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Seoul and the neon lights at nighttime
Photograph: Supplied/Jetstar

8 things to do in Seoul – and why we reckon it should be at the top of your travel hit list

With a vibrant nightlife, incredible food markets, impressive architecture, grand palaces and killer shopping, South Korea’s capital will fill your soul in more ways than one

Avril Treasure
Written by
Avril Treasure

Home of the Korean barbecue, world-leading skincare and soju, Seoul is an intoxicating melting pot of contradictions. Towering high rises next to dramatic mountains and tranquil gardens. Striking, modern architecture alongside grand palaces. Cutting-edge technology and traditional street food stalls. Electric evenings and slow mornings.

There are constants, too, like its brilliant dining scene, excellent shopping and kind locals. South Korea’s capital is not perfect, mind you. Things our Food & Drink Writer Avril Treasure learnt when she travelled there: randomly, there are few bins. Traffic is pretty terrible. And let’s not mention their prickly northern neighbours. But if that’s all the dirt she could find on Seoul, sign her up to return again and again – she loves the place.

It’s about a ten-hour flight from Sydney to Seoul, and Jetstar currently flies direct to the South Korean capital three times a week, with more flights being added from February, 2024. Dreaming about a holiday in Japan? It’s just over a two-hour flight from Seoul to Tokyo, so we say kill two birds with the one stone and tick them both off.

Need more convincing? Read on for our guide to the eight things to do in Seoul, and why we reckon this soul-enriching city should be at the top of your travel hit list. 

Looking for a destination closer to home? Here's our guide to weekend getaways from Sydney.

Eat your way around Seoul's food markets

Photograph: Supplied/Jetstar

One of the best and most delicious ways to get immersed in a new culture is to check out the food markets – and Seoul delivers in spades. First on your list should be the famed Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest and largest markets in South Korea with 5,000 stalls and shops. Taste authentic street food snacks like tteokbokki, made up of chewy rice cakes coated in a sweet and spicy sauce; bindaetteok, which are crisp and golden mung bean pancakes served with soy and crunchy onions; as well as pork and kimchi dumplings; soy-marinated raw crabs; and knife-cut noodle soup.

Another to check out is Gyeongdong Market, which is brimming with rainbow fruits, spices, and herbal medicines, as well as being a worthy cultural experience. We also recommend strolling around Myeongdong Night Market. It’s a bit more touristy, but there’s still great eating and shopping to be had throughout the bustling neon-lit streets.

Visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Photograph: Avril Treasure

Put a whole day aside while in Seoul to visit the border between North and South Korea, known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Public tours will pick you up from a meeting point, and it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from the capital. Your tour guide will give you an in-depth overview of the Korean War and what the relationship is like today between North and South Korea, plus take you to important sites, including the Freedom Bridge and the Third Infiltration Tunnel – one of four known tunnels created by North Korea for a surprise invasion (gulp).

From being at the border between the two countries to seeing towns and – through binoculars – people going about their day in North Korea, it was an eye-opening experience, and like nothing we had done before.

Hit Seoul's shops for everything from skincare to on-point clothing

Photograph: Avril Treasure

Have you heard of K-Beauty? If you haven’t, it’s time to come out from under your rock and see the light, because skincare products from Korea are some of the best in the world, thanks to secrets passed down from generations, coupled with cutting-edge technology. From lip-sleeping masks to velvety night creams and serums made from the slime of snails (yes, really), you can get everything at these magnetic, fluorescent shops.

A word of warning: you may come home with hundreds of products, some of which you may not remember buying. And yes, you may not need all of them. But that’s half of the fun, isn't it? As well as clear, glowy skin, Korean’s style is second to none. Hit the clothes shops and come away with pieces to treasure at home.

Check out Starfield Library and get ready for your jaw to hit the ground

Photograph: Supplied/Jetstar

Located in the centre of COEX Mall, Starfield Library will take your breath away. A giant library with towering shelves holding more than 50,000 books and magazines, the two-storey spectacle is more akin to an exhibition at MONA than the types of libraries you frequented during your high school or uni days. There are seats and sofas if you want to take five and read, and while the majority of works are in Korean, some English publications are available. It's the coolest library we've ever seen, so we reckon Starfield is a must-visit while in Seoul.

Dress up in a traditional hanbok and visit Gyeongbokgung Palace

Photograph: Avril Treasure

The hanbok is the name of the traditional clothing worn in South Korea for special family occasions and celebrations. The female’s hanbok features bright colours, a chima skirt and a beautiful silhouette, whereas the male’s consists of a jeogori (the upper garment) and loose pants. Tourists are welcome to try these special outfits on, and there are hundreds of places in the city you can rent them from. In fact, you may receive a discount to certain cultural sites if you’re wearing one.

A lot of people (us included) wore the hanbok to the “wow”-inducing Gyeongbokgung Palace to pay homage to the palace's heritage and the traditions of Korea. The original royal palace was built in 1395 by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, and was the largest of the five grand palaces built. Over the years and subsequent wars it was damaged, but thankfully it’s been restored to reflect the original masterpiece.

Hike up to N Seoul Tower for panoramic views of the city

Photograph: Supplied/Jetstar

Similar to Tokyo, Seoul is filled with pockets of diverse neighbourhoods. Trendy areas of alleyways dotted with traditional tea houses and beautiful handmade goods; buzzing hubs with fried chicken joints and late-night karaoke bars; and then there’s Downtown, with grey high-rises and a cosmopolitan vibe.

With a population of ten million people – plus another five million people who visit each day for work –  it’s hard to grasp how big Seoul is. Our advice? Hike up to N Seoul Tower on top of Namsan Mountain and get the impressive view from the top. It’s about a 30-minute hike up to the top of the mountain, with a fair few steps along the way, but you’ll be rewarded with grid-worthy panoramic views of the whole of Seoul. And the best bit? It’s all free (well, except if you want an ice-cold beer at the top, which you probably will).

Feast with friends at a Korean barbecue

Photograph: Avril Treasure

Like having steak frites in France, cacio e pepe in Italy and ramen in Japan, Korean barbecue is an iconic dining experience and a must-do while in Seoul. Yes, we have lots of great K-BBQs here in Sydney, but nothing compares to the real deal. There are thousands of places to go in Seoul, and we'd say you can’t really go wrong with any of them, but the experience is best enjoyed with a bunch of friends and a few bottles of soju.

Choose your meat options (pork and beef are most common, and mushrooms are available for vegos), fire up the grill and get ready to sizzle. You’ll be served a range of Korean small plates called banchan – things like kimchi, pickled radish, noodles and rice – to complement the charred bites. Once the meat is cooked, pick up a lettuce or a perilla leaf, and load ’em up. The buttery meat contrasted with the spice and sharpness from the banchan is a stroke of genius and one that continues to live rent free in our memory.

End the night on a high (note) with karaoke in Seoul

Photograph: Avril Treasure

Going to Korea and not doing karaoke would be like going to Sydney and not checking out the Opera House. It just shouldn’t happen. Whether your jam is Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, or Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!’ (just us?), you'll find a myriad of places to give your vocal cords and belly laughs a workout. And while we’re here, we would like to apologise to the people in the booth next to us – our rendition of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want For Christmas Is You’ admittedly wasn’t our best version.

Getting there is easy

Photograph: Avril Treasure

Jetstar currently flies to Seoul three times a week from Sydney, and from February 24, 2024 there will be a fourth flight added, as well as a new direct flight from Brisbane.

Did you know that on long-haul flights, Jetstar offers business class? (Because we sure as hell did not.) Complete with spacious seats, a decent entertainment selection, tasty meals and flowing booze, Jetstar Business gives you all the bells and whistles of a luxe flying experience, without the super-high price tag.

Keen? Jetstar often offers rocking flight deals, so keep one eye on the deals page here.

And if you're wondering about where to sleep, Time Out stayed as a guest at Moxy Seoul Insadong, which we give top marks for its prime location next to rocking bars, delicious eateries and quaint teahouses. Plus, we loved the rooftop bar with its impressive views of Seoul. (We also recently stayed at Sydney's new Moxy hotel, which you can read about here.)

Time Out flew to Seoul courtesy of Jetstar.

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