Seoul – the most important tourist attractions, how to choose them and not to omit anything important? What should drive your choice: UNESCO World Heritage list places, or maybe you should follow National Treasure List? However not everyone is interested in architecture and monuments. Therefore, maybe it is better to choose modern attractions, the highest buildings, street art or colorful murals? There are those for whom the attractiveness of the city means modern shopping malls or duty-free shops. There are those who prefer local stalls with old souvenirs or popular flea markets. An interesting side of Seoul can also be numerous festivals and concerts, exhibitions, museums and fairs. For families with children there are several thematic parks, large aquariums, amusement parks and water parks.
After choosing only a few reasons why to visit Seoul – I have decided to present places that made the biggest impression on me. So, my post about “Seoul – the most important tourist attractions” will be based only on my personal feelings. It also does not mean that there are no other places in Seoul that have impressed me. I just consider them to be “optional” and I will describe them in the next post.
Below you can find short table of contents. If you are interested only in one specific subject, please click the link and go there directly.
Seoul – the most important tourist attractions and secrets of the city
Yes, there are a few “secrets” that I would also like to share with you. These are curiosities that are not always described in tourist guides, or it is difficult to find them in the thicket of information. I would like this knowledge to make you more aware of Seoul diversity and experience gained will be more interesting. If you decide to use my hints, you may need to make some changes in your current plan or even resign from something else. I think it’s worth it – and you? Decide yourself!
Gyeonbokgung Palace is considered the most beautiful in Seoul and there is no exaggeration in this statement. This is the first palace I visited in the city and one of my most favorite, but not the only one!
It was founded at the end of the fourteenth century as the main palace, on the orders of King Tojeo (Joseon dynasty). The name of the palace, Gyeong-Bok, literally means “brilliance and fortune”. The palace was partially destroyed by fires during the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century and abandoned by the royal family for over 270 years. It was rebuilt only in 1867 – and regained his former glory and rank. In the same year, the royal family returned to the palace.
Unfortunately, during the Japanese occupation in 1910-45, over 90% of the palace’s buildings were demolished or changed their place (e.g. gates). An additional act diminishing the rank of the palace was a big building that was built on its main square. That building which has covered the view on all remaining palace complexes it was a main seat of the Japanese occupation authorities. Decision to dismantle this building was made only at the beginning of the 90s of the twentieth century, thanks to which today nothing obscures the main entrance.
Seoul – the most important tourist attractions. Gyeongbokgung Palace
In Gyeongbokgung there are numerous gates, courtyards, halls and pavilions. There are also gardens, ponds and two museums: The National Museum and The Folklore Museum. In the spring and summer, concerts and performances are often held in the palace, and several times a year there is a possibility of visiting the palace after dark.
I believe that sightseeing Seoul should start just from this palace. You will find there everything there that deserves your attention in Korea, but in a nutshell. There is a beautiful traditional architecture, colorful roof decorations, cast iron bells, bronze vessels, lanterns, stone sculptures depicting mystical creatures, stone bridges, fragrant gardens, a small lake and pond.
Although the palace is located in the very center of a modern city, but thanks to the fact that it is surrounded by a wall and is located in the park – there is a pleasant atmosphere that is inviting to rest.
Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changing Guards Ceremony
Every day (except Tuesday), you can watch changing of the palace guards ceremony. The show starts at 10.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. and lasts about 20-25 minutes.
It is a combination of a colorful military parade with the ceremony of exchanging banners between sentries. This is a very interesting spectacle, closely related to Korean history and tradition. Free entrance. The show takes place in the inner courtyard of the palace, just inside of Gwanghwamun gate. There is also Gate Guard Duty Performance, that is happening outside of the Gwanghwamun Gate at 11.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. More information at Visit Seoul.Net.
Gyeongbokgung Palace and its secrets. What you should know?
- For a quiet passage of the whole area it is worth booking a min. three hours.
- Free guided tours. There is a possibility to visit the palace with a guide in English FREE (the guide is free, not entrance to the palace)! The meeting point is located opposite the Tourist Information office, inside the Heungnyemun gate. The tour takes about 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Tours with English language starts three times a day at 11.00, 13.30 and 15.30. There is no need to book in advance, everyone who will come to the departure point can join the group. Guiders will tell you everything about palace history that you will not find in any guide, so it’s really worth joining the group.
- There is a small traditional teahouse in the palace gardens. It is worth to find it and visit! Attention, payment is possible only with a payment card.
- An additional, colorful attraction of this place are tourists (including Koreans), who are coming to the palace dressed in the traditional Korean national costume – Hanbok. People so dressed, can enter the palace area for free!
- If you plan to go to the Bukchon Hanok village after visiting the palace, take my advice. I recommend going out thru the side gate, nearby the Folklore Museum (and not thru the main gate), because from there it is a distance of about 10 minutes on foot.
- Sightseeing after dark. In the period between April and October, but only on selected days – Gyeongbokgung palace opens its gates after sunset. It is an ideal opportunity to be able to walk around the castle grounds after dark. Visiting the palace in the moonlight creates a magical atmosphere and an unforgettable experience.
Gyeongbokgung Palace worth to know
- The palace can be visited every day, but it is closed on Tuesdays.
- Opening hours depend on the season of the year. From November to February the palace is open from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., in other months it is open until 6.00 p.m. In July and August until 6.30 p.m. Last admission 1 hour before closing.
- Admission fee is 3000 WON (about 2,5 $). Children under 6 admission free, but they require to have a free-admission ticket issued by the ticket office.
- Royal Palace Pass for 5 attractions. Not yet many people use it, but this is a very convenient option. I recommend buying this pass, because it will allow you to avoid standing in long queues to the ticket office and let you to save some money. The pass price is 10,000 WON (approx. 8,5 $). It is valid for 3 months from the date of purchase. Royal Palace Pass is valid in 4 palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung with Secret Garden, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and in the Jongmyo Shrine. You can buy it at the ticket office of each of the above attractions.
- On the palace Gyeongbokgung entrance ticket (also on a Royal Palace Pass), you can leave the palace grounds and visit Folklore Museum, which is located just behind the fence. It is also worth going there to the park, to see Museum of the Earth in the open air. After visiting, you can return to the palace area using the same ticket.
- You can read more about Gyeongbokgung directly on the palace’s website or on the page of the National Cultural Heritage of Korea.
Bukchon Hanok Village
A visit to the Bukchon Hanok village on the same day as the Gyeongbokgung Palace seems to be the most rational use of time. The distance from the palace (exit next to the Folklore Museum) to the village takes about 10 minutes on foot.
Bukchon is like a village frozen in time for ages. It is one of the last places in Seoul, where you can still see the traditional Korean buildings called Hanok, dating back to the Joseon dynasty. The settlement consists of about 900 old houses, several small museums, numerous cafes and restaurants, and several very interesting vantage points. Bukchon is near Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and Jonmyo Shrine, so Korean influential families mainly used to live here in the Joseon Dynasty.
Bukchon is still inhabited today, therefore you should not treat it is as an open-air museum. Please remember – there is a special zone of silence and also you can’t enter everywhere because of private ownership. There are also several houses where you can rent a room for the night, taste the local cuisine and taste the Korean lifestyle. Visiting the village, it is also worth paying attention to numerous galleries, shops with traditional handicrafts and ordinary souvenir shops.
There is a specific atmosphere here. On one hand, the endless crowd of tourists effectively discourages from walking along the narrow streets. On the other hand, descent from the main tourist route allows you to enjoy the peace and quiet. Traditional architecture, winding narrow streets, wooden gates, cobbled streets and fragrant private gardens – these are the strong points worth to see there. It’s also worth getting lost for a while and to feel its atmosphere.
Bukchon Hanok village and its secrets. What you should know?
- There is a nice Tourist Information Center on the spot. You can get there a very useful map of the area there. Additionally, you can ask for a specific place that you are looking for, and IT staff will draw a route on the map and tell you exact directions how to get there.
- There are eight official viewpoints and all of them are marked on the map (which can be taken at the IT point), but one of them I recommend the most.
Being there, follow signs for Bukchon Observatory. The viewpoint is located on the top floor of a private apartment. It is run by a charming older couple. Entrance ticket 3000 WON (about 2,5$) and price includes a free refreshment with coffee, tea or juice. Resting in this place is a real pleasure. Not many people know this place, therefore there are no crowds, and the views are the best there!
Address: 22-3 Bukchon-ro 11da-gil, Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul. Open daily from 9.00 a.m. till 8.00 p.m.
- Bukhon Hanok is inhabited by private people, so in many places there is a silence zone. In some places there are guards who pay attention if tourists are behaving to too loud.
Bukchon Hanok village worth to know
Bukchon Hanok is a popular spot for those who want to make selfie in a traditional Korean outfit (Hanbok). Traditional costumes are really beautiful, very colorful and it is a really nice view when you can see people dressed like that.
So, if you want to take pictures of traditional houses with a crowd of colorfully dressed people in the background – come here over the weekend. This place gets particularly busy on weekends, because not only tourists like to set up Hanboks, but also Koreans themselves.
However, if you prefer less people around you – come here at the beginning of the week and avoid weekends.
Jogyesa temple – symbol of Korean Buddhism
Seoul Lantern Festival
It is said that Seoul changes its face so often that visiting it even several times a year can provide you with completely different impressions each time. I was lucky that I came to Seoul when the Lantern Festival took place here. Some streets, gardens and all temples were decorated with thousands of colorful paper lanterns. Such a view was impressive during the day and was breath taking at night when small lamps were switched on in the lanterns. All places decorated in this way looked just amazing and so, remained in my memory for a long time.
For me, such an impressive surprise during the day and a breath-taking experience after sunset – was the Jogyesa temple.
Seoul Jogyesa temple
The Jogyesa temple is considered as a symbol of Korean Buddhism, so visiting it is a must for every tourist. I did not expect, however, that my first visit there will make me to be back to Jogyesa three more times. Additionally, I did not expect that after each visit I will be highly impressed.
The original temple was founded in the fourteenth century, however, did not survive to the present times. Completely destroyed as a result of the fire, it was rebuilt in 1910 – as the main headquarters of Korean Buddhism. Although the temple is located in the very center of the city, it is surrounded by a wall that inside you can find peace and quiet.
Jogyesa is eagerly visited by followers of Buddhism, however it is also visited by all who want to meditate or relax here. Dharma Hall (main building of the temple) is the central place of all Buddhist events, rituals, lectures and solemn ceremonies. Throughout the day, its interior is filled with the sounds of prayer, but anyone can enter inside, regardless of the profession of faith.
During the Lantern Festival week, the whole patio of the temple is covered with a roof made of colorful paper lanterns.
A small paper card is attached to each lantern, on which the faithful write their wishes. After sunset, when the lights turn on in all the lanterns – magic begins. This night view completely stole my heart and absolutely hypnotized.
Jogyesa Temple and its secrets. What you should know?
- Within the temple there is a ten-story pagoda with a Buddha’ relic. For this reason, the faithful from all over the country come here all year round. During my visit, pagoda was covered with a roof of colorful lanterns, so I couldn’t see her in whole.
- White lanterns are dedicated to the souls of ancestors and are hung in a separate place of the temple.
- It is worth to pay attention to the trees growing on the patio, because the oldest ones are almost 500 years old.
- The temple hosts daily classes dedicated to the Korean’ Etiquette. Together with the monks, you can join a tea-time, during which there is a tea ceremony presented. Participants also can learn how to prepare salt mandalas or make paper lotus flowers. These classes take place on the first and second Friday of the month between 1.00 p.m. – 4.00 p.m.
- The temple also offers full day programs, 1-2 days so-called Templestay. In Jogyesa temple the motto is: “To be a true hero” Experiential Templestay. Staying in the temple allows participants to experience life and habits of Buddhist monks. Participants can learn about various aspects of Korean culture and history through stories told by monks. During stay, participants are taught various forms of meditation or they listen to Dharma instruments. They also have the opportunity to eat a traditional meal together with the monks living in the temple. Guests can also learn art of hand re-writing Buddhist books or about secrets of the practice of “108 prostrations”. These classes take place on the fourth Friday and Saturday of the month.
Templestay, short story
It is worth mentioning that the Templestay form was created in Korea recently. It was created for the purpose of the Football World Cup in Korea and Japan, that took place in 2002. That time Buddhist monks decided that this was an excellent opportunity to spread Korean culture and knowledge about Buddhism. Therefore, they decided to open the gates of their temples to a wide audience. During the World Cup (within a month), 1,000 foreigners and over 10,000 Koreans took advantage of the program “Discover Your True Interior”.
In a short time, the program became popular all over the world, mainly thanks to foreign TV stations and social media that were supporting his ideas. Currently, Templestay is considered one of the major tourist programs in Korea. In 2009, the OECD chose this program as one of the five most successful combinations of culture and tourism in the world.
It is estimated that only during first 10 years (since 2002), there were over 700,000 people that have used this option. Currently, there are around 30 temples in Korea offering the program. Some of them are located in the main cities (Seoul and Busan). Some of them are located in the mountains, others are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several of them offer a Templestay program in English. Prices vary depending on the temple, but fee for the entire stay varies between 40000 – 80000 WON (34 – 70 $).
More about the program and how to book it you can find on a this webside: Templestay
Bongeunsa Temple – silence in the middle of the city
Be careful, it’s easy to fall in love with this place ….
The original temple was built in the eighth century in the heart of the Gangnam district. At that time, it was placed near the royal tombs of Seonjeongneung, about 1 km away from the current place. In the years 1545-67, it was moved to its current location and expanded. Until 1936, it was considered as the main temple in Seoul teaching ZEN. Unfortunately, almost the whole complex completely burned down in 1939. However, it was rebuilt and enlarged. From one side the whole complex is surrounded by the mountain and forest. From the other side it is surrounded by the modern city and skyscrapers.
The main attraction of the temple is a 28-meter tall and made of stone statue of Maitreji – the future Buddha.
It is one of the highest stone statues of the Buddha in Korea. It is also one of the most recognizable Buddha statues in the country. This beautiful monument stands on the mountainside, surrounded by nature and numerous small sculptures of Buddha.
You can go there by narrow paths leading thru the forest, along which colorful lanterns are hanging.
Once you reach the place, the Buddha statue will make an amazing impression on you. This is the place that surprised and amazed me most among all the Seoul temples. In front of the Buddha statue there is a small patio with pillows. After removing the shoes, you can enter the patio, take a pillow and seat. You can than pray in peace and quiet, meditate or just take a deep breath and relax.
My own feelings
I will never forget emotions I could feel while visiting of the Bongeunsa Temple. The sunset started, so the sun was slowly hiding behind the mountain. The intensity of light began to change in a short time. At the foot of the mountain there was a view of the temple buildings, traditional architecture and colorful lanterns. One of the monks began to beat the temple bell, summoning the faithful for the evening prayer.
In the background there was a modern city, glass skyscrapers and a COEX shopping center.
There were also big size lanterns placed on the premises of the temple, prepared for the Lanterns Festival. It is really a great place to visit! There are beautiful views, a majestic monument, silence, fragrant of flowers and colorful lanterns. That’s how I remember this place.
Bongeunsa Temple and its secrets. What you should know?
- I do not know any secrets about the Bongeunsa Temple. I have only one good advice – do not miss this place while being in Seoul! Especially I recommend a visit just before sunset
- The temple is located away from the city center. There are no crowds of tourists there and so, this is an additional advantage of this place.
- There are 24-hour Templestay and daily Templelife programs in the temple. Special classes are held for foreigners every Thursday, around 2:00 PM and last 2.5 hours. Pre-booking is required.
Changdeokugung Palace and Secret Garden
Changdeokugung Palace is the second largest palace in Seoul. Built at the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was also the second palace that was erected in the city. For almost 270 years it served as the main royal residence. This happened when all other palaces in the city were destroyed after the Japanese occupation. That time the Changdeokugung was rebuilt as the first one, in 1610.
The palace is distinguished by beautiful architecture and location in the park which looks as a forest. Changdeokugung has been integrated into the surrounding nature, in harmony with the terrain and its natural features. In contrast to the Japanese zen art, where the landscape was adapted to the buildings, in Korea the buildings were matched to the existing landscape. It gives the impression that the palace has blended with nature. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, appreciated due to the harmony of architecture and nature. It is the best preserved and oldest original palace in Seoul.
Changdeokugung Palace, despite its role and high rank it had for over 270 years, today is not as much crowded as the Gyeongbokgung palace. Thanks to this visit to this place is a real pleasure. This is definitely another one of my favorite places in Seoul! Despite a fact that palace is over 400 years old – its architecture is beautifully preserved! On top of it all colorful decorations have lush colors, and wooden sculptures still arouse admiration.
The palace underwent a thorough renovation in 1990-99, which can be seen at every step. Every place delight there. Any part of the pavilion, tree, stone bridge or colorful roof decoration – all this gives unforgettable memories. It is truly a wonderful place. I can’t imagine that you could skip this place while visiting Seoul.
Seoul Secret Garden
The Secret Garden is a place that was not available to tourists a dozen or so years ago. This is because until 1989, last members of the royal family lived in the palace. It is a beautiful place, located in the forest, partly in a slightly hilly area, a bit wild, natural, delightful. It’s worth visiting it at any time of the year, because each time it shows a different face. When I visited the garden, there were some trees, azaleas and irises already bloomed.
Among dense vegetation there are small wooden pavilions and pagodas. Some of them are used today as small reading rooms or places where garden visitors can rest for a while.
I the garden there is a small pond in the garden, where the royal family used to sail with boats. There is also a small waterfall, a stream and the only one pavilion in Seoul covered with rice straw.
There are also pavilions where the king took lessons and meditated – but they are not available to the public.
I planned to visit the Changdeokugung Palace long before arriving in Seoul. With big emotions, I was awaiting a visit in the “Secret Garden”. In the past there was only a royal family and her guests who could have access to. Today, the garden is open to visitors. However, there are specific entry hours set and specific number of people who can visit the garden during a day.
It is worth planning this visit in advance. Remember that “ad hoc” entrance may not be possible. You can also lose a lot of time waiting for the exact hour when you can enter the garden.
Secret Garden. What should you know?
- You can only enter the garden with a guide. However, after crossing the gate, guide will inform you that you can leave the group at any time and visit the garden by yourself. It is quite a spacious area, as it takes up 2/3 of the entire area occupied by the palace. I think it is worth to book min. 1.5 hours for a walk thru the garden.
- To enter the garden, you need a separate ticket, as that one bought to visit palace is not valid here. Only Royal Palace Pass holder do not have to buy a separate ticket to the garden. However, they must exchange the Secret Garden Voucher for a valid ticket at ticket office, on a first come first served basis. Purchasing a Royal Palace Pass does not guarantee entrance to the Secret Garden.
- Only 100 people can enter the garden at any time. 50 people enter from online reservations and another 50 people from tickets exchanged or bought at the ticket office.
- Internet reservation can be made at the earliest 6 days and no later than one day before the planned visit. Foreigners with English language have only 4 possible entrances during the day: at 10.30, 11.30, 2.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. Internet reservation is possible only by credit card payment. You can make an online booking and purchase here.
Changdeokugung Palace and Secret Garden worth to know
- Please allow yourself 20 minutes to get to the Secret Garden from the main gate. Remember also, that once the tour has started, no one is allowed to enter the Secret Garden.
- You can enter the palace every day except Mondays. The palace is usually open from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m., in July and August to 6.30 p.m. Entrance ticket 3000 WON (about 2,5$)
- You can enter the Secret Garden on the same days as to the palace. In the season the garden can be visited between 10.00 a.m. – 5.30 p.m., in July and August until 6.00 p.m. Entrance ticket 5000 WON (about 4,2$) + general admission ticket 3000 WON (about 2,5$). Note, having a Royal Palace Pass (I wrote earlier about it), helps you to avoid these costs.
- You can read more about the history of the palace and about the secret garden directly on the palace’s website or on the page dedicated to the National Cultural Heritage of Korea.
This is the last place from the list of proposed by me as “obligatory” places to see in Seoul. After seeing the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokugung Palace it would seem that nothing else will surprise me. Meanwhile, the visit to the Changgyeonggung Palace left incredible mark in my memory and in my heart. I had a great opportunity to see this palace just before and just after sunset. This fact had a significant impact on my emotions and final impressions.
Seoul – Changgyeonggung Palace
The palace itself can boast a beautiful and long history. Built in 1483 as a gift from his son (King Sejong) for a retiring father (King Taejong). It has survived almost unchanged to modern times, and in 1983 it underwent a thorough renovation.
During the Japanese occupation, a zoological garden and botanical garden were established in the palace. In the park there is also a pond, half of which once served as a rice field. The Japanese, however, liquidated the rice field and the lake served as a recreation area, where small boats could sail.
It is worth paying attention to the Queen Tongmyeongjeon’s residence, which is the largest building in the entire complex. Interesting is also the pond, which I mentioned before, is a picturesque and covered with fragrant flowers. At the end of the garden there is a very interesting building – a type of greenhouse, called the “Grand Greenhouse“. It was the first building in Korea built in Western style. Both the greenhouse and the zoo were built under the pretext of the consolation of the last emperor of Korea – Sunjong. As a result of the Japanese occupation, he had to hand over the throne after signing the annexation of Korea by Japan.
Main structure of the Green house is made of steel and wood, and walls are made of glass. Inside there were growing mainly tropical plants imported to Korea from abroad. It was only after its renovation in 1986 that local plants were planted there. In 2004, this building was added to the list of the National Cultural Heritage of Korea, under heading 84.
The Palace itself is also on the list of Historic Monuments, under item 123.
Changgyeonggung Palace and its secrets. What you should know?
Exactly, so now it’s time to explain why this palace made so big impression on me. Generally, an interesting attraction beside the main buildings are green areas. There is a large garden, pond, botanical garden and a greenhouse.
However, the most important attraction of this place is the possibility of watching it after sunset. This is not possible (or very rarely) in any other palace.
In spring and summer, it is worth to come here around 5.00 p.m. – 5.30 p.m. First, go around the whole area during a daylight. After 5.30 p.m., at the main entrance (already inside the palace), you can rent free a paper lantern. There are about 100 of them, so “first come first served”. Lanterns have led lamps. After dark, however …. magic begins and it is worth going through the whole area one more time.
What has happened?
The sunset began, so the sun started to go down quickly from the sky and hide behind the horizon. Around the pond and along the garden alleys, there were small lanterns, where lights were turned on. Those who were strolling around with a rented paper lantern, realized that in their lanterns the light started to turn on as well. Sitting on a bench on the surface of the pond, we thought it was the whole attraction. Sunset and lanterns were already an interesting experience enough. We thought that’s all, and so we were ready to leave …
However, we quickly changed our mind. When we returned to that part of the garden where the royal pavilions were located – what we saw took away our speech. It was completely dark, but all the pavilions were illuminated from the inside.
Delicate light filtered through the paper windows and with a slightly dim, dark yellow glow illuminated the buildings from the outside. Buildings decorated with such light looked like from a beautiful dream or from a fairy tale.
There were only main contours of the building and light penetrating through the walls visible. First of all, I had the impression that I jumped back in time because everything seemed to be not realistic. Until now, I only knew such views from the movies. Anyway, to be there and to see everything with my own eyes – it was a great experience.
Changgyeonggung Palace worth to know
- Do not miss this opportunity. Come to the palace for the evening sightseeing, because nowhere else you will have a chance for this type of experience. The palace is open every day, except Mondays – from 9.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m. (last entrance at 8.00 p.m.).
- Admission ticket 1000 WON (less than 1 $), free lantern rental. You can also use Royal Palace Pass here.
- Every day at 11.00 a.m. and at 4.00 p.m. there is service in English language provided. It is helping tourists to understand the history of the palace.
- More about the palace can be found directly on the palace website.
Seoul – the most important tourist attractions, what else I recommend
All of the above-mentioned attractions can be seen in 2 – 2.5 days. In addition to the Bongeunsa temple (Gangnam district), all other attractions are located quite close to each other, within 2-3 metro stations.
In my next posts I will describe what else is worth seeing in Seoul. I will also write a post about where to go for a half- and full-day trips. I will also prepare a short guide on how to get around the city and where to eat.
SOUTH KOREA – MY OTHER POSTS
I also encourage you to read my other posts about Seoul and South Korea: