With efficient and inexpensive public transportation, countless sights and excellent food, Seoul was our favorite city in South Korea. Compared to other world cities it has a lot to offer for a small price, and it’s the kind of place where you can spend a month and still have more to explore.
Planning a visit? Here are some things that kept us entertained on a small budget.
Keep an eye on the calendar for festivals in Seoul, and you may find opportunities to really mix in with the locals. We were fortunate enough to be in town for the Queer Culture Festival, an annual event that draws attention to gay rights in a country that doesn’t have any legislation concerning the GLBT community. We usually attend Pride Fest in Denver, so it was nice to show our support in Seoul.
There were some differences, though: Denver’s PRIDE is notably more flamboyant, and in Seoul you have to sign up for a photo pass in order to photograph the event. Many people don’t want to be photographed at all, which is understandable considering they can still be fired from jobs for being gay.
This site is a good resource for information on festivals in the city.
A Day Trip to Suwon
The city of Suwon is a short distance from Seoul and can be reached by metro. There you’ll find the Hwaseong Fortress, an impressive eighteenth century structure with tall brick walls and and commanding gates. If you visit during the heat of summer, hop on the dragon-headed trolley to get out of the sun.
The fortress in itself is worth the trip, but we visited because it’s a good place to try your hand at archery. With more Olympic medals than any other country, the South Koreans can teach us a thing or two about the bow and arrow. And considering how often I missed that target, I need all the help I can get.
Cost: The entry fee for Hwaseong Fortress is ₩1,000 ($1), and the trolley costs ₩1,500 ($1.50). The cost to participate in archery is ₩2,000 ($2) for ten arrows.
Seoul Forest is the perfect place to get outside and go for a run or bike ride. Aside from a ton of green space, it also has an ecological forest, butterfly garden, and waterside park. There’s an insect pavilion, but the majority of its inhabitants have been stuck with pins which makes for a somewhat macabre visit.
One section of the Forest is fenced off for a small population of deer. If you’d like to bring them a treat, there’s a vending machine near the entrance that sells deer biscuits.
If you’re sightseeing in Seoul, the Tower will probably be near the top of your list. Since you’ll be in the area, be sure to check out Namsan Park as well. It’s a popular spot for panoramic views of downtown and it offers hills of green forest, hiking trails, and a shady walking path edged by a babbling brook.
Koreans love to share their heritage with visitors, and many of their cultural attractions are offered free of charge. A good example is the Namsangol Hanok Village where you’ll find five traditional Korean homes called hanok. The homes are furnished and show how people from different walks of life would have lived during the Joseon era.
Depending on the day you visit, you can catch moving musical performances, play traditional games, and work on craft projects. We happened to be there during an enactment of a traditional Korean wedding. Given that it was in Korean we didn’t understand most of it, but we got the idea.
We usually make a beeline for the markets when we arrive to a new city. They always provide some insight into the daily life of a city’s people – from what they wear and eat, to what sorts of products they buy for their homes, to the process of buying and selling itself. Asia’s cities have some of the liveliest, most fascinating markets around, and Seoul is no exception. As a bonus, most marketplaces have street food stalls with cheap, tasty food on the go.
Here are a few we really enjoyed.
Myeongdong, meaning “bright town”, is one of Seoul’s most popular shopping and tourism districts. There are some pricey designer stores there, but you can also find more affordable options for clothing and shoes. Like everywhere else in South Korea, there are skincare stores galore. The area is packed with a younger crowd, and it’s a great place to sip some boba tea and people-watch.
Only ten minutes’ walk from Myeongdong is what many consider to be the largest traditional market in Korea: Namdaemun. It’s also one of the oldest continuously operating markets, dating back to 1414. The place is huge, so stop in to one of the information booths for a map showing what they sell in each section. Namdaemun may not have the glitz of Myeongdong, but the traditional ambiance more than makes up for its lack of neon lights.
Noryangjin Fish Market
When you smell the fish upon exiting Noryangjin Station, you’ll know you’re in the right place. This market sells over eight hundred types of sea creatures including blue crabs, snapper, clams, octopus, and sea cucumber. Feeling hungry? Pick anything that looks tasty and ask the fishmonger to slice it up into sashimi, or take it upstairs to the row of restaurants where they’ll cook it for you. It shouldn’t be a problem to find English menus so you can see how they prepare each item.
Gwangjang is a smaller market where you can see rich silks and traditional Korean clothing on display. It’s also full of food stalls – make sure to try the pajeon (green onion pancake) for a cheap, delicious snack.
Cost: It’s free to visit all of the markets (as long as you don’t give in and buy souvenirs!).
These ideas will get you started, but there are many free museums and affordable palaces around Seoul as well. Enjoy the Special City!