South Korea in a Week: Seoul Highlights

South Korea in a Week: Seoul Highlights

So you’ve got a vacation planned for South Korea.

Luckily (not the least because it’s an awesome place), you can zip around much of the country within a week.

South Korea Seoul Palace

My suggestions for 1 week in South Korea will make use of the country’s wonderful natural-to-urban nexus. These venues blend seamlessly and are both mightily accessible.

In part one (this guide) I’ll focus on Urban Seoul. In the next guide, the focus will shift to the many natural areas around the city and country (you can make it all the way across South Korea in 4 hours, so you’ll have your pick of the lot).

Seoul, South Korea from on high

So, it’s time to lace up your hiking boots and get your k-pop socks on. This glitzy Asian techno-hub will keep your senses just short of overloaded – be sure to keep an eye on the news as not to be confounded by developments from its astoundingly crazy Northern cousin.

Seoul: South Korea’s Thrumming Megalopolis

One doesn’t simply ignore Seoul when spending 1 week in South Korea. South Koreans are known the world over for being hip, and Seoul is the epicenter of global cool.

The city can seem overwhelming. This, dear traveler, is because it is. The subway system would have Theseus scratching his head in confusion. I only believed in the city’s sprawl petering out when I saw from the peak of a nearby mountain.

All this should be taken as a very good thing because it means that Seoul has a lot going for it.

City Highlights – Urban Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace 경복궁

This dashing palace, constructed in 1395, rises from the urban landscape as an inevitable vehicle of culture.

Visitors are encouraged to rent ancient-style clothing to skirt entrance fees, but be apprised: the fee isn’t much more than 3 USD.

Seoul,, South Korea, Gyeonbok Palace

Either way, historical realism dawns on visitors the moment they find themselves surrounded by (mostly Chinese) tourists in resplendent silk garb framed against curvaceous temple -facades.

Namson Seoul Tower

You can make South Korea’s premier viewing platform far less cheesy/touristy by electing to walk up the hill leading to it from the Myeong-dong subway station.

N Seoul Tower, South Korea

Take exit three and head up the hills near Seoul’s Chinese visa-and-tourist section. From here you’ll get to the main road and catch the intersection leading up the hill to the proper tower.

Explore the recesses along the walking road and you’ll be greeted with temples, mountain cats, and the stairs leading to the tower. The views are spectacular from everywhere.

Seoul, South Korea from N Seoul Tower

Myeong-dong street food and shopping:

Descend from the tower hungry (don’t pay the exorbitant food prices up there). You’ll now have the option of perusing South Korea’s longest street-food corridor and luxuriating on a massive amount of calories.

The market in Seoul

Fried squid, steak on a stick, oreo churros, cotton candy, all the Korean food… this outdoor market is as good as it gets. Don’t forget to peruse the hundreds of outlets and boutique retail stores in the vicinity.

When you’re ready to bail, hit the underground market on the way to the subway where you can buy plush accessories variegated with the faces of your favorite k-pop stars.

South Korean Pop Stars

Hongdae Neighborhood: Nightlife on Korean terms

One of the hippest neighborhoods in South Korea, Hongdae comprises the city’s university population and associated nightlife haunts. As such, it’s one of the best places to experience the powerful influence of Seoul’s youth on South Korean culture.

Seoul's interesting sites

I stayed at the Time Travel Party Hostel to springboard nightlife plans. Some other guests, an employee and I would all link up there and hit the town (on a wintry Monday, nonetheless).

Daytime Hongdae, however, is worthy of exploration in its own rite. Near the university subway exit, you’ll find myriad cafes and restaurants catering to quirky, fancy, and normal tastes alike.

Back-alley Seoul, South Korea
This isn’t daytime, nor is it even Hongdae. Sorry

Follow the college kids or ask them for recommendations. Once dusk falls, kick things off with fried chicken and beer (a wonderful Korean tradition) and prepare to hit the town.

My recommendation? Start at Thursday Party and wander on from there. We partied well into the sunrise with no seeming drop in the bar populations, which bespeaks Seoul’s status as a truly 24-hour city.

Clubbing is big in Hongdae. However, you may be denied entry by virtue of being a foreigner. Your chances of getting in increase for every female in your party, but be prepared to pay a cover (nothing so extreme as you’d find in Miami or similar cities, though).

Urban Seoul, South Korea

Itaewon Neighborhood:

I admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time here. And that’s a shame because the time I did spend (at the gym) made me fall briefly in love with the place. Itaewon is a squat neighborhood perched along the apex of a hill.

Itaewon Hill, South Korea, Seoul
Itaewon nestled on a hill behind commercial buildings

It stands out quite readily from the surrounding city and boasts a smorgasbord of international restaurants, bars, and shops.

It’s more than just an ex-pat and American military hangout and deserves more time than I gave it (quick word on South Korean gyms – they give you workout outfits and provide more amenities than American spas. Get your pump on).

The National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관)

First things first: the museum is free. OK, that’s facetious. Firstly I should note that the museum is fantastic, a true legacy of all that endures and that which is fractured on the Korean peninsula.

Seoul National Museum, South Korea History

You can tell how badly whoever collaborated to create this attraction wanted people to learn about Korean history.

In Seoul Museum

With the Hermit Kingdom only 30 miles to the north one can understand the urgency. If you want a full rundown of Korea’s (not only the South’s) history then prepare to spend half a day here.

Namdaemun

One of historic Korea’s 8 palace gates, Namdaemun makes for an interesting contrast with the urban environment.

We came upon it by mistake, which certainly gave the place more oomph. You’ll be well-served by opting into exploring Namdaemun’s market and the surrounding area of Jung-gu, which is Seoul’s historic center and a cultural must-see. Namdaemun Market, I may add, is South Korea’s largest.

Namdaemun South Korea

If you decide to arrive in the middle of winter without proper clothes because you just came from the Philippines…Well, you’ll find cheap winter wear all over and just might score some killer bibimbap as well (fun fact: I neglected to eat any bibimbap AT ALL while in Korea. Don’t be like me).

Miscellaneous Seoul: Thoughts on the City

I always feel the desire to take a rather Schmuckish approach and write about places I didn’t visit. It feels like I’m cheating readers by only naming 6 or 7 places to go but in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll not cheat them further by describing places I haven’t been.

There are hundreds, thousands of things to do in Seoul, and this list is all but exhaustive.

Seoul, South Korea

South Korea was probably my favorite country and in no small part because of this city.

From a plethora of Kim-coats and plastic surgery that doesn’t look campy (controversial opinion: plastic surgery is working for the people here. You can’t tell who’s gotten it but Seoulites sure manage to be attractive) to corndogs and the greatest macarons I’ve ever eaten, South Korea managed to surprise me like I haven’t been surprised since being very stoned as a teenager (that is – things could get weird but were always pleasant).

If I’m being frank as a Westerner, Asia has a lot of weirdness about it. Don’t act like you don’t agree. South Korea, however, either keeps it toned down or turns stereotypes on their head by being cool as ****.

South Korean streets

You don’t get the celebrity treatment just for being anemic here, which is actually quite fantastic after being in rural China for so long. South Koreans are proud, dare I say arrogant about their culture, but I’m not going to deny that they have a reason for it.

It’s no surprise they’re one of the biggest exporters of culture on the planet – the quality and depth of their entertainment, food, and attitude shine brilliantly even from the gray cityscape that comprises most of Seoul.

Seoul, South Korea from a nearby mountain

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