Whenever I chat with people about travel in Seoul, cost is the first topic that comes up. It’s true, this isn’t the cheapest city in Asia (especially if you’ve just wrapped up a trip in Southeast Asia), however, the Korean capital isn’t a destination that is going to break the bank either. There are many ways to visit Seoul on a budget if you know where to look, so today I’m going to share a few budget friendly tips to help you enjoy the city without restricting yourself in terms of the things you get to experience – because if you’ve come all the way to Seoul, you may as well enjoy your time here!
Find cheap accommodations in Seoul
When it comes to finding cheap accommodations in Seoul, there is no shortage of options. I’m going to list a few different types of accommodations starting with the most basic and then slowly working my way up in price:
Jjimjilbang (찜질방): A jjimjilbang is technically a spa and bathhouse, but this shouldn’t stop you from spending the night there. In fact, jjimjilbangs have sleeping areas, where you can either sleep in a communal room (picture lots of mats and people scattered in a massive room) or you can crawl into one of the individual cubby holes and sleep in your own little cave. While I would not recommend spending your entire trip at a jjimjilbang, it’s a good option if you’re coming into Seoul for a night or if you’re catching an early flight and you don’t want to pay for a hotel room. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to get naked to use the baths and steam rooms (no bathing suits here!), but if you’re okay with that, it’s a good option. Staying at a jjimjilbang can cost anywhere between $10-15 / night depending on the place.
Goshiwon (고시원): A goshiwon is the smallest type of room you can find in Korea. It’s basically a closet sized room large enough to fit a single bed and a little desk, but not much else. You’ll also likely be sharing a kitchen and a bathroom with other people, but there’s a reason why these places are so cheap. This type of accommodation is geared at university students or out of towners who work in the city during the week, but if you plan on being in Seoul long enough, you could also snatch up a room. Stays at a goshiwon can start as low as $200 for the month.
Hostels / Guesthouses: Another option is to stay in a hostel or a guesthouse. These can average between $25-45 a night depending on whether you’re looking at a dorm or a private room. You can select guesthouse and hostel as an option on Agoda to narrow down the search.
AirBnB: AirBnB is quite popular in Seoul and you can easily find a good bargain, especially if you book well in advance. The listings include a mixture of officetels, lofts, and 2 bedroom apartments. I have rented a lot of places in Seoul through AirBnB and I have found really nice listings for $35-50 per day, though you can go a lot higher if you’re looking for modern places with extra conveniences. If it’s your first time using AirBnB, you can get a $25 discount here.
Hotels: There are also lots of hotels to choose from across the city. On average, you’ll be looking at $75-100 a night for something in the mid-range, but prices do go up from there based on the location. You can get a rough idea browsing here.
Hanok (한옥): A hanok is a house built in the traditional Korean style and it features tiled roofs, wooden architectural elements, and heated floors. You can sometimes luck out with stays between $40-100 per night though again, it can be a lot higher. You can get more information about Korea’s Hanok Stay Program here.
Use public transportation like a pro
First things first, you need to get yourself a T-money card. This is a transportation card that will give you access to Seoul’s buses and metro system. It’s better to get a card instead of paying per ride, because it makes your fare cheaper and you end up saving quite a bit in the long run. You can pick these up at any metro station or at a convenience store like GS25, CU, 7-Eleven, Mini Stop, With Me, and Buy The Way.
The cool thing about the Seoul Metropolitan Subway system is that the network doesn’t just cover Seoul; it’s so spread out that it reaches Incheon, the Gyeonggi province, the Chungnam province, and the Gangwon province. You could potentially cover a lot of ground just using the metro, and you also have express lines to get you further faster. Don’t forget to return your T-money card at the end of your visit for a refund on the balance and the cost of the card.
Taxis are also surprisingly affordable, and while I wouldn’t use them during the day when there’s heavy traffic, they are perfect if you’ve been out late and have missed the last subway home.
Lastly, let’s talk transportation to and from the airport. The most efficient way is the AREX (Airport Railroad), which has an Express Train and an All Stop Train. The All Stop Train is cheaper and it only takes a few more minutes to get into Seoul, so I don’t find it a significant enough difference to pay extra.
Another option is to take the bus. You have the deluxe bus, which makes fewer stops and provides more comfort, or you can take the standard bus which makes more stops along the way but is cheaper.
You can get more info on transportation to and from Incheon Airport here.
Try street food & dine at local eateries
Eating out in Seoul is very affordable if you know where to go; the key to eating well and on the cheap is to veer towards little restaurants geared at locals.
These little hole-in-the-wall eateries can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. They are typically located in residential neighbourhoods and hold between 5-10 tables. Keep in mind that most Korean apartments are very small, so it makes sense that people would go out for food and that it would also be affordable. An average meal at a local eatery will cost $3-6. Also, all of these meals come with free re-fillable side dishes, free water, and there is no tipping.
Some foods to consider trying in eateries include:
Dolsot bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥) – rice served in a hot stone pot with mixed vegetables and a fried egg. You then mix the ingredients and let them cook and sizzle in the pot.
Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) – A soft tofu and spicy red pepper paste stew. It usually has clams and a raw egg is dropped in the stone pot to continue cooking once it’s at the table. This is served with a bowl of rice.
Kimchi mandu (김치만두) – Dumplings filled with spicy fermented cabbage. You typically get a set of 10 when you order.
Chamchi kimchi bokkeumbap (참치 김치 볶음밥) – Fried rice with red pepper paste, tuna, fried kimchi, and seaweed flakes, served with a fried egg on top.
Donkasu (돈가스) – Pork cutlet that is breaded and then fried. It can be served with different sauces and gravies, and it comes with a bowl of rice.
Mandu guk (만두국) – Light broth with chives, whisked egg, seaweed, and dumplings.
Omurice (오므라이스) – The name is short for omelette and rice. It’s made by frying rice in a bit of ketchup, and then wrapping the rice in a light omelette. This can then be topped with more ketchup or gravy.
Ramyeon (라면) – Ramen noodles in a spicy broth. You can add extras to it like slices of cheese.
The only potential hurdle at some of these local eateries is that they tend to only have Korean menus. If you luck out, you’ll be able to point at a picture or point at someone else’s dish if you like what you see, but it would be a good idea to show up with a list of foods you’d like to eat, especially if you don’t read Hangul or speak Korean.
Another option for eating cheaply in Seoul are the street food markets. Here you’ll find a lot of dishes that you can eat on the go for just a few dollars, plus the language barrier isn’t so scary since all you have to do is point at what you want. Some classic street food eats are:
Tteokbokki (떡볶이) – Soft rice cakes served in a sweet red chilli sauce.
Odeng (오뎅) – Boiled fishcake served on a skewer.
Twigim (튀김) – An assortment of battered and deep-fried snacks that can include slices of sweet potato, egg, dumplings, squid and more. Very similar to tempura.
Kimbap (김밥) – A rice roll typically stuffed with cucumbers, spinach, carrots, pickled radish, and you can add extras like canned tuna or sweet beef. It looks like a sushi roll, but it’s not.
Hotteok (호떡) – A cross between a donut and a pancake filled with cinnamon and sugar.
Most street food snacks are $0.50-$3, so you could either have one as a little snack, or make a meal by picking up different items from food vendors.
Visit all the free (& nearly free) museums
So according to my friend Google, there are over 100 museums in Seoul. I clearly haven’t been to them all, so I’m just going to stick to the main ones which I know and have enjoyed. Most of these are either free or very cheap to visit, though access to special exhibitions does come at an additional cost.
National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관) – FREE
This museum is located within the grounds of Gyeongbokbung Palace (East Entrance) and it focuses on the daily life and culture of Korea from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
National Palace Museum of Korea (국립고궁박물관) – FREE
This next one is also located within the grounds of Gyeongbokgung and it showcases artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty which were found in the nearby palaces and shrines.
National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관) – FREE
The National Museum of Korea has a massive collection focused on Korean history and art. The collection starts with prehistoric artifacts and then moves into medieval and early modern history.
National Hangul Museum (국립한글박물관) – FREE
This museum deals with the history of the Korean alphabet, which is a heck of a lot easier to learn than hanja! It’s also really close to the National Museum of Korea, so you can easily hit both on the same day.
War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관) – FREE
The War Memorial of Korea has both an indoor and outdoor component, the latter which features military equipment and machinery used during the war. While the focus is on the Korean War, this museum also covers other wars and conflicts Korea has faced.
Seoul Museum of Art / SeMA (서울시립미술관) – Depends on exhibition
This museum holds rotating exhibitions throughout the year, so you never know what you’re going to find. I went to their Tim Burton exhibition a few years back and loved it, but this is one museum where you want to check that there’s something on before you show up. Also, the price of the admission ticket varies depending on the exhibition.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art / MMCA Seoul (국립현대미술관) – 4,000 won
For all you modern and contemporary art lovers, this is another museum to add to your list. Admission is cheap and they have rotating exhibitions throughout the year.
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (리움 삼성미술관) – 10,000 won
So this museum is not free, but if you enjoy traditional Korean art and contemporary art, it might be worth the admission fee; 10,000 won will give you access to the permanent collection, and 8,000 won for special exhibitions.
Also, certain museums are free once a month as part of Culture Day. You can see a list of participating museums here and hopefully free admission day overlaps with your visit!
Visit the main attractions
Alright, so I’ve told you all about the free and nearly free museums, now let’s have a look at some other fun sights and attractions across Seoul. In many cities, the top attractions generally come with hefty price tags, but that is not the case in Seoul. Here are a few activities that you can check out:
Grand Palaces – 10,000 won for 5 sites
There are 5 Grand Palaces in Seoul: Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung. You can either pay for individual admission tickets, or you can pay 10,000 won for a pass, which will give you access to the first four palaces (the fifth one is already free) as well as the Jongmyo Shrine. That’s cheaper than paying to visit each palace individually, and you don’t have to see everything on the same day.
Another alternative is to rent a hanbok (traditional Korean dress), which will then grant you free access to the palaces and the shrine. The rental of a hanbok is usually between 12,000-15,000 won, which is just a little more than getting the pass, but it means you can have fun taking photos around the grounds.
Jogyesa Temple – FREE
This is a Buddhist temple located in Jongno, which puts it in walking distance of many of the Grand Palaces. My favourite time of year to visit is for Buddha’s birthday when the entire temple is covered in colourful paper lanterns.
Cheonggyecheon – FREE
The Cheonggyecheon is an urban public space with a stream that flows more than 10 kilometres across the city. It’s a really nice spot for a stroll or a picnic lunch, and it has lots of bridges and foot stones so that you can criss cross back and forth. It’s nice to visit any time of year, but especially during the Lantern Festival when you can see one of a kind lanterns on display.
Namsangol Hanok Village – FREE
This is a village where hanok (traditional Korean houses) have been preserved to showcase what the area would have looked like in centuries past. This was once the site of a Joseon-era summer resort, so it feels quite peaceful even though you can see modern structures off in the distance.
Bukchon Hanok Village – FREE
This neighbourhood is full of traditional Korean houses, but unlike other villages that have been turned into open-air museums, people still live in these homes. Some of the hanok have been repurposed into workshops, cultural spaces, and private galleries, but for the most part, they are private residences. This is a beautiful area to wander on foot and it doesn’t cost anything.
N Seoul Tower – 10,000 won
For expansive views of Seoul, you’ll want to ride the elevator up N Seoul Tower. You can either pay to take the cable car or walk up the hill if you’re looking to save a few won. Once you’re done visiting the observatory, you can also watch free cultural performances on the square or lock your love like thousands of others before you.
Shop in subway stations and university areas
When it comes to shopping for clothes, shoes, and accessories, the vicinity around major universities is a great place to do so. The prices in these areas are geared at young students on a budget so aside from finding really trendy items, you can also get great deals. Some places to consider shopping in Seoul include:
Hongdae – This is the area around Hongik University, which is one of Korea’s top universities for the fine arts. This means there’s a lot of experimentation with fashion, which makes it a great place discover to new trends before they become mainstream. Hongdae is home to a lot of independent clothing stores and outdoor stands.
Ewha – This area is usually referred to as Edae and it is home to Ewha Womans University. Being next a women’s university means that this area is filled with shops geared towards girls. The shops feature a lot of feminine and girly pieces and you can also pick up all sorts of accessories: headbands, hats, earrings, scarves, sunglasses, handbags and so much more.
Sinchon – This is the area around Yonsei University, the oldest university in Korea and one of the most prestigious. Sinchon is just one stop away from Ewha on Line 2, so you can easily cover both in one outing. Like with Hongdae and Ewha, you can also expect to find a lot of indie shops with experimental yet affordable fashion.
All of the areas I’ve mentioned above also boast plenty of Korean beauty shops. One thing to keep in mind if you’re shopping for Korean makeup products is that they often give out free samples. These can be face masks, facial cleansers, or moisturizers. Sometimes they’ll hand out samples outside the stores as a way to lure you in, and other times you’ll get them as a little freebie with your purchase. It may not be huge, but it’s free!
If you’re visiting Seoul on a budget, you can also consider shopping in the underground metro stations. It may sound a bit odd, but most major stations have underground shopping areas where you’ll find independent clothing stores as well as major beauty brands.
Hiking and green spaces
Another way to make the most of your visit to Seoul on a budget is by enjoying all the green spaces the city has to offer. Here are a few to consider:
The Han River is a great place to visit on the weekends. If the weather is nice, this is where people come to picnic for the day with tents in tow. My favourite stretch of waterfront is along Yeouido, where you can rent bikes, watch teenagers longboard like pros, take out paddle boats and more.
Seoul Forest has some beautiful tree-lined paths and it’s a great little escape from the city. The area was once used as the royal hunting grounds, but thankfully these days there’s a greater focus on animal conservation so you can see deer and even feed them.
Seonyudo is an island in the middle of the Han River that was once home to a water filtration plant. The entire place has been turned into an ecological park, while still retaining a bit of an industrial feel, so it’s a pretty cool place to wander around. To reach the park you’ll either have to cross Yanghwadaegyo Bridge from Hapjeong in the north or Yeouido in the south.
Bukhansan National Park
For something a little more active in the form of a day-long hike, you can head up to Bukhansan National Park, which is located directly north of Seoul. They have a vast network of trails that range in length and level of difficulty, plus there are lots of temples that you can visit along the way.
Make use of convenience stores
Convenience stores in South Korea take things to a whole different level. They are fully stocked so that you can piece together a meal at all hours of the day, and you also can’t walk more than few steps without stumbling across one. So what can you eat?
Ramyeon bowls – What flavour would you like? Kimchi, cheese, beef, chicken, squid, vegetable, mushroom, spaghetti…wait, spaghetti?! There are countless types of ramyeon bowls and most of them don’t cost more than 1,000 won. Also, convenience stores usually have a hot water station where you can prep your meal and pick up a pair of chopsticks.
Rice and curry – Rice and curry bowls are another popular food option. These are sold in separate bowls which you can microwave and enjoy on the spot.
Food trays – These are similar to bento boxes and they usually include rice, a pork cutlet or some kind of meat, kimchi, and a few different vegetables.
Korean snacks – We’re talking seaweed chips, Pepero sticks (chocolate covered pretzels), rice crackers, honey cakes, red bean dumplings, choco pies, shrimp puffs and more. All of these cost no more than 2,000 won each.
Free activities through Seoul Global Cultural Centre
The Seoul Global Cultural Centre puts on a wide array of activities and workshops for visitors passing through. This is done as a way to introduce visitors to Korean culture and guess what, these events are free! Some of the activities you can expect to try include:
- Take a K-POP dance lesson
- Take a Korean cooking class
- Take a Hanji craft class
- Take a Korean folk painting class
- Try on traditional Korean hanbok
You can have a look at their website for current and ongoing events, and then you can reserve your spot in the workshops.
Experience Seoul’s unique cafe culture
I know, I know, I like to mention Seoul’s themed cafes anytime I get the chance, but how can I not? They are amazing! Would you rather enjoy a warm beverage at a coffee chain or somewhere unique? In Seoul you can find a:
- Poo Cafe
- Cat Cafe
- Dog Cafe
- Comic Book Cafe
- Hello Kitty Cafe
- Sheep Cafe
- Raccoon Cafe
- Lego Cafe
- Flower Cafe
- and so many others!
The way it works with these cafes is that they either charge you an admission fee and you get a free drink, or you buy a drink which acts as your admission fee. The cost is generally between 6,000-10,000 won at most, and you get to spend a few hours in a rather unusual setting.
If the above doesn’t really sound like your kind of thing, you can also consider visiting a traditional tea house in Insadong, where you can enjoy a cup of tea in a serene setting.
More ideas of things to do in Seoul
Lastly, let me leave you with this video that Sam and I filmed over the course of our summer and autumn visit in Korea this year. We ran around town and captured 50 things to do in Seoul, so hopefully this will give you a few ideas of what this city has to offer and get you pumped for your trip!
Have you been to Seoul?
Do you have any other tips to visit on a budget?