Top 10 Things to Do in Seoul

Time magazine has released its list of 10 things to do in Seoul in 24 hours:

  1. Gyeongbok Palace, the main palace from the Joseon period
  2. Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighbourhood of traditional houses
  3. Shinsegae Department Store (the flagship location), an expensive department store
  4. Bugaksan Mountain, a mountain near Gyeongbok Palace and the Blue House (the President's residence)
  5. Itaewan, the foreigner neighbourhood
  6. Namdaemun Market, a huge market with just about anything you could want
  7. Cheonggyecheon Stream, the renovated stream the flows through downtown
  8. War Memorial of Korea, a war museum
  9. Seoul City Bus Tour, hop-on/hop-off bus tour to the major tourist sights downtown
  10. Korean Feasts, a selection of yummy Korean food, like galbi, grilled marinated beef, and japchae, stir-fried noodles with beef and veggies

I'm not sure about this list. I don't think Shinsegae deserves a spot on the list; neither, I believe, does Bugaksan. Korean food, especially galbi, is definitely a must, though I wouldn't say it's a Seoul thing---it's a Korea thing. There were also a few surprises in what wasn't on the list, like N Seoul Tower. And I definitely know it's not possible to do all this in 24 hours.

But this got me thinking about my own favourite things. What would I recommend as 10 things visitors must do in Seoul? No matter what's on the list, doing 10 things in one day is not possible in a city this size. It would take at least a few days, if not a few weeks, to really see the city. Here's my list:

  1. Cheonggyecheon (and the Cheonggyecheon Museum) Cheonggyecheon is Seoul's favourite downtown stream, but the little-known museum dedicated to its history and development doesn't get the attention it deserves. The Cheonggyecheon Museum is located at the eastern end of the landscaped stream (Yongdu Station, Line 2, exit 4), about 6 kilometres downstream from its headwaters at Cheonggye Plaza. The exhibits here detail its interesting history over the decades, from laundry site to highway to park, through videos, pictures, and 3D models.
  2. Gyeongbok Palace, National Folk Museum, and Insadong Gyeongbok Palace is usually the first stop for any visitor to Seoul and, as the biggest and oldest palace of the Joseon Dynasty, it's understandable. (I've visited 3 times myself.) Not only is the palace beautiful, but the National Folk Museum is located on the grounds as well. The museum offers a great introduction to the traditional Korean culture. If there's room for only one museum, I would say this should be it. Nearby, the charming Insadong neighbourhood is a popular place to buy traditional souvenirs and sip tea in a traditional tea shop.
  3. N Seoul Tower N Seoul Tower is what I call Seoul's centrepiece; it sits atop Namsan Mountain in central Seoul, quietly overlooking the bustling city all around it. There are different routes up to the tower: cable car, bus, or hiking trail. No matter how you get there, the 360-degree view from the tower's observatory is amazing, especially at night.
  4. Han River The Han River. I'm wondering how it possibly could have been left off Time's list. Was it just too obvious? The Han River divides the city neatly in half, inserting itself into daily life in such a way that it cannot be missed on any tour of the city. It's the perfect backdrop for a walk or bike ride, or the setting for a romantic boat cruise.
  5. Dongdaemun Dongdaemun is the largest shopping centre in Seoul, with dozens of multi-storey malls and thousands of specialty shops. Malls in Korea are quite unlike the Western malls I'm familiar with. Here, they're designed more like markets, with stalls that are small, crowded, and open to the tiny aisles. Most stores don't allow shoppers to try on clothes but do allow bargaining, adding to the market atmosphere. Dongdaemun is full---and I do mean full---of cute, cheap clothes and accessories.
  6. Namdaemun For a more traditional shopping experience, Namdaemun is the largest wholesale market in the city. The 10 acres of shops and stalls carry just about everything, from clothes to groceries to electronics to housewares.
  7. Gyeongdong Traditional Medicine Market As the largest traditional medicine market in the country, Gyeongdong handles about 70% of all oriental medicine in Korea. Even if you're not buying, the market is a great place to wander around. The interesting aromas and textures from the collection of mushrooms, turtle shells, roots, vegetables, herbs and other medicinal necessities is a feast for your senses.
  8. Noryangjin Fish Market The Noryangjin Fish Market is the (wait for it) largest marine market in Korea. The stalls are packed with all kinds of squirming and swimming seafood, like crab, lobster, and octopus. Good for more than just shopping, Noryangjin is also a great place for eating fresh seafood. If you're up early, it's especially lively before dawn when the auction happens.
  9. Non-verbal Performance It might be difficult to take advantage of the performing arts in a country where you don't speak the language, but Seoul has a lot of great non-verbal performances to see while you're in town. Nanta, also called Cooking, is always rated highly, though I haven't seen it yet myself. JUMP, about a family of martial arts enthusiasts, is also pretty popular. The Ballerina Who Loves a B-boy is, not surprisingly, a love story between a ballerina and a b-boy. Korean b-boys are world-renowned, so this show is a good opportunity to see the action.
  10. Korean Folk Village Not exactly in Seoul, the Korean Folk Village is located in Suwon, about one hour south of the city, but it deserves to be included on the list anyways. The open-air museum has over 260 traditional houses to explore. There are also demonstrations of activities from the daily lives of traditional Koreans, such as craft-making and farming. My favourite, though, are the performances: farmer's dances, nolttwigi (Korean see-saw), and tight-rope acrobatics.