A Guide to Seoul (and Why You Should Visit in Autumn)

December 13, 2019


After a couple beautiful visits to Seoul in autumn, I've decided it's the perfect spot for a fall vacation! Beautiful palaces, delicious food, enough coffee shops to please even the most caffeine-addicted soul – these are available all-year round.

But in autumn, the gardens and parks around the city are peppered with the vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds of the fall leaves. In this guide to Seoul, I'll cover the highlights of my trip and share useful tips on practical matters. Plus,  I'll show you why you should plan your next fall vacation in Seoul.


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Planning a trip to Seoul? Check out my 'Ultimate Guide to Preparing for International Travel'!

Know Before You Go

Before visiting Seoul, there are a couple things you should know to help make your trip smoother. 

  1. 1
    Google Maps doesn't work very well in Korea. Instead, I recommend downloading the Naver Maps App. You'll need access to WiFi or data to use this map, so I also suggest purchasing a SIM card for your trip.
  2. 2
    Withdrawing cash from ATMs is FRUSTRATING. I've never had so much trouble getting cash out of an ATM as I do in Korea. Most of the ATMs, even Global ATMs, rejected my debit cards (both US & HK!). As a result, I suggest bring some US Dollars to exchange at a currency booth in case this happens to you.  

Getting to Seoul

When flying to Seoul, I recommend checking out Korean Air. Over the years, I've had several enjoyable experiences flying with Korean. Clean cabins, courteous flight attendants, and delicious food... plus bibimbap is a meal option! If you're not sure how to assemble it, a flight attendant will be happy to show you.  

If you're flying on Korean Air, you'll arrive at Incheon Airport's new terminal. Once arrived, the immigration process is usually smooth and efficient. Always a great introduction to a new place!

Pro Tip:  U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter Korea if staying less for than 90 days. Non-U.S. citizens - remember to check visa requirements for your country before traveling. 

Getting from Incheon Airport to Seoul

Many options are available to get you from the Seoul Incheon Airport to downtown Seoul. The airport has a great page detailing the various transportation options. I haven't tried them all so I'll just mention the ones I've used.

In case you're having trouble getting cash out of the ATMs at the airport, don't worry. You can purchase tickets via credit card for all of these modes of transportation!

KAL Limousine Bus

The KAL Limousine is a deluxe limousine bus has several routes from Seoul's airports to various points in the city.

The one I've taken is the Incheon Airport (T2) <-> City Hall route. From terminal 2, the ride takes ~1 hour (with no traffic) and costs KRW 16,000 (~US $14). However, the buses only depart ~20-30 minutes. So if you miss one, you may have to wait a while. If you're leaving from terminal 1, the ride will take longer since it has to stop at terminal 2 first. 

bus seats on korean air limousine

Since my hotel was on the route, the bus dropped me off right at the hotel doorstep! If your hotel is not on the list, but a nearby hotel is, you could still take it and walk to your hotel from the nearest stop.

Provided your hotel is on the stop list, the KAL Limousine is probably your best option. The bus is hassle-free - they put your luggage under the bus! - and very comfortable.

Incheon Airport Railroad Express (AREX)

The Incheon Airport Railroad Express or AREX is a quick and convenient train ride between Incheon Airport and Seoul Station in downtown Seoul. After switching hotels mid-week, we discovered that the KAL Limousine wasn't the best option for getting back to the airport. So we decided to try the AREX. 

We caught a cab to Seoul Station (you could take the metro) which took ~10 minutes and cost ~KRW 4,000. I recommend arriving at the station at least 20 minutes ahead of your train's departure. This will allow time for you to buy your tickets and get down to the platform.

luggage racks and suitcases on train in Seoul with Express written on clear doors
Becky and Jeremy on AREX train in Seoul with blue seats

The train itself is slightly more affordable - KRW 8,000 (~US $7) - and faster than the bus - 45 minutes (on the express). You'll just have to take into account how long it takes to get to Seoul Station from your hotel.

Pro Tip:  If you take a taxi to Seoul Station, tell your driver you want the airport train, not the domestic trains. It's a long walk through the station from the domestic drop-off point to the AREX.

Taxi

If you'd rather avoid the hassles of hauling your luggage or waiting for the bus to arrive, a taxi is another option. It's by far the most expensive option, though if you're traveling with multiple people, it may make sense.

Although I haven't used this option myself, Jeremy and his work colleagues took a taxi from Incheon Airport's Terminal 1 to the City Hall neighborhood. It cost KRW 55,500 (~US $47) and took roughly 1 hour without much traffic.

Where to Stay in Seoul

Although each of Seoul's neighborhoods has something to offer, I've enjoyed staying in the City Hall and Euljiro neighborhoods. They are centrally-located and within walking distance of the palaces, the Cheonggyecheon park area, the Myeongdong street food stalls, and more.

City hall building taken from hotel across the street

Plus, the hotels that we've stayed in are conveniently located near many metro lines so using public transportation was a breeze. I recommend staying in this general area for first-timers to Seoul who are interested in seeing the main attractions.

Finding a Place to Stay in Seoul

Trying to find the perfect hotel in Seoul or to get idea of what to budget for accommodations? Use the map below to start your search! Filter by your individual preferences and input your travel dates to see what places are available and what their nightly rates are. 

This map shows both hotels and VRBO (vacation rental by owner) accommodations. Click on a property in which you're interested to go to either Booking.com or VRBO to read reviews and to book your stay.

Hotel Recommendations in Seoul

In case you need a little help deciding which hotels to book, I'll share a couple that I enjoyed and would stay in again. 

1) The Westin Chosun Seoul

If you're looking for a luxurious hotel in the center of Seoul, it's hard to go wrong with The Westin Chosun Seoul. We've stayed at this 5-star hotel a couple of times and have had great experiences both times. 

Arriving at the Westin Chosun, the staff is always warm and welcoming. Its rooms are spacious and comfortable. But the features that I enjoyed most were the in-room Nespresso machine and the fancy toilet! All those buttons never failed to entertain me and I will never be satisfied with my normal toilet now.

westin chosun hotel room in Seoul with large king bed with white linen, couch, desk

Winter coat not included, but necessary for traveling in November!

westin chosun hotel in seoul bathroom with sink and toilet with buttons

Look at all the buttons on that toilet! Why don't we have these in the U.S.?

Because the Westin Chosun is right in the heart of Seoul, it's easy to walk to many of the tourist sights. But it's also close to several metro stations, so taking public transportation is convenient as well. 

2) Lotte City Hotel Myeongdong

Lotte has properties all over the city but we stayed in the Myeongdong location in downtown Seoul. This 4-star hotel has cozy (aka small) rooms, but for a solo traveler or a couple, they're perfectly comfortable nonetheless. 

We chose to move to this hotel for the weekend in Seoul because it's a much more affordable option than the Westin Chosun but still in a great location. 

Lotte City Hotel Myeongdong in Seoul with queen bed with white sheets and view of city

As you can see - it's a cozy room!

Practical Matters

Money Matters

Seoul is very tech-savvy and most places in the city accept credit cards. Generally, I only used cash to pay for food at street stalls and for metro tickets. Since I had such trouble getting cash out of the ATM - this was a good thing!

Last year, I had a hard time finding an ATM that accepted my debit card. Most banks downtown had some kind of machine that looked like it could have been an ATM. But it didn't speak English and spit my debit card back at me without dispensing cash. Though I finally found a regular-looking ATM outside of a bar (figures!) that gave me money. 

This year, I had the same problem. I tried the Global ATMs at the airport, in banks, even the same ATM I used last year which did work. After no luck with about 7 different ATMs, we searched Google and found a solution. Finally the Global ATM at the Citibank Da Dong Main Branch (24 Cheonggyecheon-ro, Jung-gu Seoul) gave us cash! But seriously, why was it so hard? 

Seoul Safety

Seoul is a very safe city overall and I felt fine walking the streets, even at night, by myself. I always caution being vigilant and aware of your surroundings though as incidents can happen anywhere.

How to Get Around Seoul

Seoul has an extensive public transportation system of rail lines and buses so getting around the city is easy. Plus, when the weather is nice, it's also quite walkable!

T-Money Card

To make getting around even easier, I recommend purchasing a T-Money card (KRW 4,000). This transportation card works in the metro, on buses, and even in taxis! Using this card gives you a small discount on rides and prevents you from wasting time purchasing single tickets each time you ride.

You can purchase and reload this card in the airport, major metro stations, and several retail locations. But purchasing the card and reloading it must be done with cash only. 

Seoul Metro

Since the metro goes all over the city, I rode it frequently. All signs and announcements are in English so it's very easy to navigate. Plus, most rides in the city only cost ~US$1.50 per trip! 

Although there are plenty of maps in the stations, I found it helpful this year to download a metro app on my phone. Both the Subway Korea App and the Seoul Metro App are good metro apps, but I found the first one easier to use.

Taxis in Seoul

Since taxis in Seoul aren't too expensive, we often opted to use them in the evenings when traffic wasn't bad. They're much quicker than switching metro lines for a short distance.

Since I haven't mastered the art of hailing a cab in Seoul, plus can't speak Korean, the Kakao Taxi app saved us! It's a taxi-hailing app a lot like Uber or Grab since you enter your destination in the app. You can pay for the ride through the app or pay the driver directly.

Things to See in Seoul

Seoul is a city in which you could easily spend a week and not see or do everything. From beautiful parks and palaces to quirky cafes and street art, Seoul has enough to keep you occupied. In this guide to Seoul, I'll highlight a few of the attractions you should check out during your visit.

Palaces and More Palaces

Some of the top things to see when visiting Seoul are its incredible palaces and their gardens. Seoul has five "Grand Palaces"  that you can visit - Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Gyeonghuigung. 

After a couple visits to Seoul, I've toured four of the five palaces. Since they were all built during the Joseon Dynasty, they resemble each other closely (at least to me). If pressed for time, you might consider visiting just a couple of the palaces rather than all five. 

Since I've been lucky with the weather for my visits, I've especially enjoyed strolling through the palace gardens and admiring the beautiful fall colors. I may have taken more photos of trees than buildings!

Buying Tickets for Seoul's Palaces

If you're only visiting one or two of the palaces, purchasing individual tickets at each palace is probably the best way to go. Tickets are KRW 1,000 or 3,000 each depending on the palace.

If you're planning to visit all of the palaces, you should consider buying the combination ticket. For KRW 10,000, your ticket includes entrance to four of the palaces (Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung) plus the Jongmyo Shrine.

Since we visited on a weekend, we also decided to buy the combination ticket to save time waiting in ticket lines at each palace!

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest of the five palaces. It was the main palace for the Joseon Dynasty until the late 1500s when a fire destroyed it. 

Pond and building at Gyeongbokgung complex

After sitting abandoned for almost two centuries, the palace was restored in the 19th century. Today it's considered to be the most beautiful of the five palaces.

beasts on eave of Gyeongbokgung palace building

Changdeokgung Palace

The Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. It is the second of the five palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty and several kings have used it as their place of residence.

Main building of Changdeokgung complex
Buildings at Changdeokgung complex and trees with changing leaves

Changgyeonggung Palace

Built in the 1400s for a retiring king, Changgyeonggung Palace was often used as residential quarters for concubines and queens. Is it just me or does this seem like an awkward arrangement?

During Japanese colonial rule, they converted the palace into a zoo! I can't quite quite picture it. But in 1983, it was restored to a palace. 

Changgyeonggung palace complex with modern Seoul in the background

Out of all the palaces, I think the gardens in Changgyeonggung are my favorite. Although the fall colors were a little past peak, you can still hints of the vibrant colors.

pond with fall colors at Changgyeonggung complex

Deoksugung Palace

Although smaller than the other palaces, Deoksugung is an interesting palace to visit since it's right in the heart of downtown Seoul. Around the palace, you can see modern buildings, including City Hall, which is a fun contrast to the historic palace.

metal basin in front of palace with large cement buildings in background and glass city hall in Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village

Between palace visits, wind your way through the narrow alleys of Bukchon Hanok Village to get an idea of how Seoul used to look. This well-preserved traditional Korean village is located between the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Changdeokgung Palace. 

Tourists have discovered this “secret” and the main paths have a lot of people on them. But it’s still a fun area to walk through and stop for a cup of coffee. 

lots of tourists in alleyways in hanok village
hanok style home in seoul

You’ll notice in many photos that women are wearing the traditional Korean dress or hanbok. Visitors can rent a hanbok from shops near the palaces. Then tour the palaces and Bukchon Hanok Village in them. 

Autumn is a great time to rent one since the weather is cool - I can't imagine wearing one in summer! Plus the brilliant leaves are a great backdrop for photos! 

Bonus - If you're wearing a hanbok, you'll get into the palaces for free!

women taking photos under trees with red leaves

Jongmyo Shrine

Though I've heard that the Jongmyo Shrine is a place you should visit while in Seoul, I've yet to experience it for myself! This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a primary place of worship for kings throughout the Joseon Dynasty and enshrines the royal ancestral tablets.

So why haven't I been? Because on weekdays (closed Tuesday) and on Sundays, you must join a guided tour to enter the shrine complex.

Both times I've tried to visit, I arrived just in time to miss the English language tour. Tours run every couple hours and I wasn't able to make the next tour. On Saturdays, visitors can enter on their own to wander the grounds.

Myeongdeong Cathedral

Many of the neighborhoods in Seoul have a beautiful cathedral or church as the focal point. The Myeongdong Cathedral is the seat of Roman Catholicism in Seoul and the Korean government designated it a historic site in 1977. 

Myeongdong Cathedral and blue skies

Jogyesa Temple

The Jogyesa Temple is the center of Jogye Korean Buddhism and is the main venue for several Buddhist events, ceremonies, and rituals. During our visit, they were meticulously decorating the temple and statues with flowers. So many flowers!

Although the temple was originally built in the 14th century, it burned down so it was rebuilt in 1910.

Jogyesa Temple with Buddhas lit up inside and flowers on stairs

Interested in getting out of the city for a while? Check out the Jaunbong Peak Hike in Bukhansan National Park!

Cheonggyecheon Stream

Although I don't mind the hustle and buslte of cities, sometimes it's nice to step away from that for a while. The Cheonggyecheon stream is a great place to do that!

It flows right through downtown Seoul and is bordered by pedestrian walkways on either side of the stream. Sometimes the western section is decorated with artwork in the middle of the stream. At night, the artwork is lit up and the bridges decorated with lights. 

people walking next to Cheonggyecheon Stream under bridge

As you walk east along the stream, you’ll find murals painted on the walls under the bridges. The path also becomes more peaceful - a great place for a morning jog! Or, in my case, a walk!

Banpo Hangang Park

Speaking of morning jogs, if you want to get out of the city center for some exercise, head across the Han River to Banpo Hangang Park.

The park has great views of the city,  separate bike and foot paths, pet-friendly areas, picnic areas, and more. For me, just walking along the river on a beautiful day was a great way to spend an afternoon.

woman riding bicycle beside river with view of Seoul

N Seoul Tower and Namsan Park

For beautiful views of Seoul, head up Namsan Hill to the N Seoul Tower. Although you can reach the tower many different ways, I recommend hiking up through the park. It's a steep climb but you'll have various viewpoints along the way to stop and take photos.

Once you reach the top, purchase tickets for the N Seoul Tower (KRW 11,000 / ~USD 9) in the basement of the tower. When I visited on a weekday afternoon, I didn't have to wait to go up. On weekends though, I imagine the queue would be long. From the observation deck, you'll have lovely 360-degree views of Seoul!

sunset over Seoul with river and buildings

Murals, Street Art, Architecture

One of the things I found really cool about Seoul was the random street art that I came across while strolling through different neighborhoods. Whether it’s murals, statues, or just quirky buildings, I appreciate little artistic touches throughout a city.

Check out my street art finds from my first visit to Seoul in 'Wandering Seoul's Streets: A Photo Gallery'.

Ihwa Mural Village

Although Seoul has street art scattered all over the city, if you enjoy it as much as I do, you should check out Ihwa Mural Village. The neighborhood of Ihwa-dong was slated for demolition in the early 2000s, but a city art project by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism revitalized it. 

Today it's home to murals and art installations by ~70 artists. It's a fun neighborhood to wander and check out some of the pieces. Check out this post on Instagram for tips on visiting!

Since it's a residential neighborhood, remember to be respectful (and not too noisy) as you visit.

Day Trip to Bukhansan National Park

If you have a few days in Seoul and are a nature-lover, I highly recommend spending one of your days in Bukhansan National Park. About 40-minutes by metro north of Seoul, this park is easy to get to and has lots hiking trails for all levels. 

BeckyExploring and husband at Jaunbong Peak summit

On our most recent trip, we decided to go for a hike and ended up climbing Jaunbong Peak. It was an intense climb but the views were worth it! We saw some beautiful temples along the way and met some noisy mountain kitties!

Click here to read about the Jaunbong Peak Hike in Bukhansan National Park!

Views from Jaunbong Peak

Meals to Eat in Seoul

Though I can't claim to know a lot about Korean food, I was constantly blown away by what I ate. So many delicious things - much of it pretty spicy!  Here are some meals I think you MUST try while in Seoul:

  • Chicken galbi: a spicy chicken stir-fry dish prepared on a hot plate in front of you.
  • Bulgogi: marinated thin slices of beef (or pork) grilled on a barbeque or stove-top. Sweet and flavorful - not spicy!
  • Chimaek: literally fried chicken and beer – the perfect late-night snack! You can choose between the regular or the spicy - or just have both!
  • Bibimbap: a classic – meat and vegetables, served over rice, usually comes with a spicy sauce, sometimes with an egg on top. Imagine all the combinations!
  • Korean BBQ: various meats and vegetables that you grill at your table, eating them as you’re ready.

To whet your appetite with photos, check out 'Top 5 Delicious Meals to Eat in Seoul'!

What to Drink in Seoul

Café Culture 

Tired from all that wandering and eating? Time to caffeinate! Seoul has an incredible number of coffee shops and they range from the omnipresent Starbucks to quirky cafés, high-end coffee houses to animal cafes!

Practically every corner beckons you to stop for coffee. If it's as chilly outside as it was on my visits, you'll be tempted to stop frequently!

Often I look for sweet mochas to balance out spicy food so this was my drink in Seoul! My favorite stop was Coffee Smith in Itaewon where I ordered a café chocolate. It probably wasn’t a true mocha because it literally tasted like a layer of thick dark chocolate syrup on top of an espresso shot. Amazing.

cafe chocolate  on the balcony of coffeesmith

Local Craft Beer

I’m always on the lookout for craft beer in a land ruled by light lagers and in Seoul was no exception. Here are a few bars I recommend checking out for some good local beers:

  • The Table Brewing Company – Jongro Branch (Jonggak Station) – you could almost miss this place as you’re walking past, but look for the Table Brewing Company sign and go down the stairway. Once you enter the bar, it’s huge inside with tables and loads of bar seating. 
  • Craft Roo (Jongno 3-ga Station) – wind your way back through the hanoks to find this cozy restaurant/bar serving up a good selection of local craft beer.
  • Bar 3.14 / Bar 3.15 (Jongno 3-ga Station) – just north of Craft Roo, Bar 3.14 is another great place to try if you like a good beer selection. These bars in the hanok quarter reminded me a lot of Hong Kong’s small spaces. Since the places are so tight, this place has 2 locations right down the alley from each other – 3.14 and 3.15 – so when you order a beer, sometimes they run down the alley to get it!
collage of craft beers in seoul

Cute Cocktail Bar

Although I haven't really explored the cocktail scene in Seoul since I'm usually too busy drinking craft beer, I made it to a really cute one that I've heard is "the best". Down an alleyway near the Gyeongbokgung Palace is Cobbler - a cozy high-end whiskey and cocktail bar located inside a hanok. On a Thursday night, it wasn't too busy, but I can imagine on the weekend it's more crowded!

As you sit down in the vintage chairs, the bartender greets you and introduces you to the place. Here, you don’t need to study a menu and dissect your choices. You simply describe to your bartender what type of drink you prefer, and they will make you something you'll love! Delicious cocktails, a friendly vibe, and even a surprise dessert (apple pie!) all make the experience worth it. 

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide to Seoul has shown you what a beautiful city Seoul is and has given you some ideas for things to do on your trip. Since navigating Seoul is easy once you know the tricks, it's easy to see a lot in a short time. From street art to hiking to palaces and temples, Seoul has a lot to offer!

Good luck planning and happy travels!

This article was originally published in February 2019. After visiting Seoul a second time, I've updated this guide to Seoul to include new tips and ideas!  


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