adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Seoul layover trip

This year, in addition to being about 20% cheaper than usual, my plane tickets from Los Angeles to Beijing included a 10-hour layover in Seoul! For me, this was a good thing - I'd always wanted to visit Korea, and I figured a 10-hour layover would be the best time to do it. I almost visited Korea during last year's layover, but a small mishap involving losing my camera prevented me. This year, I'd carefully researched the transport to and from the airport and within Seoul, and planned out a detailed itinerary for myself. The basic plan was to fly in around 5:30AM, ride in an airport bus and arrive at Seoul Station around 7AM, then walk up the road seeing Nandaemun, city hall, Seoul plaza, and the statue of the famous admiral whose name eludes me, then seeing Insadong, Jogyesa temple, Gyeongbokgung palace, and the Jongmyo shrine if I had time. Ambitious, I know.

The bus stop at Incheon International Airport.

The bus to Seoul was pretty uneventful; there were a bunch of Korea-crazed Hong Kongers on the bus that I practiced my few words of Korean with. I was mainly worried about not knowing which stop Seoul Station was, but it turned out the bus had Korean and English announcements for each stop, and everyone was getting off at Seoul Station anyway. My first impressions of Seoul were that it actually looked quite similar to a big Chinese city, although a bit cleaner and smaller. I've heard countless stories about the crazy drivers in Korea, but I didn't see anything crazier than what you would see in the US - in general, the traffic seemed a lot less crazy than in China. People even stood around waiting for the walk sign at empty roads, as opposed to China, where you just start walking across whenever you have an opening.

First glimpses of Seoul from the bus. Looks just like Wudaokou!

Seoul skyscrapers.

Seoul station.

There seemed to be many flower bowls around the city, a nice touch.

A Seoul neighborhood. Seoul seems like quite a mountainous city; many of the side streets sloped up at pretty extreme angles.

The bus didn't actually stop at Seoul Station, so I was a bit lost. I walked up the road a bit and noticed Seoul Station, but was still confused - which one was the big road that I was supposed to walk up? Which way was north? The streets of Seoul were nothing at all like the simple grid I was used to in Beijing. I ended up wandering around a bit before I tried asking directions for the first time. A kind-looking elderly man sitting around a skyscraper pointed me the way to Nandaemun, the Great South Gate.

Nandaemun market entrance.

Nandaemun market vendors.

Along the way there, I noticed the Nandaemun market I'd heard so much about. I figured I would walk around a bit and see what I could buy. It was still pretty early, so there weren't many people around, other than some mainland Chinese tourists and myself. I picked up a high-tech self-unfurling umbrella for 5,000 won(about 5 dollars) and snapped a few shots of the market.

Ddeokbokki (rice cakes).

The place I ate breakfast.

Leaving the market, I noticed an inviting looking restaurant. I was pretty hungry, so I went in. There was a bit of a communication barrier, but I blurted out that I did not speak Korean very well, and the nice lady who ran the store brought me a menu with pictures. I don't know if Koreans eat anything in particular for breakfast, but in many Asian countries breakfast food is not very much different from other meals. I ordered ddeokbokki, which I'd heard were good. They were! Ddeokbokki are pounded rice cakes - they're very springy and chewy. As I paid the bill(of around $3), the lady asked if I was Japanese - for some reason, everyone in Korea thinks I'm Japanese!

Nandaemun(南大门 for you Chinese speakers) or the "Great South Gate" is one of the old gates of Seoul, built over 600 years ago.

Following the directions of the lady in the restaurant, I ended up at Nandaemun, which was indeed impressive. It's one of the old city gates of Seoul, built a few centuries ago to protect the city from Korean tigers, which are long gone. After helping some tourists take a picture and snapping some shots myself, I headed onwards through a shiny business area before I hit the Samsung building and city hall. At this point, I realized the distances in real life were much longer than they seemed on the map, so I headed underground to ride the subway.

City hall and Seoul square (which was being renovated).

Street food vendor. The foil-wrapped rolls are kimbap.

Kimbap(like sushi, but don't ever call it that!)

On the subway. Looks just like in "My Sassy Girl"!

There was a big underground mall in the subway(which was closed since it was still pretty early) where I sat down to eat the kimbap I had bought from a street vendor earlier.

A neighborhood I stumbled into while looking for Gyeongbokgung.

Getting off at the Gyeongbokgung station, I wandered around a bit more before I actually found the palace. I had expected to be in and out of the palace pretty quickly, but the place was much more impressive than I thought it would be. I spent a good two hours just walking around, enjoying the place, and taking lots of pictures. When I was done, I realized I didn't have enough time to see Jongmyo or even the Jogyesa temple, so I headed back on the subway and rode to Insadong, which I had heard so much about.

Gyeongbokgung palace.

Gyeongbokgung was filled with Korean middle school students, who I imagine must visit at least once as part of their education.


Roof detail.

More views of the palace.

Palace guards. I've always wanted to take portrait-style photos of people during my travels, and now I finally found a willing subject! Well, maybe not so willing – some guy working at the palace got all mad and made me stop taking pictures of them.

Despite all the hype, I didn't think Insadong was particularly special. It's just a typical touristy street with a lot of souvenir shops and restaurants. I browsed around shops a bit and ate in a nearby restaurant, where I had fish soup. The food was good, but it was already nearing 12PM, and my flight left at 3PM; considering it had taken an hour to get here when the roads were empty in the early morning, how long would it take to get to the airport now?

Insadong alley.

Lunch – fish soup with delicious side dishes.

I'd originally planned on riding the subway all the way to Gimpo airport, then taking the AREX train from Gimpo to Incheon in order to avoid traffic, but considering that I was so slow in using the subway around here and had no idea where the AREX train was, it seemed like a less viable option. Despite my extremely broken Korean, the lady who ran the restaurant was pretty sympathetic and concerned that I get to the airport on time, and showed me where to get on the airport bus - which ended up taking exactly the same time as it did in the morning (one hour), despite the traffic.

Seoul streets.

Sitting at the terminal with an hour and a half to spare before my flight left, I was quite pleased with myself, especially when I noticed some people from the flight from LA who might have been waiting around for 10 hours!

Although I didn't quite get to see everything I planned for, I'm still quite happy with my trip to Korea considering my limited time, poor language skills, and inexperience with the country. There's still so much I haven't seen - the Jongmyo shrine, the DMZ border area, and the kimchi museum for starters. I don't think I was in the country for long enough to get a good feeling of it, but in general, Koreans seemed quite friendly, polite, and helpful with pointing out directions. As for prices, I didn't do a whole lot of shopping, but my meals were decently cheap($3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch), and the things I bought were reasonably priced without any need for bargaining.

If there's anything I learned from this trip to Korea, it was mainly what I already believed - you should definitely learn the language of any country you're going to be visiting, even if only for a short while. I had a hard enough time getting around with the bit of Korean I know, but I can't imagine how I would have managed without it.

Anyhow, the next time you're stuck on a long layover in Incheon International Airport, give Korea a try!

I'm writing this about a week after the fact, and have a bunch of other stuff to blog about, but I'm about to leave on a trip to Gansu province - but I'll have new updates in a few days!

Time you need:
variable, but at least eight hours, preferably in daytime
Cost: around 50,000 won(about $50 USD). Allow $20 for transportation costs(bus and subway) and $30 for spending (food and souvenirs). To be safe, you may want to bring another 50,000 won to pay for a taxi back to the airport if you really get lost.
Getting there and back: From Incheon International Airport, head out to the bus area and buy tickets from the little kiosk(around 7,000 won). Which bus to take depends on where you want to start your trip; try taking the 601 to Seoul Station. Check the airport website at for more bus information. If you want to return to the airport, there are plenty of signs clearly marked "AIRPORT BUS" around the downtown area - ask someone if you can't find one nearby. The trip should take about an hour each way - allow an extra half hour for traffic.
How to get around: Get a city map at the information desk in the airport. The Seoul subway system is modern and straightforward - just tell the ticket seller where you want to go or use one of the automated ticket machines. Subway tickets usually cost only 1,000 won. Koreans are helpful with directions and many speak some English. For an interactive map of the subway system, see the official website at
What to see: Gyeongbokgung is a must-see. Pass up Insadong unless you like tourist areas. Nandaemun and the nearby market are worth a visit. Jongmyo also looks like a good place to visit if you have time. If you really have a lot of time, you could make a trip to the Kimchi museum at the COEX mall, but bear in mind the subway trip there from Gyeongbokgung could take around 45 minutes. For more places to see, try
What to eat: Most Korean restaurants are pretty good, and many have pictures in the menu. If you can read hangeul, some things to try are bulgogi, ddeokbbeokgi (rice cakes), kimchi soup, and, of course, kimchi (which will come with your meal along with other side dishes). Most meals are pretty cheap and should cost you around 3,000 to 10,000 won.

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????? Wow, you managed all that in just 10 hrs???? That’s pretty damn good. o 1st to post lol, I think I am the only one here.


Yeah, I'm pretty satisfied with myself. Don't know what's with the lack of readers...I'm planning a really huge series of posts about my trip up to Gansu soon!



I am looking forward to your next (exciting) post. I love it!!!

Mom say Hi ans she really enjoyed reading your adventure.

I'd been showing your post to my friends and co-workers. They too loved it.

Love always, dad

PS: More!!!


Well done. You really did pack a great deal into your stopover.

There are always people asking "what should I do on a stopover in Seoul" on the Lonely planet forum (The Thorn Tree)

I shall point them at your blog to show them how much you can do in a day!


Glad to hear you liked the blog post, Jon - I added some extra travel tips at the very end with more specific information if anyone needs it.


I just happened to drop by and it was interesting to see a foreigner's perspective of Seoul.


I have a 12 hour layover in Seoul from Saigon to NYC. Your posting has given me good ideas. Thanks.



Thanks for this thorough and fun writeup. I'm going to have a 10 hour layover in Seoul flying from Ho Chi Min City to LAX in Mid-March 2008. I feel so much more confident trying this, knowing that someone else had the same idea - and had a good time with it.

Your note is super helpful. Well Done!


Thanks so much for this awesome and informative post! I have a 10 hour layover on my way to Beijing for the Olympics in August. Did you have to get a visa to leave the airport before you left?


Hi anonymous,

if you're a US or EU citizen, you can enter South Korea visa-free for up to 30 days, if I'm not wrong. Glad you liked the post!


Its so sad that the Nandaemun(南大门 for you Chinese speakers) or the "Great South Gate" just burnt down a few weeks back...


Hi there,

I bumped into your blog while googling around. Anyway, I find it superinteresting. I just booked a ticket to Thailand and on my way back will have a 10 hour layover at the Incheon airport. I am thinking about taking a short day trip to Seoul but wasn't sure if it's gonna be doable. After reading your blog, I totally am gonna do it, instead of just hanging out at the airport... boring!!! I get in at 8AM and am departing at 6PM. Do you think that is enough time to tour the city for a little bit? If you have any ideas or suggestion, please do not hesitate to contact me at all. I would love to hear from you =)


Hi Nina, I'm glad you liked this post! I didn't know how to contact you so I'll just write here.

8AM - 6PM is plenty of time to see Seoul, but make sure you start heading back to the airport around 3PM, 4 at the latest. Checking back into the airport is usually very quick, but it can take a long time to get there with traffic. I was lucky and got back in half an hour, but I've heard it could take longer. I don't want anyone to miss their flight because of my blog :)

Suggestions: definitely see Gyeongbokgung; there are a few other palaces about, and the Jongmyo(Confucius temple) is not very far away. I would pass up Insadong, but some people like it - it's very touristy though. Make sure you try some Korean food too!

Hope you have a great time in Seoul, and feel free to e-mail me or leave a message here if you have any other questions!


Thanks for your fast response. You are very helpful. I am so totally excited about his whole thing. I was wondering, which bus do you take from/to the airport. It is pretty easy to find? I don't want to get lost, especially on my way back.


Hi Nina,
You can take bus 601 from the airport to Seoul Station, but there are many buses that go to central Seoul. There isn't much to see around Seoul Station actually. At the airport website if you click on "Transportation" there is a long list of bus routes.

When you are coming back, you can take the airport shuttle bus. It stops at many locations in downtown Seoul and there's signs that say "AIRPORT BUS" or something like that. You can try asking people where the nearest one is. Alternately, you can ride the subway to Gimpo airport and then transfer onto the new high-speed rail link to Incheon airport, but this might take some time.
Hope this helps!


Hi. I just ran across your blog and I found it very useful. I'm traveling from Chicago to the Philippines in November and will have TWO long layovers in Seoul both going to and returning from...

I have never been to Korea and I'm looking forward to the two day visits very much. Thank you very much for your effort in letting us know what to expect! Safe Travels,
Marty from Chicago


I found your post when searching what I could do during an 8 hour layover at Inchon. This will definitely be useful. I arrive at 7am and leave at 2:45 pm. I will have a carry-on and other bags. Do you know if you can get a locker? Any additional advice you can think of?


Hi miss.adventure, glad to hear you liked the blog! I kind of doubt that you would be able to find a locker in the airport, however you might be able to find one at Seoul Station (don't quote me on this though). Hope you enjoy your layover in Seoul!


Excellent article! I have a 12-hour layover coming up on Christmas day (December 25th).

I've traveled to Hong Kong several times, but since English is an official language, I've never had problems communicating.

I have a pocket translator... I hope that will be enough. I've heard Korean is very hard to learn.


I also have a 11 hour stopover in Seoul on Dec. 25th. Anyone know if things are closed or service is slow because it's Christmas?


Hey! Thanks for inspiring all of us to explore on our own during our layovers. I'll be using your post as my guide. Thanks again!!!


This is an awesome blog - I was searching for "quick layover in Seoul" and found your post - very informative and loved the pictures. I only have 8 hours, and unfortunately will be arriving at 4AM, flight leaving at noon, so probably won't be able to see Gyeongbokgung, but your post inspired me to go see Seoul and whatever else I can pack in those few hours! Thanks!



I have a 12 hour layover in Korea and would like to see some of it, but I do not speak any Korean. A little Japanese and Thai. How hard do you think it will be for me to see things and not miss my flight? Also, do you know if there is Hard Rock Cafe there?

Thanks, Chuck


hi everyone do u think i can go to the city ?i arrive at incheon airport 650pm from seatle heading to saigon, and my next fligth is about 4pm,is that enougth time to go and back to the aiport.thanks


Thanks so much for you blog!

I'm planning to do exactly the same thing in December, and its darn comforting to know how it turned out for you. Especially details about bus time in traffic and how long it take to check back into the airport.

Lunch. Palace. War Museum. that's my plan :) I have 7h50m layover.


Hi, my sister will have a 10 hour layover in ICN and she will be flying thru Asiana. I currently live on the outskirt of Seoul (only an hour away from the airport by bus). What are the procedure(s), (immigration regulation about exiting and re-entering the airport. Basically, she'll be in the same situation as you were, but transiting to Japan. Thank you.


Hi, my sister will have a 10 hour layover in ICN and she will be flying thru Asiana. I currently live on the outskirt of Seoul (only an hour away from the airport by bus). What are the procedure(s), (immigration regulation about exiting and re-entering the airport. Basically, she'll be in the same situation as you were, but transiting to Japan. Thank you.


I think you hit on a near-perfect blog topic, here! Google will be sending you readers forever. My wife will be stuck in ICN for 23 hours next week. You've given me a bunch of ideas to send her. Thanks"


Thanks for the info! It's much appreciated.


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