If the South Korean capital isn’t on your hit list, these top city stops will change your mind. This is your easy itinerary for spending an incredible week in Seoul.
Cycle the Han River
“The Han River is literally Seoul’s playground,” says Frank Lee of the Han River Riders Cycling club. The Han (or Hangang) flows east-west through the capital with 11 dynamic city parks along its banks. Grab a bike rental from park kiosks to take a spin along trails on either side of the river – if you’re feeling intrepid, the path continues a further 556 kilometres to Busan. For a more leisurely approach, see the city lights on an Eland Cruise starlight tour. In April, the riverside cherry blossoms at Yeouido Park turn to pink lace.
Pause in Jogyesa Temple
A single bell ripples the air at dawn and dusk; three golden Buddhas shine between the heavy red pillars of the Dharma Hall. For all this serenity, Jogyesa Temple is a brushstroke of colour amid the business greys and blacks of downtown. Visit in May when the temple is ribboned with lanterns for the Lotus Lantern Festival. Across the street, the seasonal menu at Balwoo Gongyang underscores the simple elegance of vegan temple food.
Sweat it out in a traditional sauna
Korea’s famous jjimjilbang (sauna spas) are an unmissable experience but if the etiquette or, ahem, scant dress code intimidates, head to Cimer to combine the blissful traditional sauna experience with the familiarity of a Western spa. Feel tension melt away in the blanketing heat of the Jjimjil Spa Zone as you work your way up to the 85°C Bulgama (kiln fire) room, making a rejuvenating stop in the Ice Room before exploring the rest of this three-storey aqua spa. At Aquafield, in giant shopping mall Starfield Hanam, kids can enjoy the indoor/outdoor water parks while their adults unwind in more than a dozen relaxation and dry sauna areas.
Fire up at a Korean barbecue
Barbecue is Korea’s first choice for a night out and restaurants are easily recognisable by the silvery ventilation tubes that hang like chandeliers above table grills. Order by the cut of meat; an array of vegetable side dishes is included. Sample a range of popular cuts, such as pork belly and marinated galbi (ribs), at Maple Tree House – a rare barbecue restaurant that caters to solo diners as well as groups. Upscale Born & Bred specialises in Hanwoo, Korea’s answer to Wagyu beef. Here you’ll find a boutique butcher shop, a casual dining restaurant and an exclusive omakase eatery in the basement speak-easy.
Hit the best kids’ parks in the city
Children will love Lotte World Adventure, which has the world’s largest indoor theme park among its attractions. Use the park’s Adventure App to check wait times then avoid them by reserving spots on up to 10 rides with the Premium Magic Pass. A stroll through leafy Seokchon Lake Park next door (the lake is shaped like a figure eight) will give everyone a chance to wind down beneath cherry blossoms in spring and firework foliage in autumn. Then get cheering at a baseball match in Jamsil Stadium, Korea’s most venerable ballpark, where you can see evening games played six nights a week from April to September. At the end of the day, collapse into the luxurious embrace of Signiel Seoul, set high above the city in Lotte World Tower.
SEE ALSO: 25 Ways to Experience the Best of Seoul
Meet the locals on a walking tour
“Seoul is a metropolitan city containing tradition and modernity,” says Hoon Son, who has shared his city’s streets and stories with visitors since 2011. Seoul Guided Walking Tour offers free, English-language tours along 40 historical and cultural routes, including six night-time trails available between May and October. Volunteer guides like Hoon come from varied walks of life but share a deep knowledge and love of their home. For tradition, he recommends the Gyeongbokgung Palace tour for its tales of intrigue from the Joseon Dynasty; for modernity, the night course along regenerated Cheonggyecheon Stream, which showcases the green city Seoul aspires to be.
Find a solodining scene
For lone travellers, Seoul’s honbap (dining alone) trend means you can now enjoy dishes that usually require a crowd, such as the beef course menu at Ushiya (16 Dosandae-ro 27-gil, Gangnam-gu; +82 10 9359 9667) or Oncheonjip’s chic shabu-shabu (Ikseon-dong 128-3, Jongno-gu; +82 2 762 8215). Meals that are always great for one: crack an egg into kimchi soondubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) at Bukchang-dong Sundubu or slurp kalguksu noodles at Myeongdong Kyoja, a local favourite for nearly six decades.
Ride the Seoul Metro... for fun
Make the journey your destination on the city’s celebrated metro system. There are more than 300 stations on its nine main lines and many are attractions in their own right. Encounter history in underground museums at Gwanghwamun (Line 5), visit Gangnam (Line 2) for subterranean shopping heaven or get a salad grown by robots at a futuristic smart farm in Sangdo (Line 7). The metro has its own art gallery in Gyeongbokgung (Line 3) and a film festival, which is screened in trains each autumn. Use rechargeable Tmoney cards for discounted fares; they work for taxis and buses, too.
Hike to the top of Bukhansan National Park
“It’s a good example of how much hiking there is in Korea when the capital city has one of the gems of all the parks in its backyard,” says Roger Shepherd of Hike Korea. He should know, having guided treks in South and North Korea for more than a decade. Bukhansan, just under an hour on public transport from central Seoul, has trails that shoot up mountainsides, follow ancient fortress walls or meander through pine forests to hidden temples. Shepherd suggests a ramble to the summit of Baegundae, the park’s highest peak. Back in Seoul, feast on meat-stuffed mung bean pancakes and that essential post-hike refreshment, makgeolli rice wine, at Jongno Bindaetteok (Sejong-daero 23-gil 21, Jongno-gu; +82 2 737 1857).
Try kimchi beer on a pub crawl
How does a country that produces none of the key ingredients for beer end up bagging craft brewing awards? Originality and a bit of fearlessness. “We are trying to capture something local,” says Erik Moynihan, CEO of Magpie Brewing Co. Its Kimchi Ghost, a variation on the sour gose that won Champion Beer of Asia in 2019, echoes the fresh bite of cucumber kimchi. Newcomer Artmonster’s six retro taprooms are heavy on neon and fuchsia paint but it’s not all flash – each of the 10 beers carries a garland of international awards.
Sleep among the trees
At Banyan Tree Club & Spa Seoul you won’t feel guilty for skipping the sights to hang around the hotel all day. Tucked along the edge of Namsan, Seoul’s largest park, it’s a verdant escape in the middle of the city. Afternoon coffee and dessert is at Festa by Mingoo, an airy garden eatery by renowned chef Mingoo Kang. Refresh with a dip in your in-room pool before drinks on the Moon Bar terrace with views of Namsan Tower, an iconic part of Seoul’s skyline.
Image Credits: Khanh Nghia Tran, Alamy Stock Photo, Unsplash, Sanga Park