You have five days to spend in Seoul. And of course you want to make the most of the city’s historic sites, and more? Never fear, because there is plenty to see and do in this buzzing metropolis that never seems to sleep. From 14th century dynastic palaces to the contemporary K-pop scene. There really is just so much to see and do in Seoul. The hard part will be deciding what you have to miss out. This is my recommendation for a Seoul 5-day itinerary, and is perfect for first time visitors to Seoul who want to explore the city’s rich culture and history.
People have been living in the Seoul area since prehistory, many thousands of years ago. More recently, since the 14th century, Seoul has been a key Korean seat of governance. Today Seoul is the capital city of South Korea and one of the major international hubs for East Asia, making this an easy destination to get to from almost anywhere in the world.
Many visitors come for the K-Pop or the food scene, but it is the archaeology and history that gives Seoul a cultural depth that makes it such a fascinating place to visit. Here ancient palaces and Buddhist temples rub up against cutting-edge high rises. Seoul is definitely both traditional and modern, as well as green and urban.
Jongno Tower is one of many modern highrise buildings that towers over the Bosingak bell pavilion. The Joseon era belfry stood at the centre of the fortified city. The bell was struck to signal the closing of the four gates in the city walls.
Although Seoul is a large city with over nine million residents, getting around is fairly easy thanks to its high-quality public transport. An efficient system of subway trains runs beneath the city – although visitors may be a bit alarmed by the gas masks stored on many platforms in the event of war with North Korea! Buses are also a good option for making your way around, being generally clean, safe, and punctual.
Several types of pre-pay card are available that provide access to public transport. The standard option is the T-Money card, which can be topped up at underground stations. These can be purchased at the airport, at train or subway stations, or in some convenience stores. Perhaps better suited for visitors is the Discover Seoul Pass, which not only provides the same function as the T-Money card but also covers the entry fee for many of Seoul’s major attractions – including the palaces, Jongmyo, and the Seodaemun Prison Hall. The Discover Seoul Pass can be purchased on arrival at Incheon Airport.
Seoul is a pretty safe place to walk around on foot, especially when traveling between different sites in the same area. Visitors should be aware, however, that the city does lie in a hilly region and sensible walking shoes are advisable. Several prominent attractions, such as the N Seoul Tower, are located on mountains that loom above the rest of the city – if you plan on getting up them by foot, be prepared.
Gwanak Mountain (mountain of the hat-shaped peak), one of the eight mountains that surrounds the city.
Day One – The Palaces of Jongno District
The Jongno District in the north of Seoul is one of the city’s most popular tourist areas. One of its spectacular gems is the Gyeongbokgung Palace, established by Korea’s ruling family in 1395, shortly after the rise of the Joseon Dynasty. Although much of the palace precinct was destroyed by a fire in 1592 and again by Japanese occupiers in 1915, since 1990 a restoration project has rebuilt much of what was lost.
I ensured that I was at the palace by 10am to witness the ceremonial changing of the Sumunjang (Royal Guard). This display of pomp and ceremony, a feast of sound and costume, only takes twice a day, at 10am and 2pm. However, if you miss that the guards also perform a shorter ceremony at 11am and 1pm.
Rather than comprising a singular building as many European palaces do, Gyeongbokgung Palace is made up of a patchwork of halls and courtyards, interspersed with pleasant (if quite plain) areas of greenery. The buildings are largely timber and are beautifully painted in Korea’s distinctive dancheong colour scheme. When visiting Gyeongbokgung, many visitors choose to dress up in hanbok, a traditional costume which can be hired from nearby shops. Anyone wearing such outfits get into Seoul’s royal palaces for free.
In the northeast part of the Gyeongbokgung Palace precinct stands the majestic National Folk Museum of Korea. This has a fascinating and wide-ranging array of material testifying to the life and struggles of Koreans before the transformations brought on my modernity and urbanisation. This is definitely one that archaeology and history buffs won’t want to miss.
Leaving Gyeongbokgung, I walked up to the northeast to peruse Bukchon Hanok Village, a series of streets famous for being dominated by Korea’s traditional low-rise style of hanok housing. An insight into how most of Seoul would have looked before the age of the apartment block and skyscraper, the buildings are pretty and a brief visit is certainly worthwhile. Somewhat spoiling the atmosphere, however, is the fact that the area’s narrow streets are a magnet for large numbers of tourists. When I visited there was even a ban on speaking aloud, to try and cut back on noise pollution for Bukchon’s beleaguered residents.
In the afternoon, I headed east to Changdeokgung Palace, initially established in 1405 as the secondary palace of the ruling Joseon dynasty. Chandeokgung is the only one of Seoul’s palaces to be classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and like Gyeongbokgung consists of timber halls decorated in vivid dancheong colours. On the eastern side of the Changdeokgung Palace is the entrance to Changgyeonggung Palace, for which a separate ticket needs to be purchased. As the sun was setting and closing time approached, I wasn’t able to fully explore Changgyeonggung, but I could see some of the beautiful gardens, which (at least when I was visiting) were offering a display of spectacular autumnal colour.
It must be admitted that the palaces can get a little repetitive, and some people may not want to visit more than one – if so then Gyeongbokgung is probably your best bet. However, there are two other palaces in Seoul that I did not visit but which others might appreciate: Gyeonghuigung and Deoksugung, both of which are also nearby. Together these make up the “Five Grand Palaces” of Seoul – a reminder of the luxurious lifestyles of the Joseon kings.
Day Two – Confucianism and Buddhism in Seoul
Seoul was not only the place where the rulers of Korea lived – it was often where they died, too. Not far from the Five Grand Palaces stands Jongmyo, Korea’s main state shrine. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains two main halls in which the spirit tablets of dead royals were housed. Among the tablets located here is that of Taejo, the king who founded the Joseon dynasty in the 14th century. Linked with the Confucian philosophy introduced from China, Jongmyo continues to see ancestral rites performed within its precincts each year. Jongmyo can only be visited as part of a one-hour guided tour; English-language tours take place at 10am, 12am, 2pm, and 4pm every day but Tuesday.
Confucianism is not the only tradition introduced to Korea from China. Buddhism arrived in the peninsula in the third century CE and since then has played a prominent role in Korean history. At Jogyesa, which is also in Jongno district, you can visit a Buddhist temple run by the Jogye Order. At the heart of this precinct is the beautifully ornate main Buddha Hall, which dates from the 1930s. Outside the hall stands the large pagoda tree, believed to be nearly 500 years old. The surrounding area is stunningly decorated; when I visited, there was the most fantastic arrangement of flowers that I had ever seen.
After lunch, I made my way over to the Gangnam District, one of the wealthier areas of Seoul and a place made famous by Psy’s 2012 international chart-topper. Although not housing many of Seoul’s best-known tourist attractions, Gangnam is home to Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple which like Jogyesa is also run by the Jogye Order. Established in the eighth century, the temple has weathered many of the tumultuous events of Korean history. One of the halls dates from the 1850s, although the temple was decimated by the bloody events of the 20th century and today most of the structures are of recent origin. Of particular note is the 23-meter high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, completed in 1996. Among the buildings at Bongeunsa also stands a quaint tea-house where I was able to enjoy a simplified variant of a traditional Korean tea ceremony.
For those wanting a deeper immersion in Korean Buddhism, both Jogyesa and Bongeunsa offer a ‘Templestay’ programme as part of which you can spend several days living amid the resident monks.
Day Three – Christian Heritage in Jung District
While it’s easy for outsiders to associate South Korea primarily with Asian belief systems like Confucianism and Buddhism, Christianity is now the largest religion in the country, counting the allegiance of about a quarter of South Koreans. It was introduced to Korea in the 17th century and for many years was persecuted as a dangerous foreign import. In the 19th century, thousands of Christians, most of them Roman Catholics, were executed.
To learn more about this religious history I headed to the Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul’s Jung District. Located underground beneath a pretty, albeit small, area of parkland, the museum opened in 2019 and devotes itself to the story of the Korean Martyrs. Although it does not do the best job of telling the story of Roman Catholicism in Korea – you’ll want to do a bit of reading beforehand – it has a collection of interesting documents pertaining to the faith. More impressive are the artworks, especially sculptures designed to convey the suffering of those Koreans who died for their commitment to Christianity.
To see how Roman Catholicism is practiced by living Koreans I made my way over to Myeongdong Cathedral, built in the 1890s. Rather than drawing on indigenous Korean architecture, it was designed in the Neo-Gothic or Gothic Revivalist style, and wouldn’t look out of place in a European city. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Myeongdong Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Seoul and holds regular services for the city’s Roman Catholics. It has also gained associations with political dissent due to its use as a hub for anti-government protesters in the 1970s and 1980s.
Those wanting to learn more about the recent history of South Korea could round off their day at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Jongno District, which opened in 2012. I didn’t manage to fit this in, but it looks like an interesting place to learn more about Korea’s fight for independence and the subsequent tragedy of the Korean War.
Day Four – The National Museum of Korea and the N-Seoul Tower
There’s one place in Seoul that history and archaeology buffs certainly won’t want to miss – the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan District. Moved to this state-of-the art, purpose-built structure in 2005, the museum brings together treasures both from across the Korean peninsula and from other parts of the Asian continent. Its collection covers a considerable span of time, from the Palaeolithic through to recent centuries. Among its treasures is a particularly impressive collection of Buddhist statuary.
While in the city I also decided to check out the N-Seoul Tower, which stands atop the forested Namsan Mountain on the northern edge of Yongsan District. Built in 1971, it not only broadcasts radio and television signals across the city, but also contains a viewing platform providing panoramic views over Seoul. I walked up Namsan to reach the tower, but those wanting an easier journey can opt for the cable car. One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the N-Seoul Tower unsurprisingly becomes very busy and when visiting you often have to contend with large crowds. Although the top does offer impressive views of the cityscape, with all things considered I wouldn’t call the tower a ‘must see’ attraction.
Day Five – Inwangsan, the Holy Mountain
On the last day, I wanted to try something a little different. To that end, I set off to Seoul’s northern suburbs in Seodaemun District to climb Inwangsan, a holy mountain.
The nearest underground station is Dongnimmun. Getting out there allowed me to peruse the Dongnimmun Gate (Independence Gate), built in the 1890s to celebrate Korea’s independence. Sandwiched between China and Japan, Korea has repeatedly been dominated by these foreign powers, most recently amid the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945. Like other countries which have been under the colonial yoke in recent history, Korea remains a nation proud of its independence, and abuses committed during the occupation remain a source of simmering political tension between Korea and Japan.
Very near to Dongnimmun is Seodaemun Prison Hall, a historic internment camp where many of those fighting Japanese rule were held. I didn’t get the chance to visit this historic site, although those who maybe don’t want to face a hike up Inwangsan should definitely consider it as an alternative.
Moving on from the Dongnimmun Gate, I started snaking my way up the mountain, initially through residential streets. The journey is not well sign-posted, so it was good that I had planned my ascent ahead of time. The path is steep so appropriate footwear was a must. Passing by an ornately decorated gate, I discovered fantastic murals painted on the walls, largely depicting traditional religious imagery. This ultimately brought me up to the Inwangsan Guksadang, a small temple used by practitioners of Korean shamanism.
Korean shamanism is one of the oldest religions present in the country, and although it holds the allegiance of only a minority of today’s Koreans, its presence is very much felt at Inwangsan. As I walked around the breath-taking landscapes of the mountain, I could see plentiful evidence of this religious belief around me, from Hangul writing painted onto the rock face, clusters of sweets and soju bottles placed as offerings, and various individuals performing rituals out in the open air.
As well as the sheer natural beauty of the rocky outcrops and vegetation, Inwangsan boasts some fascinating historical sites. One of these is the large, uniquely formed Seonbawi Rock, which is subject to ongoing religious devotion. Another is the old city walls which, although largely rebuilt in recent decades, once marked Seoul’s northern defence boundary. Being up on Inwangsan also offers breathtakingly spectacular views across the city, making this a perfect way to round off five days in Seoul.