Seoul on a Budget

How to Explore the City Without Breaking the Bank

Seoul on a Budget
Photo by Yu Kato / Unsplash

How to Explore the City Without Breaking the Bank

Welcome, budget-conscious adventurers! If you're reading this, you've probably heard tales of Seoul's vibrant energy, rich history, and delectable cuisine. But here's the deal – you don't need a fat wallet to have an amazing time in this South Korean metropolis. In this guide, we're going to show you how to navigate Seoul on a budget without sacrificing the full experience.

Getting Around Seoul Without Draining Your Funds

Seoul is a sprawling city with a transportation system that's efficient, affordable, and easy to use, and in my opinion and (years of travel) I can confidently say Seoul has the greatest, most efficient Metro system on the planet. There I said it.

Here's how to get around without burning through your won:

1. From Incheon International Airport to the City Center

Your Korean adventure begins the moment you land at Incheon International Airport. Skip the expensive taxi ride and hop on the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) or the All-Stop Train. They'll whisk you away to Seoul Station in about 43 minutes, and you'll save a bundle compared to a cab.

You can book them here, but we usually just arrive, follow the signs in the airport to the train station and get a ticket at the vendor.

2. Seoul's Seamless Subway System

Once you're in the city, the Seoul Metro is your best friend. It's clean, safe, and connects you to almost every corner of Seoul. Grab a T-Money card or a single-ride ticket, and you're set. Remember to check out the subway's cultural stations – they're like free mini-museums. Remember what I said, and let me know if you agree. "Seoul's metro is the greatest on the planet".

An almost empty train in the afternoon in Seoul, Korea. I was drawn by the contrast between the vibrant yellow handles and the bright, clean train.
Photo by Adam Chang / Unsplash

3. Wander on Foot

Seoul is a walker's paradise. Many of the city's attractions are clustered together, making it easy to explore neighborhoods on foot. From the historic streets of Bukchon Hanok Village to the bustling markets of Myeongdong, there's always something fascinating just a stroll away.

4. Buses for Specific Routes

Seoul's bus network is extensive, but it can be a bit tricky for tourists. Stick to the subway for most of your travels. However, if you find yourself in need of a bus, use an app like KakaoBus for route information and schedules.

Photo by Moujib Aghrout / Unsplash

Savoring Seoul's Street Food Delights

Alright, fellow budget adventurers, we've got our transportation sorted, and now it's time to talk about something we all can get behind – food. Seoul's street food scene is a gastronomic playground, a carnival of flavors that will both delight your taste buds and keep your wallet plump. Here's how to do it right:

1. Dduk-bokki Dreams

Your first street food mission: dduk-bokki. These spicy rice cakes are an absolute must-try, a punch of Korean flavor in every bite. You'll find vendors all over the city, but Myeongdong is a good starting point. Wander through this bustling shopping district, and you'll encounter stalls peddling these chewy, saucy delights. A cup usually costs around 2,000 KRW ($1.50 USD), and it's a filling snack that'll fuel your adventures.

2. Hotteok Happiness

In the mood for something sweet? Hotteok is your answer. These Korean pancakes are crispy on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside, and they come in various flavors like cinnamon, honey, and nut-filled. Grab one from a street vendor, and it'll set you back about 1,000 KRW ($0.80 USD). Perfect for breakfast or a quick pick-me-up between exploring palaces and temples.

3. Japchae on the Go

You're wandering the streets, and suddenly, the aroma of stir-fried glass noodles wafts through the air. That's the scent of japchae, a delicious dish often sold as street food. A plate of these savory noodles, usually garnished with veggies and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, can be yours for about 3,000 KRW ($2.50 USD). It's a hearty snack that's sure to keep you going.

4. Kimchi Creations

When in Korea, eat kimchi – lots of it. You'll find kimchi as a side dish in nearly every meal, but for a true kimchi lover's experience, look for kimchi jeon (pancakes). These savory delights are crispy, flavorful, and, best of all, affordable. A serving will only set you back around 2,000 KRW ($1.50 USD), and it's an excellent way to sample this Korean staple.

5. Tornado Potato Twirls

Need something to munch on while you're strolling along the Han River or exploring the artsy district of Hongdae? Enter the tornado potato – a spiral-cut potato on a stick, fried to crispy perfection. It's simple, it's fun, and it's budget-friendly at about 3,000 KRW ($2.50 USD). Opt for various seasonings, like cheese or spicy powder, to kick things up a notch.

6. Bindaetteok Bliss

What do you get when you combine mung beans, kimchi, and a hot griddle? Bindaetteok, a savory Korean pancake that's both crispy and chewy. These little gems are often sold at street stalls, especially during festivals. A portion is usually around 2,000 KRW ($1.50 USD), making it an excellent snack for sharing or devouring solo.

7. Korean Fried Chicken

Before you roll your eyes and say, "fried chicken again," hear me out. Korean fried chicken is on another level. It's crispy, it's juicy, and it's available at budget-friendly prices. Head to a fried chicken joint or stall in Sinchon or Itaewon and savor this heavenly comfort food. You'll find plenty of options under 10,000 KRW ($8 USD).

8. Fish Bread Fantasy

Need a sweet treat that's Instagram-worthy? Look for bungeoppang, also known as fish-shaped bread. It's a delightful pastry filled with various fillings like red bean paste, custard, or chocolate. It's cute, it's delicious, and it usually costs around 1,000 KRW ($0.80 USD) per piece.

And hey, if you can't get enough of Korean street food (we totally understand), we've put together another article with even more street food options. You can check it out here for an extended culinary adventure.

Seoul’s Street Food Symphony:
Savor Seoul’s Street Food Symphony - A Culinary Journey of Flavors and Stories. Discover the Magic of Seoul’s Streets!

Now, you might be thinking, "Adam, that's a lot of snacking." Well, you're right, but that's the beauty of Seoul's street food scene. You can nibble your way through the city, trying a bit of this and a bit of that without busting your budget. And while you're at it, why not strike up a conversation with the locals? They know the best places to eat and might even teach you a few Korean phrases.

A tourist (?) rushes with her trolley bag
Photo by Carl Kho / Unsplash

Sleeping on a Budget in Seoul

Alright, my budget-conscious wanderers, we've navigated Seoul's delectable street food scene, and your taste buds are singing with joy. Now, it's time to rest those weary feet without emptying your wallet. Accommodation in Seoul doesn't have to be pricey, and here's how to make sure it's not:

1. Hostels with Heart

Seoul boasts a thriving hostel scene that's not only affordable but also packed with character. If you're looking to meet fellow travelers and share stories, hostels are your go-to option. Areas like Hongdae and Sinchon offer a plethora of options, with prices ranging from 20,000 KRW to 50,000 KRW ($16 to $40 USD) per night. Most hostels provide communal spaces, free Wi-Fi, and friendly staff eager to share insider tips.

2. Guesthouses Galore

Guesthouses are another budget-friendly accommodation choice in Seoul. These cozy little spots offer private or shared rooms, often with traditional Korean touches. You can find guesthouses in neighborhoods like Insadong and Bukchon, offering rates starting from 30,000 KRW to 80,000 KRW ($25 to $65 USD) per night. It's a fantastic way to immerse yourself in local culture and hospitality.

3. Love for Airbnb

Airbnb has gained popularity in Seoul, offering a wide array of affordable options, from private rooms to entire apartments. Staying in an Airbnb not only gives you a glimpse into how locals live but also provides more privacy. Prices vary depending on the location and the type of accommodation, but you can often snag a great deal for as low as 40,000 KRW to 100,000 KRW ($32 to $80 USD) per night.

4. Hanok Stays

For a truly unique experience, consider a hanok stay. These traditional Korean houses offer a glimpse into Korea's rich history. While some hanoks can be on the pricier side, you can find budget-friendly options, especially in Bukchon Hanok Village. Prices generally start at around 50,000 KRW to 100,000 KRW ($40 to $80 USD) per night, and you'll get to sleep on comfortable futons on the floor.

5. Motels for the Modern Traveler

Don't let the term "motel" fool you. In Korea, motels are often modern, clean, and budget-friendly. They're especially popular among local couples looking for a private getaway. Motels can be found all over Seoul, with prices ranging from 50,000 KRW to 100,000 KRW ($40 to $80 USD) per night. While they lack some of the amenities of hotels, they're perfect for travelers on a budget.

Cyber Corner
Photo by Ciaran O'Brien / Unsplash

6. University Dormitories

If you're visiting during the summer or winter breaks, many universities in Seoul open their dormitories to travelers. This option can be incredibly budget-friendly, with rates as low as 30,000 KRW to 60,000 KRW ($25 to $50 USD) per night. Plus, you get to experience campus life and meet students from around the world.

7. Jjimjilbang – A Unique Experience

For the adventurous traveler, Seoul offers a truly unique accommodation experience—Jjimjilbang. These Korean bathhouses are not only places to soak and relax but also budget-friendly places to sleep. For a nominal fee (around 15,000 KRW to 25,000 KRW or $12 to $20 USD), you can access a Jjimjilbang, which includes saunas, heated floors, and sleeping areas with lockers. It's an excellent way to experience a piece of Korean culture while saving money.

8. Budget Hotel Chains

Korea has its own budget hotel chains like Toyoko Inn and Ibis. These hotels offer comfortable rooms at competitive prices. Depending on the location and the season, you can find rates starting from 60,000 KRW to 120,000 KRW ($50 to $100 USD) per night. While they may lack some frills, they provide all the essentials for a good night's sleep.

Speaking of budget-friendly stays, Sheri and I had a delightful stay in a cozy budget hotel near Sookmyung Women's University. It was clean, comfortable, and didn't break the bank. The location was perfect for exploring the city without worrying about long commutes or expensive transportation. So, keep an eye out for such hidden gems while planning your stay in Seoul.

Remember, budget doesn't mean sacrificing quality or comfort. Seoul's budget accommodation options are clean, safe, and provide excellent value for your money. Whether you're a solo traveler or exploring Seoul with friends, there's an affordable place to rest your head.

Photo by Zequn Gui / Unsplash

Seoul's Affordable Adventures

So far, we've uncovered the secrets of Seoul's budget-friendly dining, affordable accommodations, and street food heaven. Now, it's time to explore the city's cultural riches and top attractions without breaking the bank.

If you haven't already spotted our Seoul: 5 Day Itinerary, check it out here:

Seoul Itinerary: A 5-Day Adventure in South Korea’s Capital
Embark on a 5-day Seoul adventure: From city walks to culinary treasures, discover the essence of South Korea’s vibrant capital.

1. Free Cultural Delights

Seoul is a treasure trove of culture and history, and many of its cultural sites won't cost you a dime to explore. Start your cultural journey with a visit to the grand Gyeongbokgung Palace, where you can witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the main gate, Gwanghwamun. Stroll through the palace grounds, admire the traditional architecture, and take plenty of photos. Entry to the palace is free if you're dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing).

Another must-visit spot is Bukchon Hanok Village, where you can wander through picturesque alleys lined with traditional Korean houses. Explore the streets, snap some Instagram-worthy shots, and soak up the historic ambiance—all without spending a penny.

2. Museums and Galleries

Many of Seoul's museums and galleries offer free admission on certain days or during specific hours. Plan your visit accordingly to enjoy world-class art and history without the hefty price tag. For example, the National Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea have free admission for their permanent exhibitions. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, offers free entry on the first Tuesday of every month.

3. Namsan Seoul Tower on a Budget

The iconic Namsan Seoul Tower offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city, and while there's an admission fee to access the observatory, you can skip the cable car and hike up to the tower for free. It's a bit of a climb, but it's a budget-friendly way to enjoy the scenery and get some exercise in the process. Once you reach the top, you can still enjoy the view from the base of the tower without buying a ticket.

4. Han River Hangouts

The Han River, which flows through Seoul, is the perfect place for budget-friendly relaxation and entertainment. Pack a picnic, rent a bicycle, or simply take a leisurely stroll along the riverbanks. You'll find parks, exercise areas, and even free outdoor movie screenings during the summer months. It's a local favorite for unwinding without spending a dime.

5. Explore Local Markets

Seoul's local markets are not only a feast for the senses but also a budget traveler's paradise. Visit Namdaemun Market and Dongmyo Flea Market to browse an array of items from clothing to accessories to household goods. Even if you don't intend to shop, the vibrant atmosphere and street food stalls are worth the visit.

6. Affordable City Tours

Seoul offers various affordable city tours that can help you explore the city's attractions efficiently. Consider taking a hop-on-hop-off bus tour or booking a guided walking tour. These tours often provide valuable insights and access to multiple attractions at a bundled price.

7. Budget-Friendly Entertainment

If you're in the mood for entertainment, Seoul has budget-friendly options too. Catching a movie at a local theater is a great way to experience Korean cinema. Prices are reasonable, and you can often find English-subtitled screenings. Additionally, look for local performances and cultural events, many of which are free or low-cost.

Photo by Chan Young Lee / Unsplash

8. Hidden Gems Off the Beaten Path

Seoul's charm extends beyond its famous landmarks. During your budget-friendly adventure, don't forget to explore the lesser-known corners of the city. Discover hidden parks, quaint neighborhoods, and tucked-away cafes that offer a more intimate view of Seoul's daily life. These off-the-beaten-path experiences often come without a price tag but are rich in authenticity.

For instance, you can wander through the artistic streets of Ihwa Mural Village, where vibrant street art adorns the walls and staircases. Or take a leisurely stroll along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, an urban oasis in the heart of the city. These hidden gems provide unique insights into Seoul's local culture.

9. Embrace the Nightlife, Korean Style

Seoul's nightlife is legendary, and you don't need to splurge to experience it. Skip the upscale clubs and opt for more budget-friendly options. Hongdae, for example, is known for its youthful energy and bustling nightlife scene. You can enjoy live music performances, street performances, and affordable drinks at the area's many bars and clubs.

Another must-visit spot for budget travelers is the bustling neighborhood of Itaewon. This diverse district is home to numerous bars and eateries where you can mingle with locals and fellow travelers. Whether you're into live music, karaoke, or just people-watching, Seoul's nightlife offers something for everyone.

So there you have it, my fellow budget adventurers. Seoul is a city where you can savor mouthwatering street food, rest your head in budget-friendly accommodations, discover hidden gems off the beaten path, and embrace the vibrant nightlife—all without busting your budget. With a little bit of planning and a lot of curiosity, you can make unforgettable memories in this dynamic city.

nights of rage
Photo by Sava Bobov / Unsplash

The City of Serendipitous Exploration

In my humble opinion, Seoul is not just one of the best cities to explore—it might just be the absolute best. It's a city where you can arrive with no plans, no agenda, and get completely and wonderfully lost every single day. Why? Because Seoul is vast, it's brimming with character, and if you're the type who enjoys meandering through streets, taking in whatever catches your eye, and doing so without emptying your pockets, then Seoul is your ultimate playground.

This sprawling metropolis has an uncanny ability to surprise and delight at every turn. Whether it's stumbling upon a hidden temple nestled amidst towering skyscrapers or discovering a cozy café tucked away in a centuries-old alley, Seoul constantly rewards those who explore with an open heart and a curious spirit.

The city's blend of modernity and tradition creates a fascinating tapestry where the old and the new coexist harmoniously. Every neighborhood has its own unique personality, from the youthful exuberance of Hongdae to the historical charm of Bukchon Hanok Village.

So, pack your sense of adventure and let Seoul guide you. Whether you're savoring delectable street food, exploring off-the-beaten-path treasures, or immersing yourself in the vibrant nightlife, Seoul invites you to wander, wonder, and embrace the serendipity of travel.

In the end, it's not about the money you spend but the priceless moments you collect. Seoul, with its welcoming spirit and boundless surprises, is the city where you can create memories that will stay with you long after you've left its bustling streets.

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