South Korea’s capital has come a long way since the Korean War. These days, Seoul mixes its storied history of temples, palaces, and empire, with more modern day delights from a nonstop nightlife to a thriving shopping scene. And while prices can teeter on the expensive side, there are plenty of ways to soak up the culture — and incredible Korean cuisine — while traveling on a budget. Here’s how:
1. Taste temple life. Thousands of temples dot Korea’s countryside, and the best way to experience five thousand years of Korean history is by embarking on a temple-stay. Take a two-day zen retreat learning about Buddhism, traditional tea ceremonies, and meditation right in the heart of Seoul at Jogyesa Temple in Insa-dong (98,000 Korean won or about $89). Or swing by one of the other temples in town for a tour, like the thousand-year-old Bongeunsa Temple or Sueng-Ga Temple, built in 756.
2. Get a kick from Korean cuisine. Koreans love their spice — hello, kimchi! It’s a passion that extends to street food in Seoul, like jjukkumi: small octopus that can be dipped in red pepper chili paste. The city’s many food alleys serve up traditional fare like Gwangjang Market’s bibimbap, a mixed rice bowl with meat and a raw egg on top, or Namdaemun Market’s cutlassfish served in a spicy sauce (as found at the eponymous Cutlassfish Alley). The best part? Prices at the markets are pretty cheap, around $6 for a plate.
3. Shop around town. Made famous by K-pop single “Gangnam Style,” Gangnam is where you’ll find high-end shopping at designer stores, boutiques, and the luxe Galleria Department Store on Rodeo Street. The area is perfect for window shopping (and finding out what the fuss over the song is all about if you’ve ever wondered).For more low-key browsing, Dongdaemun Market is the place. The area’s multi-level department stores — mall-like structures with multiple stores and brands — are open until 5 a.m. and sell everything from flea market-style clothing to Korean fashion brands, accessories, and souvenirs like traditional Korean jewelry boxes. Some of the more popular department stores include Doota, Migliore, and Cerestar. And if you want to stock up on Korea’s world-famous skincare products? Take a walk through the Times Square-esque, neon sign-filled Myeong-dong, where you’ll find some of the best street food in town alongside cosmetics chains like SKINFOOD, Innisfree, and Tony Moly.
4. Perch up with a drink and soak up the sites. Take a seat on the bank of the Han River in Hangang Park in the evening and get ready for a show on the world’s longest bridge fountain: Banpodaegyo Bridge. Dubbed the “Rainbow Bridge” because of its multicolored light display, the two-tiered bridge’s fountain show runs from April to October, matching lights and music to a new fountain display each month, all within views of the Floating Islands’ flower-inspired architecture just across the way. Do like the locals and bring fried chicken and beer from one of the many outposts in the city, like the much-loved chain restaurant KKANBU Chicken (Tip: They also deliver, even to the river).
5. Join the party in the city that never sleeps. Hongdae draws the college crowd, since it’s home to Hongik University, so this is the place to head if bar hopping is your mission. For an area that skews to a slightly older crowd, the expat-heavy Itaewon is filled with lounges and bars that cater to all tastes, from the trendy Glam Lounge to the Irish Wolfhound Pub. Of course a trip to Korea wouldn’t be complete without sampling soju — a Korean rice-based liquor dating back to the 13th century — and a trip to a Korean karaoke bar, or noraebang. If craft cocktails are more your scene, head up to speakeasy-style Griffin Bar, the 11th whisky bar at the new JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul, for can’t-be-beat views of the 617-year-old East Gate from the rooftop terrace. Cocktails don’t come cheap, but the location and scene is worth the splurge.
6. Explore Seoul’s modern side. While Dongdaemun Square is known for its massive shopping markets, the area is attracting the art and fashion crowd thanks to the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by architect Zaha Hadid. The silver structure inspired by flowing water is the largest 3D amorphous design and home to five halls. From an art hall for fashion shows to a museum hall and a 24-hour design market filled with shops and restaurants, it’s the perfect stop if you’re running out of time for souvenir shopping.