My husband and I recently returned from Seoul, South Korea where we spent five days, and I wanted to share with you a few tips from my trip. This is not a must see/must do list, but rather a compilation of practical suggestions to make your trip to South Korea’s capital easier and more fun.
1. Getting to/from Incheon Airport
There are two affordable ways to get to town from Incheon airport:the first is by bus and the second is by train. As for the train, The Express Airport train goes to Seoul Station (main train station), and you can take the subway from there. More on this in a moment.
As for the bus, Seoul’s airport bus is actually called the limousine bus and when I saw the seats I understood why they use the word limousine. The seats are huge, they recline, and are almost the same size as an airline seat in domestic first class. There’s tons of leg room, so even tall people will be very comfortable. Bus company employees load and unload your bags, so you don’t have to lift a finger. Tipping in Korea is not common, so you don’t even need to tip.
We arrived in Seoul on the eve of a national holiday and the traffic was pretty bad. The bus ride took an hour longer than expected so I was questioning my decision to take the bus instead of the train/subway combo.
However, a couple days into our trip, we were meeting our tour guide at Seoul Station. The transfer from the subway station to train station involves a lot of walking, as well as going up and down the stairs, as escalators aren’t available everywhere. When I saw how far I had to walk, I was so happy we took the airport bus and not the train! It took longer, but the ride was very comfortable and we didn’t have to schlep our bags.
On the way to the hotel, the bus was full and passengers were disembarking at every stop, but on the way back we just picked up two additional passengers. For about $15, this is a bargain for such a comfortable ride. There are a few bus lines which service all major big chain hotels, as well as a couple of local hotels. You can buy tickets at the airport with a credit card, or at the hotel front desk and charge them to the room.
2. How to Get Around Seoul
Seoul subway trains are modern and nicely air-conditioned! All tourist attractions can be easily reached by subway and the system is quite extensive. Keep in mind that transfers between lines take a lot of time. For example, you might be riding the train for a few minutes but walking for a good 10 minutes changing the lines or to reach your exit. Just keep this in mind when you are planning your travel time.
Somehow I hurt my hip on my third day in Seoul so I was looking for ways to minimize all the walking and stair climbing. Things you don’t usually notice when you are healthy become a huge pain when you aren’t feeling 100%. So if you have limited mobility, or are just plain tired, keep in mind that escalators aren’t available everywhere, and sometimes you need to look really hard to find an elevator. You’ll be climbing a lot of stairs when changing subway lines or going to the right exit.
That said, the subway is easy to navigate. All the stations are numbered, and there are lots of signs in English and, if in doubt, just ask. Exits are also numbered, so find out which number exit you need, or you might be walking underground for a long time (10-15 minutes) but end up in the wrong location and will have to backtrack above ground.
Buses, on the other hand, don’t display the stop names in English, so I avoided taking them.
The easiest way to pay for the subway is to get a T-money card, which you can use for all public transportation. It’s very easy to purchase and reload at any of the ticket machines. You don’t even need to take it out of your purse or valet: you just touch it to a subway turnstile. There’s a 3,000 non-refundable deposit (about $3) but it’s much more convenient than buying individual tickets.
Unfortunately, Google Maps app doesn’t work in South Korea. If you have data on your phone, it’ll just show you the blue dot with your location but you can’t get directions. I’ve tried a few local apps but the only useful one was KakaoMetro app. A lot of times I found myself just using a good old map provided by my hotel.
All subway stations have clean, free public restrooms.
3. Seoul Walking Tours
Visit Seoul offers several free walking tours with a volunteer guide. I’ve gone on two tours and it was really fun to hang out with a local for a couple of hours. My favourite was the tour of Gyeongbokgung, the ancient palace of the Joseon dynasty. The tour guide really brought the palace to life. Without her, I would have been walking around, looking at old, albeit beautiful, buildings. Tipping is not customary in Korea, so the tour was completely free.
4. Wear a Traditional Dress and Save on Entrance Fees
If you dress up in a traditional Korean dress known as hanbok, you can enter the Gyeongbokgung for free. I’ve seen rental shops renting them out for 3,000 to 10,000 won (about $3-10) and the entrance fee is 3,000. So you can visit the palace for free, and have fun taking pictures wearing the traditional Korean dress for just a few dollars. Just don’t do this on a hot day, trust me on this.
There were so many people dressed up in traditional dress, both men and women, I felt like I was on a movie set!
5. Catch the Changing of the Guard Ceremony
There are two places where you can observe the changing of the guard ceremony – in front of Deoksugung Palace or in front of Gyeongbokgung. The ceremony is magnificent, the guards wear beautiful traditional costumes and bring out the drums that are a work of art in themselves.
I almost missed it, but I am so glad I got to see it! After the ceremony, you can take pictures with the guards and even dress up in a traditional dress for free.
6. Visit the Secret Garden
The beautiful secret garden of Changdeokgung is not to be missed. It’s a peaceful oasis in the middle of a huge metropolis. The garden can only be visited with a guided tour, and the popular times do sell out, so book the tickets online ahead of time.
7. Visit DMZ and JSA
I highly recommend doing a day trip to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and JSA (Joint Security Area), which are about an hour north of Seoul. It’s such a historic place. This visit was the highlight of my trip. There are a few tour companies that offer tours to the DMZ. However, not every tour company is allowed to take visitors to the JSA, or the real border with North Korea.
I went with Panmunjom Travel Center because they can take groups to the JSA. Whomever you go with, make sure they are going to take you to the real border with North Korea, and not just to a couple of tourist attractions nearby.
8. Visit a Museum in Seoul for Free
Entrance fees to royal palaces are inexpensive but there are lots of other museums in the city. In fact, all national museums are free and they have English-speaking tours and docents to help you make sense of the experience.
9. Bring a Data-Only SIM Card and Take Advantage of Free WiFi
I love having a local SIM card when I am traveling and a data-only card is good enough for me. You can buy a data-only SIM card on Amazon for about $20 and there are even region-wide SIM cards that work in multiple countries in the same region. The language barrier in Korea is not insignificant, so having easy access to data on my phone was invaluable.
There are lots of places in Seoul that offer free wifi, including malls and restaurants. It’s fast, reliable and no registration is required.
10. Branch Out and Try Different Cuisines in Seoul
The Dongdaemun area, where we stayed, has sizable Uzbek, Russian and Mongolian communities. We saw lots of signs in cyrillic alphabet advertising everything from face cream to vacations. For a different kind of food, check out Samarkand restaurant in Dongdaemun that serves Russian and Central Asian dishes. The food and the service are excellent and the prices are really affordable. And don’t worry, they do have a menu in English.
You will have no shortage of things to see and do in Seoul. Don’t forget to bring your best walking shoes as Seoul is a huge city and you’ll be doing a lot of walking. This is a city that never sleeps, so for anyone battling jet lag, there’s late-night shopping at big malls in the Dongdaemun area and they are open till 5 A.M. in the morning!
Don’t miss a visit to JSA to get a good dose of recent history and take a tour of one of the royal palaces with a local guide to see Korea’s splendid past.
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