Seoul Backpackers Guide: South Korea’s Magnificent Capital!

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea.  

Updated July 25th, 2018.

Colin Roohan Photography

About the writer:

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer from Tulsa, Oklahoma who travels the globe documenting travel, culture + life. Check out his other articles on Phu Quoc and Georgetown, Penang.

My two+ years living and teaching in Seoul went by like a flash, and perhaps I should have relaxed a bit more instead of trying to cram in three museums on a Saturday afternoon – but I felt it was my duty to explore it extensively. With a wealth of historical sights, nightlife, parks and markets, Seoul is simply magnificent!

A modern metropolis; some parts feel suspended in time, gelling together a perfect mix of cutting-edge modernism and a heavily-honoured cultural past. Seoul is a great place to travel, and its neighbours to the north shouldn’t deter you from visiting. (I was there during Kim Jung II’s final days, and even though tensions were high, most South Koreans remained calm.)

The language barrier is a little harder to overcome when compared to Thailand, for example, but if you’re patient and friendly, you’ll have no problems. Koreans are very honest and eager to please visitors to their country, and will often go out of their way to help you.

Families in Seoul, South Korea.
Families enjoy a local park in Seoul, South Korea.

When is the best time of year to visit Seoul?

South Korea can be visited all year round as it’s four unique seasons each bring their own rewards (and challenges) for the traveller. 

Spring: It is perhaps the spring that is the most picturesque time in Seoul. From April to June you’ll find the city filled with pink cherry blossoms making for truly stunning scenes. With the blossom, however, come the crowds, selfie sticks and Instagram addicts, as well as higher prices for hotels

Summer: July and August are considered summer in South Korea, as well as monsoon season, which is avoided by most tourists. Seoul becomes very hot, humid and muggy and although it can be one of the least comfortable times to visit, it can also be the least crowded.

Autumn: Autumn in South Korea (September – November) is a glorious time to visit Seoul. You’ll find the city alive with orange and red as the leaves on the trees start to change colour. There is little rain at this time of year and temperatures are mild.

Winter: From December to March, Seoul gets rather chilly indeed with temperatures dropping as low as -10 degrees some years. This is the best time to visit to avoid throngs of tourists and there’s something delightful about wrapping up warm. At this time of year, you can also go skiing – a mere two hours away from the city!

Where to stay in Seoul? The Best Neighbourhoods

1. Hongdae (Top Choice)

Hongdae, named after Hongik University, is a wonderfully-fun neighbourhood known for its urban art, indie music scene and clubbing culture. On Saturdays, from spring through to fall, there is a flea market held near the University’s main gate that displays all types of goods, from jewellery to photography, and all for reasonable prices.

All in all, Hongdae is a great place to base yourself to explore all the city has to offer and also has some of the cheapest accommodation in Seoul. Search accommodation in Hongdae.

2. Myeong-dong (Shopping and Eating) 

A thriving shopping district where you’ll find a cheap guesthouse in Seoul suitable for the backpacker! Myeong-dong is also a fantastic place to try a myriad of different Korean dishes and snacks.

In Myeong-dong, you are also close to two other cool neighbourhoods; Insadong, popular for its tea shops and Dongdaemoon, which has a brilliant night market! Search accommodation in Myeong-dong.

Myeong-dong shopping and nightlife district of Seoul.
Myeong-dong, a popular shopping and nightlife district of Seoul.

3. Jongno (Traditional)

If you want to be close to the historical sights, bustling Jongno in the north of the city is a good place to stay. There are traditional markets here (Dongmyo Flea Market and Gwangjang Market) selling cheap and delicious street food and snacks, as well as rice wine and there are some fun gay bars in the area. Search accommodation in Jongno.

4. Gangnam (For the Rich)

Famous worldwide for the hit song, Gangnam is the poshest, most expensive neighbourhood in Seoul. With swish hotels and fancy restaurants, this is certainly not the place to stay if you’re a backpacker on a budget. Search accommodation in Gangnam.

5. Itaewon (Foreign Area)

Most guidebooks point to Itaewon – an area dominated by expats that houses a US Army Garrison – as the best place for restaurants and nightlife in Seoul. It’s not. It’s overrated and expensive, and every time I went out for a night out in Itaewon, I did not enjoy myself.

Full of expats and foreign pubs, this is not the best example of the city in our opinion, although nightlife can be very lively. Search accommodation in Itaewon.

Search all hotels and guesthouses in Seoul.

Seoul Backpackers Hostels & Guesthouses – Top 5

The average bunk bed in Seoul will set you back around $12-18 USD. A private room will cost $30 USD and up. Here are some of our picks of the best hostels in Seoul:

Brownie Guesthouse (Hongdae) – Located in the fun student neighbourhood of Hongdae, Brownie Guesthouse is just a few minutes walk from Hongik University subway station. Dorm beds start at $17 USD for 8-bed mixed dorm or $20 USD in a 4-bed all female dorm. They have privates too starting at $43 USD. It’s a clean, bright an well-equipped guesthouse with a shared kitchen and sociable common area for travellers to chill and chat.

Hongdae Lazy Fox Hostel (Mapu-Go, Hongdae) – A fun, sociable hostel less than 5 minutes walk from Hapjeong subway. The hostel has a shared kitchen, comfortable dorm beds with privacy curtains (starting at $17 USD) and a cool rooftop hangout area with a great view of the area.

Bunk Guesthouse Hongdae (Hongdae) – Very cosy guesthouse with all the facilities you need as a traveller: shared kitchen, washing machine, as well as a filling free breakfast of bread, jams, eggs and noodles! Located in amongst peaceful back streets of Hongdae with plenty of coffee shops, restaurants and shops nearby. 5 minutes walk to  Hongik University Subway Station. Awesome rooftop terrace with views over the city. Dorms from $20 USD.

Blue Boat Hostel (Myeong-dong) – Located less than a kilometre from the vast shopping complex of Noon Square, as well as many markets, this hostel is made for those who want to be right in the heart of the shopping and nightlife district. A very clean hostel with a good common room and friendly staff who will help you enjoy your stay in Seoul. Bunk beds start at $17 USD.

Step Inn (Myeong-dong) – Another great hostel located right in the heart of the Myeong-dong district with spacious dorm beds (starting at $25 USD) and private rooms at various prices. With free breakfast, a relaxing common area, a shared kitchen and clean, stylish wooden dorm beds, this hostel gets excellent reviews from travellers. Toilet seat warmer is a bonus!

Historical Sights of Seoul

Seoul is Korea’s epicentre of history, politics, and culture. The restoration and preservation efforts towards architectural sights in Seoul are truly astonishing. They are a source of pride for the Korean people who respect the turbulent past endured by their ancestors.

Seoul's variety of religions.
Seoul’s historical quarter is full of surprises.

There are varying types of sights to see, but the two I felt gave me a strong sense of Korean culture were Seoul’s royal palaces and its Buddhist temples, both of them showcasing stunning craftsmanship and architecture.

Seoul’s Royal Palaces

The two most impressive royal palaces in Seoul are located downtown in close proximity to one another and both exhibit immaculate attention to detail.

The first, Gyeongbokgung, which dates back to 1394, was the seat of government and inhabited by royalty for roughly two centuries. Sadly, during the Hideyoshi Invasions, the palace was set ablaze, and surprisingly, by Korean palace servants, who wanted to destroy all records of their bondages.

Today, the well-maintained palaces and grounds are open every day, except Tuesday, between 0900 and 1700. The entrance fee is cheap, but if you plan to visit more palaces, ask for an integrated admissions pass that costs 10,000 won (roughly $10.00 USD), which will gain you access to four other palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine.

The second, Changdeokgung, is also spectacular, and you’ll see similar structures to those at Gyeongbokgung; however, Changdeokgung is in better cosmetic condition.

Meander your way towards the right rear of the complex where you’ll find a heavily wooded ‘garden’ area. The trees in this area provide great shade, and if you keep a watchful eye, you’re guaranteed to see a Korean Magpie (the national bird) hopping around.

Buddhist Temples in Seoul

Another option for sightseeing is to visit one of Seoul’s numerous Buddhist temples.

Jogyesa Temple, conveniently located in the heart of Seoul, seems to always have some type of event or festivity going on, and even though it may not be as scenic as some of the secluded temples gracing Seoul’s mountain passes, the patrons are super friendly and don’t mind curious foreigners at all. Touring the temple grounds and having a chat with local monks can also be arranged by stopping at the temple’s office.

Bongeunsa Temple is the place to go if you really want to experience Buddhist spirituality. Located near to the Co-Ex mall and south of the Han River, the temple offers overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about Buddhism. For more information on activities, rates and scheduling simply visit www.bongeunsa.org.

Seoul’s Fabulous Cuisine

South Korea nabs the prize for Asia’s most underrated cuisine. It’s healthy, it’s spicy, it’s nourishing, it’s salty, it’s garlicky… it’s phenomenal! Grilled meats, fresh vegetables, and rich sauces – South Korea has it all.

A Cultural Phenomena – Kimchi

Probably the most important item on a Korean table is kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage dish (kimchi can be made with a variety of different vegetables, but here I am focusing on cabbage). It is used in soups, stir-fried with rice, and grilled on an open flame, but is more frequently served on a small plate with virtually every meal. At first, the taste can be a little unusual, but after time you begin to enjoy it, and then even start to crave it!

Korean BBQ

You’ll have ample opportunities to develop your kimchi palette, so whilst en route, seek out the nearest Korean BBQ restaurant. Protein picks include beef, pork and chicken accompanied by freshly sliced garlic, red pepper based sauces, and crisp leafy greens to wrap everything up into one tasty package.

BBQ restaurants are numerous and affordable. Try asking a pedestrian where you can find Kalbi (or 갈비, as it is written in Hangeul), or simply look for restaurants with grill grates on in the middle of their tables, and/or cylindrically shaped vents hanging down from the ceiling.

Ordering can be tricky but just remember that amounts are usually served in increments of 100gs and typically ordered order in a ‘per head’ quantity.

Kim Bap Chun Guk – Best Choice For Backpackers in Seoul

Korean BBQ can be one of the pricier meals in Korea, so if you’re on a budget I recommend finding a little chain called Kim Bap Chun Guk. These quaint little restaurants scattered across Seoul serve enjoyable home-style dishes at prices averaging under $5.00 USD.

A variety of Korean dishes at a Seoul Restaurant.
A variety of Korean dishes at a Seoul Restaurant.

Order dolsot bibimbap – a sizzling hot earthenware bowl full of rice, vegetables, red pepper paste, and sesame oil topped off with an egg. This variety trumps all other bibimbaps because the earthenware bowl gives the rice a crispy, chewy texture.

Their Yuk Gye Jang – a fiery soup with chunks of beef and rustic chopped vegetables – is a dish that I love, but it will make you sweat from every pore so eating this on a summer afternoon isn’t recommended.

The Best Nightlife in Seoul

Debauchery = fun; and Seoul’s debauchery is top-notch.

For me (and I don’t know if it is because I lived there), Seoul and Korea in general, always have felt much safer in comparison to some areas in South East Asia. If you go out to have a few beers, don’t be surprised if Koreans want to drink with you – in fact, you should almost count on it! Open up, share some laughs, and try some new drinking games.

The best areas to go out in Seoul…

For me, the three best places to go have a meal and/or drinks are Hongdae, Hyehwa and Konkuk. All three of these areas are near universities, which make food and libation prices drastically lower than those in Seoul’s ritzier areas. The crowds in these areas range between their early twenties and late thirties, and the main drags are all located within walking distance from the metro.

Hongdae

As mentioned above, Hongdae, a university neighbourhood of Seoul, is famous for its art, indie culture, music and clubbing scene. The most popular night in Hongdae has to be the last Friday of each month, which has earned the term ‘Club Day’ (when the price of one cover fee grants access into over a dozen clubs, some including a free drink).

If it is your first time to Seoul, then check out Hongdae during the weekend. The streets are packed with young energetic crowds throughout the night, usually ‘til four or five in the morning.

Hyehwa and Konkuk

If you are looking for something a little more laidback, the Hyehwa and Konkuk areas should be your choice.

If you’re in Hyehwa (Hyehwa Station – Line 4), seek out a little bar called Basquiat, which occasionally holds impromptu jazz sessions.

The Konkuk (Konkuk University Station – Line 2 or 7) area is the smallest of the three and the least popular with Westerners, thus giving it a distinctive Korean university atmosphere. It is quaint and easy to navigate with copious amounts of dive bars.

The main street, whose name literally translates to ‘Street of Taste’ or Food Street has a whole kingdom of street eats ranging from fried vegetables and meats on skewers to blood sausage, buttered squid, and silkworm larvae (one of the worst things ever!). I recommend eating a lighter dinner in order to try some, if not all, of the street food.

The Best Parks in Seoul

Koreans enjoy the outdoors as it helps break up the constant ebb and flow of a busy work life. The architects and city planners involved in Seoul’s development have given this metropolis some truly great public spaces.

1. Namson Park

In the wonderful Namson Park, thickly wooded hills lead up to a 273-meter high panoramic view of the skyline. Stylishly capping the mountain is the N. Seoul Tower, a structure reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle, which is 236 meters tall and houses a revolving restaurant at the top. You’ll also find public art displays, an ancient pagoda, and historic smoke stacks once used as warning beacons at the top.

To get to Namson Park: Take subway line 4 to Hoehyeon Station. Use exit #4 then look for a street named Toegye-ro 2 Gil leading to the left; follow this for 152 metres, where you’ll find the park entrance.

2. Children’s Grand Park

My second pick for the best park in Seoul would be Children’s Grand Park, located on subway line 7, is also a superb choice, and as its name suggests, there is plenty for kids to do here. The grounds include a small zoo, an amusement park, and botanical gardens. Refreshments can be a little pricey here, so eat beforehand.

3. Anyang Art Park

Just outside of Seoul is the Anyang Art Park. It contains a temple, an open-air performance stage, and numerous walking paths – but the real highlights are the quirky, large-scale artworks scattered throughout the complex.

It’s truly something out of Alice in Wonderland; one minute you’re making your way through a maze of mirrors and the next you’re dancing with a huge plastic Buddha. The park is stunning in the warmer months when the trees have their foliage and the stream is full of water.

Anyang Art Park, Seoul, South Korea
Anyang Art Park, Seoul, South Korea.

To get to Anyang Art Park: Take line 1 to Gwanak Station; outside of the station look find a bus stop where the following buses stop: 1, 51, 5624, 5625, 5626, 5530 or 5713. To be safe, you can always ask your driver if the bus stops there, and in typical Korean fashion, he may even yell at you once you’re there to help you out. Once you get to the Anyang Art Park stop, you’ll have to cross the street where you’ll see signage leading to the park.

The Best Markets in Seoul

The markets in South Korea are as fascinating as any in South East Asia, and Seoul contains two of the country’s more impressive markets – Namdaemun and Noryangjin.

Namdaemun

Namdaemun Market, almost 600 years old, is a lot of fun. The tightly packed streets are inaccessible to cars, so stay alert to the sound of motorcycles zipping through as they deliver parcels. In addition to motorcycles, hand-drawn carts and food vendors with metal trays balanced on their heads give this market a truly old-world feel.

The goods in Namdaemun are extremely varied, with everything from tourist souvenir shirts and pepper-infused chocolate to high dollar cameras and Korean red ginseng-infused alcohol, teas, and snacks.

This place is vast. Size-wise, it can’t compete with Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market, but you should allow at least half a day to explore Namdaemun, as you’ll surely be distracted.

Noryangjin Market

Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, south of the Han River, is Seoul’s largest seafood market. Around 3 am every day, fishermen bring in a large variety of seafood for both wholesale and retail selling. Here you can buy a vast array of seafood, and being there is thoroughly engaging.

For a small fee, vendors affiliated with nearby restaurants will send your purchase over to the restaurant where it will be cooked. The frighteningly large tiger prawns and succulent king crab are at the top of my list. Wash it all down with a couple of cold beers, but save your partying for elsewhere as tabs can add up quickly around Noryangjin!

Enjoy Seoul, South Korea!

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