How to see the best of Seoul by subway
The South Korean capital is both cutting edge and culturally rich. Here’s how to explore Seoul’s wonderfully diverse neighbourhoods by subway.
- May 2019
A disembodied voice announces the stop. The doors whoosh open, footsteps clatter and the train departs in a rush of air. A wave of people flood the stairs and disappear into the sunlight of a new city corner. It doesn’t really matter which corner – every metro stop in Seoul feels like somewhere special.
The South Korean capital is increasingly being billed as the New York City of Asia, an international focal point for business, innovationand the arts. It has the same non-stop, everything-is-possible optimism, the balance of glass and cement and the disparate micro-neighbourhoods contained in a beautifully messy whole.
Nearly 10 million people live in Seoul – over a million more than New York, in a city about three-quarters the size. With a mountainous green belt to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west, the only direction for Seoul to grow is up. It is a vertical city, with apartment towers interspersed among skyscraper office blocks and the Han River looping below.
Much like the Big Apple, Seoul is held together by a world-class subway. The Seoul Metro is relatively new – a 45-year-old system beneath a 625-year-old capital – but it is stunningly comprehensive and efficient.
The system operates in four languages (Korean, English, Japanese and Mandarin) with 7.8 million daily riders on 332 kilometres of track, including an expansive Circle Line (Line 2) around the city centre. The subway is the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to get around – and it’s so trendy, it has its own film event, the Seoul Metro International Subway Film Festival .
But it’s not just about transportation. The Seoul Metro is a pop-up book of the city’s neighbourhoods (dong). Every station paints a different picture: gritty, glam or futuristic. There are more than 280 stations to launch you into Seoul and some of the best are along the main Circle Line. Here are the stops you should not miss.
The vibe is... Beyong K-Pop - Like really far beyond
The is where... Chart-topping indie band Hyukoh got its start
Don't forget to... Take your camera to the Trick Eye Museum
Try the... Multitude of cake cafés
At the intersection of Seoul Metro’s Airport Railroad and busy Circle Line, Hongik University station is awash with rolling luggage. It’s also the front door to Hongdae, the trendy university district at the heart of the city’s indie music scene.
During the day, Hongdae is the place to explore Seoul’s uniquely themed cafés honouring characters including Harry Potter and Hello Kitty, as well as experiential venues for cake decorating and indoor fishing.
The vibe is... High finance and flowers
The is where... Seoul's first airport was built in 1924
Don't forget to... Enjoy cherry blossom season in early spring
Try the... Fried chicken delivery service
The skyscrapers above Yeouido Station, located two stops from the Circle Line on Line 9, echo the commuters in the trains below: powerful, expensive and crammed way too close together. As the clock hits 9am, the streets fill with briefcases and purposefully striding shoes.
These people have deals to broker and a country to run. Yeouido, a small island encircled by the Han River, is the city’s financial district and here, it feels almost wrong to enter a park instead of an office building.
Yeouido Park is only a block wide but runs through the centre of the island from top to bottom and packs with visitors each spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. The park intersects with the vast Hangang Park at one of the city’s many food delivery zones – use a smartphone app like Uber Eats to order fried chicken directly to your picnic beneath the birch and Korean pine trees.
The vibe is... An intimate local's view
The is where... Tteokbokki (A spicy stir-fried rice cake dish) was invented in the 1950s
Don't forget to... Wander around jungang market
Try the... Tteokbokki
Despite being two metro stops from the sprawling malls and markets of the popular Dongdaemun area, Sindang caters mainly to locals and rarely sees tourists. The dangling lights of Jungang Market turn everyday moments into colourful tableaux: a woman weighing translucent shrimp, a rubbery pile of pig heads and an old man slurping noodles beside a display of fried chicken feet. The alleys behind it smell of fresh wood shavings from carpentry shops.
South of the station is Sindang’s main attraction: Tteokbokki Town. Seoulites have flocked here since the 1970s for its density of spicy rice cake restaurants. Today, about 10 tteokbokki hotspots line a single city block. Inside each, clouds of steam hover over the tables as pots of rice cake boil in bright red chilli pepper sauce. Grab a bib apron off the peg and join the crowd.
The vibe is... Eclectic
The is where... US military personnel liked to hang out
Don't forget to... Check out the views from bugundang history park
Try the... Craft beer
The obvious mix of cultures starts in the metro station. Itaewon’s reputation as the “foreigner’s district” began with thirsty US soldiers, who flocked from their nearby headquarters to the area’s bars and eateries in the years during the Korean War.
Today, Mexican restaurants, Turkish bakeries and Indian spice shops line the streets, while the country’s first mosque stands on a hill surrounded by halal markets. It is also a cornerstone neighbourhood for Korea’s LGBT community.
The main street of Itaewon has a festival atmosphere. Souvenir kiosks sell Korean flag underwear and tailor shop hawkers entice foreigners with “Custom suit – big size!” The narrow side streets offer the most vibrant bars and nightlife, along with brunch spots to mop up the next morning’s hangover.
Itaewon is also one of the few places in Seoul to find local beer – don’t miss Magpie Brewing Co, one of Korea’s foundational microbreweries established in 2011.
The vibe is... Traditional
The is where... Much of hit netflix thriller kingdom was filmed
Don't forget to... Tour the photogenic secret garden
Try the... Jujube tea
Even before you leave the station, Anguk (located two stops from the Circle Line on Line 3) feels quiet and classy. This was the seat of power of the Joseon Dynasty, who ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1392 to 1910.
Anguk Station sits between the two most famous regal sites, Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace. North of the station, the restored houses of Bukchon Hanok Village show how the other half lived.
Anguk is also a five-minute walk from Insadong, a traditional shopping street where artisan goods sit alongside bright Korean-themed kitsch. The latest trends in street food cycle through the ground-level stalls, while second- and third-floor cafés serve timeless Korean teas made from ginger and jujube (Chinese dates).
The vibe is... Glitz and glam
The is where... Psy, of "Gangnam style" fame, was born and raised
Don't forget to... Visit a bang (Entertainment room) for games, movies and karaoke
Try the... Pyeongyang Naengmyeon (A north korean cold noodle dish)
Gangnam is all that glitters, with the most luxurious malls, the most Michelin Guide mentions, the hottest K-pop labels and elite plastic surgery clinics. It is also Seoul’s most popular subway stop – each year, 10 million more people pass through Gangnam Station than New York City’s bustling Times Square-42 Street stop.
The district showcases Seoul’s reputation as the City of the Future. The country’s largest smart LED screen and B;eat, the world’s first 5G robot barista, debuted here in 2018. This is also where Camp VR, the country’s first virtual reality playroom, opened next to Gangnam Station in 2016. It proved so popular that VR bangs are now located throughout the city.
The vibe is... Urban industrial meets super stylish
The is where... President Moon Jae-in goes for custom-made shoes
Don't forget to... Check out the graffiti-style street art
Try the... Coffee
The subway becomes an elevated train as it crosses Jungnangcheon Stream into Seongsu. Nearly 30 years ago, this blue-collar neighbourhood was the centre of Korea’s handmade shoe industry. Exhibits from the era line Seongsu Station, with leather shoes on spinning pedestals and cobblers’ tools preserved behind mesh screens.
Today, the word most associated with Seongsu is “hipster”. Clamber down to street level to experience the Brooklyn of Seoul. It’s grittier below the concrete overpass and the sidewalks are crowded with parked bikes. Empty warehouses have been reimagined as ultra-chic coffee spaces with expansive menus and local art. Come at night for the same atmosphere over drinks. At quirky bar Urban Space, you can even frolic in an adult-sized ball pit – ironically, of course.