The Backpacker’s Travel Guide to Seoul, South Korea | 2023

Seoul, the dynamic heart of South Korea, is one of my favorite cities in the world. It is a vibrant and breathtaking crossroads of cultures, blending South Korea’s storied past with an electric taste of the future. Seoul often felt like a contradiction, with centuries-old palaces juxtaposed with skyscrapers grasping at clouds, and underground traditional markets lying beneath its ultra-modern streets and its towers of silver. I can’t say enough amazing things about this city that had me pushing my return flight further and further back.

South Korea as a travel destination never particularly enthralled me, but after making a friend who lived in Seoul, I decided to stop by. The flight from the Philippines was only $50, and I’m a sucker for a cheap flight. I came in with few expectations and left feeling like I’ve just said goodbye to a home I’ve known all my life. Seoul is elite, boasting rich cultural heritage, mouthwatering cuisine, and a pulsating nightlife scene. This city truly captured my heart. If you’re planning a trip to Seoul, do not hesitate. Here’s everything need to know before taking on this unforgettable city.

And hey, if this post helps you out, show some love and support for the blog and help keep my adventures going by buying me a beer! My adventures are entirely self-funded, so any show of support is greatly appreciated. It allows me to keep providing free travel guides and creating travel content to help you all travel the world.

Table of Contents

Things To Know Before Going to Seoul

Seoul can be an excellent destination for travelers of all levels. It is safe, modern, and filled with incredible things to see and do. While South Korea is a very traveler-friendly destination, there are a few basics to know before visiting this East Asian country.

The currency is the Korean Won. Most places will accept credit cards, but it is always a good idea to have cash handy. There are plenty of ATMs and money exchanges, so withdrawing cash won’t be an issue. For navigating, you’ll want to have the apps Kakao and Naver downloaded. Google Maps kind of works here, but these apps are much more reliable and widely-used. Kakao is also the local taxi app, so use that instead of Uber in case you’re struggling to hail a cab off the streets.

The spoken and written language is Korean, and I’ll admit, there was more of a language barrier than I expected. Outside of tourist hotspots, it will be difficult to find English speakers and few places will have English menus. I had no problem getting around and figuring things out on my own, but it can be tricky until you become familiar with how things work. I’d recommend picking up a few basic Korean phrases and downloading a translation app like Google Translate that allows you to point your camera and translate menus and other text in real-time. The people of South Korea often keep to themselves, but are kind and will help however they can if you find yourself lost.

Staying connected in Seoul can be tricky, as SIM cards aren’t easily available. I’d recommend using one of the eSIM services offered at the airport and tourist areas, or using an eSIM app like Airalo. Use ELIJAH933 to get $3 off your first eSIM with Airalo, which offers an unlimited data plan for South Korea.

And of course, it’s always important to have travel insurance handy when out adventuring the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $45 a month, and their coverage includes South Korea among the 190+ countries that they cover.

Where To Stay in Seoul

Seoul is a sprawling city with countless different neighborhoods. Each can feel like a different city altogether. One of the most crucial aspects of planning your trip to Seoul is choosing which neighborhood to serve as your home base. It can truly make or break your trip. I love Seoul, and believe that anyone who doesn’t simply hasn’t found the right neighborhood for them. I’d even recommend hopping around between neighborhoods and staying in each one to get a feel for the different personalities of Seoul.

The Best Neighborhoods for Travelers

As a backpacker, I’d prioritize three neighborhoods in Seoul. If you plan on fast-paced sightseeing, look to Myeongdong. Staying in Myeongdong will put you within walking distance or a short train ride to the main palaces, temples, and markets.

If you are looking to shop, cafe-hop, and experience Korean nightlife, check out Hongdae. This trendy and upscale neighborhood is home to countless coffee shops, restaurants, vintage stores, and nightlife spots. It is not a great district for sightseeing, but for aimless wanderers, I can’t recommend it enough. Hongdae is also well-connected by trains and buses to the rest of the city, so sightseeing is still pretty doable from here.

Itaewon is my third suggestion. It is similar to Hongdae but a bit more compact and more international. It is excellent for nightlife, and considering that trains stop running at midnight, a great option for night owls who’d prefer their drunken journeys home to be short and sweet. Itaewon is not as flashy and fancy as Hongdae, but there is a certain charm to it that made me fall in love.

Of course, there are plenty of other neighborhoods in Seoul. Gangnam is popular among travelers, but for my fellow budget backpackers, I’d recommend it as a day trip instead of a home base. It can be pricy and quite frankly, I didn’t find it all that exciting if you don’t like spending money.

Hostel Recommendations for Seoul

I stayed at quite a few hostels in Seoul. I’ve heard rave reviews about Zzzip Guesthouse, but never managed to actually snag a room since I was always booking things with little notice. If there’s any availability, give it a go, as many of my followers on social media highly recommended it as the place to stay. The first hostel I stayed at was Time Traveler Party Hostel with the intention of making friends and being close to the nightlife of Hongdae. It was an okay hostel in terms of quality, but pretty good if you are looking for a more social scene. The best hostel I stayed at was Batwo Stay. It had a great location and amazing facilities, as well as nightly events including family dinners, cooking classes, K-pop dance classes, calligraphy classes, and more. All three of these are in Hongdae, my favorite neighborhood to stay in as a traveler.

If you’re looking for a cheap hotel, I also stayed at One Minute Guesthouse in Myeongdong. It was very basic, but at $30ish a night for such a central location, I truly couldn’t complain. It was close to multiple subway stations, as well as within walking distance of many of Seoul’s top attractions. I ended up staying there twice, for about eight days total. I spent two nights in Itaewon at G Guesthouse Itaewon, which was okay if you just wanted to be close to the nightlife scene without caring much about quality. It had a great rooftop, but besides that, was pretty mediocre compared to the other hostels I stayed at.

For a complete list of hostels in Seoul, check out Hostelworld.

How To Get Around Seoul

From the Airport to Seoul

Seoul has two airports, Incheon and Gimpo. Incheon is the major international airport, while Gimpo is mainly for domestic flights. Both are easily accessible by public transport, and one can take the train all the way to Seoul Station from Incheon. It takes about an hour. Just head to the basement of arrivals and follow th esigns until you find the train station.

Public Transportation in Seoul

Upon arriving in Seoul, be sure to get the T Money transportation card. It makes getting around a lot quicker and easier than buying a ticket each time you need a train. The transportation card works with buses and the metro system, both of which are reliable and efficient. You can truly get almost anywhere within Seoul and the surrounding suburbs just by public transportation. They also have fun little jingles to announce when the train is coming, which always hyped me up and made me feel like I was going on a grand adventure. Wherever the train can’t take you, buses can pick up the slack. Although I was fine using Google Maps for navigating, most locals use the Naver app. The only problem with Google Maps is that it did not show me walking directions, but it worked fine for public transportation routes and time tables.

Taxis in Seoul

I’d only recommend taxis if public transportation is no longer running. I was surprised at how affordable taxis were, especially in comparison to nearby Japan. You can order taxis online with Kakao or the Uber app. It can be tricky communicating your destination, or even typing it on the app itself as most place names will only be in Korean and occasionally in the wrong place entirely. I only used taxis coming home from nights out, and that’s basically the only time I’d recommend using them.

And lastly, walking. Some neighborhoods in Seoul are very pedestrian-friendly. I walked the majority of my time in Seoul. It is a great way to explore the city and stumble into some surprising hidden gems. One of my favorite parts about Seoul were all the walking trails and parks that served as both escapes from the city life and convenient ways to get to your destination. There’s an 11-kilometer long canal lined with trees and greenery that runs through the city and is perfect for walking to your destination without dealing with cars or crosswalks.

How Many Days To Spend in Seoul

It all depends on how much you want to see, and the pace of travel you are comfortable with. I visited Seoul on the eighth month of an exhausting trip where I roared through North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. I was burnt out by the time I reached Seoul, and the comforts and luxuries of a big city were calling my name. I spent three weeks in Seoul, although less than half of them were spent actually sightseeing. The others were spent wandering aimlessly or nursing a hangover from a night out in Hongdae or Itaewon.

To knock out the main things to do in Seoul, I’d recommend spending around five days. The reliable public transportation system makes it easy to explore multiple neighborhoods per day. However, if you’ve got time, Seoul is a great city for taking it slow. It’s a great city for digital nomads, with excellent infrastructure for working and plenty of things to keep you busy on your off-time. It all depends on you. I’ve met a handful of backpackers who avoid big cities, and happily skipped town after two days. On the other hand, I’ve met other travel bloggers and nomads that lamented not being able to stay longer. As a starting point, I’d recommend booking three nights in one part of the city, and tacking on an extra two or three days in another district if you feel like you need more time to explore.

The Best Things To Do in Seoul

Seoul is home to stunning historical sites, national parks, charming neighborhoods, and countless dining, shopping, and nightlife districts. It will be difficult to keep this concise, as there are so many things to do in this city. For first-timers visiting Seoul, these are my top fifteen things to do in Seoul. This wide range of activities will help you experience every aspect of Seoul, from its historical sites, bustling markets, and nightlife districts.

Visit the Imperial Palaces of Seoul

There are five royal palaces in Seoul, with the most iconic being Gyeongbokgung Palace. They are all located relatively close to each other, so it’s easy to see them all in one day if you start early enough. Changdeokgung, Changyeounggung, and Deoksugung, and Gyeonghuigung. I’ve been to all of them except for Gyeonghuigung. My favorite is Gyeongbokgung by far, but since all of them cost like $2 to get in, I’d say each one is worth visiting.

Wander through the traditional Hanok Villages

Close to the palaces, you’ll also find some traditional Hanok villages. These historic houses and streets are also nice for a wander back in time. Bukchon is the most famous one, but there are a few others that won’t have as many tourists. The villages are mostly residential houses, with a few cafes, restaurants, and boutiques among them. Keep in mind that people live in these villages, so be respectful.

Go Hiking in Bukhansan National Park

Bukhansan National Park is an easy day trip from Seoul’s city center, with plenty of public transportation options dropping you off at the National Park. This national park is free to enter, and boasts a number of hikes ranging in length and difficulty. If you are up for the challenge, I’d recommend Baegundae, the tallest peak in the national park. It’s almost like a mini-Half Dome, down to the ladders and wires that you’ll have to hold onto for dear life to reach the summit.

Hang out at the Hangang River Parks

One of my favorite things to do in Seoul was hang out along the river. This is a popular post-work activity among locals, and you’ll find countless Seoul-ites having a picnic or taking a stroll at one of the many parks along the Hangang River. Some parks will even have food stalls and places to rent picnic blankets.

Hike up to Seoul Namsan Tower

My favorite view of Seoul is from the iconic Namsan Tower park. You don’t necessarily have to pay to get into the tower. The view in the park surrounding the tower is gorgeous, and it’s a relatively easy hike that won’t take more than an hour from Myeongdong. Come up here for sunset if you want some golden color over the vast white fields of Seoul’s skyscrapers.

Feast on Food at Gwangjang Market

Eat, eat, eat. Korean food is among my favorite cuisines in the world. It’s famous especially for Korean BBQ, bibimbap, bulgogi, but there is so much more. From classics like gimbap and kimchi, to more adventurous options like squirming octopus, raw beef, and blood sausages, Gwangjang Market is your one stop shop for experiencing Korea’s food culture.

Roam Around Trendy Hongdae and Experience Korean Nightlife

Hongdae is my favorite neighborhood of Seoul. While it is great for exploring during the day, it truly comes alive at night. This area is filled with cafes, restaurants, boutique shops, vintage stores, and countless Korean quirks such as their endless selection of photo booths, karaoke rooms, and arcade games.

Visit the DMZ

A day trip to the Demilitarized Zone is a popular activity for tourists visiting Seoul. It’s a good way to get an understanding of the conflict and current relations between North Korea and South Korea.

Experience Itaewon’s Nightlife

Itaewon is Seoul’s international district, with a large amount of expats and foreigners calling this lively neighborhood home. You’ll find restaurants and shops ran by people from all over the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and many other Asian nations. Itaewon is the most unique neighborhood in Seoul, and the hub of the LGBTQ+ and foreigner communities. I highly recommended grabbing some soju and strolling the streets at night before popping into a nightclub and dancing until the trains start running again.

Explore Myeongdong’s Night Market and Feast on Street Food

Sometimes, you just want something quick, convenient, and fresh off the grill. Myeongdong walking street is a lively area filled with shops, restaurants, and most importantly, an abundance of street food stalls. Fried baby crabs, grilled octopus, and Korean essentials like fish cakes, tteokbokki and egg bread can all be found in Myeongdong. For street food lovers, Myeongdong’s Night Market can’t be missed.

Visit Noryangjin Fish Market

Those who follow in Anthony Bourdain’s taste buds will be familiar with Noryangjin Fish Market. This market is where you’ll find the freshest fish in Seoul. It’s one heck of an experience, regardless of if you actually plan on eating anything or not. Here, you’ll find all sorts of sea creatures, including some that you’ve likely never seen before. It’s a sensory overload, with sights and sounds and of course, smells, pummeling every orifice of your body.

Go Thrift Shopping at Dongmyo’s Flea Market

This sprawling flea market is your best bet for actual vintage and thrift shopping. It’s right outside of Dongmyo station and extends for many streets and alleyways. It’s a far cry from the fancier boutiques of Hongdae and Gang Nam, but if you’re looking for some bargain finds, Dongmyo can’t be missed.

Visit the Museums of Seoul

I can’t say that I really went out of my way to visit museums in Seoul, but I’d often step into one if it was close by. The National Folk Museum of Korea was my favorite, and its proximity to Gyeongbokgung Palace definitely makes it worth visiting. Another random museum I visited was the Hansangsoo Embroidery Museum, which is free to enter if you find yourself in the neighborhood of Seongbuk. The displays of Korean embroidery here are nothing short of breathtaking. Aside from those, the National Museum of Korea, Leeum Museum of Art, and the War Memorial are the most visited in Seoul, although I didn’t make it to any of them.

Visit the Dongdaemun Design Plaza

This marvel of modern architecture is one of Seoul’s most iconic structures. It’s nice to wander through for half an hour or so, but there isn’t much else to do around this area. Regardless, it’s worth checking out if you want to pretend you are in a spaceship for a little while.

Lotte World

I never made it here, but this is basically Seoul’s answer to Disney World. It’s an amusement park complete with a castle that rivals Disney World’s. Not really my thing, but something worth considering if theme parks are your jam.

Check out Gangnam

Whether you know anything about Seoul or not, you know the name Gangnam. The world was taken by storm by Psy and his catchy hit Gangnam Style that was ubiquitous during my freshman year of college back in 2012. The song has been encapsulated with its own statue in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul.

Despite the song captivating me all those years ago, I can’t say the actual neighborhood of Gangnam did the same. It’s home to a big shopping mall, highlighted by the beautiful Starfield Library and an aquarium. I also enjoyed the Bongeunsa Temple just north of the Starfield complex. However, it only took me about two hours before I was bored of Gangnam. Considering that it’s a long journey from the more central neighborhoods of Seoul, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the effort. Gangnam is also great for shopping and nightlife, but more expensive and less foreigner-friendly than Hongdae.

There are countless things to do in Seoul, and this list is only scratching the surface.

Nightlife Guide to Seoul

Seoul has a vibrant and diverse nightlife scene that caters to a wide range of tastes and interests. I loved Seoul’s nightlife because it was always unpredictable and could lead you anywhere. Karaoke rooms, photo booths, arcades, Latin bars, techno clubs, Seoul truly had everything and I miss my unhinged nights of chaos here. Here’s a glimpse of what nightlife in Seoul is like.

Nightlife in Seoul is spread throughout the city. However, as a traveler, you’ll likely be looking to Hongdae or Itaewon. Both of these neighborhoods have a good mix of foreigners and locals looking to have fun. There are many Korean-only clubs and bars in Seoul, so your best bet would be in Hongdae or Itaewon. Gangnam is also an excellent choice for nightlife, but can be quite pricy and many bars and clubs are Korean-only.

I’d recommend starting the night off with some Korean barbecue. Drinking culture and eating culture in South Korea are intertwined. It’s criminal to have dinner without a bottle of soju alongside. Grab some friends, head to a KBBQ spot, and down shots of soju as the pork belly sizzles on the grill. Afterwards, it’s time to hit a noraebang. Sneak a bottle of soju in from the convenience store, rent a private booth and sing your heart out as the soju flows. One or two hours at the karaoke joint should do it, and it’s time to hit the clubs.

If you’re not quite ready, it’s time for another bottle of soju while you browse the streets looking for a lively spot. A cup of ice, a bottle of soju, and a mixer from the supermarket will keep the buzz going. If you truly want to drink a local, mix that soju with mekju (beer) to make somek, a surprisingly refreshing bev that’ll get you going in no time. Drinking on the streets in Seoul is fair game, and as long as you aren’t belligerent or unconscious, no one is going to step in.

Half of my time in Seoul was spent at the clubs, but I couldn’t tell you which ones I liked most because there are just so many of them. There was one night in Hongdae where my friend and I just decided to go into every club we saw, as long as they weren’t charging cover. My right hand was covered in stamps when I woke up the next morning. Anyway, I’ll try my best to come up with some suggestions.

Nightlife in Hongdae

In Hongdae, a good starter bar is Corner Pub or Thursday’s. They play loud music, but it’s still primarily a place to chat, get a few drinks, and meet people. Afterwards, head to Juntos, La Bamba, or Mike’s Cabin if you’re into Latin music, which I very much am. If hip-hop is more your thing, never fear. 90% of the clubs in Hongdae are underground hip-hop clubs with red lighting. I guess that must be a working formula if all of them are like that. NB2, B1, XX, and Sinkhole are a few that I’ve been to. Jumble is another good one, but I think it’s usually Korean only. The only techno place I know in Hongdae is Candy Shop, but it’s always empty and the music kinda sucks.

Honestly, the best course of action is to just roam around and feel out as many places as you can until you find one you like. FF, for example, ended up being one of my favorites despite rolling my eyes at the One Direction playlist that was bumping as we walked in. It had the best crowd of people just looking to have fun instead of hook up, which made for a much better vibe than the seedier, underground, dimly lit clubs of Seoul.

Here’s my complete guide on nightlife in Hongdae.

Nightlife in Itaewon

Now, on to Itaewon. I’ll keep it brief, as we had a much more streamlined stepping stone of clubs here. We’d start off with a bottle of Soju at the Itaewon G Guesthouse Hostel. It’s open to the public, I think, so we’d start on their rooftop just grabbing drinks from the 7-Eleven nearby as we needed them. Afterwards, we’d head to Itaewon-ro, the main strip of bars and clubs. We’d always try out a few different bars, but at the end, we’d inevitably find ourselves at Fountain. There is also a Thursday’s and Juntos branch in Itaewon.

In general, I loved Itaewon for the chaos of the streets. You never knew what was going to happen, and you’d end up making lots of strange friendships that lasted up until the trains started running again, only to never see them again until the next night out in Itaewon. I don’t know how to describe it here. It just is simply the most fun I’ve had in a nightlife area in a long time. I’m not saying it’s going to be like that for everyone, because at first glance, Itaewon definitely isn’t glamorous or fancy. It’s just fun.

Again, I’m only scratching the surface here because there is so much to Seoul’s nightlife beyond these two districts, but these are the two I know best. Say hi to Hongdae and Itaewon for me :’).

Final Thoughts on Seoul

Embrace the weirdness. There are many things in Seoul that upon first glance, seemed strange. By the end of my time in Seoul, I couldn’t imagine life without them. Hop into a photobooth with your friends and dress up. Learn some K-pop dances and jam out with the locals. Have a coffee while live sheep hang out in the same cafe. Hit up a noraebang and sing your heart out. Anything is possible in Seoul, and I hope you fall in love with this wonderful city and all its quirks.

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