Seoul | Twelve Sightseeing Highlights for First Timers

It had been a long time for me that I last paid visit, so my bucket list on places I wanted to check out was long. Unlike my normal procedure (yeah, I do admit I am kind of a lonely wolf), this time I took my dear co-worker Claudia along. In the end, we did not get to see all the places that I originally intended to visit, but I also cannot remember the last time I had missed so many subway stations to get off at because we simply could not stop to chit-chat. Anyways, we had an awesome stay and I am more than glad that I have a few suggestions for you to make yours a fantastic visit as well!

Itaewon

Whenever in Seoul, I always pay visit to the young and lively neighbourhood of Itaewon. This area is popular for bars, restaurants and nightlife and many expats come here to enjoy a decent night out or simply to stroll through one of the many cool shops hidden in the side streets. Most of the big brands like Nike, Fila or Adidas are located on the main street Itaewon-ro between the subway stations Noksapyeong and Itaewon, while a large amount of bars reside just a street above it. It is also a great spot for dinner or snacking during and after a shopping spree, like What a Salad for example.

Subway Station Itaewon, Line 6, All Exits

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Gyeongbokung Palace

Right behind the imposing Gwanghwamun Gate lies the largest of Seoul´s palaces, Gyeongbokung Palace. Unfortunately it was closed on the day of our visit due to the celebrations of Korea´s Independence Day (1st of March) and the massive current demonstrations against Korea´s president Park Geun-hye. Yet the massive walls looked promising and reminded me lots of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace is supposed to hold a beautifully arranged garden and quite an array of buildings to visit.

Subway Station Gyeongbokung, Line 3, Exit 5

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Gwanghwamun Square

Just in front of the palace down the main road lies this public place which is considered to be Seoul´s official downtown area. It was the seat of the Korean Governor during Colonial times and serves these days as the city´s main square. Gwanghwamun is also the place to hold political rallies and speeches, so there was no wonder that we were confronted with masses of protesters and policemen during the celebrations for Korea´s Independence Day. Generally, I always try to stay away from gatherings like these, especially when they have a political background. But it was early in the morning and the event was only forming, so we took a quick walk over.

Subway Station Gwanghwamun, Line 5, Exit 3

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Cheonggyecheon River

Just at the lower end of Gwanghwamun Square begins one of Seoul´s most popular public recreational areas: Cheonggyecheon River. In the early ages, the creek was created as a drainage system for Seoul under the Joseon Dynasty. During the 1950s and after the Korean War, more and more people moved from the countryside into the city, settling nearby the small river in makeshift houses. Their massive arrival caused lots of trash and pollution to the water and the almost 11 kilometers long creek became an eyesore for the city. The entire stream was covered up with concrete and on some parts were elevated highways constructed. By 1978, Cheonggyecheon was history. At least visually. It was in 2003 that the decision was made to revitalize the area and to transform it from a landfill into a park alike downtown recreational area. It took two years and cost around 281 US-Dollars to complete. Today, Cheonggyecheon is a highly popular meeting point for the locals to take a walk, run, bike or simply to enjoy a moment of tranquility right in the center of the busy metropolis. It is a great example for successful urban renewal and beautification and absolutely worth a visit.

Subway Stations Gwanghwamun, Line 5, Exit 5 / Jonggak, Line 1, Exit 5 / Dongdaemun, Line 4, Exit 7

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Changdeokgung Palace

Belonging to the “Five Grand Palaces” of Seoul, Changdeokgung is also known as the “East Palace” or the “Prospering Virtue Palace”. It is known to be one of the most favored palaces of the Joseon Dynasty Princes. One reason for this may be the more reserved architecture of the entire structure that was meant to blend the building´s structures with the natural topography of the surrounding area instead of imposing them onto it. Unfortunately, only 30% of the original structures have survived the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945. Most of the buildings have been reconstructed over the centuries making Changdeokgung still a great place to visit. Another highlight (but mainly interesting to see from Spring to Autumn) is the 75 acre Huwon (Rear Garden) which was back then intended to serve as the Royal Garden for the palace women and the royal family as recreational hideaway. The park features over 26,000 specimens of trees of which some are over 300 years old! A lot of Korean girls come to Changdeokgung Palace to take portrait photos as they dress in traditional royal costumes of grand old times which is quite interesting to see. The only thing I found a little bit disappointing was the fact, that there are only very few interiors available to look at. Otherwise we have spent two lovely hours exploring the entire ground. The entrance for the palace is only 3,000 Won (2,50 Euro), so really nothing to complain about.

Subway Station Anguk, Line 3, Exit 2

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Bukchon Hanok Village

Right adjacent to Changdeokgung Palace lies Bukchon, one of Seoul´s historical and traditional residential Hanok areas. Some of these houses date back to the Joseon Dynasty and house these days museums, cafés, cultural centers or guest houses. The name Bukchon can be translated as “northern village”, implying the neighbourhoods location north of Jongno  and Cheonggyecheon river. The hanok areas are perfect if you would like to learn something about the culture and traditions of Korean culture. Particularly staying at a hanok guest house must be a very rewarding experience. But even if you prefer to reside in a regular hotel, a visit to one of these neighbourhoods should be on everyone´s list. There are cute little antique, second-hand and Korean design stores. Traditional Korean sweets are sold out of stands and many bars, restaurants and cafés invite for taking a little break in-between city exploration.

Subway Station Anguk,  Line 3, Exit 2

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Naksan Park & Fort Hanyangdoesong

Naksan Park gets its name from its camel hump-like appearance. In Korean “nakta means camel and “san means mountain. So people refer to the park as Nakta Park or Naksan Park. The mountain is a solid granite bedrock. The Joseon royal family enjoyed the natural beauty of the granite mountain, but during the Japanese Colonial Period, a hasty manner of urban planning resulted in the demolition of most parts of the mountain. In an effort to save the remaining green belts, Naksan was designated as a park on June 10, 2002. Located in the center of the Seoul, this historical and beautiful park allows its visitors excellent panoramic views over Seoul and the surrounding mountains. And the best, at no charge! Once you have exited Hyehwa station, check out the amazing sculptures placed around Arko Arts Theatre and Art Center before heading up the hill. The walkway on top of Naksan is altogether around one kilometer long and leads straight to Dongdaemun Gate.

Subway Station Hyehwa, Exit 2

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Dongdaemun Gate

As one of the eight gates of the fortress wall of ancient Seoul, Dongdaemun (aka Heunginjimun), is the “Great East Gate”. The original structure was  built in 1398 while today´s construction dates back to a complete rebuilt in 1869. It went through minor and major repairs in 1998 and 2011. From the little park on the hill just across the street you can enjoy great views onto it particularly during sunset hours. From here it is only a stone´s throw to Dongdaemun History & Culture Park.

Subway Station Dongdaemun, Line 4, Exit 9 / Line 1, Exits 1 & 6

Dongdaemun History & Culture Park

If you love design and famous architect Zaha Hadid, you will absolutely have to visit the Dongdaemun Design Plaza with the integrated History and Culture Park. This landmark is Seoul´s centerpiece as South Korea´s fashionhub and houses lots of design and concept stores where you can find tons of hip and fashionable souvenirs to buy. It is also a great starting point to explore the close-by fashion stores, markets and vendors. The small park outside and on the roof of the building are great backgrounds for hipster selfies.

Subway Station Dongdaemun History & Culture Park, Line 2, Exit 1 / Line 4, Exit 10

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Dongdaemun Market

Just around the corner lies this huge commercial shopping district bringing together traditional markets and modern shopping centers. It is one of Seoul´s most renown areas for fashion and footwear and offers lots of local designers with somewhat extraordinary design ideas. The whole area spreads over 10 blocks including 26 shopping malls, offering as many as 30,000 shops with over 50,000 manufacturers! Bring some time to walk these premises :).

Subway Station Dongdaemun, Line 4, Exit 9 / Line 1, Exits 1 & 6

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Agarbatti Skincare

We discovered this extraordinary shop just by chance when walking the streets of Seoul as it looks from the outside pretty inconspicuous. The inside surprises though with a very contemporary design and it also holds a café. Here you can either directly buy or, and that is the cool thing, create your very own personalized and custom-made skin care products such as lotions, cremes, gels or soaps. Just the way you like it with all the natural ingredients that you wish to add. Unfortunately, I am not able to provide you with a real address. I spent almost an hour to try to locate the shop on Google maps, but it was simply not possible. At least I found their website, yet it is not so help as it is completely in Korean. But at least a hint. Maybe the concierge of your hotel is able to help :).

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Food Market in Changsin-Don

The back streets just behind of Dongdaemun subway station (Line 1, Exit 2) are a maze of local street vendors for Korean specialities and small restaurants. It was so interesting to walk through the tiny and narrow streets while enjoying the various smells around. Great for everyone who is eager to taste the local food!

Subway Station Dongdaemun, Line 1, Exit 2

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And that was it, guys! I hope I was able to bring up some inspiration for your next Seoul adventure. If you like, please also check out my previous post on Seoul about a few cool places for food and drinks! Safe travels, everyone!!!

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