Need help finding where to stay in Seoul? Seoul is South Korea’s capital city and a microcosm of everything Korean and international. Very small for a capital city and distinctly separated into districts, there’s so much to do in the city but it is a true haven if you like shopping and eating fantastic food as much as Koreans do. The main museum and cultural area of Insadong is based in the north where you’ll find countless museums, traditional buildings, and teahouses, and its exact opposite, the glitzy Gangnam full of shopping, international dining, and cocktails, is based in the south. Everything in Korea is based around convenience, and with a significant expat community, is geared towards English speakers more than neighbouring China and Japan.
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Where to stay in Seoul [2020 Guide For First Time Visitors] - Contents
Where to stay in Seoul
Luckily, it’s an easy city to get around with an affordable public transport system that ranges from the well-timed subway that stays open late to the easy-to-use bus system, and affordable taxis that you can just flag down. Just pay for them all with your t-money card that you can pick up from any subway station for three dollars. Transportation is good all around South Korea, which means you can always take a day trip from Seoul to several nearby cities, to see, for example, the gorgeous temples in Busan.
When picking a place in Seoul, your main decision lies on whether you want to be based north of the river ( the more authentic half) or south of the river (the richer glitzier half) as it can take roughly forty minutes plus to get from one to the other.
Hongdae - Busy, Party and Shopping Centre
Why stay in Hongdae
Sort of the new unofficial centre of Seoul, everything happens in Hongdae from the best shopping to the best bars and local restaurants and you’ll find street performers lining the main street with seating areas around them. You’ll find everything from chain shops and boutiques to small market stalls selling cutesy phone cases and novelty socks (a big thing in Korea). All of the fun museums are here, like the Trick Eye Museum and Love Museum as well as many of the animal cafes like the Meerkat Café and Sheep Café. K-beauty is a big deal and you’ll find all of the county’s skincare shops here luring you in with free masks as well as many K-Pop themed shops. This is the city’s biggest nightlife hub outside of Gangnam (which tends to market its nightlife towards an older crowd) so if you like to party and love everything about modern Korean culture, you’ll love it here. There’s also plenty of budget to mid-range accommodation in this area since it’s geared to a younger crowd.
Why avoid Hongdae
It’s incredibly busy, there’s actually a meme about how busy Hongdae exit nine is and it’s true to life. There’s no time of the day or night where the crowds die down and you can feel like a sheep filtering through the narrow streets. If you’re in Korea to drink this would be a be a great hub but if not, it’s probably worth basing yourself outside of this area and just popping in on the very reasonable and fast subway. There’s also less high-end hotels and fine dining due to the large student crowd and a little far from the areas south of the river (like Gangnam).
Where to stay in Hongdae
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Myeongdong - Street Food, Restaurant and Shopping Hub
Why stay in Myeongdong
Myeongdong is very similar to Hongdae but with less of a nightlife scene. There are a lot more restaurants here and most of the most famous and international chains (shopping and restaurants) can be found here. There’s a much bigger street food scene in Myeongdong with a whole street lined with stalls, you’ll be able to try everything from fried steak to strawberry mochi, tteokbokki (rice cakes in spicy sauce), to fresh juices and shakes. You’ll also find a high proportion of massage parlours at reasonable prices. There’s a big skincare scene here too so be prepared to be lured into the many stores with free facemasks. There’s a wide range of accommodation options here from budget to luxury and it’s in a good location for travelling elsewhere in the city.
Why avoid Myeongdong
Similar to Hongdae, this is a very busy and noisy area and is very much geared towards tourists so prepared to be harassed a fair amount with fliers. If you’re hoping to explore lots of areas south of the river it is still about 40 mins onwards on the subway so might be a bit awkward.
Where to stay in Myeongdong
Gangnam - Glitzy Shopping and Partying hub
Why stay in Gangnam
Made famous by Psy, his song satirising the local rich people of Gangnam isn’t far off what to expect. This is the richest pocket of Seoul and where locals aspire to live. It makes a great base since everything is here, from budget restaurants to fine dining, and is a shopper’s paradise. The back streets are littered with boutiques and cafes and the main street has all of the international and local chains including all of the flagship skincare stores who offer a lot more options like custom skin tests and make-up than the smaller stores around the city. There’s a good nightlife scene here including the famous Club Octagon and plenty of hotel bars with a great view over the Seoul skyline. It’s on the main line (2) so it’s easy to get to most places around the city from here.
Why avoid Gangnam
It’s one of the priciest areas of Seoul so the accommodation options are mid-range upwards and most of the dining and drinking options are expensive with no street-food in sight. You can find some budget restaurants and bars but overall expect to spend a lot more money being based in Gangnam.
Where to stay in Gangnam
Itaewon - Multi-Cultural Food and Bar Central
Why stay in Itaewon
This is a very multicultural area of Seoul that used to be a military hub so you’ll find a lot of Western restaurants and bars but it’s also where you’ll find excellent Middle-Eastern restaurants and food shops due to the Middle-Eastern community who live here. Most expats live in this area so it’s where the most English is spoken and most places are geared towards the expat community. There are some lovely cafes in the area, a big nightlife scene, and you’re very close to Namsan Tower and nearby museums like Seodaemun Prison so there’s plenty to do in the area. The accommodation options range from budget to luxury so there’s something for everyone.
Why avoid Itaewon
If you’re looking for any kind of authentic Korean lifestyle you won’t find it here, it is not dubbed "Little America" for nothing. That being said, it does provide some excellent home comforts for people who are there a bit longer or would like some familiarity. The nightlife scene is a bit rowdy and more geared towards people who like to get drunk so it’s more of a pub scene than a cocktail bar scene and it can get very loud at night so maybe pick somewhere off the main street if you’re staying in this area.
Where to stay in Itaewon
Jamsil - Quiet Area with World Famous Mall
Why stay in Jamsil
If you love shopping, then you’re in luck because you’re right next to the biggest mall in Korea – Lotte World Tower. Inside, you’ll find a large cinema and all of the international films are shown in English with Korean subtitles. You can buy your tickets inside. There’s also a whole floor dedicated to skincare with facials, massages, and dermatologists and the Sky Tower offers a magnificent view over the city. There’s a huge range of restaurants and cafes, both local and international and all the shopping you could need. It’s a quiet area with wide open spaces geared towards families and the accommodation tends to be mid-range to luxury. You’re also in a perfect location to explore the north and south of the city as you’re very central.
Why avoid Jamsil
Jamsil is all about the mall and there isn’t much else going on so if you just want a quiet hub with one of the world’s biggest malls next to you then it’s ideal but if you want your area to have a bit more going on in general then you may want to consider somewhere else. The accommodation around here tends to be expensive due to the ideal location and nearby facilities.
Where to stay in Jamsil
Insadong - Culture and Museum Centre
Why stay in Insadong
There’s not a lot of old Korea cultural left to see in the hyper-modern Seoul and if that’s what you’re looking for then this (and Jongno-Gu) is your area. You’ll find the gorgeous traditional houses in the Hanok Village and you’ll find plenty of hanbok (traditional Korean wear) rental shops to take pictures in the village. There are tea houses, museums, handmade goods stores, and beautiful cafes. The food is generally more traditional so you’ll be able to try some of the classic dishes here like bibimbap and kimchi jjigae. There’s a wide range of accommodation here and prices are generally mid-range for food and drink. There’s an excellent market full of boutique shops and this is where you can buy all of your souvenirs and try temple food.
Why avoid Insadong
If you’d like to be based in the glitzier parts of Seoul, then this is very far removed from that. It’s a quiet area with little to no nightlife but is very busy with tourists and generally geared towards tourism. There isn’t a huge range of accommodation in this area so it’s worth booking early. It’s also a long journey south so it’s not ideal if you’re hoping to spend a lot of time south of the river but ideally located if you’re spending most of your time north of the river.
Where to stay in Insadong
Jongno Gu – Authentic Korea, Culture, and Museums
Why stay in Jongno Gu
These are the hipper backstreets of Insadong and less geared towards tourism. There are plenty of cafes and tea houses to explore, most of which are in hanok style buildings without all the people dressed in hanboks blocking your view. This the temple and palace district so if you’d like to see most of Seoul’s beautiful historical buildings and statues and spend lots of time visiting the museums then this is the area where most of the history still stands. Exiting nearby Gwanghwamun station on to Gwanghwamun Square with Gyeongbokgung palace and the famous statue of King Sejong is an unforgettable view. There are some more modern buildings and some chain restaurants and cafes in the area as well as plenty of local food.
Why avoid Jongno Gu
There isn’t a huge range of accommodation in this area so it’s best to book early. There isn’t really a nightlife scene in the area and most things close early in the area. You’re also quite far north in the city so getting south of the river will take well over an hour which may be awkward if you’re hoping to travel south a lot.
Where to stay in Jongno Gu
Yongsan Gu – Great Transport Links and Mall
Why stay in Yongsan Gu
Much like the Jamsil area of the west, Yongsan is more of a residential area, open which people travel to for the giant Ipark mall which currently has the biggest IMAX screen in the world and plenty of international stores and restaurants. It doesn’t offer the range of Lotte World Tower, however. If you like video games, then there’s a huge underground video games market near the mall that’s fun to visit. There’s plenty of cheaper accommodation in this area since there’s not much going on but you are next door to Itaewon (within walking distance) and have good links to Hongdae or Gangnam so it’s great if you’re looking for a quiet hub. You’re also right next to the main train station so if you’re hoping to explore more of Korea then this is a great hub.
Why avoid Yongsan Gu
Yongsan is best avoided if you want to be in the heart of everything or want things on your doorstep to do other than the mall. The area caters more towards the budget end of accommodations in Seoul so not ideal if you’re looking for higher-end accommodation.
Where to stay in Yongsan Gu
Mapo Gu – Quiet, Budget Area
Why stay in Mapo Gu
Similar to Yongsan but even more residential, Mapo is a cheaper area that is ideal for travelling to other places since it’s ideally located and well served with public transport.
Why avoid Mapo Gu
Again, if you like to be in the heart of the action or want things to do after dark then this won’t be ideal for you. Taxis are very cheap in Seoul however, so getting a taxi back from one of the larger areas of Gangnam or Itaewon would be affordable.