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Seoul is a major metropolis that deserves more than just a few hours to see and experience. But if you're on a layover and you just want to get a glimpse of the city, then here are a few tips for you.
You can store your belongings for free for 24 hours at the storage lockers located on the third floor near Gate 25 (East) and Gate 29 (West). Remember these free storage lockers are located inside the airport area for transit passengers. Once you get to Immigration, you will not have access to these lockers and must use the paid service (very pricey) outside of Customs. Be sure to take your passport, boarding pass, wallet/purse, and any valuables with you.
After Immigration and Customs (0.5 hours), head to the tourist information desk and ask for a map of downtown Seoul. Then go and change your money at any of the foreign exchange counters. Exchange rates are relatively fair and they are virtually the same at each counter (operated by major banks). As Seoul is a very credit card-friendly city, you won't need much cash and you could possibly go without needing to use any cash at all. You can even pay for your bus ticket to the city with a credit card (Visa or MasterCard) at the ticket counter (but not on the bus which accepts only Korean won). Also, almost all taxis are equipped with credit card machines and convenience stores will take credit cards for any purchase of 2,000 won or more. But if you want to take cash, it's recommended to have at least 50,000 won for the bus, taxis, entrance fees, snacks, and souvenirs. Having cash is not necessary, but convenient.
Just outside of the airport building, there are numerous airport limousine buses (1.0 hours) leaving for Seoul. You can take either the KAL bus (14,000 won) or the standard bus (9,000 won). The KAL bus is slightly better, but there is no big difference. Buses depart every 15-20 minutes. It should take 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on traffic, to get to downtown Seoul. Go to the ticket counter outside of the airport building and purchase a ticket for the bus going to Gwanghwamun. Ask the bus driver to let you know when you get there and sit near him/her. From there, you can do the Gyeongbokgung, Samcheongdong, Insadong, Cheonggyecheon, and Myeongdong route (all within walking distance of each other). If you don't get a map or get lost, don't worry. Just ask anybody walking by and they will help (unless they're afraid to speak English and run away from you). Try to ask younger people, like college students, as their English will be better.
Pick the sites you want to go to (recommended time is only a suggestion as you can spend as little as 30 minutes at each site):
Gyeongbokgung (1.5 hours) is the main palace in the city. It is located at Gyeongbokgung (line 3) and Gwanghwamun (line 5) subway stations. This area is the heart of Seoul as you will find the Sejong Performing Arts Center, the Admiral Yi Sunshin statue, and the U.S. and Japanese embassies. The presidential Blue House is located on the hill behind Gyeongbokgung, known for its ideal feng shui positioning. Entrance to Gyeongbokgung is 3,000 won and there is often a changing of guard ceremony outside the main entrance. Inside you will find the throne of the Korean king, a meditation pond, and other buildings used by the royal court. The palace and grounds are very modest compared to the grandeur of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing or the Palace of Versailles near Paris, reflecting the smaller size of the Korean kingdom and the Confucian modesty of the court. You can also visit the National Folk Museum for free where many Korean traditional costumes and the various kinds of kimchi are on display.
Samcheongdong (1.0 hours) is a quaint neighborhood of small cafes and shops located within a short walking distance of Gyeongbokgung. Just stroll down from the National Folk Museum and turn left when you exit the grounds. This is a nice place to just wander around and maybe get a bowl of patbingsu (shaved ice topped with sweet red bean, ice cream, condensed milk, rice cakes, and fruit) at one of the cafes after looking at some of the unique shops there.
Samcheonggak(1.5 hours) is an exclusive fine dining Korean restaurant located on top of a hill near the presidential Blue House. It was once used by former president Park Chung Hee as a kisaeng (Korean-style "geisha") house for entertaining high-ranking government officials. Besides the modern main dining hall, there are also beautiful hanok buildings that can be used for private functions such as weddings or banquets. This where many of Seoul's elites, especially politicians and business leaders, meet to have a power lunch or hold an aristrocratic introduction of their marriageable offspring. It also occasionally serves as a location for filming Korean drama and movie scenes. Samcheonggak's set menu price ranges from 50,000 won to 150,000 won per person. The pricier set menus feature Korean royal cuisine with dishes such as shinseollo (royal hot pot). Take a taxi there (after you visit Gyeongbokgung or Samcheongdong) and return by boarding the free shuttle bus service that leaves every hour for Anguk subway station. Be sure to ask when the next bus leaves before you sit down to eat, so you won't to have to wait an entire hour.
Biwon ("Secret Garden") (3.0 hours) is located within Changdeokgung only steps before heading into Insadong. It is a six-acre garden, first built in 1623, filled with woodland paths, lotus ponds, and pleasure pavillions. Definitely worth the visit, if you have the time. To visit Biwon, you must be on a guided tour (offered in Korean, English, or Japanese). The three-hour tours start at 10am, 1pm, and 2pm. Closed on Mondays.
Insadong (1.0 hours) is where you'll find traditional Korean arts and crafts such as celadon pottery and ink drawings. There are quite a few art galleries here as well. This is the place to buy that souvenir for friends and family back home. You can walk here from Samcheongdong and have a nice lunch at one of the hanok (traditional style house) restaurants. The main road is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only area on Sundays. Be sure to try the corn hotteok (pancake with honey and sugar inside) and other traditional desserts and snacks.
Cheonggyecheon (0.5 hours) is the city's $900 million urban beautification project that "restored" the stream that used to run through downtown (but was later paved over with a highway ramp and filled with merchant shops below the ramp). Although the stream runs in the reverse direction of how it naturally runs and water is artificially pumped in, Cheonggyecheon has helped revitalize the downtown area bringing in families visiting on the weekends, tourists walking from Insadong to Myeongdong, and office workers who want to relax and have a beer after work at one of the many pubs nearby. You can dip your feet in the water after a long day's walk before heading to Myeongdong.
Myeongdong (1.5 hours) is Seoul's busiest area teeming with tens of thousands of people at any given time. There are hundreds of shops here and you can find Korean cosmetics stores like The Face Shop, Etude House, and Skin Food as well as the Ralph Lauren-like Bean Pole. Be sure to stop by O' Sulloc for a nice warm green tea capuccino or refreshing green tea ice cream. There are also many street vendors selling snacks like ddokbokki (rice cakes with oden in a spicy red sauce) and, at night, the pojangmacha (tents with tables) open where soju (Korean vodka), makgoli (white rice wine), and various hot and cold appetizers are served. Some good appetizers to try are sannakji (live octopus chopped up to be dipped in sesame oil or hot sauce), dakdongjib (chicken gizzards stir-fried with onions and bell peppers), golbengi (conch in hot sauce with vegetables), sewoogui (salted and grilled shrimp), and najkibokkum (spicy stir-fried octopus). Plenty of people watching and shopping to do here. In addition, the B1 level food court at Lotte Department Store is not to be missed with its delicious snacks (be sure to try some fresh Korean pastry). You can also buy that kimchi or gim (dried seaweed) you always wanted to bring back home here.
Seoul City Tour Bus circulates 26 key tourist stops in downtown Seoul where you can hop on and off as much as you want. The bus comes by every 30 minutes and stops at places like Gwanghwamun, Seoul Station, Itaewon, Myeongdong, Seoul N Tower, Changdeokgung, etc. A one-day pass costs 10,000 won and is valid from 9am to 9pm. There is also a night bus at 8pm for 5,000 won. You can purchase tickets in front of the Donghwa Duty Free Shop near Gwanghwamun subway station. Closed on Mondays, except for Mondays that are national holidays and Mondays during the summer season.
When you're done, take the airport limousine bus from Lotte Hotel (located next to the Lotte Department Store) back to the airport. Please be sure to budget an hour and a half to get to the airport (in case of traffic) and you'll need to check-in at least 45 minutes prior to departure to get on your flight (it is suggested, however, that you arrive at the airport at least an hour and a half before your flight time).
If you get to the airport early, enjoy the facilities of Incheon International Airport like the 24-hour spa (fully nude) or massage service before your next flight. Nothing helps jetlag better than a massage. The 24-hour spa is located before check-in. In the Passenger Terminal Concourse A (after security) there is another spa on the 4th floor (near the airline lounges) that offers massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures, and is open from 7am to 8:30pm. They even offer free showers and for a small fee provide soap, shampoo, and a towel. Don't forget your belongings at the storage lockers or baggage storage service!
You'll need to determine what you want to see during the time you have. Depending on how much time you have, you may need to omit Samcheongdong, Samcheonggak, and Biwon. If you have more time, you can add Dongdaemun and Seoul N Tower. You'll need to take a taxi for both sites though (taxi rides will cost about 7,000 won from Myeongdong).
Short layover (2 hours in the city) recommended itinerary:
If you have more time, just spend more time at each location. Budget three hours for the roundtrip bus and two hours for the aiport check-in and security and you should be safe. Just be sure to allot some extra time if it is Friday night or anytime during Saturday (worst traffic times). Also, you need to add more time during rush hour traffic on weekdays (8am-10am and 6pm-8pm).
Long layover recommended itinerary (assuming a one-night stay at a hotel in Myeongdong):
- 10am: Breakfast at Tosokchon or Goryo Samgyetang (near Sejong Performing Arts Center)
- 11am: Gyeongbokgung (main palace: 3,000 won admission) and National Folk Museum (admission is included in Gyeongbokgung entrance)
- noon: Lunch in Samcheongdong or if you want to splurge, take a taxi up the hill to Samcheonggak (Korean royal cuisine: 50,000 won per person) and stroll through grounds and take free bus to Insadong
- 2pm: Go to Insadong (arts and crafts, maybe buy some green tea or celadon pottery or Korean wooden mask souvenir)
- 3pm: Walk to Cheonggyecheon ($1 billion artificial stream)
- 4pm: Walk to Lotte Department Store's B1 level and get some snacks in their food court (pastries, ice cream, sandwiches, Korean food, etc.)
- 5pm: Go shopping in Myeongdong (buy some Korean cosmetics)
- 6pm: Get some rest at hotel
- 7pm: Take a taxi to Noryangjin Seafood Market and pick up a crab to steam at Hwangje Restaurant on the 2nd floor and order some soju (Korean vodka)
- 9pm: Take a taxi to the Han River Cruise that leaves in nearby Yeouinaru or if the weather is clear go up to Seoul N Tower for a view of the city
- 11pm: Nightlife in Itaewon (clubs: Club Rococo, King Club) or Hongdae (clubs: M2, Harlem), alternatively go to All That Jazz (cozy jazz bar) in Itaewon or J.J. Mahoney's club/lounge/bar (all ages, but pricey) at the Hyatt Hotel
If you'd prefer to relax on a tour, there are several options designed specifically for transit passengers which include transportation back to the airport in time for your flight. Visit the Omi Travel desk on the 1st floor, between gates 6 & 7, for more information. They will also store your luggage for free while you are on their tour.
Another option is to see a traditional Korean dance and music performance at Jeongdong Theater (within 10-15 minute walk of Myeongdong) and then hit Noryangjin later (it's open 24 hours).
You can also shop in Dongdaemun almost 24 hours (10am to 5am). Note: The fashion is mostly for teens and 20s, but certainly 30s and 40s can find some nice items.
There is also a Night Dining Tour organized by On'Go Food Communications for 88,000 won that includes food, drink, and personalized guide/commentary in small groups.
For more information on other sites you can visit and for first-time visitors to Seoul, click here.
WARNING: The above information may change at any time and this article might not be updated accordingly. You should always check with your airline and with the airport for the latest information.
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