Things to Do in Seoul
Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no-man's-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. As a divided nation, only 2.5 miles (4 km) separate the North from the South at what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile (241-km) zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea that put the Korean War on hold.
Arguably the most beautiful and easily the biggest of Seoul’s five main palaces, Gyeongbokgung (also known as the Northern Palace) is one of South Korea’s must-visit attractions. Built in the 14th century, this is the oldest Joseon Dynasty palace in the nation, and it’s right in the heart of Jongno-Gu, the most culturally happening part of Seoul. Come for 600 years of history—and one brilliant changing of guards ceremony.
Seoul’s Trickeye Museum does just what it says: It teases your senses with an optical illusion technique calledtrompe l'oeil that gives two-dimensional works of art a 3-D appearance. This is also one of the few museums in the world that makes art interactive, so you’ll have a camera full of unique souvenirs to take home with you.
While the Jeongdong Theater only seats an audience of 282, the mark it has made on the Korean performing arts world rivals that of much larger venues. The first modern theater in Korea opened in 1995 and has since staged a wide variety of live performances, ranging from traditional Korean song and dance to more modern works.
Insadong is Seoul’s cultural and artistic hub—the place to shop for local crafts, visit a traditional Korean tea shop, or catch an impromptu street performance. The neighborhood, located in the Jongno-gu district, offers one of the largest antiques and craft markets in the country, with many shops and cafés housed in historic buildings.
Flanked by Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace—two of Seoul’s Joseon Dynasty palaces—Bukchon Hanok Village comprises hundreds of traditionalhanok houses that today are home to restaurants, teahouses, cultural centers, art galleries, and B&Bs. It’s one of the best places to experience a taste of old Seoul.
Seoul’s answer to Fifth Avenue in New York, Myeongdong Shopping Street teems with affordable brand name shops and department stores selling all varieties of clothing, shoes, and accessories. This retail mecca stretches from Myeongdong Subway Station to the Lotte Department Store and encompasses many of the surrounding streets and alleyways as well. For shoppers who’ve worked up an appetite, the area’s restaurants specialize in Korean pork cutlet (dongaseu) and noodle soup (kalguksu).
Head to the top of Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower) in hilly Namsan Park, the largest in Seoul, for some of the best panoramic views over the South Korean capital. The 777-foot (237-meter) tower offers three observation decks and half a dozen restaurants where you can soak in the views, day or night.
Whether you’re looking for street food, ginseng, jewelry, housewares, clothes, or souvenirs, you’ll find these (and just about everything else under the sun) in the stalls of Namdaemun Market. South Korea’s largest market is busy around the clock as locals and tourists rub elbows in search of the best deals.
Situated along an old stone road and tucked among a handful of Western-style buildings, Deoksugung Palace is the only one of Seoul’s five traditional Joseon palaces in the bustling neighborhood of Jung-gu. It’s also the only one open in the evening, when the grounds and buildings are illuminated.
More Things to Do in Seoul
For better or worse, Korean rapper PSY's 2012 hit song "Gangnam Style" has drawn the world's attention to Seoul and the district of Gangnam. Long before the K-pop hit rocketed to the top of the charts, Gangnam was already one of Seoul's hippest neighborhoods—a spot in the southern part of the city where the young come to see and be seen.
Known for the blue tiles that cover its roof, Seoul’s Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae or Cheongwadae) sits at the foot of Mount Bugaksan and is the official residence of South Korea’s president. The house was built in the traditional Korean architectural style within a Joseon Dynasty–era royal garden.
Running through the Korean Peninsula for more than 310 miles (500 kilometers), the Han River (Hangang) is one of the most important rivers in South Korea. As it flows through the heart of Seoul, the river has become a gathering place complete with recreational paths and riverside parks with playgrounds and cafés.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hwaseong Fortress was built between 1794 and 1796 by King Jeongjo for defensive purposes and to house the remains of his father, Crown Prince Jangheon. The unique architecture of the fort, which took more than 700,000 man-hours to build, incorporates elements from China and Korea.
The Third Tunnel of Aggression is one of four known tunnels situated within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea. Located more than 70 meters beneath the ground and at 265 meters long, the Third Tunnel of Aggression is a highlight of any DMZ tour.
The tunnel was built by North Korea in the 1970s, who initially denied its existence when South Korea discovered it later. The North were then said to have claimed it was a coal mine, before it was revealed that they had dug the tunnel in order to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. The South eventually took control of the tunnel, blocking off the demarcation line with the North via concrete barricades.
Although the Third Tunnel is now very much a tourist site (there’s even a gift shop near its entrance), it still remains guarded and taking photography is forbidden once inside. The tunnel passage is dark, long, and narrow, and it’s a steep incline to access it.
Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s first and oldest covered market, was originally the place to buy traditional Korean clothing items, such as hanbok. Though the market still specializes in textiles, it’s become one of Seoul’s biggest street food hot spots, where foodies can sample nearly any type of Korean cuisine under the same roof.
Always abuzz with energy and excitement, the district of Hongdae is known for its lively nightlife. Set on Seoul's western end near Hongik University, the area is home to quirky cafés, avant-garde art galleries, boutique shops, and gourmet eateries. It’s a popular spot for young locals, and a fascinating destination for visitors.
Set 16 feet (5 meters) below street level, the pedestrianized Cheonggyecheon stream runs east-west through the South Korean capital and ranks among the city’s best spots for walking and people watching. The 3.6-mile (5.8-kilometer) route through Seoul passes 22 bridges and several art installations and fountains (illuminated at night) along the way.
Petite France is a French-style cultural village set in the middle of the Korean countryside. It features a cluster of 16 French-style buildings on the hillside. The village can accommodate up to 200 guests overnight, and features an array of other attractions so that visitors can experience French food, culture, and daily life.
Ideal for those interested in French literature and film, Petite France has a memorial hall dedicated to the author of the French novel, Le Petit Prince, as well as a gallery showcasing various paintings and sculptures of the French national symbol. It features a number of shops and other places to enjoy various types of performances, including Guignol – the traditional French hand puppet performance.
Petite France is also home to the Goseong Youth Training Center.
Travelers to Korean Folk Village can explore 250 acres of natural landscape, dotted with 260 replica houses from the Joseon Dynasty. Learn about traditional foods, handicrafts, and clothing while visiting the workshops and open-air attractions; take in a live performance; or treat the kids to the rides and craft workshops in Play Village.
Namsangol Hanok Village brings to life the Joseon dynasty through five restored traditional Korean houses (called hanoks) that were relocated to the village from other parts of the city. Each house reflects a different stratum of society, from working-class to nobility. The site also hosts demonstrations, workshops, and live performances.
The star of Seoul’s five Joseon Dynasty palaces, Changdeokgung Palace was built by King Taejong in 1405 and designed to blend harmoniously with its natural surroundings. Today, the palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its ornate royal residence buildings and extensive tree-filled gardens.
Housed in the beautiful Joseon dynasty Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Folk Museum of Korea highlights the history, agriculture, and folk art of the Korean peninsula. The collection consists of nearly 100,000 artifacts, as well as some historical buildings and 20th-century structures in an open-air setting.
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