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Originally published by Alisa Chau. Last updated by Celia Lee.
A sprawling metropolis that seems to never stop running at full speed, Seoul can be quite overwhelming for first-time visitors, especially if you are on a budget. Truth is, when paired with an open mind, a closed wallet can get you far. There are a plethora of low-cost and completely free sights and activities to suit all sorts of needs. Think of this itinerary as your blueprint for a priceless experience in Seoul—one that starts from just around KR₩9,200!
Once a village housing the elderly and poor that was set to be demolished, this neighbourhood has been revamped by the local government to become a spectacular open-air art space. Sitting at the foot of Mount Naksan, Ihwa Mural Village is one of the oldest living quarters in Seoul. It had undergone a major facelift in 2006, whereby 70 artists were invited to paint murals and establish installations all around.
Despite its rocky beginnings—which saw angered villagers reacting to a sudden spike of intrusive tourists by painting over murals—the project has finally managed to successfully integrate artworks in non-invasive ways, breathing in new life and a refreshed sense of community to the area. Your Instagram story is about to have a field day! Stroll along the narrow streets and revel in the gorgeous works plastered over the walls. Take your time making your way up the sloping hills, as many of the stone staircases are colourfully decorated.
Please be reminded that the area is still a residential neighbourhood, so do unto others as you have them do unto you! Simply avoid setting foot on the premises unless there is an explicit sign inviting entry, keep a wary eye out for residents you may accidentally snap a shot of, and maintain a respectable level of noise.
Ihwa Mural Village, 49 Naksan 4-gil, Ihwa-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
A grand portico attached to a sleek low rise office building, this melding of old and new amongst the structure of the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) seems to mirror the balance of historic and contemporary art displayed inside. Previously the official site to the Hanseong Tribunal, the foremost renaissance style building was converted into the SeMA main gallery in 2002, later earning a Registered Cultural Heritage stamp of verification in 2006. The building is a sight to behold from inside out, providing a vast, photo-worthy space that is naturally lit.
Even the walk towards the museum, via the Deoksugung Palace footpath, is filled with artistic sights. There are several sculpted works foregrounding the museum that can be seen from the way leading up to it. Springtime visitors, in particular, are privy to the annually held outdoor sculpture exhibition in the park.
Entry to the permanent collection is free, whilst exhibitions vary in ticket prices. You will encounter contemporary art and an art reference library. Classes in the traditional Korean style of practice are also on offer for free or at an affordable price—check out their schedule here.
Seoul Museum of Art, 61 Deoksugung-gil, Seosomun-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea | (+82) 2 2124 8800
Carrying artefacts, some of which date back to over 5,000 years ago, the National Museum of Korea is the world’s largest epicentre of Korean heritage. Even though a waived entrance fee only applies to the permanent exhibition, visitors are still able to access a spectacular arrangement of items. The display shows a lengthy journey through development, with pieces ranging from excavations dated to the Palaeolithic ages, all the way to blown up prints from current-day photographers.
If you are towing along your little ones, rest assured that they won’t grow bored, as the Children’s Museum wing in NMK is also open for entry at no cost. There is an emphasis on an immersive experience that facilitates learning through playing, appealing to participants' imaginations. For example, children can enter the Bronze Age house simulation and daydream about what it would be like to live during that period. After your romp in the exhibition halls, you could take a short walk to Yongsan family park to enjoy the fresh air.
National Museum of Korea, 137 Seobinggo-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, 04383, South Korea | (+82) 2 2077 9046
Travel back in time and catch sight of the streets of Seoul the way it would have looked 600 years ago. Situated in the centre of Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace, and Jongmyo Royal Shrine, Bukchon is a life-sized time capsule encompassing several hundred Joseon style hanok (한옥; traditional houses) preserved in mint condition. The area was home to powerful authorities and relatives of the royal family during its heyday.
Though several parts of the neighbourhood are still occupied as residential spaces, most of these dwellings have been converted into craft stores, restaurants, souvenir shops, and cultural centres. There are eight main viewing spots scattered throughout the village that have been certified as the most scenic points for photos, with views including—the Chengdeokung Palace over the stonewall, Wonseo-dong Handicraft Road, Gahoe-dong alley, and the Samcheong-dong stone stairway, amongst others.
Bukchon Hanok Village, 37, Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea | (+82) 2 2148 4161
Designed by world-renowned legend Zaha Hadid, the futuristic slopes and curves of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza provide an unforgettable visual icon that doubles as a thriving arts and culture hub. Born under the theme of “metonymic landscape,” the stunning structure bridges together the urban history of the Dongdaemun area with visions of its forward-facing potential. The seemingly free-flowing structure is meant to represent the movement of liquid, making for sleek yet powerful forms.
Officially speaking, the DDP encompasses five main sections, with the Design Market in addition to the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park as the areas that are free to visit at any time of day. The former, which specifically houses the Design Lab, is a multipurpose space that operates as a showcase of local talent. The history and culture park doubles as a pathway to the rooftop of the DDP structure, leading you straight to one of the best vantage points in all of Seoul.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, 281 Eulji-ro, Euljiro 7(chil)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea | (+82) 2 2153 0408
Repurposed from abandoned oil tanks from the 1973 oil crisis, the Oil Tank Culture Park is the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s effort in converting a neglected “waste-hole” into a cultural hub. The location is open to the public for free, and various performances, as well as art events, are held regularly for low or no cost at all.
Emanating massive post-apocalyptic vibes through the corroded, rustic walls, and industrial shapes, the architecture of the park structures serves as a steampunk-esque backdrop for the cultural events that take place within its chambers. Explore the park grounds and notice how the greenery re-emerges onto the rough textures of the edifice—it is exactly where urban regeneration meets nature’s resilience.
Oil Tank Culture Park, 87, Jeungsan-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul | (+82) 2 376 8410
Since Seoul is rather famous for its variety of themed cafés, visiting one would be a quintessential stop on your trip. For a hard-to-beat experience at a high-quality spot, Thanks Nature Café allows visitors to share a sweet moment with adorable sheep.
Unlike most animal cafés in Seoul, you won’t have to pay a base-rate entry fee or petting fee, only having to spend on the food and drinks. On top of that, the items sold are actually prepared by the staff of the restaurant, compared to many other cafés that rely on selling pre-made coffees and bottled drinks.
Prices on the menu start at the KR₩ 3,500 mark, an amount with which you can purchase a hot espresso or hot americano. The café is also known for its delicious waffles and bingsu (shaved ice dessert), many of which feature an additional scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate drops modelled to resemble a sheep.
Price: KR₩ 3,500 up
Thanks Nature Café, 10 Hongik-ro, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea | (+82) 2 332 7470
A perfect patch of nature between the dense cityscape, Banpo Hangag Park is the ideal pit-stop for some pensive strolls. To make it even more memorable, why not rent a bike to better enjoy your surroundings? Feel the breeze against you as you cycle along the path lining the two-lane bridge, admiring the pleasant views along the way. Do remember to bring along a valid form of photo ID with you, as those will be required for the rental procedures.
This 6.4 kilometre stretch of serene greenery is also accompanied by the Guinness-World-record-holding Banpodaegyo Bridge Moonlight Rainbow Fountain that cuts across the tranquil waters of the Han river. The longest fountain-bridge in the world, Banpodaegyo Bridge offers daily 20-minute shows at 12pm during the months of April to October, sending cascading curtains of water into the aquamarine glint of the river surface. Night-time shows are also available between July to August, featuring oscillating multicoloured lights against a variety of musical backdrops.
Price: KR₩ 3,000 up
Banpo Hangang Park, 137-040 40, Sinbanpo-ro 11-gil, Seocho-gu, Seoul, South Korea | (+82) 2 591 5943
Popping up every Sunday from 10pm to 6pm, this weekly market is an unusual shopping choice full of interesting knick-knacks and rare clothing finds. A bit of elbow grease is necessary as you will probably be digging fairly deep into the humongous stacks of garments on the floor for hidden picks. You may also discover other sorts of vintage gems along the likes of old books, cameras, electronics, homewares, branded objects, leather goods, and more.
Items of all sorts can go for as low a price as KR₩ 1,000. If you start feeling hungry, snack carts and food stalls are interspersed around the market, providing you with a portable energy boost in the form of seriously affordable bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes) and traditional street snacks.
Price: KR₩ 1,000 up
Dongmyo Flea Market, Sungin-dong vicinity, Jongno-gu, Seoul
While some may consider a convenience store as the final destination to crawl to at the end of a night out, many Koreans begin their nights by heading to the closest mini-mart. There is no shortage of these brightly lit units lining the streets of Seoul, each stocking multiple varieties of alcohol for dirt cheap. Some shops even leave plastic chairs and rickety folding tables out front, making trips to the fridge for subsequent rounds of drinks even easier. Must-try Korean specialities are definitely soju (usually priced KR₩ 1,700 and up) and makgeolli rice wine (usually priced KR₩ 2,200 and up).
Price: KR₩ 1,700 up