In the hit K-pop song, Gangnam Style, Psy describes the trendy scene of Seoul’s Gangnam district, where your clothes, and how much money you have, matter most. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at a neighborhood known for luxury and wealth in a country where people have acquired wealth so recently it’s still somewhat of a novelty.
South Korea’s newfound prosperity is most evident in Seoul, where the shopping malls are some of the biggest in the world and the pursuit of beauty has become an obsession. But not everyone in Seoul rolls “Gangnam style” and you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy a visit. For every luxury hotel, you’ll find a much more affordable option. For dinner, you can sit down to a pricey gourmet meal in a restaurant, or grab some equally delicious fare from a street vendor. Here are some ways to enjoy Seoul on both ends of the spectrum.
The term “love motel” may conjure images of seedy trysts in rent-by-the-hour rooms, but in Seoul, love motels are well-maintained, clean, affordable alternatives to pricey hotels. Rooms at the Cats Design Hotel near bustling Insadong street are modern and stylish, with amenities you’d expect from any three-star hotel, and start at $80 per night.
There’s no better place than the Hotel Shilla. The 426-room hotel sits at the base of Namsan mountain and wows with exceptional service and a sparkling lobby (literally, thanks to a massive crystal art piece). It houses four restaurants, a bar and lounge with an extensive wine shop, a bakery, indoor and outdoor pools, a gorgeously serene Guerlain Spa, fitness center, and indoor golf. Rooms are large and comfortable and the daily buffet includes mushroom truffle soup, seared foie gras, and heaping platters of fresh crab. Rooms start at $250 per night – a reasonable splurge when you consider what the nicest hotel in Paris or New York would cost.
Street food in Seoul is tasty and cheap and can be found just about anywhere. For just a dollar or two you can nosh on deep-fried, potato-encrusted hot dogs, grilled meat skewers, sweet or savory donuts, or rice cakes in a spicy red sauce. For a larger meal, try Korean barbecue from one of the tents near Jongno 3-ga, where table-top grills are fashioned from metal drums, seats are small plastic stools, and there’s only one thing on the menu: grilled pork served with kimchi, mushrooms, peppers, lettuce, and an addictive bean paste. Korean fried chicken and local beer is another popular, low-cost combo.
To keep your drinking costs low, drink what the locals drink: soju, a clear, distilled rice liquor; beer; or makgeolli, a sweet drink made from fermented rice. Each will cost about $3-$5 per bottle in a restaurant and as little as $1 from a convenience store.
The most splurge-worthy Korean barbecue is at Myongwolgwan, a 700-seat restaurant in a traditional wood-framed Korean hanok (traditional house). The restaurant actually patented its Jang-hyang galbi, which uses bean paste for the marinade instead of the usual soy sauce, giving it a deeper flavor. A seven-ounce portion will cost about $40, and the special Hanwoo beef (a highly-prized local Korean beef known for its marbling), costs $60-$80 per person.
Seoul also has a range of high-end international options. Nearly every luxury hotel has a Japanese, Chinese, or French restaurant on site, and there are plenty of chic options in the trendy Gangnam district. In the Jung-gu neighborhood, Michelin three-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire serves up inventive French cuisine with set tasting menus ranging from $80 to $300, with wine pairings additional.
Many of Seoul’s museums offer free admission. Travel back in time to the ancient Gojoseon dynasty at the National Museum of Korea, or learn about early traditional life at the National Folk Museum of Korea. Get a lesson in the history of warfare at the War Memorial of Korea (which includes an outdoor collection of tanks and warplanes), or learn about the lives of the royals during the 500-year Joseon Dynasty at the National Palace Museum of Korea.
For more low-cost fun, wander around the historically preserved Buckchon Hanok Village, watch the changing of the guards ceremony at the beautiful Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, hike through Namsan Park to the N Seoul Tower where you can buy a “love lock” to declare your commitment, or marvel at the seafood at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, where you can buy a fish and have it cooked at an onsite restaurant for a cheap lunch.
There’s only one way you can visit the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone that separates North Korea from the South, and that’s on a guided tour. Half-day tours are available, but if you want to visit the iconic Panmunjom – or Joint Security Area (JSA) – where soldiers from North and South stand face-to-face, you’ll need to spring for a full-day tour for $140 per person.
Seoul is also a shopper’s paradise, especially for those interested in electronics, beauty products, and high-end fashion. From the streets of Gangnam, to the alleys of Myeongdong, to the sprawling night markets and the massive malls (such as COEX, the largest underground mall in Asia), there’s no shortage of places to fill an extra suitcase or two.