By Ben Jeon, a local youtube entrepreneur with a passion for sharing Korean food, culture and tourism with the world. Edited By Jess Wright
Seoul is home to a host of bizarre and delightful experiences that will thrill even the most seasoned traveler. South Korea has a fascinating duality to it, one that is reflected again and again in this bustling city. There is a profound depth of history and a past filled with strife, invasions and perseverance, all juxtaposed with a dizzyingly fast-paced youth scene, skyscrapers and unusual forms of entertainment. High-rise apartments and ultra-modern skyscrapers reflect the burgeoning tech-driven economy while palaces, traditional villages and gardens give a deep sense of history. There’s an abundance of unusual things to do in Seoul, from karaoke rooms to temples, beauty tourism to Korean street food. Whether you’re looking for things to do in Seoul alone or with friends and family, you have come to the right place! As a local who cherishes the diversity of Seoul I have seen, tasted and experienced so much of what Seoul has to offer and would love for the opportunity to guide you to some of the more unusual, quirky and delightful experiences hidden in my beloved city.
Have a coffee at a pet café
By now, you might have heard of the trend where people flock to coffee shops to enjoy their gelato and coffee while stroking adorable and unusual animals. Seoul is no exception to this trend, but what makes the pet cafeś in Seoul different is the exotic selection of animals available to stroke or just marvel at. Most of these spots take good care of their animals, but do your research beforehand to ensure you are supporting an ethical animal cafe. Koreans have the third longest average work week in the world – 60 hours – which combined with tiny apartments means that we can’t keep pets. So pet cafeś provide an excellent opportunity to unwind in the midst of friendly (furry) faces. There are many choices with regard to which animal you would prefer to interact with. Bau House Dog Cafe is (as the name suggests) is dedicated to dogs and takes especially good care of its well-groomed, clean and fluffy pooches, while Blind Alley is packed with mischievous raccoons sure win your heart (and possibly some of your possessions) with their antics. For other curious options try out Koopet cafe, which has a wide collection of reptiles to interact with, or visit the trendy Thanks Nature – an especially popular spot with a relaxed atmosphere and two charming sheep.
Visit a Korean Bathhouse
One of the more alternative things to do in Seoul is to go to a traditional Korean bathhouse. For many, bathing is a typically solitary affair, so be prepared for a culture shock! These jjimjilbang (or “heated rooms”) are where locals come to unwind, socialize and indulge in a wide variety of cleansing and beauty rituals. It is a matter of etiquette to wash thoroughly before getting into the baths – there are rows of washing stations for this purpose. The temperature of the various baths vary between 38 degrees and 42 degrees – pick a temperature comfortable to you and soak for about 20 minutes – the optimal length of time. After your soak, you can opt for a seshin (or professional scrub) delivered by an ajumma (auntie) or man (on the men’s side) who will scrub you down vigorously with a sturdy bath mit. Bear in mind, this is not a massage - they are formidable, but the results are worth it. Afterward relax in the mild warmth of a sauna. One of the more quirky things to do In Seoul is to actually stay over at select bathhouse for a few thousand won extra. The sleeping rooms comprise wide, open spaces with thin plastic mattresses and odd, squishy plastic pillows. Blankets are usually unnecessary as these rooms are heated in the traditional underfloor way.
Attend one of the many unusual festivals
Korea has many unusual festivals, and one of the stranger ones by far is the Boryeong mud festival. It’s about 2 hours from Seoul by car, but it’s well worth the drive. The festival is on for two weeks every July and during that period thousands come from all around the peninsula for, uh, mud! It was first established in 1999 and mud sliding, swimming and even mud wrestling are all on the menu at this bizarre festival. The origins of the festival lay in the cosmetic benefit of mud – specifically, Boryeong mud which is rich in germanium and bentonite, both of which are very beneficial for the skin. The appeal of the mud festival quickly grew beyond the cosmetic appeal and nowadays the main attraction is the beachside party, a huge event which features mud pits, mud fountains, mud pools, mud massage zones and even a mud prison (yikes!). There are one-day passes available that will enable you to gain entry to all the ticketed areas such as inflatable playgrounds, obstacle courses, and mudslides. If you are not too keen on immersing yourself in mud, there are also non-mud activities to enjoy such as fireworks and live music (and of course, watching the mud-crazed antics from a safe distance).
Go fishing at the Sancheoneo Festival
Another unusual and unique thing to do in Seoul is to attend the Sancheoneo Festival, which takes place a little further north from Seoul (about 120km) in Hwacheon, Gangwon province. This is another great opportunity to experience Seoul off the beaten path.The festival is named after a species of native mountain trout that inhabits the rivers and streams in this region. The festival features many exciting sports such as sledding, snow rafting and a plethora of other winter activities. The highlight of the festival is definitely ice fishing. Locals will rent all the necessary equipment such as chairs, bait and fishing rods to tourists such as yourself, to make holes in the iced-over river and catch fish. This fish can be prepared and cooked right then and there, for a delicious trout meal. For the more adventurous foodie, the trout can be sliced and eaten raw as sashimi, a true Korean delicacy.
Experience the Lotus Lantern Festival
If you happen to be traveling to Seoul in May, you may be fortunate enough to experience the Lotus Lantern Festival. This is a huge event that is similar in scale to a Christmas celebration in a European country. It is an annual event of profound religious significance, and celebrates the birth of Buddha. During this time, Seoul will be bursting with color and lanterns, so it is definitely one of the best things to do in Seoul at night. The highlight of this festival is the lantern parade, where the participants will bear their uniquely designed lanterns while parading through the city. Prior to the parade is the Buddhist Cheer Rally, where all the parade-goers will gather to sing songs and dance. Once the parade is done, there is a post-parade celebration - Hoehyang Hanmadang. This is a massive after-party with live music, traditional dance performance, food and drink. If you just miss these festivities, not to worry. The traditional lanterns will be on display in various parts of Seoul for a 10 day period, and a Traditional Culture Zone will be set up in front of the Jogyesa Temple, which features around 130 booths manned by Buddhist organizations.
Eat something unusual and unique to Korea
Seoul is a treasure trove of delicious food finds. If you’re visiting for the food then you certainly won’t be disappointed. Likewise, if you’re visiting for all the weird and wonderful Seoul has to offer then you’re in for a treat with the food scene here because in Seoul the food is certainly unique. While many people have mixed feelings about Korean delicacies – particularly the more adventurous dishes – I assure you there is something for everyone! One of the more controversial dishes in Seoul is live octopus. There are many ways of preparing live octopus, commonly people will cut off the tentacles and dip them in sesame and sesame oil, to be eaten while still wriggling. If you’re not into eating your food alive and fighting, this may not be for you. If you do opt for this option, however, heed the very wise advice to chew properly; the suction cups on each tentacle are still fully functional and pose a very real choking hazard!
Gorge yourself on a traditional Hanjeongsik
Hangjeongsik is the pinnacle of Korean fine dining and will most assuredly have you walking – or rolling – away with a big of a regal swagger in your step. The Hangjeongsik is a full, usually 10-course meal that was traditionally reserved for the aristocrats and royalty. Each person will receive a bowl of rice and soup, and the table will be covered with a variety of dishes ranging in color, ingredients and preparation methods. There is an art to preparing the food for a Hangjeongsik which involves a philosophy known as Eumyang Ohaeng. This philosophy values the concepts of Yin, Yang and the primary 5 elements. There is a harmony present between the 5 preparation methods (grilled, boiled, steamed, fried and salted) and the 5 colors (red, blue, green, white and black) that you will see in the dishes presented to you. Typical fare includes Korean pancakes, fried foods, soybean paste stew, eel, crab, fish, soups, pickles and more. A great place to experience the Hangjeongsik is San Deul Hae, a restaurant with five different branches and 23 different signature dishes in addition to numerous sides.
Explore an abandoned theme park
Yongma Land is a retro theme park from the 80s that crumbled into financial ruin at some point in its history and is truly a hidden gem of Seoul. Quite uniquely, however, unlike most abandoned buildings, this theme park is open to the public who are encouraged to enjoy its quirky atmosphere replete with washed out 80s pop icons, dodgem cars and a spooky merry-go-round. Curiously, this site is popular with newly married couples who come here to take wedding photos. It has become a part of the visual landscape of Seoul and is a must-see for those wishing to capture unusual and quirky photos of their adventure into Korea. It really is one of the more unique things to do in Seoul.
Trick Eye Museum
Located in Hongdae, which in itself is an amazing area full of fun and exciting activities, the Trick Eye Museum is probably the most famous activity in the district. Quirky and irreverent, the Trick Eye Museum is full of exhibitions which make use of visual illusions to create strange, whimsical and sometimes hysterical scenes with you at the center. Whether you’re participating in a medieval scene, hanging upside down or being eaten by a shark, you’ll be amazed at where you’ll end up in this museum where nothing is as it seems! The museum also features an indoor ice slide, action figure painting station and costumes that make for the perfect Instagram pic. Especially noteworthy are the three-dimensional illusions that recreate world-famous artworks such as the Mona Lisa.
Many Asian countries are famous for their karaoke scene and again, Korea is no exception. Seoul’s karaoke bars, or Noraebangs, are private rooms that are typically rented by the hour and include access to high-tech karaoke facilities, food and drinks. This is an unfailingly fun outing for groups, be it friends, family or colleagues. In addition to the vibrant selection of K-Pop, there is an extensive collection of popular English hits that cater to the English speaking traveler. If in doubt as to where you might find one of these Noraebangs in Seoul, stop and look around you – it’s very likely that you can spot one from where you are standing! It’s not unlikely that you can even see one from your hotel window and, if not, I can almost guarantee that there are at least three within walking distance in any given direction – such is the popularity of karaoke in Seoul!
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