It pays to have connections.
In the travel world, that translates to locals or former locals that can get you on the insider track. They are worth their weight in gold when you only have one full day in a new city.
I know several people that have lived in Seoul or Korea, and one of them happens to be Ben! Another is Christine Ka’aloa of Grrrltraveler.com. If you’re looking for people you can trust for travel advice, you can’t do much better than your own husband and a top travel blogger! All of the information you’re about to read was suggested by those two (check out Christine’s articles on Seoul, especially 9 Places to Make You Fall in Love with Seoul, for more details).
Without further intro, here are our suggestions for what to do with one day in Seoul:
Seoul is a city of coffee lovers; the ubiquitous cafes help the locals make it through long, frosty winters. Follow their lead and start your day with a cuppa. Starbucks is here, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, too, yet why not try local brands Tom n Toms or Caffe Bene? Better yet, find your way to an independent theme cafe (Hello Kitty, anyone?).
Properly fueled, you’ll be ready for a high-energy Korean sport: shopping. Although no longer quite the bargain extravaganza that it used to be (look further afield than Seoul for that), go through the motions for the pure sensory overload. Wind your way through the gigantic Namdaemun Market, losing yourself in entire streets of electronics, food stuffs, kitchenware, clothing, and more. Throngs of people jostle their way between stalls, leaning their shoulders into you with a swift butt when they need to move past. Food vendors’ stalls fill the air with smells salty, sweet, tangy and bitter.
I couldn’t resist investigating the purse situation, so made my way into a tiny store. When the proprietor realized I didn’t see anything I fancied, he invited me upstairs. Hermes, Chanel, Prada, and Louis smiled back at me. Gone was the shoddy bench of the lower floor: this room featured plush carpet and a gorgeous couch. Eagerly, he showed me a book of purse styles, indicating that I could order whichever high-quality knockoff I desired. Birkin Bag? No problem. Chanel 2.55? You got it! For only $255! He even showed me how they manufactured their fake logos (Chanel, for instance, is two interlocking circles. Cut off a portion of each, and they transform into the trademarked interlocking Cs).
But no … no. I moved on. Next up is Myeongdong, just a block apart and yet worlds away from the hagglers’ paradise of the wholesale market. Retail stores you’ll recognize (Nike, Body Shop, Fresh, H&M, Zara, Aldo, etc.) seem completely outdone by the glittery facades of their Korean counterparts. As with most shopping districts, every other store seems to be a skincare or cosmetics shop. Not just Korean girls, but Korean boys, too, take their skincare and makeup very seriously! This is the country that invented BB (beauty balm) cream, after all.
If shopping is the kind of activity that sends you running for the hills, then pre-plan and set up a free guided tour of Seoul from a local “Goodwill Guide” via the Korea Tourism Office (the volunteers work off of tips). Otherwise, skip ahead and enjoy a longer stay at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Taxi or metro north to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for five centuries (late 14th century to late 19th century). Tour the grounds or sit in one place and mesmerize yourself with the intricate, colorful woodwork exteriors. Just make sure you’re finished and out front by 1:00 p.m. for the changing of the royal guards at Gwanghwamun Gate. (They change three times a day, at 10:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m.)
Directly across from the gate is the incredibly long Gwanghwamun Plaza, which on Sundays from March until November houses a large flea market and farmers market.
Walk or taxi east to Insadong, a district filled with traditional crafts shops, local artisans … and abundant street food. Eat your way through the two or so blocks, from south to north. Afterwards, continue directly north uphill into Bukchon until you reach the Tourist Office, where you can pick up a map and learn the route to Bukchon Hanok Village.
As if frozen in time, this “village” within the heart of metropolitan Seoul is made up of hanok, or traditional houses, and provides a glimpse into the urban architecture of the Joseon Dynasty. Many are still used as residences, while others are restaurants or arts spaces. If you’re up for a lesson, head to the Bukchon Traditional Crafts Experience Center for classes in – you guessed it – traditional Korean crafts.
After ascending through the walled alleys of the village (pictoral highlights are noted on the tourist map), make your way to #8, the stone stair alley leading to Samcheongdong. Here you can descend (finally!) into one of the sweetest, trendiest areas of Seoul, filled with cafes, restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and people strolling hand-in-hand. It’s all-around fantastic street life, and the perfect venue to enjoy something refreshing after the hilly climb of Bukchon.
This juxtaposition of the ancient and ultra-modern is what most fascinates me about Seoul. Throughout the city, segments of ancient walls or “gates” (towering structures that broke the uniformity of stone walls) pop up amidst glossy skyscrapers. Though they’re everywhere, they managed to surprise me every time.
When darkness falls, the ideal place to be is ex-red-light-district Itaewon. Once famous for “hooker hill,” tailor shops, and bars catering to the nearby U.S. Army base, Itaewon has been thoroughly gentrified. It’s now hip, and its back streets are filled with chic bars and restaurants just as the mom-and-pop stores of its main street are being forced out by brand-name chains. For the meantime, both co-exist, staying open late into the night to capture each and every last sale.
Itaewon is the current nexus of Turks in Seoul: doner kebab stands and Middle Eastern restaurants find their way onto every block. If you don’t eat at one of them, or at the “in” restaurants west of the main street, then indulge in Korean barbecue (or “beef in a leaf”), where the meat is cooked right at your table prior to being rolled into a leaf along with an array of vegetable choices and, yes, kimchi.
To round out your Seoul experience, end the evening with some soju, a clear distilled rice and/or grain beverage similar to sake. Sip it plain in the traditional shot glasses, or head to a soju bar to sample the many fruity versions, cocktail creations, or icy slushies. Just one last word to the wise: soju is notoriously dangerous! Though it might go down easily, its alcohol percentage can vary from 16% to 45%, and there will always be someone nearby to pour you just one … last … teensy tiny glass.