Seoul (서울) is often listed along with Bangkok, Tokyo, Bali, and Hong Kong as one of the Asian cities that are worth exploring. Travelers are taking heed — South Korea’s capital consistently ranks among the world’s most visited cities!
You may also be dreaming of visiting Seoul. But do you know what this megacity is famous for?
Seoul is known for its vibrant districts, eclectic fashion scene, delicious street food, and for being the birthplace of K-pop and Hallyu. Despite being a technologically advanced country, Seoul is still famous for its historical sites and traditional culture.
That’s barely scratching the surface though. 갑시다 (let’s go), and see what Seoul has in store for us!
Seoul is known for its tourist spots and landmarks
1. The Five Royal Palaces
Seoul is known for its illustrious history and this is perhaps most visible in the Five Royal Palaces of the Joseon dynasty: the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, and Gyeonghuigung Palace.
These postcard-worthy sites are mainstays in any traveler’s Seoul itinerary. They date back to the 1300s – 1500s but many of the original structures were destroyed during the Japanese invasion. Hence, the buildings standing today are mostly reconstructions.
Still, visiting these palaces feels like stepping back in time. You can even dress the part and wear a hanbok to get free entry to these palaces!
2. Hangang (Han River)
If you enjoy watching K-dramas like I do, you’d know that a river runs through the center of the city. This is Hangang or Han River, which runs from east to west and divides Seoul into the culture and history-oriented northern region and the business-oriented southern districts.
The Han River is the fourth-longest river in the Korean peninsula. A witness to Korean history, it was used as a trade route to China via the Yellow Sea.
Today, Hangang remains a water source for South Koreans. It’s also a scenic backdrop to many Korean shows, films, and music videos.
3. Namsan Tower
Seoul is famous for N Seoul Tower, commonly known as Namsan Tower, the communication and observation tower that sits atop the Namsan (South Mountain).
This Seoul icon was constructed in 1969 as Korea’s first signal tower providing video and audio signals to the metropolitan area. Standing at 479.7 meters above sea level, Namsan Tower provides a commanding view of Seoul that’s lovely any time of the day.
4. Shopping districts
Shopaholics rejoice! Seoul is known for offering a variety of shopping areas. From traditional markets to department stores, duty-free shops, high-end brands, and bargain finds, Seoul has it all.
If you’re looking for traditional artifacts and antiques, Insadong is a must-visit. For fancy department stores, trendy local shops, and skincare and cosmetics galore, Myeongdong and Dongdaemun are among the top choices.
If you’re after hip and affordable fashion finds, the campus districts of Edae and Hongdae are tough to beat. Don’t be like me though; prepare enough luggage space if you’re planning to shop in these areas.
5. Starfield COEX Mall
Speaking of shopping malls, did you know that Seoul is famous for being home to Asia’s largest underground mall?
Starfield COEX (which stands for COnvention centers and EXhibition halls) is an underground shopping complex in Gangnam. Spanning about 154 square meters, the underground shopping mall is a shopper’s paradise and a study in contemporary design.
This mall houses mega food courts, the COEX Aquarium, the 17-screen Megabox Cinema, a concert hall, the awe-inspiring Starfield Library, and hundreds of shops selling clothing, shoes, accessories, beauty products, and more!
6. Lotte World Tower
At 555 meters, the 123-story Lotte World Tower is the tallest building in South Korea and the sixth tallest in the world.
This Korean landmark is both a work of art and technology — a modern aesthetic inspired by Korean ceramics and calligraphy brushes, powered by cutting-edge technology. To make the building sustainable, it’s equipped with solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal heating and cooling, and water harvesting systems.
Inside, you’ll find galleries, cafés, a luxury hotel, shopping centers, a skywalk, and an observation deck.
7. Seoul National University
Founded in 1946, Seoul National University (SNU), colloquially known as Seouldae, is the undisputed leader of higher education in South Korea.
The university has produced some of the biggest names in South Korean academe, government, and business. This includes former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former ICC President Song Sang-hyun, former Samsung CEO Kwon Oh-hyun, and the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.
Admission to this prestigious university is extremely competitive. It’s said that only 0.5% of all high schoolers make it to SNU. After all, it is among the top universities in the world and a spot almost guarantees that you’ll earn more than your peers who studied in other schools.
You may have heard of Gangnam thanks to Psy’s record-breaking song but Seoul’s fanciest neighborhood has long been at the forefront of business and pop culture.
Literally meaning “south of the river”, Gangnam is a mainly commercial center located south of Hangang. The district is a fusion of multinational companies, financial and banking institutes, shopping malls, IT companies, designer brands, stylish nightclubs, and some of the most expensive apartments in Korea.
Seoul is known for its unique history and culture
Seoul is known as the birthplace of Korean popular music or K-pop, one of South Korea’s biggest cultural exports.
Characterized by catchy melodies, tight choreographies, colorful (and often bizarre) music videos, and flawless-looking idols, K-pop is now mainstream even outside Korea.
Today, some of the most popular K-pop stars include BTS, BlackPink, Twice, EXO, Red Velvet, NCT, Seventeen, and Astro.
10. K-drama and Korean films
Seoul (and South Korea as a whole) is also home to Korean dramas or simply K-dramas. Often consisting of 16 or 20 episodes, these television shows run the gamut from funny to heartbreaking and everything in between.
Thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, these addicting shows have become more popular around the world. Some of the trending shows in the last couple of years include Squid Game, Crash Landing on You, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha.
Similarly, Korean films are also gaining traction, even winning international awards. Parasite and Train to Busan barely scratch the surface when it comes to the quality of movies produced by Korea.
If visiting Seoul, do yourself a favor and Google “K-drama or Korean movie locations” before you go — this can fill up your itinerary pretty fast but you’ll come home with loads of IG-worthy photos.
11. Thriving art scene
From performing arts to visual arts, Seoul has a vibrant and dynamic art scene.
Seoul’s state-of-the-art facilities stage everything from Broadway musicals and classical concerts to traditional performances and modern art exhibitions. Art galleries in Seoul are art themselves as they’re often housed in amazing contemporary buildings.
Theaters, museums, and art galleries are scattered across Seoul but for a bit of everything, check out the neighborhood of Daehangno.
12. Keeping history and culture alive
One of the things that fascinated me on my visit to Seoul was how the old seamlessly fuses with the new. Despite being a world leader in innovative technology, the city does a fantastic job at keeping Korean history and culture alive.
You’ll see it in its famed tourist spots like the Grand Palaces, Bukchon Hanok Village, Insadong, the temples scattered across the capital, and museums like the National Museum of Korea.
Equally impressive is how Seoul has managed to make traditional clothing fashionable by encouraging hanbok rentals near tourist sites. Traditional arts are also very accessible, with performances like nanta and gugak b-boy available in many theaters and art halls.
As the sun goes down, Seoul lights up and pulsates with a different kind of energy. Nightlife in Seoul is as diverse as the city itself.
Sure, there are plenty of glitzy clubs and bars, especially in Gangnam and Hongdae. But Seoul’s nightlife is not just for the partygoers. The city has plenty of night markets, parks, observatories, all-night cafés, K-bbq restaurants, and karaoke bars (more on this later) that’ll keep you busy until the wee hours.
For those who prefer to relax at night, Seoul’s jjimjilbang (sauna) is a must-try. These quirky establishments don’t just offer saunas and relaxing massages but also overnight stays!
14. Proxy drivers
Sloshed after a night out? Lucky for you, Seoul (and other major cities in South Korea) has daeri unjeon, a substitute driver service.
The practice of hiring replacement drivers started in the 90s, targeting businessmen and office workers who wanted to get home in their own vehicles after a night of heavy drinking.
Seoul is known for high alcohol consumption, with many employees capping their working days with company dinners and drinking. Drinking under the influence is illegal in Korea as is in other countries so many intoxicated car owners rely on proxy drivers, who you can hail via a quick call or an app.
Seoul is known as one of the most fashion-forward cities in the world and even has its own Fashion Week. Here, youthful streetwear effortlessly mixes with luxurious brands, and trends are often sparked by K-pop celebrities.
While many tourists shop in Myeongdong, fashionistas have lots of other options to try. You can find trendsetting pieces and local designers in Garosugil, Sinsadong, and Samcheongdong-gil. For luxury brands, check out Apgujeong and Dongdaemun.
Seoul may be a bustling city but did you know that Seoul is famous for its mountains, too? Hiking has long been a popular pastime in South Korea. A third of the population tackles a mountain once a month!
South Korea’s capital has a few mountains that provide scenic and challenging trails to locals and tourists alike. The most accessible is Bukhansan National Park, which sits right at the heart of Seoul and provides extraordinary views of downtown Seoul. Other popular mountains include Gwanaksan, Inwangsan, and Bugaksan.
Now, this one’s not unique to Seoul or even to just South Korea. But it’s worth understanding if you have plans of living in Seoul.
Many countries that adapt Confucian ideologies are known to exhibit collectivism. In Korea, it’s inherent to consider the collective good over individual rights. Koreans belong to a ‘group’ and they remain loyal to this group to maintain inhwa or harmony. In many instances, this culture helps achieve common goals.
That said, it is this collectivist culture that makes it difficult for foreigners to assimilate into Korea. On one hand, Koreans often don’t have social expectations placed on foreigners (which is good, at first). But they also tend to keep a certain degree of distance and not build deeper relationships with foreigners.
I’m not saying Koreans don’t like foreigners. But foreigners, especially those from individualistic cultures, typically stand out and there’s a wide cultural gap to cross if one intends to interact in deeper ways.
18. 1988 Summer Olympics
Seoul is known for hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, the second time the Summer Olympic Games were held in Asia. Seoul Olympic Stadium and Olympic Park were two of its biggest venues.
The event was held from September 17 to October 2, 1988. At the time, South Korea was still a developing country. The Olympics provided an international platform for Korea to develop diplomatic and economic relations with other countries. Ultimately, it was a way to bring international attention to South Korea.
Seoul is known for its mouthwatering food
19. Street food
Korea is famous for its delicious cuisine. Foodies in Seoul are unlikely to go hungry — the city is like one big open-air restaurant.
Traditional Korean street foods like kimbap, mandu, hotteok, tteokbokki, and odeng are easy to find in Seoul. Quirky ones like sundae (blood sausage) and beondegi (silkworm pupa) are also widely available.
You can easily enjoy these cheap and yummy treats at traditional markets, shopping districts like Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, and night markets like the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market.
20. Gwangjang Market
Speaking of street food, if you’ve seen Netflix’s “Street Food: Asia”, then you know of Gwangjang Market, one of the most popular traditional markets in Seoul.
This century-old market sells virtually everything, from agricultural and seafood products to textile, handicrafts, household items, and souvenirs. But it is most popular for its restaurants and food stalls selling traditional Korean cuisine, particularly bindaetteok, mayak kimbap, kalguksu, and gejang (crabs marinated in soy sauce).
21. Fried chicken
You’ve probably heard of the other KFC — Korean Fried Chicken — or colloquially fried chikin. This Korean take on fried chicken is lighter than most styles and is distinguishable for its crispy exterior and moist and tender meat. But did you know that this sumptuous dish originated in Seoul?
Lims Chicken, the pioneer of Korean-style fried chicken, was established as a small shop at Shinsegae Department Store in Seoul. It was different from the usual tongdak or whole chicken that Koreans were used to.
It soon gained popularity and Lims became a franchise concept. At one point, there were as many as 400 locations!
Seoul is known for seolleongtang or ox bone soup. A local dish of the capital, seolleongtang dates back to the Joseon dynasty.
Seolleongtang is a hearty dish that’s made by simmering ox leg bones, brisket, and other meat cuts with seasonings like pepper, garlic, and chopped spring onions over a low flame for several hours. Rice or noodles are sometimes added to the soup. Kimchi is always given as a side dish.
You can find seolleongtang in many restaurants in Seoul. But if you want a dash of history to go with your bowl, visit Imun Seolnongtang, which has been serving seolleongtang since 1902 and is the oldest restaurant in Korea.
Seoul is known for its advanced technology
23. Wired city
Seoul is known as the world’s most wired city. After all, South Korea is often listed as one of the countries with the fastest internet connection. It was also the first country to have 5G network access across the country.
What’s astonishing is that compared to other nations, the internet in Korea is cheaper. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a café in Seoul that doesn’t have free WiFi.
24. Digital Media City
A city of early adopters, Seoul is also home to the state-of-the-art Digital Media City.
Located in Sangam-dong and spanning 569,925 square meters of land, DMC is a high-tech complex built to house networked offices, apartments, exhibitions, conference halls, media and entertainment companies, and IT corporations.
Some of the famous companies with offices in DMC include game developer Gravity, media companies like CJ E&M, MBC, JTBC, YTN, and CJ CGV, and telecommunications company LG UPlus.
25. Transportation system
Seoul is known for its extensive transportation system. It even won the Sustainable Transport Award in 2006.
As a densely populated city, Seoul requires an efficient transportation system. The city is well connected and can easily be navigated, thanks to the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, which has 22 lines interlinking every district in Seoul and its surrounding areas.
Seoul is also linked to other major Korean cities by the KTX bullet train. Plus, there are lots of public transit buses for both long and short-distance routes. Taxis are also pretty common.
Seoulites usually use T-money, the local transportation card, to pay for rides on the subways and public buses. Some taxis also accept this form of payment.
This list of things Seoul is known for covers only 25. The truth is, there are so many other fascinating things to see, experience, and eat in Seoul. The best way to find out for yourself is to visit!