Shakedown, Seoul

Seoul, capital of South Korea, is truly a mega-city, with over 25 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, 17 subway lines, 6 bus terminals and thousands upon thousands of restaurants and bars. It is split into 25 districts 14 north of the river and 11 South and many of these have their own distinct business, shopping and restaurant districts. There’s so much here that it’s no surprise that it can take some days to orientate yourself in Seoul and, though you can explore the main tourist spots in a few days, at least a week to feel like you (kinda) know where you’re going!

The best thing you can do to help yourself get around is learn to read a little Korean script. It’s honestly not that hard to get the hang of (unlike Chinese it’s phonetic and not tonal) and once you know a few key words the neon signs and subway lines will start to pop with meaning. If you’re heading out somewhere and aren’t 100{8105bc8a7da0e4ee2985a05e217cd0e1bef95b551bf8bafd62a449e444182173} sure how to get back to your accommodation, make sure you have the address written in Korean to show a taxi driver as most do not any speak English.

Seoul can be intensely cold in the winter and oppressively hot in the summer. Choose spring or autumn to make the most of the outside and inside attractions as well as the gorgeous autumn leaves or beautiful cherry blossoms (not just a Japanese phenomenon).

What to See

Though wandering around the streets can be enlightening (not to mention fun) Seoul is so massive and diffuse that it’s best to have an idea of what you want to see before heading out for the day. The subway system is vast and can get you most places you need to go but it can be confusing to negotiate despite the English signs. With a little persistence and a couple of extra-long transfers under your belt you’ll soon get the hang of it.

There are a huge range of sights to see in Seoul and if we were listing them all we’d be here all day! A must see is Gyeongbokgung Palace, a huge rambling collection of buildings with a fascinating history and it’s very own changing of the guard (an even more colourful affair than the British tradition). Be sure to set aside at least half a day to wander the throne room, gardens and mazes of bedrooms and courtyards.

Though undoubtedly the largest, Gyeongbokgung is by no means the only palace in Seoul which has no less than 4 other Royal residencies for you to explore.
The iconic image of Seoul is Sungnyemun gate which (despite its underwhelming location in the middle of a traffic island) has been designated as the number one national treasure of South Korea. It’s been renovated recently and is well worth crossing the city to see.

If Seoul is to be your only stop in South Korea, be sure not to miss Bukchon Village – a winding assortment of alleyways and traditional houses smack bang in the middle of the Seoul skyscrapers. Though still common in the countryside, houses have been replaced by apartment blocks for almost every family in every Korean city, so this is an excellent opportunity to see life the way it was just a few short decades ago.

If you’ve had your fill of ancient buildings and spectacular palaces (us neither) why not spend the day in the world’s largest indoor theme park Lotte World. It’s easily reached from the city via the subway and has rollercoasters, a flume ride, bungee drop and loads more! Especially good when it’s too hot/cold to spend much time outdoors….and especially bad during the school holidays when queuing will take up 99{8105bc8a7da0e4ee2985a05e217cd0e1bef95b551bf8bafd62a449e444182173} of your day.

Though not technically in Seoul – a day trip out to the DMZ (the border with North Korea known as the “demilitarised zone”) is a poignant insight into the division that defines South Korea. Through mounted binoculars guarded by armed soldiers you can stare into the show “peace” village of Kijong-dong and get a glimpse into one of the world’s most secretive countries. Another highlight is a visit to the incursion tunnels – attempts by the North to infiltrate the South with the most recent only discovered in 1990!


Korean food is often spicy, sometimes scary and (almost) always delicious. For Korean’s a meal is not a meal without Kimchee – a fermented cabbage dish served with almost every meal along with an array of other side-dishes. Best of all – tipping is unheard of!

In Seoul the eating possibilities are seemingly endless. If you’re after a quick snack you can do a lot worse than a Kim Bap Nara – a Korean staple that are distinguishable by their orange signs and cheap, decent local food like Bi Bim Bap (a rice and vegetable dish sometimes served with meat and egg in an hot stone bowl) and Kim Bap, a filled sushi roll perfect for lunch. A word of caution though, even in cosmopolitan Seoul the menus can be Korean only affairs so if you’re feeling a little wary (which is understandable – I once managed to order a plate full of nothing but offal) look out for one of the many Kim Bap Naras with pictures lining the walls for point and click dining.

For a main meal satisfy the carnivore in you and head to a Korean BBQ joint where the meat is cooked in the middle of the table and eaten wrapped in leaves with garlic, gochujang (red chili paste) and anything else from the array of side dishes you happen to fancy. These joints can be found all over the city – look out for the extractor fans hanging over the tables to suck up the smoke from all that delicious grilling.

Unlike many restaurants around the world Korean eateries often specialise in one very narrow type of food – sometimes even just on one dish. This can be a boon for language oblivious visitors as you know what you’re getting before you even order! For some top notch grub look out for places specialising in Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup), Galbi (spicy chicken), or Manduguk (dumpling soup).

If you’re just not sure what you fancy and feel like wandering around, Namdaemun market has some fantastic street food options.
Finally, for a little taste of home (or at least a Korean-American hybrid interpretation of western food) head the popular expat district of Itaewon where you’ll find burgers, pizzas and fried chicken galore. Oh my.


Like most major cities these days you can find some fantastic budget options including hostels and guesthouses in Seoul. The Sinchon area is close to many of the city’s universities and there are cheap and cheerful digs available for under £10per night.

If you’re feeling brave, aren’t sticking around for long or just need a good wash, why not try a jjimjilbang? This is a Korean Sauna/Spa, most of which have sleeping facilities where you pay for 12 – 24 hours. You’ll share a large (single sex) public room with dozens of others and have access to the spa facilities all from as little as £3 per night. It’s not for everyone, you need to be a pretty deep sleeper and not be bothered much by other people’s snores or restless sleeping habits, but for a country which can sometimes be surprisingly expensive it’s a great way to save money for all that fantastic food you’ll be eating!

If your tastes and budget run a little higher than a guest house or sauna, when it comes to luxury in Seoul the sky really is the limit. Head to Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam) for some high class sleeping options in one of the most fashionable districts of one of the most fashionable cities in the world!

Getting there and away

Due to its landmine strewn border with North Korea, South Korea is essentially an island and often the only way in or out is to fly (though if you’re heading to/from Japan you can get the ferry from Busan). Once you’re in Seoul however, you can take advantage of one of the world’s most efficient, clean and comfortable national public transport systems.

Ride the fantastically fast KTX trains to Busan (party central on the beach in the South of South Korea) or jump on a coach to pretty much anywhere in the county. And we’re not talking smelly, over-crowded jolting busses here. In Korea bus travel is almost luxurious with express coaches kitted out with leather seats (only three across on many busses) which recline and even have foot rests. Do as the Koreans do and lie back, relax and catch some Zzzz’s while the countryside rushes by.

If Korea is on your radar check out our cheap flights, rails passes, accommodation and, if you’d like to teach English in South Korea, our TEFL courses to help put your plans together.