Korean culture is sweeping the world so quickly there’s even a name for it: hallyu, which is a Chinese phrase for “Korean wave.” Koreans are capitalizing on this fascination by offering tourists a variety of what they call “experiences” to immerse visitors in their traditional culture and help keep those traditions relevant to a new generation.
From cooking or make-up classes to tea-time conversations with monks at Buddhist temples, take advantage of Seoul’s many free (or nearly free) hands-on craft, dance, and music workshops and programs. Here are nine of the best ways to experience Korean culture in Seoul via experiences that will entertain and enchant travelers of all ages.
1. Explore Your Inner Buddha During A Temple Stay
Join a monk for afternoon tea, make flower mandalas, or even stay overnight at a working Buddhist temple. There are 30 temples throughout Korea that offer a variety of English-language programs for foreigners. The seven temples in Seoul that offer visitors these experiences feature two- to four-hour programs that include a tea ceremony and conversation with a monk and engaging in a mindful craft (such as making a wish mobile) for 30,000 to 40,000 won ($25 to $35). The overnight stays in a private room include dawn and dusk meditations and a sacred meal for dinner and breakfast.
Tip: Plan ahead! Reservations must be made online and the one-day program is offered only once each week.
2. Craft Your Souvenirs Using Traditional Techniques
The Seoul Global Cultural Center offers foreign visitors a rotating variety of free workshops to make handicrafts featuring hanji (traditional Korean handmade paper), hangeul (Korean calligraphy), jagae (mother-of-pearl), and more. Classes are same-day sign-up (no pre-registration offered) between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Just show up!
Tip: Check the website beforehand as not all activities are offered every day, and arrive early! Classes max out at six people -- first come, first served.
3. Learn To Cook Korean Food
The Seoul Tourism Organization offers a rotating mix of free (or nearly free) cultural experiences exclusively for foreigners. Play the lead character in a virtual reality reproduction of a popular K-Drama, learn makeup tricks used by Korean celebrities, tour Korea’s largest e-sports stadium and Hall of Fame, or get up close and personal with K-Pop musical groups’ albums and stage costumes.
I opted to cook (and eat!) a scrumptious Korean meal of pork galbi and rice with a persimmon parfait for dessert. Galbi is seared meat that has been marinated in sesame oil and pear juice and is served for special occasions. This cooking class -- and lunch -- cost 20,000 won ($17 USD).
These experiences are available to foreigners only and must be applied for online. You must present your passport.
Tip: Plan ahead! These programs are offered only a few times each month, and some require that you make your reservations up to four weeks in advance.
4. Step Back Through Time In Bukchon Village
Bukchon Village is the charming historical neighborhood where homes date back 600 years. Today, 900 hanok (traditional wooden houses) have been restored and are functioning homes, tea houses, homestay guesthouses, and boutique shops.
Make and take home your own souvenir from the Buckchon Traditional Crafts Experience Center. Learn donglim knotting, hanji dollmaking, dancheong painting, natural tie-dyeing, kum bak gilding, beoseon sewing, and more. Three different hands-on experiences are offered daily. Drop in -- no reservations necessary -- any time from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. from May to October). Expect to spend about half an hour and 5,000 to 19,000 won for materials, depending on the craft you choose.
I made an enamel keychain using the Korean tradition called chilbo, where I placed colored stones on a treated surface that was then fired in a mini-kiln for 10,000 won ($8.50). My teacher, Sung So-yun, has been enameling for 12 years and offers 3-month in-depth classes in addition to drop-in experiences like mine.
You can also visit specific Bukchon Village studios, such as the Dom-Lim Knot Workshop, where you can knot a bracelet for 7,000 won ($6). It’s harder than it looks!
Tip: Wear slip-on shoes and comfy socks. You’ll be required to take your shoes off to enter each hanok (traditional home).
5. Drum And Dance Your Way Through History
Janggu, a double-headed, hourglass-shaped drum, is believed to represent the harmonious relationship between men and women when the two heads (which have different timbres) are played simultaneously. Try your hand while learning from professional players at the Jeongdong Theater (classes resume in March 2020 and cost 15,000 won -- about $13 USD).
Launching in March is a new Jeongdong Theater class called “Traditional Dance Experience.” Reservations must be made before noon the day of the class, which takes place from 3 to 3:30 p.m.
Tip: Jeongdong Theater is Korea’s first modern theater and boasts a calendar of wide-ranging dance performances. Stay after your class and indulge in a dynamic evening of traditional dance performed with modern flair!
6. Put A Modern Spin On Traditional Crafts
Ssamziegil, a traditional culture and shopping center in the heart of the popular tourist area Insa-dong, houses more than 70 boutiques, galleries, tea houses, and restaurants. In the basement of the four-story building is the Ssamziegil Experience Workshop, a series of workshop spaces where you can create your own pottery, jewelry, candles, or even cell phone accessories using traditional techniques -- for only the cost of the materials. It’s a fun way to modernize traditional crafting techniques to make or decorate usable items.
Tip: Open every day, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The workshops are on the B1 level (in the basement). With no outdoor lighting, it’s easy to lose track of time!
7. Create Your Signature Stamp
At the Yhlayuen Seal Engraving Lab and Experience Center, you can engrave your name on a seal. For 22,000 won ($19 USD), you can leave with your own personal stone stamp, bookmark, and stamp case. It takes 30 to 60 minutes to design and engrave your seal. The studio is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. No reservation needed, but you might want to bring your translator app as no English is spoken. It’s easy to follow the instructions, though.
Tip: The web site is in Korean, but the address is #201 – 202, 34, Insadong-gil on the main pedestrian promenade in Insa-dong. Look for the sign above an open door and head up the stairs to the second floor.
8. Strut Your Stuff In Traditional Korean Clothes
For the past 1,600 years, until about a century ago, hanbok was the style of clothing worn by Korean elites. Nowadays, hanbok is worn primarily on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and a children’s first birthdays.
But, you’ll see many Koreans -- and visitors -- of all ages strolling around Insa-dong, Bukchon, or the Gyeongbokgung Palace dressed in hanbok. For men, the outfit consists of a vest, jeogori (jacket), and baji (pants). For women, the graceful outfits consist of a tight-fitting jeogori, undershirt, voluminous skirt, and pantaloons. Various accessories and headgear represent the wearer’s marital status.
Many shops rent hanbok by the hour, but you can try on the costume at the Insa-dong P.R. Center. For only 3,000 won ($2.50 USD), you can try on various hanbok outfits. You have 20 minutes to create that perfect selfie, but you can’t wear the costume off-site. The Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tip: Be sure to pick the right color. Unmarried women wear yellow jackets while married women wear green jackets.
9. Enjoy ICN Airport Experiences
If you haven’t had your fill of experiences by the time you are ready to fly out, or if you still need a few small gifts, take advantage of the free craft-making at the Incheon International Airport prior to departure.
At the Korean Traditional Culture Experience Centers across from gates 29, 122, and 25 in Terminal 1, or across from gates 253 and 248 in Terminal 2, you can make last-minute souvenirs -- and memories -- for free. The projects rotate every few months, but I made a najeon keyring by placing crushed abalone shell on a black lacquered background with tweezers. The slow, methodical work was quite relaxing after a hectic ride to the airport! It took me about 20 minutes, and the final keychain was placed in a small plastic box to allow it to dry while tucked in my carry-on. If you haven’t already, you can try on hanbok traditional costumes for that last-minute Instagram post, too!
Allow yourself some extra time in the airport to enjoy performances of traditional music. In Terminal 1, the half-hour performances start at 10:30 a.m. and 11:20 a.m. In Terminal 2, the performances start at 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 p.m.
Additionally, there is a Royal Parade in Terminal 1 that reenacts the daily life of the king and queen during the Joseon Dynasty. The 40-minute performances start at 11:20 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. Terminal 2 features a 40-minute “Ceremony of the Airport Gatekeepers” that reenacts the Joseon Dynasty palace gatekeepers’ rituals, which begins at 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Tip: Don’t miss your flight!
Want to make the most of your time in the city? Pencil in at least one of these seven totally free walking tours in Seoul.