Though the global obsession with South Korea’s cultural and tangible exports (K-pop, K-beauty, K-dramas) has at long last catapulted Seoul into the limelight, travelers should understand that belying these of-the-moment pleasures is a rich, complex history stretching over 2,000 years. If there’s a single destination that embodies dichotomy, it’s Seoul. As South Korea’s capital and largest city, with over 26 million people in the metropolitan area, it offers a beguiling mix of historic and modern; natural and technological; affordable and extravagant. (Even the Korean flag is emblazoned with a yin-and-yang symbol.)
It’s massive, too—sprawling over 233 square miles with the Han River dividing Seoul north to south. From there, the city is organized into 25 districts, which all have their own distinct neighborhoods. Centrally located Jung-gu, for example, is home to historic Gwanghwamun, shopping mecca Myeongdong, and hipster haven Euljiro.
The most important thing to know? Don’t let Seoul’s size dissuade you. It’s easier than you think to get around, and there are free translation and navigation phone apps for extra peace of mind. But because Seoul is packed with things to do, places to eat and drink, and hotels to stay, we’ve narrowed down our top picks in this guide curated by a lifelong visitor.
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Getting there and around
After landing at Incheon International Airport, download the Papago app for Korean to English translations (and vice versa), and purchase a refillable T-Money Card to pay for taxis, subways, and buses—the three main modes of transport. While you can hail taxis, which are plentiful as they are affordable, from the streets, you can also book them in advance with Kakao Taxi. The app supports English, and lets you select your pickup, destination, and payment method. (If you’ve just landed at the airport; however, just head to a taxi stand outside.) Because traffic is regularly an issue, make the subway your primary way of getting around. Seoul’s system is widely regarded as one of the world’s best with spotless cars, free Wi-Fi, announcements in Korean and English, and even heated seats come winter.
The best things to do in Seoul
Because traditional Korean spirits are trending big time right now, book a Matter of Mind class at Epkkot's lab and studio, discreetly tucked away in Chungmuro. Founder Yang Yoomi, one of Seoul’s few female distillers, guides participants on a creative journey to help identify their true selves while diving deeper into the world of Korean spirits. The introspective process, Yang believes, is similar to brewing with rice, whose grains must be constantly tended to.
Though the Western art world has finally shifted its gaze towards Seoul, resulting in Frieze’s first art fair in Asia and international outposts of König Galerie and Pace, it’s important to support establishments like Leeum Museum of Art, PKM Gallery, and Kukje Gallery, who’ve championed their home country from the start. For a one-of-a-kind art piece you can afford to take home, visit Hyung Jun Kim and Seo Seok Man’s THR Ceramic Studio in Gyeonggi-do, where they sell their quirky pieces depicting expressive goblins (Dogabi) and chickens (Naldak) and offer ceramic-making classes, too.
Seoul is a bonafide shopping mecca, and department stores—which double up as social hubs, giving you a glimpse into how everyday life in Seoul can look—take the crown with their convenience and mind-boggling variety. (Ground and upper floors are dedicated to different departments and brands, while basements house food halls and sell groceries.) Myeongdong’s Shinsegae Department Store has been a beloved city initiation since 1930 and is considered by many as the most glamorous, while Yeouido’s The Hyundai is a stark white architectural masterpiece showcasing a well-curated mix of established and up-and-coming brands—many of them Korean—to attract a younger, more fashion-focused clientele.
Where to eat in Seoul
Want to discover a lesser-known side of Korean cuisine? Bypass the barbecue, and instead try Pyongyang naengmyeon, North Korean buckwheat noodles in an icy beef broth, from Wooraeok and Jinmi Pyeongyang Naengmyeon. Another affordable everyday staple, kalguksu, or knife noodle soup, represents comfort in a bowl. Though it’s doled out all across the city, Myeongdong Kyoja has been serving up some of the best since 1966. (You can even ask for a free second helping of noodles.) And for sluggish mornings following late nights, a bowl of gamjatang (spicy pork bone soup) from Seongsu-dong’s Somunnan Gamjatang, a standby hangover remedy that’s open 24 hours, will fix you right up.
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For a well-crafted meal that won’t break the bank, make a reservation at Miro Sikdang. Tucked away up a steep hill in Mapo-gu, the unassuming eatery adored by in-the-know locals sends out ingredient-driven homestyle Korean cooking such as Spam-studded spicy whelk salad and its famous tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes). If you’re looking to splurge, Seoul has you covered with Michelin-starred restaurants like Mosu, Jungsik, and Mingles—all of which artfully present contemporary cuisine through a Korean lens. For a sweet treat like no other, drop by one of Nudake’s locations. The boundary-pushing dessert concept by hip eyewear brand Gentle Monster bakes up whimsical creations like Birth, a snow-white layer cake topped with edible egg-shaped candles, and Fog, a black-white ombre cake layered with cheddar-cheese cream and black-olive bits in a gallery-like setting.
If you prefer to devote an evening to just one neighborhood instead of hopping around, consider Sindang. Similarly to what happened in Seongsu and Euljiro in the past few years, visionary creatives have started trickling in and reimagining the spaces that once belonged to rice shops and factories into some of Seoul’s buzziest new spots to eat and drink. Your best bet is to duck—that’s because the unmarked door is super low—into Zoo Sindang, a hidden bar specializing in Chinese zodiac-themed cocktails right when it opens, then popping by Jimbba, a chic nook that’s equal parts retailer of interesting Korean spirits and tasting room for a sip of something you can’t find back home. Next, grab an Arancia Granita (espresso topped with fresh orange sorbet) at Mail Room—an impossibly charming new espresso bar done up in vintage art and knick-knacks—for a pick-me-up before dinner at Bird Shop with a Mala Bird Burger, a hefty fried chicken sandwich smothered with mala paste and jalapeño yogurt.
Where to stay
Four Seasons Hotel Seoul in Gwanghwamun has everything you need for a convenient and culturally-rich stay. On top of being walkable to historic sites and attractions such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and Insadong, the venerated property pays homage to Korean heritage through original pieces by local artists like Choi Byung Hoon, chic accommodations kitted out with hanbok-inspired headboards and vintage pottery, a modern Korean sauna, and Oul, a lively bar devoted to lesser-known Korean spirits. Other vetted luxury hotels include Gangnam’s The Shilla Seoul, Park Hyatt Seoul, and Grand Hyatt Seoul.
In Bukchon is Rakkojae Seoul, the city’s most unique accommodations. Occupying a lovingly restored hanok (traditional Korean house) that balances architecture with nature, the minimalist rooms remain true to their roots with classic touches like hanji (paper made from mulberry tree bark) wallpaper, and floors warmed by ondol, an underfloor heating system for a hushed, tranquil experience that feels far removed the city.
Prefer to plant yourself in a busier setting? Book a room at the new Le Méridien Seoul, Myeongdong, where bright and cheery accommodations await, and friendly bilingual staff can quickly steer you in the right direction. Ryse, Autograph Collection Seoul is another solid pick, as the design-driven and laid-back vibe mirrors its address in Hongdae, an energetic neighborhood anchored by Hongik University.