20 Truly Unique Experiences in Korea: What to Do, Eat & See in Seoul
Seoul is the most lively and energetic city I’ve ever been to. This city of 10 million residents is the historical, cultural, economic and political center of South Korea. Seoul offers so much to do, see and eat.
Although I called Seoul home for five years, the capital city continuously evolves so fast that every time I go back, it never disappoints with something new. Keeping that in mind, I’d like to share my experience to inspire your future travel. If you’re already planning, check back with my blog again because I plan to write more details soon.
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1. Stroll Through the Palace
Seoul has five main palaces of the Chosun Dynasty. Each of them has an interesting history and worth your time to visit. They are all breathtakingly beautiful and magnificent; words can’t describe, photos don’t do justice. You just gotta experience it yourself. Take my word for it and visit at least one during your stay in Korea.
2. Wear Hanbok to the Palace
Did you know wearing hanbok will get you in free to the palaces? If you don’t own one, not to worry. There are plenty of places nearby, where you can rent a full set of hanbok for an hour or the whole day. Prices start around 10,000 won (about $10 USD); you won’t regret when you think about the Instagram-worthy photos with the picturesque architecture and landscape as your back-drop, not to mention once-in-a-lifetime experience in a traditional Korean costume.
In recent years, Korean cuisine finally carved out its place in the U.S. In my opinion, this is way overdue. Once you land your feet on the Korean soil, you should start gobbling up as many different Korean dishes as possible. You won’t be disappointed. But the best of the best is Korean barbecue.
My dear friend (arguably and jokingly!) once claimed black people in America invented the barbecue. Oh, believe me. I so miss beef brisket and baby back ribs from Rudy’s in Texas! But let me tell you, I still think Korean barbecue is the best. Accept my challenge and share your verdict with me.Related: A Foodie's Guide: Korean BBQ for Dummies
4. Shop ‘till You Drop or…‘till Dawn
Even if you are not into the latest K-beauty craze or K-fashion, Korea is the heaven for shopaholics. Not only Seoul has everything you need (and don’t), but also the city never seems to sleep when it comes to shopping (or drinking). While department stores close around 8 p.m., you can continue with your shopping literally until dawn at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets.
↡↡ Not So Much of a Shopper? How about Non-Verbal Cultural Performances? ↡↡
5. Go to a Korean Sauna, Jjimjilbang (찜질방)
You might say you are not a big fan of getting naked and taking a bath with strangers. But before you scratch that off your list, consider that Jjimjilbang is not a place people go just for a bath. It is where locals huddle in a toasty space with family or close friends for a relaxed bonding time over delicious snack food and get a massage or professional scrub.
After a long day of walking, your feet will thank you for treating them to Jjimjilbang. Oh, did I mention they provide you with a set of clothes to wear inside? That means you don't have to be naked until you actually need to wash off sweat. When you visit Jjimjilbang, make sure you try this combo: maekbanseok gyeran (맥반석 계란; an egg steamed in the saunas) and sikhye (식혜; a cold sweet rice drink).
6. Join FREE Walking Tours
The City of Seoul offers many organized free walking tours to Seoul’s top tourist attractions. These tours are great especially for first-time visitors as the expert tour guides will help you understand the historical, cultural significance of what you are looking at or what you really should be looking. And these are offered for FREE! You just need to sign up in advance.
I personally enjoyed the Kyungbok Palace tour very much. Next time I visit Seoul again, I would like to take the Naksan Seonggwak tour, which highlights the night view of Seoul. Many other walking tours are also worthy of your time. Check out the Seoul City's Free Walking Tour Programs here.
↡↡Looking for Small Group Tours? Book Your Seoul Tour Here! ↡↡
7. Hop on a City Tour Bus
This is not a unique experience per se. But Seoul is huge! If you can’t join walking tours but still want to be efficient with your time, just hop on a city tour bus. Here is how it works. You choose a route option, buy a day pass, hop on and off the bus as you wish…all day. Easy, eh?
8. People Watching at Coffee Shop
When your feet are about to give in, just find a local cafe. I prefer to sit near the window on the second floor. While drinking coffee and rest your feet, watch people pass by. Why? Because it’s fun! I’m not encouraging you to judge people or creepily peep at others in any way. It is just a good way to glaze how locals behave and how they dress. Depending on where you are in Seoul, you might get a very different scene, say, Myungdong and Garosugil streets.
9. Order Fried Chicken While Sitting on Han River Banks
If Americans invented drive-through, Koreans mastered food delivery. In Korea, you might be surprised at how everything is done so efficiently (read: fast) and conveniently. Food delivery is the epitome of that. The most awesome part is that you can sit on the Han river benches and order food delivery. What? You don’t even need an address? That’s right! You can easily locate people handing out flyers nearby. Just pick one up and call. If language is an issue, I’m sure you can find locals to help you.
10. Imbibe in Flavored Makgeolli and Soju
Want to party like locals? Well, you are in the right place. Korea is famously, or infamously, known for its drinking culture. Although I don’t agree, Koreans believe drinking is a component of social skill. But I’ll say I’m all for leisurely and responsible drinking. While in Korea, try makgeolli (막걸리; fermented rice wine) and soju (소주; vodka-like distilled alcohol). If the plain is too much, you can always opt for flavored ones like banana, peach, grapes and pomegranate; flavored ones are delicious and go down a bit easier.
11. Then Hit Norebang (노래방)
When Koreans get together, it is hardly ever over in just one location. In Korean drinking culture, you go 2-cha (translation: second round), 3-cha (third round), and so on. And when I say “round,” I’m not talking about one round of shots, rather a bunch of rounds in one location. After the first “round” of drinking, one of the popular 2-cha places is norebang, where you get a private room to sing and drink more. If you prefer to just experience norebang, of course, you can go there just to sing. But it’s more fun when you drink. I’ll just say that.
12. Dare to Try Live Octopus?
If you watched the movie ‘Old Boy,’ you might remember that horrifying moment the main actor was inhaling in a huge, live octopus. Like that scene hasn’t scarred you for life already, as gross as it sounds, yes, indeed, you can eat a live octopus in Korea. Rest assured, the way locals enjoy live octopus is not quite as traumatizing as in the movie.
The most common dish is called Nagji Tang Tangy (낙지탕탕이), which made a controversial conversation on Facebook last year when Gordon Ramsey posted the video above. Typically, the restaurant lets you choose your octopus before they chop it up for you. When it is served, tentacles still move although it is technically dead. You pick one piece up with a chopstick, dip it in the salt and sesame oil mixture. Accompany with a shot of soju.
But if you are in for the whole octopus experience as in the movie, you can ask for a smaller octopus called sebalnagji. You will wrap it (live) around the chopstick, dip it in the sauce and chew as hard and fast as you can. The moment you put it in your mouth, a battle between the octopus and your jaw begins as it sticks to every surface of your mouth. Pick your fight wisely because it is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you lose, the consequence can be deadly. I mean, although very few, some do choke to death. Do you dare?
13. Enjoy City’s Night View
Seoul never sleeps. People are out late at night or work tirelessly, making the city’s night view so sparkly and beautiful. Think about all the lights! Depending on your preference, you can choose to see the panoramic view from a boat on the Han river, on top of the tower on Namsan, up along the fortress path - the options are limitless. This is definitely a topic for a separate post.
14. Get a Facial
Savvy travelers know to get pampered with a massage in Thailand. What would they do in Korea? Get a facial! When it comes to beauty, Koreans really know what they are doing. After a 60-minute facial, you will walk out of the room glowing. Don’t be shy, gentlemen. Skincare is considered equally important for gentlemen in Korea.Don't know where to go? Try this spa in Gangnam run by a high-end Korean cosmetic brand. The staff speaks English, Chinese and Korean.
15. Shop Cute Stationery
Korea, like Taiwan and Japan, is obsessed with anything cute. It is heaven for a person like me who loves to use cute character products and stationery. I mean, when you can up your productivity with cute stationery, why would you settle for the boring? Boy, can I spend hours and hours in those stores! The best part is they are everywhere. While you are in Korea, you will see them from street stalls, markets, big-box retailers, stationery stores, department stores, and so on. Welcome to the cutesy land, folks!
16. Visit Themed Cafes
Although Korea offers many theme cafes, my favorite is the dog cafe. Whether you walk in yourself or bring your own dog, you can sip a coffee while hanging out with dogs. How wonderful is that?! Some cafes have adoptable dogs if you’d like. Not a dog person? Don’t worry! Korea has a cafe for you - cat, sheep, raccoon, you name it!
If you are not a big fan of having live animals in a cafe, you can visit character-themed cafes such as Hello Kitty Cafe, Line Friends Cafe, Kakao Friends Cafe and Sherlock Holmes Cafe. There is even a poop cafe!
The latest trend is do-it-yourself. You can learn how to make flower bouquets, craft your own rings, design your own mugs, etc. Who knows what’s available next?
17. Stay in a Hanok Hotel
Hanok (read: han-ok) is a traditional Korean house. As all of the traditional Korean architecture typically is, Hanok is built with environmentally friendly materials in harmony with the surroundings. Because of its beauty and novelty, a Hanok stay has become popular in recent years. You can easily find a wide range of options from a budget-friendly guest house to a modernized luxury hotel. Staying in hanok hotels would provide a unique opportunity to experience traditional Korean living for a few days.
↡↡ See My Hanok Hotel Recommendations. Click to check the availability and rates.↡↡What to Expect from Ryokan Stay - Traditional Japanese Hotel
18. Drink Traditional Tea
Although modern-day Koreans love to drink coffee, they have not completely forgotten the more traditional way of getting caffeine fixes. Korea traditionally had a strong tea culture, and it is not difficult to find tea houses in Seoul. You don’t have to go to Insadong or Samcheondong to find a legitimate one but might as well visit a nearby hanok village while at it.
19. Travel Outside of Seoul on a Themed Train
This one is technically not in Seoul. Rather, you get out of Seoul in the unique fashion - via a themed train. How about experiencing Korean floor-heating technology, ondol, on a train? West Gold Train will take you to the beautiful west coast destinations while you sit on ondol and pamper yourself in a foot spa (more info; only in Korean). Care for the panoramic view of the East Sea? Sea Train’s seats face glass box window, unveiling the scenic coastal line in front of your eyes during the entire ride. For wine lovers, just sip wine and party on the train, the Wine Tour train will take you to the winery in Youngdong, where you will be indulged with more wine (more info).
↡↡Need More Ideas for Day Trip from Seoul? Book These Tours! ↡↡
20. Visit DMZ
Another one technically not in Seoul. Korea is the last divided country in the world. Recent incidents heightened tensions in the peninsula, ironically piquing more interests to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ). DMZ is the closest place to North Korea you can get from South Korea. Here, you can actually peep at the other side through binoculars, hear propaganda from the North (if you can understand Korean), tour an underground infiltration tunnel secretly dug by North Koreans, and see North Korean and South Korean soldiers stand face to face at the JSA (Joint Security Area). Intrigued? Due to security concerns, you can only visit with a group tour. (More info: DMZ Tours, DMZ Peace Train.)
↡↡Book Your DMZ Tour Here! ↡↡Side note: If you are intrigued enough, you might want to watch Korean movies before you visit DMZ. I find them entertaining: Joint Security Area, Shiri. *** What did I miss? I'd love to hear about your experience and suggestions!