Like Tokyo, Seoul is an Asian city I’ve been set on visiting for years. Vague depictions of the South Korean capital I remember from watching reruns of M.A.S.H. during my childhood are a far cry from the metropolis that exists today. Massive growth since the 1960s, as well as an intense effort of cultural exportation over the past 20 years, have firmly placed South Korea on the radar of the Western world. Whether you’re a fan of the history, the architecture, the cuisine, or (as it’s been all over the news recently) the music, a visit to this city can be taken in a multitude of directions. Here is my dream day in Seoul.
Wander Through Bukchon Hanok Village
I’d begin my dream day by wandering through Bukchon Hanok Village. Situated in the northern reaches of the city (from where the neighborhoods take their name), this corner of Seoul is home to hundreds of traditional houses (hanok) built in the architectural style of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Like many historic city sectors, the best way to experience Bukchon is to simply get lost (with a camera of course!). Due to its proximity to Seoul’s two main palaces, this area was once inhabited by noble families. While the area did go through a period of decay in the 20th century, recent conservation efforts have turned many of the homes into art galleries, upscale restaurants, boutiques, and cultural centers. It’s truly ground zero for visitors to immerse themselves in traditional Korean culture. Personally, I couldn’t think of a better (or more beautiful) place to start!
Explore Gyeongbokgung Palace
Located just west of Bukchon Hanok Village, Gyeonbokgung Palace is Seoul’s largest former royal residence. First built at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1395, it was destroyed by fire during Japanese invasions in the late 1500s, and later restored in the latter half of the 19th century. Besides being a stunning example of traditional architecture, the palace offers visitors a unique glimpse into over 600 years of South Korean history. Accessible to the public from four main gates, public walking tours in English of the grounds are held daily (except Tuesdays when the palace is closed). Other attractions worth visiting on the compound include the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum. It goes without saying that this is another excellent place to take post-worthy photos.
There are few things in life I adore more than carbs, especially when they come in the form of noodles. After a long morning of exploration, I plan to head straight to Myeongdong Kyoja for lunch, located about 25 minutes south of Gyeongbokgung Palace by public transit. For over 50 years, this restaurant has served kalguksu, a soup of wheat-flour noodles in a rich chicken broth. All noodles are hand-cut, and boiled in the broth to absorb its flavor. This take on the dish grew so popular that in 1978, the restaurant decided to change from Myeongdong Kalguksu to Myeongdong Kyoja due to the large number of imitators using the same name for their restaurants. Those in the know always head to the original. Almost required is to accompany your order with a side of mandu, handmade dumplings filled with pork and vegetables entombed in a nearly transparent wrapper. The food fantasies have already begun…
Visit the Alive Illusion Museum
After lunch, my first stop of the afternoon is the Alive Illusion Museum. It’s another museum, but as the name suggests, with a very unique twist. Unlike a traditional art exhibit where visitors must keep their distance, the Alive Museum lets you literally interact with a collection of reproduced famous paintings. Described as the “largest 4-D museum in Korea,” guests are invited to play with perspective to achieve some pretty entertaining illusions with the paintings on display. The experience is less about appreciating the art, than having fun becoming part of the composition yourself. Open everyday, the 12,000 won (about 10 dollar) admission fee is more than worth the unique photo-ops a visit can provide. Are these wacky illusions going to take over my Instagram feed after I visit? No question!
Soak in City Views at Soeul Tower
N Seoul Tower is, at its simplest, the city’s answer to Seattle’s Space Needle. Also known as Namsan Tower, this is the place to go for panoramic views. Sitting on the summit of Namsan mountain, the top of the tower reaches a staggering 480 meters (about 1,600 feet) above sea level, making it one of the tallest in Asia. Visitors can hike up to the base of Seoul Tower and enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, or board a cable car for more direct access. Palgakjeong, an octagon-shaped viewing pavilion at the summit of Namsan offers wonderful views of the city at no cost. However, nothing can seem to compare to the views from the tower’s sky deck, with the best being on clear days. I plan on timing my visit with the sunset.
Sample Street Food in Namdaemun Market
For a real dose of culture, my next stop is Namdaemun Market. The largest traditional market in Seoul, it spreads out, maze-like, over many city blocks and features the wares of over 10,000 retailers. It’s packed with customers almost all hours of the day, and even if you’re looking for something specific, chances are, you’ll be able to find it here. While a market of some form has been operating in the area for centuries, Namdaemun opened officially in 1964. Besides being the ideal place to shop for hanbok (traditional Korean dress) or other souvenirs, the market is also known for its large selection of used camera equipment (if that’s your thing). The real reason for my visit are the street food vendors clustered outside exit 5 of Hoehyeon Station to sustain the large crowds of hungry shoppers. To locals, this corner of Namdaemun is known as Kalguksu or Noodle Alley.
Stroll Along Cheonggyecheon Stream
After gorging myself on Korean street food, my last stop of the day would bring me to the banks of Cheonggyecheon stream. This man-made waterway runs 11 kilometers through downtown Seoul and was part of an urban restoration project completed in 2005. The stream was covered by an elevated highway until 2003, and has since been transformed into a scenic walking path. The stream begins at Cheonggye Plaza, a well-known cultural arts venue, located north of Namdaemun Market. While the waterway runs along one of the city’s busiest boulevards, the atmosphere is noticeably more peaceful thanks to it being 15 feet below street level. I can’t think of a better way to round off the night; walking off dinner, soaking in the scenery, and hopefully accompanied by good conversation.