Seoul: 24 hours, 24 adventures
Big. Safe. Spectacular.
We already know why Seoul is the greatest city in the world, but to really experience the Korean capital you’ve got to throw yourself into it.
You probably can’t fit all of the following adventures into a single day -- though if you did, you’d return home with the greatest one-day slide show ever -- but tackling even three or four of them will give you a very big bite of a very flavorful city.
Choose your time frame below
1. Eat breakfast the local way
Every morning, hurried and hungry locals grab easy, cheap breakfasts from one of the smiling (usually) ladies behind a rusty “pojangmacha,” or street stall.
The busiest stalls are in the Yeouido business district and Gangnam station area, where students flock for early-bird English classes.
The most popular order is “toast.” Far from the bland and buttery Western version, “toast” in Seoul means a toasted sandwich stuffed with a full omelet, shredded cabbage, special sauce and other ingredients.
Other pojangmacha items include handmade doughnuts, gimbap, mini-burgers, dumplings and fried rice.
In afternoons and evenings, stall menus switch to heavier fare or alcohol-friendly snacks.
Yeouido station, 3, Yeouido-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu (영등포구 여의도동 3); +82 2 6311 5261
Yeoui Naru station, 85-1, Yeouido-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu (영등포구 여의도동 85-1); + 82 2 6311 5271
2. Brunch with the fashionable crowd
Standing on a street corner with half an omelet dribbling down your shirt not your thing? Join the more fashionable crowd in the Sinsa-dong neighborhood, which is known for its fancy brunch options.
Sinsa-dong is also a great area for some early window shopping through numerous alleys filled with small boutiques, hat and shoe shops and a five-story Forever 21.
Options for a leisurely brunch include:
Bucella (sandwiches, soups and salads), 534-22 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 신사동 534-22); +82 2 517 7339
The Flying Pan (pancakes, omelets and desserts), 540-22 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 신사동 540-22), +82 2 514 5585
Noda Bowl (rice bowl with various toppings of your choice), 535-23, Sinsa-dong, Ganganam-gu (강남구 신사동 535-23); +82 2 515 9634
3. Recover with hangover stew
Hard-partying Koreans have created an entire cuisine to cure the hangover; the remedies are even more effective than Red Bull and Taco Bell.
The favorite medicinal grub is haejang-guk, particularly the seonji haejang-guk, a spicy beef broth with congealed cow blood and bean sprouts.
Other variations include steaming bowls with just bean sprouts (no blood) or dried pollack fish.
Many hangover stew joints are located in business districts and cater to red-eyed men and women who come running during morning and lunch breaks.
Making haejang-guk and curing drinker’s flu since 1937, Chungjinok is the go-to choice of CNNGo staffers who shall remain nameless.
Chungjinok, 24 Jongno 1-ga, Seoul (청진옥, 종로1가 24); +82 2 735 1690
4. Walk along the river, say hello to Seoul
To know Seoul, you’ve got to know the Han River, the artery that flows through all aspects of local life, leisure and commerce.
Starting from the centrally located and popular Jamwon Hangang Park, a walk along the river can take anywhere from 10 minutes to three or four hours.
Along the way are views and photo ops of everything from dull white and gray apartment stacks to lines of modern skyscrapers, from colorful bridges to the dramatic mountains that surround the city.
The banks of the river are home to 11 parks, and another is under construction. These are often filled with locals eating at riverside cafés or playing tennis, basketball or volleyball.
Jamwon Hangang Park, 221-124 Jamwonro, Seocho-gu (221-124 잠원로 서초구); +82 2 3708 0531
5. Get the celebrity treatment (in English or Japanese) at a hair salon
You haven’t experienced a beauty salon until you’ve had your look shaped up in Seoul.
Elite customers (that means everybody, both men and women) start by checking out new styles on an iPad while sipping on complimentary bevvies with snacks, trying out new shades of nail polish and gossiping away about the latest celebrity scandals.
At the many Juno Hair salons around the city, English- and Japanese-speaking staffers dressed in black greet you with big smiles, ready to attack any of your needs.
Pick a stylist and talk about your ideas while the condition of your hair is assessed prior to the most expert cut you’ve ever had.
Other celeb touches include personal makeup consultation and medical check-ups and treatments for your scalp.
Avenue Juno, 63-13, Cheongdam-dong, Gangam-gu (강남구 청담동 63-13); +82 2 2138 0605
6. Make a cheap meal out of side dishes
Many department stores and underground shopping malls offer traditional Korean side dishes, making for an easy, fun and non-intimidating way to sample an array of Korean flavors.
At most markets, small portions of the tasty, colorful dishes are prepared early each morning and sold to busy housewives and hungry workers looking for quick snacks.
At Eunma Underground Shopping Mall, a dozen or so shops are dedicated to local side dishes. The Eunma Jeon shop is famous for its “jeon,” or traditional pancakes.
In the more traditional Namdaemun market, Soyoung Banchan specializes in smaller portions of everyday side dishes such as kimchi, japchae and stir-fried anchovies.
There are too many dishes and flavors to recommend, so the best strategy is to wander around picking up whatever looks good.
Eunma Underground Shopping Mall, Eunma Jeon, Eunma Sangga, 316, Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 대치동 316 은마상가); +82 2 556 5172
Lotte Department Store, 1 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu (중구 소공동 1); +82 2 771 2500
Soyoung Banchan, 50-30, Namchang-dong, Jung-gu (중구 남창동 50-30); +82 773 9337
7. Check out a crazy fish market, with few other tourists
Fish markets around the world have often been turned into tourist attractions -- Tsukiji in Tokyo and Pike Place in Seattle are two examples.
In Seoul, however, Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market has become a favorite of chefs, restaurant buyers and local fish lovers, without attracting much outside attention.
Even you’re not buying, a walk along the market’s narrow alleys provides an exhilarating cacophony of people shouting, chanting, throwing and, of course, chopping and wrapping fish.
Since you’re already starting to smell like one, why not enjoy the freshest fish imaginable right on the spot?
The system is simple: choose the fish you want and the operator of whatever stall you’re standing in front of will pull your choice from the tank and chop it up.
Next, carry your fish to one of the restaurants lined up on the second floor and hand it to the chef, who will cook it for your lunch on the spot.
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, 13-8 Noryangjin-dong, Dongjak-gu (동작구 노량진동 13-8); +82 2 814 2211
8. Grab a ginseng latte
Yes, Koreans like to show off their takeout coffee like it’s a new Prada bag, but don’t be fooled. Not all coffee is created equal -- or is actually coffee.
Local chain Caffe Bene serves a Grain Latte made with five different grains, while Tom N Toms’ specialty is the sweet and soup-like Sweet Potato Latte.
But the crown for most original latte goes to A Twosome Place’s Red Ginseng Frappe.
A cup of foamy ginseng, anyone? It’s actually pretty tasty.
Tom N Toms, 24-31, Chungmuro 1-ga, Jung-gu (중구 충무로 1가 24-31); +82 2 774 8163
A Twosome Place, 705-1, Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 역삼동 705-1); +82 2 3453 2355
9. Get your fortune told … maybe accurately
Extremely popular in Seoul, saju is an Eastern fortunetelling philosophy that can be startlingly accurate.
For the most accurate results, saju seers require the precise time (to the minute) of your birth. Most will begin by talking about your personality and personal history.
Future predictions often revolve around when employment, soul mates, the best age to marry and whether you’ll have a daughter or son.
If you have a Korean friend willing to tag along, Sotdae Saju Café is a comfortable place to relax and listen to saju readings. Costs range from ₩20,000 to ₩40,000, depending on the type of reading. Readings take about an hour.
Sotdae Saju Café, 2/F Hanyang Sangga, 660-8, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 신사동 660-8 한양상가 2층); +82 2 514 7179, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Saju Café Eros offers Japanese and English readings. 56-77, Daehyeong-dong, Seodaemun-gu (서대문구 대형동 56-77); +82 2 363 1810, ₩3,000-₩10,000 won, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
10. Find out how beautiful you are (or aren’t)
Seoul is famous for the “enhanced” good looks of its people.
If you’re curious what it would take -- and how much it would cost – to measure up to local standards of beauty, a quick plastic surgery consultation will provide the (perhaps unsettling) answers.
Anyone can get a “check-up.” No fees are required, although you may feel like you deserve to get paid after listening to a plastic surgeon describing the flaws on your face and body.
Kangnam-Samsung Plastic Surgery, 6/F Hyobong Building, 1306-1, Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu (서초구 서초동 1306-1 효봉 빌딩 6층); +82 2 599 7400. Consultations available in English, Japanese and Chinese.
11. Step into a Korean time machine
Cafés in the Byeoldabang chain may look like ordinary shops, but they’re really places where time runs backward for nostalgic Korean eaters.
Customers young and old come to enjoy old-school Korean treats and reminisce about the good old days.
The most popular order is the traditional dosirak, or bento, in which ham, bulgogi, steamed rice, egg and kimchi are fit into a rectangular tin can. Once the lid is closed, the tin is shaken until the gooey egg yolk and kimchi cover the rest of the ingredients with a sweet and spicy sauce.
It may look unappetizing, but the result is a tasty mixture of salty, spicy, nutty heaven that Koreans will never leave behind.
Byeoldabang Miss Lee, 2/F 144 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 144 2층); +82 2 739 0939, open 10 a.m.-midnight.
12. Visit the most beautiful museum in Korea
With 10 hanok structures, 2,000 pieces of ancient furniture and a posh French restaurant, the Korea Furniture Museum lives up to its reputation: surprisingly stunning yet notoriously exclusive.
“Even if we only receive a very small number of visitors each day, we want every single one of them to experience the history and culture in its entirety,” says museum deputy director Shim Jong-hyun.
He means it when he says “every single one” -- tours are very personal and in-depth.
Tours and restaurant by appointment only. Guided tours: ₩20,000.
Korea Furniture Museum, 330-577 Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul (성북구 성북동 330-577); +82 2 745 0181
13. Break your spice meter
Not afraid of a challenge? Even if it may mean a ruined tongue and tears flowing down your reddened cheeks?
Sinddeok restaurant offers tteokbokki dishes (the iconic, red-orange spicy rice cake goes for ₩2,000 here) in four spice levels.
The entry-level curry tteokbokki has a nutty flavor.
The higher the level, the darker and spicier the sauce becomes.
For anyone who needs something to cool down, Sinddeok shops offer a sweet plum juice. It’s far better than soda, which will tingle your tongue even more after spice.
Drink a cup and you’re ready to go back into spicy battle.
Sinddeok, 1328-11, Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu (서초구 서초동 1328-11); +82 2 598 3516
14. Grill your own meat … or watch a pro do it
Meat is without doubt one of the most important ingredients in the Korean cuisine.
The quintessential meat experience starts with the grill right in the middle of the table at a barbecue restaurant, where piles of meat and other items are brought and diners grill their own food.
It takes timing and skill to conjure the soft, juicy texture Koreans approve of, so pay attention to the more skilled practitioners before picking up those tongs and scissors.
Budnamujip is renowned for its high quality meat and great service, while Bulzip Samgyeopsal serves delicious pork barbecue 24 hours a day.
Budnamujip, 689-12 Yeoksam-dong Gangnamgu (강남구 역삼동 689-12); +82 2 2088 3392
Bulzip Samgyeopsal, 292-46 Sindang-dong, Jung-gu (신당동 중구 292-46); +82 2 323 3384
15. Play a round at Pebble Beach
A city with four beautiful seasons, Seoul nevertheless sometimes contends with heavy rains, scorching heat and heavy snowfalls.
None of this deters Seoul’s golf-crazed locals, who, no matter what the weather, get in their swings on numerous screen-golfing venues around the city.
Players don golf shoes, rent or bring their own clubs and knock real balls into famed golf course scenes displayed on large video screens.
Cameras record every swing, so players can review what they’re doing right and wrong.
Design Screen Golf, 150 Yeomni-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 염리동 150); +82 2 704 0753, ₩20,000-₩30,000 for 18 holes
16. Photograph ancient Korean houses
It’s hard not to notice the hanok, or the traditional Korean houses, lined up along the streets of the relatively quiet neighborhood of Bukchon.
The area is an outdoor museum, with hanok transformed into many different shapes and purposes; a dentist office, supermarket, shops, galleries, and guesthouses.
The village provides guided walking tours and leads visitors to the most photogenic places in the area.
Bukchon Culture Center, 105 Gye-dong, Jongro-gu (종로구 계동 105); +82 2 3707 8388
17. See the sites from a great height
For the past 25 years, the 479-meter N Seoul Tower has been the place to get panoramic views of Seoul.
With a recent facelift and starring role on several popular television dramas, it’s also become a popular date destination.
Whether for a family trip, proposal or solo adventure, the tower is indeed Seoul’s mightiest tourist attraction, but one that even locals have to visit, at least once.
N Seoul Tower, 103 Yongsan-dong 2-ga, Yongsan-gu (용산구 용산동 2가 103); +82 2 3455 9277; tickets ₩9,000 adults, ₩7,000 students
18. Scream on the Comet Express
With sprawling indoor and outdoor areas, Lotte World is one of the best amusement parks in Asia.
It gets better after 4 p.m., when all the kids and families have gone home.
With smaller crowds, shorter lines, parades and most attractions operating till late at night, this is the time to enjoy such scares as the Atlantis Adventure roller coaster, which applies 3.8 G forces to riders; the completely subterranean Comet Express coaster; and terrifying French Revolution loop coaster, which runs the indoor section of the park at blood-curdling speeds.
Lotte World, 40-1 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu (송파구 잠실동 40-1); +82 2 411 2000
Monday-Thursday 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Sunday 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Night opening Monday-Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Sunday 4 p.m.-11 p.m.
₩31,000 adults, ₩27,000 students, ₩23,000 children
19. Get lost in a sprawling market
What good is an adventure if you don’t get a bit lost?
The alleys and passageways of cramped Namdaemun market are a great place to wander aimlessly.
Some alleys have specific themes, with streets devoted to the hard-boiled hairtail fish dish, sundae (a type of Korean sausage), traditional souvenirs such as Korean pop idol socks and even ginseng.
Each alley leads to a new street to another passageway and so on.
Namdaemun market, 49 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu (중구 남창동 49); +82 2 753 2805
20. Leave Korea for an hour
The Itaewon area is famed among Koreans for its foreign cuisine, with the nearby Gyeongridan street emerging as the block for a temporary break from all things Korean.
If you need a break from bulgogi and kimchi, there’s Mi Madre for Spanish, Buddha’s Belly for Thai, Le Saigon for Vietnamese, Pizzarium for Italian, Taco Chili Chili for Mexican, Sydney Seafood for Australian and Teaism for Japanese.
Wait, which city are we in again?
Mi Madre, 2/F 568 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 568 2층); +82 790 7875
Buddha’s Belly, 119-7 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 119-7); +82 2 796 9330
Le Saigon, 673 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 673); +82 2 790 0336
Pizzarium, 529 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 529); +82 2 312 7580
Sydney Seafood 2/F 671 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 671 2층); +82 2 790 2722
Teaism 258-13 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (용산구 이태원동 258-13); +82 2 792 0474
21. Get scrubbed by a stranger
When it comes to exfoliation, sweet-scented products just aren’t enough to satisfy the tough skins of Koreans.
The intense Korean exfoliation experience, also known as “ddae-mili,” might sound rough, but there really is nothing like it.
Customers first jump naked into the warm water of a bathtub and wait until the “scrubbing” professional calls them individually to the exfoliation corner, where they lie down on a plastic bed.
Now comes the rough part. The scrubber cleans your entire body with a very coarse bath mitten.
Soon your skin will be so soft you won’t remember the embarrassment of lying down on a cold plastic bed, stark naked, waiting for a stranger to rub you from head to toe.
Sillloam Firepot Sauna (English- and Japanese-speaking staff), 128-104, Jungrim-dong, Jung-gu (중구 중림동 128-104); +82 264 3944
22. Buy trendy clothes under the stars
Yes, Doota and Migliore malls have great deals and are still hip places to shop for nearly everything.
But plenty of shoppers consider Dongdaemun Jeil Pyunghwa market to be the city’s fashion leader.
The market is open from 10 p.m. until 4:30 a.m., so you know this isn’t the place where suburban moms and cubicle prisoners get their latest looks.
The narrow alleys are such a zigzagged maze that visitors may find themselves roaming the same stalls over and over.
The trick is to grab the best deal when you see it, as it’s likely to be gone soon. And, in any event, short of a trail of breadcrumbs, you might not be able to find your way back to the same shop.
Remember to check out what the clerks are wearing. They often sport the hottest and hippest styles in the city.
Weekdays 10 p.m.-4:30 a.m., Sunday 9 p.m.-4:30 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dongdaemun Jeil Pyunghwa market, 775 Sindang 1-dong, Jung-gu (중구 신당 1동 775); +82 2 2252 6744
23. Drink the local poison
Korea distills its share of traditional liquors, but the best way to appreciate them is to mix them up.
Commonly known as “the bomb,” a mix of soju and beer is the most popular blend of Korean favorites. Street stalls and restaurants are full on Friday and Saturday nights, and most pour the bomb.
The cheapest and the most local way to drink is to sit beneath a tented street stall on Jongro street ordering simple side dishes to go with the happy bombs.
Find Jongro street at 46 Doneui-dong, Jongro-gu (종로구 돈의동 46); +82 2 6110 1301
24. Eat one last time
Getting around and learning about a new city can be tiring, which is why Seoul has so many 24-hour shops, cafés, fast-food chains and bars.
For something hearty, visitors can try samgyeopsal (strips of grilled pork belly) at Wonjo Ssambab, even at 4 a.m.
For those who don’t want to get out of bed, delivery is a Seoul eating mainstay. You can even have Chicken McNuggets delivered to your hotel.
Wonjo Ssambab, 167-3, Nonhyun 1-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 논현 1동 167-3); +82 2 548 7589
Yangchonri, 411-10, Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 도곡동 411-10); +82 2058 1245
McDonald’s, +82 2 1600 5252