South Korea has become somewhat of a rising star in the tourism scene in recent years owing in part to the proliferation of Korean TV shows and pop music. The cities of Seoul and Busan undoubtedly appeal to folks who like seeing pretty and cute things and it’s probably not surprising that the visitor demographics here dis-proportionally lean towards females. If you are thinking of visiting South Korea and would like to have a practical itinerary to cover both Seoul and Busan, allot at least 5 or 6 days. If you are also visiting Jeju, you’ll need to add 2 or 3 more.
The two major cities of Seoul and Busan are the most intuitive places to explore during a trip to South Korea – Seoul for its cosmopolitan vibe and traditional culture and Busan for its seaside chic. This travel guide aims to show you how these cities can be done in as little as a week.
Day 1 – Seoul City Center
Tip: Google Maps does not work well in South Korea especially in navigating walking directions and public transport route. Instead, download Naver Maps which even shows you the bus timings and fares. This is especially helpful since most of the public buses around South Korea don’t come with English signs.
If this is your first time in Seoul, start the day with a tour of the palaces. Seoul has 5 palaces but the ones really worth exploring are Changdeokgung, Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugong.
A recommended path to take is one that starts at Gyeongbokgung. If you visit wearing a hanbok (Korea’s traditional costume – you can check out here for hanbok rentals), the admission fee is waived. While here, make sure to go to the far back where the pavilion is located. Many visitors miss it due to the distance but it is well worth a photo stop especially during autumn when the surrounding foliage turn bright red and yellow. From here, you can make an exit at the side gate and walk around ten minutes to reach Bukchon Hanok Village. Back in the day, almost the entirety of Seoul was made up of these traditional single-storey housing. Nowadays, you can only find them in small pockets with the main area being here. It’s a nice place for a stroll especially if you come here with a rented hanbok.
One of the highly recommended places for lunch nearby is the Michelin-starred Keunkiwajip (62 Bukchon-ro 5 Gil, Open daily 11AM to 3:30PM, 5PM to 10PM) for its marinated raw crab. This place is usually very busy and my recommendation is to come here early otherwise it may take you around 30 minutes to get a table.
After lunch, head to Changdeokgung, the largest of Seoul’s five palaces. The highlight here is the sublime secret garden – another popular autumn viewing spot. Alternatively, you can also check out Deoksugung which is near Seoul’s city hall. Make sure to drop by Jeongdong Observatory (free, 9AM to 9PM during weekdays, until 6PM during weekends) for a nice bird’s eye view of the city – with both traditional and modern buildings complimenting that view.
Devote the evenings for shopping. Many of Seoul’s shopping districts are open relatively late especially during weekends. Popular night haunts include Myeongdong with its range of street fashion and toiletries, Hongdae with its youth-oriented clothing brands as well as Dongdaemun for wholesale/bazaar-type apparel stores that open until way past midnight.
If you do decide to go to Dongdaemun, a stop right by the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a must. Tours of the interiors are offered but the place is just as worth visiting for its imposing steel exterior. It is especially atmospheric at night when the structure is floodlit and the grass fields adjacent to it have these electronic flowers that are also lit up.
Day 2 – Southern Seoul & Gangnam
Tip: If you plan to visit multiple palaces, museums and the N Seoul Tower, you may wish to consider getting the Discover Seoul Pass. In total, there are 36 attractions that you can visit free of charge. You can buy here for a 15% discount.
Start the day at Seoul’s upscale Gangnam – a district filled with high-end boutiques, plastic surgery clinics and well-heeled city folk. It is known in some circles as the Beverly Hills of South Korea. A popular cafe to check out in this area is Cafe 89 Mansion (25 Apgujeong-ro 4-gil, Open from 11AM to 4PM, 5PM to 10PM daily). The venue is owned by Lee Jong Suk, a Korean celebrity and the high-end decor inside reflects the cafe’s trendy clientele.
From the cafe, Garosugil is just a short walk away. The shopping street is filled with plenty of luxury brands as well as big-name stores such as a dedicated Apple Store and more. The street is especially attractive in autumn when the gingko trees by the pavements turn yellow.
After having your fill at Garosugil, head further east to Galleria, a luxury shopping mall in Gangnam. The highlight here is the basement deli and food court which is filled with plenty of traditional Korean eats. The place is a well-curated affair with many of Korea’s best independent snacks / food places brought together. Even the food court here is recommended for its kimchi soup, bibimbap as well as seafood stews.
After a short lunch at Galleria, head to Starfield Library (free, open daily from 10AM to 10PM) at Starfield Coex Mall. The venue is known for its humongous 2-storey tall bookshelf which has been featured aplenty in social media. There are over 50,000 books and magazines here but I doubt if most people who come here are actually bookworms.
If you have time to head to just one cafe during your time in Seoul, let that place be Cafe Onion. Housed in a seemingly rundown industrial building, the place has attracted visitors from far and wide for its instagram-worthy aesthetic and delicious pastries. While here, don’t miss the Pandoro, a towering Italian bread filled with powdered sugar.
Late afternoon is a great time to check out Namsan Seoul Tower. Located in a forested area in the middle of the city, it’s a great place from where you can appreciate Seoul’s skyline. If you are wondering if it’s worth going up the tower versus just appreciating the view from the parking lot, my take is yes – the higher view is certainly much more photogenic. During spring and autumn, the higher view also allows you to appreciate the colorful foliage around Namsan itself. The admission fee to the tower is 10,000 Won but you can get a 30% discount by booking here.
Day 3 – Excursions From Seoul / Seoul’s Neighborhoods
If you are thinking of visiting Nami Island, allot a full day for the excursion. You can choose to do it yourself but for convenience, you may want to take a direct bus which can either do Nami Island as a standalone experience or as a trip that is combined with Petite France. They will also handle the day’s itinerary for you. Whichever option you choose, you’ll find that taking a shuttle bus there is indeed a lot easier than the DIY route.
If a day trip to Nami Island does not appeal, you can also venture to some of Seoul’s other interesting neighborhoods. Here’s a rundown of districts worth checking out:
- Buam-dong – Still relatively unexplored by foreign visitors but Buam-dong is quickly gaining ground for its art and design hubs and independent cafes interspersed with natural areas. Highlights here include Changuimun (the original city gate), the cafes Club Espresso and Lumberjack as well as Whanki and Seoul Museums. Nearest metro: Jahamun-gogae
- Seochon – Personally, my favorite among Seoul’s less known districts, Seochon was where the nobles used to live back in the Joseon Dynasty. You will find a lot of clothing boutiques here as well as the Sejong Village Food Street but the real gem is the Suseong-dong Valley where locals typically go for nature walks. Nearest metro: Gyeongbokgung
- Itaewon – A very foreign-centric district as American soldiers typically come here during their leisure time. Today, it’s home to plenty of international restaurants, cafes and boutiques.
Day 4 – Busan
Take a morning train ride to Busan – South Korea’s second largest city. Depending on which train you take, the overall journey ride will require 2.25 to 2.50 hours so it’s definitely possible to do Busan as a day trip if you’re pressed for time, albeit a rushed one.
Many of Busan’s main tourist attractions are located not too far from Busan Station (where trains from Seoul stop). A few blocks south is 40 Steps, a 450 meter street lined with statues and other photo opps, including a 40-step stairway. The area has been refurbished recently and is supposed to reflect life in Korea in the 1950s and 1960s.
From here, Jagalchi Market (nearest metro: Jagalchi Station) is a short hop away. The thought of eating freshly cut octopus with their tentacles still wriggling probably stands as one of the most iconic travel images concerning South Korea and that is exactly what this bustling seafood market is known for. Less adventurous eaters have other options as well. There’s a wide array of fish, crab and other shellfish available which can be chosen for cooking and served to be eaten at the dining tables upstairs.
Next up on one’s Busan checklist is Gamcheon Culture Village. Some call it Korea’s Santorini which I think is a bit of a stretch. It shares more similarities with the blue city of Jodhpur however as many of the houses are painted in similar shades of light blue. You can spend around 1 to 2 hours here depending on interest level. You’ll find shops and murals scattered around the village as well as cafes and museums. There is also an elevated view point here which is a popular spot for wedding shoots and panoramic photos of the village.
If you are in Busan only for a day trip, you can end here and return to Seoul. Otherwise, head to the below.
Day 5 – Busan Outskirts
If you are up for some hiking, check out Seokbulsa Temple located around Geumjeongsan, a mountain range not far from the city center. If you are coming as a group, it might make sense to take a taxi up and ask the driver to wait for you. Admission to the temple grounds is free of charge and visitors come here for the Buddha niches carved on the rocks. It is not considered a major temple in Korea but I have to say these carvings are among the most impressive I’ve seen in the country.
Tip: Within the general vicinity of Haeundae is Dalmaji-gil which has plenty of art galleries, cafes and restaurants. If you are in Busan during the weekend, check out the Dalmaji Art Flea Market from 2PM to 9PM. You can find handicrafts, teapots, bags and other creations by local artists.
After a morning hike, it’s time to cool off by the coast. Busan’s appeal to Koreans lies in its relatively milder weather and beaches. If you are in Busan during the summer months, you might find Haeundae Beach (nearest metro: Haeundae Station) relatively packed with weekenders from Seoul. While it’s definitely a popular tourist spot in Busan, I would not say Haeundae Beach is a must-see especially if you come from a tropical country. If you are in the area, I would instead suggest checking out Busan Cinema Center (nearest metro: Centum City Station) with its metallic exterior and wave-like roof and mini-light show. It is an especially wonderful spectacle at night.
Another place to visit in the eastern part of the city is the Yonggungsa Temple. While Korea has no shortage of temples, what makes this place stand out is its scenic seaside location. The temple is literally perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the coast which makes it one of Busan’s most photogenic spots. To get here, take the metro to Haeundae Station then transfer to bus 181.
Day 6 – Gyeongju
Another reason to visit Busan is that it serves as an excellent base from which to explore Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town has a plethora of historical sites that can easily take up one whole day of exploring. Highlights in Gyeongju include:
- Bulguksa Temple – Considered one of the main temples of Korea, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist Art. The Dabotap pagoda which is found in the temple grounds is featured in the 10 Won coin.
- Seokguram Grotto – Probably the closest Korea has to an “Indiana Jones” type of archeological site, visitors go inside a cavern to witness a large stone sculpture of the Buddha. Of all the places in Gyeongju, it is probably the Seokgruam Grotto that impressed me the most. It’s too bad photography is not allowed inside.
- Cheomseongdae Observatory – An ancient astronomical observatory built during the Silla period in the 7th century.
- Tumuli Park – A large area filled with mounds representing the tombs of the former kings of the Silla period. This was how Korea’s royalty was buried back in the day and you can find other burial mounds scattered all over Korea (including North Korea).
- Anapji Pond (Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond) – Particularly photogenic when visited in the evening while the structures are floodlit, today Anapji Pond exists in a garden-like state with cherry blossoms in the spring and pavilions that are immaculately reflected by the still waters from the pond.
To get to Gyeongju from Busan, you can either take the bus (around a 40 minutes ride) from the bus terminal or alternatively, you can book a guided day tour to Gyeongju that takes you through the tourist attractions listed above.
Getting to Seoul From Incheon International Airport
The Airport Express (AREX) train is my preferred way of getting from Incheon International Airport to the city as it’s relatively fast, inexpensive and there are frequent departures. Do note that if you are flying with Korean Air, you get a discount on train tickets so it’s wise to keep your boarding pass. Alternatively, you can also book online here to get a 25% discount for the AREX ticket to Seoul.
Another way to get to the city is by one of the airport buses which take almost 1.5 hours but the plus point is that it drops you off at varying locations around Seoul. If your hotel is near one of the airport bus stations, then it may make better sense to travel by bus.
Getting to Busan From Incheon International Airport
There used to be a direct KORAIL train from Incheon International Airport to Busan but it has been discontinued. If you can’t fly in/out of Busan to your home city directly, your best bet is to take the AREX to Seoul Station (~ 1 hour) then take a direct train from Seoul Station to Busan Station (~2.5 hours).
Where to Stay in Seoul and Busan
Seoul – I can’t recommend mid-priced Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun enough especially if the primary reason of your visit is sightseeing. The hotel is within walking distance to Gyeongbokgung and Bukchon Hanok Village. I absolutely loved being able to conveniently return to the hotel in the afternoons for some siesta time as I took breaks between sightseeing. Rooms are of modest size with understated chic decor, taking inspiration from the iconic The Shilla Hotel. You can also check the best prices for other Seoul hotels here.
Busan – The southern city is generally considered by locals as a resort destination and that is likewise apt for visitors in order to serve as a bit of contrast to the hustle and bustle of Seoul. While in Busan, I recommend the highly instagrammable Hilton Busan located in the city outskirts. The curve-y interiors reflect the seaside location of the hotel. Just a word to note – you might get too comfortable here that you wouldn’t want to leave the hotel anymore. You can also check the best prices for other hotels in Busan here.