Helen is a New Yorker who’s come to Korea for a week to visit a friend. Although it’s her first time in Korea, Helen has visited other Asian countries, including Tibet, Burma and Laos, so she’s comfortable navigating unfamiliar territory. She’s just spent the weekend in Busan, and now she’s back in Seoul to take in more of the city.
Our mission was to create a bespoke itinerary for Helen based on her interests and preferences. We surveyed everything from her taste in music (eclectic, leans toward indie) and cuisine (open to everything), sense of direction (OK) and even how well she handles being sardined (tolerable). She describes herself as curious, friendly and interested in exploring unfamiliar corners of the world.In that regard, we agree that she couldn’t have come to a better place—there’s no place quite like Seoul.
Helen’s safari makes the most of her daytime alone with activities for the solo traveler and maximizes evenings with her friend, who also is a relative newbie to Korea. The itinerary is optimized to take advantage of the day-to-night transformation that many Seoul neighborhoods offer, so she can enjoy another aspect of city life once the sun sets and her friend joins the safari.
SEOUL SAFARI: HELEN
Day 1: Trends and tradition in Old Seoul
Seoul’s notable “traditional” neighborhoods are all adjoined. Their borders may be blurry but they’re defined by their respective main streets. You’ve probably already heard of Insa-dong, but Samcheongdong is more local (and increasingly trendy) and Bukcheon is the least commercialized and most traditional of them all.
10 am | Visit the secret gardens of Changdeokgung
To get acquainted with Korean history, most tourists flock to Gyeongbok Palace, but for a day of exploration, we’d like to suggest one of the other Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty—Changdeokgung (창덕궁). Many will vouch for its smaller but more alluring palatial grounds, including UNESCO, which added the complex to its World Heritage List in 1997. Be sure to take in the lush landscape and lotus pond located behind the palace in the Huwon, or Secret Garden.
Note: the “gung” (pronounced “goong”) means palace, so to say Gyeongbokgung Palace is redundant. When asking locals and taxi drivers simply say “Gyeongbokgung” to avoid confusion.
12 pm | Take the road less traveled into Insa-dong
Insa-dong gil is the main road that defines Insa-dong, but instead of walking in through the main entrance where the tourist information booth is located, enter through another opening immediately off Anguk station exit 6 (it’s so narrow, it looks more like a gap than a road). Take this labyrinth filled with tiny restaurants and tea shops into the heart of Insa-dong.
1 pm | Enjoy traditional bibimbap with a twist
Since you’re a big fan of bibimbap, try a twist on the classic at Insa-dong Geu Jip. This intimate Korean restaurant is located just off the main Insa-dong road and serves bibibamp with doenjang (fermented soybean paste—tastes much better than it sounds), as opposed to the standard red pepper paste. Enjoy your meal outside in their atrium, weather-permitting.
Insa-dong Geu Jip (인사동그집), 68 Gwanhun-dong, Jongro-gu, 02-737-0575
2 pm | Wander the nostalgic streets of Insa-dong
Insa-dong is packed with opportunities to buy a few trinkets for those back home, but it’s home to more than just shopping. Many galleries are open and free to the public, so don’t hesitate to duck into those that seem intriguing. Scale the impressive Ssamzie Market and survey your surroundings from the rooftop. Don’t forget to bring your camera! On any given day, you can find a small reenactment or procession, a performing artist or traditional Korean brush artist showing off his skills. Note that all signs in this neighborhood are in Korean (by law!).
4 pm | Tea and Serenity
Take a break from the bustling commerce and find serenity at Old Tea Shop. Drink the sweet and nutty daechu-cha, or Korean jujube tea, with a complimentary side of air-filled Korean rice snacks. Nestle into one of the many small nooks in the second floor tea room and enjoy the cheerful chirping of free-flying birds (but make sure they don’t perch above your cup!).
Old Tea House (옛찻집), 2-2 Gwanhun-dong 2nd floor, Jonro-gu, 02-722-5019
19:00 | Dinner in Samcheong-dong
The New York equivalent for Samcheong-dong could very well be the West Village, with old homes converted into retail outlets, quiet and daunting galleries and narrow, stone-paved roads. The main Samcheongdong road is dotted with boutiques, cafes and both Korean and western restaurants housed in traditional hanok houses. For Korean comfort food, opt for Samcheong-dong Sujaebie (삼청동수제비, 102 Samcheong-dong, Jongrugu, 02-735-2965) on the main road. For a traditional course meal, try Sosonjae’s prix fixe menu which starts at 20,000 won (소손재, 113-3 Samcheong-dong, Jongro-gu, 02-730-7002). Or, for some of the best wood-fired pizza Seoul has to offer, get off-path to Daejangjangyi Hwadeok Pizza (대장장이 화덕피자집, 62-1 Gahee-dong, Jongro-gu 02-765-4298; advanced reservations recommended, closed last Tuesday of the month).
22:00 | Something sweet, something sexy
To finish off your evening with something sweet, head to Retrona Pie in the back roads of Samcheongdong-gil (17-2 Palpan-dong, Jongno-gu, 02-735-5668). After dessert, check out the nearby Asia Eros Museum (17-1, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu), which exhibits the sexier side of Korean and Asian cultures. The 10,000 won admission includes a cup of tea. Not surprisingly, the museum is open late—until 11 pm.
Day 2: Girl’s day out in Sinsa-dong
For a day of pampering, we’re sending you to the ever-fashionable Sinsa-dong.
11:00 am | Beat the lunch rush at Buccella
This popular sandwich bistro is known for their ciabatta breads. Grab a seat on the terrace and order their four cheese salad, which comes with a generous serving of fresh baguette. Take in what the locals call the “water”—or the sinewy and polished crowd that’s there to be seen.
12:00 pm | Stroll down Garosugil (and meander through its tributaries)
You’ve started on the main road, probably passing our favorite design and fashion stores like ALAND, Les Choix de Caramel and Lumiere. The alleys east of Garosugil tend to be more interesting because it’s seeping into residential areas. Stop by Latte King for coffee to go. A bit further down there’s Bomeul Chatgi (Korean for “treasure hunt”), an indoor flea market of new and vintage goods. Of course, there’s much to be seen (and eaten and purchased) on the streets west of the main road as well.
2:00 pm | Scrub-down at Spa Lei
After yesterday’s trek around Jung-gu and this morning’s Garosugil roundabout, you could probably use some winding down. Take in the spa experience—in the buff. Spa Lei is a great women-only traditional Korean bath near Sinsa station that is much cleaner and foreigner-friendly than your typical Korean sauna. Immerse yourself in different herbal baths and loosen up those dead skin cells before getting a 30,000 won full-body scrub down (remember, no tipping in Korea). Lie down and get toasty in special rooms with hot red clay pebbles. There’s even a nail salon and a nice cafeteria where women in robes and slippers munch on spicy rice cakes and cold noodles. You can spend anywhere from two to 12 hours at the spa (we recommend at least three!).
Spa Lei, 8-22 Cresyn Building, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu.
6 pm | Dinner at Stephanie Cafe
For dinner, have your friend meet you at Stephanie Cafe, a quiet, unassuming restaurant far from the bustle of the main road. We recommend their pink pasta and anchovies or vongole pasta. Indulge in chocolate lava cake à la mode for dessert and grab some pastries for tomorrow morning at Le Alaska Bakery, just down the street.
Day 3: Good, gritty fun in Hongdae
No first-time visit to Seoul is complete without a foray into the streets of Hongdae. From cafes buzzing with designers to throbbing lounges supplying cheap shots, it’s one Seoul locale that never sleeps.
10 am | Get lost
What is exploring without wandering? To start off, head to Cafe Five Extracts for a morning jolt. The award-winning barista may be known for his alcohol-infused concoctions, but a shot of their classic espresso is just as stimulating. Then allow yourself to walk aimlessly in the gorgeous, grungy back alleys of Hongdae. Look out for landmark street art like the Einstein and the iconic tiger-rabbit.
Cafe Five Extracts, 405-10 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-324-5815
12 pm | Lunch at Cafe Ding Dong
You’re not going to find exceptional meals in Hongdae, but you will find decent light fare at the myriad cafes that dot the neighborhood. We especially love Cafe Ding Dong for its playhouse-like feel. The lofted seating area can squeeze in up to three or four, but is perfect for one to spread out and enjoy a meal in privacy. Peek below at other cafe goers and scribble your name on the ledge (if you can find space). Hidden from the world below, the mini-loft is also a great place to grab a quick nap.
Cafe Ding Dong, 333-24 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-334-3381
2 pm | Explore the design landscape
One thing people love about Korea is the neat stationery and design toys you can find at every corner. The Design Square at Hongdae’s (Seoul’s?) creative hub, Sangsang Madang, is a design boutique that stocks up on everything from architecture books to novelty iPhone accessories.
상상마당, 367-5 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-330-6221
4 pm | Bingsu refreshment
Come summertime, almost every cafe in Seoul offers patbingsu, or shaved iced with sweet red bean compote of some sort. If you don’t feel like shelling out the 10,000+ won most cafes charge for bingsu, take the local and much more economical alternative: grab a Melona or Biyanko ice cream from any convenience store and take a seat on the plastic lawn chairs outside. There’s a Family Mart just in front of the main gate of Hongik University where you can buy your goods and enjoy them in The Playground.
6:30 pm | Noodles of fun
Once your friend joins you for the night, look for the restaurant that has the ice cream stand in its doorway. This is Maponaru Naengmyeon, a vintagey hole-in-the wall constantly teeming with young folks looking for a meaty and refreshing fix. Enjoy Korean braised short ribs or icy cold noodles (mul-naengmyun) while perusing the Hongdae crowd alongside relics from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Keep in mind that portions tend to run small by Korean standards (but you’ll probably be full by this time anyway) and be prepared to have your meal on the floor.
Maponaru Naengmyeon (마포나루냉면), 364-19 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-337-5523
8:30 pm | Cap off the evening with makgeolli rice wine
The recent economic downturn has seen this traditional farmer’s drink boom into a modern experience enjoyed by Koreans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Likewise, makgeolli bars run from the pretentious to pitiful and Hongdae hosts a diversity of these establishments. Some of the most popular include the second branch of Weolhyang (월향 2호점, 352-23 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-336-9202), which boasts organic makgeolli, makgeolli-making classes and even a large sign at the entrance proudly spells out 낯술환영—”daytime drinking welcome.” The Makgeolli (더막걸리, 408-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, 02-336-1007) is a bit grittier but closer to the playing grounds of Hongdae. Don’t forget to order the standard companion side of jeon (Korean pancakes) or kimchi tofu.
Bonus: Low-key evening
Since you’re staying near Seodaemun station, take a stroll down the famed Deoksu Palace stone street (덕수궁돌담길). Starting near City Hall station (exit 1 or 12), follow the path, passing Seoul Museum of Art and Jeongdong Jeil Church (often anglicized as Chungdong First Methodist Church), Korea’s first Protestant church and the nation’s only 19-century church. Nearing the end of the road, you’ll spot Ewha Centennial Hall and the adjacent Cafe Birds and Bugs (32 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, 32 02-777-8988), which sells the closest thing you can find to New York cheesecake in Seoul.
Have less than a day to spend in Seoul? Read Seoul Safari: Six Hours in Seoul.