I studied in Seoul in 2009 and returned to teach English full-time in February 2011. Here’s how I’d spend a day (multiple options included).
Morning

Drag yourself out of bed around 9 or 10. Seoulites work, play, and study long after midnight, so nothing is open before 8. Get to central Seoul, north of the Han River. If you’re not in the mood for a kimchi and rice breakfast, a coffee and muffin at Jeon’s Coffee, near Anguk station, is a nice alternative.

Time for your first itinerary decision: Do you want to learn a bit about traditional Korean culture or explore the modern sections of the city? Figure it out and walk to the nearest subway station.

Option 1: Rent a bike.
Ride along the Han River past the skyscrapers and bridges of modern Seoul. Take breaks in the many Han River parks. Grab some snacks at a convenience store (FamilyMart, MiniStop, and Buy the Way are ubiquitous) along the way or pack some kimbap — Korean sushi — in your bag.

Option 2: Culture / history tour
Head to Gyeongbokgung station on line 3, where you can visit Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung, Seoul’s vast palaces from the Joseon Dynasty. Also in the area is the National Folk Museum and the Bukchon Hanok Village, the latter of which is filled with traditional-style Korean homes.

Noonish

If you opted for the history lesson, and you’ve exhausted the palace grounds, take the 10-minute walk back to Anguk station. Check out Insa-dong and Samcheong-dong, “traditional” neighborhoods of cobblestoned streets; art galleries; souvenir shops (this is where to get any gift buying out of the way); old-school restaurants; and Jogyesa, a Buddhist temple.

Grab lunch at Barugongyang, a Buddhist cafe, which serves vegetarian temple food. Despite Korea’s current obsession with coffeeshops, many teahouses are found along the side streets here. Before you leave, watch a street vendor make king’s candy.

For something totally different, go for a live octopus lunch. You can find this at the Noryangjin Fish Market, near Noryangjin station (lines 1 and 9).

Afternoon

Photo: jeffgunn

Option 1: Take a short hike.
This is pretty much the national pastime in Korea — expect to see many older Korean men and women decked out in expensive gear on even the tamest trails.

From Myeongdong station, begin walking towards Namsan. You can also cheat and take the cable car up the mountain (7,000 won round trip). Decide if a smoggy view of Seoul is worth the 9,000 won elevator ride up Namsan Tower. Next, debate whether to visit the Teddy Bear Museum, (located at the base of the tower). Sounds lame, but you’ll never see teddy bears reenacting the history of Seoul again.

Near the tower entrance, you can be the ultimate tourist and dress in hanbok — traditional Korean clothing — for free. Warning: Japanese tourists will surround you and snap an excessive amount of photos. Don’t eat at the restaurants in the tower; they are way too expensive.

Option 2: Relax at Dragon Hill Spa.
This Korean spa is divided into two sections: the jjimjilbang, where you wear clothes, and the sauna, where you don’t. In the co-ed jjimjilbang, you’ll be given a t-shirt and shorts to wear while you eat in the restaurants, play arcade and computer games, and relax in the main lounge area. Bring your own socks for the salt sauna; the ones they sell suck.

The sauna, separated by gender, contains a bathhouse and steam rooms. Get naked and pay for the body scrub (25,000 won). Marvel at how much dead skin is scraped off your body. In the warmer months, the outdoor co-ed swimming pool is open on the ground floor. Yes, you must wear a bathing suit, and yes, you will get splashed by annoying Korean children.

Option 3: Head to Hongdae.
The neighborhood around Hongik University is one of the trendiest / hipster-est in Seoul. From Hongik station, walk to a cat or dog café and pay about 8,000 won to pet a furry friend while you drink your caramel macchiato.

Allergic? Try the Hello Kitty café instead, or spend an hour posing for illusional photos at the Trick Eye Museum.

Evening

Option 1: Eat / drink in Hongdae.
Do Korean barbeque — samgyeopsal (pork belly) or galbi (beef ribs) — for dinner. Meat restaurants cluster east of Hongik station (take exit 8). Post-food, break into the makkoli — Korean rice wine — at a makkoli bar. You can get it cheaper from the Makkoli Man in the park in front of the university.

On the weekends, this park is filled with Korean students and expats, and laid-back street performances. You might even catch a Silent Disco party, where you dance to music played through a set of rented headphones.

Photo: hojusaram

For live music, try Club B Bang, a small venue attracting the hipsters. M2 is good for the house music / club scene — it’s a larger place with high ceilings that’s packed on the weekends and sometimes hosts special events, like Japanese pole dancing or Bboy shows (weekdays 10,000 won, weekends 20,000 won cover).

Noraebang — karaoke — is the classic way to kill time late night till the subway begins running again at 5:30am. Prince Edward is a luxury noraebang, with private rooms and unlimited ice cream and popcorn. There’s a wide variety of Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese songs on the books, and even a few Spanish tunes.

Option 2: Hit up Itaewon with the foreigners / expats.
Start at Itaewon station, line 6. There’s Korean / Mexican fusion cuisine — “makolitas” (makkoli maragaritas) and kimchi fries — at Vato’s Urban Tacos.

Once you’ve eaten, go to Bungalow, a beach-themed bar with deck chairs, swings, and floors covered with several inches of sand. Have a few drinks there, and then move to Club Volume for its lineup of world-class DJs.

Option 3: Go shopping.

The markets are open way into the morning, and you won’t be alone. Dongdaemun, the Great East Gate, is filled with clothing stores, while Namdaemun, the Great South Gate, sells housewares and other goods.

In Myeongdong, the streets are lined with brand name stores (H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara), trendy shops, street kiosks with inexpensive accessories, and street food stalls. Practice the phrase, “ca ca chuseyo?” to score a discount on purchases from the clothing and accessory vendors on the street.

For food, try the samgyetang — chicken soup with ginseng — at Baekje Samgyetang, or snack on ddeokppokki, street-food style — these are rice tubes with a spicy red sauce that my sister once described as “spicy spaghetti-o’s.” You can also add deep-fried veggies and dumplings to the mix.

End of the night

The subway closes around midnight, so if you’re not pulling an all-nighter, make sure to have directions to your hostel written out in Hangeul for your cab driver. Even better, hop into a nearby jjimjilbang and spend the night. Most are open 24 hours, but Dragon Hill Spa (12,000 won, see above), located at Yongsan station, and Happy Day Jjimjilbang in Hongdae (7,000 won) are two of the best options.

There’s no need for a reservation — the hard floor mats in the gender-divided sleeping rooms are first come first served. You’ll be sleeping in the same room as many others, but you can store your possessions in lockers and dip in the baths in the morning.

10 tips for 24 hours in Seoul

Photo: hojusaram

  1. Come in the fall.
  2. Learn how to read Hangeul, Korean writing. (It only takes a day, I swear.)
  3. Print the addresses and directions to your destinations in Hangeul, so you can show people on the street in case you get lost. Many Koreans don’t speak English (though they’ll usually insist on helping you anyway).
  4. Bow slightly when you greet someone or say goodbye. (It’s more like a head nod.)
  5. When you hand over or receive money, use two hands or place your empty hand on your forearm, as a sign of respect.
  6. Try to be quiet on public transportation.
  7. Don’t tip.
  8. Push your way through the crowds, and don’t apologize if you bump into someone.
  9. Check the expat magazine Groove Korea for daily events.
  10. Girls: Cover up your top, but show all the leg you want.
Matador articles for Seoul / Korea trip planning
Get around Seoul
  • Subway (ji-ha-chol): Use a rechargeable T-Money card. Each ride begins at 900 won (less than US$1), and all the stops and announcements are in both English and Korean. The system extends into all surrounding cities and is quite efficient.
  • Buses (buh-su): Use your T-Money card on all the local buses and get a free transfer from subway to bus. The buses are a bit more confusing to use because all the signs are written in Korean. If you ask, someone will gladly help you.
  • Bikes (cha-jeon-go): Traffic can be fierce, so I wouldn’t recommend biking for long distances when you’re not sure where you’re going. You can rent a bike near the Han River, but you need to bring your ID and return it by 6pm.
  • Taxis (taek-shi): Taxis are only necessary after midnight when the subway and buses stop running. Make sure the meter is turned on and you have your destination written in Korean. Most cab drivers don’t speak English. Also, the black cabs are more expensive.
  • Walking: Seoul is one huge city, but it’s easy to navigate. Most signs are written in English and Korean, and you can usually spot a sign for a subway station. Getting around on foot within neighborhoods and from one to an adjacent area is easily doable.
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