A quick trip to Seoul is a very sad thing indeed. There are so many places to see and so many dishes to eat.
If you only have a couple of days in Seoul then here is my recommended itinerary:
At the airport: You can jump on an amazingly convenient train which connects you to Seoul station in the heart of the city, or you can venture out to the Bus bay and work your Korean at the ticket counter. The Airport limousine busses are my favourite way to travel. You get a great view all the way into the city and they are so comfortable!
Try to stay somewhere central and over the Han river like Jungno or Myeongdong. I would recommend avoiding Itaewon like the plague, unless you are a lover of busy streets full of American expats and diners.
Start off with a visit to Insa dong. Take the subway to Jongno 3 (sam) ga and go up exit 1. Or take line 1 to Jonggak station and take exit 3. Insa dong is one long street full of little shops selling traditional ware, tea houses, and smaller boutique type shops. On Sundays it is blocked to cars so it is the best time to visit and walk freely without feeling like a sardine among the throngs of visitors. For Starbucks fans this is also the only place in the world where Starbucks logo has been written in another language. While you’re here, be sure to stop at one of the little Korean cafes you find that serve the traditional seafood pancake and Magkeoli.
If you start at the beginning and walk the way to the end you will be in the perfect location to walk to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Gyeongbokgung is a must see if you are visiting Seoul. It is the largest of 5 Palaces from the Joseon dynasty. I went there three times when I lived there and each time I enjoyed it more. I didn’t pay for the head set but I did overhear a few tour groups to glean enough information. However, it is a shame that there isn’t more written information around the site.
From here I recommend going around the corner towards Samcheongdong, a charming little district full of funky little cafes, restaurants, small boutiques and handmade jewellery shops. It is a lovely way to break up the day and a chance to gaze at the incredible PDA of Korean couples. You may even spot a few couple outfits.
After a much needed coffee break make your way back to the subway. If you are a shopping fiend like myself take the green line across the Han to Gangnam subway station. Upon exiting the trains you find yourself in a labyrinth of underground shopping. It is the best place to find cheap dresses, shirts and shoes, even better than Dongdaemun markets.
While you are at Gangnam head up the road towards a shop called BXM. If you go up to the 2nd floor you will find yourself in a doctor fish cafe. Brace yourself for some insane tickling as you immerse your feet in shallow pools full of doctor fish.
If you want the full experience of the bustling market, get on the light blue line and head to Dongdaemun. Get off at the stop called Dongdaemun history and culture park and take exit 14. In front of you will be tall buildings with interesting names adorning their facades. Prepare your eyes as you are about to enter a visual headache. But it is worth it.
For dinner you will want to try something like Gumchaetang or Galbi. Gangnam isn’t the best place to find these kinds of foods as it is quite touristy and full of western eateries. I would recommend jumping on another train and heading towards Yaksu or Mapo (exit 2). I would love to recommend you head to my favourite old haunts in Bundang but it is probably a bit too far away.
Now a lot of people might recommend the upmarket places where you pay up to 30,000 Korean won for a dining experience and fancy sauces. But if you want the real thing head to one of the old school restaurants with plastic chairs and yelling waiters. You want to go somewhere where you can comfortably yell ‘Chogi yo!’ and get the waiter to come and refill your lettuce basket.
For a bit of fun at night head out and look for a Norae bang to sing the night away. This is fun no matter your age and you won’t have much trouble finding one. Just walk through any busy street and look up at the different levels of buildings until you see a microphone icon, bright neon song notes or until you hear one.
For the bravest of explorers you can end the night with a relaxing nap in a sauna. Look around for a neon sign which looks like a baked potato with steam coming out of it. This is a Jimjilbang. Be prepared to see some naked bodies, but don’t worry the genders are separated and you can skip right past the naked section, put on your assigned pajamas and head into the unisex sauna area.
By the end of 2 days you will be hooked. South Korean culture and food is incredibly addictive.