South Korea is a country rich in natural beauty, incredible food and genuinely kind and welcoming people. There is a wealth of sightseeing to be done throughout the country (see our inspiring South Korea guide) but Seoul, the capital city, needs tackling alone. It’s a sprawling metropolis of various neighbourhoods defined by their food specialisms as well as their location. So, if you’re heading Seoul way, be sure to print off a copy of our super handy Seoul City Guide and get stuck in!
WHERE TO STAY
The boutique hotel concept hasn’t quite reached Seoul yet so your best options are the international chains. However, choosing where to stay can seem a tad overwhelming as hotels are scattered throughout the city and make different promises. After hours of research, this travel savvy Sassy reporter settled on the JW Marriott in Gangnam. It offers up all the familiarity, luxury and comfort you would expect of a JW Marriott but with a dose of Seoul inspired hospitality and prices cheaper than many of its competitors. Rooms are spacious, well kitted out and offer great views. The hotel restaurants are a bit of a let down as there is no Korean offering, but breakfast is mightily impressive and the cocktail bar is a great after dinner hangout with live piano music. For me, the two main selling points which would have me return here next time I visit were primarily, the location and secondly, the spa.
Location wise, the subway is your best friend in Seoul as the main sights are spread out. The JW Marriott is conveniently on top of a subway station which links three main lines ensuring the whole city is easily accessible. What’s more, it’s slap bang in the middle of the now famed Gangnam district.
And as for the spa, after a hard day pounding the streets, a hotel spa can be a sanctuary of tranquility and calm. Not so at the hotel’s Marquis spa. True to Korean culture it instead offers up an authentic Korean hot bath experience. Think naked, gossiping Korean women unwinding at the end of their day with hot onsen style baths, saunas and steam rooms. The atmosphere is somewhat overwhelming at first but you soon lose your inhibitions and immerse yourself in the sociable whilst restorative environment.
JW Marriott, 19-3 Banpo-dong, Seochu-gu Seoul, South Korea, +82 2 6282 6262
If you’ll looking for somewhere on the lower end of the price spectrum, we’d also recommend checking out Airbnb for some fantastic, clean, reasonably-priced apartments!
WHAT TO DO
A city of this scale is best tackled area by area. With just 3 days to play with, here are my top picks of sights to see and places to go grouped into areas:
Insadong and around
- Insadong – a great area for mooching. Dawdle down the main antique street but save more time for boutique shopping in the winding alleyways North of here (between Bukchan-ro and Samcheongdong-gil). Seoul’s famed coffee shop culture will have you reaching for a brew at every possible moment. We thoroughly recommend Dawon.
- Bukchon Hanok Village – a fantastically preserved labyrinth of traditional Korean one storey houses, some still serving as dwellings with others converted to shops and tea houses. Be sure to stop by Cha Masineun Tteul – on the most Western edge of the hanok and serving up delicious pumpkin rice cake and local teas in an evocative building.
- Gyeonbokgung Palace – marvel at the beauty and scale of this Korean palace, best approached from the impressive Gwanghwamun Square and Gate
- Think ahead and time yourselves to slot into a tour of the beautiful secret garden at World Heritage listed Cheongdeokgung Palace
Myeongdong and Namsan
- If you’re after some hard core shopping, head to the more Western feeling streets of Myeondong for some retail therapy.
- Get spectacular views of the city from the N Seoul Tower
- Spend some time browsing the stalls at the eclectic Namdaemun market
- Soak up the sun whilst ambling along the pedestrianized banks of the Cheonggyecheon Stream which cuts through the heart of the city and catch the lightshow at 7pm and 9pm under Gwangton Bridge.
- Soak up the Gangnam culture by ambling down Garosu-gil – literally meaning tree-lined street, it’s a bustling throughfare with small shops, food restaurants and trendy vibes
- Stroll around the tombs at Seonjeongneung Park
- Soak up the tranquility at the secluded hillside Buddhist temple, Bongeun-sa
- This expat enclave is a little overrun with Western restaurants and shops so instead broaden your horizons by visiting the Korean War Memorial Museum with an interesting focus on the Korean War amongst other battles.
- Bring out your inner culture vulture at the architecturally impressive Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
- Marvel at the K-Pop student style as you wonder the streets of this trendy student hub
- Rent a bike or some roller blades and explore either the perimeter or park in this urban island
WHERE TO EAT
The food was the highlight of my weekend and I implore you to sample as many types of dishes as possible. My guide below is broken down by dish type and then where to find it (P.S. Restaurants are notoriously hard to find so get a concierge to write the address up in Korean for you or you’ll find yourself walking in circles!)
- Bibimbap – assorted vegetables and meat on rice
- For a modern, youthful take on this classic dish try a branch of the hip chain Bibi-go
- For something more classic, head to Bab just off Wausan-gil by the Hope Market in Hongdae
- Bulgogi – marinated beef cooked on the barbeque
- The best place in town is Gae Hwa Oak – which has two branches – one near the Galleria mall in Apyujeong and the other by Garosu Gil
- Kimbap – Korea’s take on sushi
- Head to School Food on Garosu gil
- Gilbi – barbequed beef ribs
- Out of all the places on this list, we opted for a mesmerising meal at Seochomyeonok where we delighted in the succulent Galbi as well as getting to sample the cooling naengmyon – buckwheat noodles served cold in a broth with mustard. Delicious.
- Modern Korean food
- Head to the famed Jung Sik Dang (which also has a NYC outpost) for a molecular take on Korean food
- Or for something really interesting and challenging to your tastebuds try out Sandang where the flavours will push your conceptions of Korean food
- Korean BBQ
- There are thousands of places to sample this famous cuisine, we opted for somewhere local and cheap and cheerful but there are plenty of fancy options too. For floor sitting, authentic style try Hwanggeumjeong right by Anguk station Exit 2
- Samgyetang – spring chicken slow cooked and stuffed with chestnuts, garlic and ginseng
- Be prepared to queue at the ever popular To Sok Chon
Finally, be sure to pop into a Hof. Inspired by German beer halls they’re where the youth of Seoul hang out guzzling on beer or Soju and eating fried chicken!
Some local tips:
- Buy one way tickets every time you ride the subway but remember to return the ticket at the return machines to get your deposit back
- Always have the destination you are heading to written in Korean to show cab drivers, and take the phone number too as twice our cab had to phone the restaurant
- Some of the more popular restaurants need booking in advance
So, there you have it. A whole weekend’s worth of eating, drinking and seeing in Seoul. Time to get exploring!