9 Hour Layover in Seoul
It wasn’t until waking up after 7 hours of plane-sleep from Bali to Seoul that I wondered, “How hard is it to leave the airport for a day trip?”
Turns out super easy.
A quick Google search led to one site that told me Incheon International Airport offers complimentary tours to suit various layover times, ranging from 1-9 hours. You just have to show up at the Free Transit Tours desk and they’ll sort it out for you.
I was stoked for an easy tour to see some sites and then back to the airport instead of sitting around for my 9 hour layover.
Unfortunately (or not, who knows) the couple in front of me scooped the last two spots on the 20-person bus.
“Don’t worry, you can totally go by yourself!” the nice lady told me. Guess I was heading out solo.
The lady at the Kiosk gave me directions to Insadong, about an hour and a half train ride from the airport.
The first ride was on the A’Rex which is basically the airport train. Fast, easy and there was wifi which gave me time to figure out a plan. There were phone charges which I didn’t but should have used (always plug in when you can!)
The tour I was supposed to go on was headed to the Palace so I looked it up and found out it was close to Insadong, kind of walking distance.
After the A’Rex arrived at Seoul Station I had to follow the “Dark Blue” line which is the #4 and take it two stops to Insadong, which I would learn is kind of a touristy hot spot with lots of street vendors.
All said and done it was pretty easy to get there.
My first stop was Starbucks where I tried the “Cherry Blossom Latte” which was delicious and kind of exactly how you think it would be. I think it’s kind of like their version of the “Pumpkin Spice Latte”.
The Starbucks didn’t have chargers (lame) but I found out the palace was walking distance, so I set off.
Gyeongbokgung was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Built in 1395, it is located in northern Seoul, South Korea and served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings' households, as well as the government of Joseon.
Gyeongbokgung continued to serve as the main palace of the Joseon dynasty until the premises were destroyed by fire during the Imjin War (1592–1598) and abandoned for two centuries. However, in the 19th century, all of the palace's 7,700 rooms were later restored under the leadership of Prince Regent Heungseon during the reign of King Gojong. Some 500 buildings were restored on a site of over 40 hectares.
In the early 20th century, much of the palace was systematically destroyed by Imperial Japan. Since then, the walled palace complex is gradually being restored to its original form. Today, the palace is arguably regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex.
PRO TIP : The coolest part about the Palace was that they encourage visitors to dress up in traditional “Hanbok” style so about half the people are dressed in old school gowns and the guys have these funny see through hats. I wish I would have known because I totally would have dressed up since they wave $17 dollar-ish entry fee.
I made friends with two girls dressed in the attire and ended up cruising around the palace with them for a bit, but they were taking too many pictures and I was running out of time.
When I asked about where to visit next they suggested “a small village on the east side of the palace that’s been kept in original architecture style” so I set off in that direction, not really sure what I was looking for.
Luckily there’s a ton of “Tourist Guide” helpers positioned around the area specifically for this reason. I asked where to go and they pointed me in the right direction, to an area called Bukchon Hanok Village, a Korean traditional village with a long history located on the top of a hill. The traditional village is composed of lots of alleys and is preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment.
Quick stroll up to take a picture and I was out. Crazy that it’s so old and people still live here!
There’s people all over with these funny “Please be quiet” signs.
So far I’d spend about three hours walking around and soon it was time to head back.
I figured it would take about an hour and a half so if I left around 3 it would give me enough time with a bit of wiggle room, plus I needed to eat and I wanted to legit Korean food.
I started walking back through the Insadong area and ended up pulling into a random square and just picking a spot.
At this point I realized I had no idea what the currency exchange was. I kind of thought it was around $1/1 because when I ordered my coffee it was around 6000 but I still wasn’t sure.
My first meal choice was something different but when I ordered the lady said, “35,000?” as if to warn me.
When I asked if that was a lot, she didn’t answer very well so I figured I’d bet a bit safer and went with the 20,000 option, spicy pork. They also brought out all these sides, none of which I really knew what they were or how to eat… but I ate everything.
Turns out the exchange rate is about 1,137 Korean Won to USD so my meal was about $18.
Korea is kind of expensive!
On the flip side getting back I didn’t have the same ease as getting out.
I found my way back to the train station alright but the ticket I bought at the airport expired and it kept beeping angrily at me every time I tried to scan it.
I was worried because the lady at the Tourist Station told me my credit card wouldn’t work and I just kind of brushed it off, figuring I’d make it work.
But when I got back to the station and tried to buy one, I realized she was correct and that I couldn’t use a credit card to buy a metro ticket. I couldn’t withdraw cash since I lost my debit card in Bali so I was kind of stranded and the man at the ticket counter wasn’t very helpful.
Luckily there were some fellow English speakers who lent me 2000 to buy a ticket which would get me back to the A’Rex where I could use my credit card to buy the Airport Express ticket.
So I buy a 2000 ticket and FOR SOME REASON THAT DOESN’T WORK EITHER.
It just keeps beeping and it’s causing a scene and then all of these locals try to help me but it’s not working and I don’t know what to do. Eventually the guy lets me through the side door, you know the ones for wheelchairs etc.
But I had the feeling I would have to scan a few more times, and I was right.
On the next station I had to scan again so I just slid through behind someone and kept walking off fast.
I made it to Seoul Station then followed these “Airport Railroad” signs which was super easy. They also have a dotted line on the ground so overall getting around is easy even though it’s mostly non-English writing.
Finally I arrived at A’Rex at 3:50 and I bought an express ticket for 4:15 meaning I would arrive to the airport around 5:20 for my 6:45 flight.
I figured it was going to be easy to get through security and it was a breeze. They had it super automated so getting back into the airport was easy and I ended up having about 45 minutes before boarding.
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Overall I’m glad I left the airport to check out the city for about 7 hours, including about 3 hours of transit.
I got to see two of the main attractions, get a feel for the city and eat some authentic food.
It’s a clean city and very quiet despite the fact that it’s nearly 10 million people.
Incheon International is a big hub for a ton of Asia travel so if you’re flying that way you might layover and I definitely recommend taking time to explore. They make it really easy, especially if you can hop on a tour, so it’s worth it. Someone even mentioned there’s complimentary showers available at the airport.
I ended up spending about $50 for the full Korea experience and it was totally worth it.