At first glance, Seoul appears to be a sprawling concrete mass of high-rise apartment buildings and modern buildings interspersed with historical treasures. But on closer investigation, the city can be divided into numerous smaller districts with their own distinct character. Your primary landmark is the Han River, which runs east to west and bisects the metropolis. Jongno forms the center to the north, surrounded by five main tourist districts, and there are two other districts of interest to visitors to the south, all of which are easy to access by the convenient and economical subway system. Very few streets have names, however, and buildings are not always numbered, so the easiest way to find a place is by locating the nearest subway station or landmark, or by asking the friendly people you are certain to meet in every part of the city.
At the heart of Seoul, the
Jung-gu & Dongdaemun-gu
Just south of Jongno is the
Dongdaemun (“great east gate”) is the district immediately east of Jongno, famous for the Dongdaemun Market where you can buy discounted brand-name items and outdoor wear/equipment. Also
Daehangno & Seodaemun-gu
Northeast of Jongno at Hyehwa Station is the
West of Jongno, the lively university district within Seodaemun-gu, spreads along the Ewha University, Shinchon and Hong-ik University subway stations. Shinchon is known for its 24-hour bars, cafes and restaurants, where students (and others) go to chat, dance and eat. The nearby Ewha Women's University area is full of jeans shops, hairdressers, and clothing stores. By contrast, Hongik University, with painted murals along its walls, has a slightly different feeling. Clothing shops are few, replaced instead by restaurants, nightclubs, rock bars and live cafes. In fact, a great cafe in the area is
Within Yongsan-gu, near Samgakji Station,
Gangnam & Apgujeong-dong
A fairly new entertainment and culture center, the
South of the Han River is the
From corporate executives to budget-conscious backpackers, travelers to Seoul are sure to find accommodations with services, facilities and prices suited to their needs. What's more, you can be certain that the hotel management will provide not only a clean, comfortable room with plenty of hot running water, but also a high level of service, because to Koreans, guests are considered one of the family and treated as such. This emphasis on traditional hospitality makes being a visitor to Seoul a unique experience.
Jongno-gu & Jung-gu
The city's luxury hotels are really just that—luxurious—featuring all the comforts expected of world-class lodgings. The largest concentration of deluxe hotels is around City Hall Square, conveniently located within walking distance or a short bus ride from Seoul's many sights and tourist attractions. Lavish accommodations include Hotel Shilla and the Seoul Plaza Hotel. With the business traveler in mind, these first class hotels provide business facilities second to none, including special business centers, Internet access, interpreter and translation services, secretarial services and much more. The hotel staff members will make every effort to ensure that your stay is a comfortable one, and most of them speak English. Other hotels located in this district include the Lotte Hotel, esteemed as one of the best hotels in Seoul, as the hotel prides itself on being a stellar example of Korean hospitality. Yet if you seek quality rooms at cheaper prices, try the Jeonpoong Tourist Hotel which also offers an comfortable stay at an affordable price, great for families or travelers on a budget. Also quite popular among budget travelers and students are the city's youth hostels. Rooms are inexpensive, and offer travelers the chance to meet others who are far from home. A great place to visit is Youth Traveller's A, where the rooms are homey and clean. They offer 26 dormitory beds in rooms for two to six persons.
If you are looking for a moderately-priced hotel convenient to nightlife, the Itaewon district may be the place for you. Dozens of local nightspots are located near Itaewon's noticeable landmark, the Hamilton Shopping Center and Hamilton Hotel. The area's large foreign population ensures that many exciting events are happening throughout the day as well. After a night of singing and dancing at Timeout Live Music Club you may end up stumbling upon Wow! Guest House, another affordable accommodation. For something more luxurious try the Capital Hotel.
Great stays around the Gangnam district include the Renaissance Seoul, and Ritz Carlton Hotel. The Ritz Deli, located inside the hotel, is a great place to grab a cup of coffee or tea to jump start your morning. These first class hotels will leave you well rested and dazzled by the staff and amenities. Another beautiful five star hotel that will amaze you with its lounge, bar, and friendly staff is Hotel Ellelui. Not far from Gangnam-gu, you can stay at the Hotel Olympic Parktel, located at Olympic Park. For a more business minded stay, the Young-dong Hotel has great meeting and business room facilities. Lastly, the Intercontinental Hotel will offer the international traveler a stay of a life time, from the fine dining and fitness services, to the beautiful decor.
Mapo-gu & Gangseo-gu
For great service at an affordable price, consider staying at the Best Western Premier Seoul, highly recommended for its quality. Many of the hotel staff speak English, so you should find it easy to have your questions answered or problems solved. Another fabulously featured hotel includes Hotel Seokyo, a fine choice for travelers on business as a coffee and bar are conveniently located inside. This hotel is also located near prominent universities, such as Yeonsei, and popular shopping centers.
Across the Han River, the River Park Tourist Hotel offers clean and cozy rooms. They come equipped with a TV, radio, telephone and private bathroom. Although the facilities may not be as great as those found at higher priced hotels, the staff's warm smiles and kind hearts will make your stay an unforgettable one. At the Best Western Niagara Hotel enjoy the beautiful views of the Han River. This is a central location to the Incheon International Airport and Mount Bukhansan, as well as downtown Seoul.
There is no reason to be bored in Seoul. Whether you are visiting for a few hours or staying for a few weeks, Seoul offers round-the-clock opportunities for shopping, performing arts and cinema, sightseeing, sports activities, nightlife and more, suited to every travel budget.
Shoppers will delight at the range of choices available, from bustling noisy outdoor markets and antique alleys to conventional department stores. Namdaemun Market, close to downtown, is thronged with locals and tourists alike, haggling for the best prices in clothing, outdoor equipment and Korean souvenirs. At Dongdaemun Market you can shop until dawn, then head over to Yongsan Electronic Shopping Town for the latest gadgets and necessities. How about some snake medicine or elks horn? You will find these and other oriental medicines at the Kyongdong Herbal Market. A smile and some body language will go a long way when bargaining at any of these markets. For traditional Korean art, crafts and antiques (lacquerware, brassware, paper, ceramics, paintings and embroidery) the district of Insadong should be number one on your list. When you tire of browsing through these shops, take a break in one of the many traditional tea rooms. Itaewon—the most Americanized district in Korea—is the best place for Western-sized clothing, tailor shops, shoes and leather products, while Myeong-dong and Apgujeong are the fashion districts of choice for Koreans. Visitors to Seoul should not overlook the hidden world beneath the street either. The Gangnam Express Bus Terminal Underground Arcade and Sogong Underground Shopping Center are popular shopping centers, selling inexpensive clothing and other products.
Performing Arts & Cinema
As the cultural capital of Korea, Seoul is teeming with music, dance and theater venues. Performances at the Traditional Performing Arts Center, Chongdong Theater and the National Theater display thousands of years of history. The colorful and elegant "fan dance" and the humorous "mask dance" are examples of Korean cultural treasures. Pansori, a narrative folk story which is sung and performed, is a very powerful musical experience, though to unaccustomed ears the warbling tones may be rather overwhelming. Lively farmers' drum music, accompanied by energetic dancing with flowing ribbons, is a Korean experience not to be missed. Check out the free outdoor performances at the Seoul Nori-Madang. Of course opera, classical concerts, musicals and plays are also readily available in Seoul. The Seoul Arts Center and the LG Arts Center are the largest venues. The Daehangno district has the highest concentration of theaters in Seoul; come here to enjoy a play or musical in the DongSoong Art Center or at smaller alternative theaters, such as Hakchon Blue. If you crave a movie (especially a Hollywood blockbuster), you should have no trouble finding a cinema, especially downtown. Obtaining a seat on the weekends, however, may be difficult; be sure to arrive at least one hour in advance of the show. Films are usually screened in the original language—no dubbing. Movie lovers can check schedules in the Friday editions of English newspapers around the city. Then, for a uniquely Korean experience, try a videobong, a private room where one to six people can watch a rented movie on comfortable chairs or a sofa.
Palaces, Museums & Galleries
Korea's historical relics were partially or completely destroyed in times of conflict and subsequently rebuilt numerous times over the years. The central part of Seoul has the highest concentration of palaces. Gyeongbok, Deoksugung and Changgyeong are well worth the small admission fee, while Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon Garden, or "Secret Garden" (guided tour only), should also be on your agenda. Visitors have a wide choice of museums to look forward to, ranging from the Kimchi Museum (where you can learn more about Korea's favorite food) to the Sodaemun Prison History Center. For an open-air "living" museum, experience the past in the Korean Folk Village. If art is more your style, don't miss the myriad of local galleries displaying traditional Korean art in the alleys of Insadong. The National Museum of Contemporary Art will satisfy your craving for more modern art, while the Hongik University area is known for its creative outdoor murals and small galleries.
The Great Outdoors
"Yaho!" is a cry you might hear at dawn if you are staying near a mountain or hill in Seoul. Koreans are very fond of climbing and making their accomplishment known early in the morning, or at any time of day on weekends. Seoul is surrounded by mountains, easily accessible by public transportation. Well-marked trails exist for both the novice and the more experienced hiker. Bukhansan National Park is known for its rock-climbing as well as regular hiking. Mount Suraksan and Mount Inwang are other good choices. For flatter scenery, pay a visit to Yeouido Park, one of the few places you can rent a bicycle and pedal along the Han River, or stroll through some of the small historical and ecological parks located throughout Seoul.
As the proud co-host of World Cup 2002, Seoul has numerous venues for professional soccer matches. The biggest are the Olympic Stadium and the Seoul World Cup Stadium. In fact, around Olympic Park you can check out the open air Sculpture Garden. Baseball and basketball fans will also be happy to know there are regular games in season. Traditional sports such as taekwondo (martial arts) and ssirum (wrestling) can be seen at Changchung Stadium. For individual sports enthusiasts, bowling alleys, billiard halls and ping-pong rooms abound in most neighborhoods, and swimmers and ice-skaters will be delighted by Seoul's facilities. If you prefer being a spectator, try your luck punting at the Seoul Racecourse. With your winnings, you can play at Seoul's only casino, the Walker Hill Casino, open only to non-Koreans and Koreans who reside abroad. For a hair-raising adventure, visit one of the city's amusement parks, such as Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, with its exhibition hall and Folk Village in addition to all the rides you would expect.
Koreans work long hours and like to "let off steam" at the end of the day, contributing to Seoul's lively nightlife scene. Officially, there is a midnight closing time at bars and nightclubs—a remnant of the city's military past—but the reality is that you will find places to linger until dawn if you so desire. Itaewon, declared an "official tourism zone," has some bars that remain open 24 hours a day. Most drinking spots have a selection of local and some imported beers, or you can try the potent potato vodka, soju, or the more traditional rice wines, dong dong ju or makkoli. Music lovers will find a range from jazz to rock or classical in Seoul bars and cafes. Chonnyon Dongan Do in Daehangno is one of the best places for live jazz, while the Hongik area features more alternative and underground clubs in addition to regular bars. Taehangno and Shinchon are especially popular areas for students, being near the largest university campuses. Gangnam, Apgujeong and Myungdong, on the other hand, will appeal to adults of all ages. Don't miss the ubiquitous noraebong (singing rooms), a typically Korean experience where up to twelve friends can cram into a room to belt out songs to the karaoke machine. Night owls can enjoy midnight shopping at Namdaemun or Dongdaemun or take the Han River Boat Cruise to see Seoul after dark. And be sure to take in the night view from Seoul Tower after the sun goes down.
Seoul is a great place to experience a wide variety of spicy yet mouth-watering foods, especially the local cuisine with its distinctive tastes based on garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, red pepper powder and fermented soybean paste. Korean dishes, such as bibimpab (vegetables mixed with rice and hot pepper paste, topped with a cooked egg), kalbi (succulent beef ribs marinated in a special sauce, then char-broiled) and kimchi (Chinese cabbage or radish, salted with various spices, including red hot pepper powder and pickled fish sauces), are becoming increasingly popular around the world. Kimchi, in fact, is the country's staple, accompanying almost every meal. As many Koreans put it, "A meal without kimchi would be like trying to walk without legs." The existence of some 200 kinds of Kimchi shows how important it is to the local diet.
For an excellent sampling of the growing trend towards international cuisine, try Dimatteo, where authentic Italian pizza is prepared by Neapolitan chefs. Of course, if you are searching for some Seoul food, you can stop in at Sanchon, which offers a vegetarian Korean menu. Still searching for something more traditional? Try Arirang Minsokgwan, an excellent place to eat and watch classical Korean performances. Another restaurant in the area to try is Yeongbin Garden, a popular Korean style restaurant in the heart of Seoul. Finally, after a long day touring the Jongno district, what better way to unwind than over a glass of soju, perhaps with a new found friend?
Aside from the magnificent views the Seoul N Tower provides, the N-grill found inside Seoul Tower is surely not to be missed. This rotating restaurant is sure to be a dining highlight of your time spent in Seoul. You can even take in a performance before or after dinner at the National Theater, located near Mt. Namsan. Another diner's and drinker's paradise is Top Cloud, located inside the Millennium Plaza. The restaurants located inside Hotel Shilla offer Western, Japanese-Chinese, and Korean cuisine in a classy, aristocratic atmosphere. Prices here are higher, but the quality of the food is superb. These restaurants include Continental, Palsun, and Ariake. Don't forget to try the Pastry Boutique for those with a sweet tooth.
Daehangno & Apgujeong
After touring around Daehangno, try one of the many places frequented by students, such as Chin Chin. Stop in to see why this place is among the favorites of university students. If you have spent all day shopping around Apgujeong and you are in the mood for something American, try Kraze Burgers. This Korean-American style restaurant will leave you satisfied by their selection of gourmet burgers, salads, pasta dishes, and steaks. If Italian-American is more your style, try Kimmee, another local favorite. After a refreshing lunch, take a stroll in Marronnier Park, a great place to relax or work off a hearty meal.
Among other attractions in the area is the War Memorial Museum, one of the many reminders that commemorate those who fought to ensure the modern nation state. After an afternoon of sightseeing, broaden your palate of Asian cuisine by trying Thai Orchird. Of course, European cuisine can always be found in Seoul, for instance, La Cucina is a great example of Italian fare. If you happen to be wandering around Itaewon at night you will find the young and young at heart out at the various bars and lounges. Some of the popular nightclubs in the area include the Big Electric Cat and Del's Disco, popular amongst the gay crowd. If sipping drinks is more your style, try one of the wine bars like Bonji Bistro and Gecko's Garden.
If you are staying at or around the Ritz Carlton, you are in luck. Not only do they offer fantastic accommodations, but also offer a wide selection of appetizing meals. Every so often, these hotels have special food fairs where they emphasize culinary delights from different countries, too. After your shopping spree at the COEX Mall or a day filled spent at the Seoul Arts Center, you may want to proceed to Siena, a fine Italian restaurant for some mouth watering Tuscan cuisine. If Korean food is on your mind, try Samwon Garden. This restaurant demonstrates its pride for Korea with their traditional fare. It is also hailed as one of the largest restaurants in Seoul, providing great service and tasty dishes.