Disclaimer: considering the recent MERS outbreak, I’m not suggesting you jump on the next plane to Seoul. However, when it is safe to do so, I’d highly recommend making a visit to South Korea’s capital. You’ll need a good five days to see everything but if you can’t spare the extra time, here’s how to do Seoul in 48 hours, ticking off the main sights but leaving enough things to come back for.
You’ve only got 48 hours, so you’ll have to start early. Have breakfast on-the-go or save yourself for brunch. Start the morning in the Itaewon area. A quick Google for Seoul’s best brunch and you’ll realise that this is the place to head for.
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
This area is also home to the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (Hangangjin Station, Subway Line 6, Exit 1). If you’re at all interested in ancient Korean artefacts, modern art or architecture, here you’ll find the works of 12th century potters alongside Rothko and Warhol all in an astoundingly beautiful building designed by Rem Koolhaus, Mario Botta and Jean Nouvel.
Itaewon Antique Furniture Street
Now’s the time to roam Itaewon’s quaint streets and discover some cool hidden corners. Everything has a hipster vibe and there are numerous cool f&b spots that, if I lived here, you would find me at every weekend. There’s an aptly named Antique Furniture Street that you could browse for hours and come across some pretty bizarre finds!
Working your way downhill, you’re coming ever closer to the Han River. I’d highly recommend walking over via a bridge for great views across the two sides of the city. However, it’s a bit of a trek and not well sign-posted so alternatively hop in a taxi and make your way to Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthy district which reached satirical fame from a certain pop song. Head to Garosugil (literally ‘tree-lined street’) for a well deserved coffee and cake break. You’ll be spoilt for choice as there are endless cute cafes to choose from.
Injeolmi Toast in Garosugil
After an iced-coffee and a sweet treat (I had Injeolmi Toast인절미토스트 (Rice Cake Sandwich Toast)), head westwards to the university areas. The Ewha Womans University has a truly beautiful campus with tranquil landscaped grounds that are well worth a detour for. For food, you should head to the Hongik University area. My advice: get chimaek! This is fried chicken and beer, made famous by the Korean drama ‘My Love from the Star’. It may sound simple but wow is it delicious! End the evening hunting for hipsters in Hongdae, explore the labyrinth of trendy streets and settle yourself in for a drink at one of the effortlessly cool bars.
Another early start is in order. Today we explore ancient Seoul. The city boasts five main Joseon-dynasty palaces (14th-19th Century). You’ll be hard-pushed to do all four in a day so I’d recommend choosing just two. Changdeokbokung and Gyeongbokgung are the most popular, arguably the most impressive, and conveniently located for this here itinerary. Take the subway to Anguk Station (Exit 3) and make your way to Changdeokbokgung Palace. Opt for an English tour or roam by yourself (admission: 3,000 won). The tranquil Secret Garden is well worth a visit and can only be entered via a tour (5,000 won). You’ll have the option to break off half-way through and actually no one stops you if you just roam the garden by yourself. Though I’m not sure this was technically allowed…
Bukchon Hanok Village
National Folk Museum
From Changdeokbokgung, wind your way east to Bukchon Hanok village. A hanok is a traditional Korean house. Some of them are open to the public so be sure to poke your nose in to check out the courtyard-style living. Bukchon Hanok is a tucked away village of quaint backstreets where you can easily get sucked into the charm for hours. Don’t miss checking out one of the many cafes and art galleries while you’re here too. When you pop out the other side you’ll be very near Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul’s largest and most famous. Entry also includes the National Folk Museum (3,000 won).
Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds
Walking south from Gyeongbokgung past the huge museums and galleries (worth a visit on your next trip), you’ll eventually come to Cheonggyecheon Stream, a 11km-long urban renewal project that winds its way through downtown Seoul and is a favorite spot for young couples to stroll or weary tourists to cool their heels. Walk along up to the bridge of Ujeongguk-ro, then head north until you’re drawn in by the dulcet chants emanating from Jogyesa Temple. The temple grounds are beautifully decorated too, well worth a photo stop. Cross the road and walk through to Insadong-gil: the main tourist trail. Visiting on a Sunday is perfect because the roads are closed to traffic leaving you to browse the souvenirs and taste the array of street food to your heart’s content. Potato swirls, turkish ice cream, kkultarae (꿀타래) honey and nut candy, hotteok (호떡) fried sweet rice dough balls, and even IV drip bags of vodka mixers(!) are all on the menu here.
Korean BBQ at Hwanggeumjeong
After a few snacks for starters, we were keen to try a traditional Korean BBQ. Hwanggeumjeong ticks all the boxes: floor seating, a local vibe, friendly motherly waitresses to correct your mistakes and absolutely delicious food. Just a few steps from Anguk Station Exit 2. Place your meat in a lettuce leaf with a selection of condiments and prepare yourself for another level of barbecue deliciousness!
End your jam-packed weekend at the iconic N Seoul Tower for hazy but expansive views across the whole of Seoul. A choice spot for amorous couples, you’ll find thousands of ‘love locks’ at the base of the tower. There are so many they have even created huge love lock trees out of them! For the most romantic experience, go at sunset to see the skyline transition from day to night. You can get there by foot, by yellow bus 2 from Exit 4 of Chungmuro Subway Station, or for the full experience, by cable car. Price: HK$50 on Klook. Buy here.
N Seoul Tower
If you have extra days?
– Visit the DMZ and JSA, North Korean border territory
– Go to a Multi-bang 멀티방, the evolution of a karaoke room into an everything-room complete with drinks and snacks
– Visit Namsan, Dongdaemun and the other markets
– Go to a show, Seoul is famous for them
– See Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a futuristic building designed by Zaha Hadid
– Get an authentic cultural experience with a traditional dinner and show at Korea House
See the 48-hours photo journey on my Instagram @keeplooking_rebecca.
Have you been to Seoul? What are your must-visit recommendations? Please leave your comments below!