Seoul: between history, skyscrapers, abandoned theme parks, food and a lot of good coffee

What to see in Seoul. The answer, I figured, would be relatively simple, but you’ll have to be patient, as this turns out to be one of the longest articles I’ve ever written, which I don’t know if that’s going to be a good thing for you.

So, please, be magnanimous.

What to see in Seoul, intro

Seoul has different profiles. The first profile, without a doubt, is the historical one. The Korean War didn’t leave much intact but several important structures, particularly those dating back to the Joseon period, have been rebuilt and can be admired in all their magnificence. Then, of course, there is recent history. In particular, the Korean War occupies a necessarily important place in the development of the modern Republic. Finally, we have the present, with the North Korean brothers, Kim Jong Un, the nuclear danger and the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

What to see in Seoul, view of the city with the American base in the foreground and the Namsan Tower in the background. The point of view is that of the National Museum, on a cloudy and gray day. We are still in November.
What to see in Seoul, a view of the city with the American base in the foreground and the Namsan Tower in the background. The point of view is that of the National Museum, on a cloudy and gray day. We are still in November.

The second profile is food related. Korean specialties such as bibimbap, bulgogi or kimchi are becoming very popular and in general Korean cuisine is making itself known as properly distinct from Chinese or Japanese cuisine (as it should be). For Seoukl restaurants, they range from family-run classic Koreans, to high-level ones with super attentive service. Obviously, there are also taverns and fast food, without forgetting the ever-growing interest in coffee and the rebirth of the classic Korean rice wine, the Makgeolli, next to the Soju.

The third point of view is related to the many activities that can be done in the Korean capital. Nights out, rock or K-Pop, in Gangnam and Itaewon, visits to the DMZ, walks in the parks, or to the Namsan Tower. There is a lot of shopping to be done, be it in classical markets like Namdaeum or in large malls such as Lotte. Finally we arrive at an abandoned amusement park or canoe rides along the Han River.

The fourth profile refers to the architecture, growth, and development of a city that is a metropolis but, as I was able to mention in this article on travel ideas for 2023 (in Italian), a livable metropolis, with efficient public transport, with good quality of air and water (plus is this quality is daily monitored) and finally little, very little violence (homicide rate referred to all of South Korea is 1 per 100,000 inhabitants, while in the USA, for example, it is 7).

Let’s roll up our sleeves, put on comfortable shoes, and start walking.

What to see in Seoul, the alleys of the capital
What to see in Seoul, the alleys of the capital

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, history

South Korea’s geographic location has drawn its historical arc. Two neighbors have long interfered in the development of the Korean kingdom. These are obviously China and Japan, which in alternating moments have tried to co-opt the country into their sphere of influence, or even to occupy the Korean kingdom militarily.

What to see in Seoul: Gyeonbokgung. When visiting Joseon palaces you will notice that it is very common to dress in traditional clothes and have photo shoots done, or even just walk around the palaces as if you were in the 1600s. Around Gyeonbokgung there are many places where you can rent costumes at reasonable prices
What to see in Seoul: Gyeongbokgung. When visiting Joseon palaces you will notice that it is very common to dress in traditional clothes and have photo shoots done, or even just walk around the palaces as if you were in the 1600s. Around Gyeongbokgung there are many places where you can rent costumes at reasonable prices

After several centuries of infighting between Korean kingdoms, the Joseon Dynasty managed to take control of what could roughly be considered a united Korea (North and South) around 1300, and control remained with this dynasty until the Korean Empire was born (1897). However, the Korean empire will have a short life, becoming first, in 1905, a Japanese protectorate and then in 1910 incorporated into the empire of the rising sun.

Signs of the important Joseon dynasty are mostly in the northern part of Seoul and if they were destroyed by wars, fires, or the passing of times, they have been rightly rebuilt.

Deoksugung Palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changedokgung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, and Jongmyo Shrine, all date back to the Joseon Dynasty and have served as imperial palaces at one point or another in history (except of course the shrine, which is the place where the bones of emperors and his family rest).

Seul Gyeonbokgung, coreani in costumi storici, foto artisticamente sfocata
What to see in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung palace, Koreans in historical costumes, artistically blurred photo
Seoul Deoksugung palace at night with the modern city hall behind it, the contrast between ancient and modern
What to see in Seoul: Deoksugung palace at night with the modern city hall behind it, the contrast between ancient and modern

But there are not only palaces. There are in fact some parts of the old city wall with gates, beautiful and scenic, especially when the costumed actors stage the changing of the guard (I am referring in particular to Sungnyemun and Heunginjimun).

The gates can be visited for free (not that there’s actually much to visit, but it’s a nice effect to find yourself in front of this typically Korean medieval structure in the middle of the city center, between skyscrapers and modern buildings that stand out to the right and left), while the 4 palaces and the sanctuary where the emperors’ bones are kept can be visited with a single ticket at a cost of 14,000 won (about 10 euros, valid for 3 months).

Seoul Sungnyemun gate, one of the ancient city gates
What to see in Seoul: Sungnyemun gate, one of the ancient city gates

The palaces are almost always surrounded by large gardens which are worth a visit in themselves. Furthermore, the Deoksugung is open in the evening until 21.00 and if you want to take some remarkable evening shots I suggest you take advantage of the night opening.

One cannot talk about the history of Seoul without mentioning a small area in the north of the city: Bukchon Hanok village. It is a relatively small area that has been maintained and restored trying to retain the appearance of a 14th and 15th-century Korean village. The area is not an amusement park, it is an inhabited area with a lot of tourists, especially on weekends. There are narrow streets and typical Korean Chosun houses with sloping tiled roofs. Nice and with many really cool bars/cafes, recommended.

Una strada del quartiere tipico coreano di Bokchon Hanok in una giornata grigia e un po' piovosa
What to see in Seoul, a street in the typical Korean neighborhood of Bukchon Hanok
Una vista dei tetti nel quartiere tipico coreano di Bukchon Hanok
A view of the roofs in the typical Korean district of Bukchon HanokFrom here it doesn’t seem very beautiful but the point was to show you that it is not a museum district but an inhabited and lively district, although the day was a bit gray…

Seul history through museums and art

In addition to the palaces and historical remains of the city, there are some very interesting museums. The first on this list is undoubtedly the National Museum of Korea, in the central part of the city, near the Han River. The permanent collection has three floors, countless rooms, and robot guides and revisits the history of Korea up to 1900. The permanent collection is free, while the special exhibits have an entry ticket.

Seoul National history Museum
What to see in Seoul, National History Museum

Also in the central area of the city, there is another classic that I think especially the boys will appreciate. This is the War Museum of Korea which is a tribute to those who took part in the war in Korea and at the same time a journey through Korean history, not only relating to the war of 1950-53, but also to the medieval period, with the battles between Korean kingdoms and Chinese and Japanese attempts to control the peninsula. The Museum has many military vehicles on display, tanks and aircraft, but also a reconstructed wodden ship in one of the halls. Very well done and also free.

Myself in front of a Sherman. Battlefield fans will know
Myself in front of a Sherman. Battlefield fans will know
Seul, Museo della guerra e un carro M48 Patton
What to see in Seoul, another tank, an M48 Patton, exhibited together with aircraft and also a naval patrol vessel. The external area of the Museum is entirely dedicated to military vehicles.

Three goodies that I leave you at the end of this paragraph.

The first is related to the Korean Museum of Contemporary History, a very recent interactive museum dedicated to the recent history of Korea, let’s say from the 1950s onwards. The main focus is on Korean society, customs, work, social life, and everyday objects. Very interesting and in a central area, next to the American embassy and Gyeongbokgung palace.

The second is the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, a museum dedicated to modern art, with installations of absolute importance in rather large spaces. There aren’t many rooms but the quality of the art on display is truly stimulating, and this comes from a person who is really trying his best to have a little understanding of modern art but, despite podcasts and shows and books, is failing miserably.

Art installation by Choe-U ram, "little ark", a kind of card with a captain made of metal, recycled cardboard and with movements managed by a computer
What to see in Seoul, an art installation by Choe-U Ram, “little ark”, a kind of ghost ship with a captain made of metal and recycled cardboard. Both sides of the ships move in a wing kind of movement managed by a computer

The third, I hope you haven’t fallen asleep, is the KYOBO bookstore, a bookshop almost next to the Museum of Contemporary History, which contains… a lot of Korean books but with a nice section in English (assuming you don’t read Korean). Be careful, this library is not the very famous and super-photographed Starfield library, which is located elsewhere, in the Gangnam district.

Seoul, Starfield library, photo from
What to see in Seoul, Starfield library, photo from This magnificent library is in the eastern part of Gangnam district

Seoul, Korean food, cafe, and fast food

The first evening in Seoul, after an almost 24-hour journey between the stopover in Istanbul and the overflight of all of Asia, I decided that for dinner I should really go for it, a nice Korean lunch. The choice falls on a small family-run restaurant near my hotel called Hangaram (no sponsorship of course). I am presented with a menu where I can choose the main course, which I do by opting for a sort of beef stew on with various herbs.

Korean food tasting series at Hangaram restaurant
What to see in Seoul or, better, what to eat. Korean appetizers at Hangaram restaurant

At that point, all included in the package, a long series of small samples/appetizers are brought to me. Upon the arrival of the main course, I am impressed. No doubt 4 people could have eaten with the amount of stew that arrived. Among other things, the steaming cauldron with meat was kept warm by a small stove placed under the pot.

All very homely but spectacular at the same time. The other tables around me were all occupied by groups of Koreans, 4-5 people, and I was the only one by myself, trying to finish a portion of food that would have fed a family of foodies. The final price, 44,000 won (about 32 euros) with a bottle of soju included, and some water offered, was absolutely affordable, especially considering that even two or three people could have had plenty of food.

The main dish I ordered at Hangaram restaurant, beef stew with a stove underneath to keep it warm
The main dish I ordered at Hangaram restaurant, beef stew with a stove underneath to keep it warm

It was a culinary remarkable start, capable of giving me more than a taste of the complex world that is Korean cuisine. A world very different from ours in terms of the type of ingredients, habits, and even restaurants.

There aren’t many Korean restaurants like the one I’ve been to and I was lucky to have it almost on my doorstep. Many top-level restaurants in Seoul have impeccable service, and quality food, whether you choose Korean or European cuisine, but have “important” prices, usually starting from 50 euros per person.

Then there are many other places that serve Korean food but they are more similar to our taverns, with a sort of menu based on classic Korean foods: soups based on vegetables and meat, bulgogi, bibimbap (rice, vegetables and mixed beef or tofu) or kimchi (fermented cabbage, spices and fish sauce), with some variations related to side dishes. These restaurants generally don’t have an English menu, they look more like canteens and serve a fair number of patrons, especially during the lunch break.

I confess that in these “canteens”, I have never understood much. Not knowing Korean, I practically had no idea what I ordered (generally there are at least photos on the menus) and sometimes the soups or dishes that arrived were far too spicy for my delicate palate.

Seul Cheoggyecheon, passeggiate lungo fiume ma al centro della città
What to see in Seoul, walk on the Cheoggyecheon river. Far from being just a small waterway, the walk is a nice way to bring a little nature into the iron and concrete heart of the city

Undoubtedly easier, but less interesting, is to refer to chains that offer foods of all kinds, from healthy salads to gourmet burgers, from craft breweries that offer all kinds of snacks imaginable, to the classic fast food chains. In this case, there are no waiters and you will be assigned a placeholder that rings when your order is ready.

Seoul what to see, the cafe scene

Caffeine has come to Korea and how! Many Korean cafes are in tiny little cubicles where there’s barely room for a chair and a coffee machine, ergo take away only, but the coffee machine is an Italian Cimbali and the barista looks like he really knows what is doing and the result is remarkable.

Yes, in short, the quality of the product is of the highest level and the premises, at least the slightly larger ones that allow you to drink inside, generally have very refined, industrial-chic furnishings, and the clientele is very hipster aside from the fact that in Korea no one has a beard. One of my favorite places has undoubtedly been Cozy Villa coffee roasters in Itaewon and Coffee@sowol in Namdaemun, but practically every neighborhood has a myriad of high-end cafes.

Seul, vista della città dal fiume Han al tramonto. Ricordate che qui era Novembre.
What to see in Seoul, view of the city from the Han River at sunset. Remember it was November here.

Of course, chains such as Starbucks (always expensive and with fluctuating quality in my opinion) and Twosome coffee abound.

What I particularly noticed, however, is the lack of sweets. The cafés offer coffee but generally, there is nothing, or very little, to eat. You can order a vanilla latte for 8 euros, but you might struggle to find a biscuit and even less a decent sandwich. Too bad, you just have to get used to it.

If by chance you want to combine souvenirs and coffee, I highly recommend a beautiful pedestrian street in the north of the city, Insadong Gil, near the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art and Gyeongbokgung palace.

What to see in Seoul… let’s move on to the activities. Abandoned amusement parks, drug sex and rock’n’roll evenings in Itaewon and long walks in the countryside

I was very surprised to find that you can visit an abandoned amusement park in Seoul. It is a well-kept place, which today is the backdrop for photo shoots, music videos, and cool influencers. Do not think of a gloomy thing but a very particular place. It’s called Yongma land, and despite being quite far from the center you could reach it from the Dongdaemun Design Plaza area thanks to a single bus, the 271 if I’m not mistaken.

Seul cosa vedere, il luna park abbandonato di Yongma land, nella parte est di Seul.
What to see in Seoul, the abandoned amusement park of Yongma land, in the eastern part of Seoul.

If you want a cheerful evening, the possibilities are different. Bars offering all craft beer and makgeolli are almost everywhere but certainly the tourist and foreign crowd moves above all in two areas, Itaewon and Gangnam.

You may have heard of Itaewon because of the terrible accident on the night of October 29th. During the pre-Halloween celebrations, many Korean and foreign teenagers gathered in this area, especially around the Hamilton Hotel, and the narrow streets filled up to capacity. The final result was 156 deaths, from suffocation, cardiac arrest, or simply being crushed by the impressive number of people.

I am not a person sensitive to the paranormal or to “negative energies” but I swear I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that while passing through that area (I passed there on November 18th, so almost 3 weeks after the events in question. The area remained full of tv crews, flowers and people crying) I really felt something bad. It’s hard to imagine what one could feel in such a situation.

Streets of itaewon, international and tourist district of Seoul
What to see in Seoul, streets of Itaewon, international and tourist district of the city

Beyond this tragedy, Itaewon remains a place made up of small uphill and downhill alleys, somehow typically Korean, despite being the neighborhood with the most foreigners. Evenings are filled with cheap beer and loud music. Obviously, there are also places that are a little more intimate. Go and discover the area, you won’t regret it.

Gangnam style?

Psy launched the Gangnam Style all over the world and, despite being rich, he paid dearly. Gangnam is a bit Beverly Hills (but with less sun and a more technological tone, fewer palm trees, and more neon) and a bit Parioli. It is an affluent neighborhood, with malls full of big brands (not H&M but Gucci and Prada), glitzy shops, and many, many cosmetic surgeons (nose and eye touch-ups are really popular in Korea). The Korean Bling Ring.

In addition to all this caravansary of wealth, there are also several of the coolest clubs and discos in Korea such as Octagon and Club Avenue 535.

What to see in Seoul: Han river and the DMZ

If you are more interested in leisurely strolls than drinking the night away then I would say you have plenty of choices. Without a doubt, the area around the Han River offers long walks and even activities such as canoeing in good weather.

The “climbing” of Namsan Tower and a visit to the botanical garden can be a nice alternative. Also around the city, there are several paths that can be followed in the mountains. Without a car or without an agency, it could be difficult to organize the excursion but I trust you. gives you a much better overview than I could.

The DMZ, a demilitarized zone on the border between South Korea and North Korea
What to see in Seoul or rather outside Seoul: the DMZ, a demilitarized zone on the border between South Korea and North Korea

Finally, visits to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that marks the border between North and South Korea, are organized by various tour operators, although there is a train that you can also take on your own to see at least part of it (the agencies usually offer more complete packages, with a visit to the border, house of peace and various tunnels). Prices are around 80,000 won (about 60 euros) and the departure is from various areas of Seoul very early, around 5.30 in the morning (first come, first served, let’s say, tickets run out after a certain time).

I don’t know what to say about this excursion, there is not really much to see and you won’t see North Korea. It didn’t impress me. Sure, it’s one of those places where you can go just to say you’ve been there.

Half-day excursion: the DDP

I would be wrong to publish a post on what to see in Seoul without mentioning the DDP. This is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a museum dedicated to design that has the vague shape of an alien spaceship that landed in the middle of Seoul. The DDP is in and of itself a museum, free, with an infinite number of very “Instagram corners” and a beautiful souvenir shop on the first floor.

Seoul, photo of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. In the foreground, the butt of a gold colored statue
What to see in Seoul, photo of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. In the foreground, the ass of a gold-colored statue, in case you haven’t noticed
Seoul, pseudo-artistic photo of a staircase in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza
What to see in Seoul, pseudo-artistic photo of a staircase in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Below the DDP there is a small shopping center with a decent food court.

In case you are interested in this area you will also find a pastry shop which was a real surprise for me, Bakery_Ten (304-247 Sindang-dong). When I passed by, only the take away service was active.

And here is the conclusion. Or maybe not?

We have arrived at the end of this very long article whose theme is what to see in Seoul. I hope you survived. I would have liked to divide it into two or three parts but in the end, it’s more convenient to have everything here I think.

Seoul conquered me in a way that I didn’t think possible for a tidy, modern, technological, and clean city. I’ve always been fascinated by the typical contrasts of Asian cities like Bangkok or maybe Indian ones and I never imagined that Seoul could be in the top 5 and instead it did.

Seoul, a woman in traditional dress at the Cheongbokgung palace
What to see in Seoul, a woman in traditional dress at the Cheongbokgung palace

It is a city that has risen from the ashes of the Korean War and has been able to become a true world metropolis and also to create green areas, make a small river that cuts the city from East to West livable and pedestrian, bringing the sound of the water and the mesmerizing movement of the fronds of the trees, right in the technological center of the city (Cheonggyecheon). It’s technological but far from a dystopian city.

Today Seoul is safe, livable, interesting and full of history and culture. There are no, or at least not visible to the passing tourist, extreme contrasts and extreme economic gaps. Of course, the complexity of life and problems always exist but Seoul is a beautiful city where perhaps you will find it just a little more difficult than usual to get to know someone, especially for the classic Korean kindness and shyness. If you have a few days don’t even think about it, go to Seoul without fail.

The only dilemma might be which neighborhood to stay in, but with a well-developed transport system, it shouldn’t be difficult to get around to your points of interest.

The post on what to see in Seoul is finished. I will still talk about this city but for now, I gently urge you to have your say in the comments plus I’ll leave you some links:

Let’s concentrate on the food. Interested in an experience at the Michelin-star restaurant Central Lima?

Or maybe you prefer to have a look at what to see in Lima.

Is Egypt dangerous?

Is Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon, dangerous?

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