Travel Guide: Seoul, South Korea

I spent 10 days in Korea in the spring of 2017 and Seoul was my base as I explored the country. The below recommendations are based on the places I visited, the experiences I had and the amazing food I ate. By no means is this a comprehensive list of everything to do in Seoul, but is instead my favorite places after exploring and eating my way through the city.

{Getting There & Getting Around}

Getting to Korea:
There’s no doubt about it, if you live in the Western Hemisphere there is no ‘easy’ way to get to Seoul. Our direct flight from San Francisco was nearly 12 hours, however the pain of the that seemingly endless flight was eased by the excellent service (and leg room) of Korean Air. I’ve flown 12+ hour flights many times and I can say with confidence that Korean Air has been the best economy class experience so far. With flights to Seoul and other major cities like Bhusan, it’s the way to go when traveling to Korea.

Getting from Incheon International Airport to Seoul:
One of the things that frustrates me the most when traveling internationally is the lack of information about traveling to and from the airport, especially when said airport is an hour outside of the city. However it was very easy to catch a fast train from Incheon International Airport to Seoul Station, the main hub/station in the middle of Seoul. The AREX non-stop traintakes about 43 minutes from the airport to Seoul Station, costs around $14 USD, and can be caught in the airport train station (easily found with English signs).

  • Bonus: On your departing flight back to your home country, buying an AREX fast train ticket also allows you to check-in to your airline, go through immigration, and send your luggage ahead to the airport if you check in at the Seoul Station at least 3 hours before your flight. This was SUPER helpful when we had a 4pm departing flight but our accommodation checkout was at 11am. We were able to explore for a few more hours while also skipping the lines at the airport. Win, win!

Getting Around Seoul:
If you are usually public transportation averse in your home country I strongly encourage you to try out the subway system in Seoul. We took the Seoul Metro everywhere we went and after the initial learning curve of figuring out the lines and station names (and taking the wrong train twice!) it became second nature and was very easy to navigate. It’s also very cheap to ride, most trips are around $1.50/ride, no matter what stop you exit.

We took taxis when returning back late at night (or just not wanting to walk to the station) but found that most, if not all, taxi drivers do not speak English. Our trick to making sure we got to where we were going? We took a photo of a large hospital right around the corner from our AirBnB and also dropped a pin on Google Maps in Korean so the taxi driver could read the area. We tried showing a map in English but quickly realized they couldn’t read the names of places if it wasn’t in Korea (different alphabets, obviously) but the photos and Korean map on our phone never let us down. (We did not see Uber or Lyft in Korea during our stay in 2017 and were told by some that the rideshare companies tried to enter the country but they never took off.)

{Where to Stay}

When traveling abroad to a new country we always compare hotel to AirBnb prices to see how we will get the most bang for our buck. We are not luxury travelers and rarely spend much time in our room, so AirBnB tends to win when we want to stay in a location more than a week. We like booking an apartment in areas where it is easy to get around and like having a kitchen to keep food/water and the option to do laundry (not something you can do cheaply in a hotel). For Korea we ended up booking a studio through AirBnB a 2 minute walk from Seoul Station, which was perfect for hopping on the train to explore different areas of the city. Check out this comprehensive guide for where to stay in Seoul, but other neighborhoods we explored that would be great to stay and are close to a subway station include:

  • Hongik University: Lots of restaurants, shopping and nightlife and a cheaper part of town (frequented by many younger college students).
  • Itaewon: If you’re into nightlife and restaurants, this is your place.
  • Anguk Station: Near palaces, temples, markets and the Insadong neighborhood, which has great (and cheap!) restaurants.

{Where to Eat}

It’s very hard to find bad food in Seoul (we never had a bad meal, no matter what type of restaurant), but there are a few areas of town where you cannot go wrong at most any restaurant you choose:

  • InsadongSteps from Anguk Station, this shopping areas boasts some of the cities best (and cheapest!) restaurants. Walk down the main road through Insadong and explore the many winding side streets for the hidden gems. We had a few great meals here and none were above $15.
  • Itaewon: For a more touristy and nightlife scene, try Itaewon at night. Pull up a seat at an outside bar and people watch — you won’t be sorry, this is the place to see and be seen. The restaurants here are a bit more expensive (but still reasonable) and are geared more toward foreigners. We had an amazing meal at Maple Tree House on our first night, highly recommend!
  • Hongik University area: For a more laid-back meal, try the Hongkik University area. Most are traditional Korean bbq restaurants or burger shacks, but all were reasonably priced (<$15/person for a full meal and drinks).
  • Gwangjang Market: If you want to be adventurous, then pull up a seat at any hawker stall at Gwangjang Market for some of the best street food Seoul has to offer. From seafood pancakes, kimchi, to dumplings, everything we had in the markets was delicious and came in at or under $4.

{Where to Eat}

There really is an endless amount of things to do in Seoul, but below is my not-to-be-missed list when discovering Seoul, Korea.

  • Climb or take a cable car to the top of Namsan Park for the best views of Seoul
  • Take a cooking class or a walking food tour with O’ngo Food Tours (highly recommend!)
  • See traditional Korean architecture at Bukchon Hanok Village
  • Spend a morning or afternoon exploring Gyeongbukgung Palace
  • For history, check out the War Memorial Museum to learn more about the Korean Civil War
  • Get a glimpse of North Korean territory and take a tour to the border through a JSA tour
  • Walk the Namdaemun Market and pick up some traditional Korean dinnerware to try your hand at Korean food when you get home
  • Stroll through Changdeokgung Palace and then check out Gwangjang Market down the street
  • Walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which runs through the heart of the city
  • See a baseball game at Jamsil Stadium
  • Take a train to Gingham (or South Seoul) to window shop and eat at the trendy restaurants

Have you traveled to seoul?

I’d love to hear your Seoul travel suggestions, leave a comment below
and I’ll add your tips to the list!

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