Our City Guide to: Seoul

We probably expected Seoul to be the Korea from the dramas. And to be fair, with Nabol leaving Seoul when he was just a baby, Kdramas was the only point of reference we had. This city, however, blew our expectations like no other city we’ve been to, with a transportation system that is light years ahead, an incredibly livable urban landscape and people so elegant, welcoming and down to earth that we felt right at home everywhere we went.

In comparison to other major Asian cities, Seoul will be a lot easier to navigate. But of course, it never hurts to plan ahead. Here’s some practical information on how to get around, where to stay and what to do and eat when you visit.

Before you get there

Consider the different seasons when booking.
Spring and autumn are probably the best seasons to travel to Seoul. Tickets are affordable and the weather is cool. Summers are brutally hot and winters are brutally cold. If you book early and leave from a major city like Chicago, you can find non-stop flights for about $700-$800.

Map out your to-do list. 
Once you make a list of attractions, it helps to map them out. You’ll save so much time if you group the attractions that are closer together. Explore a different part of the city every day, and leave some room to wander around and rest.

Get all the addresses in-language.
Open Google maps, go to language preferences and switch the language to Korean. Then, enter the address of each destination in English and it should give you the address in Korean. Print them and take them with you. If you need directions, you can always point to the piece of paper.

Request foreign currency at the bank.
With so many outdoor markets and street vendors, it will be helpful to have cash with you. That’s why we recommend requesting Korean currency (Won) in advance at your local bank. Not every branch has foreign currency at hand so it’s good to ask a few weeks before your trip.

Bring comfortable walking shoes.
You can count on great transportation to take you almost anywhere in Seoul. There’s really no need for a car. But because there’s so much to see, bringing comfortable shoes is a must. You’ll be able to walk comfortably and avoid blisters with shoes that let your toes breathe and don’t squash them together.

Make sure to bring deodorant.
Who knew?! Apparently, Koreans are blessed with some magical gene that keeps their underarms dry and odorless. That’s why, while you can find just about anything in Korea, that’s not the case with deodorant. It’s actually quite hard to find. So, save yourself from a smelly situation, make sure to bring your own.

Arriving and leaving

No visa required.
While you don’t need a visa to visit South Korea, bring copies of your flight schedule in case the immigration agent asks to see your departure date.

Incheon International Airport.
South Korea’s main airport is incredibly modern and easy to navigate. After going through immigration and picking up your luggage, you’ll find transportation and service booths outside (like the portable WiFi booths). If you have any questions, the attendants at the information desk will quickly guide you in the right direction. Also, if you need internet immediately after landing, Incheon offers free Wifi to travelers.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty massive airport with two main terminals, so leave enough time to walk to your check-in booth and gate. Incheon is also located 29.6 miles from Seoul Station in the heart of the city so it will take you about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on transportation choice.

Getting from the airport to Seoul.
Here’s when you can start getting excited about Seoul. You have very good options to get into the city and they are pretty affordable too!

  • Airport Railroad Express (AREX): This is the most direct option. It will cost 14,800 won (about $12.62) and runs directly from Terminal 1 and 2 to Seoul Station in the center of town. It takes about 40 minutes.
  • All Stops Train: This option costs 4,150 won ($3.60) and takes about 1 hour. It leaves from Terminal 2 and stops by 13 subway stations on its way to Seoul Station. If you’re staying in an area like Hongdae, it might be easier to take the All Stop Train and connect to a local train or bus.
  • Airport Limousine Buses: If you arrive exhausted, Limousine Buses are recommended. It might take longer to get to town because it makes several stops, but the driver will drop you off at your hotel or very close to it. The price is about 15,000 won ($13.31 dollars).
  • Taxis: Taking taxis in Seoul is not as ridiculously expensive as Tokyo, but it’s not the cheapest option either. Price will range from $48 to $70 for a regular size taxi, depending on where you’re going in the city.

Stay Connected

Portable Wifi vs. Sim Card.
Having access to a navigation app on your phone will make it so much easier to get around Seoul. But, in order to use those, you’ll need to rent a Pocket Wifi at the airport or purchase a Prepaid Sim Card at a convenience store.

  • Pocket Wifi: You can rent these in advance or at the airport for about $3.50 a day. If you’re renting in advance, finding the booth at the airport might be tricky. Various companies might use the same booth to do business, but when in doubt, ask at the Airport Information Booth. You can choose to return your device at Incheon or at another airport in the country.
  • Prepaid Sim Cards: These can be purchased at many convenience stores in Seoul, including the ones at the airport. Just keep in mind that Internet access will be available only on the device with the Sim Card.

Getting around

Google Maps & Kakao Metro.
There are a few apps you can use to navigate Seoul. Something that we learned is that Google Maps works great for subways, buses and long distance. But it’s not so great with walking directions. So, we found ourselves testing a few options and switching between apps. Kakao Metro is one alternative that saved our butts quite a few times. And it’s available in English!

T Money Cards.
This is Seoul’s pre-paid transportation card and it’s so convenient. It works on buses, trains, taxis, and lets you purchase snacks at convenience stores like 711 and CU. You can purchase the card at any convenience store too and reload it at the same store or at all subway stations. The card itself will cost you between $3 to $5 depending on where you get it. Before leaving South Korea, you can also get your balance back at any convenience store.

Local Transportation.
  • Seoul Metro: Easy to follow and extensive, the metro is the easiest way to get anywhere in Seoul. There’s always a route and a connection to get you where you need to go. It works from 5:30 am to midnight, and your base ride will cost you 1,250 with a T-Money card or 1,350 without it ($1.12 or $1.21). Then, the rates go up depending on distance.
  • Buses: The buses are also super convenient and affordable. Many of the stops have digital transit information displays where you can clearly see schedules and routes.
  • Taxis: We were amazed at how affordable taxis were in Korea. It saved us quite a bit of time when we were in a pinch. You can also use your T-Money card for these and your base price is about 3,500 won ($3.13) and it goes up depending on distance.

KTX Trains.
Are you planning any day trips from Seoul? South Korea’s super fast train is your friend. Prices and schedules vary per distance. You can also choose to purchase a 1, 3, 5 or 7-day pass, and you can choose between a direct route or one with transfers. Tickets can be purchased online or at the station, but if you’re buying at the station, make sure to give yourself at least 1 hour before departure to purchase them.

To give you an idea of how much it will cost, we paid $50 for a direct train ticket from Busan to Seoul. If you’re traveling similar distances, it’s also worth it to compare train costs with low-cost flights.

Where to stay

You can find very nice and decently priced hotels in different areas of Seoul. This is the best option if you want to avoid some of the hassles that come with coordinating an Airbnb rental. While it might be a bit pricier, you can always count on having someone in the lobby ready to answer any questions. And most likely, your hotel will also have additional services, such as room service, a nice bar, and laundry.

Airbnb tends to be more affordable. You can rent an entire apartment, a home or just a room for a number of nights. You have access to a kitchen and sometimes even a washing machine. But you do have to contact a host and exchange several emails prior to arriving at your Airbnb. If the host is not greeting you when you arrive, make sure he or she gives you proper instructions on how to get to the place, how to get into the home and the house rules.

We got really lucky with our host. She gave us detailed instructions and left us various notes in the apartment with useful information, not to mention great recommendations on what to do and eat around the neighborhood. When you’re searching for your place, make sure to read the reviews of the host.

Popular areas. 
Choose an area that matches your plans, your budget and yes, your personality. Here are some popular recommendations!

  • Insadong: We loved staying in Insadong for the first few days. It’s close to many of the traditional palaces and Bukchon Hanok Village. Lots of little tea shops and hanbok shops (traditional Korean dress) nearby. However, because you’ll see a lot of tourists in this area, it might be a bit pricier than other areas in Seoul, and you should also be very careful when choosing places to eat. We had both good and not so great experiences.
  • Itaewon: This is Seoul’s international neighborhood. We loved how diverse, lively and unassuming it was. You’ll find traditional Korean restaurants next to a Mexican taqueria, a delicious Shawarma joint or a Vietnamese shop. There are lots of casual beer bars, fun gay pubs, and cocktail lounges. It’s also one of the more affordable places for Airbnbs.
  • Hongdae: Because this neighborhood is close to Hongik University, you can expect a very lively collegy vibe, at least closer to the commercial streets. We decided to stay here for the remainder of our time in Seoul because it was very affordable and not touristy at all. Expect great restaurants for various budgets, great indie nightlife and lots of independent stores. Particularly the area where our Airbnb was located was pretty quiet and conveniently next to a supermarket.

  • Myeong-dong: If you like the hustle and bustle, this is one of Seoul’s biggest shopping district packed with international fashion brands, homegrown cosmetic shops and a great variety of casual eateries. It’s a lot of fun to shop at night time when the streets get lined up with street vendors. You can find a variety of hotels and Airbnbs, but they might be on the pricier side.
  • Gangnam: Remember the popular hit by Psy? Yes, same place. This area is nice and clean, and very much a business and residential district. If you’re considering staying here, the Airbnbs can be very posh, but the prices are surprisingly not that bad. It probably has to do with distance. It takes about 35 to 40 minutes to get to the center of town.


Korean breakfast is a multi-course affair. It's more commonly enjoyed at home, but there are also small neighborhood diners where you can get a really nice breakfast. But beware, get there early because these get packed. Either you go before 8am or just wait until 10am. Order a porridge or juk, if you can. This comforting rice soup is made in a variety of flavors, from mushrooms and pumpkin to chicken or tuna. You can also opt for a simple clear soup, rolled up omelet and kimchi.

Family Style.
Eating solo is not as common in Seoul as it is in Tokyo. Many of the restaurants will serve you family style. Any given dish will serve 2 or 3 people. Even the side dishes serve 2 or 3 people! So, if you’re like us and you don’t eat a lot, be careful with the amount of food you order. Share a main dish with your group and fill up with appetizers and side dishes.

On that note, make sure that what you’re ordering is the main dish. We ordered a japchae at a local diner thinking it was going to be one of our mains, but japchae was served only as a side dish at that joint. (It was plenty of food for one person, but the owner thought it was weird.)

Convenient stores & Small supermarkets.
We saw so many convenient stores and small supermarkets in Seoul that we actually wondered how they manage to stay open. But the truth is locals here are always on the go. They appreciate finding a variety of quick or pre-made meals from stores like 711 and CU, as well as having small supermarkets where they can get their daily necessities on the way to work or when they come back home. We appreciated that convenience too. While we didn’t properly cook at our Airbnb, it was a great way to get breakfast items and late-night snacks.

In Seoul, there are markets everywhere! You’ll find them hidden in alleyways, at major urban centers, or popping up at night when you least expect it. These aren’t only a very affordable way to get your fruits and veggies, but it’s where you should go to try all the street food and purchase your spices to take home.

Tipping in Korea is not customary. In some cases, it could even seem offensive. Just be polite and thankful for the service. Compliment the food, say how tasty it is, but don’t tip.

Must Eats
  • Kimchi: Let’s start with Korea’s gift to the world. Kimchi is a delicious fermented cabbage that is eaten mostly as a side dish or is used in soups, stews and other dishes. Other vegetables are also “kimchied” and we recommend you try as many varieties as you can.
  • Banchan: You will try so much banchan while you’re here! Most places will accompany your meal with a bunch of these side dishes. Every restaurant has their favorites and it can be anything from different kinds of kimchi to fish cakes, potato salad, sautéed spinach or small dumplings.
  • Korean BBQ: This is like no barbecue you’ve had before. You select from different cuts of meats and cook them on a tabletop grill. The meat is often marinated with a delicious sweet spicy sauce and served with lettuce leaves that you can use to wrap your meat like a burrito.

  • Friend chicken: Next to Kimchi and Korean BBQ, Korean friend chicken is another national treasure. It’s super crunchy and comes with a variety of sauces, most of which are sweet and spicy. If you can, try it mixed with ddeokbokki, Korean rice cakes. The chewiness and sweetness of the ddeokbokki pairs perfectly with the chicken.
  • Bibimbap: Think rice mixed with a bunch of delicious things. This is another super popular dish in Korea, and it’s basically a rice bowl topped with different veggies and gochujang sauce. Sometimes, meat and a sunny side egg are also added. All the ingredients will be nicely arranged on top of the rice, but then you will take your spoon and mix it all in order to enjoy it.
  • Jjajangmyeon: If this Korean Chinese noodle dished seems a bit out of your comfort zone, think again. The black bean sauce mixed with the noodles is one of the most addictive flavors of our lives. There’s a reason why this dish is one of the most popular take-out dishes in Korea.

  • Vegetarian Eats: Vegan and vegetarian cafes are popping up everywhere in Korea, many of which are offering an interesting veggie spin on traditional Korean food. We visited Plant Café and Kitchen in Itaewon and we regret not going a second time. Their menu is amazing, lots of modern and refreshing options.
  • Kimbap: Eat it as a snack, appetizer or as part of a bigger meal. Kimbap is the Korean version of maki sushi, minus the raw fish. It’s usually prepared with fish cake, beef or just vegetables and it’s delicious. It’s a very popular picnic snack.

  • Juk: This is a Korean rice porridge that many locals enjoy for breakfast or when they feel sick. It comes in a variety of flavors like mushrooms, pumpkin and tuna. It’s super comforting and filling.
  • Korean corn dog (tokkebi hot dog): While you’re in Korea, you have to try as much street food as possible. Both the traditional and the innovative. This Korean corn dog was one of our favorite. It’s slightly sweet and very comforting, serve with lots of melted cheese and ketchup.
  • Grilled mackerel: This might seem very simple, but it’s just so tasty. There’s something about flaking that perfectly grilled fish and eating it with steaming white rice.

  • Gyeranppang: Here’s another street food favorite. It’s basically sweet bread baked with an egg inside. Sometimes, corn and chives are added too. So good.
  • Japchae: Many restaurants will serve this as a side dish, but we could eat it on its own. These are sweet potato starch noodles sautéed with different veggies and dressed with sesame oil.
  • Pajeon: Think savory pancakes. These are prepared with different types of vegetables, meats and seafood, and go great with a few cold beers.

  • Hotteok: There’s nothing more perfect than eating a warm sweet pancake on a chilly day. These are filled with brown sugar and nuts, and usually, served folded in a cup.
  • Mandu: Our favorite breakfast or late-night snack. These dumplings are served fried or steamed and can be filled with a variety of ingredients, but the most popular are usually filled with pork, veggies and vermicelli noodles.

Must attractions

  • Gyeongbokgung Palace: Located north of Gwanghwamun Square, this is considered the most beautiful of the five largest palaces in Seoul. Its construction was completed in 1395 at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty and it was destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-1598). It wasn’t until the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919) that Gyeongbokgung was reconstructed. Keep in mind that it could take you a good two hours to explore every corner of this attraction. If you’re only interested in the main areas, you can shorten your visit to 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  • Changdeokgung: This is another of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. It’s set within a large park in Jongno-gu and it’s a beautiful sight in the spring. The complex has impressive residential buildings from this era and it was originally built as a secondary palace to the main Gyeongbokgung. Because we didn’t have time to explore every palace, Changdeokgung was a good second option. We were here for over an hour, but you could be here for several hours.

  • Bukchon Hanok Village: Walking distance from the Gyeongbokgung Palace you’ll find Bukchon or Northern Village. Take the time to walk all the way to the top and take a picture of the hundreds of hanoks, traditional Korean houses that also date back to the Joseon Dynasty. This is also a great place to enjoy tea at a traditional tea shop or just wander around the different alleys. You’ll also find great traditional restaurants and stores. Reserve at least a good couple of hours here.
  • Heunginjimun Castle Gate: This is just one of 8 historical gates that were located in the Fortress Wall of Seoul, which surrounded the city in the Joseon Dynasty. Six of these gates exist today, but Heunginjimun is one that you’ll see often going to the different attractions in the center of town. It’s an impressive sight to see in the middle of modern Seoul.
  • Insa-dong: Right in the heart of the city, Insadong is one of Seoul’s more traditional neighborhoods. You’ll find lots of wooden tea houses, restaurants, indie galleries and shops. Similar to Hanok Village, many visitors come here to rent a traditional hanbok for a few hours so they can stroll around the alleyways and take pictures. While you’re here, don’t miss the colorful Jogyesa Temple, the Ssamziegil crafts mall, and the beard candy vendors.

  • N Seoul Tower: Commonly known as Namsam Tower or Seoul Tower, this is a communication and observation tower in central Seoul. You’ll find rotating exhibitions, souvenir shops and restaurants, not to mention some of the best views of the city. If you’re going with your other half, make sure to buy a “Love Lock” to write each other’s names and lock it in oneGa of the designated areas.
  • Hongdae: This is a college neighborhood like no other and you won’t find as many tourists here. We had so much fun exploring the colorful streets and indie shops. There’s such a chill and relaxed vibe everywhere you go here. Our recommendation is to spend an entire afternoon listening to the street performers and trying the local street food. The indie rock scene is also a pretty big deal around here, so it pays to check out venues like Strange Fruit and Club FF.
  • Itaewon: This is probably the most diverse district of Seoul, with a vibrant nightlife and restaurants serving food from around the globe. The presence of American soldiers during the Korean War had an incredible impact in this area and businesses started to adapt to the new clientele. While you’re here, don’t miss the War Memorial of Korea on the former site of the army headquarters. It has a very impressive collection of war memorabilia and military equipment. We also recommend stopping by Plant Café & Kitchen for amazing vegan dishes and desserts.
  • Gangnam: Posh and modern. Lots of big-name companies and government buildings. We actually came to Gangnam to visit the Sum Market, a fan café and store at SM Entertainment’s headquarters. They are the managers of Kpop stars EXO, Girls’ Generation,  Super Junior, SHINee and many others. But if Kpop is not your thing, stroll around Gangnam station for some serious shopping.

Markets & Shopping.
  • Myeong-dong: Think international fashion brands and luxurious department stores. Depending on your budget, you can spend hours here. At night, this area also comes alive with special street sales and lots of street food vendors. While you’re here, check out some of the local beauty and health stores.
  • Nandaemun Market: A network of streets and alleyways, this is the oldest and largest market in Korea. It’s open around the clock and has over 10,000 vendors. You’ll find anything from toys and souvenirs to clothes and food items. This is also a great location to enjoy street food or home-cooked meals at any of the casual eateries. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just follow your nose and you’ll do just fine.
  • Dongdaemun Market: While it started as a traditional market in 1905, Dongdaemun has evolved into a center for the textile industry. You’ll find the newest fabrics and fashion trends. The market is divided into 5 shopping districts and a shopping town focusing on different goods, including food and kitchen items. It used to be a night market, but now opens from 10:30 am to 5am.

  • Cheonggyecheon River: We were so focused on taking it easy in Seoul that we totally forgot to visit this attraction, but it’s definitively a must. This gorgeous linear park is part of Seoul’s plan to make the city more green and livable. What used to be a traffic-choked elevated freeway is now a manmade stream and green oasis.
  • Yeouido Hangang Park: This is a natural area along the Han river comprised of 12 different parks. You can practice different sports, rent a bike or just enjoy a picnic. We chose to spend time at the Yeouido Park, which can easily be accessed by public transportation. You can also get great views of the Hannam Bridge and Banpo Bridge by going to Banpo Park.

Souvenirs & Shopping

South Korea is very affordable. You’ll find good quality clothes, housewares, electronics, toys and souvenirs for a lot less then you would in Japan. We actually decided to do most of our shopping here. Go to the different markets and shopping centers in less touristy areas like Hongdae and the Gangnam Terminal. Some of our favorite stores are Line Friends, Kakao Store, Too Cool for School, Raremarket, Creative Life, and The Gundam Base (We liked the Seoul store more than Japan’s.)

Mind your manners

1. As a matter of respect, when you are in a group setting, the younger adults will usually pour drinks for the older adults. And when it’s time to take a sip, they look away.

2. When handing cash or a credit card, you should do it with the right hand while your left hand is touching your right elbow. You also bow slightly.

3. Older people are a priority when doing a line and are also given seating priority while taking public transportation. This applies everywhere, but especially in Korea.

4. While Koreans are more relaxed when it comes to talking and using your phone while riding public transportation, it’s polite to keep your voice down.

5. Korean people are very sensitive about their privacy. When taking pictures or recording videos, be careful of not filming people directly.

6. Having said that, not many restaurants and stores allow pictures or video either. It's polite to ask.

7. Do your best to say hello and thank you in Korean. Annyeonghaseyo and kamsahamnida. If you like the food, say “mashisoyo” or delicious.


If you're planning a trip to Seoul, leave us your question or comment below and we'll do our best to answer. Thank you for your support. And safe travels!

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