The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Seoul For The First Time

Not sure where to start with planning a trip to Seoul? How about right here.

Seoul is the type of travel destination which makes a first-time venture into Asia unforgettable.

While you’ll stumble across sensational eats and epic views in many locations, in Seoul you’re not only limited to the standard experience. It’s the futuristic additions to modern life and indisputably respectful culture which captures your attention, before the desire to explore what the city has to offer.

This guide divides into 4 primary categories; unmissable spots, activities, shopping, and food. In each, there’s suggestions which contain hidden gems, recommendations from locals, and the scenes I’d probably consider another trip to Seoul for – they were that good.

Whether you take 1 or 2 points, or decide to use the entire guide for your travels, let’s build a bucketlist trip together.

While on the topic of bucketlist destinations, I’ve recently put together a first timers’ guide to NYC– If ‘The Big Apple’ is on your radar, you might want to have a browse.

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Table of Contents

Tips For Visiting Seoul For The First Time:

Before we get into the bulk of this post, there’s a few points I wanted to share to make the planning stages smooth.

  1. If you’re looking for a hotel, with both central and affordable as the criteria, I urge you to book into ‘Henn na Hotel‘ in Myeongdong. You’ll be located in one of the most popular shopping + food districts. Oh, and there’s robot receptionists.
  2. You’ll know that Seoul uses South Korean Won as currency, but it’s worth mentioning many restaurants, street food vendors and stores only accept cash. Make sure it’s a physical card that you’re carrying too – mobile payments weren’t very common.
  3. When it comes to sockets and voltage, you’ll find the plug functions are identical to EU sockets. In other words, the travel adaptor you took on your travels to Barcelona.

If you’re after more, visit 12 important cultural differences to know before you visit Seoul!

The Most Unmissable Spots In Seoul:

The coolest observation deck for midnight photography? An abandoned theme park which remains untouched from the 80’s? A landmark which resembles a spaceship? That’s a little tease of what’s coming up in this section…

Seoullo 7017 Is Your Free Entry To Aesthetic City Views .

Seoullo 7017, aka Seoul Sky Garden, is a prime example of simplicity done well.

There’s something magical about night views in a populated city, but even more so when you’re standing above a highway at one of Seoul’s busiest whereabouts.

Address: 432 Cheongpa-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Banpo Bridge – Skip This If You Get Nervous Easily.

For something a little further, and arguably more unsettling, Banpo Bridge may intrigue you.

Where Seoullo 7017 is a park above a highway, Banpo Bridge looks towards Seoul on a highway.

A small pedestrian road and metal barriers separate you from cars zooming past. On your right? Water. But, your path is securely closed off from vehicles, so there’s no immediate risk. Your belongings might disagree if you don’t grip them tightly though.

You Don’t Need To Be A Sports Fanatic To Vibe With Jamsil Stadium.

There’s no requirement to even be remotely interested in baseball to make a stopover at Jamsil worthwhile.

If you’re not here for athletic displays, circus performances, or music events, you’ll still get a dose of entertainment from popular culture dotted around the stadium. Little facts which might be useful for that pub quiz, for example. Like, which artist gathered the largest audience when on tour in Seoul…

Address: 25 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Yongma Land Is South Korea’s Best-Kept Secret.

Ride operations may have stopped at Yongma Land, but that hasn’t paused visitors from using the ex-amusement park as a space for photography.

Yongma Land became the unexpected highlight of my time in Seoul, and prompted a full blog post to help you replicate the same feeling.

Here’s what you need to know about visiting Yongma Land.

Address: 118 Mangu-ro 70-gil, Jungnang-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza – A Spot To Make Your IG Feed Happy.

If minimalistic/futuristic architecture is your weakness, you’ll adore Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

The urban landmark also hosts a market which runs until the early hours of the morning. How’s that for some late-night diversions?

Address: 281 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Bukchon Hanok Village – Escape The Cosmopolitan City For An Hour Or Two.

*Just in case you’re curious, I was told the word ‘Hanok’ refers to a small traditional house in Korean.

Bukchon Hanok Village may be a tourist hotspot, but residential neighbourhoods are adored by first-time visitors in Seoul.

Address: Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Swallow That Fear Of Heights, Lotte World Tower Will Be Worth It.

Did you know Lotte World Tower is the 5th or 6th tallest tower on the planet?

You’re not short of skyscraper views in Seoul, but Lotte World Tower deserves to be prioritised. It’s the best way to observe the city from significant height.

I’ll add a photo so you can see what you’ll miss out on, if you choose to not go.

Address: 300 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Memorable Experiences To Elevate Your First-Time In Seoul:

Gyeongbokgung Palace – Suddenly, History Seems Fun.

Impressive buildings take up a large part of Seoul’s landscape, but perhaps the most intriguing is Gyeongbokgung Palace.

There’s more to Gyeongbokgung Palace than royal connotations, however. If you roam around the spacious grounds more widely, you’ll eventually approach a lesser-known feature – your ticket to memory lane. In other words, an interactive ‘pop-up’ town depicting how life has evolved over the years.

Get The Pen Out – Let’s Write Letters At Nuldam Space Café.

Nuldam Space is not your typical letter writing invitation, as you’ll be addressing an unknown version of yourself.

Undeniably a bit of a novelty, but one which makes for a sentimental postcard delivered to a future date of your choice. Oh, and the price is less than you’d expect for something which has done the rounds on Tik Tok…

You’d part with approximately 3£, which is less than the price of coffee.

For more information, including how the process actually works, I’ll point you towards my post on top 5 memorable experiences in Seoul.

Ugly Project Is Going To Be The Only Caricature You’ll Need.

Souvenirs more interesting than a magnet? A digital caricature + live drawing from Ugly Project will sort you out.

Don’t let the name confuse you though. There’s nothing ‘ugly’ about the final results. Instead, you’ll get a modernized doodle with a nod to the artist’s niched-down style. These doodles feel cooler than your average caricature, both as a print and a new addition to the camera roll.

Address: 58 Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Want To Try Your Luck With Indoor Fishing?

The existence of fishing cafes in Seoul reference a popular Korean pastime. It’s almost like those ‘hook a duck’ challenges, but with a layer of genuine skill – and real fish.

KKUN Fishing Café was my introduction into the world of fishing. The environment felt welcoming in ways which reduced any anxiety over the logistics. There was also mutual patience with the language barrier, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by Google Translate. The owner even caught a fish on my behalf, to mask my lack of talent on a publicly-displayed leaderboard.

An activity to add to the list if you want to hang out with locals.

Stop At One Of Many 24-Hour Photobooths In The City.

Selfie culture in South Korea reaches new levels.

You’ll find multiple photo booths on the same street in Seoul, so let this be your sign to get snapping.

Want A Trippy Flashback? Head To The Gangnam Style Statue.

Needless to say, PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ dominated the charts like no other during 2012/2013. However, the song’s impact has been solidified, quite literally, in front of COEX Mall.

Not bad for a tune which Spotify has included into their ‘one-hit wonder’ playlist, huh.

Robot Coffee At DT275 Becomes An Advanced Way To Start The Morning.

The spotlight is about to be placed on technology.

Located inside DOOTA Mall, right by DDP, you can actually watch your coffee being served from start to finish by a robot at DT275. Hey, it’s more entertaining than waiting for your local barista to work their magic, that’s for sure.

Address: South Korea, Seoul, Jung-gu, Jangchungdan-ro, 275 DOOTA MALL 3F.

Close Up The Evening With A Private Karaoke Session.

It’s only a matter of time before the K-POP presence in Seoul persuades you to get behind the mic.

You might think the most challenging part will be ditching the nerves, but settling for just an hour session is even worse. As a karaoke newbie, it wasn’t long before I opted for a back-to-back singing marathon.

You’ll Be Pleased With These Malls + Shops, But Your Savings Won’t Be.

Bring an empty suitcase with you.

If there’s one thing I wish I knew before visiting Seoul for the first time, it’s this. I’m telling you now – the things you buy won’t fit into the bag you arrived with. Trust me on this. Please.

Takeaways + tips when shopping in Seoul, and South Korea as a whole:

-If you require tax-free receipts, it’s fundamental to let the cashier know in advance as you won’t always be given the option. There also tends to be a spending quota to reach before a tax-free form can be provided.

-Many stores operate on a ‘must wear a face mask’ policy when trying on garments. In most cases, you’ll be given a disposable covering to prevent makeup transferring onto clothing.

-For splashing cash, there’s a few districts which are good starting points, such as Gangnam, Apguljeong-dong, Myeongdong, and Hongdae, but you’ll find specific malls and stores below.

-I haven’t mentioned Lotte, a Selfridges-esque department store, as I only hit up the food court. It’s where I bought my lunchbox birthday cake, shown in the gallery underneath the introduction of this post.

COEX Mall – One Of The Most Vibey Shopping Centres.

Home to Starfield Library, COEX Mall is an underground space where you’ll easily need a few hours to browse.

It’s not just the shopping opportunities or the rows of restaurants which demand your attention, though, as the venue contains a movie theatre and… an entire aquarium? Yes, really.

The exterior is also something to marvel at, given the presence of colossal buildings and the ‘Gangnam Style’ statue I mentioned earlier.

Address: 513 Yeongdong-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

If Vintage Clothing + Streetwear Is Your Thing, Common Ground Will Deliver.

You could call Common Ground a hangout spot which lures in hipsters.

We’re talking about a mini shopping centre within an industrial-sized container.

Aimed at edgy or ‘fashion conscious’ individuals, Common Ground fuels the likelihood of securing more exclusive streetwear items. No additional persuasion needed.

Address: 200 Achasan-ro, Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Daiso Is Like Wilko In The UK, But So Much Better.

Daiso will be the reason your suitcase becomes overweight.

I really don’t know how else to describe Daiso other than an elevated version of Wilko.

Myeongdong has one of the largest Daiso stores, spanning over multiple floors dedicated to cheap goods. To put in context, most stationery fell around 2000 Won, beauty products at the 3000 mark, and snacks mostly between 1000-2000. That’s less than 3£ in most cases.

Partial To A Cosmetics + Beauty Shop? Olive Young Needs To See You.

For the past few years, Korean skincare has been on everyone’s lips.

To participate in the craze, make your way over to Olive Young – Korea’s main health and beauty store.

One thing I’d recommend, however, is to research products before you pick up a shopping basket. Futuristic packaging, flash sales, or crowded aisles may give you an indication of what’s popular, but these factors won’t necessarily determine how effective a product is.

*Multiple locations across Seoul.

AK Plaza – The Mall For Everything + Everyone.

AK Plaza is where you’d go if temperatures aren’t aligning with your outdoor plans.

On floor one you’ll notice a, conveniently-located, hotel and a small range of themed bakeries. Head up a level and you’ll be searching through hundreds of clothing rails. Up a few more, and there’s seasonal art exhibitions. End the elevator session with anime utopia.

Failing that, you could also settle at one of the most overlooked food spots in Seoul. A place which happens to reside within AK Plaza. To be revealed in a bit…

7 Of The Very Best Eats In Seoul:

Your first time in Seoul will be nothing short of a complete foodie experience.

Whether it’s Korean street food that grips you, or a comforting bowl of ramen slurped in a hidden booth, it’s fair to say the camera won’t eat first in these situations. You’ll jump right in.

Main takeaways + tips when finding food in Seoul:

-I hate to break it to my fellow gluten-free visitors, but there seems to be a real lack of allergen-labelling on menus in Seoul. Quite the problem if your allergy/intolerance is more severe. I’d advise sticking to self-serve places, for more ownership of the ingredients in your dishes.

-Tipping is not common in South Korea. Monetary appreciation is likely to be refused.

-Kiosks for ordering food absolutely thrive in Seoul. However, the majority didn’t accept cash – with the exception of smaller restaurants, where only cash was accepted.

-Looking for food markets? Myeongdong at night, Gwangjang + Sejong Village are great.

The Humble Restaurant I Can’t Stop Thinking About – Menten Ramen.

Sold out signs, limited opening hours, and frequent lines to get inside describe Menten from an outsider’s perspective.

Yet, those who get their hands on a bowl of ramen here have a different perspective, and it’s one which makes every single ramen appear inferior in comparison.

However, if you’re unable to try Menten, the other featured restaurants may be able to compensate that.

*Menten only accepts cash and notes of 10,000 WON or less.

Want Korean Dishes At Student-Friendly Prices During Your First Time In Seoul?

If you’re looking for an introduction to Korean food, Ssada Gimbab will make sense.

This restaurant has the foundations of fast-food, but with the flair you’d only find with home cooking. That’s what makes Ssada Gimbab a solid option to refuel.

Is Ssada Gimbab going to serve the best Korean food you’ll ever swallow? No. But that’s beside the point. What this food joint can offer is quick and satisfying dishes, at around £4-7 per plate. There’s zero guilt ordering multiple items when the bill barely dents your wallet.

Address: There’s multiple locations across Seoul.

If There’s One Food Concept You REALLY Need To Try, It’s This…

Now, I’m not one to tell people what to do, but you can’t visit Seoul for the first time without reserving an afternoon to experiment with Korean BBQ.

I’d suggest opting for a premises which functions on a ‘buffet’ basis. Personal recommendation? Hongdae Korean BBQ All You Can Eat Pig Company.

When It Comes To Soufflé Pancakes, EGO Is Your Girl.

This is a hidden gem.

I tried soufflé pancakes twice in Seoul, and during the comparison between Ego + Rachel’s Kitchen, Ego won by a mile.

Although, Ego wasn’t just the better of the two, mind you. The dough here felt so light I had to check there was substance on my fork. An edible blend that was so squishy only candyfloss could mimic a similar texture, without the sickly sweet tingle that coats your teeth.

Team the soft dough with a consistent flow of custard and perfectly-caramelised additions, and you’re onto something major.

Address: 32-17 Yanghwa-ro 8-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea.

Oreno Ramen Insa – This Is Going To Be The Creamiest Ramen You’ll Ever Try.

A queue to a restaurant can mean two things.

A place is either adored by locals, or it’s become an internet sensation.

Oreno Ramen Insa was a combination of the two – but for good reason.

The ramen joint did have a longer wait than anticipated, yet being in the presence of liquid goodness balanced 40 minutes of standstill.

As with many ramen locations, you’ll tend to find menu options are limited to just one or two varieties, and Oreno Ramen Insa is no different. That’s how you know a dish has been mastered to perfection.

Address: 49-4 율곡로 Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea*

*This location is tricky to find, but once you reach the address, turn left around a corner and you’ll see small stairs leading up to the restaurant’s entrance.

Looking For An Affordable Fried Chicken Spot? Run Over To Kyochon.

Put simply, Kyochon is a sanctuary for those who appreciate a well-seasoned chicken wing. Additionally, points are gained for the quick table service, generous portion sizes, and even more generous sauce coating across every inch of chicken. Fried, in a way which doesn’t feel oily or overly crispy. This is how wings SHOULD be.

Besides the flats + drums scoffed during Wingfest last year, no other chicken wing has come close to Kyochon…

Address: Handful of locations across Seoul.

How About A Wholesome Bowl Of Tteokbokki While You Shop?

Back to AK Plaza!

Tteokbokki Farms satisfies the newly-found desire to eat rice cakes at any point of the day. This low-key dining area is where to devour bowls of Korean comfort when funds are running thin.

Address: Located in AK Plaza, Hongdae.

I’m quietly confident you’ve uncovered some inspo to initiate your ‘first time in Seoul’ countdown. Although, if you’re not flying to South Korea anytime soon, how about a little getaway closer to home? Barcelona, Sofia, Lisbon, or Milan are my proposals to you.

Any questions? Let’s chat in the comments! After more content? Let’s connect over on Instagram

Your Author:

Yaz is the writer behind ‘The Strawberry Snaps’ and is here to make travel a frequent part of 9-5 lifestyles.

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  1. I would love to visit Seoul! I was looking at doing a layover there on the way to Japan but the flights shot up in price and we couldn’t really justify it for the sake of spending one night there unfortunately. I’ve never really researched what to do there so this was fun to read! It looks pretty similar to Japan in a lot of ways – we are staying in a Henn Na hotel which also has robot receptionists!

    1. This is so exciting! I’m heading to Japan soon so I’m so curious to know what you think of it all, is it as crowded as a lot of people say? Do restaurants need bookings at all times? I’m still trying to get my mind around needing a reservation for everything haha

      1. I’m back from Japan so thought I’d reply to this – not sure when you are going! It was super busy while we were there, but it was also sakura season so it was always going to be busier. Everywhere was pretty manageable but Kyoto was definitely very crowded. Re: restaurants, we only booked things like themed ones that we really wanted to visit, everything else we just wandered. However we had to queue A LOT! So worth bearing in mind and maybe make a few reservations if you can. There were a couple of places we just walked into (even in Kyoto!), but a lot of places we had to queue, and some for more than an hour which got a bit tiresome. Again it might have been the time of year! Will point out that the food is all AMAZING though, so worth the waits!

        1. Thank you so much for this! Super useful, I’m going in May 🙂 When you had to wait for food places, did you get given a ticket with a number?

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