Seoul is a place where East meets West, and old meets new. You have the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace amid skyscrapers, and traditional markets around the corner from Forever 21. This vibrant city has it all — shopping, food, culture, nightlife.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sprawling metropolis, but if you are seeking some unique experiences in Seoul, look no further.
1. Escape a locked room
If you spent your middle school nights with Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock, then this experience will make your childhood dreams come true. And even if solving mysteries isn't your strong suit, you'll have an absolute blast!
The Vault, located in Hongdae, will turn an ordinary evening into an adventure. Bring a group, big or small, and you'll be led to a room where your parting words are, "I'm locking you inside. You have 45 minutes to get out. That's all I can tell you."
I'm not going to give away any secrets - and truthfully, I can't. We only made it about halfway through the mission. But I can tell you that it includes hidden doors, cracking codes, lasers, cryptic clues, and stealing a diamond.
Before embarking on your mission, you can grab a couple drinks or snacks from the bar (though in our experience, the drinks were mediocre, at best).
Games cost ₩10,000 and groups can range in size from 2-8 people.
How to get there: Right in the heart of Hongdae, and down a small side street, The Vault's website can give you better directions than we can. They have an accurate map, and if you follow it, you won't get lost.
2. Cuddle dogs while you sip coffee
Korea is known for themed coffee shops. From bikes and board games, to KPOP, and even sheep - you're bound to find one that appeals to your interests. Cat cafes are undoubtedly the most popular, but if you're allergic to felines (like I am), head instead to a dog cafe. The experience is just as the name suggests. You'll enjoy your favorite beverage while reveling in the company of a myriad of furry friends.
We visited Bau House in Hongdae neighborhood, which is known for large dogs. While most cafes have only the teacup variety, Bau House is home to dogs of all sizes, including a giant Alaskan Malamut named June!
It is a simple and clean facility, and the dogs seem like they are well cared for. There are several staff members cleaning up after any ermmm... accidents, so you don't have to worry about stepping in any doggie poo.
How to get there: Leave Hapjeong Station (Line 2) Exit 3, turn around and take your first left. Walk down the street for about 15 meters and it should be at the corner on your right. Just listen for the barking.
3. Dance 'til sunrise
A few years back, you couldn't turn on a radio anywhere in the world without hearing the pulsing beats of Psy's "Gangnam Style". If the catchy tune has you craving a night out on the town, you'll find what you're looking for in Seoul. The lyrics of Psy's crooning speak of a district in Seoul known for its clubs and women clad in designer clothes. But when you're in the presence of Luis Vuitton's handiwork, expect to pay a hefty cover charge.
If you're looking for a wild time with a less rigid dress code and cheaper drinks, head to Hongdae. This university neighborhood is known for having a lively young crowd, reasonable prices, and fewer foreigners than Itaewon.
Even if clubbing isn't your thing, wander down Hongdae's main street for a peek into Korean nightlife - neon lights, street artists, and throngs of people looking for a good time.
We were told by many that in Hongdae the place to be is NB2 (Noise Basement 2). This popular suggestion did no disappoint. The DJ played a combination of pop, hip hop and K-pop, and the crowd was still partying strong as the sun came up. We went on a Saturday night and paid ₩15,000 for cover, which included a free drink. Most cocktails after that cost just ₩6,000. The crowd was dressed all over the board - anything from sneakers to heels seemed to be acceptable.
How to get there: Walk out of Exit 9 of Hongik University Station. Walk southwest and take a left on Hongik-ro. Walk up Hongik-ro until you reach Wausan-ro, near the entrance of Hongik University. Turn right on Wausan-ro and walk for about 150 meters and NB2 will be on your left. Just follow the deep bass and you'll know where to go.
4. Learn how to make your favorite Korean meal
One of our favorite things to do while traveling is to take cooking classes. It gives you a chance to learn about the food more in depth than simply pointing to the first thing on a menu. We had a great time learning about the cuisine in Peru, and we made some delicious sushi rolls in Japan. Our cooking class in Korea was no different. We thought it might not be as informative since we've been living in this country for 10 months now and eat Korean food every day. But we were pleasantly surprised. Our group of five came away from the class with a new appreciation for kimchi, and a recipe for bulgogi that we will surely be testing out on our friends and family. Our only regret is that we didn't take this cooking class sooner.
We took our class through Food & Culture Academy, and were able to choose the menu we'd be cooking. Our instructor, Ellie, was lovely and extremely informative. She travels around the world teaching techniques to Korean restaurants, so you can tell this work is her passion.
How to get there: Take metro Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station and leave out of Exit 2. Walk north up Jahamun-ro for about 10-15 minutes until Pirundae-ro. The building is on the corner and the entrance is off of Pirundae-ro. Be sure to schedule your class in advance.
5. Tour a historic village in the middle of the bustling city
Wandering down the streets of Bukchon Village will make you feel as if you've stepped back in time. As you pass by traditional hanok homes that date back to the Joseon Dynasty, you won't believe you're still in the center of Seoul.
You can wander on your own, or have a guide lead you through the narrow alleyways while they explain the history on a free walking tour.
How to get there: Bukchon Village is tucked in between the two palaces in Seoul (Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung). Take metro Line 3 to Anguk Station and leave out of Exit 2. From there, just walk north and get lost in the history.
6. Eat octopus so fresh it's still moving
Okay, let's clear this up. Sannakji (산낙지) is often referred to as "live" octopus, but it is not in fact living. Think of it as incredibly fresh sushi. So fresh that it is still wriggling around when it reaches your table.
It goes without saying that this dish is for adventurous eaters only. If that sounds like you, head to the famous Noryangjin Market in Seoul for a squirmy snack you won't soon forget. Walk though the endless rows of stalls stocked with fresh seafood and say "San-nak-ji ju-say-yo" . You can choose your own octopus, which you will then carry in a plastic bag to a nearby restaurant to have it prepared.
When it's delivered to your table a few minutes later, it will still be wriggling around on the plate. The nerves keep the tentacles moving for up to a half hour after being prepared, so be ready for a battle with your chopsticks.
As far as taste goes, sannakji doesn't have much flavor. It's often served with sesame oil and alongside a spicy pepper paste for dipping. Be sure to chew thoroughly, because your meal might latch onto the insides of your mouth.
We split an octopus between 4 of us, and paid only ₩3,000 for the octopus and ₩4,000 total for the preparation and side dishes. Note: One octopus doesn't go far. But if you just want to try it, you don't need more than one.
How to get there: Take metro Line 1 to Noryangjin station. As soon as you exit the subway, you'll see signs for the fish market. Cross the bridge, and you're there!
7. Trick your eyes
Many museums ban the use of cameras, but not this one. In fact, the entire purpose of the Trick Eye Museum is to take as many pictures as possible. Korea is a land of selfie sticks and photo zones, and at the Trick Eye Museum you'll see tons of both. And in true Korean fashion, there are footprints on the ground to show you exactly where to stand to get the best angle. Hang upside down and fight a dragon, or dive into Van Gogh's famous Starry Night.
Bonus: There is a small attached Ice Museum, that many Korean couples use as an excuse to cozy up to their hunny. Follow their lead and hop into an igloo, or have a wild (albeit short) ride on an ice luge.
Though the ₩15,000 admission is a bit steep, it isn't a bad way to spend a couple hours on a cold or rainy day.
How to get there: Out of Exit 9 of Hongik University Station, walk southwest and take a left on Hongik-ro. Walk two blocks and turn right down Hongik-ro 3-gil. Walk this road for a block or two and the museum will be on your right. Hard to miss with the weird looking mannequin on top of the entrance. Check out the map on their website for more details.
8. Enjoy a local brew
South Korea continuously lands a spot near the top of the list of alcohol consumption around the world. But they're not guzzling craft beer or wine here. No, it's mostly soju and light, watery beer.
If you know Ben and me, you know we both love a good IPA. It's one of the things we miss most from home (aside from cheese, of course). When we discovered Craft Works, we were psyched! After visiting a few other "tap houses" in Seoul, we can say with all certainty that Craft Works is the best.
They brew their own beer with the area's spring-fed waters, and serve them on draft for reasonable prices. They also have a selection of bar food available. We didn't try anything off the menu, but heard rumblings that it was just average. Still, it's nice to know it's there if you need it to soak up all the booze.
We'd recommend the Jirisan Moon Bear IPA and the Seorak Oatmeal Stout.
How to get there: Take the metro Line 6 to Noksapyeong Station and leave out of Exit 2. Walk straight until you come to stairs that lead underground. Take the underpass and come up the other side. Continue to walk straight, now with the road to your right. Cross Hoenamu-ro and keep walking for about 1 block. Keep an eye out for the sign, because Craftworks will be on your right, tucked down a short alley. It's easy to miss.