'I just came back from Seoul and it's the budget-friendly destination you didn't know you needed.'

I've had some truly spectacular travel experiences, but spending five days in South Korea's capital Seoul might be the most magical all-round destination I've had the pleasure of visiting.

From the food to the nature to the incredible mashup of history and extreme modernity, it ticked every box I could possibly want. And basically, I need to yell at you about how great it is. Welcome to that!

If you are looking for a unique holiday experience, but also don't want to break the bank, Seoul should be added to your list immediately. The city offers an absurd amount of cheap or even free experiences, eating out is affordable, and you can waste entire days just wandering around, exploring the many hidden side streets, climbing its peaks and soaking up the city atmosphere.

It's surprisingly easy to get there too, which is obviously a HUGE bonus. Jetstar recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its three-weekly direct flights from Sydney, announcing that a fourth weekly service and flights direct from Brisbane will begin in February 2024.

Here are my top recs.

Rent Hanboks at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

The history of Gyeongbokgung Palace, in northern Seoul, is really interesting. It was built in 1395 by Korea's Joseon dynasty and served as the home of the royal family and the seat of government, until a fire destroyed it 200 years later. It was restored in the 19th century, but then mostly destroyed again under Japanese colonialism before restoration began once again in the '90s.


These days, it is also a top tourist destination. My favourite part was wandering further into the grounds to see Seoul's mountainous landscape as a backdrop.

As you get close to the palace, you'll start to notice dozens of people walking around in Hanbok – traditional Korean clothing – and probably also notice how GREAT they look. Hanbok are so cute.

Image: Supplied.


Surrounding the palace are many Hanbok rental companies where you can choose your outfit, accessories and even have your hair done in traditional styles. My group visited Seohwa Hanbok, only a minute or two walk from the palace's main entrance, Gwanghwamun Gate.

Not only will you get some epic photos, but even better: wearing Hanbok gets you free entry to wander around the Palace. A double win.

Get lost (and eat) at Gwangjang Market.

Okay, you're here for the food content, aren't you? I've got you.

Image: Supplied.


Gwangjang Market is one of Seoul's oldest traditional markets. And it's big. No seriously, it apparently houses more than 5000 shops and is visited by 65,000 people a day. That's pretty mind-blowing.

Your best approach is just to ride the mayhem. Take cash, and then try anything and everything that takes your fancy –but especially the market's specialty mung bean pancakes.

I also recommend seeking out Cho Yonsoon's Kalguksi knife-cut noodle stall. It is famous thanks to the Netflix series Street Food: Asia and is INCREDIBLE.

Visit the Starfield Library (and the Gangnam Style statue).

This is the most aesthetically pleasing library you ever will see. 

And to be honest, it's also pretty fun watching people staging full photoshoots of themselves reading (or "reading") the books.

Starfield Library, left, and op op op op oppa Gangnam style, right. Image: Supplied.


Starfield Library is located in Gangnam, which, yes, is the district referenced by Psy in his iconic hit. Speaking of Psy, it's pretty novel to visit the 'Gangnam Style' hands statue, which are in the shape of the iconic pony dance made famous in his music video.

There's even a button you can push to play the song while you take pics, and NO, you are not above doing the 'Gangnam Style' dance over 10 years too late.

Visit a Korean barbecue.

I can't give you any specific recommendations, because there are simply so many. And they're all DELICIOUS.

The best meal I had during my time in Seoul was from a Korean barbecue restaurant that my group just stumbled upon while exploring the alleyways of Insa-dong.

I mean, COME ON:


Drooling. Image: Supplied.

Make sure you order a Soju to accompany your meal.

Hike up to N Seoul Tower.

My must-do in any city I go to is to figure out where its high points are and to make sure I drag myself up one of them. There's nothing cooler to me than seeing a city from above.

N Seoul Tower, located on Nam Mountain in central Seoul, is a key part of the Seoul skyline. It's visible from so, so many parts of the city, so hiking up to the top (it's not super-strenuous, I promise) offers a 360 degree look.


There, you'll realise that Seoul is incredibly beautiful. The city's geography is dominated by mountains, contrasted by the modern skyscrapers and towers that form a ring around each peak. And it's really quite mind-blowing to realise just how big the city is.

Two of the 40,000 views from N Seoul Tower. Image: Supplied.


If you aren't down to walk, there are also bus options and a gondola.

Go on a DMZ tour.

This was my absolute top Seoul to-do before arriving and it remains that after leaving. What a surreal experience.

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a border barrier between North and South Korea. You have to visit as part of a tour, but it's 100 per cent worth it (just don't forget your passport!). Visiting with our South Korean tour guide Grace Cho, who was a fountain of knowledge about the area's history, was so valuable.

Most tours will have a few different stops, including the Dora Observatory, where you will be able to see over to North Korea and (through binoculars) may even spot North Korean soldiers and farmers. I saw people harvesting with tractors and a motorbike, as well as a completely artificial village North Korea built for propaganda, and Korean sign on the side of a hill that brags that North Korea is the best nation. I'm not even kidding.

That! Is! North! Korea! Image: Supplied.


Afterwards, you can walk down a steep incline into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four known tunnels under the border that North Korea designed for a surprise attack on Seoul.

And finally, you can stop in a local village for ice-cream flavoured with the DMZ's specialty product: soybean.

It's one of the most fascinating things I've ever done.

Take a day trip to Nami Island.

If you're interested in getting out of the city and enjoy a bit of nature, Nami Island is a perfect option.

It's a small island in the north of the Han River with entry at around AU$19 for a standard adult, and it's simply stunning.

If you're game, you can even zipline in (it's HIGH but god, it's fun!), but otherwise there are ferries that can take you to and from the island in a matter of minutes.


The autumnal colours of Nami Island were particularly pretty. Image: Supplied.

You can hire a bike and cycle around, or just walk around the many different tracks. For the kids, there are playgrounds and even emus to feed, and there are quite a few different restaurants to choose from for lunch. For more of a splurge, the island's only accommodation is at Hotel Jeonggwanru, which has bungalows right on the riverside.


Bukchon Hanok Village.

Another totally free activity not too far from Gyeongbokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village is a residential area that contains many restored traditional Korean houses called Hanok. 

For this reason, and because it also offers incredible views down towards a much more modern Seoul, it's become one of the city's most popular tourist spots.

Image: Supplied.


My advice: prepare for crowds, because it gets very busy, and make sure you walk a few streets into the village – that's where the best views are. Oh, and of course, be respectful because people actually live there.

Skincare shopping in Myeong-dong.

Myeong-dong is a shopping area packed with all types of stores, from international brands to department stores to, most importantly, dozens and dozens of Korean skincare shops.

I cannot tell you how many hours I spent going wide-eyed from store to store, soaking in all the K-beauty goodness. 

I recommend downloading Google Translate and using the camera option on the reg so you know what all the beautiful, bright and juicy items actually are, and then, well... I guess it's just about trying not to go too crazy.

There are also plenty of eateries around Myeong-dong, and a night market brings the streets even more to life each evening, so really, you could enjoy a whole day in the district.

Image: Supplied.


I realised in my time there that Seoul can also offer you pretty much anything else you're after too.

Spa day? Yep. Luxury shopping? I got genuinely lost after stumbling into the biggest luxury mall I'd ever seen. Non-luxury shopping? Yeah, same. A K-Pop fan in need of as much BTS merch you can possibly get your hands on? Oh, trust me, you'll THRIVE.

Happy travels.

Mamamia travelled as a guest of Jetstar Airways. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.

Feature Image: Supplied @chelseamclaughlin_.

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