If it’s your first time visiting Seoul and you’re supremely overwhelmed, it’s totally okay. The bustling city definitely offers a lot for tourists to see, do, shop, and eat. If you don’t have a lot of time to try everything and want to get the most out of 10 places, I personally recommend these few that you should check out if you want to get some of the best cultural, historical, and modern experiences in Seoul.
NOTE: This is just my personal opinion based on my experiences. I obviously have not been to every nook and cranny of Seoul (probably not even most locals have either), and I have different personal preferences and budget, so don’t take this as the absolute truth! This is just a reference for anyone who needs some inspiration (and a very truthful opinion) on what’s good and what’s not.
Ewha Women’s Street
For all you shopaholics, this is for you. It’s located near Ewha Women’s University, so you can imagine all the kind of shops which open near there: cosmetics, fashion accessories, clothes, cafés… everything that females in their 20s will probably want to shop at. You can actually also visit Ewha Women’s University (for those who want to have a look at a Korean university campus) and take a few photographs in their school ground – just make sure not to disturb the students there!
I’ve checked out clothes shops in quite a few areas (Dongdaemun, Myeongdong, Hongdae, Express Bus Terminal, etc.) but honestly, nothing beats the ones in Ewha. In summer, you can find lots of clothes priced between 5000 (shirts, blouses, shorts) to 10 000 won (usually for dresses, two pieces) – that’s about SGD6 to SGD12! I know you can get a similar price on e-commerce websites like Taobao, but the quality of clothes in Korea is seriously unbeatable. The cloth doesn’t make you itch, the stitches are good – literally nothing to complain about! The clothes here are also usually what’s in trend in Korea for young women, so you’ll really have a lot of fun shopping here.
The F&B outlets here are also reasonably priced (catered to young people, remember?), so you’ll have your bellies filled up well without hurting your wallet too much.
You can’t escape having to visit at least one of the palaces in Seoul, especially if it’s your first trip there. Having visited both Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, I think I still recommend Gyeongbokgung for any first-time traveller. It’s definitely a lot bigger and older, plus I like that you can visit the museums and exhibitions inside to learn more about Korean history. You can also take the chance to don a hanbok and wander around the palace grounds – makes for a unique culture experience, and some great photos to take home.
Most people would find it difficult to choose between visiting Lotte World or Everland. While Everland is not technically within Seoul (it’s in Yongin), I would still encourage you to visit Everland on your first trip instead. For starters, Everland is actually 7 times bigger than that of Lotte World. Lotte World is also impossibly crowded with young locals – they like to go in a big group with their friends, and you can imagine how long you have to wait for a ride. I once waited almost two hours to get on the hot-air balloon ride…
Everland, on the other hand, is a bit more inconvenient to get to, but if you book tickets online through an agent, you usually can arrange for transport to and fro as well. I love that there are lots of activities here catered to people of all ages. Even if you don’t enjoy thrilling rides, they also have animals such as tigers & penguins, and even a safari ride for you to see dangerous animals in their habitat!
Call me a nerd, but I love visiting museums in foreign countries, and I hope you do too. It’s a great glimpse into the country
, and most of them are better than Singapore’s lol. What makes this even better is that all major museums in Korea are FREE ENTRY! Some exhibitions may require you to pay, but most that are free to enter, even for foreigners! Even small ones (like Jajangmyeon Museum in Incheon) cost only 1000 won for entry – super affordable! I’m not being a cheapo here, just saying that I’m very impressed by a country that makes museum visiting open to everyone.
The only downside is that it closes quite early, and has different closing times on different days, so you have to check carefully when planning your itinerary.
Ah, I just couldn’t leave this out of my list. I love staying in this area because it’s kind of right smack in the middle of Seoul, and so convenient to travel around. I think Myeongdong is highly catered to tourists. You don’t have to worry about not being able to speak Korean here, because almost all the store staff can speak English and/or Chinese. What I usually come here for: street food and cosmetics shopping.
The street food here is slightly pricey (had to say it), but seriously delicious. I find it a bit hard to find all the Myeongdong offerings elsewhere, so you really have to go to Myeongdong if you want a taste of Korean street food.
Cosmetics shops, on the other hand… also very addictive to shop at. Discounts here will seriously make any beauty addict very excited, on top of the fact that you get tax refunds on purchases exceeding 30 000 won. If you need to buy your sheet masks, GET THEM HERE. Brands like Nature Republic and Tony Moly often have 1+1 offer, meaning 20 masks at 10000 won – how can anyone resist, seriously!
This place in Gangnam is great for more than one group of people: SMTOWN fans, shopping fans, book lovers, and animal lovers. With something catered to everyone, this definitely makes for a must-visit on your first time in Seoul.
SMTOWN fans: SMTOWN @COEX ARTIUM is made for you! Look at all the idol exhibitions, maximize your photo-taking ops, catch a show at the theatre, buy fan merchandise… everything a SMTOWN fan will love.
Shopping fans: Starfield COEX Mall is the largest underground shopping mall in Asia – does that not excite you already? You can find many different types of shops here, including international brands that you are familiar with. Prices here are not really cheap, but good enough to satisfy any addicted shopper.
Book lovers: The open-space Byeolmadang library in the mall itself will really get you excited. Not even joking. The books are in Korean though, so unless you understand Korean, you can just admire and breathe in the spectacular display of books – still very satisfying.
Animal lovers: COEX Aquarium is one of the largest in Korea, and not only features marine creatures, but also furry friends like rabbits. It’s very popular with families, especially those with young kids, so be sure to check this out.
Some locals say this is a tourist trap. Not entirely wrong – there are quite a number of shops here that sell souvenirs (just be a bit discerning when it comes to prices), but what I really like about this is that there are many Korean art & craft shops here. Insadong is one of the most ideal places in Seoul for you to see the active art scene in Korea, be it the traditional or more modern forms. If you like to do crafts, you can come here to buy craft supplies.
After shopping, drop by one of the tea houses and cafés for a good cup of tea. The famous Bukchon Son Mandu’s namesake location is also located here in Insadong, so you also get to fill your bellies with delicious mandu (basically Korean dumplings).
How can you go home from your first Seoul trip saying that you didn’t buy any snacks from Korea? One of the best places to buy all your Korean food cravings is definitely Lotte Mart. Nothing beats Lotte Mart. Grab a trolley and fill it with all those seaweed, almonds, kimchi, yuzu tea, and ramen.
Some flavours and brands are only available in Korea so you have to grab them here. Prices for some sweets and snacks in Lotte Mart are also cheaper than, say, if you buy from convenience stores. You also get to sample some of the food and beverages before you decide to buy, so you don’t end up buying something you don’t like at all.
One of the best things we’ve attempted to do in Lotte Mart is buy kimchi – yes, you can bring that back home! It’s way cheaper than buying it here in Singapore. Ask the ahjumma to fill up the container, and she’ll wrap it tightly for you in cling wrap to prevent spillage in your hand-carry.
You can get so many delicious snacks here for all your family, friends, colleagues, neighbours etc., it’s definitely a one-stop place for you to do all the food shopping you need to do. Tax refund and delivery (back to your home country or hotel) are also available – what’s there not to love about shopping in Lotte Mart?
Although not my favourite hanok village in Korea, it’s definitely one of those that all guides will tell you to visit in Seoul.
It is definitely a nice place to visit, being one of the hanok villages that dates back to the Joseon Dynasty. A lot of the hanoks currently operate as ‘cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses’ for visitors to know more about Korean culture, which you definitely should have a look at on your first trip to Seoul. It’s probably a lot more sightseeing than actually engaging in activities, but it’s still a nice place to take photographs and see beautiful ancient architecture.
Some residents still live here too, so remember to keep noise to a minimum!
My list is not exhaustive – I’ll definitely update more along the way when I review all my trips (and hopefully go on more)!
For now I’ve excluded some must-gos for K-pop & K-drama fans because it’s clearly not for everyone, but I’ll get around to writing a post soon for this!
If you want to ask why I’ve not included some other tourist hotspots in my list, drop me a message or comment below! More than happy to answer ~