The cityscape of Seoul is an excellent reflection of the people who live there. High-rise apartments and ultra-modern skyscrapers reflect the burgeoning tech-driven economy while palaces, traditional villages, and gardens provide sanctuary in the city – and evidence of the immense historicity of Seoul, which is situated in an area that has been continuously settled for over 2000 years. As the epicenter of contemporary South Korean culture, Seoul has grown into a position of international significance with regard to fashion trends, music, and flavor. This fusion will no doubt exhilarate any who choose to visit – but it can also be bewildering. First impressions matter, especially when you have limited time at your disposal, so allow me to guide through the city which I am privileged to call home. This itinerary for 3 days in Seoul will take you from the halls of ancient palaces to brightly colored streets teeming with Korean BBQ, through breathtaking gardens, over mountains and into shopping districts that will amaze even the most worldly fashionista. Put your faith in me and this itinerary, and you will be amazed at what you can do in Seoul for three days!
Day 1 – Gwanghwamun Plaza
If you haven't decided where to stay in Seoul yet, try getting a spot near Gwanghwamun Plaza, which is where your 3-day epic will start (if you haven’t decided on where to stay, check this great guide for something you like). An early start will give you plenty of time to explore Gwanghwamun Plaza, a site of great historical significance. Enjoy a traditionally Korean breakfast of rice soup and side dishes, or buy some tteok and gimbap (rice rolled in some dried seaweed), a convenient meal that you can take with and eat while you are out and about. Tteok are steamed Korean rice cakes made with glutinous rice flour, filled with ingredients like mung beans, red bean paste and dried fruit. Once you’ve taken in your fill of fresh air, head into Gyeongbokgung Palace and prepare to be transported back in time. Entrance is RW 3,000 per adult, KRW 1,500 for those aged 7 to 18-year-olds or free when wearing hanbok, which you can rent nearby. The palace is open 09:00-17:00 from January to February, 09:00-18:00 fro March to May, 09:00-18:30 from June to August, 09:00-18:00 from September to October and 09:00-17:00 from November to December 09:00-17:00.
Cheonggyecheon Stream and Lunch at Gwangjang
After all that history – and walking – you’ll have worked up a decent appetite, and a good thing it is because next up you’ll head to Gwangjang food market; a paradise for foodies. Make this journey on foot along Cheonggyecheon stream, which starts from Cheonggye Plaza, just off Sejong-ro Avenue, and runs for 10.9-kilometers. Try not to rush, as the stream is host to a variety of stunning natural attractions such as rockeries, fish and a small waterfall. Just 1.7 kilometers away is Gwangjang market, an indoor street food market guaranteed to make you fall in love with Korean cuisine. There are more than 5000 shops selling everything from clothes to fresh vegetables and other market goods. The atmosphere and aroma of Seoul street food is world famous, making it one of the top 10 things to do in Seoul. Dishes to look out for are sannakji (live octopus) – be careful not to choke on this adventurous delicacy! – mung bean pancakes, dumplings, blood sausage and a variety of fresh seafood.
Mount Namsan and Myeongdong
You may have overindulged at lunch – and I don't blame you in the least! While the food settles, take a relaxing cable car up to the top of Mount Namsan, which reaches over 262 meters into the sky, where you will find Namsan park. Entrance is free if you are on foot but you can also catch a cable car. Here you can take a leisurely stroll along one of the hiking trails in the park to help with digestion while enjoying the panoramic views of downtown Seoul. Welcoming around 20,000 tourists and locals a day, Namsan park is the most popular natural refuge from the throng of the city below. When the sun starts setting, head to Myeongdong for some truly cosmopolitan sundowners. Myeongdong is the city’s elite shopping district and a must-see destination. Be sure to browse the seemingly endless cosmetics and fashion shops before finding a spot for dinner. If you still have some energy after dinner, and feel like a late night walk, it would be worth your while to walk past Myeongdong cathedral – a startlingly European cathedral in the middle of Seoul. It is open to the public and also holds its first weekday mass at 6:30 and last mass at 19:00 (except Monday evening).
Day 2 – The Han River
For the second part of this Seoul-in-3-days itinerary, you’ll be experiencing some very different aspects of Seoul – The Han river (the lifeblood of Seoul), its colorful military history and the hip streets of Hongdae. The Han river has long been an important part of Seoul's economic success, and also a major vulnerability that has plagued Seoul for many years. The river provided a convenient mode of access for invading neighbors to penetrate deep into Seoul – you’ll see more about this later on in the day, at the War Memorial. Nowadays, the Han River has no fewer than 12 major parks on its banks and provides thousands of locals and tourists with idyllic grounds for recreation. There are many popular activities to be enjoyed in the parks such as Frisbee, riding in a Duck Boat or renting a bike. There are several rental stations around and for about 3,000 won you can rent a bike for an hour. You can also rent a tandem bike, but it is a bit more expensive.
Banpo Han River Park
My personal favorite of the parks is the Banpo Han River Park, located on the southern side of the Han River. This park extends on the activities with a bubble playground, soccer field and basketball court. The best part is that admission is free! If sightseeing is more your thing, then Banpodaegyo Bridge is a must-see landmark. This enormous bridge spans the Han river – 7.km in fact - and is located almost in the middle of the city. There are also the Some Sevit floating islands and the Banpodaegyo Rainbow Fountain. With 380 nozzles spraying water in a dynamic dancing show to the time of music, the fountain is really something to behold. If you don’t think you are going to make it to lunch without something to eat, try out one of the many small food stalls in the park for something to snack on while you're enjoying the festivities.
War Memorial of Korea
Your next stop is going to be an educational one – if you aren’t historically inclined, don't worry, there’s really something for everyone at the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan-dong. Korea has a long history of invasions, strife and perseverance. Opened in 1994, the War Memorial of Korea provides a succinct history of these events and is in truth a museum and not a simple monument. On show is a plethora of artifacts ranging from medieval conflicts to the Second World War, and even more recent items. Keep an eye out for Admiral Yi’s turtle boat, and the tanks and rockets from more recent times. Considering that South Korea is technically at war with North Korea, this monument has present-day relevance and is equally as interesting from a current affairs perspective as it is from a military history one. I would recommend spending the morning here, perhaps 4-5 hours to ensure that you get the full experience. The Memorial is open from 09:30-18:00 but is closed on Mondays. (If Monday is a holiday, it will be closed on Tuesday.)
Express Bus Station and Insadong
If you haven’t shopped enough by now, good! The Express Bus Terminal station is a crazy warren of clothing stores, cosmetics, flowers, paintings and even furniture. You will find this underground shopping haven by the Express Bus Terminal Station- the subway station is connected to the underground shopping mall. Open daily from 10:00 to 22:00 (except for the third Thursday of the month) you will find 600 stores in total, along with food and drinks stores for the weary shopper, all crammed into an 880m long alley underground. There’s even a sauna! You will undoubtedly be in need of some tranquility after all this. So head over to Insadong, a quaint neighborhood with an extensive collection of stores selling souvenirs and other more traditional items. Just 8km away, you can choose to take a taxi or Uber or you could walk. Check out the Shin Old Tea House for some pre-dinner tea. This tea house can be found secreted away in an old alleyway and features floor seating and a peaceful atmosphere. It is an essential Korean tea experience. For dinner, don’t forget to eat like a local, and enjoy the diversity of street food on offer while you shop for some souvenirs to take home with you.
Day 3 – Gilsangsa
Seen everything you wanted to see? Perhaps 2 days in Seoul is enough for you. If not, then carry on reading because the third day is packed with beautiful temples for you to explore. The first temple is Gilsangsa. It was originally an upscale restaurant owned by Kim Yeong-Han, a gisaeng. Traditionally, gisaeng are women who are highly trained entertainers and conversationalists, specializing in dance, poetry and the art of conversing with powerful men – not unlike the Japanese geisha. Kim Yeong-Han underwent a change of heart after reading “Non-possession” by the Venerable Beopjeong Sunim. Kim decided that the building would serve better as a temple and donated it to a monk in order to be converted into one. Initially, the monk declined, but in 1997 he finally agreed. The temple is surrounded by natural beauty and one the best ways to appreciate its beauty is to simply walk the complex grounds – sure to induce a meditative state of mind. If you want to explore your spiritual side, the main hall is Geukrakjeon, where you will find the Amitabha Buddha is enshrined. The Gilsang Seonwon (Zen Center) is where meditation practices take place and there is another meditation room, the House of Silence, open daily.
After Gilsangsa, the Coex shopping mall is a great stop to break up the temple experience a bit. The Coex is an enormous shopping complex in Gangnam-gu will astound you with its ultra-modern architecture and a dizzying variety of stores. Open daily from 10:00 to 22:00, it also has an excellent selection of fine dining establishments that you might want to consider for an early lunch. The Coex mall is conveniently near to your next stop, Bongeunsa Temple. Bongeunsa Temple is just north of the Coex and is open from 05:00 to 23:00! It was constructed in 794, making it around 1200 years old. The temple is home to 3,479 Buddhist scriptures, and one of the main features is its 28-meter tall statue of Maitreya or “Future Buddha”. The residents will gladly explain Buddhist philosophies to you, should you wish to have a deeper insight. Don’t forget to buy some tea from their extensive collection on your way out.
The last of your stops for your 3 perfect days in Seoul is Jogyesa Temple. Jogyesa is over one hundred years old and is one of the most important temples in Korea. It is located very near Insadong, right in the heart of the city. It has been the head of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism since 1936. Deaungjeon, or Main Dharma Hall, is the largest temple building in the city of Seoul and houses exquisite golden Buddha statues. The gardens feature a rare 500-year-old Baeksong lacebark pine tree and a 450-year-old Chinese scholar tree. There are various programs you can participate in here. You can learn basic etiquettes, have tea with a monk and make your own salt mandala (activities take place every 1st and 2nd Fridays from 13:00-16:00). Just be sure to make arrangements before hand with the temple. So, is 3 days in Seoul enough? After all you’ve seen I hope you will agree that if you know where to go, 3 days is more than enough.
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