With movies, music, food options and more, South Korea continues to grow increasingly popular with travellers heading to Asia, with many opting for the mega-city of Seoul to experience a taste of what this fascinating country has to offer.
Seoul is a fascinating metropolis to venture through, with the offerings of its vast city sprawl catering to all; from shopping, to restaurants, and even mountains within the city to traverse. It can all get a bit overwhelming if you haven’t planned ahead! With that mind, we asked our Korea Regional Specialist, Matt, to tell us the best way to spend 48 hours in Seoul, along with the the things you simply must try while you’re in the capital.
When starting with any capital city, it’s important to get a flavour of the history – and Seoul certainly has that on offer!
Start by heading to Gwanghwamun, a long famous stretch of road and home to two iconic statues of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin. King Sejong, a name that you may hear frequently throughout the duration of your stay, is considered one of the most important figures in Korean history for his invention of Hangeul, the Korean writing system.
Continue progressing further down Gwanghwamun until you reach Gyeongbok Palace. If you’ve timed it right, you should be there to see the changing of the palace guards that occurs daily at 10 am. After that, you can venture into the palace, but why not do it in style? In the areas on either side of Gyeongbok Palace are a number of hanbok rental shops, the traditional Korean formal wear. Not only will you look stunning as you wander the grounds, but you can then also venture into all of Seoul’s palaces free of charge! Just remember to not get too comfortable, as you will have to find time take it back before the agreed deadline.
Once you finish perusing the palace, head to the east exit and to Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of winding streets filled with tea houses, treats and traditional buildings (hanoks), ideal for getting those scenic photos that seamlessly blend the old with the new.
Meandering southwards should see you stroll towards Insadong and the many shops on offer there. If you’re looking for your standard souvenirs, this may well be the place to find them. However, there are lots of Ssamziegil, a selection of stores spiralling upwards offering crafts, gifts and small cafes. This includes one near the summit that’ll have you reaching for the toilet bowl… No seriously, it’s a poop-inspired cafe called Ddong Café!
After spending your savings on souvenirs for those back home, it’s time to continue your journey, heading eastwards slightly towards Jogyesa Temple. Typically, this is where New Year is rung in on December 31st but, for a somewhat warmer and eye-catching display, time your visit for May and you may get to witness hundreds of dazzling lanterns to celebrate the birthday of Buddha.
Heading further south will eventually bring you back to Myeongdong, where you can find a ton of shops, department stores, street vendors and restaurants. One particular establishment worth investigating is Myeongdong Kyoja Kalguksu, an affordable, Michelin-star restaurant specialising in knife noodles (kalguksu) in a chicken broth, with dumplings and grilled ground pork. No reservations are available here, so it is a case of getting there early and waiting in line.
After filling up on food, head south of Myeongdong towards the cable car station. Here, you can travel up to the summit of Namsan mountain to the iconic Seoul N Tower for around 16,000 Won return. Upon arriving at the base of the tower, there are a number of options ahead of you. Feel free to take in the Seoul city skyline from there, or head up to the observatory deck for an additional fee to get an even clearer view.
If you’re not sure on the visibility from up there, simply check the colour of the tower at night, because it reflects the air quality and thus should give you a good indicator. Green is good, yellow should still be okay, and red means that it’s best to stay at the bottom. If you can’t see it, then either the visibility is very bad or it’s closed!
You may have also noticed the ‘padlocks of love’ around the foot of the tower, and you too can place your own if you so choose. Padlocks are available in the Namsan gift shop but, for those thinking ahead, cheaper ones are available in Myeongdong. After you finish looking over it’s time to head back down, either via cable car again or one of the buses that head into the city.
While 48 hours may not be long enough to squeeze in a visit to the DMZ, there are certainly solid options when it comes to understanding a difficult period in Korea’s history. The National War Museum near Samgakji station Exit 12 is a fascinating and sombre exploration of Korea’s past, with floors dedicated to early history, their period of occupation and the Korean War that brutally divided the country into the north and south it is now referred to.
After a couple of hours in the museum, head north on Line 4 to Dongdaemun – or, if you finished earlier than expected, Dongdaemun History and Culture Park at the station before. At the History and Culture Park you will find the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). Previously a baseball stadium, it was converted in the early noughties into a hub of art, design and fashion. While you may not have time for all of that, it is certainly worth having a peruse inside. In here, you’ll find small craft shops from local artists and retailers – a unique memento of your time here.
Slightly north is Dongdaemun, and it is here you can find indoor markets, perfect for clothes shopping on a budget. Venture eastwards through the offerings that Dongdaemun provides and onto Gwangjang Food Market. Here you’ll find an abundance of street vendors lined under one roof serving up some of the most delicious snacks Seoul has to offer.
Take some time here to sample a few options, especially some of the more famous snacks such as mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok), fish cake soup (eomukguk) and dumplings (mandu). Do bring cash, however. While there are many vendors that do take card, most deal only in cash or bank transfer.
After filling up, head south of the river on line 3 from nearby Euljiro 3-ga station, to the Express Bus Terminal. While you may not be leaving the city yet, from here it is quickest to walk to Han River Park next to Banpo Bridge. Simply leave the station at exit 8-1 and head straight until you reach the corner with the overpass. Turn right here and keep walking until you reach the park area. Once at the park, feel free to take a look around. There are bike rental stores just as you enter the park to your right or a few cafes and restaurants on SEBITSEOM Floating Islands. Whatever you choose, though, make sure to be within view of the bridge as dusk draws near.
Banpo Bridge is a two-tiered bridge crossing the River Han, with the lower tier often becoming submerged during Korea’s rainy season. However, you are here for more than the architecture as this bridge is also home to the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain, a fountain and light show that takes place every night between April and October. The fountains start every half hour from 7:30 pm and run until 9:30 pm.
Venturing back northwards on line 3, round your night off in Seoul with a visit to Ikseondong Hanok Village. While this collection of converted hanoks, tightly knitted together through sprawling alleys is crammed full of tourists during the day, a visit at night should make for a less stressful and more unique experience. Depart at Jogno 3-ga station exit 6, turn right back towards the crossroads and then left into the village. You’ll first be greeted by a large selection of Korean BBQ restaurants grilling long into the night. If you are beginning to rediscover your appetite, why not take this as your opportunity to try one of Korea’s most popular dishes? Many of these places are of good quality, so find a restaurant with a table and get stuck in!
Finally, finish your 48 hours in Seoul at one of the few stylish hanok bars or cafes Ikseon-dong has to offer. Aledang is a personal favourite, with its relaxed indoor courtyard and affordable selection of craft beers. However, if this is not your thing, then a few doors down is the famous Nakwon Station Cafe, a classy hanok cafe with rail tracks running through the middle of it, offering a selection of fine coffee and cakes to help round off your stay in Korea’s capital.
If Seoul sounds like the place for you, then you’re in luck! The Dragon Trip visits Seoul on all of our Korea tours. Visit our page here to find out more!
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