What to do in Seoul through the eyes of a local designer

By Nadia Sheng,

Our local, Ha Yun Jun, is a designer who currently works at a startup in Seoul. Just as she’s always on the lookout for new design inspiration, she is also on the constant lookout for new adventures (we were pleased that she considered sharing her favourite haunts on Room5 to be among her adventures).

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If you’re looking for a unique guide to the city, read on for tips on what to do in Seoul to enjoy popular sites in a nuanced way. Is it any coincidence that food is involved in all the following recommended spots of the foodie capital?

Food & Artsy

Paju Book City and Heyri Art Valley/파주 출판도시, 해이리마을

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Paju Book City, Photo by Ha Yun Jun

What to do around Seoul? Book city, art valley – are these places even real?

An hour’s drive North of Seoul is Paju Book City; a city where books outnumber humans by 20:1. Bibliophiles’ interests are surely piqued, let’s see what we can do for foodies…

Local’s tips:

  1. There are so many bookstore cafes to choose from that you may as well go bookstore cafe hopping!

Another day trip lies 10 km north of Paju Book City in Heyri Art Valley; a small town for artists where 500 plus writers, photographers, musicians, et cetera, live and create together. Creatives, it’s time to see what utopia feels like!

Local’s tips:

  1. Check the design shops, furniture stores, flea markets, and ceramic studios.
  2. There are some design/architecture studios that are open to the public – go find them!

Food & Romance

Banpo Bridge and Hangang Park/반포대교, 한강공원

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Han River, Photo by Ha Yun Jun

What to do in Seoul for free? Banpo Bridge Moonlight Rainbow Fountain Show is the world’s longest bridge fountain show. What’s a bridge fountain? A bridge with water spouts that line the side of it. The Banpo Bridge, located in downtown Seoul, has 1,000 LED spouts that line either side of the bridge and jet 190 tons of water per minute. Catch this illuminated, 20-minute, show nightly from April to October.

Local’s tips:

    1. Call and order food to be delivered to you in the Hangang Park or wherever you are on the Han River (you can do that!). You can order practically anything. The most popular/must tries are fried chicken + beer, Jajangmyeon, and pizza.
    2. Rent a bike and ride along the river. The nearest bike rental is at the Jam Won subway station, between exits 3 & 4. Popular when the weather isn’t too hot or cold, expect to have to wait for bikes to turn up.
    3. The area by night is very relaxing, so soak in the nightview by taking a leisurely walk.

Stay: Sheraton Seoul Palace Gangnam Hotel / 20 minute walk or bus ride to Hangang Park

Food & Nightlife

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What to do in Seoul by night? Located in the popular Itaewon area of Seoul is the trendy club Cakeshop Seoul.

Local’s tips:

  1. Small, but totally worth a visit, even if you’re a non-clubber like myself, particularly when there’s a good lineup. Be sure to check out the who’s on before going.
  2. There aren’t any cakes here…but there are plenty of good places to eat around Cakeshop! The relatively new Pizza Beer Association (PBA) has a yummy truffle pizza, with truffle garlic dipping sauce, and good beer.
  3. Pistil is another club by Cakeshop that’s a 5-minute walk from the original and is worth checking out if you want to take a break from Cakeshop.

Stay: Hamilton Hotel / 7 minute walk to Cakeshop Seoul

Food & History

Tongin Market/통인시장

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Alley near Tongin Market, Photo by Ha Yun Jun

What to do in Seoul for a cultural experience? West of Gyeongbokgung Palace is a historical market. Go if you want to experience, first-hand, the way markets ran in the old days. The market is open from 11 am to 4 pm everyday except Mondays and every third Sunday.

Local’s tips:

  1. Buy old coins (엽전) and use them to buy small portions of food from different stores around the market. If the old coins aren’t available, not to worry – you can still use regular money to buy things.
  2. A must try is the soy & chili flavoured stir-fried rice cake Girum Tteokbokki (기름떡볶이) from the famous Wonjo Halmoni restaurant (known for it’s octopus).
  3. Around the market, you can often find tiny flea markets. There are also many small shops along the hill by the market.
  4. Check out the Daelim Museum for its interesting art exhibits. It’s not a typical museum and is – doable when on a time constraint and even if you ain’t artsy.

Stay: Four Seasons Seoul / 20 minute bus ride to Tongin Market

Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden/창덕궁, 후원

What to do in Seoul to find your inner peace? Of all Seoul’s palaces, there’s a lot to admire about the Changdeokgung Palace. Most importantly, it portrays Korea well; something that isn’t always the case abroad. Aesthetically, the structure of the palace is not straight nor overwhelmingly curvy; an aesthetic that follows the flow of nature and one that’s been appreciated throughout Korea’s history.

Local’s tips:

  1. Take interest in the philosophical ideas that have been incorporated into the palace’s architecture and landscape.
  2. Spend your timeout’s from the busy city in the beautiful Secret Garden, located in the heart of Seoul. Note that you can only enter the garden on a guided tour which you should book in advance (choose from English, Chinese, and Japanese).

Stay: Ibis Ambassador Seoul Insadong / 8-minute walk to Changdeokgung