In October of 2022, Delta announced they were resuming nonstop flight service from Minneapolis to SEoul Thanksgiving week 2022, I had the joy of visiting Seoul, the capital of South Korea, for just over a week with a good friend. We arrived eager to eat, explore, and shop in this amazing metropolitan city.
For my guide to everything we ate and drank in Seoul, check out my other blog post that was all about the food!
To get into the heart of Seoul from Incheon International Airport, follow the signs for the AREX airport express train. Buy a ticket at the kiosk, be sure to pay attention to the carriage number and seat number to know which car to board. It will take you to Seoul Station directly, which takes about 45 minutes. It’s a smooth train ride and a very efficient and cheap way to get into Seoul from the airport.
Because Seoul is such a massive, spread out city, we opted to stay in two different neighborhoods during our trip. The first four nights we were in trendy, upscale Gangnam. For the remaining four nights, we were in the heart of a lot of attractions in Insadong. Both areas were awesome to check out, but if I had to pick one to recommend, I would definitely say stay in Insadong!
Intercontinental Seoul COEX in Gangnam
This five-star hotel in Gangnam is a luxurious place to stay, and was a great first stop. One thing I will say is don’t bother with the breakfast, it’s a large extra charge and there are plenty of amazing cafes and bakeries nearby for much cheaper that were amazing. At the Intercontinental Seoul COEX, you’re connected with the COEX Mall which offers a lot of shopping and restaurants. It’s across the street from the beautiful Bongeunsa Temple, which is a free and worthwhile attraction to wander through when staying in Gangnam.
Nine Tree Premier Hotel
Located in Insadong, this hotel is well-located, with super friendly staff, comfortable rooms, and great amenities like laundry, in case you need to wash your clothes. There is a rooftop restaurant and bar which is awesome for a drink, and it’s right across the street from the gorgeous Jogyesa Temple. It’s close to a lot of fun restaurants and shopping centers, in a very walkable area of the city. Check out Nine Tree Premier Hotel for a comfortable but affordable stay in Insadong, Seoul.
Getting Around Seoul
Seoul is a huge, spread out city with tons of amazing neighborhoods worth exploring. With pretty heavy traffic in the city, your best bet is utilizing public transport as much as possible. Here are some of my tips for making your adventures around Seoul as easy as possible.
I learned right before my trip to Seoul, much to my surprise, that Google Maps does not work well in Seoul! This is because a lot of things are kept secret or the exact locations won’t be shown in order to protect their military and other operations from North Korea. They have developed their own app, Naver, which was great for calculating transport and distances when using the metro. It even tells you which exit to take when leaving the subway — which can save you a TON of time since many stations are huge and can take you to various exit points above ground.
The best way to get around in Seoul is on the subway. It’s so clean, fast, efficient, and everything has English translation. There is even a fun musical announcement every time the train arrives in the station. There are pink seats on the trains too that are designated for pregnant women so be sure not to sit there. And, look how cute the cards are! They are called T-Money cards and you can buy them and fill them at 7/11’s and other convenience stores.
Another way to get around in Seoul is by taxi, although I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re hauling your luggage. The traffic in Seoul is pretty bad, so you can spend unnecessary time sitting in it. Taxis are very cheap though, which was nice for when we had to take our suitcases from one hotel to the next, or coming to and from Seoul Station (where the airport train takes you).
Top Things To Do in Gangnam
This temple is right across the street from the Coex Mall and the Intercontinental Hotel Coex in Seoul, and it’s an absolute gem to visit. Entry is free, and there are lovely volunteers who speak English and can give you insights into the various temple buildings and how you should walk through them. A fire in 1939 destroyed much of the original temple, but some of the historic and original constructions remain. Give yourself an hour to wander through the temple after breakfast — it was a fantastic way to start our first day in Seoul.
The temple also offers a “Temple Stay” program, which is where tourists and visitors can stay for multiple days to experience the life of a monk at the temple. It’s a beautiful structure of multiple buildings, and it’s definitely worth meandering around the grounds for an hour or so. Be respectful of those worshipping and make sure you remove your shoes before entering the temple — you will see areas where you can put them to the side.
This is a must-visit when exploring Gangnam! This huge, open library space is definitely a top Instagram location in Seoul. It’s a beautiful space within the mall, and the Christmas tree that was set up was an extra special touch. It is a real library too, with visitors reading and studying at various tables around the shelves of books that surround the atrium. It’s free to enter and is incorporated into the COEX Mall.
Statue of Gangnam Style
A quick, free thing to see and check off the list, this statue is right outside the east side of the Coex mall. We saw it early in the morning, so no lines or crowds in the way of a photo! If you’ve heard the hit song “Gangnam Style” by PSY (who hasn’t?) I think it’s a must to stop for a picture if you’re venturing around Gangnam during your Seoul adventures.
Spa Days in Seoul
This spa in Gangnam is women-only, no men allowed on the property. It was an incredible place to visit, a little tricky to find (go down the stairs once you arrive at the building, and once you’re in a space that looks like a parking garage, look around and you’ll find the entrance. The woman at the front desk of Spa Lei spoke English well and helped us get started. You get towels and a robe to wear and a locker key for your belongings, and you can enjoy trying out the various hot pools, massage pools, steam room, sauna, and relaxation areas. There is even a little snack bar with food and drinks. I paid extra for a full body scrub, which was an incredible experience.
Another great Korean spa option, Insadong Spa has sections for both men and women, and it has soaking pools, saunas, and other amenities. Here, we got facials and massages on the same day as our flight home, and it was a magical experience to enjoy a day of relaxation before a long flight. The total price for entry, a massage, and facial was about $70 USD, a great deal if you ask me! Make sure you check out the sauna cave, it’s a cool feature of this spa. Note – some areas, like the sauna cave, are mixed gender, unlike Spa Lei which is 100% women-only.
Shopping & Exploring Markets in Seoul
This huge mall in Gangnam is a massive complex and any shopping-lovers dream! Even though I don’t care that much about shopping. COEX has so much that you can explore. It would also be a great attraction to check off your list if you’re visiting Seoul on a rainy day, since it’s all indoors. The COEX Mall is fun to walk around and shop at the many stores and vendors, there’s an aquarium and movie theater inside, and it’s home to tons of restaurants and cafes, a beautiful library, and two different subway stations.
Doota Mall & Migliore Mall
Seoul is known for having some of the best shopping in all of Asia, so make sure you have plenty of room in your suitcase. There are tons of markets and malls to check out, and you can buy all sorts of fun clothing, jewelry, art, skincare (do not skip out on Korean skincare shopping!) and more. Give yourself at least a day to explore and shop — even if you aren’t a big shopper (I am definitely not) it’s just so much fun here. I particularly loved all the incorrectly translated to English apparel! It was so much fun just wandering through the endless market stalls and shops all around Seoul, you could easily spend a whole day shopping in the city for fun and unique items.
This complex is a must-visit while shopping in Insadong. Not only is it full of fun and uniqe shops, it’s somewhat of an art studio and gallery too. Wind your way up the ascending ramp, stopping off in various shops and stories to see what’s on sale. I fell in love with the Dusoon artist’s stuff and bought a few items from them. At the top level of this complex is where you will find the Ddong Poop Cafe too!
Located between the Doota Mall and Dongdaemun Subway Station, this stream is a unique feature of the city of Seoul, somewhat of a little natural escape right between concrete and skyscrapers. You can go for a walk here to take a break from the enclosed markets and the bustling streets. It’s a lovely feature of the city and a free attraction to see while wandering through Seoul.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
This plaza is across the street from some of the shopping malls in the Dongdaemun area, and it’s a unique exhibition center with historical and cultural events going on. There were also some interesting shopping opportunities inside, including a special customized skincare experience. It’s certainly worth a wander by when shopping in Seoul, and there is a major metro station inside.
DMZ Half Day Tour from Seoul
If there’s one historical or informational tour you must do while in Seoul, it’s a tour to the DMZ. It was truly an eye-opening experience, and I learned more about Korean history in one day than I remembered from any history class in high school. The tour group we went with was “I Love Seoul” tour, and our guide Jung was amazing. She taught us so much about the history and the current political state of the division, and the actual thoughts and feelings on the situation from the Korean perspective. In the west, we are fed a lot of misinformation or information with a set agenda regarding the whole conflict, and getting to hear a different view on North Korea and their hopes for the future was refreshing.
Tips for your DMZ Tour
- Go to bed early the night before. It’s a very early start!
- DO NOT forget your passport. This is essential, if you forget your passport you will be denied entry to some parts of the DMZ.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Our tour guide was awesome and was eager to answer any questions we had.
- Try the soy ice cream at the end! This was a completely unexpected surprise. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite soft serve flavor I’ve ever had, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
One of the more well-known palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung is worth a visit when wandering through the city. It has lovely grounds and buildings throughout. It was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, first constructed in 1395. It’s free to enter if you’re wearing the traditional “Hanbok” outfits that you can get in Seoul, but it’s also cheap to enter if you’re not wearing Hanbok. It’s less than $5/person and you can buy a ticket right at the entrance. This is also near Gwanghwamun Square, another point of interest worth checking out in Seoul.
This beautiful temple in the heart of Insadong is a must-visit. It’s free to enter and has beautiful grounds with flower-covered sculptures, lanterns, and various temple spaces where worshippers come and pray. It had some unique and whimsical sculptures too, and the flowers were still in bloom and beautiful even in late November. Take some time to wander through Jogyesa temple, it’s a stunning visit during the day and at night.
Bukchon Hanok Village
This traditional Korean village is located near Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace and Jongmyo Royal Shrine, close. to the main shopping areas of Insadong. It is a preserved neighborhood with some structures dating back 600 years, and it’s full of charming shops, tea houses, alleyways, and homes. Because it is an area where people actually live, make sure to be respectful when exploring the village. I enjoyed popping into some stores and shopping around the village and admiring the views around the city.
War Memorial of Korea
If you have interest in military history, visiting the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul is a must. It memorializes not only the soldiers who lost their lives during the Korean War of the 1950’s, but all wars and conflicts that have occurred on the Korean Peninsula throughout history. I spent an hour wandering around the memorial and museum, learning about the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and other conflicts that shaped Korea into the country it is today. This is a free attraction to visit, and is interesting to spend at least an hour wandering around. The Memorial evokes a lot of emotions and feelings, even though I am not Korean nor have any familial connections to the Korean War, it was very eye opening and sentimental.
National Museum of Korea
This incredible (and huge) museum is completely free to visit, and could easily take up half a day of your exploring around Seoul. Whether you need to find an indoor activity on a rainy day or if you love art and history, spending a few hours wandering the exhibition halls of this museum is certainly worthwhile. I loved a lot of the Asian art and especially the room full of Buddha statues.
N Seoul Tower & Namsan Cable Car
Do you love getting a bird’s-eye view of a cityscape? I definitely do, and you can get a pretty epic one by taking the Namsan Cable Car up to the N Seoul Tower in the city. It was Korea’s first telecommunications and broadcast tower, first built in 1969. To get here, you’ll want to take the Namsan cable car up the mountain (unless you want to walk up — it would be quite the hike and some great exercise! It was easy to buy our tickets right at the Cable Car entrance and wait in a short line to take the car up the mountain, and it’s less than $12 USD for a return ticket.
Located in Namsan Mountain Park, the N Seoul Tower has a great observation area. It stares over the sprawl of the city, giving you amazing 360-degree views of skyscrapers, the parks, and the river and green spaces that wind through it. There are great little cafes and bars at the base of the tower, so you can grab a drink while enjoying some stunning views.
Those are all the highlights of my favorite things I did in Seoul! I’d love to go back one day and explore other neighborhoods we didn’t make it to like Hongdae, Itaewon, and venture to other cities in South Korea like Busan. If you’ve been to Seoul or other parts of Korea — leave me your recommendations below!