One of the best ways to experience Seoul like a local is to dive into the mineral waters and saunas at the local bathhouses. Known as jjimjilbangs, these 24-hour spas are found in every neighborhood, often attracting entire families on the weekends. Women often wrap their hair in towels - similar to Princess Leia - in jjimjilbangs — Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
Koreans spend hours scrubbing down, soaking up the water and sweating out toxins at these jjimjilbangs. Before you head off to the nearest Korean sauna, you'll want to make sure you know the proper jjimjilbang etiquette.
This symbol is synonymous with Seoul's saunas — Photo courtesy of Nagyman/Flickr
You'll pay a flat fee for entrance to a jjimjilbang, which varies based on the spa's location and the time of day during your visit. You'll get a jjimjilbang uniform and a bracelet with your locker keys. You'll also use your bracelet to pay for extras within the spa and pay the tab when you leave.
Showers and pools are in the first area you'll visit in a jjimjilbang. — Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
The first set of lockers are just for your shoes. Take your other belongings to the shower area, where you'll remove everything else. Yes, you'll be baring it all - but it's completely standard bathhouse etiquette in Korean culture. Thoroughly cleaning yourself before entering the waters is a critical part of the experience, so don't be surprised if the locals spend a solid half-hour or longer scrubbing away. You can even pay to be scrubbed down by a spa professional who will remove an unseemly amount of dead skin as they rub you with special exfoliating gloves or towels.
Once you've thoroughly washed yourself, you're ready to start soaking.
Soak and Sweat Like a Local
The key to soaking in the pools is to go from hot water to cold - and back again. According to locals, this is best for blood circulation and the only way you'll get the true benefits of the spa experience. Each jjimjilbang has unique pool offerings, ranging from indoor and outdoor pools to some infused with kelp, charcoal or wormwood.
Inside a hot sauna in a Korean jjimjilbang — Photo courtesy of The Official Seoul Tourism Website
After you've finished soaking, it's time to don your standard issue jjimjilbang clothes and hit the sauna area, usually on a separate floor. Just like with the pools, each jjimjilbang has its own saunas infused with different minerals. Some even have cold saunas filled with ice. Different jjimjilbangs have different saunas infused with different minerals. Some even have cold saunas filled with ice. You'll find everything from stone-walled huts lined with straw to granite-tiled, jade-infused steam rooms. Take your time to peak in each of the saunas and see which ones you like.
Spa visitors rest outside saunas between sessions. — Photo courtesy of The Official Seoul Tourism Website
In-between sauna sessions, feel free to take a quick nap, watch TV or lounge in a massage chair. After you've recharged, you can hit the saunas again or check out the center's extra amenities.
Since locals like to spend an entire day or night at a jjimjilbang, these facilities offer much more than mineral water and saunas. Most jjimjilbangs have restaurants, computer stations and arcades to keep the kids occupied. Some also have fitness centers, salons and singing rooms. Afterward checking out these extras, you can take a nap on the heated wood floor or curl up in a sleeping den, which many jjimjilbangs have.
Ready to dive in? Start with some of the city's top jjimjilbangs, such as Dragon Hill Spa in the international neighborhood of Itaewon. This sauna is one of the more foreigner-friendly in Seoul. A close second in the race for Seoul's best sauna is Siloam Fire Pot Sauna near Seoul Station. Siloam is known for its impressive sleeping accommodations, including bunk beds, making this a great place to crash for the night before catching a train at Seoul Station.
If you're headed to Gangnam, you can slip into the Central City Spa at Express Bus Terminal station. For a truly indulgent experience, don't miss The Spa in Garden 5 in Songpa or the ladies-only Spa Lei in Seocho.
You can even enjoy the Korean jjimjilbang experience during a long layover at Incheon Airport, where a basic sauna awaits weary travelers on the basement level. The sleeping floor in this jjimjilbang can get crowded at night, but it beats napping on a bench.