The New Guide to Noryangjin Fish Market 2021

One of the best places to visit in Seoul is Noryangjin Fish Market. It’s like an aquarium where you can eat the exhibits. Unlike a lot of fish markets around the world, many of the fish are still alive in tanks. Because of that, it doesn’t smell as rank as other markets.

This is a new guide because Noryangjin has gone through a transition from the Old Building to the new one. 

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When To Go

This isn’t like many fish markets around the world. Many of the fish are living in aquariums. They’re not decaying on a counter. The freshness of the fish is the same all times of the day.

The only things I’ve observed over the years is that it will get busy Friday and Saturday in the late afternoon and early evening. Groups of salary workers and seafood partiers are venturing out to get their catch for an evening of Neptunian bacchanalia.

Getting There

Noryangjin Station is one of Seoul’s most confusing. The reason is that there are two unconnected stations on two different lines. There are TWO EXIT 1s!


The original station connects to Line 1, the dark blue line. The new station connects to Line 9, the gold line, the only privatized subway line in Seoul.

Line 1 Method

If you’re coming from Line 1, you’ll be above ground. The least confusing way is to go out Exit 2. Go up the stairs from the platform. You’ll see a lot of street food vendors in the station. Head right and go out the turnstiles. There should be a convenience store and a coffee shop with an escalator and stairs. Go down the stairs and continue going straight, following the road. 

You’ll pass exits 8 and 7. Keep going. There will be a tunnel on your right. Go through there, and you’ll make it to the market.

Line 9 Method

Resurface at exit 7. Go straight, following the road, and turn right into a tunnel. There will be vendors sitting on the ground. That’s a sign you’re getting close. You’ll get through the tunnel and find yourself at the entrance to the main market.

They’re not aggressive. They’re assertive. They’re competitive. The shellfish and live “swimming fish” vendors are most so. It’s rude to play with the seafood without buying. Always smile and be polite. Don’t let them push you around, though. Just move on.

Don’t worry about getting cheated. There are Noryangjin apps in Korean that keep up to date with seafood prices. I’ve found that the Noryangjin vendors generally sell their wares a hair higher than the places that cater exclusively to restaurants. They don’t fleece tourists. They’re good folk.

On the right, outside, you may see what’s left of the old building. The transition from the old building to the new has taken a few years. 

Bizarre Foods was filmed in the old building in August 2008. Read my blog post about the filming here.

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern
Andrew Zimmern loving the penis fish

The New Building

New Noryangjing. From Korea Tourism Organization.

The old building was open air and rougher. It had a lot of charm. The new building seems more like a shopping mall. The positive change is that the restaurants are cleaner.

New Building 1F

Take a look at the map.

The main landmark to orient yourself on the first floor is the escalator. There aren’t many vendors in the green area.

Noryangjin Escalator

The vendors are similar to what you saw in the Old Building. Maybe more lobster. Just wander here. I wouldn’t buy any seafood yet. There’s so much exploring to do.


Green – Fresh but dead seafood

Lavender – Frozen

Blue – Live fish

Orange – Shellfish

This isn’t like the fish market in Tokyo. I’ve seen auctions in various markets. They aren’t as exciting. Kinda subdued. Beside, we have all this live seafood in the area. It’s just as fresh at 6 p.m. as it is at 4 a.m.

After a good wander, go up the escalator.

New Building 2F

The second floor is where I do business. I buy my foods and eat them here. I like the restaurants. They’re so much cleaner than they were in the Old Building. I don’t have to be on the watch for cockroaches. Many of the restaurants are connected to specific vendors. They’re mostly named after famous seafood areas in Korea. The move to the New Building has made it possible for new types of restaurants and pubs to spring up.


This is what I usually like to do and see.

Knife Shop (Section D)

At the top of the escalator is a knife vendor. This is good for souvenirs. Just make sure that you put the knives in your checked luggage. These are good quality sashimi knives that will shave the hair off your arm.

Salted Seafood Marketplace

This is my favorite part of the whole market. All these fermented salted seafood. These are used to make kimchi, muchim (salads), to put on steamed pork wraps, and to just eat on the side. There are toothpicks available to try samples. The fun is just trying things. Don’t even try to guess what they are. I’ve had guests on my tours like some things so much, they bought a small pack to bring back to the hotel. One of my guilty pleasures is the spicy smothered raw oysters with some buttery Ritz or Zec crackers. It helps to have a bottle of water with you.

Live Octopus Corridor (Section H)

If you want to try the squirming octopus, you can ask for it here. In the past, the vendors have set us up with an impromptu table with chopsticks and dipping sauce.

Ask for SAN NAKJI 산낙지. <– useful Korean word

Fried Shrimp Stand

They sell not only fried shrimp. Other fried goodies and bottled craft beers occupy the menu. THIS is the new Noryangjin.

Other Notable Restaurants

Jian and I checking out the Japanese restaurant
Jian and I scouting the Japanese restaurant

In section F, there are a fried seafood drinking spot and a Japanese sushi restaurant. They are both great. If you don’t want to deal with the vendors, you’ll have just as good of a time in any of those places.

Second Floor Vendors (Sections C & G)

This is where I usually get my seafood. The dotted circle is the specific vendor I go to out of habit. I’ve dealt with them before, and they know what I like. There’s a woman selling octopus and shellfish and a man selling live fish. Many vendors have restaurants. The guys I buy from are connected to Haeundae 해운대, which is named after Busan’s most famous beach. A live fish will run you W30,000 to W50,000. Just point and gesture how many of fish and shellfish you want.

Korean “sashimi” is called “hwe.” The vendors will say, “Sashimi,” because that’s the word they know tourists know. Unlike Japanese sashimi and sushi, it’s not aged. It’s fresh. It much firmer than sashimi and has a clean ocean taste. The most common hwe are flounder/sole, rockfish, salmon, and tuna.
Korean sashimi hwe
A typical Hwe platter

Oh, you want some Korean words? Here you are.

Common Swimming Fish

I’m including the official romanization and a rough pronunciation guide in parentheses.

Flounder – Gwang-eo (Gwahng-uh) 광어
Rockfish – U-reok (Oo-rock) 우럭
Salmon – Yeon-eo (Yuhnuh) 연어 <–not sold live
Tuna – Chamchi 참치 <–not sold live

Common Shellfish and Other Critters

Shrimp – Sae-u (SEH-oo) 새우
Oysters – Gul (Gool) 굴
Clams – Jogae 조개
Scallops – Garibi (GAHreebee) 가리비
Abalone – Jeonbok (John-boak) 전복
Sea Worms (the penis fish) – Gaebul (GEH-bool) 개불
Sea Cucumbers – Haesam 해삼

Korean Seafood Restaurant

After you choose and pay for your catch, someone will guide you to the connected restaurant. They’re pretty much all the same, so don’t resist. They’ll likely want to get you going before your fish is dispatched and sliced up. If you want to watch the gruesome sight of how animal becomes food in five minutes, stick around.

When you enter the restaurant, the server at the front likely will ask you how you want everything set up. They’ll know right away which one is sashimi. For the other things, if you don’t know, just nod and agree. I’ve had great surprises that way.

Many times the shellfish will be steamed (jjim 찜) or grilled (gwee 구이).

Salt Grilled Shrimp
Salt Grilled Shrimp

I particularly ask for the shrimp to be salt grilled (sae-u sogeum gwee 새우소금구이). The result is a shell so brittle that you can eat the shrimp shell and all.

Butter Grilled Scallops
Butter Grilled Scallops

The scallops are good steamed. Sometimes you can get them grilled in butter, called “Butter Gwi 버터구이.”

The squirming live octopus, again, is called San Nakji 산낙지. I don’t recommend trying to eat one whole. In fact, the server likely will refuse to serve it that way because it’s too dangerous. In a way, it’s crueler than quickly chopping it up with a knife. Even though the chopped octopus is squirming, it’s no longer alive. I’ve timed it twice. It takes fifteen full minutes to eat an octopus whole. Get it chopped.

After they take your catch, they’ll guide you to a table. Order your drinks. Soju is the traditional choice, but I also like to have some beer (maekju).

You’ll have some sauces set out for you.

  • Soy sauce and wasabi — The classic
  • Vinegared chili sauce (Cho-gochujang) – This is the typical Korean style dipping sauce. I like mixing it with wasabi, making it taste a lot like cocktail sauce.
  • Pohang sauce – It’s a mix of fermented bean paste (Doenjang), chopped garlic, chopped green chilies, and sesame sauce. It originates from the southeastern port of Pohang. Mix it up. It’s great!
And that’s it!

Sit back and enjoy. You deserve it.

Oh, one more thing…

Mid-way through your meal, ask for Maeuntang (MAY-oon-tahng) 매운탕. It’s a spicy boiling soup made with the bones of your fish, along with healthy greens. I like taking some of the leftover sashimi and dipping them in the soup like shabu-shabu. This is the traditional way to end a proper Korean hwe meal.


I always have DVD bonus extras.

Cup Rice Street

One of my favorite secret corners of Seoul is Cup Rice Street (Cup Bap Geori 컵밥거리), right on the other side of Noryangjin Station. It’s a row of streetside vendors catering to students studying for professional exams. Cheap. Lots of variety. Unique. And Good.

Vietnamese Pho
Ogane Pancake
Ogane Pancake (something new)
Shrimp Steak?
Did it say “Shrimp Steak?”

Be on the lookout for the infamous Bomb Rice (Poktan Bap 폭탄밥). It’s a super spicy variation of Bibiimbap.

Bomb Rice
Bomb Rice

Here’s how to get there.

Cup Rice Street Map
Click to enlarge

Exit the New Building and head towards a tunnel. Exit and walk east to the subway station. Cross the main road and follow the street. Pass a McDonald’s and a gas station before you get there.


I want to thank Dino for pushing me to create this guide.

Please leave more tips in the comments

10 Unique Souvenirs You Should Get In Seoul 2021

What to buy in Korea?

Here are some Korean souvenirs.

One of the most stressful parts of traveling is getting Korean souvenirs and gifts for friends, family, and office mates. What are good things to buy in Korea?

I’ve lived in the Seoul area since 2004, and I’ve been a tour guide for a few years. In my own experience and through talking with tourists over the years, I’ve decided to put together a handy guide to getting “korea buys” that are unique and won’t weigh down your luggage.

Myeong-dong Cosmetics

The K-beauty thing is now becoming a… thing. The world is starting to take the Korean cosmetics industry seriously. I’ll admit that I’ve been sucked into it. Yes, I moisturize. Myeong-dong is the optimal place to shop for cosmetics. I’ll warn you, the crowds and the stores are CRA-ZAY! If you’re in a hurry or don’t know what to buy, go ahead and get a bunch of face packs. You can usually get a good deal for a bunch of them. They come in different–flavors isn’t the word I’m looking for. What I suggest is trying one of these face packs after chilling them in the refrigerator, especially if you’re recovering from sunburn. It’s intense.


If anything, Insa-dong is the best place to get all your souvenir shopping done in one go. After over a decade living here, I still do my Christmas shopping for overseas family in Insa-dong. Stay away from the official souvenir shops, unless you like “Made in China” on your Korean souvenirs. The antiques are kinda iffy, and you may have trouble getting them on the plane. How about these suggestions?


Korean souvenirs - hanbok. What to buy in Korea?

Korean traditional clothes as well as other traditional styles can easily be found here. I suggest buying these for kids. They’re cheaper and easier to fit in a suitcase.

Name Stamps

What to buy in Korea? Korean souvenirs: Name Stamps
Credit: Constant Crafter

This is one gift I like to give. I’ve even given one to Anthony Bourdain when he came to Seoul. There are lots of shops that make personalized name stamps. You can give them a design, your name in English, or have them make your name in Korean. They usually take fifteen minutes to make, and the prices start at around W30,000 (~$27 USD).

Traditional Paper

What to buy in Korea? Korean souvenirs: Korean Paper
Credit: YoungDoo M. Carey (cc)

The art is perfectly fine to buy in Insa-dong. Yet the true craft is traditional Korean paper. You can find this in calligraphy shops. It really is a traditional art. It encapsulates Korea’s rustic beauty. I particularly like really rough paper with real flowers pressed in it. I sent some in a care package to my family in the U.S. one Christmas, and my grandmother liked it so much she framed it and hung it on her dining room wall. Best of all, it’s lightweight, and it folds, and it’s an interesting conversation piece.

Wedding Ducks

What to buy in Korea? Korean souvenirs: Wedding Ducks
Credit: Wikipedia

These wooden ducks that look like duck decoys are used in traditional marriage ceremonies. If you know anyone getting married soon, this is a good souvenir for them.


What to buy in Korea? Korean souvenirs: Gangnam Style Socks
Credit: Chelsea Marie Hicks (cc)

I used to laugh at the idea of buying the weird socks in Insa-dong, but I have actually given these to nieces and nephews, and they love them. We have a joke that you’re not famous in Korea until your face is on socks. You can get them with Korean celebrities. My favorite are the ones with Shin Ramyeon logos.



Things to buy in Korea. Korean souvenirs: Korean stickers
Credit: Jessie Lynn (cc)

For the kids, stickers are so fun and unique. There are some that work the same as paper dolls, where you dress up a princess in sticker clothes. These have been my standby for kids gifts since 2004, and it’s always worked. Kyobo Bookstore is a great source, as is any stationery shop.

Wooden Models

Things to buy in Korea. Korean souvenirs.

Another fun gift for kids or the modeler in your life is these little wooden models of traditional Korean buildings. You can find them in bookstores or in the book section of supermarkets.


Speaking of supermarkets, they have been my go-to source for souvenirs in any country I visit. I love finding fun foods while wandering the aisles. I’ve made the mistake of buying too many jarred products, which did weight down my luggage in London. In Korea, the snack aisles are loads of fun. The convenience stores are great as well. A word of warning, don’t try to bring makgeolli, as the pressure on the plane will make it explode (oops).

Tailor Made Clothing

Things to buy in Korea. Korean souvenirs: tailored suits
Credit: World Walk About

Korea used to be one of the world’s top textile manufacturers. We have a lot of places that will make a suit to your specifications for a decent price. Many of these tailors are in Itaewon. I personally like to get tailor made shirts from Hamilton Shirts. They have my specs on file. I just choose the fabric and the style, and they ship it to me within ten days. They will even ship overseas–something to keep in mind. When my brother was visiting on his birthday, I bought him a tailor made shirt that was delivered to his house in America after he returned. If you are interested in this, read this blog post by World Walk About.

Order Korean Souvenirs Online

What have we missed?

What other great unique souvenirs would you suggest one get in Seoul? I know I’ve just scratched the surface. In fact, if you are able to make the hour and a half jaunt to Icheon, a village known throughout history as making the best pottery, you can buy some of the world’s greatest pottery and have it shipped to your door. That’s a topic for another post.

Seoul Hotels: Where To Stay In Seoul in 2021?

Seoul Hotels

In my experience talking to our tour guests, the most popular Seoul hotel areas are Myeong-dong, Hongdae, Jongno, Itaewon, Insa-dong, Dongdaemun, Bukchon, and Gangnam. Some people have loved their places. Others have shown regrets. It depends on your expectations and goals. Here is a quick rundown of each area.

Gangnam Hotels
(cc) Taehyun Kim

Gangnam Hotels

Going “Gangnam Style” has the cachet of going all ritzy. That is, if you consider ritzy to be a bunch of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. There are some attractions in Gangnam, like Lotte World, Lotte Tower (though both technically in Jamsil), Bongeunsa Temple, and Garosu-gil. The government has tried to set up K-Pop attractions, and Samsung has an electronics showroom. It’s also the epicenter of medical tourism, so it’s convenient to stay there if you’re getting some work done.

Other than that, it’s kind of bland in the culture department. Some hot clubs are there and high end nightlife. The hotels are some of the best in the city, and it’s convenient to the Coex, in case you’re there for a convention. The largest downside of Gangnam is that it’s a chore to travel from there to the places visitors want to go to. Lines number 2 and 9 are notoriously packed and nasty. Line 3 isn’t so bad, but it goes north and south. It can get you to north Seoul and all the palaces and such. Taxis are extremely difficult to deal with there.

If you want to

  • Be near to a convention in Coex
  • Go to expensive restaurants and bars
  • Be convenient to plastic surgery and other medical tourism clinics
  • Go to hot night clubs
  • Be near Lotte World, Lotte Tower. Coex Mall, Bongeunsa Temple, Garosu-gil, Apgujeong
  • Be near the K-Pop and high tech tourist traps Samsung and the K-gov have set up

If you don’t care about

  • Being near classic “Old Seoul” sites
  • Being near Hongdae
  • Convenience to most other parts of Seoul
  • Authentic good Korean food and street food (unless you take the Gangnam Korean BBQ & Street Food Tour)

Hotel Suggestions

Intercontinental COEX

Oakwood Premier Coex Center

Park Hyatt Seoul

JW Marriott Hotel Seoul (convenient to Express Bus Terminal)

L7 Gangnam by Lotte

Hotel Peyto Gangnam

Hotel Peyto Samseong

Dongdaemun Hotels
(cc) Eugene Lim

Dongdaemun Hotels

Dongdaemun is consciously going through development. It was traditionally the textile district. These days it’s known for its clothing markets and Seoul Fashion Week. The centerpiece is the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is a great wonder of modern architecture.

It’s still not tourist friendly. The restaurant scene, though to my liking, is a little rough. There isn’t that much within walking distance. It gets kinda shady to the east. It does use subway Line 5, which will get you to most places you’re likely to go.

If you want to

  • Explore Dongdaemun clothes shopping and night market
  • Experience a side of Seoul in transformation–a little rough but also new and fascinating

Hotel Suggestions

JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square

Hotel Skypark Kingstown Dongdaemun

Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun

Alice Guesthouse

Bukchon Hotels
(cc) travel oriented

Bukchon Hotels

This is the romantic hanok village. I like it here, but it’s getting so overrun with tourists, they’re making restrictions. The only reason to stay here is for the hanok experience, which if you can sleep on a mat on the floor, is something that is truly memorable. The hanok stays tend to be pricey, but you can catch some deals.

The other thing to consider is that they’re quite a trek from the closest subway station, up winding hilly streets. Many times I’m waiting at the meeting spot for The Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walk, which starts near there, and I see tired tourists lugging their luggage up the hills with both hands.

Since it is a residential neighborhood, there is no nightlife. There is some nightlife a short walk to the south in Jongno. The restaurants there tend to be fake Italian places and coffee shops. Oh, the coffee shops! You’ll always be near a coffee shop.

You are within easy walking distance of the classic Seoul sightseeing areas, including the palaces, the Blue House, Insa-dong, and Gwanghwamun Plaza.

If you want to

  • Get the authentic hanok experience
  • Be near classic sightseeing areas

If you don’t care about

  • Expense (if you can’t find a bargain)
  • Convenience to transportation
  • Nightlife
  • Restaurants
  • Tourists everywhere

Suggested Hotels

Bonum 1957 Hanok Stay and Hotel

Bukchonmaru Hanok Guesthouse

Raon Guesthouse

Bibimbap Guesthouse

Gongsimga Guesthouse

Insadong Hotels
(cc) eung-seon Kim

Insa-dong Hotels

Insa-dong is one of the major tourist zones. It’s a great place for souvenirs and getting lost in romantic alleys. There is a lot to see and do. I used to have an office there, so I know it well.

I also know that it’s scant with good restaurants. It was difficult to get a decent lunch there. You’d have to trek further out for some good fare. For nightlife, there is the Avenue of Youth across the street to the south and Jongno 3-ga, where the partying seniors hang out. Jongno 3-ga is also one of the last areas where there are soju tents, like you see in the Korean dramas.

If you want to

  • Be in the heart of old Seoul tour areas
  • Be near subway routes
  • Experience old Seoul, including soju tents, tea houses, and Tapgol Park
  • Get souvenirs
  • Experience Seoul nightlife

Suggested Hotels

Orakai Insadong Suites

Makers Hotel

Hotel Sunbee

Myeondong Hotels
(cc) ume-y

Myeong-dong Hotels

A lot of people stay in Myeong-dong. Some like it. Some regret it. The ones who like it appreciate its convenience to other locations in Seoul. But Myeong-dong is notorious for two things: crushing crowds of tourists and few good restaurants. The nightlife there is dull as well. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, let’s go hang out and have a beer in Myeong-dong!”

There are some affordable hotels there. It’s good for cosmetics souvenirs. And that’s about it. Cheap foot massages?

That said, there are some delightful little guesthouses north of the shopping areas, nestled at the food of Namsan Mountain, convenient to the Namsan cable car.

If you want to

  • Stay in the center of touristy areas
  • Be near make up shops
  • Be near cheap foot massage places
  • Be convenient to N Seoul Tower
  • Be near subway routes
  • Be near street food

If you don’t care about

  • Good food
  • Peace and quiet

Suggested Hotels

Tmark Grand Hotel Myeongdong

Guesthouse The Hill

Lotte Hotel Seoul

YOLO Guesthouse

STEP INN Myeongdong 1

Hotel28 Myeongdong

Aloft Seoul Myeongdong

Itaewon Hotels
(cc) limonchiki

Itaewon Hotels

A lot of business travelers stay in Itaewon. Those are the people who are just here for business and have little interest in cultural immersion. Itaewon has gotten better over the years. It’s not the expat gutter it used to be. It’s one of the hot nightlife areas now. The international restaurants and bars are best here. But Korean food is laughable.

If you are a single traveler and want to meet other English speakers, including English speaking Koreans, this is a good location. The bars here tend to stay open later than in other parts of the city, in case that jet lag is really hitting you. It’s also more centrally located than other popular areas. But don’t count on taxis. Itaewon is as bad as Gangnam in taxi reliance. Take the subway.

If you want to

  • Be near English speakers
  • Experience one aspect of Seoul night life
  • Go to late night bars and clubs
  • Eat international food
  • Be convenient to other parts of Seoul
  • Have breakfast

If you don’t care about

  • Good Korean food
  • Peace & quiet
  • Immersing yourself in Korean culture

Suggested Hotels

Grand Hyatt Seoul

Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel

Hamilton Hotel Seoul

I.T.W Hotel

Itaewon Inn

Jongno Hotels Gwanghwamun Hotels
(cc) Katie Haugland Bowen

Jongno & Old City Center Hotels

Jongno and Jung-gu (City Center) comprise the classic sections of Seoul. It’s where all the major attractions are: palaces, temples, Cheonggyecheon Stream, Gwanghwamun Plaza. It’s within walking distance of Insa-dong and a short train ride to Dongdaemun fashion center and Itaewon.

The only downside of Jung-gu is that it’s also the center of Korea’s protest culture. We haven’t had a major protest that closed down the streets since 2017. It can get noisy, but it’s peaceful. Don’t let the police in riot gear freak you out. It’s safe.

There are some great hotels here. I’m including Lotte Hotel here because it straddles both City Center and Myeong-dong. The Four Seasons is one of our newest luxury hotels, and it’s a wonder. There are a lot of secrets and Easter eggs in this hotel, including a hidden speakeasy. Oh, and a secret you may only find out from me–there’s another hidden speakeasy inside the hidden speakeasy.

If you want to

  • Be in the heart of Seoul
  • Experience good restaurants and authentic Korean food
  • Experience Seoul nightlife

If you don’t care about

  • Peace & quiet
  • Gangnam

Hotel Suggestions

Four Seasons Hotel Seoul

K-Guesthouse Seoul City

Somerset Palace Seoul

Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun

Koreana Hotel

New Kukje Hotel

Lotte Hotel Seoul

Rooftop Taktinn

Hongdae Hotels
(cc) el_ave

Hongdae Hotels

It’s the youthful hip section of Seoul. It used to be where all the punks and hippies hung out with a grungy club scene. Even though it’s more of a theme park, it’s a lot of fun. You could spend your entire trip in Hongdae and have tons of adventures.

The Hongdae guesthouse experience is something everyone has said good things about. Hongdae is full of them, and I’m surprised that more visitors don’t take advantage of them. I’d put Hongdae guesthouses up there with Bukchon hanoks as must-dos.

If you want to

  • Be in the heart of Seoul’s youth culture
  • Be convenient to the subway
  • Eat good modern and classic Korean and international food
  • Be convenient to airport transportation
  • Stay within budget with accommodations with guesthouses

If you don’t care about

  • Peace & quiet (but it depends on which part of Hongdae)
  • Gangnam

Hotel Suggestions

L7 Hongdae by Lotte

Urbanwood Guesthouse

Seoul Mansion Guesthouse

Lee & No Guesthouse

Huayuan House in Hongdae


Mr. Comma Guesthouse

Guesthouse K

DW Design Residence

Chuls Lodge

Wow Factor Stay

U Guesthouse Hongdae (Female Only)

Areas that are off the radar

If you want a good area that’s convenient, but you’re allergic to tourists, here are some areas the guide books overlook.

Mapo Hotels
(cc) riNux


Here’s my case for Mapo. It’s in southwestern Seoul. I call it the bedroom community for bankers because it’s just across the bridge from the Yeouido financial district. It has what I argue is the most convenient hub of subway connections in Seoul. It connects to the AREX airport line at Gongdeok Station, which also connects to Line 6 (Itaewon), Line 2 (Hongdae, Gangnam, north Seoul), and Line 5 (Yeouido, Dongdaemun).

It’s a secret gem because the tourists and the Gangnam locusts haven’t invaded it yet. It has a variety of great Korean restaurants. A lot neighborhoods have some really good restaurants specializing in one dish and a bunch of copycats. This area has great BBQ, pubs, soups, seafood, markets. I do a lot of food tours there. It has good nightlife if you’re not into clubbing but enjoy a good drink with anju (pub grub).

Hotel Suggestions

Best Western Premier Seoul Garden Hotel

Shilla Stay Mapo

GLAD Hotel Mapo

Gyeongbokgung & Buam-dong

It’s still part of the northern classic city center, but the charming area west of Gyeongbokgung Palace isn’t overrun by tourists. I find it a little reminiscent of quaint Parisian alleys, dotted with tiny cafes, restaurants, and bars. It’s also near Tongin Market, which is one of the cooler open air markets in Seoul. The closest station is Gyeongbokgung Station, on Line 3, which can take you to Insa-dong and even to Gangnam.

Buam-dong is just through the tunnel, and it’s a side of Seoul you’d think didn’t exist. It’s an isolated mountain village. The only hotel I have listed here is Cindy’s B&B. It’s perfect for travelers who really want to get away from it all, go hiking, enjoy home cooked Korean meals, and have a truly immersive Korean experience with Cindy and her family.

Hotel Suggestions

Socuri Home Guesthouse

Hide & Seek Guesthouse

Cindy’s B&B


I’m on the fence on this. Guro is south of Yeouido in an industrial-tech district. There is no sightseeing here. I used to live in Anyang, just south of it. The only reason I’m including it is that it is a slice of real Seoul. The restaurants are good and authentic. It’s like the non-touristy neighborhoods of Tokyo in that no matter where you go, there’s a story to be created.

TIP: Near this area is Daerim Station, which is home to Garlic Chicken Alley. That is a place that your friends haven’t discovered yet.

Hotel Suggestions

Lotte City Hotel Guro

Shilla Stay Guro

Best Western Premier Guro Hotel

Areas that aren’t so good, unless you’re here purely on business

Keep in mind there are some excellent hotels in these areas. Just from talking to visitors, they didn’t like staying in these areas.


It’s purely a business district. It’s dead at night. It has a couple of subway lines going through it. Those include the infamous Line 9, the only privatized subway line in Seoul and the most miserably crowded.

Seoul Station

There is nothing to eat around here except for fast food. There’s no nightlife. It’s a train terminal and is convenient to Jongno, Myeong-dong, Itaewon, and N Seoul Tower. It’s also where Seoul’s homeless congregate. The only people you see in this area are those trying to move on from this area.


The two hotels there are top in their class. I love them. If you’re looking for a resort or casino experience then these are your hotels. But it is a resort area, meaning it’s removed from the rest of the city. This is where celebrities and dignitaries go to avoid the public.


This is where I live, and I love it. I couldn’t imagine visiting it without a car. You may end up in a layover in Gimpo. The hotels near it are fine, but access to restaurants and the scant nightlife are nil. The only advantage is that it’s connected to the AREX airport line, so you can zoom into Seoul in 20 minutes. I use that line almost every day. Be aware that the subways close at midnight.


Read everything I said about Gimpo above and make it even further outside of Seoul.


The only reasons you’d end up in Ilsan is if you’re at a convention at KINTEX or having a meeting at Hyundai. I personally like Ilsan a lot. It’s just across the bridge from me. There is good nightlife there. And good restaurants. Yet it is VERY inconvenient to Seoul, if that’s what you’re interested in. But hey, contact me if you want to get out. Or if you want someone to show you around.

What are your experiences with Seoul hotels?

Those of you who have traveled Seoul, please share your hotel experiences with the community. Is it worth it for a hanok stay? Did you try a Hongdae guesthouse? How about love motels?

Please post in the comments.

Things To Do In Seoul 2021 | The Ultimate Checklist

Where are the best places to visit in Seoul?

So many times, I get the question, “What are things to do in Seoul?”

There are the conventional things, like visiting palaces and shopping in Myeong-dong. Yet Seoul is still new to many travel radars. You need an insider’s view on what is worth seeing, doing, and eating, so you don’t feel like you missed something that was right under your nose.

I’ve organized this list into levels, from first-timers to experts. The top level is really for people who actually live in the Seoul area. Click the links to get more details about each item.

Regarding the “Eats” section, I’m listing the big guns and the food neighborhoods. I’m working on a separate list of “Must-eat” foods along with the best restaurants to eat them.

The list is regularly updated with additions and links. If you want to keep track of new additions and the latest tourism news, festivals, and events, join our newsletter.

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Tapgol Park

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Level 1 – First Timer

This is your first time touring South Korea. You want to hit the main tourist spots to get them out of the way.





Level 2 – Rising Star

You caught the bug. Seoul turned out to be way more interesting than you thought. Returning to the city promises grand rewards and a chance to catch the stuff you didn’t accomplish the first time.





Level 3 – Kimchi Pro

You’re a regular now. You’re starting to avoid the crowds of tourists and go more local. You have a stronger interest in Korean history, and you find yourself starting to crave kimchi.





Level 4 – Travel Master

Korea. Yeah, been there. Done that.

Hold on there, pardner. It’s time to explore the outskirts of the city. Delve into the satellite suburbs to find the things even locals don’t know about.





Level 5 – Seoul City Guru

You basically live in Seoul. You’re not only a member of Restaurant Buzz Seoul, you’re a regular contributor. You walk into Maloney’s and everyone yells your name. Some of these places are hard to get into.





Korea's top tours

Parasite Filming Locations

parasite stairs

If you’re in Seoul and are a film of the Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” you will be interested in visiting some filming locations. Most of the film was shot on a sound stage. Half the Parks’ house was digitized, so it’s not available. Yet there are a few iconic shots that were filmed in different parts of Seoul.

Here’s a map. I’ll update it frequently when I find new locations. Bookmark this page.


14 Must-eat Korean Foods In Seoul and Where To Eat

Two Two Chicken

I’ve been writing about Korean food in Seoul since 2004 at ZenKimchi. I’ve consulted Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Travel Channel, and other world media in finding the must eat Korean foods.

Here’s the ultimate list. These are foods you can find specific restaurants for. I’m not including foods that you’d find as side dishes, like Japchae and Kimchi.

Beginner’s Quest

This list is getting so hyuuuge that I’m dividing it into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Beginner is if you’re new to Korean food, or if it’s your first time in Korea. These are also the foods that are crowd pleasers–the greatest hits. The Top-40 music of Korean food.

Korean BBQ

Korean BBQ

The first must-eat Korean food that springs to mind. Cooking meat at your table and wrapping it in lettuce. There’s something primal about that. Korean BBQ is all about community and fun. In Korea itself, pork is king. Beef costs so much it’s for special occasions.

Where to eat Korean BBQ

It’s hard to screw up Korean BBQ in Korea. The competition is so fierce that mediocre places don’t hang out long.

Mapo Jeong Daepo 마포정대포

Standing in front of Mapo Jeong Daepo

My go-to place is still Jeong Daepo in the Mapo neighborhood, near Gongdeok Station. The whole area is full of BBQ aromas. Most all the restaurants in that area are great. We made sure Anthony Bourdain went there the last time he was in Seoul. It’s the main place we go to on The Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out.

Hongik Sutbul Galbi Sogeum Gwi 홍익숯불갈비소금구

I don’t know how long this will hold out against the pressure of gentrification. It’s a packed, packed, packed place. They give your meat a pre-cook over strong fire before finishing it at your table.

Chicken & Beer

“Chimaek” (Chicken + Maekju | beer) got its start in the early 1970s. It’s now such a great must-eat Korean food institution that we have more chicken restaurants than there are McDonald’s in the entire world. There’s something about this combination. Strangely, it works well with watered down Korean beers–preferably Cass. I swear.

I’m more a fan of classic styles. Recent styles of fried chicken lean more to the American style–thick flour-based crust. I like the thin starch-based coating with the aromatic spicies.

Where to eat Chicken & Beer

I’d almost say it’s hard to go wrong, but it is. Chicken hofs are neighborhood haunts. There’s no exclusive I-gotta-try-this chicken pub with a line out the door. In fact, if there’s a line out the door stay far away from it. My rule of thumb is this. If it’s full of beautiful young women taking Insta-selfies, it’s not good chicken. If it’s grease stained and full of middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth, great chicken.

Two-Two Chicken 둘둘치킨

You can’t go wrong with Two-Two (pictured above). You’ll likely be the youngest person in any of its locations. It’s a franchise, but each venue acts like a mom-and-pop shop. The basic recipe and yangnyeom (spicy sweet garlic sauce) are the same, but they put their own spins on the sauces. We include a stop at a Two-Two on our Authentic Korean Chicken & Beer Experience. They’re outside Gongdeok Station, and the couple who runs it is great and welcoming. I want them to get more love.

Chicken Baengi 치킨뱅이

They also do it classic style. Get their chicken 3-ways: fried, sauced, and garlic. Then go for the pa dalk, boneless chicken thighs on top of dressed ribbons of green onions. My favorite location is run by two ladies on the north of the main strip of Hongdae. Go out Hongik University Station, exit 7 (Holiday Inn) and head due south a couple of blocks. It’ll be on your right.

Nureungji Tongdalk 누릉지통닭

A new brand, they don’t do fried. Chicken is spit roasted over wood and served on sizzling platters of crispy rice. We also go to this on the new Authentic Korean Chicken & Beer Experience. The ones near Gongdeok and Sookmyung Women’s University kill.


Since these are franchises, your best bet is to copy and paste the Korean names above into Google Maps, Naver Map, or Kakao Map.

Kimchi Jjigae

Kimchi Jjigae

Okay, you fans of “Always Be My Maybe.” This stew sits on the pantheon of comfort foods, next to macaroni and cheese. It is so perfect on a chilly Seoul night. You want it chock full of tofu and pork. The canned tuna version is also quite good, though I like it better when it’s served at a drinking establishment in a beat-up tin pot.

Where to eat Kimchi Jjigae

Most Korean diners, like Kimbap Cheonguk, will have it on the menu. There are few places that make it the star of their menus, except…

Omori Jjigae 오모리찌개전문점

Go down to Jamsil, across the lake from Lotte World, for this. It’s a chain, but this is the flagship store. Go to the second floor. The first floor is for black bean noodles. Here, you can get 3-year-old Kimchi Jjigae. You’d be surprised at how subtle and smooth it tastes.

Gwanghwamun Jip 광화문집

Tiny, tiny, tiny place near Gyeongbokgung Palace. They have two items, kimchi jjigae and gyeran mari (rolled omelet). Get both.


Gogung Bibimbap

The king of rice bowls. There are many kinds of bibimbap. There’s the dolsot sizzling kind. There’s the fancy Jeonju bibimbap. There’s your basic Korean diner bibimbap served in a plastic bowl with a fried egg.

Contrary to what you may have had outside Korea, it doesn’t always come sizzling, and it doesn’t always come with an egg. There are infinite combinations.

Where to eat Bibimbap

Like Kimchi Jjigae, it’s available in most diners. There is a chain called Bon Bibimbap, the same as Bon Juk. It’s just fine and dandy. But if you want to go for something more serious…

Namsan Mokmyeok Sanbang 남산 목멱산방

Usually bibimbap has each ingredient artfully placed on top of the rice. At Namsan Mokmyeok Sanbang, it’s artfully placed on a separate plate, where you can put it together yourself. There are many varieties of rice bowls there, so go at it.

Jeonju Yuhalmeoni Bibimbap 전주유할머니비빔밥

Respect, respect, respect. Grandmother knows how to make good bibimbap. This place has been around for over 50 years. Simple menu. Get the bibimbap and the Kongnamul Gukbap (Bean Sprout Soup).

Gogung 고궁

I love Gogung (pictured above). The original location is in Jeonju. It’s a case of franchising out and collapsing. It’s hard to find a Gogung in Seoul anymore. Thankfully, there is one in touristy Myeong-dong. This is classic refined royal Jeonju bibimbap served in brass bowls.


Mul Naengmyeon

Chilled. Buckwheat. Noodles. It’s in my top ten of favorite Korean foods. All the chilled buckwheat noodle dishes are. Naengmyeon itself comes from North Korea. The classic Pyongyang style is light with a clean sophisticated broth. Can you believe that before the 20th century, northern Korea was known for more fancy artistocratic cuisine than the south?

Naengmyeon always hits the spot at the end of a barbecue meal, with a few squirts of vinegar and hot mustard from the bottles sitting next to you. That may be why places like Woo Lae Oak are famous for the naengmyeon. Fancy BBQ must follow with refined naengmyeon.

There are usually two types available, noodles in soup (mul naengmyeon), and noodles mixed with a spicy gochujang sauce (bibim naengmyeon). Of course, there are many more varieties, like there are of bibimbap. Baby steps.

Where to eat Naengmyeon

If you’re in Korea for a short while, just order a bowl at the end of your BBQ dinner. The one pictured above was just a W5,000 (~$4.25 USD) lunch special at a little BBQ joint near my regular jogging route. Otherwise, try these places.

Woo Lae Oak 우래옥

Famous, famous place. Almost too famous for being too famous. I like it, but it feels a bit stodgy. It’s where you take your grandma after church. The prices are premium, but it’s worth it for the naengmyeon.

Dongmu Bapsang (Comrade’s Table) 둥무밥상

He used to cook for officers in the North Korean army before defecting to the South. Now his cozy shop serves dishes that he misses from home. Yes, definitely eat the naengmyeon here. Also try the soondae sausages.

Jeongin Myeonok 정인면옥

Watch out for the lunch lines here. It gets crowded. The naengmyeon is great, but it may also be because it’s one of the few good restaurants in Yeouido.

Street Food

When in Asia, tourists want street food. Seoul has good street food, but don’t expect what you’d find in Southeast Asia. Street food in Korea primarily acts as a snack and late night starch filler for an alcohol-laden stomach. Most carts serve the same exact thing. There are variations, but those are in areas that cater to tourists and college students.


Don’t call it “topoki!” That was some hare-brained scheme concocted by a government agency ten years ago. They’re chewy rice cakes in a spicy sauce. I personally think the stuff on the street is sweeter because it’s more suited for kids. Tteokbokki in bricks-and-mortars, like Jaws Food and Mimine (pictured above), tend to be better. Spicier and more savory.


A word about Mimine (MEE-mee-nay). They’re the big yellow building on the main drag in Hongdae. Go to the second floor and order two items: Gukmul Tteokbokki (Soupy Tteokbokki) and Se-u Twigim (Fried Shrimp). They have patents in three countries for their shrimp frying technique. It’s served with three flavored sea salts. What I like to do is dip the shrimp in the spicy soup and then in the salt, chased with a beer.


Fish cakes on sticks soaking in MSG-saturated broth. Just go and grab a stick, brush on a few happy dabs of sauce with the brush Bob Ross style, eat, and pay. The proprietor counts the number of sticks you have left over.

Hot Ba

Or Hot Bar? It’s fish dough shaped into logs on sticks and deep fried like a corn dog. In fact, they come with hot dogs and other ingredients in them. That’s one of my favorite street foods.


Fried stuff. Usually sweet potatoes, shrimp, sesame leaves. It’s like tempura but heavier.


The proper romanization is sundae, but I don’t want you to confuse this with ice cream. They’re blood and glass noodle sausages. The traditional version uses rice instead of noodles, but the street version uses the glass ones, giving them a bouncy texture. It’s served with pig liver and offal. What I like to do is make Kim-Tteok-Soon. Mix the Twigim and Soondae together with Tteokbokki sauce. It’s what Harold and Kumar would crave if they lived in Korea.


Fried dough stuffed with brown sugar, nuts, and other goodies. They are delicious and make great hand warmers. They emerge in high numbers during winter.


Sweet cakes stuffed with sweet red bean or custard. Another great hand warmer and quite good.


Literally, “egg bread.” Sweet pancake batter cooked in a cup like a muffin with an egg cracked inside. Sweet and savory. Protein and carbs. It’s the breakfast you never knew you needed.

Where to eat Seoul Street Food

You can get it most anywhere. Here are some areas that have a unique touch.


It’s one of the few times I’ll say Myeong-dong has better food. The street food scene there is competitive. But Myeong-dong is like Times Square in New York. There are more tourists than locals. It’s here that you’ll find the Frankenstein creations, like lobster with cheese. The Tornado Potato was born here, as well as many street food staples and flashes in the pans.


It’s another touristy area. Here you’ll find the famous Insa-dong Hotteok, which puts a bit of cornmeal in its dough, giving it a super crunchy texture. Other highlights are the fire-grilled chicken on a stick, my beloved egg breads, and Cocktail Guy. We tend to give Cocktail Guy a visit during the Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walks. He makes them cheap and strong. Adult Capri-Suns.


Some weird but delicious ice cream with honeycomb we found in Crazy Street Food Alley

Carts with the basics camp outside Hongik University Station, exit 9. Further down, past the buskers, you can find what I call Crazy Street Food Alley. It’s a series of stalls that are always rotating with new street food ideas. It’s like a market research lab throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.

Noryangjin Cup Rice Road 컵밥거리

Now this is food that is meant to be eaten like a meal. These stands cater to young adults studying for professional exams. The cram schools to help them prepare for these career tests congregate here. Cup Rice Road sprouted as a bunch of carts to feed these poor hungry young professionals-to-be.

Here’s a map of all the places I’ve mentioned.


Dessert! We don’t really have desserts in the Western sense in Korea. We do have this shaved ice treat. The competition each summer with Bingsu makers gets more intense each year.

It’s a war!

The goal is to shave ice so perfect it’s fluffy fresh fallen snow. The ice itself usually comes from frozen milk, but I’ve seen other ice sources, including coffee and makgeolli (Korean rice ale).

Where to eat Patbingsu

The margins make this lucrative, so everyone is trying to get into the game. Most all bakery chains, like Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours, get all into this. Most coffee shops do this. There are some places that specialize in it.

Sulbing 설빙

Sulbing is a franchise that popped up a few years ago. I wondered how risky such a venture would be–as in, who would order bingsu in winter? But they’ve done well. They’re crowded in the summer. Sulbing specializes in Instagrammy bingsu, and that’s a good thing. They’re showstoppers. Don’t worry about how large they are. Remember they’re just shaved ice. When melted the liquid would fit into a grande Starbucks cup. If you’re traveling with kids this is the treat they’ll remember.

Since it’s a franchise, just copy and paste 설빙 into your map app of choice to find your closest location.

Mealtop 밀탑

Odd name. Odd location. It’s hidden on the 5th floor of Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong. Well, not really hidden. It takes up a lot of space. But you have to go up a bunch of escalators to get there. They have a big variety of bingsu. What I like is that the portions or smaller, so you can try different flavors in one go.

But wait… there’s more!

Sign up for our newsletter to find when we post the Intermediate and Advanced guides to the must-eat Korean foods in Seoul.

Seoul food veterans: please leave more restaurant suggestions in the comments. I’m going to tackle more hardcore foods in the next two posts.


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Restaurants in Myeong-dong: A Quick Guide

Where are the good restaurants in Myeong-dong?

Short answer: There aren’t any.

No, that isn’t entirely true. If you’re looking for great food in Myeong-dong be prepared for disappointment.

Here’s why.

A long time ago, Myeong-dong was a great vibrant place for food. Around the mid ’00s, it became a tourist haven. It’s the Times Square of Seoul in the sense that tourists go there and locals avoid it. Just like New York’s Times Square, you’re going to find a lot of corporate franchise restaurants in Myeong-dong catering to tired and clueless tourists. A lot of what made it great is gone. Even the restaurants in Myeong-dong that became famous are just shells of their former selves.

Tip: Never trust lines

Restaurants in Myeong-dong: Isaac Toast
Credit: Emilios Araya

Lines are Velcro in Seoul. People stand in line just because it’s there. I’m not exaggerating this. Lines are not indicative of restaurant quality. They’re signifiers of herd mentality. It’s now common practice for restaurants to hire agencies to get fake customers to stand in line to create fake buzz.

That line outside Isaac Toast and Myeongdong Gyoza? Be skeptical. Myeongdong Gyoza is famous for just being famous. Harsh one-dimensional kimchi. Gristly meat. There are much better places out there, like Bukchon Son Mandu. Isaac Toast is a grilled sandwich that we only got when there was nothing else available. It’s last resort food–unless you like cheap egg and cheese sandwiches with sweet candied sauces.

What are Good Restaurants in Myeong-dong?

There are a few good places that can still handle the spiked rents. Plus, there is also…

Street Food

Restaurants in Myeongdong: Street Food
Credit: MrDannyx69

Myeong-dong’s street food caters to the tourism crowd. It’s also a place where the weirder inventions debut, like lobster with cheese.

Andong Jjimdalk

This is a franchise, but this is one of the better iterations of it. Jjimdalk is braised garlicky sweet chicken. It’s a rich hearty dish that is best eaten in cooler weather. It doesn’t cater well to single diners. You need to come with company to gorge on these huge plates of sticky sauce laden poultry.

Myeongdong Pizza

Restaurants in Myeong-dong: Myeongdong Pizzeria

Whenever I’m in Myeongdong, I go here for lunch. The original chef, and now consulting chef, Eddie Ahn, trained in Italy. There’s no sugar-coated garlic bread here (a longstanding aberration in many Korean Italian places). It’s by far the best Italian restaurant in Myeong-dong.

Myeongdong Haidilao (하이디라오)

Restaurants in Myeong-dong: Myeongdong Haidilao (하이디라오)
Credit: Woongkyo Kim

The Chinese embassy is close by, so there is good Chinese food to be had, if you know where to go. Myeongdong Haidilao is a hot pot franchise from China. It’s English friendly and has a sauce bar.

Yes, a sauce bar.

Go for the spicy Sichuan broth.

Two-Two Chicken

Restaurants in Myeong-dong: Two-Two Chicken

There is a chicken alley, but Two-Two is still the best. It’s not a mainstream place with K-Pop idols advertising its product. It’s the place your grumpy uncle and cackling auntie hang out for a quiet time, away from the selfie-taking youngsters. It serves what I call ’90s-style Korean fried chicken. It’s fried twice (“Two-Two”) and has an aromatic five spice aura. The coating is thin. More modern chicken hofs, which I think are fine, lean more to American style fried chicken. Two-Two embraces its Koreanness.

If you want to have a truly insider’s take on Korea’s chicken culture, join the Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl.


Restaurants in Myeong-dong: Hemlagat

A little bit of a walk from the crowds and make-up shops, I just have to add Hemlagat here. It’s the only Swedish restaurant in Seoul outside IKEA, and they’re good.

Lotte Department Store Basement

I do recommend department store basements for food journeys. Just sampling anything that’s interesting. Great place for foodie souvenirs. The stalls are constantly changing, so it’s pointless to try to list anything here. Just go check it out. If you’re with a group of choosy eaters, and you can’t escape them for your sanity, you’ll likely find something to satisfy everyone here.

Is there more?

That’s generally what you’ll find in Myeong-dong. A lot of the good Korean restaurants are gone. If you want Korean BBQ and a true immersive experience, try the Ultimate Korean BBQ Night Out. Or download the ZenKimchi app for Android and iPhone. Restaurant Buzz Seoul is also a good resource.

Please add your favorite Myeong-dong restaurants in the comments.

Korea's top ghost tour

Top Things To Do In Seoul: Palaces

The Short and Blunt Guide to Seoul’s Palaces

Palaces are one of the top things to do in Seoul. If you’re coming to Seoul for a short time just go to one palace.


From my own experience and from talking to guests on our tours, once you’ve seen one Seoul palace, you’ve seen them all. But you should AT LEAST see one.

The only exception is if you’re really into Korea’s palaces or if you are killing time.

I know that tourism, historical, and nationalist partisans will chastise me. But this guide is for you. Not for them. Actual tourists have given me their opinions.

Quick Summary of Seoul Palaces

Seoul has a total of five major palaces. Seoul has rebuilt/restored them in recent times. Seoul’s history obliterated things. Fires. Invasions. More fires. Uprisings. Colonial occupation. Did I mention fires? Civil war. Modernization. If you want to see great royal structures that never were rebuilt, head to Gyeongju, where you can look at a giant field and imagine what used to be there.

When the Japanese took over, they did a lot of symbolically nasty things. They constructed a road between an ancestral shrine and one of the palaces to cut the royal family off from their ancestors. They erected the governor general’s office in the middle of the main palace while also moving the gate a few meters to the east to kill the feng shui. They established a zoo and a greenhouse in one. Supposedly that sullied the palace. Some of these structures still exist. A lot of the palatial restoration efforts since the 1990s have attempted to undo what the Japanese undid.

Don’t expect much information about the history of the palaces beyond, “This was built. Then it was burned down. Then it was rebuilt. Then it was burned down. Then rebuilt.”

If you get the right tour guide, you can learn a lot. But the written info the government puts out is extremely frustrating. Expect to see a lot of “UNESCO World Heritage Site #24601” and plaques detailing how many meters wide and tall structures are. All this information is technically correct–AND EXTREMELY DULL!

Useful Info for Seoul Palaces


  • Gyeongbokgung – Tuesdays
  • Changdeokgung – Mondays
  • Changgyonggung – Mondays
  • Deoksugung – Mondays
  • Gyeonghuigung – Mondays, New Year’s Day

Admission to the palaces go from cheap to free.

If you wear a hanbok (traditional costume) you can enter for free. Rental places are all over. It’s up to you if you want to spend W15,000 to save on a W3,000 ticket. I do see some cool hanbok out there these days.

Seoul Palaces: Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung: The Big One

This is the main palace and the largest one.


  • Gyeonghoeru – It’s an open air banquet hall jutting into a pond. Great to look at. You have to reserve a special tour to go inside.
  • Hyangwonjeong Pavilion – Towards the back, this is a nice peaceful repose. Built by Korea’s last king, Gojong, to separate himself from his asshole father. The amazing Empress Myeongseong/Queen Min, who you could say was Cersei Lannister/Little Finger (in a good way) of the final days of the Joseon Period, met her fate by Japanese assassins in this area. Sorry to disappoint, but no ninjas participated.
  • National Folk Museum – That’s the multi-layered pagoda looking building towards the back. Korea is crazy about museums, and this is a good one.
  • 1970s Village – Next to the Folk Museum is a reconstruction of a Korean village from the 1970s. It’s meant for elementary school field trips, but it’s charming to walk through. The movie theater plasters Korean posters for Superman II and Star Wars. The old fashioned coffee shop (dabang) operates a working coffee vending machine.
  • Royal Guard Changing Ceremony – One of two palaces that does this. 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. except Monday.

Shh… Don’t Tell…

According to local historians, if you look closely at some parts of the eastern wall, you can find bullet marks from the Korean War. If the Seoul government finds out, I’d bet they’d remove them.

Seoul Palaces: Changdeokgung Palace
Credit: KoreaNet on Flickr (cc)

Changdeokgung: The Pretty One

For most, it’s a toss-up between this one and The Big One. It has the famous Secret Garden. You have to register to get a tour of it. But hey, even when it was an active palace, most officials couldn’t venture inside the garden without the king’s permission. If you truly want to explore the palace on your own, pay a little extra for admission between April and October.

I do like how the buildings integrate with the landscape. To me, that’s how Korean traditional philosophy differentiates itself from traditional Japanese concepts. Japanese arts control nature to reach some imagined ideal: Zen gardens, bonsai trees. Korean aesthetic adapts to nature. A typical Korean bench looks like the tree it came from. A Korean garden is basically “plant it and forget it.”


  • The Garden – It is quite nice. Best to go during a less crowded time because crowds and gardens go together like wasabi and peanut butter (as in, they don’t).
  • The Jade Stream – I think this is cool. During parties, they’d float wine cups on the stream, so you can just laze about and, “Ooh, some wine!”
    One party game was to write a line of a poem, float it down the stream, and have someone else add to that poem, and continue on down.
  • The garage with the royal Daimler and the royal Cadillac.

Cool Tip

The Moonlight Tour. Yes, you can register to see the gardens at night. Tickets go fast. More info here.

Seoul Palaces: Changgyeonggung Palace
An actual photo I took of Changgyeonggung’s pond(s) in 2004 with a disposable film camera

Changgyeonggung: The Quirky One

I have a special place in my heart for Changgyeonggung. Besides being the palace with the most egregious use of the letter G in its Romanization, it has some quirky charms. For one thing, it’s greener. There’s more grass and less gravel. It’s relaxing. It’s not as crowded. It was the first palace I ever visited.

This is one of the palaces the Japanese tried to sully by installing a zoo, botanical gardens, and a greenhouse. The zoo is gone–well, it moved to Seoul Grand Park. The greenhouse still remains. It’s a conglomeration of Korean and Japanese gardens.


  • The Greenhouse – It’s a classic Victorian iron-wrought greenhouse. Kinda reminds me of The Crystal Palace. It still displays exotic plants.
  • Chundangji Pond – Half the pond used to be a personal rice field that the king tended. The garden in the middle is a classic “plant it and forget it” Korean garden. Every plant has a purpose and then left to its own path.

Dark Secrets

Prince Sado’s father locked him in a rice chest in the palace, where he died after eight days from starvation. The queen kept it a secret until the king died.

Another story takes place near Tongmyeongjeon, the queen’s quarters. One of King Sukjeong’s concubines, Jeong Ok-jeong/Jang Hui-bin, who got promoted and demoted as Queen Inhyeon was banished and then returned, supposedly cursed the queen by burying a doll bearing her likeness with dead animals. The queen soon died of disease. She, family members, and other assumed co-conspirators were forced to drink poison.

Jongmyo Shrine

This was part of the palace but a Japanese-built road bisected it. The buildings are mostly closed to the public except on the first Sunday in May, which is a ceremony honoring the royal heritage. The grounds around the shrine are worth it if you want to stroll in a nice wooded park in the middle of the city. If time crunches, you can skip it.

Seoul Palaces: Deoksugung Palace
Credit: KoreaNet on Flickr (cc)

Deoksugung: The Modern One

After Empress Myeongseong’s assassination in 1895, King Gojong moved here. This is where the Joseon Dynasty and the Great Daehan Empire lived its final days. The area surrounding it, Jeong-dong, was one of the first areas westerners settled in Seoul in the late 1800s. You can see the architecture looks more like Colonial Virginia than Joseon-era Korea.

The buildings here are more western, as Gojong was trying frantically to make Korea look like a modern state to give it respect and to stave off Japanese overtures to take it over. Five hundred years–one of the world’s longest lived dynasties–ended here.


  • Seokjojeon Hall – Part of the Royal Museum and also an example of western style architecture towards the end of the Joseon Period. Even though it’s supposed to look Colonial American, the construction had Korean, Russian, Japanese, and British supervisors.
  • Jeonggwanheon Pavilion – Built by a Russian architect, I heard King Gojong indulged his love for coffee in this place.
  • Really, the juxtaposition of different architectural styles.
  • Changing of the Royal Guard – It happens here too. 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. except Mondays and when it snows, rains, gets too hot, or gets too cold. Yeah, I know–reliable guards, huh?
  • Jeong-dong Culture Night – Every now and then this night festival pops up outside the southern wall, highlighting life in turn-of-the-20th-century Seoul. The website is here.

Secrets of the palace

Foreign embassies occupied much of the original palace land. It used to reach all the way to Gyeonghuigung Palace. The area around the palace has a lot of little tales.

  • The walls – Any couple who walks along the walls of Deoksugung will break up. That’s what they say, at least. One reason could be the ghosts of the palace servants, who were all women and weren’t allowed to marry. They don’t like to see happy couples. The other more practical reason was that the divorce court used to be down the road.
  • 500–year-old tree – In front of the Canadian Embassy is a tree. A very old one. The story goes that in the 1990s, some local workers started cutting down this tree. Embassy workers went out to stop them. They were able to lobby the Canadian government to get money to buy the land around the tree to preserve it. They later found out that the tree is over 500 years old.
  • Habib House – You can’t enter this. It’s the American ambassador’s residence. It’s also the most haunted house in Seoul. It sits atop the burial site of hundreds of executed criminals and people who ended up on the losing sides of uprisings.
  • Salvation Army buildings – Nothing special about the buildings per se. Just a little trivia–The first group to come to Seoul from the Salvation Army all died within a year from various causes.

Seoul Palaces: Gyeonghuigung Palace

Gyeonghuigung Palace: The Forgotten One

You could also call it “The Cursed One.” It’s the most haunted palace in Korea. Built by a mad king. Violates the rules for where to align everything. Built in front of a cursed rock with the mountain backdrop being the same mountain that’s the center of Korean shamanism.

In reality, the Japanese pretty much demolished it and used it as a school ground. It was then the location of a Seoul school. The original gate moved to the Chinese Embassy and now sits at the Shilla Hotel. Another of the royal buildings resides at Dongguk University. When you look at a tourist map of Seoul, you’ll see pictures illustrating the location of the other four palaces. Gyeonghuigung is a red dot.


  • It’s free.

The Lowdown and a Secret

Really, many Seoulites forget this palace even exists. The only reason you’d go there is if you’re also visiting the Seoul Museum of History, which is an amazing museum in my opinion. Great if you’re a fan of SimCity and how cities develop.

Between the palace and the museum, next to the parking lot, is an indistinct concrete structure that looks like it’s jutting into the mountain. That’s actually a Japanese bunker from World War II. There is nothing there to signify it, and today it’s basically a storage shed.

The only big event that has happened here and may happen regularly is the recreation of the national civil service examination–The Gwageo. Cool if you want to see people in costume writing on a stone floor. About as exciting as watching the SATs.

What IS cool about Gyeonghuigung is its forgottenness. No one goes there, especially at night. Don’t have a raucous party, but a few times I’ve sat on the steps with friends and enjoyed a few beers with a nice view of N Seoul Tower. It’s the only palace unlit at night and an eerie pocket of peace.

Want To Know More?

There are a lot of websites with more details than this. Detail is not the purpose of this post. Your time is precious.

Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walk

If you do want to know more, The Dark Side of Seoul Tour talks a great deal about these palaces, and you get to see the outsides of three of the five. It’s a good way to get intimate with this ancient modern city. You can sign up here.

David Mason Private Tour of Seoul

For the serious history buffs, David Mason is the man to go to. You can hire him to be your personal tour guide. He’d also say that most of what I posted here was crap.

Travel Blogger or Media Coming to Korea? We Can Help.

I have seen so many mediocre write ups in media about Korea, particularly Seoul. Articles feature spots that aren’t that impressive. They promote plastic-sheened artificially manufactured tourist zones. The foods they feature create eyerolls to people who actually live here.

Not only have I noticed this. I regularly talk to travelers who were disappointed in their travels to Seoul, following some itinerary from a few blogs they read.

Don’t let that be you.

Before you plan too much, or even if you find yourself coming here on a whim, CONTACT US.


If you’re in the travel or food media, we can set you up on one of our tours at a media discount or even for free on some of them. But on top of this, we can help you find the unique places that will make your piece stand out. No tourism agency pabulum. None of the same old articles about the same old places.

You’re a traveler. Not a tourist.

The one mistake travelers on our tours and travel writers tell me they made, they told me, was not contacting us early on. We would have saved them a lot of trouble.

Our team has the experience.

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We can help in many ways. If it’s a larger project, of course we’d ask for a professional commission. But just even coming along with us on one of our tours, we’ll give you the lowdown of what to do and what not to do in Korea.