Tourist Tips: Short Layovers + One Night in Seoul

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.

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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.

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That’s all for today’s tourist tips – up next I’ll cover SIM cards, WiFi and apps!

 

 

 

 

 

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Tourist Tips: One Day in Gangnam – An Introduction

I recently wrote a nice blog post for the team at Trazy! Trazy is a wildly popular travel services site for Seoul. They offer any and everything – private cars from the airport, tickets to Nanta, day trips to the countryside and ski resorts…even entry passes to Club Octagon!

Since I focus on tours in the Gangnam area, I wrote up some information about Gangnam, the history, the neighborhoods, transportation etc.

I always recommend visitors enjoy the Gangnam or Jamsil area for the day before our meetup. There are many things to do for the entire afternoon…and then stroll on over to Sinnonhyeon to meet me for dinner!

So this post is kind of shameless. Just copy and pasted with some links for you to get more info on the places…..here goes!

What Is Gangnam?

Anyone that comes to Seoul is already familiar with Gangnam, thanks to the suuuuuuuuper popular song from 2012, Gangnam Style:

Yes, it’s home to wealthy people, fancy cars, and celebrities, but that’s just one tiny pocket of Gangnam. Gangnam literally means “South of the River” and encompasses basically the entire southeastern region of Seoul including Seocho and Jamsil, not just Gangnam Station area. Gangnam was actually farm land until the 1970s or so and did not really become fully developed until the 80s (or later, depending on your definition of developed). So everything you see in Gangnam is “new” by Korean standards.

Gangnam itself is divided into several main areas (dong means neighborhood in Korean):

Cheongdam-dong : True Gangnam Style, home to all the celebrities, fancy cafes, expensive cars.

Nonhyeon-dong: Standard Gangnam. Offices on the main roads and tons of quiet neighborhoods, residences and local restaurants/bars on the back streets.

Sinsa-dong: Home to plastic surgery clinics, more businesses, more residences. Also home to Garosu-gil.

Samseong-dong: Another residential area of Gangnam. Home to COEX, Bongeunsa Temple.

Seocho-gu (Gu Means District): Standard Gangnam. Home to many businesses and high rise apartments.

Fun fact. Gangnam-daero (Road) is actually the dividing line between Seocho and Gangnam Districts. The average visitor won’t notice a difference, but for residents it’s a matter of where you pay your taxes and who provides services.

Songpa-gu: Songpa is actually a huge district that is considered Gangnam, but it spreads east verrrrrry far. Many, many, maaaaaaaaaaany high rise apartments. Also home to Jamsil Station and Lotte World.

Hotspots & Places of Interest

***The bold titles of each section are also links to Google searches for more information, pictures, etc.***

Gangnam Station:  Gangnam Station is actually the busiest subway station in Seoul and has a huge underground shopping center. Great for cheap women’s clothes and accessories!

Gangnam Station Exit 9 and 10: Major shopping street. Every major Korean and foreign brand AND a GIANT Kakao Friends store!

Gangnam Station Exit 11 and 12 (behind the main road): Looooooooooooong alleyways with TONS of restaurants, bars and cafes!

Garosu-gil (Sinsa Station Exit 8): Garosu-gil means “Tree Lined Street.” The main street is home to more Korean and international brands. Also home to Korea’s only Apple Store. The highlight of Garosu-gil is actually off the main road – there are TONS of dessert cafes, tiny restaurants, cute bars, and more to explore!

Hallyu K Star Road (Apgujeong Rodeo Station Exit 2): Also home to the Galleria Department Store and Apgujeong Rodeo Shopping/Nightlife Area, this road features many of Korea’s fanciest luxury brands. Fun Fact: This neighborhood is SO fancy, all of these luxury brands have giant stand alone stores here AND even a store right down the street inside the Galleria Dept. Store…..which makes you wonder, WHO buys all this stuff!?  But, K Star Road features many cute character statues for your favorite K Pop groups. If you’re wanting to find a celebrity, it would be here. They live and shop in this area.

Seonjeongneung Tombs: (Seonjeongneung Station Exit 3 / Seolleung Station Exit 8): Home to two sets of tombs, this is actually a very beautifully landscaped and relaxing park.

Bongeunsa Temple (Bongeunsa Station Exit 1): A traditional Korean temple right in the middle of the city. Great contrast between past and present, traditional and modern!

COEX (Bongeunsa Station Exit 7 / Samseong Station Exit 5 or 6): The world’s largest underground shopping mall! Home to a giant Megabox movie theater, tons of shopping and food, Kimchi Museum, Aquarium…even a Convention Center, TWO Intercontinental Hotels, a Casino….and even the City Airport Terminal that offers Check In, Immigration, and Bag Drop for your flight.

Jamsil Station: The area around Jamsil Station is often called Lotte Town by locals. It’s home to Lotte World, the amusement park, as well as Lotte World Tower, the123 floor skyscraper. Lotte World Tower features not only a giant shopping mall with duty free shops, restaurants, an aquarium….but a luxury hotel, residences, and the observatory at the top.  There is also a Lotte Hotel next door and TWO Lotte Department Stores literally across the street from each other. The CEO of Lotte Group lives in Lotte Tower and the company has all of various HQs in buildings surrounding the entire station.

Gangnam – Transportation & Getting Around

Traffic in Gangnam can be quite brutal. Gangnam is the business hub of Seoul, so many people from all over Seoul and the suburbs come here for work. There are buses available to literally every corner of Seoul and the surrounding area (and buses to other cities at Express Bus Terminal). The subway lines in Gangnam run east to west, so it’s easier to pick a subway line and walk the remaining distance north or south. Don’t really try to transfer in Gangnam subways as you’ll go out of your way. You’ll spend more time changing lines than if you just walked.

Subway Line 9 is perhaps the best part about Gangnam. It has an Express train that can take you all the way across to Gimpo Airport in roughly 30 minutes…but it is PACKED at rush hour! You can then just cross the platform at Gimpo Airport to change to the AREX and be at Incheon Airport in another 40 minutes.  There are many airport limousine buses to Gangnam, but be warned in bad traffic it can take almost 90 minutes!

Where to Stay

Most people that stay in Gangnam are business travelers for work. I strongly believe Gangnam is the best neighborhood to live in (infrastructure, neighborhood cleanliness, services offered, etc.), but perhaps not the best for a tourist.  As a tourist, you’ll be hopping around all day and it’s at least 40 minutes to Myeongdong and central Seoul, and 45 mins – 1 hr to the other side and Hongdae depending on where you are going.

BUT if you stay near Subway Line 9, it is very easy to transfer to other subway lines by Express train. You can be at Seoul Station in 15-20 minutes, Hongdae in 40, and so on.

Try to stay near Subway Line 9 and an Express Stop (Sinnonhyeon Station, Sonjeongneung Station, Bongeunsa Station).  Most of the action (shopping, nightlife, 24 hour vibe, busy streets and activity) is around Sinnonhyeon Station.

 

 

Tourist Tips: Where To Stay in Seoul

Since I’m finally able to start back up, instead of trip reports and activities, I wanted to focus on the basics. As you know, I am verrrrrry active on Trip Advisor and am asked the same questions over and over. So, in the interest of simplicity, I wanted to create my version of what’s already out there…but simpler. To the point.

So you’ve decided to come to Seoul. But you have to decide where to stay, what’s important, how much you can spend, literally everything can be overwhelming. So, I’ll be breaking down the four major areas that tourists stays: Central Seoul (Myeongdong/Jongno/City Hall – all north of Namsan), Itaewon (Central, South of Namsan), Hongdae (West), and Gangnam (Southeast).

What I won’t be doing is 100 pictures and videos and hotel reviews. All of that is up to you. Your exact price, your exact location preference, everyone is different. If you’re looking for reviews, always check Trip Advisor, Hostel World, etc.

In my Mega Map below, you’ll see not only neighborhoods, but other categories you can filter so you can check in relation to a specific place you want to go or what’s your style.

How to Get a Free Hotel

Flying Korean Air or Asiana? Free hotels are available for those on a forced overnight stopover. There are several conditions, but the basic one is this: you are flying on the airline with a layover in Seoul, BUT there is no available flight that night. You are forced to stay over the night in Seoul. You cannot choose this option. You can’t choose a longer layover to get a hotel.  You must also have a ticket purchased through the airline directly, not an award ticket or codeshare from another airline (generally).

Most of those flying Australia to Europe will qualify since Australia flights land in the evening, but almost all flights to Europe and the USA leave in the morning/early afternoon.  Those flying from the US to almost everywhere in Asia will essentially not qualify as most of the flights are set up to connect from US to other points anyway. Do check your schedule and you must contact the call center!

Hotel choice may vary. You must contact Korean Air or Asiana customer service over the phone directly and inquire about the Stopover Hotel.

This document explains the rules for Korean Air.

There are many blog posts for the Asiana hotel, but nothing official I can find.

 

How to Use The Map

In the top left corner of the map, you’ll see a window icon with an arrow. This shows the drop down menu so you can filter out other categories as you wish. The far right rectangle makes the map bigger on its own Google Maps page.

 

Central Seoul – Myeongdong

Myeongdong is technically a very large around right in the middle of Seoul. While most people think of Myeongdong Station itself, it extends in a large area all around the station.

In the immediate area to the north of Myeongdong Station, you will find major, large hotels around 150 USD per night, give or take. You will also find the swarms of tourists in the shopping alleys until sundown, when the streets fill up with even more street food vendors.

If you head further north, you will find the Jongno 3 Ga area. This is home to the tourist sites and has both a business district feel on the main roads…and very old school Seoul in the alleys and backstreets.

Positives:

  • Easy airport access with many airport buses in the entire region AND easy subway access to everywhere (multiple subway lines)
  • Walking distance to all major tourist sites
  • Central shopping district with all major Korean brands for fashion and Korean beauty and skincare
  • Established tourist district means Tourist Volunteers in red coats and Tourist Police to help with any problems or if you’re lost

Negatives:

  • Myeongdong is 100% touristy. No doubt about it. And dead at night.
  • Myeongdong Street Food is not traditional. It is completely designed for tourists.
  • The area south of Myeongdong Station is kind of random. Not much there to do or see…..AND it’s on the side of Namsan, so there are lots of hills.

 

Central Seoul – Jongno 

Jongno is actually made up of several areas, running from Jongak Station (Line 1, Dark Blue Line) all the way to Jongno 5 Station.

The areas around Jongak and Jongno 3 Ga Stations have the most activity day and night. There are many businesses, parks, and offices during the day…and bars, restaurants, and street tents at night.

While Dongdaemun Plaza is to your far east, the area in between Jongno 3 and Dongdaemun is verrrrrrrrrrry quiet (around Jongno 4/5 area, for instance) after dark. Like a ghost town.

The area around Jongno 3-Ga station is actually the OG Gayborhood and is home to many Korean gay bars and street tents for drinking (most active on weekends). This is not like your standard western gayborhood with cafes, etc. It’s just where they go out. Korean society is still on the hush hush with the gays.

If you stay here, definitely stay in the immediate area around Jongno 3-Ga Station. There are many guesthouses and affordable motels.

Warning: These motels are actually “love motels” where many Koreans (young and old….I’ve shared elevators with couples in their 50s) go for some “alone time.”  They’re not sketchy, or really dirty or in bad shape, these places. It’s that most Koreans live with family, so they go there for a few hours in the afternoon (30$! 6 hours! From like 5-11 you get the palace…..and only like 50-60$ on weeknights. 70-80$ on weekends).  When you travel, in smaller cities, this is often all you have anyway.

So, in short, if the motel looks “cheesy,” covered in neon, or decked out with weird wallpaper with weird things like Marilyn Monroe quotes or fake plant pictures….it’s probably a love motel. And it’s definitely a unique Korean experience.

Central Seoul – City Hall/Namdaemun

To the West of Myeongdong is the business area surrounding City Hall and Namdaemun Market. To be honest, I don’t know much about this area. It’s a normal area, totally fine, but for night time action and food, you’re still going to end up over in the Jongno area.

Itaewon

Itaewon comes up often in the discussion. Itaewon is a perfectly fine neighborhood for those seeking trends. Itaewon is no longer the “foreign ghetto” it used to be. All of the old dive bars that were once full of foreigners (aka white people)…..are now trendy, fairly expensive restaurants and lounges.

There’s actually realllllllly good foreign food here. My friend Gemma runs Fat Girl’s Food Guide which is the go to source for all foreign food in Itaewon and Seoul, so definitely check that out. If you’re looking for Korean food, it’s simply just not in Itaewon.

Itaewon does have cheap guesthouses…..but it does not have good transportation. It is only connected to Subway Line 6, which means you’ll have to do a transfer or two on the subway to get around. It is on the other side of Namsan from Myeongdong and that area, so a taxi is easier. There are buses in Itaewon, but they don’t really go where you need them to as a tourist.

Gangnam

Shout out to my hood! Gangnam is where I’ve called home for the past three years now. Gangnam technically means South of The River, but for tourists it’s simply the Sinsa/Nonhyeon/Sinnonhyeon/Gangnam Station corridor and the surrounding areas. Gangnam has the best transportation to literally everywhere in Seoul (a bus to anywhere!) and has all the same food and nightlife options as Hongdae….

BUT……..

As a tourist, it’s much harder to navigate. This area just doesn’t see many tourists. Mostly business men with translators and corporate contacts. Since it’s a business area, to most visitors, they only see the offices and main streets (which are quiet after 6 PM). The real neighborhood and restaurants are in the back streets. There are some great places, but you’ve gotta know what to look for…..and some language skills help, too.

Also, as a tourist, Gangnam is kind of far. To get to any tourist area, it’s going to be about 30-40 minutes one way on the subway. Yes, there are buses, but at rush hour the traffic can be bad and the buses PACKED.

Hongdae

Hongdae is kind of THE go to area for all tourists now. That doesn’t mean it’s a shitty tourist neighborhood…but it’s because it’s the most vibrant. There is ALLLLL KINDS of food, shopping and nightlife open all day and all night. Daytime is a bit more quiet, but at night time Hongdae is on 100.  There’s literally all kinds of Korean food, street food, dessert cafes, you name it! The bars and clubs are open every night and somebody is always out.

Hongdae is on Subway Line 2 which runs a circle around the city. This means that you can get to central Seoul in just 20-30 mins or so depending on which stop you use.

Hongdae is also on the AREX line, making it easy to get in and out of the city to ICN and GMP airports. There are also a large number of AirBnBs and guesthouses keeping the accomodation costs down.

Up Next: One Day Layover and Tour Ideas for a Quick Seoul Visit!