Figuring out how to spend 48 hours in Seoul can be a daunting task. Sometimes work or life won’t allow us more than a weekend away to a place we’ve been dreaming about. It’s not impossible to get a real experience of the country.
Day 1 - Essentials
Starting your first day in Gyeongbokgung is an essential part of the plan. The palace is enormous and there are several museums that are part of the experience. Even the most quick-footed tourist will find that wandering through the palace takes a few hours. Beyond the museum dedicated to the palace, there is also the National Folk Museum and a replica of 1970s Korea.
Rather than leave by the side exits, I recommend making your way back to Gwanghwamun Gate from where you can exit directly into Gwanghwamun Square. The square contains the statues of both King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Shin. Below the statue of King Sejong there is another museum.
Bukcheon Hanok Village
About 10-15 minutes walk from the square is Bukchon Hanok Village. First time visitors to Korea may not be fully accustomed to the gradient of some of the hills but be prepared for a rather steep walk up the road to the village. The village is made up of traditional looking Korean houses. Now the neighborhood is full with boutiques and restaurants. It’s a great place to have a sit-down Korean lunch for those who have the wallet to support that. The shops are gorgeous and besides the small hike, the neighborhood is a popular destination for touristy photoshoots.
Head back down the way you came, and from the main road you’ll quite easily find a nearby neighborhood called Insadong. The main street of Insadong is filled with both antique shops, art stores, and boutique modern hanbok stores. Those looking for tourist souvenirs will find them aplenty as well as those looking for some fun food items. If your wallet doesn’t support a full meal in Bukcheon, there are numerous restaurants in Insadong for every budget level. If you plan to have lunch in Insadong, come here (and Jogyesa Temple) first before heading for Bukcheon.
Jogyesa Temple is just a small detour away from the main street of Insadong. The temple is the chief temple of the Jogye order and one of the main temples in Seoul. If you are lucky to plan your weekend in Seoul during May or June, the temple is resplendent with lanterns celebrating the birthday of Buddha.
By this point in your trip, it will be late afternoon. It’s a great moment to head back to your hotel, refresh and find dinner.
As night comes, make your way to Namsan Mountain. At the base of the mountain you can find the cable car which makes for a spectacular experience as you ascend above the city at night. Once you’ve arrived you will still be at the base of Namsan Tower (also called N. Seoul Tower). Here you can find the famous padlocks of love. For those who want an even higher perspective to the city, head inside Namsan Tower to take an express elevator to the very top. The city at night is not to be missed and the lights of Seoul shine brightly.
Why you travel and how you travel should always be intrinsically linked or you’ll be left unhappy and without a real connection to the place you’ve travelled to. For this reason, I’ve included two different versions of Day 2. One for the type of traveller who really enjoys cultural and historical experiences and another for the traveller who enjoys more visceral joys.
Day 2 - Culture
For day 2, the itinerary is focused not only on what you can see but also on what you can do. A mix between giving you a deep look at the long history of Korea as well as giving you the opportunity to interact with Korean culture.
National Museum of History
Start the day at the National Museum of History. While it isn’t close to the rest of the spots for the day, it has its own subway stop. If you don’t manage to grab breakfast before you arrive, there is a cafe in-building. If you love history, art, or ceramics--you will love this museum.
Afterwards, for some more interactive culture, head for Namsangol Village. The museum and the village are even on the same train line. Apart from getting to see traditional houses up-close, Namsangol Village also offers a range of activities. There are a number of outdoor activities you can try out as well as traditional games. There are also several paid activities: “folding hanji (traditional Korean paper), writing in Korean, traditional tea ceremony, traditional etiquette school and herbal medicine experience.”
For a late lunch, make your way to Gwangjang Traditional Market. There you can see a wide variety of traditional foods and ingredients. The market is a great place to experience many different Korean foods. The area contains everything from street food to Michelin star restaurants.After you finish eating, continue to wander through as not only food is being sold. You can find hanboks and other cultural items for sale.
This is a good time to head back to your hotel and refresh. After a full day of history and culture, in its many forms, you should be ready to end your day on a high note. Korean BBQ is now famous around the world but there’s nothing like experiencing it in Seoul.
After you finish stuffing yourself, go visit a jjimjilbang and experience a Korean sauna first hand. Like restaurants and hotels, jjimjilbangs range from cheaper local experiences to expensive first-class pleasures. If you are visiting Korea for culture, there’s no better note to end on than that of the jjimjilbang.
Day 2 - Shopping
Not everyone wants to spend two days in a new city going through museums and traditional villages. You should make the choice that makes sense to you. Seoul is renowned as a great city for shopping and here is the itinerary to take advantage of that.
I often recommend starting the day in the place that will take the most time and energy. For shopping, that is Dongdaemun. Dongdaemun is too large to really call it just a market. Instead it is more like a quarter or neighborhood. From wherever you start in Dongdaemun you will find a large selection of goods sold at a wide range of prices. Many times you can find the same type of goods sold in the same areas, such as an entire street of shoes. Some stores are inside large buildings, while others are on the street and even more are underground. You probably couldn’t see even half of Dongdaemun if you had the full day. If you are shopping for anything in particular, make sure to ask for directions. Whatever you are looking for, Dondaemun has it.
After whiling away your morning in Dongdaemun, the next shopping location on your list is Myeongdong. Myeongdong has the double advantage of offering not only shopping, but also a thriving street food scene. Even if you don’t want to eat your entire meal outside, you will definitely be tempted to buy a few snacks. Myeongdong hosts many restaurants and even a few cat cafes. For the serious shoppers, Myeongdong is full of makeup stores and Myeongdong’s subway station has a few k-pop/k-drama stores as well.
Rejuvenated by lunch, the next stop on your itinerary is none other than Hongdae. Hongdae may be famous for its night scene, but during the day, Hongdae is the best place to shop for cute trendy clothing. A mix of chain stores and boutiques, Hongdae’s shopping contains more than you might think at first glance. The many side streets contain many different options for clothes. And as the day turns to evening, Hongdae contains another great experience. From early evening, singers and dancers set up on the streets of Hongdae and you can experience first hand street performances by talented performers.
After such a full day, you may be unsure where to head for dinner. Having held all those bags of shopping all day, you definitely deserve to treat yourself to chimaek. Chimaek is chicken and maekju (beer). You can stay in Hongdae or head back towards your hotel. Either way, chimaek restaurants can be found around Seoul.
For the final stop of your whirlwind 2 days in Seoul, there is one last experience: noraebang. Find a noraebang and sing your heart out.