Seoul is a large, somewhat overwhelming city. However, it offers so much to see and do. Whether you are visiting for a week, here on a layover, or visiting for business purposes, take in some of these amazing sights of the city.
Hours: dawn to dusk
Directions: Samsung Station, Line 2. Exit 6. Walk straight then turn left at the major intersection, it will be across the street.
Bongeunsa is probably one of the largest and most important temples in Seoul. It was founded in 794 but most of the buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1939 and have been rebuilt since then.
The temple grounds were beautiful, and have very unique features in every season. Visit in the Spring for blooming trees and delicious smells, or in the winter for iced ponds.
– Sacheonwang (Statues of Four Devas). These are statues of four heavenly kings that protect the Dharma and its followers. They’re located at the entrance gate to the temple.
– Various murals painted on the sides of virtually all the buildings. Some have been recreated after the fire, but many are extremely old and peeling but still beautiful.
– We were able to go inside of the buildings during the service and listen to the monks chanting and playing drums. It was an amazing experience. I could listen to monks chant and sing all day. The inside of the temple was gorgeous. There were several large lotus lamps that were mesmerizing. One of the best interiors of a temple I’ve ever seen. Absolutely wonderful!
– Daewoongjeon (Main temple). This is the most important temple of Bongeunsa. The stairs outside of the temple are carved with dragons, which are typically only used for the royal palace. Daewoong means “Big Hero” and is another name for Buddha. Inside the building is a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha in the center, with Amitabha Buddha and Bhaisagya Buddha on either side.
– Mireukdaebul (Maitreya-the Buddha of the future statue). This is the 23-meter high Buddha statue. It was built in 1996 so it’s definitely not something of historical significance just yet, but it is the tallest statue of Buddha in Korea. It symbolizes hope for Maitreya arriving and saving all mankind.
Hours: March-October: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
November-February: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed on Tuesdays
Ticket: 3,000 won for adult, 1,500 for child.
A ticket that includes the 4 major palaces and a shrine is now available for 10,000 won and may be used up to 1 month from purchase date.
Directions: Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3, exit 5). Walk for about 5 minutes.
Gyeongbokgung is one of the 5 great palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. If I’m not mistaken, it is also the largest. The palace was originally built in the late 1300s but was destroyed during the Japanese invasion. It was rebuilt in the 1800s and turned into a massive complex consisting of around 330 buildings. In the 1900s the Japanese government demolished many of the buildings, so only about 15 remain today.
We were lucky to arrive right as the changing of the guards was taking place. This is an extremely intricate and symbolic event that takes place 2 times a day. Along with the changing of the guards, there is an opening and closing of the palace gate. Each participant has on traditional guard clothing and the ceremony is about 10-15 minutes long. It was a beautiful but freeeeezing cold day and there was plenty of snow on the ground so the palace looked especially serene. We wandered around quite a bit, going in and out of various buildings. The best part of the palace was a pond area that had a small building on an “island” in the middle. The pond was frozen over, and a thin layer of snow rested on top, making the entire pond perfectly white.
Hours: Open year round, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Directions: Samseong Station (Line 2) Exit 5 or 6.
A shopaholic’s paradise, this is the largest underground mall in Asia. The mall boasts labyrinth of stores, restaurants, cafes, and shops taking hours to navigate. Need a break from shopping? The mall also offers an arcade, movie theater, aquarium, and kimchi museum.
Hours: Open year round from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Ticket: adults: 17,500 won, teens: 14,500 won, children: 11,000 won.
Directions: Located inside COEX Mall, follow mall signs to the entrance.
I was extremely impressed by the artistic quality of this aquarium. Many of the aquariums I’ve been to simply stick some rare fish in tanks and call it a day. Yes, the fish themselves are impressive, but COEX went above and beyond to make it more of a museum experience. The first section of the aquarium displays everyday things like toilets, traffic lights, vending machines, refrigerators, and phone booths that have been turned into fish tanks. The next section is meant to look like a rainforest, with turtles, alligators, and other reptiles. There’s also a tank of sting rays, which I love. The big attraction is a shark tunnel, followed by a massive tank of sharks and other large underwater creatures. My two favorites at the aquarium were the jellyfish and the penguins. The aquarium itself isn’t large but makes great use of space and is definitely one of the most artistic aquariums I’ve ever seen.
Seoul Museum of Art:
Hours: Closed Mondays and New Years Day
Mar – Oct
– Weekdays: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
– Weekends and Holidays: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Nov – Feb
– Weekdays : 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
– Weekends and Holidays: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Ticket: Adults: 700 won, children free. Special exhibition costs vary.
Directions: City Hall Station (Line 1,2) Exit 1. Walk right, then make a left right before Deoksugung Palace.
This is a wonderful museum in the center of Seoul that is definitely worth a visit. I have seen several special exhibitions here, including Andy Warhol and Chagall, both of which did not disappoint. The museum puts great effort into bringing in a variety of art and displaying it in an organized and coherent manner. The museum café is quite delightful, especially for sipping coffee and discussing the artwork after seeing an exhibit.
Noryangjin Fish Market
Hours: Roughly 3 a.m. – 9 p-.m.
Directions: Noryangjin station, Line 1.
If you’d like to see strange fish and a bustling market, you must visit Seoul’s largest fish market. Smelly fish water thrown at your feet, fish heads, women in rubber aprons diligently butchering fish, sting ray sashimi, octopi larger than a child-all of it is intoxicating. We arrived around 9:30am, wandered around in search of scallops, salmon, and tuna. I was expecting it to be similar to the fish market in Tokyo, in that neighboring restaurants would buy the best fish early in the morning, and sushi restaurants would be open from about 8am until 2pm. Well, that part didn’t happen. Very few restaurants were open at the time that we were there, so we didn’t get to eat at an actual sushi restaurant. We did, however, buy some freshly packaged sushi in a box. I bought a box of salmon sushi that looked DELICIOUS and extremely fresh. It turned out to be smoked. Lightly smoked and delicious, but smoked nonetheless.
Directions: Gwanghwamun Station (Line 5).
This is the bustling center of downtown Seoul. Come see the overwhelming skyscrapers, street performances, food vendors, cafes, restaurants, art exhibitions, and more. This is the area that people imagine when they think of Seoul. Visit in the evening and stay to see the streets light up. Walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which cuts through downtown Seoul, and admire the scenery. Roam around this area and you will find palaces, temples, high rises, statues, gardens, and so much more.
Hours: Closed Mondays
Mar – Oct: 6 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Nov- Feb: 6:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Ticket: Adults: 1,000 won. Children: 500 won.
Directions: Seolleung Station (Line 2, exit 8). Walk straight for 5-10 minutes, it will be on your right.
The site is comprised of 2 major tomb areas: Seolleung, which is the tomb of King Seongjong and his second wife and Jeongneung, the tomb of King Jungjong. The area devoted to the tombs is massive, filled with small-scale forests, mini hiking paths, benches, and beautiful scenery. I really enjoyed being in such a tranquil space, especially considering that when you look beyond the park, you see the insanity that is Seoul. I wandered around alone behind the group for quite some time, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. I don’t have much to say except that it definitely made my day to be surrounded by so much nature. The park was huge, the weather was great, the air smelled of leaves, and the trees were multicolored and bright. I loved it!
Seoul Grand Park Zoo
Hours: April – October: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
November – March: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Tickets: Adults: 3,000 won, teens: 2,000 won, children: 1,000 won.
Directions: Seoul Grand Park Station (Line 4) Exit 2.
Although the zoo is one of the main attractions at Seoul Grand Park, Don’t miss the Rose Garden, Museum of Contemporary Art, and statues displayed throughout the massive park.
This was one of the best zoos I’ve ever been to for several reasons. First of all the landscape is amazing: beautifully colored trees, mountainous backdrop, grass, benches and a spectacular layout. Second of all, the animals all looked well taken care of and [dare I say] happy. There have been many times that I thought to myself “That animal does not have enough space in there.” Here, all the animals were housed properly in a place that was similar to the environment they would have had back home. Finally, I have never (aside from safari zoos) been able to get so close to animals. The way the barriers are structured you’re able to get really close to some of the animals.
My favorite part was the nursery. The only thing that separated me from the baby lions I was in love with was a glass wall. The lions played with people’s hands as they ran them across the glass, and did adorable kitten things. There was also a baby orangutan that was being carried in a towel by a zoo worker. He brought it right up to the glass and it smiled at me! I was in love. The zoo is massive, we were there for about 6 hours and there are still things we didn’t have time for. We did see the dolphin show, which was pretty good but nothing amazing.
Hours: 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. year round
Directions: Myeong-dong Station (Line 4). Visit one of the two tourist booths if you need help finding a particular store.
Seoul is a shopper’s paradise, and no place is better evidence of that than Myeong-dong. Alleyways and streets of shops intersect, while thousands of busy shoppers make their way from store to store. Myeong-dong is home to international brands, Korean brands, high-end shops, and street vendors. An eager shopper can find anything here, in any price range.
Hours: Vary based on store/restaurant.
Closed: Mondays, New Years Day, and Chuseok
Directions: Anguk Station (Line 3) Exit 6.
Site: http://www.insainfo.or.kr (Korean only)
Insadong is a “traditional” area of Seoul. It was nice but extremely crowded. Cars are not allowed to drive on the small road of Insadong on Sundays which made it a bit better. It is basically an area filled with shops and street vendors selling “traditional” things to tourists. A harmonious blend of old and new is evident in Insadong. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a traditional snack of silkworm larvae. Stand back and watch rice cakes being made by cheery men full of song. This is the perfect place to try traditional Korean food; many restaurants offer English menus, and proprietors speak at least a bit of English.
N Seoul Tower
Hours: Sunday – Thursday: Observatory open from 10 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Friday, Saturday: 10 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Ticket: Adults: 7,000 won, youth: 5,000 won, children: 3,000 won.
Directions: The tower can be accessed by cable car or bus (or car if you are driving). Details about directions can be found on the following website.
The N Seoul Tower sits atop Namsan Mountain, offering spectacular 360 degree views of Seoul. In addition to the marvelous views, the tower offers other points of interest including a cable car ride to the top, souvenir shop, a revolving restaurant, Korean dining, and even modern restrooms with panoramic views. The best time to go is after 7 p.m. when you can overlook the city of Seoul aglow with lights as far as the eye can see. You will also be able to see the brilliant light show that illuminates the tower.
The following destinations are slightly outside of Seoul but definitely worth a visit if you have the time:
Hours, prices, and sites visited vary depending on which tour company you reserve with.
Site: The Korean Tourism site on the DMZ offers great information about DMZ tour packages.
The itinerary varies somewhat depending on what tour company you book the trip with. In our case, we went with Adventure Korea, and our itinerary included five stops:
1. The first stop was Imjingak, which is as far as people can go towards the North without permission. This village was built after people had to flee their homes in the North. In the village is the “Freedom Bridge” on which prisoners were exchanged between the North and the South. We got to walk on the Freedom Bridge for a bit, until a fence blockade that was covered with various messages people had left. From the bridge we could see the Bridge of No Return, which went into North Korea. In Imjingak there is also an altar so that people who left family in the North could pray for them. Imjingak also houses the Peace Bell, which is a symbol of hope for the reunification of Korea. There are also remains of a train that was bombed during the Korean War. Although this village is quite a tourist attraction (there’s a Popeye’s chicken!) it was still very moving to stand in the places where so much history took place. I was most moved by Freedom Bridge, because so much hope and joy took place on this bridge.
2. Tongilchon , which is the unification village. Here, families who were separated between North and South were allowed to reunite for certain holidays. I am not sure if this is still the case though. We had a traditional Korean lunch: rice, many side dishes (dried anchovies, tofu, kimchi, mushrooms, egg, etc), and 2 soups (porridge and a vegetable soup).
3. We then made our way to the 3rd Tunnel. During and after the war, North Korea had built many tunnels leading to Seoul in an attempt to make a surprise attack on the country. So far, 4 have been discovered but there could be as many as 20. The 3rd tunnel was tall and wide enough that an army of 10,000 could have made it to its destination in 1 hour. Scary! There are 2 ways to get to the beginning of the tunnel: first you can walk the entire way down a fairly steep ramp, or you could take what I call the roller coaster ride, which is a slow moving “ride” that gets you to the beginning of the tunnel. We were not allowed to take the ride, so we had to walk about 200m to get to the entrance. While in the tunnel, we were told to wear helmets and stoop as we’re walking. We got to walk about 500m of the tunnel, which was an amazing experience. One of the informational plaques said that after the discovery of the tunnel, N. Korea tried to deny it by saying that it was an abandoned coal mine. In preparation for this possible lie, while N. Korea was building the tunnel, they coated the walls in a thin layer of coal. South Korea didn’t buy this, obviously. Walking in the dark damp tunnel made me think of only one thing: 10,000 North Korean soldiers marching into South Korea, and the fact that so many tunnels are undiscovered.
4. The next stop was the Dora observatory, from which you can see into North Korea. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any pictures of North Korea because S. Korea had drawn a “photo line” and no one could take pictures beyond it for fear that those pictures would be given to N. Korea to leak secrets about S. Korea’s defense. There were binoculars that gave visitors a closer look into N. Korea and of the DMZ. I got to see Kijongdong, better known as “Propaganda Village,” which was built by N. Korea to make it look like it was a prosperous, thriving nation (which it is clearly NOT). North Korea hasn’t given up on this fake village, despite the fact that the gig is up. Lights are still turned on and off in the buildings of this completely uninhabited village to make it look like there are residents. Apparently, South Korea had/has a “Propaganda Village” of its own, although the language barrier made it hard for me to understand its purpose. I also got to see Kesung, the 2nd largest city in N. Korea, which was quite small and bleak. It was interesting to see the DMZ; it was lush, green, and dare I say beautiful. The DMZ is 2km area between N. Korea’s southernmost border and South Korea’s northernmost border. No activity other than wildlife takes place here, and it has a river running through it, so it has become an interesting ecosystem of its own. Apparently there are animals living in the DMZ area that don’t live in many other areas of Korea. Fascinating!
5. After the observatory we went to our final stop: Dorasan station, which is the last station in South Korea before entering N. Korea. There is a very optimistic plan for this station: to include it as part of a transatlantic Korean railroad, which will connect to all the other transatlantic railroads. As of now, it is a functional station that only accepts arrivals from a city somewhat near Seoul. As far as I could understand, only those arriving from that city could leave Dorasan station. In other words, I wouldn’t be able to take a train from Dorasan if I didn’t come in from that other city. Here, we were able to stamp a piece of paper with a passport stamp of the station. This stamp will be used if/when the line is opened for entry into North Korea. There is also entire section of the station devoted to entries into North Korea, which is obviously unused at the time. There is a great poster in the station: “Not the last station from the South but the first station into the North.” I thought that was very warm and hopeful.
Overall the DMZ trip was moving and something I knew I had to do in my time here. If time and money permits, I would like to the trip again with the USO. It costs more, but with that trip you are able to go into the treaty room, which would be my dream. The trip took a lot out of me; it was depressing yet hopeful at the same time. I wasn’t sure how to feel after I left.
Hours: closed Mondays
Mar – Oct: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Nov- Feb: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Ticket: adults: 1,000 won, teens 700 won, children 500 won.
Directions: Across from Suwon station (Line 1), take city bus headed to Hwaseong Fortress. Get off when you see the fortress walls.
Located in Suwon, this fortress is about 5km around. A massive fortress wall surrounds the city (or city center) of Suwon. We walked along the entire wall. This journey took about 5 hours, including a lunch break and deviations to other sights nearby. This is definitely a fun, all day historic activity.
Overall the architecture and preservation of the fortress is amazing. Some of my favorite of the deviations from the wall, which runs along the outside of the city were a Buddhist temple and a massive “golden” statue of a Buddha, which stands atop another Buddhist temple. I don’t have too much to say about the fortress other than it was beautiful, large, and worth a visit. The pictures speak for themselves. It was one of my favorite sights so far in Korea. We felt extremely accomplished after having scaled the hills, stairs, and muddy slopes of the fortress.
There are so many more things to see in Seoul but these are my absolute favorites.