Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is massive, sprawling, and to the uninitiated, overwhelming. But there’s historical, cultural, and epicurean treasures aplenty—you just need to know where to go, and what to look for.
While it is impossible to tackle a city of this size in such a short period of time—Seoul encompasses 233 square miles and is home to over 10 million people—you can certainly enjoy a snapshot of what makes this such a thrillingly vibrant destination in one day.
With this handy guide, you’ll experience a mix of it all: history and culture, shopping, buzzy neighborhoods, and in true Korean fashion, a whole lot of eating. Here’s a guide to the things to do in Seoul, if you only have one day.
9 a.m.: Kick off the day at Sejong Village Food Street. Formerly a market, this narrow alleyway lined with orange lanterns and low-key restaurants is a must stop—often overlooked by tourists, and frequented by locals. Since it gets swarmed with students and the suited set in the evenings, morning visits provide a refreshing sense of space and calm.
Look for a glass door with the letters 체부동 잔치집 (Chebudong Janchijip) screened in blue and red. Open 24 hours a day, this humble eatery turns out standard Korean fare, but it’s the handmade noodles (especially the knife noodles with crushed perilla seeds) and crispy, savory pancakes you’ll want to tuck into. Menus are translated into Korean, Chinese, and English, so ordering is a snap.
10 a.m.: There are several palaces scattered throughout Korea’s capital city, but the iconic Gyeongbokgung Palace is one you shouldn’t miss. (Plus, it's only a short stroll from Sejong Village Food Street.)
Clad in a kaleidoscope of bright hues and dramatically perched at the northern end of Gwanghwamun Square, Gyeongbokgung was the primary palace of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled the country from 1392 to 1897. The entrance fee also grants access to the National Palace Museum of Korea and National Folk Museum of Korea, both situated on the palace’s grounds.
12 p.m.: Insadong, a neighborhood known for its cultural and artistic offerings, is a 20-minute walk southeast from Gyeongbokgung. The businesses on the main street (and the equally charming, out-of-sight alleys) specialize in all sorts of locally-made crafts and goods, including hanji (traditional paper), ceramics, and hanboks (traditional, formal attire), all of which make for thoughtful gift-giving.
If you’re feeling peckish, check out one of the countless street carts, but steer clear of the novel snacks (like tornado potatoes) and stick with the tried-and-true, including tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), odeng (fish cakes), and sundae (blood sausage).
2 p.m.: Another 20-minute walk southbound will lead you to Myeongdong, the densely and dizzyingly crowded shopping mecca of Seoul. It’s K-beauty—Innisfree, The Face Shop, and Etude House are among the country’s most popular mass brands—that take top billing here. Everywhere you’ll see youthful staff standing outside, urging you (with megaphones and free samples in hand) to enter their doors. Take your time, and don’t drop all your funds in one location.
For lunch, grab a seat at Myeongdong Sundubu, Sinseon Seolleongtang, or Myeongdong Kyoja. These city staples have operated for decades, and prepare dependably delicious (and affordable) silky tofu stew, ox bone soup, and knife noodles, respectively. Also, take a quick tour through the famed Lotte and Shinsegae department stores. Each floor is dedicated to a different department, with the basements flaunting bustling food purveyors and courts.
4 p.m.: From Myeongdong, hop on the train—with spotless cars and free wifi, it’s praised as one of the world’s best public transportation systems—to the Sinsa stop in Gangnam. (Download the Subway Korea app beforehand, which maps out and prices your route.) The glitzy neighborhood (of yes, that infamous pop song) is located south of the Han River, and frequently likened to New York’s SoHo. It’s not only home to a bevy of upscale shops and eateries, but the residences of local celebrities as well.
Take extra time to explore Garosu-gil (meaning “tree-lined street”) where you can perk up with coffee and a whimsical pastry (like Red Bean Butter Cake and Injeolmi Cream Croissant) from the trendy OUR bakery, and indulge in a little scent therapy at Villa Soohyang. Founder Kim Soohyang’s chic home fragrance collection is based on her favorite memories and spots in Seoul (like Gangnam 8 and Itaewon 565), and has quickly gained an international following.
6 p.m.: Hop back on the train, and get off at Seongsu station. Seongsudong is an up-and-coming neighborhood—many locals have dubbed it the Brooklyn of Seoul—that was formerly home to shoe factories, but has since transformed into a hip pocket filled with quirky, design-centric restaurants and boutiques where the city’s creative set socialize. Your best move? Bounce around for dinner.
Start at Amazing Brewing Company with a frosty pint—there’s almost 60 beers on tap—and bite (think burgers, wings, and pizza), then head to Daelim Changgo. Equal parts gallery and cafe, the lofty, light-filled space makes for terrific people watching and noshing. Then grab a pandoro (Italian star-shaped cakes dusted with powdered sugar) for dessert at Cafe Onion, beloved for its gritty, industrial vibe.
9 p.m.: Hail a taxi—they’re plentiful and cheap in Seoul—and head to the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul. (Based on traffic, the ride should take 20 to 30 minutes). Being a nondescript basement door is where you’ll discover Charles H., the sophisticated lounge that’s been credited with kicking off Korea’s craft cocktail movement.
The decor, thanks to the vision of acclaimed firm AvroKO, is swanky and gilded, and the libations are just as creative and memorable. Sip on a signature creation, like the Magic Tree (a silky blend of bourbon whiskey, Spanish sherry, aloe vera, and black vinegar), to help take the edge off after a long day of exploring.
Where to Stay
Luxury hotels abound, but consider making the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul your home base. It’s conveniently located in Gwanghamun, nearby many of the city’s top historic sites and attractions, and as with all Four Seasons properties, you’ll receive polished service, plush accommodations, and top-notch amenities (including a sparkling pool and spa). Even better? Eating and drinking well come easily with eight options.
The newly-opened RYSE Hotel in Hongdae, a neighborhood filled with university students and equally vibrant businesses, is ideal for travelers who don’t mind being immersed in the hustle and bustle of a youth-driven community. The interiors are decked out in punchy colors and funky art, and there’s also an art gallery, boutique, and several stylish eateries (including two Tartines and a Thai restaurant by chef David Thompson) on deck.