10 Ways to Experience Korean Culture in Seoul

Nattanai | Dreamstime.com

It can be difficult to connect with the local culture in big cities where you might be overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan amenities and international flavors that dominate and shape the world’s great metropolises. But Seoul is a place that’s utterly and uniquely Korean. From the innovative street style of the city’s residents, to the traditional architecture that has remained amid rapid modern development, Seoul is the perfect place to understand Korea as it was, as it is, and as it will be. There’s more than one way to understand the heart of Seoul; here are our 10 picks for getting to know the city and its culture. —Abbey Chase

Zephyr1783 | Dreamstime.com

Take a Walk Through Old Seou

Part of what makes Seoul great is its eclectic mix of old and new, but to immerse yourself in one of the city’s few remaining traditional neighborhoods, spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Bukchon Hanok Village. Tucked behind two of the city’s historical palaces, this area dates back to the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the Korean kingdom for 500 years until 1897. The traditional stone and clay houses have been preserved and reconstructed, and now house upscale boutiques, small museums, cafes, and some traditional-style guesthouses. The neighborhood’s scenic location on the steep hillsides in the northern part of the city affords great views of Seoul. 

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Axel2001 | Dreamstime.com

Visit the DMZ

The continued conflict with North Korea is an unfortunate part of modern-day life in South Korea, but a trip to the DMZ offers important insight into the ongoing situation. The USO based out of Camp Kim in Seoul offers tours most days to the DMZ with stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four known tunnels that connect North and South Korea, and the Dora Observatory, where you’ll be able to get a glimpse of North Korea across the DMZ. Be sure to book the tour that includes a stop at the Joint Security Area (JSA), the site where diplomatic meetings between the two countries take place.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Nattanai | Dreamstime.com

Hike in Bukhansan National Park

Just outside Seoul’s urban sprawl is Bukhansan National Park, a 30-square-mile wooded area with great hiking trails, more than 100 temples, the 300-year-old Bukhansanseong fortress, and three granite mountains. The hike to the top is a steep ascent along a 2-4 mile trail (depending on your route), but the summit is worth the climb, offering views of the city and the surrounding jagged peaks. Hiking is enormously popular among Koreans, who turn out for weekend jaunts in brightly colored hiking apparel with multi-course packed lunches, so while you won’t find serenity or solitude on your hike in Bukhansan, you’ll get the chance to participate in the national pastime with groups of avid local hikers.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Peogeo | Dreamstime.com

Sample Korean Cuisine

Whatever your budget, you’ll never go hungry in Seoul if you stick to local specialties. The Myeong-dong neighborhood and Namdaemun Market are two good places in the city to try traditional street food, with favorites like spicy rice cakes, fried chicken, Korean porridge, bibimbap (a mixed rice dish), ginseng chicken soup, “egg bread,” various kebabs, sweet Korean pancakes, and for the really adventurous, stewed silkworm larvae. No trip to Seoul would be complete without trying the famous bulgogi (barbecued beef). There are countless restaurants serving the local specialty all over the city, and Byeokje Galbi (1-4, Yangjae-daero 71-gil, Songpa-gu) is one of the best, often considered one of the best restaurants in Asia. Finally, Seoulites love their dessert, from ice cream and pastries, to Korean favorites like honey bread toast and the ubiquitous shaved ice.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Nattanai | Dreamstime.com

Explore Imperial Seoul

The Kingdom of Joseon controlled the entire Korean Peninsula from 1392–1897 and its legacy has shaped much of modern Korea today. During their 500-year tenure, the various kings constructed five palaces in Seoul, their capital, and all five are still standing today in one form or another, as the entire city suffered massive destruction during the Japanese occupation. Gyeongbokgung is the oldest, dating back to 1395 (though it was almost entirely reconstructed in the 19th century), and served as the main royal palace. Today it sits on the northern edge of modern Seoul with Mount Bugak looming in the background. Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung, and Changdeokgung, the favorite among many members of the royal family, are the other four, and all five palaces are clustered together near Seoul City Hall and the central business district, within easy walking distance of each other. There are also the Eight Gates of Seoul, original entrances to the city from the Joseon period, six of which still exist today.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Pius99 | Dreamstime.com

Relive the 1988 Summer Olympics

Known locally as Olpark, Seoul Olympic Park is an hour train ride from the city center and was built on the site of Mongchontoseong Fortress from the Baekje period, which ran from 18 B.C. to 660 A.D. An outdoor exhibit details the area’s rich history alongside the Olympics Museum and the Seoul Olympics Museum of Art with an extensive sculpture collection. At the Peace Plaza near the main entrance through the World Peace Gate, the Olympic flame from the XXIV Games continues to burn alongside flags from the 160 participating nations. Extensive walking paths through the eco-park, home to several species of flora and fauna, make this area a popular respite for Seoulites on weekends.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Pacofurio | Dreamstime.com

Honor War Veterans at the War Memorial of Korea

With its enormous marble expanse and imposing facade, the War Memorial of Korea would fit right in on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., offering a solemn tribute to the soldiers and civilians who were killed in the conflict. Seoul was an important battleground during the Korean War and the museum, located on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Korean infantry, explores the conflict in detail, as well as providing an overview of Korean history long before the recent war. Outside, you can see fighter jets and heavy artillery used in the war and on the southwest side of the memorial, look for the Statute of the Brothers, a monument expressing hope for a peaceful future and eventual Korean reunification.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Vincentstthomas | Dreamstime.com

Tap into Seoul’s Artsy Side

To understand the history of Korean art and culture, start at the National Museum of Korea, the sixth largest museum in the world with a thorough, chronological history tracing the evolution of Korean culture with 15,000 pieces on display at any given time. Next, head to the Seoul Museum of Art for a more in-depth look at classic and modern Korean art, housed in the renovated Korean Supreme Court building. Your third stop is one of Seoul’s architectural masterpieces. Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid in collaboration with a Korean architecture firm, features an undulating, aluminum exterior with panels that light up at night. Within the 409,000-square-foot complex is a series of exhibition halls with temporary exhibits focusing on fashion and Korean creative industry, a design lab, a rooftop park, and shopping and dining space. Finally, check out the newest addition to Seoul’s art scene, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, opened in November 2014.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Prestonia | Dreamstime.com

Reflect at Jogyesa Temple

Jogyesa Temple (55, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu), the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, can be found smack in the middle of one of Seoul’s busiest business centers. Though its setting doesn’t sound particularly relaxing, the grounds around the temple offer a pleasant respite from the goings-on of the city beyond its walls. Just outside the main temple building are several 500-year-old trees that provide shade and help block the view of the towering skyscrapers nearby. Bright colors adorn the buildings, and during the Lotus Lantern Festival in May honoring the Buddha’s birthday, Jogyesa celebrates in style with thousands of colorful lanterns strung across the courtyard.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide

Peruse the City’s Best Department Stores

Shopping is a popular pastime in any big city, but in Seoul, a spin through a luxury department store or a perusal of the city’s small boutiques is a great way to see another side of modern Korea. At Doota!, Western designers are few and far between, with Korean high fashion and ready-to-wear apparel filling the eight-story, glass-encased building. Shinsagae offers a shopping experience on par with Saks Fifth Avenue, but there are plenty of local designers to be found among the big European labels, and the bottom floor food court is arguably the most luxurious cafeteria-style dining option in the world. Insa-dong and Bukchon Hanok Village are the neighborhoods for craft boutiques and souvenir shopping, though the wares are a cut above the usual t-shirt shop offerings.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Seoul Travel Guide