With state-of-the-art skyscrapers alongside small one-story ones hanoks (traditional Korean houses), Seoul is often referred to as the city of old and new, and this description applies to the museum offerings as much as to the city’s architecture.
The South Korean capital isn’t particularly known for museums, but several have opened in the past two decades with exhibits ranging from the traditional to the niche. Here are our favorite museums to get to know South Korea View history, modern art and have a little fun.
National Museum of Korea
Best museum for all things Korean
The museum to visit if you only have time for one, the National Museum of Korea has a number of artifacts, documents and works of art that describe Korean history and art. The size of 56 football fields, this massive museum is split over three main floors covering everything from ancient and prehistoric to sculpture and art. Don’t miss the monumental Baekje period (18 BC-660 AD) jar coffins that Tiger in the Moonlight and Pine Grove Joseon Dynasty paintings and the 10-story stone pagoda from Gyeongcheonsa Temple – a stately marvel that stands prominently near the museum’s entrance.
The space also includes an immersive digital gallery, a children’s museum full of interactive experiences, and an extensive outdoor area with a botanical garden, a small waterfall, and several ponds. That National Hangeul Museumdedicated to the education of hangul (Korean alphabet), is next door and worth a visit when there is a special exhibition.
War and Women’s Rights Museum
Best museum for a moving experience
A small but memorable museum that War and Women’s Rights Museum uses art and audio to educate visitors about the history of comfort women (women used as sex slaves during World War II). Each visitor receives an audio guide that provides additional context to the objects on display.
Listening to the voices of the survivors and learning their names is an immersive experience. The information can be a lot but the museum does a great job emphasizing hope and life after trauma. Although history museums in Korea are reluctant to criticize their own involvement in war crimes, this museum is unique in its portrayal of injustices committed by the Korean government.
Seoul Museum of History
Best museum to get to know the city
Seoul has been known by several names over the years, and the city has undergone radical changes even in the last century. That Seoul Museum of History explores these shifts through artifacts, art, maps, and photography.
The permanent exhibition begins with Seoul’s origin as the Joseon capital in 1392 and extends to predictions of Seoul’s future; It also hosts special exhibitions on fashion, photography and historical town planning. Allow some more time in the Seoul Rapid Growth Period section to compare photos of the city today and 50 years ago to better understand how fast the city has developed. A highlight is “Suite No. 9-xxx of Seocho Samho Apartment”, a model of an apartment complex in Gangnam in the 1970s.
Korean Furniture Museum
Best Museum of Unexpected Luxury
How does a furniture museum become a must-visit for celebrities, influencers, and important foreign officials? It doesn’t make sense until you’ve actually visited Korean Furniture Museuma guided tour is required to visit.
This museum contains director Chyung Mi-sook’s personal collection with about 2500 pieces of traditional wood spread over 10 hanoks. You get a real sense of how the upper class lived during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), and the tour gives context to how items were made and how carefully soban (small portable tables), book cases and jewelry boxes with intricate designs were created and used.
Seeing the filigree pieces up close without display cases really sets this museum visit apart and the guides’ stories are excellent. The museum only runs a handful of tours for a limited number of visitors per day; guides must be reserved in advance on the museum’s website and are often fully booked months in advance.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Best museum for modern art lovers
The MMCA has three branches, but the site near Gyeongbokgung Palace is the newest and is considered representative of the institution. The museum exhibits internationally recognized artists, but the main focus of the gallery is to highlight the work of contemporary Korean artists.
Exhibitions include retrospectives on well-known Korean artists such as Park Soo Keun, Park Seo-bo, and Lee Kyungsung, as well as collections of emerging artists, including recipients of the Korea Artist Prize, awarded to contemporary Korean artists who push boundaries in the scene.
The space can be a bit confusing as gallery numbers aren’t clearly labeled, and it can be difficult to determine the best order for viewing the exhibition. However, the curation of works is unlike anything else you will find in the country. The gift shop stocked with books and art-inspired souvenirs is also worth a visit. Where else could you find a collection of stickers and postcards by Nam June Paik featuring Kim Whanki’s work?
Yun Dong-ju Literature House
Best little museum
The niche literature house Yun Dong-ju describes the life and work of one of Korea’s best-known poets and independence activists, Yun Dong-Ju (1917-1945). While the museum looks like an ordinary white building at first glance, the building designed by architect Lee So-jin was actually a trio of pressurized water tanks in its previous life. The mood of the concrete encasements plays a big role in the overall feel of the space.
The museum is divided into three parts: an exhibition of Yun’s manuscripts and photographs (only partially translated into English), a tour of Open Well (a former roofless water tank), and a short film about Yun in Closed Well (a dark water tank with minimal light ). The museum paints an intimate portrait of the poet, whether you are already familiar with his work or not.
Seoul Children’s Museum
Best museum for families
A highly interactive museum that stimulates the imagination, the Seoul Children’s Museum is a four-storey space with exhibitions, playrooms and courses for children from 3 to 12 years. Highlights include the Dance Energy Floor, an electronic floor that encourages children to jump on glowing tiles, and the water pump in the Science Play exhibit, which teaches children about the movement of water.
By incorporating science and physical education into all activities, the museum is a place where children can expend their energy and learn valuable lessons. Visit the museum’s website for information on how parents can best guide their children through these exhibits, as well as a lesson plan.
Best museum for foodies
Can’t get enough of the fermented cabbage dish that goes with most of your Korean dishes? Did you know that red pepper flakes are a relatively new addition to the dish? The small Kimchikan Museum in Insadong is dedicated to all your kimchi questions and helps visitors get a lesson on one of the most famous Korean dishes.
Here at the country’s most established food museum, you can learn about the collaborative nature of kimchi-making, study the evolution of kimchi through the centuries, and admire the dozens of kimchi varieties on display. Learn how kimchi can be used, get tips on how to ferment it at home, and taste kimchi varieties.
One of the main attractions of the museum? Its inexpensive kimchi making courses. The museum’s website lists two types of kimchi-making classes, but advance email reservations are required for the 40-minute intensive class on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Is the Discover Seoul Pass worth it?
That Discover the Seoul Pass, a tourist discount card, covers several of these museums, but before you visit Seoul, compare the museums listed on the pass to your Seoul itinerary and calculate the benefit of your visit. Many museums are inexpensive or free, so the Discover Seoul Pass may not be worth it.