48 hours in Seoul: the best things to do
Your ultimate itinerary, packing in the best things to do and see in the South Korean capital.
- October 2019
- Updated January 2022
If you have two days to explore Seoul, South Korea’s BBQ and bath-obsessed capital, here are the top six activities you need to try during your stay.
Shop for K-beauty buys
Did you know that South Korea is among the world’s fastest-growing beauty markets globally? In this country, school graduations may come with a nose job gift and more men use skincare products than their male counterparts anywhere else in the world. So, for skincare-loving shoppers, Seoul is a veritable treasure trove. Head to Chicor (the Korean equivalent of Sephora or Mecca) where shelves groan under the weight of more than 250 local and international brands, including the ultimate K-beauty buy: sheet masks, with prices starting at less than the cost of a coffee.
Explore historic neighbourhoods
Get a sense of Seoul of yesteryear by exploring the winding laneways of Bukchon Hanok Village. This collection of hanoks (traditional houses), some of which are hundreds of years old, stand in stark contrast with the surrounding neon lights and high rises. Many are now galleries and boutiques, though some are still lived in. And while it is pretty touristy, the network of alleys thins out the steeper the incline gets, which means if you put in the leg work you’ll soon have a quiet stretch to yourself. Plus, at the top, there are killer views over the tiled rooftops to the cityscape beyond.
Enjoy a K-pop-filled karaoke night
Locals are fanatical about noraebang (karaoke rooms) and an evening in one of these spots is a quintessential Seoul after-dark activity. Easily located via their flashing disco lights and the sound of wailing interpretations of ‘80s classics from within, there’s a heap of noraebang in student-y Hongdae, most available to rent by the hour. Sound menus cover all the foreign classics alongside a tonne of K-Pop, naturally.
Try local food at a market
There really is no better place to experience the richness of Korean cuisine than at a local market. And in Seoul the granddaddy of all markets is Gwangjang. In the city’s oldest permanent food market you can mix with hungry locals, people-watch (it’s worth a trip for this reason alone) and eat your way through piles of kimchi, endless mountains of mung bean pancakes and bibimbap. Adventurous types with strong stomachs might consider more squeamish delicacies such as blood sausage and pig trotters. Make your choice, pull up a stool at the counter and tuck in.
Visit traditional temples
After feeding the body, take some time to feed the soul. South Korea is home to more than 900 traditional temples, each offering an insight into the country’s 1,700-year-old Buddhist history. Jogyesa Temple is one of the most important but also the most accessible, given its location in the heart of downtown. Considering the frenetic pace of Seoul, spend a while here to cultivate some inner-peace.
Soak in a public bath
Like their Japanese neighbours, Koreans are bathing aficionados. To enter the world of jjimjilbang, check your inhibitions (and clothes) at the door, as swimming suits are banned in these public baths. Make sure you shower thoroughly before entering, then, once inside, you may discover warm baths, cold plunge pools, steam rooms, saunas and more – many jjimjilbang are huge, multi-storey affairs and also house restaurants and even karaoke rooms. If you’re game you can add on a traditional Korean seshin scrub, where your entire body is rigorously exfoliated until layers of dead skin and grime are removed.