Discovering Seoul: A First-Time Visitor's Guide

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Advisor - Angela Ong
Curated By

Angela Ong

  • South Korea

  • Seoul

  • City Travel

  • International Travel

  • Arts & Culture

  • Boutique Travel

  • Couples Travel

  • Digital Nomad Travel

  • Food & Wine

  • Sightseeing

  • Local Culture

  • Local Food

land with a building in the background during daytime
Curator’s statement

Seoul has it all: rich culture, delicious food, great shopping and scenic nature. Offering a unique blend of ancient traditions and modern innovations, from historic palaces and temples to state-of-the-art technology and trendy pop culture, it is also a vibrant city with delicious food, great shopping and beautiful nature nearby. Follow this guide for the ultimate experience for first-timers.

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Where to stay in Seoul, South Korea

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Things to do in Seoul, South Korea

palace surrounded by gardens during daytime

Palace Hopping

One of the most fun and unique experiences in Seoul is wearing traditional Korean clothing, known as Hanbok, and visiting the city's many palaces. Hanbok can be rented from various shops around the city, usually for a small fee. Many of the palaces also offer guided tours and cultural programs where you can learn more about Korean history and culture.

Insider Tip: Donning a hanbok gives you free access to the palaces! Be sure to dress appropriately for the weather and wear comfortable shoes. Also, keep in mind that some of the palaces may have specific rules about wearing Hanbok, such as certain colors or styles that are not allowed.

Start at Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the largest and most iconic palace in Seoul. Be sure to catch the changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place multiple times per day.

Next, head to Changdeokgung Palace, which is known for its beautiful gardens and tranquil atmosphere. Finally, visit Changgyeonggung Palace, which is located nearby and is known for its fusion of traditional Korean and Chinese architectural styles.


Seoul is a shopper's paradise, with an endless array of markets, malls, and boutiques to explore. One of the must-visit shopping destinations is Myeong-dong, a bustling area that is home to numerous fashion boutiques, skincare shops, and cosmetic stores. Here, you can find everything from high-end luxury brands to trendy streetwear at affordable prices. For a more traditional shopping experience, head to the Insadong neighborhood, which is known for its traditional Korean crafts, ceramics, and artwork.

If you're looking for a unique shopping experience, the Dongdaemun Market is a great choice, with its numerous stalls selling everything from fabric to electronics. And for those interested in high-end designer shopping, the Gangnam district is the place to be, with its upscale boutiques and luxury department stores. No matter what you're looking for, Seoul has something to offer every type of shopper.

Korean Bathhouses

If you are a fan of K-dramas, you will definitely need to see this. Relax in a Korean bathhouse, known as jjimjilbangs. A popular place for locals to relax and unwind. Try out the different hot and cold pools, saunas, and massage rooms for the ultimate relaxation experience.

Visiting a jjimjilbang is a great way to experience Korean culture and relax after a long day of sightseeing or shopping. Some of the most popular bathhouses in Seoul include Dragon Hill Spa, Siloam Spa, and Itaewon Land. Just remember to follow the rules and etiquette of the bathhouse, such as showering before entering the pools, keeping quiet in the relaxation areas, and avoiding using your phone or camera.

Korean Nightlife

The nightlife scene in Seoul is diverse and offers something for everyone, from trendy bars and nightclubs to karaoke rooms and traditional Korean drinking establishments.

One of the most popular areas for nightlife in Seoul is Gangnam, which is known for its trendy bars and clubs. This area is especially popular among young locals and visitors looking to dance the night away. Some of the most popular nightclubs in Gangnam include Octagon and Club Mass, which feature top DJs and performers. For those who want to experience traditional Korean nightlife, there are plenty of options as well. Makgeolli bars, which serve traditional Korean rice wine, are popular among locals and offer a chance to try unique and flavorful drinks.

Pojangmacha, or street food vendors, also offers a fun and casual way to experience Korean nightlife, with plenty of delicious food and drinks to choose from.

Bukchon Hanok Village

This traditional Korean village is located in the heart of the city and offers a glimpse into traditional Korean architecture and culture. Walk through the narrow alleys and take in the beautiful traditional houses.

Many of the houses in Bukchon have been converted into cultural centers, museums, and traditional guesthouses called "hanok stay". These guesthouses offer visitors the opportunity to experience traditional Korean hospitality and architecture in a cozy and intimate setting.

Bukhansan National Park

A beautiful natural attraction located in the north of Seoul. The park is known for its stunning granite peaks, lush forests, and hiking trails that attract thousands of visitors every year.

In addition to its natural beauty, Bukhansan National Park also has cultural significance as it contains numerous Buddhist temples and fortresses that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. The park is a perfect destination for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and immerse themselves in nature while still being within easy reach of Seoul.

Day Trips

Nami Island - Located about 1.5 hours away from Seoul, Nami Island is a beautiful natural attraction that features stunning landscapes, gardens, and walking trails. Visitors can also enjoy outdoor activities such as cycling, zip-lining, and kayaking. Nami Island is especially famous for its picturesque tree-lined paths that are popular for photo opportunities.

DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) - The DMZ is a highly secured buffer zone between North and South Korea, and a visit there can be a unique and insightful experience. Several tour companies offer guided tours that take you to observation points where you can see North Korea across the border. Some tours also include visits to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the Third Tunnel, which is one of several tunnels dug by North Korea into South Korea.

Places to eat & drink in Seoul, South Korea

street lined with businesses during sunset

Gwangjang Market - A bustling traditional market that offers a wide variety of street food and traditional Korean dishes.

Noryangjin Fish Market - A huge indoor market where you can pick your seafood and have it prepared fresh on the spot.

Myeongdong Kyoja - A popular restaurant that specializes in handmade noodles and dumplings.

Tosokchon Samgyetang - Famous for their signature dish, samgyetang, a Korean-style ginseng chicken soup.

Jungsik - a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves modern Korean cuisine with a twist.

Sanchon - a vegetarian restaurant opened by a former monk, specializes in temple cuisine which is healthy and flavorful.

Palsaik Samgyupsal - Popular Korean barbecue spot that serves eight different flavors of pork belly.

Kkanbu Chicken - A chain restaurant that serves crispy and spicy Korean-style fried chicken.

La Yeon - A Michelin three-starred restaurant located in the luxurious Shilla Hotel. The restaurant offers traditional Korean cuisine in a refined setting, with stunning views of the city from the 23rd floor of the hotel.

Mokmyeoksanbang - A well-known restaurant that specializes in hanwoo beef, a premium Korean beef that is known for its tenderness and rich flavor.

Need to Know

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out Laura Vander Neut's guide, An Architecture Lover’s Guide to Selecting a Hotel in Shanghai.

Advisor - Angela Ong

Travel Advisor

Angela Ong

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on city travel.