South Korea was once an afterthought on a trip to Asia—an overlooked peninsula wedged between the cultural powerhouses that are China and Japan. But with the rise of Korean culture in music, beauty, and film, the Hallyu wave has washed a tsunami of interest in Korea around the globe.
Whether your time in the city is due to a long layover at the Seoul airport before traveling elsewhere in Asia, or the capital itself is your final destination, these are the ten things to do in Seoul, South Korea.
1 – Indulge in a Korean-Style Body Scrub
Visiting Seoul would be incomplete without a stop at a jjimjilbang (Korean sauna). These bathing temples can range from a room with a small heated pool to multi-story destinations filled with saunas, steam rooms, hot and cold pools, restaurants, arcades, and salons.
But small and large jjimjilbang offer seshin (Korean body scrubs), leaving your skin feeling newly minted. After soaking in warm water, you’ll be vigorously scrubbed with a “Korean Italy towel,” a cloth made from viscose that feels like sandpaper.
Though it’s a little gross to see the dead skin flake away as you proceed through the treatment, afterward, you’ll emerge even smoother and sleeker than a baby’s backside. Check out Insadong Spa & Sauna or the female-only Spa Lei for a genuinely authentic seshin experience.
2 – Shop for Beauty Products in Myeong-Dong
K-Beauty is an international sensation. The country’s proliferation of serums, creams, gels, lotions, and mask sheets is renowned for giving Koreans some of the world’s most beautiful and glowing skin. You can find these little pots, jars, and packets of magic in beauty stores across the city, but nowhere are they more prevalent than in the bustling streets of Myeong-Dong.
This lively shopping district is known for trendy fashion labels, cheap street food, and the dozens of cosmetics and beauty shops that line its mazelike streets. Some popular brands include Olive Young, Etude House, and Innisfree.
3 – Sip Yourself Healthy With Tea Therapy
Buddhist monks brought tea culture from China into Korea as early as the seventh century. Since then, tea has been used in Korea for relaxation, cultural connection, and healing. In fact, you can even undergo tea therapy in a unique cafe of the same name that a certified traditional medicine doctor owns. The hybrid space, set in the home of a former president, is also a clinic and a school that offers tea tastings and classes.
Upon entering, each client’s symptoms are matched to a different herbal tea blend to treat conditions such as stress, insomnia, digestion, and headaches. For those interested in diving deeper, sign up for one of the tea blending classes on offer.
4 – Dress in a Hanbok While Walking The Palace Grounds
The most anachronistic experience in Seoul is to rent a colorful hanbok to wear as you stroll the grounds of Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung palaces. The flowing chima (skirt) or baji (trousers) paired with the short jeogori (jacket) creates a classic silhouette against the backdrop of the 14th-century palaces and makes for stunning Instagrammable content.
Don’t miss the changing of the royal guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace, and be sure to check out the idyllic Secret Garden when visiting Changdeokgung Palace. As a bonus, anyone wearing a hanbok gets free entry into the palace grounds.
Note: The palaces are open all year, but for the most beautiful Seoul weather, plan your visit for spring or fall.
5 – Hike in Bukhansan National Park
Bukhansan National Park is on Seoul’s doorstep and is the country’s most popular hiking destination. The picturesque streams, craggy granite summits, and stunning cityscapes combined with easily accessible trails make the national park a perfect day trip from anywhere in Seoul.
The 2,743-foot-tall Baegundae is the tallest peak in the 31-square-mile park, which acts as an ecological island amidst the surrounding urban areas.
There’s plenty to see in Bukhansan, including a 2,000-year-old fortress, 100 Buddhist temples, and over 1,300 species of plants and animals.
6 – Spend The Night in a Buddhist Temple
Those looking to do some soul-searching can spend the night in a temple. Temple stay programs are popular for visitors to step back in time and experience a Buddhist monk's serenity, peace, and meditative lifestyle.
Generally ranging from one to three nights, a temple stay program often includes meditation, chanting, tea ceremonies, and typical monastic activities such as prostrations.
Expect to dress in a simple tunic and pants (which are provided) and join the monks for vegetarian meals. Seoul has seven temple stay options, including the popular International Seon Center and the Myogaksa temple stays.
7 – Eat Korean Street Food
From red-bean-paste-filled fish-shaped doughnuts to pigs’ feet or silkworm larvae, Korean street food is a smorgasbord of texture and flavor. Food stall markets began in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty in the 1300s, but it wasn’t until after the Korean War in the 1950s that street food took off. The simple, portable, and inexpensive options allowed a population devastated by the ravages of war to fill up on the cheap, hearty dishes, and Seoul’s thriving street food scene was born.
The best markets to try Korean street food today are Myeongdong, Gwangjang Market, and Namdaemun Market, where you’ll find popular options such as tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), mandu (dumplings), and twigim (deep fried squid, vegetables, and seaweed).
8 – Stargaze on K-Star Road
This bustling shopping street in the trendy Gangnam area is a must for die-hard K-Pop fans. The concept is similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but K-Pop stars are memorialized in the form of giant bear statues called GangnamDols instead of stars on the sidewalk.
The 17 brightly painted GangnamDols represent groups including BTS, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, and EXO. The K-Star Road area is also a hub for entertainment companies and music studios, so keep your eyes peeled for a celebrity sighting.
9 – Sing in a Noraebang
One of the most ubiquitous sights you’ll see in Seoul is the flashing neon lights of the noraebang (singing rooms). The Korean version of karaoke, these ever-present establishments fill up when the sun goes down, and waves of music flood the streets until dawn.
Instead of singing in front of a crowd, a noraebang features many private rooms where individuals or small groups of friends can sing to their heart’s content to songs from individual sound systems. The rooms can range from simple to lavish and often include disco balls, musical instruments, and bar service.
10 – Visit a Museum Dedicated to Kimchi
Kimchi is an aromatic dish made from fermented cabbage. Traditionally served with every meal in Korean cuisine, this beloved dish has a history that goes back around 4,000 years.
Museum Kimchikan in the historic Insadong neighborhood is dedicated entirely to showcasing the history and culture surrounding the national food of Korea. There are exhibits featuring the different varieties of kimchi, kimchi tasting stations, and even kimchi-making classes to fully immerse yourself in the kimchi experience.