Seoul, the Korean capital, is one of the most exhilarating cities in the world. Hidden amongst the chaotic karaoke rooms, frenzied street markets, and sleek high rises are tranquil pockets of peace, tiny tea houses, and sprawling green spaces. This is a slick, modern city that’s threaded through with timeless traditions and ancient history – a beautiful juxtaposition that will get under your skin.

Exploring this bustling metropolis can be overwhelming, and often feels like an assault on the senses; glaring neon lights illuminate the night sky, the scent of spicy food wafts on the breeze, and the shouts of animated market vendors echo through the streets. There’s so much to see and do here, in fact, that you can spend weeks exploring and still barely scratch the surface.

So, if you’re keen to visit Seoul, you might want to make things a bit easier for yourself by identifying some of the most unmissable sights and attractions – and, luckily, we’re here to help. From soaring towers to historic palaces, here are 10 things to see and do in Seoul.

1. Taste your way around Gwangjang Market

Taste your way around Gwangjang Market

The street food in Seoul is some of the best in the world, and it’s particularly known for its deep, spicy flavours, variety, and affordability. The best place to try these delicious, diverse dishes is Gwangjang Market, which is one of the oldest and largest traditional markets in the city. A foodie hotspot for over 100 years, this covered market is home to some of the country’s best street snacks.

To experience the variety of Korean food, try to sample as much as you can. Popular snacks include tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes in a spicy sauce), bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), mandu (Korean dumplings), pajeon (green onion pancake), mayak gimbap (seaweed rolls), and hotteok (brown sugar and cinnamon pancakes).

2. Admire the views from N Seoul Tower

Admire the views from N Seoul Tower

One of the best ways to get your bearings in a new city is to head up to the tallest tower and admire the views – and this is definitely a ‘must-do’ activity in Seoul. The 239-metre-tall N Seoul Tower sits at the centre of the city on the summit of Namsan, Seoul’s resident mountain. The views from the bottom are pretty impressive, but from the top of the tower, they’re truly eye-boggling.

The tower looks rather like a rocket about to take off and, at the top, there’s a digital observatory and a fancy revolving restaurant. Why not kick off your experience by taking a cable car to the tower before admiring the views from the top? The panorama is dazzling at any time, but for the best experience, head here before sunset to watch the glittering transition from day to night.

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3. Go hiking in Bukhansan National Park

Go hiking in Bukhansan National Park

Few capital cities are lucky enough to have a national park right on their doorstep, but Seoul is, and the sensational Bukhansan National Park is another reason why this city is so special. Located on the outskirts of the city, Bukhansan is the world’s most visited national park per unit area, according to the Guinness Book of Records – which makes sense, given its accessibility and great transport links.

Here, you’ll find jagged granite peaks, undulating pine forests, and over 1300 species of plants and animals, as well as many storied temples – so hikes here are as interesting as they are scenic. There are plenty of hiking trails that weave their way through the park, and if you fancy a challenge, the five-hour hike to the summit of Bukhansan will reward you with splendid views of Seoul.

4. Explore Gyeongbokgung Palace

Explore Gyeongbokgung Palace

Seoul has not one but five main palaces and if you only have time to visit one, then Gyeongbokgung Palace – the largest and arguably most important – is your best bet. Painted in vivid shades of red and jade, and boasting ornate architecture, peaceful pagodas, and maze-like grounds that are dotted with serene ponds and delicate cherry trees, the palace complex is truly spectacular.

Originally built in the 14th century, the palace was destroyed in the Imjin War and rebuilt in the 18th century and, as you explore, you’ll learn lots about Korean history. You can watch the changing of the Royal Guard in front of Gwanghwamun Gate and, after, visit the fascinating National Folk Museum of Korea. Plus, if you wear a hanbok, the Korean traditional dress, your visit to the palace is free.

5. Visit Bukchon Hanok Village

Visit Bukchon Hanok Village

Not far from the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex is Bukchon Hanok Village – and, if you visit the palace, it’s worth adding this to your itinerary immediately after. Home to more than 400 beautiful hanoks (traditional Korean houses with graceful sloping roofs), strolling around this historic district feels like stepping back in time – or wandering onto a film set.

There are museums and lots of quirky boutiques in the village, so it’s an excellent place to pick up some souvenirs – and there are also lots of elegant tea houses where you can enjoy some traditional rice tea. If you like, you can stay overnight in the village and get a taste of what life was like in old Seoul. Some of the hanoks have been turned into cosy guest houses with pretty courtyards.

6. Stroll through Insadong

Stroll through Insadong

If your favourite way of getting to know a new city is simply by strolling the streets and seeing where you end up, then Insadong is a must. Located in the historic district of Jongno-gu, Insadong is easily the most popular part of the city with tourists. Losing yourself in its labyrinth of narrow streets isn’t only fun, but it’ll also help you gain new insight into Korean culture.

Insadong is a place where traditional meets modern, and the lively streets are packed with pretty tea houses, art galleries, quaint trinket shops, authentic restaurants, and market stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. Insadong-gil, the neighbourhood’s main street, is one of the best places to buy souvenirs, and there are plenty of lovely cafes to relax and refuel in if you need a break.

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7. Go shopping in Myeong-dong

Go shopping in Myeong-dong

Myeongdong is another popular tourist hotspot and, if you enjoy shopping – or you’re a fan of Korean fashion and beauty – you’ll want to hit up Seoul’s most famous shopping district. This dense lattice of streets is packed with deluxe department stores and sleek cosmetic boutiques, so picking up some revitalising facial masks, or treating yourself to fancy new skincare, is a must!

If all that shopping leaves you peckish, there are countless themed eating places, including the iconic Hello Kitty cafe, and the candy-coloured Pink Pool Cafe. When you’re done shopping and eating, there are some other sights in the area that are worth a glance too. For example, Myeongdong Cathedral was Korea’s first large Christian place of worship, and nearby you’ll find the Bank of Korea Museum.

8. Visit Changdeokgung Palace

Visit Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung is the second-largest Joseon palace in Seoul, but it’s considered to be the most beautiful. Built in 1395 as the secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung became the city’s principal palace following Gyeongbokgung’s destruction in the 1590s, and it remained the main royal residence until 1872. Today, this gorgeous palace complex is a UNESCO world heritage site.

You’ll need to join a one-hour guided tour to look around, but it’s certainly worth it. Aside from the palace buildings, the complex is home to a gorgeous garden complete with landscaped lawns, a lotus pond, and ornate pavilions. In spring, the cherry blossoms are dazzling; and, in autumn, the fiery foliage is equally sensational. If you have time, find a quiet spot to sit and savour the scenery.

9. Stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream

Stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream

If you’re visiting in the height of summer, be sure to leave time for a stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream. Running for nearly seven miles through the heart of the city, this pretty waterway is adorned with landscaped walkways and footbridges, tumbling waterfalls, and all kinds of public artworks, and serves as an exhibition and festival area, as well as providing respite from the hustle and bustle.

The stream was covered by a raised highway after the Korean War but, in 2005, the city decided to refresh the area and reintroduce the stream, and it’s been a popular spot with locals ever since. In summer, you’ll find people dangling their feet in the water, while in the evenings it’s an ideal spot for a romantic walk. During festivals and holidays, the stream is packed with illuminations and artworks.

10. Visit some museums

Visit some museums

Like any capital city worth its salt, Seoul has several excellent museums and, if you have time, you should add at least a couple to your itinerary. Art enthusiasts will want to check out the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which boasts an excellent collection of traditional Korean art. The National Museum of Korea is also one of the most-visited museums in the world, and well worth a visit too.

However, the Korea Furniture Museum is considered to be one of Seoul’s best-kept secrets, and the grounds and architecture are a joy to explore. Filled with over 2,000 historical relics, the furniture is exhibited in fabulous reconstructions of historic Korean homes, allowing you to get a real insight into South Korean lifestyles, histories, and culture. Pre-booking a tour is a must, however!

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Final thoughts…

Bustling, historic, modern and creative, Seoul makes a wonderful addition to any travel bucket list – and its exceptional transport system, mouthwatering cuisine, and warm, welcoming locals just make the experience even more enjoyable.

If you’re interested in visiting Seoul but would like to tick other places or countries off at the same time, you’re in luck, as there are many wonderful ways you can explore.

Travel Department offers a fantastic 11-night small group tour of South Korea, where you’ll visit all the best sights in Seoul as well as Busan. Wendy Wu also offers a 13-night scenic South Korea tour that takes you to Seoul, Busan, gorgeous countryside, and UNESCO world heritage-listed forests.

Or why not explore Seoul as part of a larger Southeast Asia cruise? Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 14-night Far East Cruise takes you to South Korea, Japan, and China, and this once-in-a-lifetime travel experience will allow you to explore some of the best sights in Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai.

For further reading, check out our article; 10 places to visit and things to do in Japan.

Have you been to Seoul? Or are you thinking of going? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.