Seoul (Korean 서울특별시) is the largest city in South Korea, and probably the best one for the first visit to this wonderful country. It combines traditions and modern age. The most practical approach is to get to know Korean culture, cuisine and their specifics when you are in the capital of the country, and then apply the knowledge in regions. Besides, Seoul, like many other capitals of the world, is a large transport hub, and you can easily reach Busan, Gyeongju and other regional tourist centers once you have explored Seoul.
I believe you would need at least three days to explore Seoul. On the other hand, if you want to see all royal palaces (there five of them, and each one is not just one building but rather a complex pagodas and palace pavilions), medieval ruins (the famous gates, Jongmyo Shrine, districts with traditional Korean-style buildings), modern districts, a theme park and a zoo, you might need to stay in Seoul for at least a week.
What Area is the Best to Stay in Seoul?
Seoul is divided into 25 districts. Around half of them are residential areas. You can find hotels and hostels there too, though. However, before you book a room in a remote district you should decide if you want to spend around two hours daily for commute and “enjoy” the crowd in the metro. Besides, that would create additional cost for you. If that is something you are not ready to do, then I recommend focusing your attention on the central part of the city where the main railway station and historical sights are located. Additionally, you can pay closer attention to such districts as Gangnam-gu and Jamsil and to the areas near both Seoul airports.
In this article, I will focus on the following districts, quarters and areas near the most important tourist attractions in the capital of Korea:
Hotels in Seoul’s Downtown:
- Central Railway Station
- Deoksugung Palace
- Namdaemun Gate
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
Hotels outside the downtown:
The central part of Seoul includes at least a dozen of interesting and peculiar districts, and I will tell you in more detail about some of them below. In any case, when choosing a hotel in the downtown you should be careful and try to identify the key places nearby in advance so that you do not get lost in the city. You should probably get on with it even before you board the plane because searching for your hotel in the myriad of streets and back yards with your luggage and without Internet will be much more. Of course, you should have with you a print out (or a digital copy on your tablet) of the hotel booking, preferably in Korean, so that you could show it to someone who could help you find the way. In addition, look at the map and see where your hotel is located and check the hotel’s website – many of them provide detailed information about the route to the hotel. If this information is not available on the website, send an email to the hotel and ask them to send you detailed instructions of how to find them. The most valuable instructions are the ones that start with the description of the most convenient metro exit (all exits have numbers here).
Central Railway Station
I will start talking about central districts by covering the area around Seoul’s Main Railway Station (서울역). This is not only a modern railway station, from where you can take a speed train to Gyeongju and Busan, but also the city transport hub where subway lines intersect with trains lines. If your plans include visiting cities other than just Seoul, for example, Suwon with its famous fortress (it is just about an hour away by metro), it makes sense to stay somewhere close to the station. An additional bonus is that there is a department store Lotte in close proximity and the supermarket of the same brand – one of the very few we have seen in Seoul (also, be ready that the food there is nothing close to the food we are used to). The district has a very convenient location if we consider tourist sights: one of five royal palaces Deoksugung – is just a 15-minute walk away. That is the place where you can observe a change of guard in national costumes (by the way, people wearing national costumes have a free entry to all palace complexes). Within the same distance, you can find the colorful Namdaemun market and the prominent Myeongdong quarter with numerous Korean cuisine restaurants and local clothing and make up shops. If you want to choose an established chain hotel, then here you will find Millennium Seoul Hilton, as for other options, I recommend K-POP Seoul Station, 24 Seoul Station Premier, Town Guesthouse 4 and Hotel Manu Seoul.
Usually, people aren’t eager to choose districts near railway stations for accommodation because they are dirty and loud (let’s be honest here, that’s the specifics of such districts) but all local hotels are situated at some distance from the station (they are spread around the station square), so, you wouldn’t be bothered by trains noises, or the demonstrations that are sometimes held at this square. The station square is connected with some city streets by underground tunnels where homeless people spend their nights. Yet, there are not many of those, they are rather clean and do not bother.
Area of the City Hall and Deoksugung Palace
To the north from the station, you will find the City Hall. Just opposite the City Hall, you will see the royal palace Deoksugung (덕수궁). This area has a very convenient location: it is just 15 minutes on foot away from the railway station; there are some more metro stations in the proximity; the shopping district Myeongdong is a 10-minute walk away. Additionally, when I was walking in the park and the palace, I thought that in my next visit to Seoul it would be nice to stay in one of hotels nearby to have a chance of enjoying the magnificent view of the palace in the mornings and evenings. Good options are Hotel President and The Plaza. However, I recommend mentioning that you would like a room on one of the top floors when you make your booking, especially if you do not have to pay extra – the view will be much better and you will hardly hear any noise from outside.
Nandaemun Gate Area
Halfway between the City Hall and the Station, near the famous Namdaemun Gate (남대문) there is a very nice, in my opinion, modern district with office buildings, banks, a couple of museums, and, of course, hotels. The advantages are obvious: a comfortable location, modern buildings with all conveniences and spacious rooms, and reasonable prices. I recommend taking a closer look at such hotels as Fraser Place Central Seoul and Fraser Place Namdaemun, as well as Ramada Hotel & Suites Seoul Namdaemun and Daewoo Inn.
To the east from the Namdaemun Gate, you will find a very interesting district called Myeongdong (명동). That is heaven for fans of Korean cuisine and shopping. There are billboards everywhere, large shops like Lotte, or street stands. There are many street food stands here as well just next to the stands with scarfs, phone cases, cute socks and belts. You should not have any reservations about buying food here – Korean street food is considered safe. For me, the main advantage of Myeongdong is a huge number of places where you can eat. You will never leave hungry here – proved to be true.
In the evening, when it is dark in the city, Myeongdong’s streets are well illuminated and you feel that here it is – the heart of Seoul. This district is a great option for accommodation: the metro station and Namdaemun market are nearby, the Deoksugung palace is a 10-12-minute walk away, and in 15 minutes, you can reach the train station from where you can go to the airport.
There are many hotels in this district to each taste and budget: some of them are located in modern tall buildings, others occupy the top floors of the houses where the first two floors are shops and restaurants. These ones are especially interesting because they allow you to take a dive into the midst of things in Myeongdong but you also should keep in mind that such hotels could be very loud. That is why I recommend checking guests’ feedback before you book a room here. Maybe someone complained about the noise or the brightness of the billboards that disturbed the night sleep. However, the choice is great here. I find the following hotels great options for travelers: Shinshin Hotel Myeongdong, Days Hotel Myeongdong, The Grand Hotel Myeongdong, Hotel Skypark Myeongdong 2, Hotel J Hill, Metro Hotel and Ibis Ambassador Myeong-dong.
Gyeongbokgung Palace Neighborhood
To the north from the City Hall, there is the Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁). Nearby you will find the National Museum of Ethnography that is definitely worth seeing. You might need an entire day to explore these two attractions. If we take into account infrastructure, (restaurants, shops, etc.) this district is less attractive than Myeongdong but it is still a very vibrant place especially if that is not your first visit to Seoul and you would like to explore something absolutely new. Yet, you should keep in mind the traffic intensity here: transport is in overload here, and so are tourists. That is understandable – the Gyeongbokgung palace is the largest and most visited in Seoul. Crossing the road when the palace is open, especially if the change of guards is about to begin, and you are not the only one who wants to make it to the best spot, will be a huge problem. Some of hotels nearby offer rooms with views at the palace and Myeongdong (the best eating spot in the city) is just a 10-minute drive away. In this area, there is also a square with fountains and a quay where in the evenings you can enjoy a laser show. Attractive accommodation options in this district are, for example, Somerset Palace Seoul, The Left Duplex Seoul One and The Left Duplex Seoul Two.
To the east from the Gyeongbokgung Palace, you will find the Samcheongdong quarter (삼청동,). That is an old district with traditional Korean houses Bukchon Hanok. These are not just residential buildings. You will find here numerous workshops, art galleries, shops, restaurants, and hotels. If you would like to stay in a traditional Korean building, Samcheongdong is the best place for you. The advantages of staying in this district include excellent infrastructure and authenticity. At the same time, you can easily reach main Seoul attractions by metro or even on foot. The only disadvantages, in my opinion, are that hotels in these traditional style buildings are expensive (in some of them the room rate can match the room rate in a modern 4-star hotel) and that they are a bit different (for example, usually, these hotels have no beds and you will sleep on the floor). There are many interesting accommodation options here, such as Ohbok Guesthouse, Soriwool Guesthouse, Doo Hanok Guesthouse, Dahyun Hanok Homestay Guesthouse, Dahmsojung, CheongYeonJae and Hanok Guesthouse 201.
To the south from the royal Gyeongbokgung Palace, in the area of Jonggak metro station you will find a long shopping and pedestrian street Insadong-gil (인사동). The district nearby shares this name. Once upon a time, it used to be a district for rich citizens and –noblemen, and nowadays it is home to numerous souvenir shops, antique salons, galleries and restaurants that serve Korean cuisine. If you want to bring souvenirs and gifts to your friends and family, that is the place to go to. In other Seoul’s districts, there are not that many souvenir shops. Each Sunday, the street is closed for cars and you can observe crowds of tourists enjoying shopping and street. As you see, everything you need for a pleasant stay is available here, and this district can be considered a great accommodation option. It has a convenient location: all main sights are within an easy reach. I recommend looking at such hotels as 24 Guesthouse Insadong, Sunbee Hotel, Fraser Suites Insadong and The Insa Guesthouse. On average, the prices are here lower than in nearby districts. But I believe to pay extra attention to the feedback left by hotel guests in this area – here you can often come across the so called love hotels where people book a room for a night or just a few hours and the walls between the rooms are especially thin. Moreover, the level of service in these hotels can be really low: sometimes they would not clean your room for days or you can find insects or mildew in bathroom.
In the eastern part of downtown there is another colorful district Dongdaemun (동대문). It received its name from the medieval city gate. Nearby you can also see a market of the same name with thriving retail and wholesale trade. This market can be interesting for those tourists who would like to buy non-expensive and quality hiking equipment, shoes and clothes, and famous Korean national costumes. That is also a place where you can buy food – one of the market’s halls is a round the clock selling point for variety of food that is cooked right there. It is very loud here, and you will see crowds of people at all times, but at the same time, you will get a lot of new experiences. This district is also home to some tourist sights: the gates that gave the name to the area, the ruins of a medieval fortress wall, a landscape park along the Cheonggyecheon stream, Dongdaemun History & Culture Park, as well as modern futuristic buildings that replaced the old stadium and neighbor on the park and the historical exhibition. There are several metro stations here, and you can easily reach airport and any other place in the city from here. Hotel options here vary, in terms of both design and rates. Attractive options are Able Hostel in Dongdaemun, Plan A Hostel in Dongdaemun, Summit Hotel Dongdaemun, Philstay Dongdaemun and 24 Guesthouse Dongdaemun.
To the west from Seoul’s main railway station there is student quarter Sinchon (신촌동) located near the metro station and the old railway station sharing the name with this district. The central street, which is also named Sinchon, hosts many shops, restaurants and cafes, and in the evenings, you can enjoy street performances here while taking your pick of the famous Korean street food. Local hotels are mostly occupied by students from local universities; that is why most of accommodation options here are hostels or guesthouses with no extra conveniences. Some of guesthouses welcome only women. Prices are here very budget-friendly, and that attracts many tourists. May is the most visited month of the year because of Sinchon Cultural Festival (exhibitions, contests, concerts and performances). During this time, local hotels increase their rates. Interesting accommodation options here are, in my opinion, Cozybox, Ewha DH Guesthouse and ICOS Guesthouse 2.
To the south from Namsan park (and to the southeast from the main railway station) there is another exciting district Itaewon (이태원). That is a place where many foreigners live who come to Korea to study and work. I believe that is the district where you sometimes can forget that you are in Seoul: signs are in English, there are lots of bars and restaurants with European cuisine. You can easily reach the downtown here by metro, and within a close proximity, you will see Namsan Park with Seoul’s TV tower. The main advantage of this district is, I believe, the variety of budget-friendly good quality accommodation options, such as 24 Guesthouse Itaewon, GV Residence, Blackgold, G Guesthouse Itaewon In Seoul, Itaewon Backpackers and IS@K Guesthouse.
Outside Seoul’s Downtown
Gangnam-gu district (강남구) is well known because of the famous Gangnam Style song. Today, it is one of the most vibrant and modern districts in Seoul. Local tourist attractions include tall buildings, sculptures by modern artists, numerous shopping and entertainment centers, nightclubs, bars and restaurants, as well as offices of Korean and international corporations. The advantages of the district include modern buildings, great infrastructure (many shops and places to eat), a great public transport network (there are buses to the airport), the proximity to the bus terminal Seoul Express, and lower hotel rates compared to those in central districts. If you choose a hotel in one of the tall buildings, you will also benefit from a great view at the city. Some people might find the local landscape (hilly area) and remote location to be disadvantages of this district. Yet, the city enjoys a well-developed public transport system and taxi rates are also not that high, so that is the problem that can be easily solved.
There are two types of hotels in Gangnam-gu: chain hotels like Hyatt or InterContinental that occupy modern tall buildings and guesthouses in more moderate buildings (they are, though, very comfortable and nice to stay at).
As a rule, owners of small hotels are very friendly people who are willing to help you out in each situation. They will tell you what to visit, where to eat, how to get to the place faster and cheaper. If you ask them, they will meet you at the airport, arrange a tour for you or help you buying bus or train tickets. Guesthouses are a great option for tourists who like to meet new people. They usually have a common room/dining room where guests spend their evenings talking to each other and to owners. If you are not comfortable around many new people, I would recommend choosing a large hotel or apartments. You should also keep in mind that in guesthouses, especially, those that are a bit cheaper, bathrooms are often in a common area and you have to share that with other people. Breakfast is not always available, and if you believe that is the most important meal of the day, you should take a closer look at feedback of other guests and the description of hotel services. I find the following small hotels in this district to be worthy of extra attention: Raon Residence in Gangnam, Always Like Home, L-House and Kimchee Gangnam Guesthouse.
Most of hotels in tall buildings here are four-or five-star accommodations. Nearby you will also find Seoul’s Congress Center, that is why these hotels can afford keeping high rates without any risk. Business tourists have their hotel bills paid by their companies. However, there are still many non-business tourists here as well. They are attracted by the modern infrastructure (pools, saunas, fitness centers, and spa centers). Besides, some of these hotels have an extra bonus – a child under 12 may stay with the parents in the room without extra costs. There are tourists who are not big fans of Korean cuisine (especially, for breakfast), that is why Italian, Greek and other European restaurants in hotels are never empty even though they are not cheap. Possible disadvantage of these hotels is their proximity to main streets. If your room is below the 7th floor it can become really loud at night (you can learn more about soundproofing of hotel rooms in certain hotels from feedback left on booking websites). The chain hotels’ staff is also willing to help you 24/7, and sometimes that can come in really handy. I recommend to take a closer look at the following hotels in Gangnam-gu: Novotel Seoul Ambassador Gangnam, Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas, Park Hyatt Seoul, Nox Boutique Hotel and InterContinental Coex Hotel. Besides, in this district you can find nice apartments that can be a great option for families with kids or people who like cooking their own meals. You can check out Milatel Chereville Serviced Apartment.
To the east from Gangnam-gu there is the Olympic district Jamsil (잠실). If you are a sports fan, the advantages of this district are obvious – Seoul’s key sports facilities are tight there. The main bait for tourists in Jamsil is the largest in Korea indoor theme park Lotte World with rollercoasters, a huge shopping mall, cinemas and an ice skating rink. In my opinion, this district is a great option for travelers with kids whose main purpose of coming to Seoul is visiting this theme park and shopping. You will not have to go anywhere else. Everything is within an easy reach here, including Lotte Department Store and duty free shops. However, even if you do not plan to just have fun in the park and do shopping, and would love to see other sights of Seoul, Jamsil is a good district to stay in. You can easily reach the downtown from here as the taxi rates are not expensive, there are metro stations nearby and there is a good bus connection as well. You can also easily reach Seoul’s airports from here because there is a special bus that makes several stops in the district to pick up passengers. If you enjoy evening walks, you will find here two lakes and a green area where you can either run, or play with kids, or just show off your shopping victories.
There is no doubt that the most impressive hotel in the area is Lotte Hotel World – you will not miss this building. The hotel features good family rooms; hotel guests get tickets to the Lotte World for free without spending time in long lines. When booking a room ask for top floors because the view at the city is magical.
There are other hotels in Jamsil but they are a bit farther away from the theme park, even though they are cheaper. For example, half way from the Lotte World to the Olympic park you can find a few very decent hotels for reasonable money. I recommend Seoul Olympic Parktel or Film 37.2. The park is a great bonus for those who like to take walks. You will find here a nice forest, lakes, meadows with friendly rabbits – overall, a very peaceful landscape.
Hotels near Seoul’s airports deserve a special mention. There are two airports: Gimpo International Airport (김포국제공항) and Incheon International Airport (인천국제공항). The first one handles, mostly, flights to Japan and China and domestic flights. The second airport is a huge international hub. The airports are connected to each other and the main railway station by the regular transport network, which is very convenient if you have a long connection between flights – you can take a quick look at the city and make your next flight.
Hotels near Seoul’s airports are not budget-friendly (it is rather the other way around), so if you are paying for the room from your own pocket, take a look at hotels in the city center, for example in the area near the railway station.