Famed for its catchy pop tunes, delicious fried chicken and uncannily photogenic population, Seoul is a destination of fascinating appeal. The city is massive, rich with heritage and an aesthetic all its own, and first-time visitors will immediately feel the brevity of a weekend stay. While such is a good excuse to come back for more, it is also a great guarantee of a short holiday well-spent. Here’s a suggested itinerary that covers a good mix of palaces, shopping, and cultural excursions.
To the palaces
Begin your day at the South Korean presidential home, Cheongwadae, also known as ‘Blue House’ for the blue tiles that make the roof. It’s a beautiful structure set in a Joseon Dynasty garden with Mt. Bugaksan for a backdrop. Roam the grounds and learn a little of the country’s history along the way.
Afterward, visit Gyeongbokgung Palace*, one of the most beautiful and also the largest among Seoul’s five palaces. Don’t miss the guard-changing ceremony that takes place thrice a day (10AM, 1PM and 3PM), a reenactment of the ceremonial transferring of duties between guards at the Gwanghwamun Gate, dating back to 1469.
Make a stop at National Folk Museum* for a (free!) walk through history, then visit the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, the first Buddhist house of worship established in Seoul.
Next: make your way to a ginseng export center and learn more about the country’s top export product. Tip: This tour takes you around these temples and sites, complete with transportation, and drops you off at City Hall around lunchtime.
After your temple fill for the day, visit the shopping capital of Myeong-dong for lunch, and spend the rest of the afternoon shopping. For some restaurant recommendations: Baekjae Samgyetang for excellent chicken samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), Gogung and Jeonju Junganghoegwan for bibimbap, Wang Bi Jib for Korean barbecue.
You can also enjoy dinner in Myeong-dong, but if you want a change of scene, head over to Namdaemun Market nearby. You’ll want to sample the delicious kalguksu, a soup dish of knife-cut noodles, available at the restaurants and stalls in Kalguksu Alley.
This marks the end of Day One, although if you still have energy, Itaewon is a good place to catch the nightlife.
*Closed on Tuesdays
Culture and new heights
Enjoy an early morning walk around the scenic Bukchon Hanok Village. ‘Hanok’ is a traditional Korean house made of wood.
Then drop by Changdeokgung Palace next door, and roam its exquisite, sprawling grounds.
Afterward, take the subway to Deoksugung Palace (City Hall Station, Exit 2), and appreciate its olden charm against modern high rises. For lunch, return to the bustling district of Myeong-dong Station.
Done with lunch, walk to the cable car station and board your way up to N Seoul Tower on Namsan Hill. Enjoy the various exhibits on display, look through the telescopes at the Digital Observatory, hang a love lock on the railings of the Roof Terrace…
After taking the cable car back down, make your way to Cheonggyecheon Stream, a beautifully restored stream and walkway that cuts through 22 bridges. Tranquil and leisurely, the pathway offers an accessible reprieve from the buzz of the city.
For dinner, head to Dongdaemun Night Market, where you can also enjoy some shopping afterward. The market offers plenty of dining options, from Korean street food to Mongolian and Russian fare. Opening hours last until around 4 to 5AM.
If you manage not to get caught shopping – a difficult feat! – consider heading over to Gangnam, another district that comes alive in the night. Gangnam is known for its posh, high-end clubs and bars, many of which command world-renowned DJs and EDM acts to play for hours on end, into the morning.
Venture near the sibling North
Venture near the north, toward the Demilitarized Zone, with a tour (the area accepts only visitors in tour groups). The journey starts you off at Imjingak Park – the northernmost part of South Korea, built in the event of reconciliation between the two Koreas – then takes you to the Freedom Bridge and 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. Afterward you’ll head to the DMZ Theatre & Exhibition Hall, then up to the Dora Observatory, for binocular views of North Korea; before dropping by the historic Dorasan Station, and making a stop at Unification Village, home to soy products and farming life.
After a lunch stop, resume toward Camp Bonifas for a slide show and briefing, before touring the JSA (Joint Security Area) – the only place where both North and South Korean forces stand within each other’s immediate vicinity. This includes last stops at the Freedom House, as well as the Bridge of No Return.
Be dropped off Lotte Hotel around 5PM, then head off to Hongdae for dinner and, once again – if you’re still up for it – one last go at Seoul’s nightlife.