If you're new here, my name's Nate. My wife (Kara) and I are full-time travel YouTubers on a mission to visit 100 countries by 2019. South Korea was our 62nd country, and it is without a doubt one of our favorite countries we have ever visited!
If you're making plans to visit Seoul, South Korea, we want to make sure you have an incredible experience just like we did. That's why we've put together a guide of 9 Things You MUST DO on Your First Trip to Seoul. Even if it's not your first time visiting Seoul, I bet there are one or two things on this list that you've never done before!
The Top 9 Things to Do in Seoul, South Korea
1. Visit the Noryangjin Fish Market AND Fish Auction
Our favorite experience in Seoul was visiting the Noryagjin Fish Market! If you visit the market you'll see hundreds of different types of LIVE sea creatures that you never knew existed. Plus, you can buy the fresh seafood from any of the vendors, and have it cooked at the market.
I believe the market is busiest in the morning and early afternoon, but it's open 24 hours a day. We visited the market around 6 p.m. There wasn't a lot of action going on, but there were still plenty of fish to be seen and eaten.
One of the most unique dishes that you can try when visiting Seoul is live octopus. They cut it up right in front of you, and you eat it while the tentacles are still moving. If you're brave enough, it will be one of your most memorable moments of your trip!
The best place to try live octopus is definitely the Noryangjin Fishmarket. You can purchase your live octopus straight from one of the vendors and pay around $5 for one of the small restaurants in the market to prepare it for you! If you're really brave, you can purchase a penis fish to accompany your Octopus...
Click play on the video to know what to expect when visiting the market and eating live octopus!
(video coming soon)
In addition to visiting the market, you should also go to the HUGE fish auction that happens inside of the market every morning starting at 3 a.m.. Kara and I showed up to the auction around 3:30 a.m. and it was still going when we left at 5:30 a.m..
Unfortunately, the metro doesn't run between 12 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., so you need to find an alternative form of transportation to get to the auction. If you don't mind shelling out some money, the easiest way to get to the market would be a taxi. Being budget conscious travelers, Kara and I decided to take the night bus. You can learn more about the night bus routes here.
Admittedly, waking up at 3 a.m. and taking a bus or taxi across town is a bit of pain. However, I can guarantee you that the experience will be totally worth it! We didn't see any other tourists the entire time we were there! It was one of the most authentic travel moments we have ever experienced. From an outsider's perspective, the market looks like sheer chaos with live fish flopping around everywhere, but after watching for a little while you'll come to understand the system and you'll be impressed by the organized chaos!
2. Go to a Riverside Park for Fried Chicken and Beer
We had been told that it was "a thing" to go to a park along the Han River in the evening and have a picnic made up of fried chicken and beer. We really didn't know what to expect, but one Friday night we decided to go check it out for ourselves. We showed up to the river around 7 p.m., and boy were we surprised! As soon as we emerged from the metro exit closest to the park, we were immediately bombarded with ladies handing us paper fliers promoting (what felt like) every fried chicken restaurant in Seoul. No joke I ended up with 15+ flyers less than a minute after exiting the subway.
I believe most of the locals use these flyers to order their chicken and get it delivered to the river. Unfortunately, we didn't have a Korean sim card so we couldn't call. Even if we could have called, we don't speak Korean. So we ended up wandering a few blocks away from the river to order our chicken directly from a restaurant.
Once we arrived back at the massive park, we were shocked to see literally thousands of people picnicking in the park. They take their picnicking seriously in Seoul. Many groups had full-blown camping tents set up! We found a small patch of grass close to the river and spent the next couple of hours people watching and enjoying our delicious chicken. Korean fried chicken is seriously good stuff!
This is another super local experience that you can't have anywhere else in the world. I highly recommend devoting one of your evenings to eating fried chicken the park!
(video coming soon)
3. Gyeongbokgung Palace & Bukchon Hanok Village
Admittedly, Kara and I are not history buffs. Most of our travel experiences focus on food and adventure. However, we can highly recommend visiting the Gyeongbokgung Palace! The palace is actually one of the few places that I would recommend going to on the weekend when it's most crowded.
If the weather is good, everyone rents traditional costumes and walks around taking pictures in the palace. I can only assume that this is a new tradition that has become increasingly popular with the rise of social media. Either way, watching people walk around in traditional dress really adds to the experience.
There is also a changing of the guards ceremony that happens at the palace. It's a reenactment of old traditions, but it's quite impressive and definitely worth seeing! We caught the 2 p.m. ceremony, but you don't have to go at 2 p.m. They do it multiple times per day. You can learn the times of the ceremonies here.
When you plan your visit to the palace, you should also set aside an hour or two to walk around Bukchon Hanok Village. It's a traditional village a short walk away from the palace.We had read a lot about Bukchon Hanok before visiting, so we had high expectations. But if we're being completely honest, we were a little underwhelmed by the village. However, it's definitely worth visiting if you go into with the right expectations. Go expecting to walk around this picturesque neighborhood for 30 minutes to an hour and take some good pictures!
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4. Visit Two of Seoul's Most Popular Markets (Namdaemun Market & Gwangjang Market)
The Namdaemun Market is the largest traditional market in South Korea! It's huge! You can find all sorts of stuff at this market ranging from kitchen supplies to cheesy souvenirs. If you like to shop, or you just have a few people at home expecting souvenirs, this open-air market is definitely worth a visit. Kara and I love walking around local markets, and Namdaemun did not disappoint. Even if you don't need to buy anything, it's worth going to walk around and experience the vibe.
If there's one thing the Namdaemun market is missing, it's food. But don't worry, the Gwangjang Market has you covered. This market is dedicated to delicious food, and unlike the fish market most of the food here is cooked!
The Gwangjang Market is a covered market made of at least 100 food stalls! The biggest issue you'll face when visiting the market is deciding what to eat, so I'll help you out! Don't leave the market without having a bowl of chopped noodle and dumpling soup and at least one deep fried Korean pancake! If you're really feeling brave you can try the pork foot!
(video coming soon)
5. Go to One of The Oddly Themed Cafes
Seoul has a plethora of unique cafes! I had a list of several that we wanted to visit, but unfortunately, Kara and I ran out of time to visit any of them! Hopefully, you can go check out at least one of them and let us know what we missed out on. Below is a list of the 5 most interesting cafes I came across when researching online!
Blind Alley Cafe - If drinking coffee with a raccoon sounds fun, this is the place for you!
Thanks Nature Cafe - If you'd rather pet a sheep while you sip your cappuccino, go here.
Hongdae Meerkat Cafe - Maybe you prefer enjoying your latte with a meerkat?
Poop Cafe - Enough with the animals, if you'd rather drink your coffee out of tiny toilet, you can do that too.
6. Visit The Korean War Museum
Once again, Kara and I are not into history, but the Korean War Museum was awesome! It's one of the best museums we have ever been to, and it's completely free! If you want to gain a deeper understanding of Korea's past and learn why the Koreas are separated into two countries, I highly recommend devoting at least a couple hours to the Korean War Museum!
Plus, outside of the museum they have over 50 retired military vehicles on display, and they'll even let you climb inside a few of them!
(video coming soon)
7. Spend The Night at a Jimjilbang (A Korean Spa)
Where to start... to enter the spa you have to be completely naked, so this experience is not for the self-conscious. However, if you're willing to embrace the awkwardness of being naked with a bunch of Korean strangers, this could the most memorable experience of your entire trip. But wait! It gets weirder. It's actually really common in Korea to spend the night at the spa. On the tile floor... After eating smoked eggs...
One night Kara and I spent 5 hours at the jimjilbang from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., so instead of trying to explain the bizarre experience in words, I'll just let you watch the video!
If you're brave enough to try to recreate our jimjilbang experience for yourself, we visited the Dragon Hill Spa, but the Siloam Spa is also very popular. Do your research to decide which one to visit. I'm sure you'll have a good time at either place!
8. Visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Between North and South Korea
The DMZ isn't technically in Seoul, but it's an easy day trip so I'm including it in this guide! The DMZ is a 4 km wide stretch of land that runs the length of the North and South Korean border. When you visit the DMZ you'll have the opportunity to actually step into North Korea. There is a neutral conference room that sits on the border between the two countries. When you enter the conference room you're in South Korea, but once you cross the table in the middle of the room you are "technically" in North Korea.
You can't go to the DMZ alone. You have to go with a guided tour (make sense). There are a ton of companies reselling DMZ tours, but from what I understand there are only three companies who are actually allowed to operate tours in the DMZ. One of those companies actually running the tours is Koridoor Tours. We had read a ton of good reviews about the company, so we ended up booking a tour with them, and we're glad we did! We had a great experience! If you want to see what the tour was like, you can watch the video! In addition to getting to stand in North Korea, we also got to visit a secret tunnel that North Korea dug under the border, and we went to an observation deck where we could look into the North Korean Propaganda Village with high powered binoculars.
(video coming soon)
If you're worried about safety, you should know that over 100,000 tourists per year visit the DMZ. Obviously, I can't guarantee your safety during the tour, but they wouldn't let that many people visit the DMZ if bad things were happening!
9. EAT EVERYTHING
The food in South Korea is INCREDIBLE! Seoul is our new favorite "food city" in the world! Besides the live octopus, we didn't have a bad meal the entire week! Everything we put in our mouth was delicious!
This definitely is not a comprehensive food guide to Seoul. We were only there for a week, and I'm pretty sure you could eat at a different restaurant every day for the rest of your life in Seoul. However, I did want to share with you a few of the meals and restaurants we really enjoyed!
One of our top foodie experiences in Seoul was eating our way through the Myeongdong Night Market. At 5 p.m. every evening over 100 street food vendors converge in the Myeongdong District rolling their carts into the streets and setting up shop for the night! We did our best to try all of the delicious foods in one evening, but we didn't even come close. The highlight of the evening was a mixture of thinly sliced pork belly and green onions on a skewer cooked on a grill, topped with spicy sauce, and finished off with a blow torch! It was incredible!
There are two other restaurants in the Myeongdong District that we can highly recommend. The first is called Myeongdong Kyoja. If you're looking for the most delicious dumplings and noodle soup in Seoul, you just may find it here.
We also recommend checking out Yoogane in Myeongdong. They serve a spicy chicken dish called Dak Galbi that is prepared right at your table! Your waiter will bring raw meat, veggies, and spicy sauce to your table, mix them all together, and cook the delicious concoction on a griddle that sits in the middle of your table. Apparently, there's a version that comes with cheese, we didn't know about this until after we ate, but that would have been a great addition to the dish!
Of course, no trip to South Korea would be complete without eating Korean BBQ. This is a hands-on experience. You cook the meat yourself right at your table. Then, they'll bring you 5+ side dishes and a plate of lettuce leaves. We learned that you're supposed to use the leaves like a taco shell. You lay your cooked meat and a few sides on top of the lettuce leaf and then roll it up and eat the whole thing in one bite. At least I think that's how you do it. You can watch us struggle through the experience in the video below.
(video coming soon)
Soju isn't a food, its an extremely popular drink! It was rare to see a dinner table without a bottle (or three) accompanying the meal. It's rice liquor that is steeped in tradition. Watch the other tables carefully and you'll notice that no one pours their own glass, and as soon as someone's glass is empty, it won't stay empty for long. A friend is always there to fill it up!
Unfortunately, we weren't able to try everything we wanted to while in Seoul, but maybe you can! Things we didn't make it around to trying but came highly recommended by our viewers include:
Bingsu - Super Fancy Shaved Ice
Bokkumbop - Fried Korean Rice
Bulgogi - Some type of beef/rice hotpot dish
Hotteok - A deep fried dough stuff with savory or sweet filling
What to Expect When Visiting Seoul, South Korea
That about wraps up our top things to do in Seoul! If you're getting ready to travel to Seoul for the first time, and you want to get an idea of what to expect on your trip, I highly recommend checking out our Seoul video series!