Re: 36 Hours in Seoul

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I love the New York Times' "36 Hours in [city]" series - it's informative, interesting, and gives someone unfamiliar with the area a general idea about what to see or do. With their recent article about Seoul, I found myself agreeing with a couple parts - and disagreeing with others. My only criticism is that their itineraries are... well, trendy is one good word to use, but high-brow also comes to mind. Maybe you have plenty of money just laying around when you travel, but I don't. That's why I take public transportation, pass on expensive hotels or food, and enjoy what the locals do. It's also a little nitpicky, but Friday at 4pm to starting something on Sunday at 12:30pm is a bit more than 36 hours.

I should note that I've written a 24-hour Seoul itinerary before, along with a 10-page extensive itinerary for - having traveled Seoul and Korea for 2 1/2+ years means I've had ample time to come up with ideas :)

With that in mindset, enjoying Korea requires neither a high-brow, spendthrift attitude or a how-cheaply-can-I-get-by mindset. Not including your overnight accommodations, I'd be surprised if you needed to spend more than 100,000 Korean won per person for this 36-hour itinerary.

As with the previous itinerary, this 36-hour itinerary assumes the following:

  • You are traveling alone or with no more than a few other adults - kids are wonderful creatures, but they would seriously slow you down on this itinerary.
  • You are capable of walking.
  • You can use a subway system that's entirely in English.
  • The weather is cooperating - it's not raining or snowing, and there's no blizzard advisory in effect.
  • In the spirit of the New York Times' series, expect this itinerary to be enjoyed on a weekend.

12pm - THE PAST

Enjoy the afternoon at Jongmyo - a royal shrine containing 83 members of royalty that fits in well with downtown Seoul. Originally constructed in 1395, it was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, and sports the longest wooden building in the world. If that's not enough reason to go, it contains plenty of nature to enjoy a relaxing start to your day. You could also check out Gyeongbokgung, Korea's largest Joseon-dynasty temple, but it's a huge place that would require a full afternoon to navigate. Jongno-3-ga station, lines 1, 3, or 5.


Arrive at COEX mall with a credit card and a list. The largest mall in Korea offers up hundreds of stores, an aquarium, and a kimchi museum. It's so large that the free iPhone app and Android app actually make sense. When you're ready for a break, head up to the conference and exhibition centers that give the mall its name. While a schedule can be found online, it's more interesting to walk around and see what's there without knowing in advance. COEX is connected to Samseong station on line 2.


Dongdaemun Design Plaza - yes, the same one as the New York Times chose, but the reason I like it is different. The DDP will take its rightful place as, well, a design plaza - but for now, you'll find a date-worthy park featuring a merging of past artifacts and future lights. It's also a reminder of how much effort went in to making this park tourist-friendly, accessible to anyone, and understandable to anyone speaking Korean and English. Check out for plenty of information. Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station, lines 2, 4, or 5.

6pm - THE FOOD

Korean food is everywhere, so it's difficult to recommend one 'must-go-to' restaurant. Because of that, I'll simply mention that Itaewon is home to dozens of different nationalities and styles of food. Finding a restaurant is about as hard as looking for people eating - if you're more than 100 meters away from a Korean restaurant, you're probably not in Seoul. Itaewon station, line 6.


Garuso-gil offers trendy coffee shops, trendy clothes, and plenty of trendy places to spend your won. Eat, drink, and shop, for tomorrow will be busy. From Garuso-gil you're not too far from a group of hotels crowded around the Express Bus Terminal nearby - head there when you've had enough of the 'trendy' people for one night. Sinsa station, line 3, exit 8.



Korean film has come a long way in the past fifty years, with censorship and technology being two interesting lenses to see the industry through. The Korean Film Archive offers both of those lenses, with an audio guide available in multiple languages to explain the numerous exhibits. Movie clips are intermixed with Korean posters and other memorabilia from previous decades. Digital Media City station, line 6.


By definition, nature usually involves getting away from it all. While the World Cup Park is a feel-good story about turning a landfill into a huge park, it's far too large to take in with only a couple hours time. Instead, head to Seonyudo Park - a peaceful ecologically friendly park alongside the Han River. Expect plenty of plants and a cafeteria overlooking the Han river. While you may see some reminders of the area's former water purification plant, the scenery will make up for that. Dangsan station (line 2 or 9), then catch bus 5714 to the park.


While thousands of Buddhist temples are scattered across Korea, Bongeunsa holds thousands of panjeon, or wooden blocks once used to print the 화엄경 (hwa-eom-gyeong), or Flower Garden sutra. First founded in 794 AD during Korea's Silla dynasty, the large complex is one of Korea's 14 major temples, and is surprisingly reverent even with the aforementioned COEX mall across the street. Be sure to admire the bell originally cast in 1392 and a 23-meter-tall stone Buddha. Cheongdam station, line 7.


Jimjilbang are sometimes seen as these exotic, weird places. You mean people walk around NAKED?! some might say. Whether that's part of the attraction or something you'd prefer avoiding, there are more than enough things going on that don't require disrobing. My current favorite is the Siloam sauna a few hundred meters from Seoul Station. Their focus on saunas, cold rooms, oxygen rooms, and plenty of areas to relax is nice; combine that with the bathing areas for each gender, and perhaps even a body scrub from the attendant. Seoul Station, line 1, line 4, the Gyeongui line, or the AREX (to open in December 2010).


Feeling a bit more relaxed now, it's time to hit up Myeongdong - one of Seoul's busiest shopping neighborhoods, and an excellent place to people watch. Although the brick-and-mortar stores populate the several-square-block area, the street vendors often bring the most life to the party. When it's time to escape the overcrowded streets, find any of the coffee houses to get an overview of the crowd. Grab some dinner while you're here - there's a little something for everyone, and usually enough menus in English (or Japanese) - to help you order correctly. Myeongdong station, line 4.


Whether young or young-at-heart, the 880,000 won generation comes up with some creative ways to party. While dozens of clubs serve up live music or DJ's, the best show is often found at Hongdae's well-known park across the street from Hongik University. Bands or groups set up shop, accepting donations and doing their best to keep an audience not always known for their attention span. Buy a beverage from the bagged drink stand along the main road (that Tequila Sunrise or Rum & Coke gets mixed in a plastic bag and sipped out of a straw), or just stop by any convenience store for a beer. Note that it's quite early in Hongdae at 9pm - the parties don't really get started until the subways close for the night (around 12:30am).

As mentioned before, Seoul has plenty to offer - even as an active traveler living in Korea, I've yet to see everything in the city. There's that much to see and do. There isn't One Huge Thing That Everyone Must See, but it's worth the time to go exploring.

Readers, where would you go with 36 hours in Seoul?

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe - 2010

This post was originally published on my blog,Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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