How to Plan Five Days in Seoul
Planning a trip can be overwhelming, especially if you’re pressed for time and traveling to Seoul where the options are limitless. My friend B’s trip was only four days with two hardly-half days at the ends (and in late August which is arguably one of the worst times to visit Seoul), and she had come up with a good list of things to do, see, and eat. I’m a thorough planner but a flexible traveler (it’s strange, but it works), and together we were able to see more of Seoul in those four days than many expats see in their first month living here.
B flew in on a Friday afternoon and had a long layover before our flight to Tokyo late that night (that post to come!), so we spent the layover getting her showered and situated and then trying all the street food at Mangwon Market. We were treated to bindaetteok by a kind stranger, and had dumplings, green tea hotteok, fried chicken, and spicy tteokbokki before we made our way to Incheon Airport. If you’re in the Mangwon Market area and have a bit of time, stop by Cafe Zapangi, the one with the pink vending machine door.
We returned from Tokyo late afternoon Tuesday, so it was already dinnertime once B had checked in to her hostel in Itaewon. Korean barbecue was on her list, so we headed to the local (massive) branch of Maple Tree House. Andrew and I were skeptical as Maple Tree House seems to be the place locals recommend specifically to foreigners, but we now know it’s for good reason! Two meat orders and two stews were plenty for the three of us—Korean restaurants are generous with side dishes—and the service was excellent. We had dessert and drinks at one of our favorite healthy cafes before saying goodnight.
I unfortunately had to go in to work this day, so B spent the morning on a half-day tour of the DMZ and the afternoon at a couple of the palaces (Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung). She shared that if she had had the time, she would have taken the full-day tour as the additional sites piqued her interest and her tour guide was knowledgeable and passionate. It is important to note that DMZ tours must be booked through third-party services. Most hostels and hotels can provide information or even book a tour for you. Be sure to bring your passport on the tour.
That evening, we met at the Dragon Hill Spa and Resort in Yongsan-gu, a 24-hour jjimjilbang or sauna and bathhouse. The staff were a bit rough around the edges, but overall, it was such a fun and different experience. Just be prepared to see more of your same-sex companions than you’ve probably ever seen (B and I have been friends eleven years and lived together two years and even we were giggly at first). We spent maybe five hours at the jjimjilbang starting with one-hour massages, then dinner and dessert, saunas and baths, and showers before rushing to make the last trains home. All this including the admission fee cost between 80 and 90,000 KRW each (~$66.85-75.20 USD).
We planned to do some traditional shopping in Namdaemun this morning but a sudden downpour interfered with our plans. We stayed in the shelter of a small market where every food stand served the same thing. We picked the stand that seemed to have the nicest owners and enjoyed the freshest bibimbap, summer kimchi, and hot soup. The nice owners gave us free (massive) bowls of kalguksu, or handmade, knife-cut noodle soup, and then insisted on giving us an umbrella as we were leaving, which got us just across the way to some indoor shopping.
When the rain wouldn’t let up, we decided to head to Myeong-dong early and sat in a Tiger Sugar sipping black sugar milk teas, went overboard shopping for socks (one of my favorite souvenirs to pick up in Seoul), then went overboard shopping for teas in Osulloc (if you’re a matcha or hojicha latte lover, this is a must), and followed the flowers to Milky Bee where B devoured this rose-shaped ice cream before making our 3:30pm appointment at the Etude House Color Factory for B’s custom Korean beauty experience. You can read about the process and the lipstick she made and see all the colorful photos here!
I should note that Myeong-dong is ace for Korean street food (3,000 won for jjajangmyun, hello!) and shopping if the weather permits. As expats, it’s not so much our scene, but as a tourist, you could easily spend half a day to a day there (the Style Nanda Pink Hotel is a standard stop in Myeong-dong).
We had planned to hike Namsan up to N Seoul Tower this night, but again, the rain got in the way. So, we had a leisurely dinner (a whole pie of pizza each) and my favorite On a Lark Sodas Lemon Ami at Magpie Brewing Co. in Itaewon followed by madeleines and drinks at Anthracite Coffee.
On a whim, I asked B if she wanted to rent a hanbok for our visit to Bukchon Hanok Village—another special experience, and I thought the photos would make a nice souvenir. One of the many things I love about my friend B is that she’s down for most anything and gets super excited about it, so we stopped by a nearby rental shop and she picked out this sparkly orange number.
The owner was nice, helpful, and never forced an upsell. B decided on a one-hour rental (which was just enough time and 11,000 KRW) and a premium hanbok (more intricately designed and therefore more sparkly for +5,000 KRW) and had her hair styled and accessorized (+5,000 KRW) for a total of 21,000 KRW or ~$17.56 USD.
It might be helpful to note that visiting hours for the main alleys of Bukchon Hanok Village now start at 10am, a policy that must have been put into effect recently and is for the sake of the locals who actually live in the hanoks. Regardless of the time of day, please be respectful when you visit, using hushed voices and not touching what you shouldn’t.
Within the village is a traditional teahouse with lovely staff called Cha Masineun Tteul (차마시는뜰) which B and I had to ourselves for a good portion of our time there. We were sat at a perfect corner spot next to floor-length windows and chatted away while sipping refreshing maesilcha for me and an earthy, hot tea set for B and eating strawberry and chocolate chapssaltteok.
Once we realized how ravenous we were, we hopped on a quick bus towards Imun Seolnongtang, a Michelin Star seolnongtang/seolleongtang or ox bone soup spot tucked away in the Jongno district. A piping hot bowl and all the kimchi, kkakdugi, scallion, and seasonings you can eat will set you back 10,000 won (~$8.35 USD), and it’s no wonder why they’ve earned Michelin Stars consecutive years.
From there, we walked towards Jogyesa, stopping in ceramics shops along the way. In the spring, the temple is filled with colorful lanterns; in the summer, it’s filled with the most vibrant pink lotuses. There was an event happening at the time and the temple was so changed and busy, I didn’t recognize it at first.
From Jogyesa, we walked to Insa-dong where we spent more time than I expected, mostly for the shopping. It was so fun to watch B shop through Seoul as the shopping culture here almost numbs you as an expat. Seeing all the shops and goods through her eyes made me stop to enjoy and appreciate them more, and even pick up a few things myself. Some of the souvenirs she picked up: a beautiful amethyst ring and earring set (apparently amethyst is South Korea’s national stone), a modern hanbok-style skirt, and traditional artwork.
It goes without saying that Ikseon-dong was next. I showed B all of my favorite shops and she picked up several more pieces for her wardrobe. I discovered my two new favorite scents and have been spritzing them every day since.
Early evening, we made our way to Dongdaemun Design Plaza and lounged on an interesting bench outside on the upper level while listening to a few brave individuals play the piano. B was feeling fried chicken, so we did chimaek for dinner (chi as in chicken, maek as in maekju or beer).
At night, we hiked Namsan to N Seoul Tower. Although it’s all steps, Namsan is not quite an easy hike, even at night when it’s cooled down. The cable car will cost you 7,000 won one way or 9,500 won round trip. You’ll get good views of the city either way. However you get to the top, definitely check out the souvenir shop at the base of the tower. Souvenirs at sites like this can be a little tacky, but theirs were so novel and cute I wanted to buy everything!
One of my favorite things about Seoul is that you can see Lotte Tower from most parts of Gangnam and N Seoul Tower from most parts of Gangbuk, so it’s nice to go back and visit the actual structures every once in a while.
We had street food for breakfast at the as-seen-on-Netflix stand and a couple others in Gwangjang Market and B did a bit more shopping. Then we wandered through Ihwa Mural Village where I discovered my official favorite mural (why, Alice, of course). But how much do we love that first mural of the girl and flower petals that B and I randomly found on our steep, downhill walk to the nearest subway station?
We also walked over to Naksan Park and along the Seoul Fortress Wall (where the views might be even prettier at night) where I snapped the last of the crepe myrtle trees and mugunghwa flowers (South Korea’s national flower).
We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking through Hongdae and the Gyeongui Line Forest Park, and when we were ready for a pick-me-up, we stopped by my favorite cafe in Seoul for the prettiest drinks, browsed dessert selections around Yeonnam-dong, and had a quick bite at another favorite healthy food spot. Then we made our way to Yeouido for B’s final night.
From around April to October, the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market is open in several locations, the best of which, in our opinion, are Banpo and Yeouido as they’re along the Hangang (where you can rent individual and tandem bikes) and open both Friday and Saturday nights. The night market consists of lines of food trucks, performers, and other festivities, and sometimes water and light shows off the bridges. Most locals will pack the works and picnic or camp out throughout the park.
B’s flight was on this day, but we made sure to fit a bit more of Seoul in in the morning. I showed her the best brunch views in Haebangchon as well as the artsy, underground, old-school-vibe area. We got a final cafe/sweet fix at another favorite, Cafe Glad You Came, where the kind owner gave us the other dessert free when we couldn’t choose between two just so we could try it, and then parted ways at B’s transfer to the Airport Line.
It was a whirlwind of barely five days but I’m so pleased that we were able to pack so much in, with a good balance of touristy and local! If it weren’t for the weather interfering with our plans, we would have also hiked Bukhansan to Baegundae Peak, crossed the river to Bongeunsa, and played with the meerkats at their cafe (though we did get to play with Shiba Inu puppies in Tokyo).
I might write a post on how I plan trips in general if that would be helpful, but for Seoul, my tip would be to 1. Create your master to-do list while narrowing down your priorities (this way, you ensure you get to all your priorities and have backup or additional plans), 2. Group to-dos by location (so you can maximize your time at each stop and not waste it or any money commuting), and 3. Set dates for each group or individual item based on weather, time sensitivity, or how you’re feeling (we rescheduled Namsan and N Seoul Tower for another night because of the rain, we visited Myeong-dong and its neighboring areas on Thursday because of our Color Factory appointment, and we planned our jjimjilbang night for Wednesday as we thought it’d be nice to get massages right after our Tokyo trip).
TL;DR, plan thoroughly beforehand and be flexible once you’re here. :) Or just use this itinerary! Sorted.