In this version of tourist tips, I’ll tackle the short layovers that many arrange for themselves. On TripAdvisor, there are tonnnnnnnnns of questions about what to do/where to go/where to stay for a super short visit.
Not sure how to get from the airport to Seoul and back? Check here.
I advise that if you do not have six hours or more for a layover, don’t bother to go into Seoul on your own. This is because it takes around two hours from landing to make it into Seoul. If you get off the plane quickly, no bags, no line at immigration, it can be faster….but it is minimum one hour from the airport into Seoul just for bus/train alone. And you should leave Seoul three hours before your next flight (one hour transit, arrive two hours early). If you have a six hour layover, as you can see, that’s barely two hours in Seoul to explore.
If your layover is less than six hours or so, consider one of the free transit tours.
Incheon Airport Free Transit Tours
There are many kinds of transit tours available through the airport. Korean Air and Asiana also list tours on their website, but from a quick glance – they’re all the same and the ones offered by the airport office themselves. These depart at various times and require a certain amount of time with your layover.
These can even be done without a visa (even though your country may require one as a regular tourist).
Please check dates and times carefully:
Incheon Airport Free Transit Tour Information
Personally, if I had enough time to go into Seoul, I’d do it myself.
Where to Stay in Seoul
My previous post and full detail on the neighborhoods can be found at the link here.
But, if you are visiting for just one evening and depart the next morning – I would choose Hongdae. Simple access from airport, lots of food/nightlife choices to get a sampling, good shopping. Easy to pop in and pop out and see a bit of something.
If you have time the next morning (flight departs in the late afternoon or evening) – stay in central Seoul. If your flight is before even say 2 PM, you won’t have time to do much. Depart at 2 so that means airport by 12 and leave Seoul by 11….and Seoul is not busy very early in the morning. If you are in Central Seoul, you can wake up really early and see palaces and walk around a bit…if you want.
What To Do/When in Seoul
If your flight lands in the afternoon (3 PM or later): Simply, you will be too late to visit any of the tourist attractions in central Seoul as they close around 5-6 and last admission is one hour before or so.
Central Seoul at night is busiest in the Jongak/Jongno 3 Ga area. This is where everyone goes after work (specifically the Jongak Avenue of Youth). The Avenue of Youth name is misleading, as there are just a few shopping stalls, BUT there are tonnnnnnnnnnnnnns of bars and restaurants. It is very much a local street for Koreans, but because it’s central Seoul, they do offer English menus….without the feeling of being in a tourist hellhole :-).
Other than that, Myeongdong for instance, is dead by 10ish. If you’re in Central Seoul, it’s a cheap taxi to Itaewon, but there’s nothing Korean about Itaewon as far as food and culture. It’s a trendy date spot for young Koreans to enjoy foreign food now.
The other area to go, as mentioned, would be Hongdae. It’s always open, always something to do.
My previous post and full detail on the neighborhoods can be found at the link here.
One Day Central Seoul Tour
Many people often ask what they can do for one long day in Seoul. For that, I simply answer: the main downtown area. The Jongno/Myeongdong/City Hall area is home to all of Seoul’s tourist sites, plus many major markets as well. You can absolutely 100% get a good representative feel of Seoul. These markets and tourist sites are also in the middle of the original downtown area, meaning that there’s a mix of old Korea with the new working class.
I tried to make a Google Map with walking directions, but Google Maps doesn’t work here for walking. I included links in the bold so you can get more info on your own. So I’m just gonna do it the old fashioned way.
On that note – for Maps. I’ve said many times before, Google Maps works for basic transportation directions. For walking directions, download Kakao Map or Naver Map. They are Korean Map services that are up to date and feature street view etc. They also offer English support (as long as your phone device is set to English). For subway, download Kakao Metro.
NOTHING in Seoul gets going until 11 AM or so. The only places open will be breakfast rice and noodle places. All other stores will be very quiet.
So, if you arrive early say 4-5 AM. Take the first bus or train into Seoul Station. From there, you can visit Siloam Sauna directly behind Seoul Station. They offer luggage storage. You can shower, enjoy a traditional sauna experience…the food is even good. Large spaces for napping, even rooms for those that snore! Honestly, this is my favorite sauna in Seoul and every time I go, I stay there for 5-6 hours.
So let’s get started on the day around 10-11 AM. I’d head to Gwanghwamun first. Gwanghwamun is a giant public square and gate that leads to Gyeongbokgung Palace. There are some memorials, statues, and even a Hangeul (Korean Language) museum underneat the King Sejong Statue.
Now you’re hitting lunch time. To the west of Gyeongbokgung Palace there are two popular choices I’d recommend: Tongin Lunchbox Cafe OR Tosokchon Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup).
If you want to have a faster or lighter lunch, go straight into Gyeongbokgung. Exit East by the Folk Museum and grab some street food/snacks in Samcheon-dong.
As mentioned, you will also be right at Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s the main palace in Seoul. I would absolutely try to be here for an English speaking tour guide (or get an audio guide), because I think without that, it’s just a bunch of empty buildings. There is also a changing of the guards ceremony that is very popular. Follow the link above for details on times etc.
After Gyeongbokgung, be sure to exit on the east side by the National Folk Museum. Also a nice air conditioned (or heated) area with bathrooms to catch a break. Exhibitions at the museum rotate often. There is also a “traditional old Korean neighborhood” from the 50s and older in the area.
When you exit on the east side of Gyeongbokgung, you will be in Samcheong-dong. Samcheong-dong is home to many cute cafes, local shops, places to grab street food…but most importantly to tourists – the Bukchon Hanok Village. Also right outside the East Gate of Gyeongbokgung is the National Museum of Modern Art (if that’s your thing).
After you explore the village and Samcheong-dong, continue south to Insadong. Insadong is a tourist area, yes, but there are tons of small restaurants and cafes with a very traditional vibe in the alleyways around the main road. If you stay on the main road, it’s just tourists. Venture out and around and you’ll see lots of cute stuff. Another area that’s REALLY HOT these days is Ikseon-dong that’s nearby.
You’ll be walking along all day, but by this point you’ll be in the main Jongno area. There are a few more areas to see in the Jongno area depending on time:
Jongno Avenue of Youth – a small shopping street of 0 importance BUT surrounded by TONS of restaurants and bars with English menus, but very local feel (chicken, BBQ, everything is here)
Cheongyecheon Stream – famous park and stream running right through the middle of Seoul
Gwangjang Market – Seoul’s oldest operating market. Famous for bindaedeok, mayak kimbap, and all kinds of other foods and dishes
These are all close by to Insadong and depend on how much time you have left.
Presuming it’s the end of your day tour – hop on the subway just 2-3 stops to Seoul Station. Taxi can be fast, but traffic can be BRUTAL in the downtown area. Catch the AREX back to Seoul Station (either Express or All Stop) around 3 hrs before your flight. Takes one hour back to the airport, and arrive two hours early before your flight as recommended. I always risk it and stay a little later, but that’s my risk and mine alone 🙂
Other Popular Areas of Central Seoul
Many people always ask – Can I go to Dongademun in a day? Myeongdong?
The answer is yes. But you’ll have to edit your day to revolve around those areas unless you want to run around A LOT. The tour course I’ve listed above is very general, come in, knock it out, head back to the airport.
As far as Myeongdong, I say skip it BECAUSE it’s just big brand makeup shops and clothing stores. This can be found everywhere in other areas of Seoul where you go on your day tour. AND not to mention the food is for tourists, so the street food isn’t the cheapest or most authentic.
Dongdaemun isn’t really that special, IMO. Again, tourists love to go, but it’s nothing I’d recommend going to in one day. Just shops and shops and shops. More to see than the inside of a mall for a day.
That’s all for today’s tourist tips – up next I’ll cover SIM cards, WiFi and apps!