Heading to Seoul? Make sure to browse through these practical tips before jetting off to the second largest metropolitan in the world.
First things first: Seoul is one of the world’s most populated capital cities. With a population density almost twice that of New York City, the capital itself is divided into 25 autonomous gu districts. Each district ranges between 10–47sq km with populations ranging from under 140,000 to well over 630,000.
In recent years, South Korea has been somewhat of a powerhouse within the technology, automotive, beauty and entertainment industries, with tech brands, K-dramas, K-pop music, cosmetics and Korean cuisine gaining traction globally. Needless to say, South Korea is booming – and at the center of all that excitement, is Seoul.
Once you’ve cleared customs and security at the airport, your first order of business should be getting a T-Money card, a prepaid smartcard that’s used for a hassle-free experience when riding the subway, public bus and taxi, and even for making purchases at convenience stores. Using a T-Money card also gives you a small discount on train fares. Priced at KRW 4,000, you can recharge your card at various spots around town, including subway stations and convenience stores.
If you’re intending to explore any part of Seoul on foot, be sure to have apps like Naver Map and Kakao Map installed on your phone, which are now available in English. Unfortunately, while Google Maps does work in South Korea, it will not be able to provide step-by-step driving and walking directions due to the country’s security restrictions. In fact, it’s the only country in the world where this is the case!
You could arrive in either Incheon International Airport or the domestic hub, Gimpo International Airport, though it’s likely to be the former considering almost all international flights land there. From Incheon, there are several ways to get to downtown Seoul:
The fastest way to get into the city from the airport. Not only does it run like clockwork, but it also gets you to Seoul Station in 43 minutes from Incheon Airport Terminal 1, or 51 minutes from Terminal 2. A one-way ticket for adults costs KRW 9,000, but you can get it for as low as KRW 6,500 if you purchase them in advance through some travel booking sites. Alternatively, you can get your AREX tickets at Incheon Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 stations, or at the airport’s Travel Center. Check the AREX timetable to plan your journey.
If you prefer to save some Won, consider riding the All Stop Train that stops at every station between Incheon and Seoul Station. These trains leave every five to ten minutes and take just under 60 minutes to get to Seoul. With a T-Money Card, it costs KRW 4,150 one-way, but make sure to plan ahead as the trains only run from 5.23am–11.40pm daily.
If you arrive at Incheon between midnight and 5am, you can travel to downtown Seoul by bus. A one-way bus ticket to Seoul Station or Gangnam Express Bus Terminal will cost KRW 9,000 and takes around 80 minutes. Late-night buses to Seoul run from midnight to 4.40am, while buses to Gangnam run from 11.40pm–4.20am. For more info on the various bus routes and stops, click here. You can also check with the airport information desk for up-to-date info.
The most convenient and comfortable mode of travel from Incheon International Airport is also the most expensive: a taxi will get you into the city and to your destination in about an hour, but will cost you between KRW 55,000–75,000. If you wish to have a driver who speaks English, Japanese or Chinese, you can request for an international taxi at counters 23 and 46 in the Arrivals Hall of Terminal 1, although we highly recommend to make a reservation online in advance. For international taxis from Terminal 2, you must pre-book online or over the phone.
You’ll find that the most common and convenient way to get around is via the subway or metro, which is highly organised and efficient. Stations are also usually located within a short walking distance from must-see sights and tourist attractions. And don’t worry if you can’t read or speak Korean; all the station signs and maps feature romanised names in addition to Hangul characters. The station announcements are also repeated in both Korean and English.
The trains start running at about 5.30am and continue until midnight. To make your Seoul metro experience as breezy as possible, always make sure your T-Money card has sufficient credit – as a benchmark, just KRW 1,350 will take you 10km along the line. Get more info on metro routes here.
In some cases, it may be quicker for you to ride the bus than the subway. The catch? While using Seoul’s extensive public bus system is a relatively cheaper way to get around, the buses may be more confusing to navigate for foreigners than the metro. Apart from major stops on major routes, bus maps and loudspeaker announcements are generally written and spoken only in Korean.
You’ll also need to know the different coloured buses and service routes:
Seoul taxis are relatively inexpensive when compared to many other cities in the world. That said, we recommend only using taxi services for short rides. Although there are several types of taxis to meet your travel needs, the two main ones are:
Ilban (Regular) Taxis: The most common, distinguished by its silver, orange, blue or white colour and the “Taxi” sign on its roof. These generally cost between KRW 2,800–KRW 3,000 for the first 2km and KRW 100 every 144m (or 41 seconds) that follow. Take note: All regular taxis increase fares by about 20 percent after midnight until around dawn.
Mobeum (Deluxe) Taxis: Distinguished by its black colour and yellow stripes. Prices are slightly steeper (between KRW 3,200–5,000 for the first 3km and KRW 200 every 144m that follow). Generally, these deluxe taxis are more comfortable and offer extras like payment by credit card, and issuing receipts, as well as no late-night surcharges.
Considering most taxi drivers in Seoul don’t speak English, have your destination address readily written in Hangul or romanised Korean to hand to the driver.
Locals will tell you that you should go up Namsan N Seoul Tower; that you should get your shopping hauls at Dongdaemun and Myeongdong, go for a hike in Bukhansan National Park, and stroll along Hangang Park. We agree, but we’ll tell you there’s more.
To immerse yourself in Korean history, visit the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty: Gyeongbokgung Palace, also known as Gyeongbok Palace. Built in 1395, it is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces and is possibly the most visited Seoul attraction. If you’re doing things for the ‘gram, you can don a gatekeeper’s (Sumungun) costume for free at the Sumunjangcheong Building, located behind the Gwanghwamun Gate. Try to also catch the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony or the Gwanghwamun Gate Guard-On-Duty Performance, which both happen every hour between 10am-4pm every day except Tuesdays.
Getting here: Take the subway to Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3). The palace is about a five-minute walk from exit 5.
For your Korean culture fix, we recommend exploring Bukchon Hanok Village. This Korean traditional village with a long history is located on the top of a hill between Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace and Jongmyo Royal Shrine, so coincide your visit before or after Gyeongbok Palace. Comprising lots of alleys and traditional Korean houses known as hanok, a visit to the village is perfect for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Seoul city; there are also several museums in the village, including the Museum of Korean Art and Museum of Korean Embroidery. Get ready to go back in time as the village is preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment.
Getting here: Take the subway to Anguk Station (Line 3) and walk out via exit 3. Turn right and in about 200 metres you’ll find signs for the start of the Bukchon Village Walking Tour. No entry fee required!
After a day’s worth of exploring, pamper yourself at a jjimjilbang (traditional Korean bath house). It’s the Korean equivalent of a spa, with baths, saunas and swimming pools; more elaborate joints even have hair and nail salons. Take note of the unspoken code of customs if you want to blend in with the locals: enter the baths fully naked, avoid loud conversations, don’t splash water around, and follow the optimal soaking times and routines in each bath section.
A popular place that caters to international visitors is Dragon Hill Spa & Resort in Yongsan-gu, which is fully equipped with various spa zones and entertainment facilities ranging from aromatherapy rooms, swimming pools, saunas, fitness areas, karaoke rooms and rooftop gardens.
Getting here: Dragon Hill Spa & Resort is about a one-minute walk from exit 1 of Yongsan Station (KTX or Subway Line 1), and around three minutes on foot from Shinyongsan Station (Subway Line 4), exit 3.
Alternatively, you could also make use of the city’s free walking tours and explore some of Seoul’s top attractions guided by a local expert. Places explored range from a good mix of historical and cultural sites, each tour lasts between two to three hours, and all you have to do is sign up for your chosen tour at least three days in advance. The best part? It’s free!
Whether it’s visiting one of South Korea’s oldest traditional markets Gwangjang Market, getting your seafood fix at Noryangjin Fish Market, or loading up on carbs at chimaek restaurants, there’s more to Korean cuisine than just bulgogi and galbi. Here are some more dishes to add to your eat list:
Got an adventurous palate? Try jjukkumi, webfoot octopus typically stir-fried and marinated in a red chilli gochugaru sauce – it’s notoriously spicy! Not for the faint-hearted, it’s best to eat your jjukkumi ssam-style by first wrapping it in a perilla leaf to cut the spiciness, and wash it down with soju, a Korean liquor typically made with rice, wheat or barley. You’ll have plenty of jjukkumi restaurants to choose from in Jjukkumi Alley in Yongdu-dong, but Na Jeong-sun Halmae Jjukkumi is said to be the best. Regarded as a pioneer by locals, Grandma Na Jeong-sun opened the restaurant in the 1980s when the neighborhood didn’t have its current cluster of jjukkumi restaurants.
If you’re craving something familiar, visit one of the most popular Korean barbecue spots, Yeontabal BBQ Restaurant. The restaurant specialises in tripe and large intestines besides the usual prime cuts of beef cooked over a charcoal fire, and they’re best enjoyed with yangchibap (rice stir-fried with radish kimchi). With four outlets around Seoul, you’re bound to find one close to you. Things can get rather pricey here if you order more premium cuts of meat, but you can buy discount coupons online on certain travel websites.
In between meals, load up on the locals’ favourite snack – Korean fried chicken. Gangnam’s Hanchu frequently tops lists as being one of the best in Seoul, and for good reason. It’s been serving up its signature fried chicken and other fried goodies (try the deep-fried chilli peppers) for over 20 years, and is even said to be a popular spot among many local celebrities. Order an ice-cold beer for your ultimate chimaek (pairing fried chicken with beer) experience.
If you love your seolnongtang (ox bone soup) with a side of history, head to Imun Seolnongtang. Open since 1904, it’s the first eatery in the country to officially register for a restaurant license, making it the oldest restaurant in South Korea. To make seolnongtang, the cooks here boil ox bones for 17 hours until the broth turns rich and opaque, before adding other cuts of beef. The result is an intensely flavourful soup, served with sliced beef and wheat noodles. Complete your meal with makgeolli, a sweet-sour alcoholic beverage made from rice or wheat mixed with nuruk, a Korean fermentation starter.
For that added convenience during your visit to Seoul, we’d recommend learning a few basic Korean phrases you could use throughout your trip. Here’s a few to get you started:
Yes – Ye
No – A-nim-ni-da
Hello – Ahn-nyung ha-seh-yo
Goodbye – Ahn-nyung-hee ga-seh-yo
Thank you – Gam-sah ham-nee-da
Nice to meet you – Ban-gap sup-nee-da
Take me to my hotel – Hotel-lo gap-see-da
If you need more assistance, Seoul maintains a hotline to help tourists with translation and language issues. Contact the Seoul Global Centre by calling 02 1688 0120, or simply dial 120 from within Korea, between 9am–6pm on weekdays. Alternatively, it wouldn’t hurt to have the Google Translate app on your phone, although be warned that translated items may not be completely accurate.
by Rachel Priya