I’ll be honest, when the idea of Seoul was floated as our Easter getaway location, my first thought was “Why?!” However, as is the most fortitutious way with places you hold little expectation of, Seoul blew me away with its chic aesthetic, brimming cultural history and leading international style scene.
A country rich in history, it may be mere kilometres away from its [slightly terrifying] reigning neighbour, but here, in the South it felt like we had jetted away to the buzzing streets of the East Village NYC, or strolling around the ambient neighbourhoods Copenhagen.
I actually have immediate family members who both served in the Korean War and spent time here as part of Naval services, so visiting a country that I had never truly considered I would, provided the opportunity to pay respect and homage to that pivotal period and my relatives experiences.
Read on for the full travel guide of Seoul. including where to eat, shop, train and you must see in the South Korean Capital!
Seoul, South Korea
Fly into Incheon International Airport
It is possible to get public transport (buses/train) into the city centre. For a larger group of 6 we opted for a maxi-taxi, average $100 SGD one way.
Where To Stay
A clash of upmarket residential properties besides buzzing nightlife, upscale restaurants dotted with kebab takeaway carts on the streets before them, Itaewon is a popular location for foreigners and expats alike in the central region of Seoul.
Historically, the red light district, the night life here still gets vibrantly wild, but now there’s a glossier touch with young, trendy professionals and families moving into the area. Throughout the day expect bougie boutiques tucked down back alleyways, laid back cafes with in house coffee roasters and art museums nestled alongside national parks.
Seoul is a sprawling metropolis and we had been warned by numerous sources that it can take a while to commute between locations. With a limited time frame, we opted to uber throughout the city – side note: it appears not many people Uber here, so the cars are reasonably priced and with pretty sweet, executive cars picking you up!
We found communication, especially with taxi drivers to be rather difficult. If you are hailing down on the road, ensure you have the Korean translation of any directions to ensure smooth sailing!
What To See
As it is in most major cosmpolitation metropolises, each pocket of Seoul has a different flair of personality. We opted to pick one main area per day and then cruise around, gravitating towards interesting stores, cafes and sights without a major agenda on our minds.
The buzzing atmosphere of Itaewon pulls you into its nightime pulse of super clubs, bars and eateries. But throughout the day, take the time to cruise up the windy hills and narrow streets that sit behind the landmark of The Hamilton Hotel. Here you will see impressive residential abodes, rows of trendy stores for window shopping and an eclectic mix of cafes.
Edging close to Itaewon sits the reinvention of Hannam-Dong which has had an growth injection with trendy new boutiques, cafes, bars and vinyl stores aplenty. The narrow roads tucked off the main drag house independent boutiques and vintage fashion finds, whilst on the main strip you can see an outpost of local favourite concept store Beaker and an impressive record store!
Sinsa-Dong – Cheongdam-Dong
Neighbouring popular Gangnam, these two on-trend areas were some of our favourite to cruise around. Dotted with leading concept stores, fashion boutiques, restaurants and cafes, expect to see the best of street-style along these boulevards.
The infamous neighbourhood delivers on all fronts with its eclectic street-side energy, iconic fashion moments, tourists and flashing lights. A stroll down the main strip, packed full of department stores, will have you getting whiplash from figuring out just where to look next.
In the very centre of town you find this historical palace where you will be whisked away to a state of utter tranquillity. Beyond the main palace itself, sits a serene lake and impeccably manicured gardens, which during the seaon will feature flowering Sakura ( cherry blossom). It’s the ideal location to take a few deep breaths away from the hustle of the city, gaze on at the local girls dressed up in their traditional Korean garments and get up close for those prime Sakura snaps!
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
It’s well worth dropping by the Leeum Museum in Hannam-Dong to see both the traditional Korean and modern art installations. As a dose of refined culture for your trip, the museum features impressive installations and favoured local artists in their exhibit halls!
From way up here, you can see out across the entire South Korean capital and even get a glimpse over the border to the North. With a sweeping 360 panorama, heading up the Seoul Tower is a great way to get a lay of the land and look out over the sprawling city.
where to eat & Drink
Australian Café, Itaewon
Possibly, the culinary highlight of this trip, Summer Lane is a gorgeous little Aussie style café tucked into a side street of the windy Itaewon neighbourhood. Trust this girl to find an Aussie brunch in every city she goes, it is the perfect spot for a leisurely brunch over [top quality] coffee to fuel up for a day of sightseeing ahead. Whilst it is gorgeously styled, the café has modest seating, so best to get there early to beat the hungry queues!
Relaxed French Cafe, Hannam-Dong
You know it’s a spot to be seen when the café is tucked into the neighbouring Comme De Garcon store. An outpost of the cult-favourite Rose Bakery in Paris, this organic French bakery offers a chilled out locate to people watch the "trendier-than-you" locals lining up for the latest drop next door.
Local Coffee Roasters, Itaewon
Good coffee is surprising not so hard to find in Seoul, but our favourite brew was at local coffee roasters Anthracite. The open style roaster was ideal for soaking in the first hint of Spring sunshine while sipping on the perfectly balanced flat white.
Australian Eatery, Gwanghwam
Again, it’s the Aussie brunch thing, but as is with most major trend setting cities around the world, you can rely on finding a Bills for a quality brunch option in the gorgeously appointed bistro. As one of the rare places you can find a nut milk option for coffee (yay for the food sensitivies crew!) and all kinds of fresh produce options, Bills is always a good option for a larger crew as there is something for everyone on the menu – especially if you’re touting a hangover from one too many around Itaewon the night before!
This split level, speciality coffee store sits right in the middle of Sinsa-Dong and its littered with the avant garde trend setters of the scene. It's perfect to pull up in as a pit stop between stomping around these very, very cool areas of town.
You can’t come to Seoul and miss out on a Korean BBQ! Our top pick of the [many, many, many] options around town was Maple Tree House BBQ. It comes very highly recommended by travellers and locals alike and has the long lines queing out the door to prove it its reputation! No bookings necessary, but drop by early to get your name on the waiting list.
A more upmarket BBQ option, Hanwadam levels up for a tasteful dining experience. With a more refined menu and wine selection, it's a classy spot for a more intimate dinner. Book ahead in advance to secure a seating.
At Hanchu, you will find beer and fried chicken here. It's not fancy (nor particularly healthy!) in this American-inspired spot, but its done the local way!
Everything is fried. The beer comes in jugs. It’s delicious.
As a great place to start your evening, the Tap Public is a speciality brewery that features an extensive “serve yourself” beer wall, with a vast array of brews (and wines!) to suit every palate. Upon entry you get a wristband, so simply peruse the brew choices, tap your wrist against your selection, free pour and sip it down! The Tap House tallies by the 10ml, which is perfect if you want a little taste of everything! It’s a lively, interactive spot to hang out with your friends before you venture on!
Where To Shop
Seoul is increasingly becoming an iconic, international style capital. With a progressive street style scene, strong local fashion flavour and major international imports stocking into the numerous "concept" stores dotted around town, it's definitely worth ducking into some of these boutique stores around the neighbourhoods!
Boon The Shop
Credited as Seoul's first luxury boutique, Boon The Shop is extensively curated with high-end “staples” in an eclectic lifestyle meets fashion concept. Admist the gloriously minimal, yet swanky design you will find achingly cool staff and locals, who credit the go-to store as directing the movement for Seoul to become a global fashion destination.
Stocking major international brands that are difficult to locate elsewhere in Seoul, such as Issey Miyake, Common Projects and Etre Cecile, Beaker has a feel reminiscent of Dover Street Market, The Store or Goodhood. With striking design features and beautifully stocked displays of fashion, lifestyle accessories and beauty, you can even drop by the espresso bar for a caffeine hit to keep the shopping buzz up. Put simply, Beaker has a vibe. Drop by.
Queen Mama Market
The seven-storey Queen Mama Market concept store is not to be missed. Over the levels you can find gorgeous interiors and furnishings, a book store, gardening products, high fashion and stunning light drenched café. With esquisite installations, the entire atmosphere of the store is enthralling, you might be very tempted to make some extra room in your suitcase to squeeze some homewares to take back home!
10 Corso Como
The Seoul outpost of Milan retailer 10 Corso Como, this concept store is the meeting of art, fashion and culture in an exquisite space. With an ethos of "Slow Shopping" its likely a place for some rail browsing amongst the elaborately designed store.
If the above doesn't quite fit into your budget but you're after a designer bargain , beeline for Illmo outlet, a gorgeously appointed building, tucked behind an inner city garden oasis in Gangam where you can find absolute stellar steals from the 10 Corso Como store. We're talking up to 80% off brands...
& Other Stories, wide shopping street
This wide, rolling boulevard connecting Cheondong-Dam down to Sinsa-Dong and Gangnam features all the major retailers and their flagship stores. I was delighted to finally locate an Asian & Other Stories along the way. It's a great location for some window shopping.
Where to find Korean Beauty buys
Let's be honest, this was the real reason I was interested in coming to Korea. As K-Beauty has swept the international beauty scene for it’s anti-ageing, multi-step processes that keeps the Korean ladies looking absolutely flawless, hunting down the best beauty buys (and of course sheet masks!) was high on my priority list! Luckily, you can find stores stocking beauty products absolutely everywhere, it's beautifully overwhelming!
Aland was recommendation of a friend who suggested we make a beeline here to stock up on beauty products. A mixed department store, the lower level is packed full of a variety of well known Korean beauty brands which will get you set up with all that you need! Brands to look out for are: CosRX, DR Jart + (which also does have a spectacular stand alone store in Gangnam) and Public White. You will also find rows of sheets masks, eye masks and all kinds of weird and wacky beauty items here!
With claims to be Koreas first “natural” beauty brand, Innisfree features many natural ingredients in their products and is one of the cleaner cosmetic companies to be found in Korea. They have many outposts around town where you can find cosmetics, beauty products and multi-working masks!
It was a pleasant surprise to see the vast amount of outdoor [and free!] infrastructure available in local parks to keep residents moving and healthy around the city. With gym equipment and walking routes in just near every park we wandered into, it seems there is a strong focus on keeping fit and well for free here – when weather permits! Additionally, there are a growing number of studios and gyms dotted around the city for those staying for a longer trip, however for a quick weekend, I opted for a mini hotel room workout, long hike and a quick (albiet very smoggy) discovery run.
Take off from the Grand Hyatt
If you’re looking for a picturesque hike, head straight to the sweeping park that sits just next to the Grand Hyatt Itaewon (an iconic, imposing building that you won’t be able to miss as a landmark!). Through botanical gardens, outdoor gyms, forest pockets and slightly rugged hills, you can climb all the way up to the Seoul Tower from here. Don’t worry though, there are plenty of breath-taking (no, not just from all the stairs) vistas to look out over and numerous rest stops, complete with outdoor lounges, to rest on along the way!
Discovery runs are one of my favourite ways of fitting in a workout while on the go travelling and sight-seeing. Heading out early before the work crowd gets going and cruising the streets, local river paths or into the parks is a great way of adding in some sightseeing. I did find the city to be rather polluted, so take care!
Hotel Room Workout
With a very basic gym at the hotel, sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to keep moving! I prepacked some of my favourite tools and opted for a sculpt workout within our room! Try this work out which can be done just about anywhere using just a towel!