South Korea is a vibrant and exciting place to visit, a country where its ancient history and ultra-modern design and technology are deftly interlaced. Seoul, Korea's capital city, is home to over 25 million people–this makes it by far the largest city in South Korea. Seoul is a very safe city and is popular amongst tourists of all ages, especially for the K-drama devotees from all over the world. The city is filled with a wide range of tourist attractions, from outdoor adventures like exploring Mount Namsan and its surrounding countryside to indoor fun such as visiting one of Seoul's numerous museums and amusement parks. There is so much to do in Seoul and its vicinity, so it will take 7 posts to completely feature all its amazing attractions. Be sure to check out all of them!
Cover image credits: Inwangsan, Seoul, South Korea, https://www.flickr.com/photos/con4tini/11272477025, by Domenico Convertini. License: CC BY-SA 2.0
1. Ancient Palaces
Seoul is a city of palaces, with five huge palace complexes located right in the heart of Seoul, in the area bounded by the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Changdeokgung Palace. These must-see national treasures have been restored to their former glory. They proudly showcase the incredible history and artwork of Korea and its people.
First built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and most prominent of Seoul's five grand palaces built during the powerful Joseon Dynasty. The National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum are located on its ground. Both are worth a visit for someone interested in learning about Korea's ancient history and culture. Even better is the option to wear a hanbok dress, which is a traditional Korean outfit. If you do so, you won't need to pay an entrance fee to the Palace. There are tons of hanbok rental places on its premises. Taking selfies in a beautiful hanbok in Gyeongbokgung is not only Instagram-worthy, but a legendary experience in your trip to Korea. Be sure to take advantage of the free guided tours of the palace ground.
While Gyeongbokgung Palace is the oldest royal palace in Seoul, Changdeokgung Palace is the most well-preserved of the five remaining royal palaces. Many Joseon kings used Changdeokgung as their principal residence. This palace is best known for the Biwon Garden, or Secret Garden, where the royal family members enjoyed their leisure time. Among the garden is many well-preserved ancient pavilions and architecture. Fall is the best season to visit the Biwon garden as its beautiful autumn foliage is most picturesque.
2. Bukchon Hanok Village
Located in the heart of Seoul, between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace, is the Bukchon Hanok Village. This 600-year-old hilly residential neighbourhood has the largest cluster of privately owned hanoks, traditional Korean wooden homes with tiled roofs and stone floors, in Seoul. Walking around the antique village and sampling Korean touristy street food is a great way to experience Seoul's traditional culture. Be sure to visit the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center for information on walking tour routes and attractions to see within the village. Please be mindful of the residents' privacy when you visit, as these hanoks are their actual homes.
3. Namsan Seoul Tower (also known as N Seoul Tower)
Looking to take a breather from Seoul's skyscrapers? Why not take a hike up Mount Namsan Park, the largest park in Seoul, to the Namsan Seoul Tower, where you can enjoy the best panoramic views of the city? Originally built in 1969 as a communication and observation tower, N Seoul Tower has been a landmark of Seoul since it first opened to the public in 1980. From the top of the tower, Seoul’s skyline is nothing short of spectacular. At night, the tower is beautifully illuminated and puts on light shows.
Besides offering the best views of Seoul, Mount Namsan also hosts a collection of beautiful walking trails and tourist attractions, like upscale restaurants, cable car experience, and the Hanbok Cultural Experience Center. One of the all-time favourite activities for couples to do is to purchase and hang love padlocks on the Roof Terrace on the second floor. As this romantic gesture has been depicted in many Korean dramas, the fences on the Terrance are filled with these "Locks of Love", where initials, messages, and symbols that bear special meaning for each couple are inscribed.
4. Lotte World Tower
Currently standing as the tallest skyscraper in South Korea and the fifth tallest in the world, Lotte World Tower is an architectural gem of Seoul. Its sleek design, which resembles the tip of a traditional painting brush, has incorporated both modern and traditional elements. The Tower houses galleries, cafés, a luxury hotel, and the spectacular Seoul Sky, which is an observation deck located at the very top of this 123-floor tower. Nowhere in Seoul offers a more gorgeous 360-degree view of this vibrant city. Located adjacent to the tower is one of the top shopping and entertainment complexes in Seoul - Lotte World Mall. The feature department store here is Avenuel, which carries an array of luxurious domestic and foreign brands. The mall also hosts a movie theatre, a concert hall, an aquarium, and more entertainment facilities. It's a perfect place to go if you want to take shelter from the peak of Seoul's summer heat and smog.
5. Countryside of Gapyeong
Feeling overwhelmed by the busyness of Seoul? Why not try a few easy day trips to explore Seoul's beautiful countryside? Located in the mountains of Gapyeong just 2 to 3 hours away by a bus ride, Petite France, Nami Island, and the Garden of Morning Calm are three perfect day trip destinations to add to your Seoul itinerary. While they are all accessible by taking public transportation from Seoul, many visitors opt to join a day tour that covers all three destinations in one shot.
Petite France is a French-style cultural village, with a design theme inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic work The Little Prince. Colourful French-style buildings and beautiful art decorations of statues and murals deck this quaint village, offering a taste of France right at home for the Koreans. Many of these buildings exhibit collections of imported European artwork and antiques. For example, The European Doll House features hundreds of European-style dolls, with some dating back to Medieval Times. Petite France is especially charming in the cherry blossom season in spring. It has been a popular filming set for quite a few popular Korean dramas and variety shows, including “Beethoven Virus”, “My Love From The Stars”, “Secret Garden”, and “Running Man”.
As you stride along, you will also find many life-size murals and dioramas from classic childhood fairytales and numerous depictions of Le Petite Prince. Have fun looking out for them and taking Instagrammable shots with your friends or loved ones. The forested mountain behind the village also offers some good views of this charming town. There is a boardwalk path near the observatory tower that can take you up and around the mountain. Throughout the day, there are scheduled street performances and informational talks for everyone to enjoy. Be sure to check the schedule available at the front entrance.
Nami Island earned its fame initially from being the filming spot of the popular Korean show 'Winter Sonata'. Ever since then, this cute little crescent-shaped island has become a popular day trip location for couples and families to relax in nature. Here in Nami Island, you can explore its picturesque tree-lined bike and walking paths and check out all its ample photo-worthy hotspots.
The Garden of Morning Calm
The Garden of Morning Calm is a must-see for those who love nature and are fond of botanical gardens. Since its opening in 1996, it has been regarded as one of the most beautiful showcases of Korea's beautiful horticulture, housing about 5000 kinds of plants, of which 300 are native species. The garden features 20 different themed sections which are connected by scenic walkways. The Sunken Garden, which is shaped like the Korean Peninsula, is one of the most meaningful attractions as it symbolizes the desire for reunification for South and North Korea. The Garden of Morning Calm is worth visiting all year round as it changes its displays of blooms according to the festivity of each season.
6. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (a.k.a DMZ)
The DMZ is a strip of no man's land that divides the Korean Penisula at about the 38th parallel north. It is one of the world's most solemn tourist attractions as it is heavily militarized on both ends beyond the strip. And yet, the DMZ welcomes more than 1.2 million visitors each year according to the Korea Tourism Organization. Ever since its establishment under the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, this 250 km by 4 km border buffer zone has been a strategic meeting place where North and South Korean government officials meet and negotiate. This designated meeting point where the two nations came together within the DMZ is called the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as the Panmunjom truce area. Straddling the Military Demarcation Line within the JSA are a number of bright blue Military Armistice Commission Conference Rooms where the leaders meet face to face.
Facing the Conference Row buildings is the Panmungak (a.k.a Panmun Hall) of North Korea and the Freedom House on the south side.
Visitors must book a guided private or group tour with an official tour agency in order to tour the DMZ. The South Korean side has a number of interesting checkpoints: the unfinished infiltration tunnels (said to be built by the North), the barricaded Freedom Bridge (used to return prisoners at the end of the war), Nuri Peace Park, the Dorasan Observatory, and the Mount Odu Observatory. From the perched observatories, visitors can take a 360-degree view across the peninsula using the binoculars provided. This is probably the closest view one can have into North Korea. So be sure to tag along on a DMZ tour when you visit Seoul.