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view of North Eastern Seoul from Boramsan (Mountain).  The twin peaks in the upper left corner of the picture are the peaks of Bukhansan (Mountain), one of the most popular and challenging hikes in Seoul. Photo Eric K. Melvin

GoNOMAD Destination Mini Guide: Seoul, South Korea

By Erin K. Melvin

Where

Seoul, the largest city, is located in the northwest corner of South Korea.

Why Go

Seoul is a vibrant East Asian city where you can experience both modern and traditional Korean culture. It is one of the world's 10 largest cities and, despite being the capital of South Korea for over 600 years, most of the city is newly rebuilt after being flattened during the Korean War (1950-1953).

Read Seoul hotel and vacation reviews

When to Go

Spring and Fall are the best times to visit Seoul as with the rest of the Korean peninsula. Spring is cool and offers a delightful bouquet of blossoms and flowers. Fall is warm well into October when the leaves turn vibrantly orange, red and gold. Winter is bitterly cold and dry whereas the heat and humidity in the summer can be quite oppressive.

Getting There

Most international flights arrive at Incheon International Airport , located about one to two hours—depending on traffic — by car or bus from central Seoul .

Getting Around

The easiest and most convenient way to get around Seoul is by using the extensive and inexpensive subway system. Station names are printed in English on most subway maps and are announced in both Korean and English on the train. Local buses are useful but typically require some knowledge of the Korean language as each major destination is printed on the side of the bus in Hangul (the Korean alphabet).

Best Major Attraction

Traditional Korean Masks at a shop in Insadong, Seoul.

Insadong

Not far from the center of the city is the popular alleyway called Insadong . Here, you can easily spend the afternoon browsing small shops full of antiques, such as old paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and woodworks, then dip into a traditional teashop for a snack and end the afternoon looking around one of the many art galleries in the neighborhood.

Every Sunday the street is blocked off to traffic and opened up to antique stalls, food stalls, street performers, and other kinds of street entertainment. If you have one day in Seoul , this is where you should spend it.

Palaces

For those interested in traditional Korean culture, a visit to Kyoungbokgung is a good start. You can double your trip to the “ Palace of Shining Happiness ” with a visit to the National Folk Museum where you can get a sense of what traditional life was like. If you prefer spending your time outside, then check out Changdeokgung and its lovely Secret Garden . Or, if ceremony is your thing, then try Deoksugung , where you can catch the “Changing of the Royal Guards Ceremony.”

Best Unusual Attraction

Barefoot Parks

For those interested in reflexology or foot health or both, a visit to one of Seoul 's various “barefoot parks” would be a relaxing addition to a day exploring this city. Located in various parks around Seoul , these special walking paths are made of various types of rocks, such as amber, gemstone, granite and gravel. Aside from providing relief from foot fatigue, these foot paths are said to improve blood circulation and activate the functions of internal organs.

Activities

Hiking

If shopping isn't your thing, then why not put on some hiking boots and head to the hills. Seoul is surrounded by mountains, all of which have easily accessible trails. Some of the most popular hikes are on Suraksan ( san means mountain), Dobongsan , and Bukhansan .

Best Alternative

Bathhouses & Saunas

A great way to unwind after a hectic day in the city is to soak in one of Seoul 's numerous bathhouses ( mokyotang ) or saunas ( jjimjilbang ). Bathhouses can be found all over Seoul , however the new spa-like facilities are found south of the Han River in Samsung area (near COEX) and the Teheran Valley (the “ Silicon Valley ” of Korea ). Similar facilities can also be found in most luxury hotels in Seoul .

Best Lodgings

The two most popular digs for backpackers are the Seoul Backpackers' Hostel and the Seoul YMCA . The best deal in Seoul , however, is to find a good yogwan and there are plenty around, just look for the sign (which also means bathhouse). For a more familiar Western-style hotel, try the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon and for the more well-heeled travelers try the Intercontinental Hotel , the Grand Hyatt Seoul or the Koreana Hotel .

Best Eats

Changing of the Guards Ceremony, Deoksugung (Palace), Seoul.

Some of the best restaurants in Seoul are little hole-in-the-wall joints with plastic stools, menus on the wall and a staff of two. Knowing a little Korean will help you out in these restaurants or sometimes pointing to what you want will do just fine.

I highly recommend two popular dinner & show restaurants: Sanchon and the Korea House . The former offers great vegetarian fare and the latter offers traditional Korean food.

Best Entertainment

Entertainment in Seoul usually centers on shopping and therefore a trip to any of the major shopping districts will lead one to restaurants and drinking establishments. University students typically congregate in the Hongdae , Sinchon and Daehakno districts. Tourists often find themselves in Itaewon where a wider variety of restaurants and bars may be found.

If malls are your thing, then take a trip out to COEX . This massive “shoppertainment” complex houses Seoul 's main exhibition hall, an aquarium, the Kimchi museum and one of the largest theaters (17 screens) in Asia . There is also an excellent bookstore called Bandi & Luni's, which has a fine selection of English-language books.

Best Shopping

Seoul has great shopping opportunities. If you are interested in Asian city market-style shopping then you'll get your fill at either Dongdaemun Market or Namdaemun Market . For more modern-style shopping, check out Myongdong or Apkujung . If you are looking for clothes and find Korean sizes a tight fit, check out Itaewon where shops cater specifically to Western tourists. Antique shoppers should be pleased with shops in Itaewon or Insadong .

Visas and Documents

All visitors to Korea need a valid passport. The KNTO internet site has a page with excellent information on passport and visa requirements.

Health and Safety

Although no vaccinations are required to enter South Korea , vaccinations for hepatitis A and typhoid, as well as tetanus and polio boosters are recommended.

Healthcare in Seoul is readily available and relatively cheap. Most clinics and hospitals will ask for some payment at the time of the visit. Many doctors speak some English but your best bet is to visit a hospital with an international clinic.

119 is the emergency number to call.

Money and Communications

The monetary unit in South Korea is the won , which is used for all transactions except for a few places in Itaewon where US dollars or Japanese yen may be used. Money can easily be exchanged at the airport or at a Korea Exchange Bank . 24-hour ATMs can be found all over Seoul and many accept foreign-issued credit cards and ATM cards.

Internet cafes, or PC bang , can be found all over Seoul . They are cheap and the internet connection is usually superb.

Phone cards are the best way to make international calls and the best place to buy international phone cards is at the Dunkin' Doughnuts or 7-Eleven in Itaewon .
 

Best Major Attraction

Insadong: Take subway line 1, 3, or 5 and get off at Jongno 3-ga Station; it's a five-ten minute walk. Take subway line 1 and get off at Jonggak Station; it's a five minute walk. Take subway line 3 and get off at Anguk Station; it's a five minute walk.

Palaces:

Gyeongbokgung : Take subway line 3 and get off at Gyeongbokgung Station (exit 5).

ocp.go.kr/english/palace/pal_kpk.html

National Folk Museum : nfm.go.kr

Phone: 82-2-734-1346

Address: 1-1 Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul , 110-820

Changdeokgung: Take subway line 3 and get off at Anguk Station (exit 3).

ocp.go.kr/english/palace/pal_cdk.html

Deoksugung: To get there, take subway line 1 and get off at City Hall Station (exit 1 or 2). The “Changing of the Royal Guards Ceremony” is held from March until December, every day except Monday, from 14:00-15:30 ..

National Folk Museum

ocp.go.kr/english/palace/pal_dok.html   

Best Unusual Attraction

Barefoot Parks

Barefoot Parks can be found at Namsan Park (take bus # 83, 83-1, or 79-1), Yongsan Family Park (a short walk from line 4, Ichon Station, exit 4), Yeouido Park (line 5, Yeouido Station, exit 3 or Yeouinaru Station, exit 1), and Boromae Park (line 2, Sindaebang Station, exit 4 or line 7, Boromae Station, exit 2).

Activities

Hiking

To get to Suraksan , take subway line 7 to Suraksan Station and follow the maps. Dobongsan can be reached by taking subway line 1 or 7, getting off at Dobongsan Station and following the crowds. Bukhansan's main peak, Baekundae can be reached by taking subway line 4 to Suyu Station and then take bus 6, 6-1 or 8 to the last stop, from which you can cross the street and take a special mountain shuttle up to the steep road to the trail head.

Best Lodgings

Seoul Backpacker's Hotel : seoulbackpackers.com

Phone: 82-2-3672-1972

Address: 30-1 Iksun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Seoul YMCA

Phone: 82-2-734-4964

Address: 9-2 Jongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul , 110-753

Email

The marching band, which is part of the Changing of the Guards Ceremony, Doeksugung (Palace), Seoul.  Spring 2003. Photos Eric K. Melvin

Hamilton Hotel hotelsinseoul.net/Hotel/1474
119-25 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Intercontinental Hotel seoul.intercontinental.com
Phone: 82-2-555-5656
159-8 Sonseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul , 135-732
Email: seoul@interconti.com

Grand Hyatt Seoul hyatt.com/corporate/index.jhtml
Phone: 82-2-797-1234 747-7 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 140-738

Koreana Hotel ( koreanahotel.com/english/ Phone: 82-2-2171-7845

Best Eats

Sanchon :sanchon.com

Korea House is located on near Chungmuro Station on subway lines 3 or 4. Reservations are necessary, call 02-266-9101.

Entertainment

Hongdae : Take Subway line 2 and get out at Hongik University Station.

Sinchon : Take Subway line 2 and get out at Sinchon Station.

Daehakno: Take Subway line 4 and get out at Hyehwa Station.

Itaewon : Take Subway line 6 and get out at Itaewon Station.

COEX: ( coexmall.com/english/index.htm ) Take Subway Line 2 abnd get out at Samsung Station, exit 5 or 6.

Shopping

Dongdaemun Market : Take Subway Line 2 and get off at Dongdaemun Stadium Station or take Line 1 or 4 and get off at Dongdaemun Station.

Namdaemun Market : Take Subway Line 4 and get out at Hoehyeon Station, exit 5.

Myongdong : Take Subway line 4 and get out at Myeongdong Station, exit 7.

Apkujung : Take Subway line 3 and get out at Apkujong Station, use Galleria Department Store exit.

Itaewon: Take Subway line 6 and get out at Itaewon Station.

Insadong : Take subway line 1, 3, or 5 and get off at Jongno 3-ga Station; it's a five-ten minute walk. Take subway line 1 and get off at Jonggak Station; it's a five minute walk. Take subway line 3 and get off at Anguk Station; it's a five minute walk.

Health

Samsung Medical Center samsunghospital.com

Phone: 02-3410-0200 / 0220

Address: 50 Ilwon-dong, Kangnam-gu, Seoul , 135-170

For a more complete list of hospitals with international or English-language service, check out the Seoul Metropolitan Government internet site under hospitals and clinics.

Money

Korea Exchange Bank ( keb.co.kr/english/index.htm ).

Erin K. Melvin writes from British Columbia.

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