Seoul in winter: 5 top tips for a very cool getaway

How to describe Seoul in December?

Cold. Cold would be an excellent way to describe Seoul in December. It’s also absolutely gorgeous, and if you wrap up warm there are many delights to be enjoyed in and around Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

December is not a typical time to visit Seoul owing to temperatures which mooch around comfortably below zero. For the brave adventurer, this holds a fair few advantages.

First, travel and accommodation are cheap and you get good deals on great places to stay.

Second,It also seemed much quieter than I would expect from a tourist perspective. The main attractions were delightfully empty, leaving us free to explore at leisure without the usual roaming herds of tour groups.

Third, Seoul is extremely dry in December. The upshot for us was the kind of vast, deep blue and cloudless skies you’d normally find in a ski resort, and clear crisp air that was a welcome break from Bangkok’s superheated haze.

We had a great 4 days in Seoul and would heartily recommend it. Here are a few tips and highlights.

Live it up in Hanoks and Hanboks

Seoul has a mix of old and new architecture – in many ways it’s a gleaming and modern city, but there are a number of traditional ‘hanok’ villages, especially near the Insadong area.

Hanok villages are comprised of single storey wooden buildings set around a central courtyard. Many of these are still private houses, but some have opened as guesthouses.

We stayed at Cheongyeonjae, and it’s one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. Think paper doors and simple wooden rooms. Futons on the floor. The godsend of ‘ondol’ underfloor heating, keeping everything delightfully toasty regardless of the outside.

cheongyeonjae hanok hotel seoul

The staff could not be more helpful, serving delicious Korean breakfasts and providing citrus tea when you step in after a day in the cold. We were a little worried about the combination of sub-zero temperatures and paper-based walls, but we needn’t have been. We were toasty and comfortable at all times. Hotels can be a bit dull, but Cheongyeonjae added a lot to the experience.

A final added bonus at Cheongyeonjae is that they let you try on traditional Korean outfits, called hanbok. I can only describe these garments as majestic and jazzy, and you will leave with a set of pictures that will live long in the memory.

cheongyeonjae hanok hotel seoul

It’s also located right within the Bukchon hanok village, which has a whole heap of fun places to explore from cool cafes to small art shops. A few of the hanoks are also cultural centres where you can learn about traditional Korean crafts. All in all it’s a very pleasant area to be.

Marvel at the palaces

Bukchon is sandwiched between two gigantic palace complexes. On our first day, we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, a sprawling complex of open-air buildings and hanok style buildings. On a clear day, with the backdrop of Seoul’s surrounding hills and mountains, the sight is pretty awe-inspiring.

  • seoul in winter palace
  • seoul palaces
  • gyeongbokgung palace seoul

An excellent benefit of Seoul’s cultural sites is that many of them offer free entry to anybody wearing Korean traditional dress. There is something slightly odd about seeing groups of Thai tourists shuttling around Seoul, wearing full traditional Korean dress paired with massive Nike Airs, clutching iPhones and coffees. Within the palaces, it makes for some great snaps! Even if not everyone gets into the spirit.

gyeongbokgung hanbok seoul
There’s always one…

Take in the view at N Seoul Tower

In the geographical centre of Seoul is a huge and hilly park-cum-reserve. It is home to some of the best views in Seoul. The easiest route is to take the cable car, which is about 10 minutes walk from Myeongdong subway station. We found the subway extremely easy to use and Myeongdong is one of the main areas of Seoul for shopping, so it’s well-connected to most areas.

The short cable car ride brings you out at the foot of N Seoul Tower, visible from most of the city. The tower costs about 6 GBP to go up, but to be honest the views were so good from the top of the cable car that we just saved our money. There are viewpoints to the north and south of Seoul, and again on a clear winter’s day in December, Seoul is quite spectacular.

  • n seoul tower
  • n seoul tower
  • seoul viewpoint n seoul tower

If you’re the romantic type, you can also add your padlock to the thousands attached to the railings up here. Nothing says I love you like an unbreakable lock that will slowly rust next to thousands of others, it seems.

seoul padlocks

Head to the border for some living history

Seoul is only 35 miles from the border with North Korea, as that absolute cabbage in the White House was stunned to find out. No trip to Seoul should miss a chance to learn about the history of the Korean conflict, and get to the edge of one of the world’s most secretive states.

We were warned in advance that a lot of trips to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea were surprisingly touristy, with more emphasis on shopping than sights. With that in mind, we did some research and came upon VIP travel, and their helpfully-titled Half Day DMZ Tour (No Forced Shopping).

We liked this company a lot for a number of reasons. First, we tried to book the DMZ tour – within 5 minutes of requesting it they emailed us to say that the DMZ is closed due to African Swine Fever. They moved us instead to the MDL tour (military demarcation line).

The tour group was big – the classic coach load of about 40 people, but we didn’t mind this as the price was low. What really stood out was our guide, Moon, who explained in detail the harrowing recent history of North and South Korea, and the effect on her own family. Before going on this tour, we had zero idea about the history of the Korean War or the actions that led to North Korea walling itself off from the outside world. Spoiler alert: it’s a grim story but definitely worth hearing and our guide was great at this.

The Imjingak Peace Park was an interesting place to see, with a now walled-off bridge that used to join North and South, and a train ruined in the conflict some 70 years ago. There’s also a monument to possibly the world’s only UNESCO-listed TV show.

Broadcast in 1983, the show ‘Finding Dispersed Family’ was an attempt to help Koreans find out about loved ones who disappeared during the Korean War – many hundreds of thousands of whom were effectively abducted in the North. Our guide told us it was originally meant to run for around 3 hours, and actually ran for 3 entire months.

north korea mdl
Towards the North

A cool, and again slightly weird, part of the trip was a visit to the observatory which looks into North Korea. At one point, North and South are only 500m apart across the Yan river. South Korea have taken the opportunity to install dozens of long range binoculars so you and I can have a nosey into the North Korean village on the other side. There seems to be some kind of farming village on the other side, and you effectively scour the landscape looking for people wandering around.

If that sounds bizarre, I’m here to tell you that it absolutely is. But it’s also thought-provoking to think of the parallel universe that exists just half a kilometre away. We did see people walking around on the other side which was cool – especially with the snow swirling and creating a suitably dramatic ghostly fog.

Obviously none of which you can see in the below picture, in which the very top sliver of land is North Korea. As you can tell I’m a words rather than picture person.

north korea observatory

For a half day tour, this was a great trip and highly recommended on a visit to Seoul.

Eat, drink and get merry

Clearly this would not be a Thai Spicy blog without a religious focus on eating, and who am I to break with tradition.

Seoul is a dream for food lovers. It is also a nightmare for research-conscious food lovers. Surely one of the only countries in the world where Google Maps doesn’t work properly, I struggled endlessly to find recommendations on food in Seoul. Even places that were well-rated on blogs were horribly rated on maps. Where is the consistency, I plead? One good resource I did find was this blog from Will Fly for Food.

It’s entirely possible though that there isn’t bad food in Seoul, because everything we had was awesome.

What really helped was taking a food tour on the first night. Again, booking was a bit sketchy as nothing is heavily reviewed, but we went through Viator and ended up on an evening tour with Seoul Hunters.

Another victory for winter came when only us and one other person showed up to wander the freezing streets at night in search of sustenance. Our guide duly led us off down tiny alleys into a selection of restaurants packed with locals and billowing steam into the cool night air.

I have a massive and unforgivable language blind spot with Korean and can’t remember what anything is called. At all. I cannot tell my ttepoki from my jjindak from my bibimbap. Having a guide on hand was a lifesaver, and the food was great. We had Korean BBQ, and then several other dishes that, as previously mentioned, I cannot name.

korean bbq seoul hunters food tour

There is much to love in Korean food. There is plenty of communal eating. Everything seems to come with an obligatory bottle of beer or soju, the Korean rice spirit. They have even a number of ‘cocktails’ (our guide’s words, not mine) – such as beer topped with soju, soju topped with beer, or half beer half soju. You have to love the commitment.

Perhaps my favourite part of Korean eating is the presence of ‘banchan’ alongside every meal. Not only do you get the dun of your main dish, you get a set of tiny sides – pickles and ferments and sour things and sauces – to customise as you wish. I have a lot of time for any nation that serves kimchi with breakfast, and that is exactly what to expect in Seoul.

Aside from the tour were plenty of other food highlights.

Gwangjang market has been popularised by Netflix, and this bustling textile market is an easy walk from Jongro and Insadong. It’s lovely just to wander round the packed, close quarters rows of stalls and stands dishing out fresh food to local workers and tourists. The food at Gwangjang market is excellent and particularly known for two dishes. A semi-outdoor market in Seoul in December may sound like a recipe for disaster, but some genius has installed heated seats at all the stalls, and the bubbling pots and frying things give off enough heat to keep you plenty warm enough.

First on the food front is kalguksu – knife-cut fresh noodles in a rich broth. Netflix focused on one lady and her stall, and she’s there merrily cooking away, but we chose another one nearby that was busy with elderly Koreans who looked like they knew a thing or two about noodle soup. Being a fan of anything dough-based, it was mesmerising to watch the grandma running the stall. So mesmerising that I forgot to take a picture, but to make up for it I will include a picture of a different kalguksu from Myeongdong Kyoja – a must-visit if you’re in Myeongdong.

  • gwangjang market knife cut noodles kalguksu
  • gwangjang market seoul
  • myeongdong kyoja kalguksu seoul

The other object of our desire in Gwangjang Market were fresh mung bean pancakes. Imagine a piping hot, fried and crumbly-yet-moist hash brown and you have these delicious beauties. They’re huge, easily anough for two as a snack, and the vendors will slice them and put them in cups for you to eat on the go. Heavenly.

On the subject of fried things, you should also go mad on Korean Fried Chicken. Koreans have somehow managed to elevate something which is amazing to begin with into almost godlike territory through some witchcraft with batter, marinades and multiple trips to the deep fat fryer. Even better, the best fried chicken is served in hofs (or pubs to you and I), which specialise in chicken, beer and soju. Those are the only three things you need for a very happy evening.

We enjoyed Oak Hill next to Anguk station for fried chicken and too much soju. The batter was insane – somewhere between fish and chip and tempura, creating a perfect, crunchy shell so the marinated meat steamed inside. Juicy, tender, crispy and battered all in one mouthful. We paid something like 15GBP for 10 pieces. Needless to say this, plus enough soju and beer to down a camel, made for a very pleasant and low calorie (lol jk) meal.

oak hill korean fried chicken jongro
With all my heart yes!

Finally, we had just enough time and stomach space to squeeze in one final Korean BBQ. This was a pork specialist, cooked over open coals, in Bukchon village. It’s called Jeju Pork BBQ and it’s on Gyedong-gil.

As well as good quality meat, it’s just very satisfying to cook and eat Korean BBQ. As well as the meat, a gaggle of vegetables and even sauces go onto the grill while a big vaccuum hoovers up thhe smoke. Paired with the banchan sides and you have a very delicious meal.

jeju pork bbq seoul jongro

You can probably tell, but we had an awesome time in Seoul in December. So much to do, see and learn. Great food and drink, and just something that’s very different from most trips and breaks. It is well worth braving the cold for.

Thoughts? Tips on Seoul? Let us know in the comments

Mark Burton

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