Although the global obsession with South Korea’s cultural and tangible exports (K-pop, K-beauty, K-dramas) finally catapulted Seoul in the limelight, travelers need to understand that belying these pleasures of the moment is a rich and complex history that spans more than 2,000 years. If there is one destination that embodies the dichotomy, it is Seoul. As the capital and largest city of South Korea, with over 26 million people in the metropolitan area, it offers an alluring blend of historic and modern; natural and technological; affordable and extravagant. (Even the Korean flag has a yin and yang symbol.)
It’s also huge, spanning 233 square miles with the Han River dividing Seoul from north to south. From here, the city is organized into 25 wards, all of which have their own distinct neighborhoods. Jung-gu, for example, is centrally located and home to historic Gwanghwamun, shopping mecca Myeongdong and hipster paradise Euljiro.
The most important thing to know? Don’t let Seoul’s sheer size deter you. Getting around is easier than you think, and there are free phone translation and navigation apps for added peace of mind. But because Seoul is so full of things to do, places to eat and drink, and hotels to stay, we’ve narrowed down our top picks in this guide curated by a long-time visitor.
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Getting there and getting around
After landing at Incheon International Airport, download the Papago App for Korean-to-English translations (and vice versa), and buy a reloadable T-Money card to pay for taxis, subways, and buses, the three main modes of transportation. Although you can hail taxis, which are plentiful because they are affordable, from the streets, you can also book them in advance with Kakao-Taxi. The app supports English and allows you to select your pickup, destination, and payment method. (If you’ve just landed at the airport, however, just head to a taxi rank outside.) Because traffic is regularly a problem, make the subway your primary mode of travel. Seoul’s system is widely considered one of the best in the world with spotless cars, free Wi-Fi, announcements in Korean and English, and even heated seats in the winter.
The best things to do in Seoul
Because traditional Korean spirits are trending right now, book a Matter of Mind course at Epkkot‘s lab and studio, discreetly tucked away in Chungmuro. Founder Yang Yoomi, one of Seoul’s few female distillers, guides attendees on a creative journey to help them identify with themselves while delving deeper into the world of Korean spirits. The process of introspection, according to Yang, is similar to brewing with rice, the grains of which must be constantly nurtured.