The tourism industry in Seoul may be long past its used-by date on the allure of the trendy Gangnam district south of the Han River, but the truth has always been that the coolest experiences from a visitor’s perspective are concentrated in the northern part of the city.
Got some spare time? Here’s what to see when you travel to the capital of South Korea.
1. Korea Furniture Museum
Yes, we know, it sounds like the kind of place even your grandparents would find boring, but hear us out on this insider’s secret.
The Korea Furniture Museum houses more than 2,000 traditional furniture pieces, plus 10 hanok (traditional Korean houses).
The museum itself is one of the most important and beautiful pieces of architecture in Seoul, and one of the first places global curators and designers visit when they hit the city.
Important: Reservations are required. No walk-ins.
330-577 Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu; +82 2 745 0181; tours and restaurant reservations by appointment only; www.kofum.com
2. Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon is irrefutably the most beautiful historical district in the city, a place where visitors wander through tiny streets and peer over the gabled walls to view old hanok (traditional Korean houses) of various shapes and sizes.
Memorable pit stop: the outdoor museum and bittersweet omija in one of the tea houses.
Bukchon Culture Center, 105 Gye-dong, Jongro-gu; +82 2 3707 8388
3. Gwanghwamun station
Gyeongbokgung Palace. The Cheonggyecheon stream. King Sejong statue.
All three of Seoul’s major tourist spots are a short walk from small Gwanghwamun subway station.
Open views of the palace with the massive mountains in the distance are some of the most impressive in the city.
In the Finance Center’s basement levels you’ll find the best lunch options in the financial district, as well as Kyobo bookstore within the Kyobo building, which has cute stationery and other design products (accessories, gadgets, DIY projects, toys).
83 Doryeon-dong, Jongro-gu
The traditional Insadong district has been through some major changes. Recently, it’s shed its tourist trap image of crummy souvenirs to become a cool artsy spot with a new crop of galleries and modern tea shops.
Tasty teas and handmade accessories make for a nice little sojourn in the city.
Insadong, Jongro-gu; english.visitkorea.or.kr
5. Korean galbi
When it comes to grilling, Koreans don’t mess around. Knowledgeable staff will help you get galbi (juicy cuts of beef) smoking perfectly.
Maple Tree is a budget-friendly, cheerful barbecue joint with branches in both Gangnam and Gangbuk. Here are more of our barbecue recommendations.
31-1 Samcheong-dong, Jongro-gu; +82 2 730 7461; the restaurant has two more branches in Itaewon and Dogok-dong; www.mapletreehouse.co.kr
Be warned, you’ll be gasping for air.
More lounge than club, Glam is one of the few stand-and-mingle bars in Seoul, and certainly among the hottest nightlife spots of the moment.
You’ll be fighting for air space amid massive crowds – every night is a party in here.
116-1 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; +82 2 792 6164
When you’re on top of the heap, you don’t hide it.
Octagon is the hottest club in the city right now – having forced the crown from the ridiculously massive Ellui.
Although Korean clubs are famous in the region for “booking culture,” don’t expect any here (in fact, the whole trend has been dying out). Periodic laser shows and constant crazy dancing are the big draws.
New Hilltop Hotel, Gangnam-gu, Nonhyun-dong 152; +82 2 516 8847; cluboctagon.co.kr
8. Doosan Tower
Short for Doosan Tower, Doota has emerged as the most stylish of the non-brand boutique-studded shopping malls in the Dongdaemun district (the Korean branches of Vogue, GQ and W magazines are also located within this building).
Both men and women go for trendy, budget-friendly clothes and accessories, particularly at night, as the area stays open until the small hours of the morning.
18-12 Euljiro 6-ga, Jung-gu; www.doota.com
We like to take foreigners here – mostly to watch their skeptical expressions (“Mexican food in Asia? Ugh!”) turn to surprise and delight. There’s a reason why waits can take up to three hours on weekends.
Recommended: Kimchi Carnitas Fries and shrimp tacos.
Itaewon-ro 15-gil 2/F; Yongsan-gu, +82 2 797 8226; vatoskorea.com
This temple in Gangnam is a wonderfully serene spot in the middle of the city, providing striking views of the traditional city juxtaposed with the modern skyline.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Korea’s temple stay program, so temples all around the country are coming up with unique programs catering to travelers.
73 Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 511 6070; www.bongeunsa.org
Rachel Sang-hee Han is a freelance writer. Frances Cha lectured at Seoul National University, and has worked and written for various publications in the United States and Korea.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.