A popular Asian destination for travellers wanting to immerse themselves in the bustle and vibrancy of a mega city, Seoul is no doubt one of the most exciting places to spend a day — or a week. Arrive well rested, because sleep can hardly be on your agenda, not in a city that never quite truly sleeps.
10am: Breakfast at Isaac Toast
A popular chain with outlets dotted across the city, Isaac Toast draws constant queues for its simple but tasty sandwiches. There are outlets in most major tourist and university districts including Hongdae, Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, so you’ll be hard pressed not to come across one. The combinations pair classic flavours — think ham and cheese, or bacon and egg, so you won’t go wrong, whatever your choice. Get the breakfast set that comes with an Americano — the drink de rigueur of modern Seoulites.
11am: Get a hair makeover
There’s no better place to get a haircut than in South Korea, which has been leading fashion and beauty trends in recent years. Communication may often be the pitfall when it comes to conveying your preferences to your stylist, so have Google Translate handy (most salons have Wifi you can log on to) or head to Juno Hair, an upmarket salon chain that is known to be foreigner-friendly. Another reputable and more affordable brand is Chop Hair Salon, which has several outlets in the city centre, including Hongdae and Gangnam.
12:30pm: Lunch at Gwangjang Market
One of Seoul’s oldest traditional markets, Gwangjang Market retains its local charm, while remaining fairly accessible to tourists. There are tons to see, from fabric and linens to a massive array of food (just follow the crowds). Most stalls are fronted by seasoned ahjummas, and surrounded by counter seats. Dishes to try here include bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), toppoki, kimbap and boribap, a heartier version of bibimbap that mixes barley into the rice.
1:30pm Relive history at Gyeongbokgung
A relatively short stroll from Gwangjang Market, Gyeongbokgung is the largest and arguably the most beautiful palace in Seoul. The grounds are sweeping, with plenty of photo opportunities. Buffer enough time to catch the Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony, which happens at 2pm at the main gate of Gyeongbokgung. The ceremony is reenacted with much historical accuracy, so expect a fantastic display of elaborate costumes and tradition.
3pm Stroll through Insadong
Stroll down from the palace to nearby Insadong, where you can browse shops specialising in traditional Korean craft and culture, such as calligraphy materials, teas and pottery, which make great souvenirs. This is one of Seoul’s artistic hearts, so there are tons of galleries peppered in the nooks and crannies.
4pm Explore Bukchon Hanok Village
Home to hundreds of traditional houses (hanok) that date back to the Joseon Dynasty, Bukchon Hanok Village is the perfect place to immerse in Korean culture. While many remain residences, a good number of the hanoks have been converted into places of business, like souvenir shops, guesthouses and restaurants. Steel your legs for the hilly roads, which will reward you with a bird’s eye view of the area.
5pm Enjoy a traditional tea
Rest your legs and stop for a traditional tea at Cha Masineun Tteul (26 Bukchon-ro 11na-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul), set within the Bukchon Hanok Village. Most of the teas here boast health properties and there’s an English menu available, which makes ordering easy.
6pm Soak up Samcheong-dong’s bohemian vibes
Seamlessly connected from Bukchon Hanok, Samcheong-dong is best described to be Seoul’s bohemian, creative heart — expect to see chic galleries, independent fashion labels and hipster cafes amalgamated into the traditional surrounds. Don’t shy away from exploring the side alleys, as these are often where gems like hole-in-the-wall cafes and shops lie. Before you leave, stop for hotteok (Korean pancake filled with a brown sugar mixture) at the one stall along the main road.
7:30pm Recharge over bubbling toppoki
Bring an appetite to Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town (nearest metro: Sindang) for a wholly hearty and affordable toppoki meal at Mabongnim Halmeoni Tteokbokki. Cooked at the table over a gas fire, the one-pot meal sees a combination of chewy rice cakes with springy ramen, boiled eggs, fish cakes and the most flavourful gochujang paste. Towards the end of your meal, order a portion of rice with seaweed, which you can throw into the pot to mop up all that delicious gravy.
8:30pm Get your skincare needs sorted at Myeong-dong
No doubt one of the most popular shopping districts in Seoul, Myeong-dong is a haven for fashion labels and Korean skin care brands. If you have a long shopping list, make sure to bring your passport along — many shops offer on-the-spot tax deductions for tourists.
10:30pm The night is still young at Hongdae
Known for its youthful vibes, the university district of Hongdae throbs with live after nightfall. There’s ton to do here, from people watching at a cafe to watching live buskers on the street and dancing the night away at a club. There are many late-night barbecue and fried chicken restaurants if you’re up for more food, or pop into one of many hofs — a hof is essentially a bar that serves soju, beer and some finger food — to toss back a few among rowdy locals.
1am Spend the night in a Korean bathhouse
If there’s one quintessential Seoul experience to check off on your trip, it will have to be a visit to a jijimbang, so skip the hotel expenses in favour of a long night here instead. These 24-hour public bathhouses offer saunas and hot tubs, as well as communal areas to hang out with friends and sleep through the night. Located near Seoul Station, Siloam Jjimjilbang is a whopping five-storey building with tons of facilities to check out.
9am Breakfast at Garosu-gil
Squeeze in time for brunch before you go. Garosu-gil is a beautiful tree-lined promenade in the greater Gangnam area, and a global mishmash of high-street fashion shops and chic cafes. Snag a table at Cafe Able, a farm-to-table restaurant that serves classic Western brunch plates like eggs Benedict and fresh juices. These will have you full and very satisfied before your flight.