Frugal Five-Day Itinerary in Seoul, South Korea
South Korea is off the typical backpacker trail for one big reason: it’s too expensive compared to all the other countries in the region (barring Japan and Singapore). According to government statistics, only 12 percent of tourists hail from the Americas or Europe, with almost half of all visitors coming from nearby China. Price conscious visitors are keen to avoid the country because with all its comforts and infrastructure, things can easily become quite pricey. That’s what concerned my brother and I when planning our four-night trip to Seoul.
Mark, who flew in from China, and myself coming from Cambodia, had lots of things we wanted to see and do in Seoul without spending too much money. Mercifully, being frugal yet comfortable wasn’t too difficult. With four nights in the city, we managed to see everything we wanted to while spending about $125 a day between the two of us. It can’t beat the prices of Southeast Asia, but it’d be a shame to miss the city just because of perceived price concerns.
- Overnighter in a spa
- The passionate crowd at the baseball game
- Climbing Mt. Bukhansan
- The garden area of Changdeok Palace
- Korean BBQ with ample soju
I landed at Incheon International Airport just after dawn and Mark met me at the airport. It was a cold and dreary morning as we took the commuter train into Seoul. We dropped our bags at the excellent Daehakro 24 Guesthouse ($60 a night for a comfy room with bunk beds) in the trendy theater district and a short walk to the Hyewha subway.
We took the subway to the massive Gyeongbokgung palace, which also houses the National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum. A simplistic description would be to call it similar to Beijing’s Forbidden Palace due to the size of the grounds, but the place is actually a work in progress. Most of the palace was destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century, so rebuilding is an ongoing process. The main area has been beautifully restored and is quite a sight with mountains in the background and cherry blossoms throughout the area.
A short walk away is the Changdeok Palace. It’s not nearly as grand as Gyeongbokgung, but the secret gardens make it a must-see. The garden area costs extra and can only be seen on a tour. We joined a Chinese group and my brother translated some of the information. We didn’t pay too much attention, as the beautiful scenery coupled with ancient buildings were impressive. As exhausted as I was after landing just a few hours earlier, I was completely motivated to see everything while strolling through the forested path.
Later in the afternoon, my energy faded once again and we had a big spicy noodle concoction at the Crazydduk chain for $16 total near our hostel. After, we crashed for a nap. After barely managing to wake up again, an exchange student my brother met at his university in the U.S. joined us for some fried food and beer. We didn’t stay out late, as the next day was going to be the most physically demanding of the trip.
About 40 minutes from central Seoul is Mt. Bukhansan, the most visited national park in the world. Admission is free and the public bus is cheap, so climbing the steepest parts of the mountain overlooking the city was an incredible value. The total journey was about ten kilometers, which some sections at such an incline that we were almost rope climbing. We were completely spent by the end of the journey and we only saw a small fraction of the park. Highly recommended.
We treated ourselves to some well-deserved chicken and beer. These casual restaurants are everywhere and younger Korean flock here with their friends to hang out. There’s something universal about the tastiness of fried chicken that almost all cultures share in common.
That night, we headed to Cheonggyecheon. This 7-mile long walkway along the canal is where budding musicians sing to passers-by and couple relax by the water. It’s a fairly new development that apparently cost nearly $1 billion to complete. As a visitor, I love it. As a taxpayer, I might have had reservations. The end result, however, is welcome. There are some funky light shows and you can tell the community loves this little oasis amidst the city. In warmer weather, people soak their feet in the water. It was a bit too chilly for that, however.
Several of Mark’s college friends joined us for a full day of sightseeing. We met at the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP to the locals). This cultural center has a number of somewhat overpriced museums (the sports one looked really cool, however), but we just wandered around and admired the zany architecture. This building is new and is still being filled out.
After, we took the subway to the charming Forest Park. This massive space has bike trails, a small zoo, and a deer feeding area. We walked all through the park and across the Yongbigyo Bridge to the subway station. Our destination was Gangnam, forever immortalized by Psy’s Gangnam Style. It’s a fashionable district, compared to places like Beverly Hills, but there are plenty of things to do for us normal folks to do.
We had our photos taken in a cutesy Korean sticker booth, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit we were definitely the oldest ones there with all of us in our mid to late 20s.
After, the fun really began as we stuffed ourselves at a traditional Korean BBQ. The food was awesome and the girls showed us how to cook everything properly. Beer mixed with soju was our drink of choice. Thankfully, the glasses double as measuring cups so you know exactly how much you’re drinking. We hit up a couple more drinking establishments (including a convenience store that provided us with a huge bottle of beer and a number of tiny plastic cups) before calling it a night.
In our most frugal move of the trip, we didn’t book a hotel that night. We left our luggage at the Daehakro 24 Guesthouse but stayed the night in SpaRex, a 24-hour spa with saunas, hot tubs, cold tubs and other things for $10. There’s a huge common area with pillows where hundreds of people sleep overnight. While not the most comfortable of nights I’ve ever had, I’d definitely do the “jjimjilbang” spa experience again.
On this day one of my dreams came true. I’m a very casual baseball fan, but I love watching the sport in person. I had always wanted to see a game in Asia, as the familiarity of the sport combined with the different cultures was appealing to me. When Mark and I were in Taiwan, we tried to see a game but ended up reading the schedule wrong. This time, we didn’t mess up.
Decent seats at the Jamisil Stadium to see the LG Twins take on the NC Dinos were about $12 each. Food and beverages were not just allowed inside, but also encouraged. Convenience stores within the stadium sold beer for cheap and the crowd was awesome. Cheerleaders, lots of chants and the lively fans made American baseball look like a funeral. I wrote a post about some other reasons why Korean baseball is better than the American version.
After, we went to the Olympic Park, where the 1988 Summer Olympics were held. There’s a Korean Pop Museum but the place was so big that we couldn’t find it before it closed for the evening. After, we walked to the Lotte World amusement park built on an island within a lake, but we were too tired to bother heading in. It was a striking sight, but the rides themselves didn’t look amazing.
Sadly, it was my last day in Seoul and my flight left at 2 p.m. It was a Monday, so all the government-run palaces and museums we wanted to see were closed. Instead, we went to the fascinating old fortress Naksan Park fortress wall The views were spectacular and it was a short walk from our hostel. For lunch, one of the girls joined us for a special meal of jajangmyeon (read my blog post about it). These black noodles are eaten on April 14 (Black Day) as a response to Valentine’s Day. Only single people eat the dish. It was a quirky and memorable last meal in Seoul. If – or when – we return we both want to see some of the
If – or when – we return we both want to see some of the country side.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?