Travel

48 Hours in Seoul for the Novice Traveler

For novice travelers, Seoul is the best place to visit for your first solo trip.
IMAGE ANRI ICHIMURA

There’s a reason why Filipinos love Seoul—and no, it’s not just because of BTS. South Korea’s capital is a traveler’s dream: it’s only a 3.5-hour flight away, its chilly weather is a welcome break from our tropical heat, and it’s (arguably) the affordable alternative to Japan. Contrary to its portrayal in K-Dramas, Korea isn’t as glamorous as it seems—and that’s precisely its charm. To the backdrop of shining skyscrapers, Seoul’s streets are lined with boutique shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, and unlimited Korean street food. In that respect, Korea is not so different from the Philippines after all. 

For novice travelers, Seoul is the best place to visit for your first solo trip, without parents or friends to guide you along the way. We’ve found that the best way to explore any city is to go off the beaten track, avoiding the tourist traps that might make you more stressed than satisfied—and just as broke. 

Here’s our 48-hour travel guide to enjoying Seoul on a budget.

DAY 1

Photo by Anri Ichimura.
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Photo by Anri Ichimura.

8 a.m. Take a walk. 

One of the blessed perks of first-world countries is sidewalks. Luckily for travelers on a budget, Seoul is pedestrian-friendly wherever you go, and the city’s yearlong cool weather makes walking easier. Instead of locking yourself in cabs and trains, enjoy what the city has to offer by walking and appreciating the urban planning that went into Seoul. Spot the nooks and crannies that give the city character. Like many old cities in Asia, Seoul is a blend of ancient temples and sleek skyscrapers that come together to tell a story of a city that’s survived time. 

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12 p.m. Find a back alley restaurant. 

If you’re on a budget, Korea has plenty of affordable restaurants to offer. Behind main roads in hidden alleys, you’ll find countless mom-and-pop shops that service traditional Korean food for as low as KRW4,800 (P200) if you’re lucky. Avoid the lure of Mcdonald's and Starbucks and other chain stores, despite the familiarity they present. Instead, take a risk and order a dish you can’t translate with ingredients you aren’t familiar with. Food should be an experience in itself. 

Photo by Anri Ichimura.

1 p.m. Cycle through the city.  

Seoul might have less traffic than Manila, but there are still plenty of citizens that prefer commuting by bike. Live like a local and rent a bike at any station that houses Seoul Public Bicycles. For only KRW 2,000 (P90) for every two hours, you can breeze through the city and learn the lay of the land. Koreans drive on the right side of the road, so it shouldn’t be too hard to navigate. For just an afternoon, channel your inner K-drama character and cycle through the city. 

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Photo by Anri Ichimura.

7 p.m. Splurge at Myeong-dong. 

After a whole day of budget-friendly travel, it’s time to splurge at Myeong-dong, Seoul’s version of cheap Changi-style shopping. Although Myeong-dong hosts plenty of luxury brands, it’s best known for its boutique stores and affordable deals, perfect for anyone on a budget. The pandemic did a number on Myeong-dong’s businesses, but we can only hope more stores will return to the popular shopping district. 

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9 p.m. Eat your weight in street food.   

Koreans love their street food, so expect to find a street food stand at every corner in Myeong-dong. Street food in Korea is incredibly cheap, so treat every food stall like a buffet. Try Seoul’s popular street food skewers from classic fried corn dogs to skewered crab sticks. Korean fish cakes are our personal favorite, and Squid Game finds will enjoy streetwise Dalgona candy. 

DAY 2

Photo by Anri Ichimura.

9 a.m. Get enlightened at a museum. 

South Korea might be best known for its export of K-pop and K-dramas, but this city has weathered countless wars and conflicts. Seoul is a testament to South Korean resilience, and what better way to appreciate the city’s history than by paying a visit to some of its national museums. We personally recommend the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Deoksugung complex. The location includes a palace, a museum, and countless historical sites where you can learn a little about South Korean history. 

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Photo by Anri Ichimura.

12 p.m. Spend the afternoon in a public park. 

After a morning with Korean history, find another mom-and-pop shop for lunch, then head over to a nearby park. Spend the afternoon enjoying mindful traveling. Tourists can often get sucked into the habit of hopping from one tourist trap to another, barely sparing any time to actually step back and appreciate the places they’re visiting. Do the opposite and practice mindful traveling—take it slow, don’t rush, and enjoy a quiet afternoon in one of Seoul’s many public parks. 

Photo by Anri Ichimura.
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5 p.m. Take a train to Hongdae. 

What better way to remember a trip than to experience public transportation? You’ll never feel more like a tourist than when you’re standing in front of a map in the subway, frantically using Google Lens to translate Korean into English. Luckily for us, Korea’s subway station is easy enough to navigate. From wherever you are in Seoul, take a quick train ride to Hongdae, Seoul’s popular university town.

Photo by Anri Ichimura.
Photo by Anri Ichimura.
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5:30 p.m. Enjoy the university town’s indie scene. 

Think of Hongdae as Korea’s version of Katipunan. The university town never sleeps as buskers and dance battles line the streets. Named after the nearby art college, Hongdae is home to street artists, budding musicians, boutique shops, themed cafes, tarot readers, and vintage shops. Gen Zs and millennials will find themselves right at home in this indie neighborhood, where you can find quirky establishments like the 9 ¾ King’s Cross Harry Potter cafe and the Thanks Nature Cafe where you can pet… sheep. 

There’s so much more to Seoul than what the travel pamphlets say. But you'll only make the most of it if you go off the beaten track.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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