Seoul is an idiosyncratic metropolis where a high-tech, high-rise world co-exists with ancient traditions and culture. The wide range of available attractions is perfect to fit any travelers' preference and budget, even for backpackers with a tight budget. Many of Seoul's "free for entrance" hidden gems await to be unearthed, and these offbeat, quaint tracks can even surpass the touristy ones. This guide will cover all the best Seoul attractions for when your wallet's running a little short.
Looking for a quiet and romantic place to spend an afternoon with your loved one? Like an oasis, Cheonggyecheon is an 11 km-long sparkling clean stream that passes under 22 bridges, while running through downtown Seoul, and eventually connecting to the Han River. It is a perfect place to enjoy some serenity and get away from the crowds and pollution.
There's a history behind Cheonggyecheon. It once ran through Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), but it was buried underneath an elevated highway after the Korean War (1950-1953). The highway was deconstructed in 2003 and finally, the stream was restored to its present beauty as part of an urban renewal project.
Cheonggyecheon starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular public venue for art and cultural events as it is designated as a vehicle-free zone on holidays. The plaza's design resembles a traditional Korean bojagi (a colourful wrapping cloth), and it is decked with colourful stone decorations. Located in the plaza is the Candle Fountain, which features a four-meter-high, two-tiered waterfall with synchronized lighting elements. Along the two sides of the waterfall are the Palseokdam wishing wells, made of eight different stones from each of the nation's eight provinces. The plaza also includes a bird's-eye view model of the restored Cheonggyecheon and detailed commentaries on the restoration project. This beautiful setup radiates harmony, peace, and unity. Be sure to take a leisured stroll in this oasis buried deep in the rest of hectic Seoul.
2. Gwangjang Market
Gwangjang Market is one of the oldest and largest traditional markets in the country. Previously known as Dongdaemun Market, Gwangjang's humble beginnings date back to Japan's colonial occupation in the early 1900s, when a group of wealthy Korean merchants wanted to build a market that was independent of Japanese control. During its first few years, Dongdaemun was the first permanent market to operate 7 days a week. In 1960, it was renamed Gwangjang Market, after the nearby two bridges in the neighborhood: Gwangkyo (meaning "wide bridge") and Jangkyo (meaning "long bridge"). Even after a century has passed, this place still retains its authenticity and charm.
Today, the market proudly hosts over a thousand vendors, selling fresh produce, meat, fish, clothing, souvenirs, and traditional medicinal items. This is the place to go if you are looking for something cultural to bring home. The snacks and souvenirs here are cheaper than the ones sold at Myeongdong shopping district. Feeling hungry after all the shopping? You're in for a real treat–the heart of Gwangjang Market is an enormous indoor food court, dedicated to celebrating Korea's traditional street food cuisine.
From Lonely Planet to Netflix’s “Street Food” show, Gwanjang Market is well regarded as the Mecca for all local and foreign foodies. The prized dishes one must-try include Bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), handmade noodles with dumplings and mayak gimbap (seaweed rice rolls), freshly made on the spot. Be sure to grab a seat at a makeshift food stall and mingle with the friendly vendors and locals. Let the aromas wash over you. There is no better place than Gwangjang Market to experience traditional Korean street delicacies and culture.
3. Lotte Mart
Perhaps you find it strange to visit a local supermarket when traveling, but I always make a point to check them out: they provide a glimpse into the culture and life of the locals. Supermarkets in Seoul are especially impressive because of their huge size and dazzling shopping services. One notable supermarket chain in Seoul is Lotte Mart, one of the leading discount stores in Korea. At Lotte Mart, you can buy high-quality produce and food, clothes, fashion accessories, electronics, toys, household goods, cosmetics, and much more at the lowest price, with the best customer service. Another reason to stop by this famous supermarket is the wonderful food court. You can eat as the locals do with some very cheap hearty meals and snacks–perfect for a tight meal budget.
The Lotte Mart Seoul Station is the flagship of all the branches in the country. It is one of the most popular ones amongst tourists because of its convenient location. It opens until late at night and is the perfect place to hang out before heading to the airport or catching a train to another city. This hefty building covers four stories with each floor dedicated to specific items and services. In addition to the prevalent food and groceries items, Lotte Mart has an entire floor dedicated to clothing, jewelry, and beauty products. You will find rows and rows of fashions and cosmetics with fantastic promotions. It is a haven if you are a fan of both Korean fashion and Korean beauty. You should go binge shopping in Lotte Mart because after all, prices are cheaper, and the massive selections of unique Korean products are the perfect souvenirs to bring home. How wonderful is Korea's customer service? Not only does Lotte Mart offer free empty boxes for packing, it even offers an overseas shipping service (with a shipping fee) so you can directly ship to home. This is perfect if you ever overshop or want to buy an oversized item.
4. Seoullo 7017 (a.k.a Seoul Skygarden or Skypark)
Originally built as an overpass highway in 1970 and then closed due to disuse, Seoullo 7017 was magically transformed into an elevated garden and pedestrian walkway. The "70" signifies the year 1970 when it was first built, while the '17' is both the number of walkways connected to it and the year 2017 when it was reborn. This one-kilometer-long walkway connects and improves pedestrian access to several communities in the heart of Seoul. Its brilliant design not only offers the public a pleasant exercise venue, but also a lush urban nursery, hosting over 20,000 native and imported species of flowers, shrubs, and trees.
5. Seochon Village
Seochon Village (literally means 'West Village') is the neighbourhood located west of Gyeongbokgung Palace and stretched out to the feet of Mt. Inwangsan. It is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Seoul, with its lineage dating back to the Joseon era (1392 ~ 1910). Seochon is a quaint, non-touristy neighbourhood in Seoul, where centuries-old hanoks (traditional Korean houses) line the long alleys and intertwine harmoniously with newly emerging boutique shops and cafes. Many locals regard Seochon as a favourite place to enjoy a leisure walk and an afternoon coffee. Exploring through the alleys that resembles a big maze, you can appreciate the authentic beauty of this offbeat tourist spot. When you work up an appetite after all the walking, you are in for a treat because Seochon is one of the best places in Seoul to go for cheap and delicious local food in some hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
6. Starfield COEX Mall
Nothing spoils one's vacation like encountering bad weather. But if the good weather is not on your side when you set foot in Seoul, worry not, because you've got Starfield COEX Mall in the world-famous Gangnam District. Being one of Asia's largest underground shopping malls, Starfield COEX hosts hundreds of Korean and international brands, ranging from fashion and beauty to electronics, as well as endless dining and entertainment options. Megabox Cineplex, one of Korea's largest movie chains, has a branch here with a total of 17 individual theatres. Other popular attractions at the mall include the Kimchi Museum, the COEX Aquarium, the ASEM Plaza, and the Event stage, which puts on regular free exhibits and performances like classical concerts, mini-concerts, and magic shows. While shopping may not fit your shoestring budget, Starfield is definitely a good choice when the weather doesn't cooperate. And there is another hidden treasure here–the Starfield Library. It is the most beautiful public library I have ever seen. Honestly, I am not sure how one can access the 50,000+ reading materials arranged on those 13-meter high bookshelves, but countless bookworms have made multiple trips up and down the adjacent escalator just to get a selfie for Instagram!