The South Korean capital might be one of Asia’s pricier destinations, but it’s still possible to see every side of the city — and delve into its art, food and culture — on a budget. Here are some ideas on how to win with less won.
*US$; hotels, airfare and impulse shopping not included
Day 1: What was old is new again
After decades of rushed development, one of the most welcome trends of the past few years has been Seoul’s move toward preserving the past. Get your morning coffee by squeezing down a tiny alley to Coffee Hanyakbang (16-6 Samil-daero 12-gil), which brings Seoul’s contemporary artisanal coffee obsession to the industrial Euljiro neighborhood. The café space has been preserved and decorated to resemble a traditional tearoom from the early 20th century. While the prices haven’t undergone the same preservation, Hanyakbang’s signature hand-drip and something to eat will still only set you back US$8.
Seoul is home to many museums, but if you want a bit of everything, head to the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil; leeum.org), where the collection covers modern and traditional Korean art. The US$9 entrance fee is a bargain, as it gives you access to exquisite pieces of centuries-old celadon pottery and ink paintings by renowned 18th-century artist Jeong Seon. Video art by Nam June Paik, installations by Choi Jeong Hwa and works by biggies like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol are also on show.
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- Getting around: With rides on an extensive subway network starting at just US$1, getting around Seoul is cheap and easy. Buy a rechargeable T-money card at a convenience store or station vending machine and swipe it whenever you get on and off. Signboards in the stations indicate arrival times and heated train seats keep you warm during the colder months. There’s also free WiFi on all trains.
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End your day in Ikseon-dong, one of the few downtown districts that wasn’t razed for redevelopment in Seoul’s post-Korean War boom years. Today, many of the area’s hanok (traditional Korean houses) are being turned into stylish establishments. Grab a nightcap at Teum (17-19 Supyo-ro 28-gil; fb.com/ikseon.teum), a café-bar built into a 70-year-old wood-filled property. Art by local artists hangs on the walls and local craft beer, coffee and snacks are on the menu. Have a drink and something to nosh on for under US$18.
- Day 1 costs: Coffee and breakfast US$8; Museum entrance fee US$9; Drink US$18; Total: US$35
Day 2: City of the future
While Seoul is becoming a better steward of its past, it remains a city focused firmly on the future. Spend your second day here checking out where it’s boldly going.
One of the most futuristic looking buildings you’ll find anywhere, the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza (281 Eulji-ro; ddp.or.kr) has become a cultural hub since its opening in 2014. The building’s spaces host rotating exhibitions on art, design and fashion. This month, there’s “Drawn by the Wind” (US$9), which uses cutting-edge media to enliven displays of 18th-century painters, and “Bio Design” (US$12), which reveals the work of German industrial designer Luigi Colani. Another highlight is the huge Design Lab shop, where you can pick up fun, funky and stylish household goods, clothes, toys and more by Korean and international designers. Prices vary widely, but you won’t have trouble finding something great for under US$25.
Korea is one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries and it’s at the forefront of professional computer gaming, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it also sees real potential in virtual reality. Last year, the government opened a virtual reality center in Seoul, with the aim of training 2,200 VR professionals by 2020. Strap on your goggles and dive into another world at one of the city’s many VR gaming cafés. At Red VR (64 Wausan-ro; redvr.co.kr) in Hongdae, one hour in a one-to-two-person room is US$22. They even have a powder room for freshening up after you’ve worked up a sweat fighting zombies or crawling on skyscraper ledges.
- Day 2 costs: Exhibition entrance fee US$21; Designer odds and ends US$25; VR room rental US$22; Total: US$68
Day 3: Eat up
Seoul is a food city and if you’re not eating more or less constantly while you’re here, you’re doing it wrong. Start your day with the perfect winter breakfast: a bowl of gomtang (beef and rice soup) at Hadongkwan (12 Myeongdong 9-gil; hadongkwan.com), in the popular Myeong-dong shopping district. Opened in 1939, the eatery is one of the city ’s oldest. A meal costs US$11 and makes for an authentic and affordable experience.
Three years wouldn’t be enough for a person to sample all the food that Seoul has to offer — let alone three days. But you can get a good start by going on an O’ngo (12 Samil-daero 30-gil; ongofood.com) food tour; trips start at US$47. Find the best vendors at the sprawling Namdaemun Market and sample local favorites on the Street Food and BBQ Tour, or spend nearly four hours stuffing yourself while on the Night Dining Tour. Thoughtfully, in pork-mad Korea, O’ngo also has a halal tour option.
Take whatever’s left in your budget and, before you leave, pick up the perfect souvenir at Jeo Jip (142-1 Changuimun-ro; chopstickshouse.co.kr). The shop’s custom-made chopsticks take up to six months to make — these well-crafted eating utensils have even been gifted by the Korean president to visiting dignitaries. While hefty price tags accompany some of the shop’s handiwork, patrons can also walk away with gorgeous, one-of-a-kind sets of chopsticks for US$23.
- Day 3 costs: Breakfast US$11; Food tour US$47; Chopsticks US$23; Total: US$35
Cebu Pacific flies to Seoul from Manila. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Smile magazine.