The capital of Korea is a buzzing metropolis that’s a heady blend of next-generation skyscrapers surrounded by temples and palaces from kingdoms long gone. For the uninitiated though, Seoul can overwhelm with choices! Wondering how to plan your route in Seoul?
Here’s a handy neighbourhood guide showing you where to go in Seoul for the kinds of attractions you are interested in seeing when you plan your trip to the Land of the Morning Calm.
North of the River, South of the River
Neighbourhoods of interest to most tourists are split north and south of the Han River. In the north lies the older city: one that has been rebuilt after numerous wars with the North as well as the Japanese. Here, you’ll find traditional architecture, palaces, museums from which a web of modern glass-and-metal skyscrapers has mushroomed around.
The ‘new’ part of town in the South is anchored by the modern, upmarket and occasionally snobbish Gangnam district.
The Palace Area: Jong-no, Bukchon & Insa-dong
Get a sense of Korea’s history and heritage here.
If you only have time to visit one palace, make it the Gyeongbokgung. The Royal Palace is the largest and main palace of the mighty Joseon dynasty.
Though heavily restored, a stroll through the sprawling grounds offers and intriguing look at royal life circa 1395. Don’t miss the changing of the guard ceremony held hourly. History buffs should also check out the UNESCO-heritage protected Changdeokgung Palace.
The Bukchon Hanok Village is found between the two palaces. Here, a cluster of over 900 traditional houses (Hanok) lines a hillside. The small streets and tiled roofs are atmospheric, with photo opportunities galore. Insa-dong has a popular eponymous street filled with art galleries, cafes and teahouses.
The City Centre: Myeong-dong, City Hall, Namsan
The epicenter of the working, modern Seoul, City Hall, is typical of the times. The new city hall is a modern construction of curved glass and steel built over the original 1926 building.
Nearby, the N Seoul Tower in Namsan is Seoul’s answer to Hong Kong’s Peak. Get up by cable car to catch the sunset and watch Seoul transform into a glittering metropolis.
Myeong-dong is the main shopping district with all the brands you can think of and puts Singapore’s Orchard Road to shame.
Modern Seoul: Dongdaemun
The shopping continues in Dongdaemun. Here, mall after mall is packed with the latest in blogshop fashion. Check out Doota, Hello aPM! and Migliore.
If you want to buy in bulk, cross the street to the wholesale markets where you can get the same stuff for less (assuming you buy at least 2 of the same thing!).
The Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza is the area’s latest attraction; a curved metal and grass encased building housing shops and exhibition spaces…and cost US$460 million to build.
Upmarket Seoul: Gangnam, Apgujeong, Garosu-Gil
South of river lies the famed Gangnam district (yes, of Psy’s Gangnam Style fame). This upmarket area is home to all the top brands from Hermès to Cartier. The flash Galleria Department Store in Apgujeong has all the big labels under one roof. The trendy Garosu-gil is a pleasant, tree-lined street with some great local designer labels and cafes where the beautiful sit to people watch.
Area for Youth: Hongdae & Ehwa Women’s University
The university areas of Hongdae and Ehwa Women’s University are great to get a feel for the youth of the city. As expected, you’ll find plenty of trendy fashion shops selling everything from sunglasses to vintage clothes. Markets, cafes and bars complete the scene.
Hongdae is particularly vibrant at night: with live performances and happening bars buzzing all night.
Expat Friendly Neighbourhood in Seoul: Itaewon
This expat-friendly neighbourhood has the National Museum of Korea and Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, both are world-class museums well worth visiting. Those craving international food will only need to stroll along Itaewon-Ro, a long strip filled with restaurants serving any cuisine imaginable.
Family-friendly Area in Seoul: Jamsil
Families will enjoy a visit to Jamsil. The Lotte World Amusement Park and the gargantuan COEX Aquarium are both crowd pleasers. For insight into Korea’s obsession with baseball, the Jamsil stadium is a great place to catch the Doosan Bears in the field. Bring some snacks and drinks for an insider’s peek into local sporting culture.
DMZ and the JSA
While not strictly in Seoul, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a popular spot for tourists. It’s hard to imagine that the DMZ lies a mere 55km north of Seoul.
Here, the specter of war looms close with tensions between the North and the South often close to boiling over. The 4km wide and 240km long zone is a no-go buffer between the two side and lined with electrical fences, land mines and army bases ready to go operational within a moment’s notice.
Most hotels can help organise a day trip out. Trips begin with a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjeom. This is a ‘truce village’, a ceasefire zone where a US soldier ‘guide’ will take you through a briefing and where you can actually get close to North Korean guards.