South Korea’s rich history and lively culture are reason enough to consider it for your next vacation. Often overlooked in favor of its larger Asian neighbors, South Korea is a hidden gem. Seoul, the largest city in Korea, has become an economic powerhouse while still maintaining a hold on its rich history. Whether you’re seeking relaxation or adventure, experienced travelers know this tiny peninsula’s capital is undeniably worth a visit.
Culture for Cheap:
Access to the best of Seoul’s food, shopping, and entertainment far exceeds budgetary expectations. Many of Seoul’s top attractions are free, including Bongeunsa, a 1200-year-old Buddhist temple in the middle of the city, along with the National Museum and War Memorial of Korea. But fee-charging sights certainly won’t break the bank — buy a ticket to Seoul’s most popular attraction, Gyeongbokgung Palace, for less than $3.
Seoul is known for its shopping. Korean culture values looking your best, so be prepared for plenty—perhaps too many—unique Seoul boutiques for shoppers of all price points. Find luxury brands at department stores like Shinsegae or try your luck haggling with street vendors in Namdaemun – either way, you’ll score a special memento of your trip.
Eating out in Korea is exceedingly affordable —not to mention delicious. Mom-and-pop shops crowd every corner and serve you a variety of food for a fraction of the prices found in the States. Expect to pay just $5-7 to enjoy a full meal of bibimbap (steamed vegetables, meat, and rice) or noodles, and as little as $2 for gimbap (rice, vegetables, and meat in a seaweed roll).
A trip to Korea wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Korean barbecue. Find a local barbecue restaurant serving all-you-can-eat samgyeopsal, or pork belly, and eat to your heart’s content for approximately $10. For a secret spot with the best Korean BBQ, head to Eongteori Saenggogi near Jeongja Station on the Red Sinbundang Line. Take a right out of exit 3 and then take your third left. The restaurant will be on the second floor of a building down the alley, next to Harp Pub.
Unlike in other countries, Korea makes it easy to access the great outdoors without a car, especially from larger metropolitan areas like Seoul and Busan. Because cities in Korea are interwoven with mountainous landscapes, Korean public transportation is built around the city’s terrain, granting easy access to national parks for the enjoyment of tourists and locals alike.
Hiking is a Korean cultural institution. Make sure to experience the best of the tradition by drinking makeoli—Korean rice wine—at the mountain’s peak. Koreans love to work hard but also believe in rewarding themselves after a hard day’s work. Besides, a couple of glasses will certainly make it easier to get back down. You’ll find plenty of makeoli at the mountain’s peak—vendors will be there selling bottles of alcohol as well as fresh vegetables to replenish your energy for the return hike.
Make sure to head out to Cheonggyesan Mountain on a clear spring day for a great view of the city. Hundreds of flowers bloom on Jindallae Ridge, which offers a great view of Seoul’s skyline. Head to the Cheonggyesan stop on the Red Sinbundang subway line and go out Exit 2. Bukhansan National Park offers stunning views of the mountain range to the north of Seoul. To reach this famous park, go to Gupabal Station on Subway line 3 and catch the 704 Bus bound for Bukhansanseong Fortress. The bus will take you to the Bukhansan mountain entrance stop, where you can get off and enjoy an entire day’s worth of beautiful hiking.
Visit in late March or early April to catch the ephemerally beautiful Korean cherry blossom season. People from around the globe flock to sites like the Yeuido Cherry Blossom Festival to experience the serenity of walking amongst the full blooms. Admission is absolutely free. The easiest way to reach is this festival is by heading to National Assembly Station on Subway Line 9. The park is a 5-minute walk from Exit 1.
Cherry blossoms are also visible in places like Seoul Forest and Kyunghee University. Stroll through these public areas that allow beautiful views of cherry blossoms at no cost.
Quirky local flavor:
The weird side of Seoul is what makes it so unique. For an unusual museum experience, visit the Trick Eye Museum, which encourages its guests to interact with the exhibits and take photos framed to fool your friends (Hongik University station on Subway line 2, Exit 9).
Don’t leave without getting a taste of Korea’s café culture. Seoul now has the most coffee shops per square mile of any city in the world, including a variety of uniquely themed locations. Stop by an animal cafes to enjoy a cup of coffee while cuddling pets ranging from standard cats and dogs to raccoons and sheep. For an especially peculiar experience, try bathroom-themed café treats at the Poop Café in Insadong, located at Anguk Station on Subway Line 3, Exit 6. Take a left and walk a few hundred meters. The Poop Café is located on the fourth floor of the Ssamziegil Mall.
Whether through cooking, music, or fashion, Koreans are eager to share their culture with visitors. Head to Bukchon Hanok Village to rent a hanbok, or a traditional Korean dress, and rest your head in a hanok, or traditional Korean house. Master chef in the making? Try your hand at making authentic, delicious Korean dishes by taking a cooking class. You can make a reservation at the Kimchi Field Museum in Insadong if you’re interested in cooking Korea’s famous side dish, or book a traditional Korean cooking lesson with Four Seasons Cooking. Classes are available in English. If you’re craving inner peace, experience life as a monk through a Templestay at Bongeunsa.
Whether you seek the lively nightlife of Hongdae, the refined financial district of Gangnam, or the unique ambiance of Insadong, Seoul will unquestionably satisfy any traveler’s itch. You won’t regret seeing all that this city has to offer.
Public transportation in Seoul is extremely easy once you’ve got your T-money card. Head to any convenience store—GS25, 7-11, or CU—and ask for a new T-money card. You can only fill up your transit card with cash, so remember to stop by the ATM first. Once you’ve got your T-money card, you can use it for any bus and on any subway line.
Get around easily with City Mapper, an app that makes taking buses from one end of Seoul to another easy. Type in your desired location and City Mapper will calculate the easiest route from your current location. Another app, Seoul City Rail Map, will help you to easily navigate the Seoul subway system.