An Exchange Student's Guide: Seoul, Korea

Known for its dramas, k-pop, and, increasingly, its booming beauty industry, South Korea has undeniably been marking itself as a top travel destination in East Asia.  The modern features of Seoul combined with remnants of a past Korea – picture high rise buildings adjacent to old palace gates - makes Seoul a beautiful mix of modernity and history. Despite the seeming vastness of this densely populated city, if you’re looking for a vacation to both relax and explore, Seoul is for you. 

[streets of Seoul]

I had the amazing opportunity of living in Korea for four months on an exchange in Ansan. When I first got to Korea I made it my mission to hit up all those tourist spots I had seen on the Korean television shows I watched as a teen. Living about an hour and a half from Seoul, Ansan paled in comparison to the bustling big city and I was eager to go every chance I could. After visiting the popular districts and neighbourhoods a few times doing the usual ‘get off at x station and walk around’ wasn’t cutting it. I knew this couldn’t be all there was to Seoul.

Eventually giving up on Google, coupled with moderate Korean language skills that allowed me to wander and get lost here and there, and an abundance of help from Korean friends and classmates, I finally came to the realization: if you get off at the same tourist spots, and you’ll only see the same tourist-y things.

So without further a-do, here’s a quick guide to my top 5 neighbourhoods to explore in Seoul!    

Where to go: Hongdae

If you’re looking for more reasonably priced yet fashionable, “Korean-style” or “hipster” clothing, Hongdae tops every other neighbourhood you’re likely to go to. When asking Korean students about must-go places in Seoul, if you were looking to shop, you were probably directed here.

But if you’re looking for something a little different than the everyday trends, take some time out to go to the southern end of Hongdae; the more artistic, up-and-coming urban side of the area.

Where to get off: Hapjeong (and then make your way up to Hongdae).

What to do: Due to Hongdae being such a popular neighbourhood, rising rent prices have sent a lot of smaller retailers down south, so you’ll find a lot of reasonably-priced shops here, too. It is also home to Café street (though it feels like every street is café street here) and Mecenatpolis Mall, a modern, Western-style mall with larger Asian retailers such as 8eight and Muji.

When you’re done with Hapjeong and the general Hongdae area, head north towards Hongik University and visit nearby Hongdae Free Market. This market is open every Saturday for individual sellers, and is great place to get small gifts.

This was hands-down my favourite place to get post cards, many of which I ended up keeping for myself because I loved them so much. If you’re in Korea for a while and have some creative talents, you can sell here as well! (Contact them first, of course!)

Another tip – after exploring Hongdae, go towards Shinsa station and explore Garosugil, Gangnam (another tourist spot). If you don’t have much time to travel, it’s a perfect way to hit these three beautiful spots in one day.

[left: Antique road | right: a Bob Marley-inspired coffee shop on the main road]

Where to go: Itaewon

Itaewon is the most obvious “tourist area” in Korea, and there truly is something for everyone here. Itaewon taught me that navigating the smaller backstreets and alleys are where you’ll find the true gems in this city.

Where to get off: Noksapyeong Station. Located at the Western end of Itaewon, take the exit leading towards Itaewon and walk straight for a couple minutes (it will take you right to Itaewon road).

What to do: Itaewon is the place to wander around. From cafes and boutiques on the west end, a neighbourhood full of antique stores on the east, and a plethora of small businesses and restaurants in between, this is the place to do everything. If you’re feeling for non-Korean food (Western, Asian, Middle Eastern, and more), there’s no better place than here. In a neighbourhood abounding with migrants and expats, this is where you’ll find tasty and authentic food from around the world. 

[Dongdaemoon Design Plaza / DDP]

Where to go: Dongdaemoon

While you can tack Seoul on to a list of cities that never sleep, there is no better place than Dongdaemoon if you’re looking for an all-night experience. Stores tend to open pretty late in the day, and stay open until the next morning – restaurants included. So no need to worry about the last train, which tends to stop pretty early.

Where to get off: Dongdaemoon History and Culture Park Station.

Where to go: Dongdaemoon Design Plaza – get cool, often hand-made and designed items from independent sellers, including post cards, journals, clothes, electronics, and more. For the k-pop lovers, there is also an SM Entertainment merchandise vendor with pictures and other goodies for fans. Easily visit this beautifully designed space, and finish of the night wandering the streets into the wee hours of the morning.

WHERE TO GO: The Han River.

The Han river is the dating spot in Seoul. While you might not be going on a date, this beautiful river cannot be missed!

Where to get off: There are many stations you can get off at to go to the Han River, since it literally runs through the city. Choose one closest to wherever you’re visiting that day.

What to do: An amazing way to see the river is to rent a bike and ride along it (Yeouinaru station is the closest station to the picture above). This is usually inexpensive, starting at $3-4, but will most likely require some form of ID from at least one person.

An extra tip: after your bike ride, pick up some fried chicken – Korea has some of the best fried chicken I have ever tasted in my whole entire life - and relax under one of the bridges. If you get off a Dongjak station and time it correctly, you can catch a beautiful water and light show from one of the bridges spanning the width of the river.

My main suggestion for any traveller to Seoul is simply to get off a stop before or after your destination. This won’t work every time of course – so do your research – but this should definitely work for most of the popular areas!

Image sources:

© Keshra Hines