Seoul’s chaotic crowds and gray concrete skyline can feel both overwhelming and bland. But the faintest exploration quickly reveals one of Asia’s coolest cities. Seoul offers up a lifetime’s worth of discovery and experience. It’s a city where you can eat like a king and party like a college freshman, then recharge in a quiet mountain temple or a 24-hour sauna. It’s a neon-drenched megacity that never shuts down, a historic metropolis rich in tradition and the high-tech center of Asia’s gaming and pop culture. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Seoul, it likely can’t be found.
1. The Hongdae Music Scene
The neighborhood surrounding Korea’s leading art university is also home to the nation’s biggest underground music scene. Hongdae clubs like FF and Freebird feature local, expat and international bands from all over Northeast Asia, while bars like Jebi Dabang host small shows on intimate hole-in-the-wall stages and in hidden basement spaces. Hongdae bands experiment with everything imaginable—jazz, hardcore, punk, rock, folk, even ska. You’re likely to find a new favorite band or a whole new sound.
2. Gwangjang Market
Korean food is an entity in itself, and a stroll through the sprawling Gwangjang market provides a hard-and-fast introduction. Vendors sell mounds of cabbage kimchi, barrels of red peppers, bricks of fermented soybean and piles of glaring stingrays. Stalls sell meals, too; Gwangjang’s specialty is mung bean pancakes. The beans are ground on a stone mill and fried right in front of you. You can also try soondae, a noodle sausage made with pig’s blood, and Ddeokbokki, a dish of rice cakes in red pepper sauce. It’s a Korean comfort food kind of like mac and cheese, only spicy and chewy.
Seoul is defined by its mountains, and the city has grown up around them. Namsan is a green retreat in the physical center of Seoul, and offers superb views from N Seoul Tower at the top. Bukhansan National Park is a towering mountain range conveniently located within the city’s outer limits—you can actually get there on the subway. Bukhansan has a complex network of clearly marked trails that climb through forested slopes, soaring granite peaks and hidden temples.
4. Yongsan e-Sports Stadium
In Korea, gaming is an intense hobby, big business and a thriving professional sport. Seoul’s Yongsan e-Sports Stadium is at the center of it all. This massive complex is the setting for local and international matches of League of Legends, StarCraft and a host of other games. Matches take place on stages with giant screens, complete with cheering fans, mascots and cheerleaders. For e-sports fans, this is Woodstock and Mecca combined. For everyone else, it’s an entire world you never knew existed.
5. Changgyeonggung Palace
Seoul was the seat of royal power during Korea’s long Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), and the city has several palaces as proof. Few of the buildings are original (most of Seoul’s largely wooden heritage was destroyed by fires or bombed flat during the Korean War) but they are faithful reconstructions. Less visited than the main palace, Changgyeonggung has beautiful buildings with colorfully painted beams, tiled rooftops and ornate decorations. It also has a peaceful park with a Victorian-style greenhouse.
6. Bukchon Village
Seoul’s history has mostly been knocked down and remade in concrete and glass. Exploring the wooden houses and narrow streets of Bukchon reveals what the city might have looked like 600 years ago. Here artisans make soju and rice wine the old-fashioned way, and traditional wooden hanok houses have been converted into galleries, cafes and artsy shops. The neighborhood is a wonderful break from Seoul’s endless city rush.
In Korea, meat restaurants all specialize in certain animals or cuts of meat. The classic barbecue joints sell samgyeopsal—strips of thick, fat-coated pork belly. If you’re feeling ambitious, grab a pair of tongs and scissors (to cut the strips up) and cook your own dinner. Wash it down with some beer and soju. To be truly Korean, dump a shot of soju into your beer and knock it back in “one shot!” For a different meat experience, visit Jokbal Alley, aka Pig’s Feet Alley, where mounds of boiled trotters stretch as far as the eye can see.
8. Embrace the Strange
Seoul can be weird, and you need a few WTF moments to really complete a visit. There’s the creative interpretation of English on T-shirts and signs—the city’s new official slogan is “I.Seoul.U.” You might see couples wearing matching outfits (shoes and watches too). Dog and cat cafes are fun but pretty standard in Seoul—try a raccoon cafe if you want some excitement. Culinary strangeness abounds, too. Honey butter … squid anyone? Grilled cow intestine is an absolute delicacy, but a plate of sliced, still-writhing octopus is harder to explain to folks back home. Especially the sensation of the octopus suckers clinging to your mouth on the way down.
9. Try a “Bang”
No, not like that. The Korean word “bang” simply means “room,” and is used for a variety of establishments. PC bangs are the training grounds for Korea’s elite gamers. Noraebang are the private karaoke rooms that are an essential finisher for a long night out. And Jimjillbangs are public bathhouses and saunas where you can shower, soak, sleep, get a massage or just lie on the floor watching Korean dramas. After a few days absorbed in Seoul’s chaos and charms, a soak and a rest are absolutely essential.
Richard Whitten is a freelance writer living in Seoul. He writes on travel, culture and a bit of left-wing politics.