The best things to do in Seoul
An intriguing mix of 21st-century innovation and traditional culture, Seoul is as much about contemporary living and K-pop as centuries-old palaces and temples.
- January 2022
Seoul continues to ride the K-wave generated by the buzz of K-pop, kimchi and most things Korean that has launched it as one of Asia’s hottest destinations. And in keeping with its emblematic Taegeuk (yin yang), this is a city that’s found a harmonious balance between high-tech innovation and 15th-century tradition — from its palaces and hanok (wooden houses) to neon-lit skyscrapers and cutting-edge architecture. Add to this Korean feasts and soju-fuelled evenings, diverse neighbourhoods and an incredible art scene, and you’ll find a city that is at the top of its game.
Admire architecture old and new
From 500-year-old palaces to glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the city’s architecture is a visual representation of Seoul through the ages. Dating from the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul’s five grand palaces are its most popular tourist attraction and include the beautiful World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung and the striking Gyeongbokgung. The Buddhist Jogyesa Temple is another remnant from the Joseon Dynsasty, while Seoul’s other World Heritage site, Jongmyo, is its oldest Confucian shrine. And for current-day highlights, standing above all is Seoul’s sleek architectural masterpiece, Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a multipurpose cultural centre featuring Zaha Hadid’s stunning streamlined design.
Go back in time to catch a glimpse of traditional Korean culture
Among Seoul’s shiny skyscrapers and high-tech design is a city with a traditional core that dates to its 15th-century Joseon Dynasty. Head to Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong to explore laneways lined with elegant hanok (old wooden houses), many of which have been converted into restaurants, museums and teahouses. Namsangol Hanok Village offers a full cultural experience where you adorn hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), before sampling a lavish banquet and cultural performances. For traditional music (gugak) book a ticket for a performance at the National Gugak Center where you’ll be mesmerised by both the gayageum (12-stringed zither) and haegum (two-stringed fiddle) among other Korean instruments.
Indulge in Seoul’s unique epicurean pleasures
From bibimbap and bulgogi to kimchi and Korean fried chicken, eating your way through Seoul is an undisputed highlight for many visitors. It’s a culinary scene that takes in both traditional and contemporary flavours, and in settings ranging from street-side markets stalls, Korean barbecue joints, fine-dining restaurants, and centuries-old hanok. For a quintessential local experience, stop by one of Seoul’s boisterous pojangmacha (tent bars) not only to sample classic Korean dishes but also for the ‘cultural’ experience of drinking soju (vodka-like rice wine) and makgeolli (milky rice wine) with new-found friends.
Head for the hills to enjoy Seoul’s natural surrounds
The great outdoors may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to this glittering megacity, but Seoul is in fact surrounded by stunning forested mountains. Namsan is its most accessible peak, and is worth the walk or cable-car ride to take in sparkling city views from N Seoul Tower. For more adventure, strap on the boots and grab the poles (and the latest hiking apparel, as per local trend) and follow the historical Seoul City Wall that connects its four peaks: Bukaksan, Naksan, Namsan and Inwangsan. There are some wonderful urban green spaces, too, including the scenic 11-kilometre Cheonggyecheon stream that courses through the city.
From Psy’s Gangnam Style to BTS’s charting-topping dominance, K-pop mania has taken over the world. And Seoul is right in the eye of this pop culture storm. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s fascinating to observe the K-pop industry’s cultural impact. Aside from live shows, K-pop experiences include hologram performances, K-pop tours, K-pop museums and Gangnam’s ‘Hallyuwood Walk of Fame’. You can even dress up like your favourite idol and record your own track.
Take in Seoul’s museums and galleries
Alongside the beautiful palaces, temples and fortified walls, Seoul’s museums and galleries do a wonderful job of telling the city’s fascinating history. For antiquities and traditional art, don’t miss the colossal National Museum of Korea with its vast collection of artefacts spanning the kingdoms and dynasties. For more recent history, the War Memorial and Museum offers a sobering insight into the Korean War and ensuing conflict with its northern neighbour. For art, look no further than Leeum Museum of Art with its dynamic collection of contemporary and Korean works housed in a superbly designed building.