As soon as you arrive in Seoul, you’ll find yourself dodging crowds of determined commuters and wondering how bus drivers are able to move unfathomably quickly through what appears to be gridlocked traffic. As people and traffic rush past you, one thing is clear: You’ll need to move fast if you’re going to keep up in this thriving city.
The bali bali (quickly, quickly or “hurry up”) culture of Seoul is largely responsible for transforming the once war-torn city into a thriving metropolis within a matter of decades. With waves of skyscrapers, a world-class public transportation system and no shortage of locals setting fashion trends as they tap away on the world’s most cutting edge technology, it’s hard to believe Seoul was completely devastated by war 60 years ago.
Though Seoul has transformed from war-torn rubble to one of the world’s busiest cities, traces of Korea’s past are still sprinkled throughout the towering skyscrapers and business centers. Royal palaces, Buddhist temples and massive wooden gates–once the only ways in and out of the city–offer glimpses into traditional Korean life.
For the hurried traveler, Korea offers the best of the traditional and the modern in a single destination that’s quick to digest. In a single afternoon, visitors can stroll through the royal family’s secluded, 200-year-old gardens before watching chic fashionistas create tomorrow’s trends in Seoul’s hippest streets. Zipping between the past and present in Seoul is as easy as hopping on a subway car.
And with just 48 hours to take in the city, bali bali.
Seoul Day 1
Kick off your two-day trip by exploring Korea’s past at a few of the more traditional sites in the city. Seoul’s royal palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, are within walking distance of each other and offer distinct experiences. Gyeongbokgung is the larger of the two and, with royal guards dressed in full costume and frequent guard changing ceremony, attracts larger crowds. If your visit to Seoul lands on a national holiday, Gyeongbokgung will likely be holding a festival or performance in celebration. Other days, you can walk the palace grounds to view royal chambers, pagodas and Hyangwonjeong Pond. The palace is also home to the National Folk Museum of Korea, which has miniature exhibits of traditional events such as marriage ceremonies and kimchi making.
Changdeokgung is Gyeongbokgung’s low-key counterpart, offering a more intimate—and often less crowded—experience. Changdeokgung was a favorite retreat for royals, and with its well-preserved architecture and lush gardens, locals often say Changdeokgung is the more beautiful of the two palaces.
While you’re in the area, be sure to visit Jongmyo Shrine. This Confucian royal shrine is the oldest of its kind and houses spirit tablets that belonged to Korea’s late kings and queens.
These sites are close enough and distinct enough that it’s worth visiting all three in one morning. If you choose to visit all three, be sure to purchase the “Integrated Ticket of Palaces” pass, which is good for both palaces and the shrine.
As lunchtime approaches, head to the traditional neighborhood of Insadong. Vegans will enjoy the many Buddhist restaurants in the area, such as Sanchon, a Buddhist restaurant, or Osegye Hyang, a more contemporary vegetarian option. Meat eaters should check out nearby eateries like Sawon, where you’ll dine in true royal court fashion, or Gung, which specializes in Korean dumplings.
After lunch, take a leisurely stroll through the streets of Insadong. Storefronts on the main drag are filled with crafts made from traditional paper (hanji), antiques, pottery and other folk wares worthy of suitcase space. As you make your way through Insadong, keep an eye out for one of several stalls with workers making sweets that look like hundreds of white threads. These treats, called dragon’s beard candy, were a royal court favorite. The workers at these stalls will entertain you with an English presentation of how they turn a block of honey into thousands of tiny strands in mere minutes. Of course, they’ll also offer you samples of the freshly-concocted candies.
With your sweet tooth satisfied, it’s time to make your way to the next stop on your Seoul itinerary: Jogyesa Temple. This temple in the heart of downtown creates a rare sanctuary amid the noise of a city center. Jogyesa is the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul and is also home to the city’s largest Buddhist shrine. Here, you’ll find yourself mingling with both tourists and Buddhist worshippers. Join in on a prayer or just take a moment to enjoy the 500-year-old trees and stone pagodas.
After a day of tradition, it’s time to get a little more modern by taking in one of Seoul’s contemporary comedies. Head to the Gangbuk JeongDong NANTA Theatre in Jung-gu and purchase tickets to “NANTA,” a live performance that combines a few hapless chefs, traditional Korean music and a little mayhem to split your sides. Leave all your hesitations about language barriers at the door—the story to this largely nonverbal performance is easily understood by way of body language and context.
With your cheeks still filled with laughter from the show, hail a taxi and head toward the west end of the city to Hongdae. The local students and artists who frequent this neighborhood fill the local stores and flea markets with their handmade crafts, bringing a creative energy to Hongdae that’s unmatched throughout the city. At night, Hongdae boasts one of the city’s busiest nightlife scenes as dance clubs fill the streets with thumping bass lines and catchy dance beats. Take your pick of dozens of bars and clubs in Hongdae and be sure to pop into a noraebang (singing room) before calling it a night.
Seoul Day 2
Your second day in Seoul begins at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan-gu. This museum holds more than 15,000 historical artifacts and artwork, including a number of Korea’s national treasures. Among the prized cultural artifacts are a gold crown from the 5th-century Shilla Kingdom, a 12th-century celadon incense burner and a ten-story pagoda built in 1938.
After touring the National Museum, brush up on more recent history with a stop at the War Memorial of Korea. Here, you can climb aboard the collection of tanks, ships and planes that rest on the memorial grounds and discover the story of the war. Spend a silent moment walking through the black marble walls outside the building entrance, where Korea pays tribute to the countries who came to South Korea’s aid during the war and their fallen countrymen.
From the War Memorial, head north to one of the country’s oldest traditional markets. Namdaemun Market is nothing short of an outdoor shopping frenzy where you can anything from clothes and bedding to kitchenware and spices. With Korean souvenirs and knickknacks as far as the eye can see, Namdaemun is the best place in the city to stock up on gifts for loved ones back home. Namedaemun is also a great place to eat, whether you want to eat a home-cooked bowl of noodles in a back alley or feast on street food as you wander the aisles.
After lunch, cross the street into Myeongdong and go from traditional to trendy. The streets of Myeongdong are filled with beauty stores, fashion brands and trendy accessories, many of which won’t find their way onto American runways for another season.
By now, the blinking tower atop the mountain behind you has likely caught your eye. That blinking tower, officially known as N Seoul Tower, is your next stop. A cable car takes you above the city and to the tower entrance. There, you can enter the observatory for 360-degree views of Seoul. Outside, couples fill the courtyard areas as they put their “love locks” on the fencing surrounding the tower, a romantic tradition in the city.
N Seoul Tower has plenty of dining options, including N Grill, a rotating restaurant, on the top floor. Other options include Hancook, a traditional Korean restaurant, and Café Swee Tree, which serves sandwiches, salads and coffee.
As your Seoul excursion comes to an end, unwind like the locals do at a local jjimjilbang, or public bathhouse. A trip to a jjimjilbang is typically an all-day affair for locals on Sundays, when the entire family spends a slow day soaking, steaming and sleeping in these 24-hour spas.
One of the most foreigner-friendly jjimjilbangs in Seoul is Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan-gu. After paying an admission fee, you’ll be given a bracelet, a set of clothes and two lockers: one for your shoes and the other for your clothes. First, you’ll undress in a gender-segregated shower area and scrub down. After your shower, feel free to soak in the various mineral-infused waters. The locals will tell you to switch between hot and cold baths to improve your circulation, so see how long you can endure the ice cold waters before retreated to a heated tub.
After you’ve sufficiently soaked, change into the set of jjimjilbang clothes and head to the main unisex area. Here, you can choose between a handful of dry saunas, each varying in temperature and minerals. Some jjimjilbangs even have ice rooms where you can literally chill out.
If you get hungry, most jjimjilbangs have onsite restaurants serving common Korean dishes. Many jjimjilbangs even have computer stations, noraebangs and massage services available. There’s no need to carry cash to pay for these services; just use the bracelet you were given at check-in to charge services to your tab.
Book a Seoul cooking class for an experience you can recreate at a home.
After two days of traveling bali bali-style around the city, allow the experiences of the last 48 hours to sink in during these last few moments of relaxation.
- Marissa Willman