul, it can show you how to get from point A to B by metro but won’t suggest a walking route. Switch on Google Maps and ask for the walking itinerary between any two places to see how it works. Since the GPS can still position you on the map so you can figure out how to walk to your destination but the exact route is impossible to obtain.
Where to stay in Seoul?
Myeongdong and Insandong are districts with many bars and restaurants and with tourist attractions and historical districts within walking distance. This may be practical if you want to stay a bit longer in the restaurant and not to worry to miss the last metro.
Safety in Seoul
Seoul is generally safe city, there is no problem with walking alone or late in the night. The usual common sense precautions are usually sufficient. Koreans are also helpful and friendly to tourists if you see that you need information/are in some sort of trouble, they will often come and offer their help. Another issue are safety concerns related to the situation with North Korea. In Seoul we saw that the city is prepared for crisis situations with evacuation plans and information what to do in different situations displayed in visible places. Before planning your trip you can also read news about current tensions between North and South Korea.
In this post I will give you my 3 days itinerary around Seoul including a half a day trip to the DMZ zone which is called by many the last Cold War border in the world.
Check out the post about my excursion to the DMZ here:
I have started my day with visiting historical sites in Seoul. One of the most significant cultural sites in the Korean capital are the royal palaces. In Seoul you will find five of them. If you’re interested in exploring historical sites in Seoul it’s worth buying the Integrated Ticket of Palaces which cost 10 000 won (just around 7 euro!) which guarantees entrances to:
- Gyeongbokgung (3,000 won)
- Deoksugung (1,000 won)
- Changdeokgung (3,000 won) including Huwon Secret Garden (5,000 won)
- Changgyeonggung (1,000 won)
- Jongmyo Shrine (1,000 won)
The Royal Palaces are a must see for the cultural lovers and are spectacular examples of Korean heritage.
Few information on the Royal Palaces:
The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) established Seoul as a capital more than 600 years ago. The location was chosen strategically, the city is about midway down the Korean Peninsula. Another factor to found the city in this location lied in the geomantic theory with mountains to the north and river to the south.
Traditionally, the capital served as residence of the king and royal family members as well as seat of the government. Palaces and shrines dominated the cityscape and the capital had finally had five main palace compounds: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and Changgyeonggung Palace. The Royal Ancestral Shrine – Jongmyo Shrine – is also a very important heritage of the Joseon Dynasty.
The royal palaces embody the values held by the Joseon Dynasty governing with a focus on ritual property, virtue and frugality. The numerous pavilions on the palaces’ grounds were changing through the centuries as the fortune of the dynasty fluctuated. The architecture of the complexes can be described as dignified and restrained and the palaces grounds provide a beautiful and tranquil space to relax and stroll in the middle of the bustling modern city that Seoul is today.
I have started my day with a visit to Changdeokgung (I recommend buying the integrated ticket at the ticket office of the first site you visit). The palace was very much loved by the kings of Joseon Dynasty because of the vast and beautifully arranged gardens in the back. The particularly famous is the Secret Garden which was once intended to be a place of relax for the king and members of the royal family. The garden was also a place of many other activities such as archery contests and banquets. The Secret Garden takes up almost 60% of the entire area of Changdeokgung Palace. You can only visit it on a guided tour at the specific hour, the tours are offered in English and Korean. I suggest coming few hours before closing to ensure you can join the guided visit which takes around 90 minutes (but passes like 15 minutes).
After the tour in Secret Garden I walked through the various pavilions of Changdeokgung Palace with the throne hall, the king’s residence ruler’s council hall among many other historical buildings, the Korean royal palaces are different than what I know from Japan or European castles and palaces, in Korea rather than single major building, it is a vast complex of different halls and pavillions where the royal family members and the government lived and worked. You can’t enter any of the sites inside and can look into some of the interiors through the gates and open windows.
When strolling around the complex I recommend checking out the souvenir store, since South Korea is not very touristic, you’re not bombarded with souvenir shops on every corner, hence if you look for authentic traditional good quality items, often handcrafted, the palace’s boutique is a good place to find Korean heritage high quality objects. The prices are also reasonable.
After Changdeokgung Palace, I walked to the nearby Changgyeonggung Palace which is a smaller complex. Changgyeonggung Palace was designed primarily as a residence for elders of the royal family to live. Therefore, the inner court is larger and more elaborate than the outer court is. Interestingly, in the royal palaces in Seoul, every palace compound has a stream purposedly built inside. Interestingly, this has special symbolic meaning – according to geomantic theory, the stream is necessary because it forms a harmony with the mountains behind the palace. When visiting the royal palaces in Seoul, it’s really amazing to observe the surrounding landscape, and this unique mix, when we see both the majestic nature as well as modern skyscrapers serving as background to those historical sites.
After a walk between the buildings of the complex, I walked to the attached gardens which are arranged very differently than for instance Japanese gardens, so I recommend having a short stroll to learn how the green spaces has been designed traditionally in Korea.
I have visited Korea during the summer and didn’t avoid the whimsical weather with hot temperatures and high humidity and frequent thunderstorms and heavy rains interchanging with intense sun exposure.
During heaviest rain I was hiding in one of the cafes located nearby the palaces and I recommend to come here for a small break regardless of the weather, the architecture of buildings, wide streets and general vibe gives a very authentic feel of Seoul, since it’s neither a fancy business district nor the historical one, this is Seoul created after war, with functional facilities created not to impress but to serve the people.
You can pass this area when going from the palaces to the busy shopping area Myeong-dong, don’t choose metro and have a walk through the casual streets of Seoul instead. A unrushed stroll is a great opportunity to overlook the daily life of Koreans.
Later in the afternoon I decided to follow my historical path and went to the Jongmyo Temple which is a big religious complex. Jongmyo is the supreme state shrine where the spirit tablets of deceased kings and queens are enshrined and sacrificial rites are performed for them based on Confucian principle.
Interestingly, only Korea has preserved its royal shrine and continues to perform royal ancestral rites known as Jongmyo Jerye and Jongmyo Jeryak. This is one of the main reasons why the shrine was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
The complex is very peaceful and surrounded by trees so I had a feeling as if I’m in the forest with several sacred sites hidden in the greenery. I found this place very tranquil and relaxing, and spent here more time than intended, also because of heavy thunderstorm which surprised us in the complex, however this even more added to the spiritual atmosphere of the site.
After huge historical intake, we’ve decided to have a walk along Cheonggyecheon stream which is very popular recreational place for residents of Seoul. If you’re interested in urban planning you should definitely spend here some time since Cheonggyecheon is a very good example successful revitalization of dirty industrialized areas. Originally, the steam was naturally formed and played important role as a resource to the local people. Due to increase population and industrialization the stream deteriorated and was called as the city’s cancer. After the Korean war, Seoul got even more populated and the area around the stream became even more inhabited increasing the pollution. The provisory houses have been built along the shores of Cheonggyecheon and plenty of dirt was thrown to the water and the stream became an eyesore for the city.
In the late 50s the project to build the highway above the stream to hide it has been started. The Cheonggyecheon stayed hidden and forgotten for many years, only until 2003 when the current mayor of Seoul decided to revitalize the area in order to bring back the nature to the city. The highway was removed and the stream restored. The area got resurrected and became a popular aesthetic spot for recreation and cultural events, many festivals and events are organized here.
If you Google the pictures of the area just after Korean war or later when the highway was built, only then you understand how ingenious and impressive is project the revitalization of Cheonggyecheon. In many countries the stream remains an inspiration and good example how to resurrect troubled areas of the city.
When walking along Cheonggyecheon stream you can’t miss the Gwangjang Market which is one of the oldest and most traditional food markets in South Korea. We arrived late afternoon when not all stalls were open, however the area was less crowded and we could easily walk around without queuing to the food stands. If you want to come for the busiest time, I think it’s best to arrive later in the evening. We have decided to try some of the dumplings and spicy Korean soups and all the dishes we tried were simply delicious. The market is very unpretentious and the dishes are served the street food styles (even if the market is covered). On sides souvenir shops are located so you can conclude your meal with some solid souvenir shopping. The quality of items varied, some were generic souvenirs like keychains or t-shirts but you could also find traditional items, some of them handcrafted.
I didn’t plan to see more of historical sites that day, but finally decided to go to royal Deoksugung Palace when I learned it’s open until 9pm and I find it a great idea to see the complex later in the evening.
First of all the side was less crowded at the time and the golden hour ensured an excellent light exposition so if you like taking pictures during your travels then leave the Deoksugung Palace for the evening. Most of the historical sites in Seoul close much earlier before sunset so you won’t have the chance to see it in the evening scenery.
Moreover, the Deoksugung Palace’s halls are also nicely highlighted when it gets a bit darker and this creates really unique atmosphere.
Deoksugung Palace was first used by King Seonjo at the end of the 16th century. Apart of the historical halls and pavilions you can also visit the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. On the premises, there is also a souvenir store with traditional Korean heritage crafts so if you skipped the shopping in Changdeokgung Palace, you can buy some items here.
The area around Deoksugung is very lively so you can look here for some nice restaurant for dinner. We have chosen to heat to the Myeong-dong busy area and opted for a Korean barbecue dinner.
We have started our second day with impressive Gyeongbokgung Palace which is the largest of 5 royal palaces in Seoul. If you wander which palace to choose if you can visit only one them, this complex would be probably the best choice since you can here plenty of the traditional beautifully furnished royal halls, see many sophisticated pavilions as well as royal kitchens complex and a shrine, all surrounded by elegantly arranged greenery.
This is the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty and the complex is really vast so plan around 2-3 hours for proper sightseeing. As in the other palaces, you can’t enter any of the interiors, but you can overlook some of them through the doors and windows.
Gyeongbokgung was established in 1395 as the main palace, the principle one of the all palaces built for the Joseon Dynasty. The name of the complex Gyeogg-Bok means “brilliance and fortune” and reflects the founder’s wishes for the dynasty to thrive and prosper. It was a center of the rulers’ politics and economy.
The palace suffered many major destructions through the centuries and its full restoration launched in 1990. Apparently, some of the works are still ongoing since some of the information tables explained that the palace’s interiors will be available for visit in the future.
One of the most impressive buildings in the complex is Throne Hall used for various royal and state events such as coronation ceremonies of Joseon kings; Gyeonghoeru Pavilion which is located on water and is a fine example of Korean architecture, many state events such as royal banquets and reception of foreign guests were held here. I was also very much impressed by the Hyangwonjeong Pavilion at the back of the complex which is located in the middle of the pond.
When exploring Gyeongbokgung I recommend looking around and up to appreciate the unique landscape with characteristic mountain views from the north and the modern buildings visible from the south.
When leaving the complex through the main gate I was hit by the contrast with the calm historical site, the busy Ministries street quickly bring back the visitors to the 21st century. There is quite some choice of small nice restaurants for a snack, I recommend some small refreshment after intense Gyeongbokgung sightseeing.
A short walk through the prestigious modern district of Seoul leads to one of the most charming spots of Seoul which is Jogyesa Temple which is the central temple and symbol of Korean Buddhism. This temple is an active one, Jongmyo shrine which I visited the day before was more a historical site than a religious complex where Koreans come to practice.
Jogyesa Temple is a calm and beautiful spot surrounded by modern glass and concrete buildings, the main temple is surrounded by the colorful field of lotus flowers. You can spot many Korean people who come every day to practice Buddhism here however the complex is also a center for education, culture and social services.
We have directed our next steps to Bukchon Hanok village which is a charming residential area in Seoul with many traditional Korean houses called hanoks. Bukchon is also known as “the street museum in the urban core”. The area is filled with trendy boutiques and was surprisingly calm during summer afternoon. From time to time one could find some photographers and Instagram enthusiasts trying to catch the perfect shot of the district. There few main streets to follow but I recommend going left and right to smaller paths with residential houses to look at the architecture of the hanoks as well as catch a panoramic glimpse of Seoul from the higher points of the hills.
I have visited Bukchon Hanok village also to make some souvenir shopping but didn’t find there plenty of stores. A pleasant walk down the hills got me to the Insa-dong Street which is a great spot to progress on your shopping list. The street is very lively with many typical souvenir shops as well many artisanal boutiques where one can observe Koreans purchasing high quality pottery or calligraphy sets.
At some point of the street you will see many small alleys with traditional style Korean restaurants and old tea houses. I decided to rest in one of such establishments myself and ordered ginseng tea and set of traditional Korean sweets which was one of the most delicious treats I had during my entire stay in South Korea.
I recommend coming to the street after major sightseeing of historical sites (most of them close around 5-6pm) so you’re not rushed to make your shopping and have some tranquil time in one of the restaurants and tea houses.
I have finished my day with a short visit to Namdaemun Market which is the largest and oldest traditional market in Seoul, many Koreans come to buy various products which are significantly cheaper than in usual shops. One of the goods which are particularly worth buying here is ginseng, you can get it in many forms: teas, extracts, as an ingredients of sweets, I also came there to make such ginseng shopping and found the staff very helpful, they spoke English well too so it was easy to get some extra information about various products.
Nearby Namdaemun Market you will find many trendy restaurants with very good ratings so one can go there to enjoy some bites of authentic Korean cuisine.
On the last day we decided to have a half day trip to Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea which is the only divided country in the world. The zone is only 40 kilometers away from Seoul, however the most hassle free option to get to DMZ is buying the organized tour. During the trip we could see the North Korea from the observatory tower, visit the infiltration tunnel (which was dug out by the North in secret in order to be able to move a full division per hour including the weapons) designed for infiltration and sudden attacks to Seoul. We have also visited a DMZ village and some souvenir shops, but the tunnel and observatory were definitely the highlights.
Check this post to learn all details about my visit to the DMZ:
Since the tour guide needs to get the entrance permission for the tour participants and they are granted for specific hours, it’s never sure when the visit can start. Some begin in the early hours but sometimes one need to wait even until noon with the schedule being shifted. Thus, even if you take a half day tour, it’s best to not to plan much for the afternoon in Seoul. In our case we needed to wait to enter the DMZ and then on the way back encountered some traffic when entering Seoul. Finally, we arrived after 5pm and the timing would be quite tight for sightseeing historical sites. From my own experience, I recommend to plan to visit places which are open until 7-8pm on the DMZ day or plan some relaxed activities which are easy to shift or skip. Don’t squeeze any must-see spots which you can’t do the following days in case you’ll arrive late.
The DMZ is closed for tours on Mondays, so plan your stay accordingly to avoid disappointments.
Since we arrived quite late, and the final stop of our bus was the bustling Myeongdong streets, I have decided to stay in the area since it’s famous for its cosmetic shops, with many major Korean cosmetic brands having flagship stores here. If you wont know much about Korean cosmetics, I suggest going first to the flagship store of Olive Young with man brands being sold there. You can Google a bit on the products which caught your interests and go to the store of that brand for bigger selection.
If you already know and use some Korean brands, many products were at least 30% cheaper than in Europe so this was an actual deal.
Myeongdong street is also very lively with many stalls offering street food and busy restaurants also very popular among locals serving seafood dishes, Korean barbecue or Korean fried chicken to name just a few of the delicacies.
That was our trip. Some may found it short, however, we still had a glimpse of Seoul since we came to Korea for a few day stay via ferry from Japan. If I stayed longer, I’d definitely see more historical towns and some of Korean tea plantations and relax a bit in one of the summer resorts by the sea. My impression was that the public transport works well in Korea and the bullet trains with the constant prices are very efficient way to move around the country. Korean people were very open to tourists and being helpful whenever we looked puzzled. Since the country is still developing as a tourist destination, now it’s great time to have a glimpse at authentic and “unfiltered” Korea.