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Experiencing a little Seoul during a long Incheon (ICN) layover

Experiencing a little Seoul during a long Incheon (ICN) layover

Old Apr 14th, 2011, 09:03 AM
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Experiencing a little Seoul during a long Incheon (ICN) layover

While we’re working (slowly) through our Hanoi trip report, I thought I’d share a little about our very brief excursion into Seoul in case this is helpful to others with similar situations and interests.

In a nutshell, we had a scheduled 12-hour connection at Incheon (ICN) airport—arriving from Hanoi at about 5:00 am and departing for San Francisco at 5:00 pm. While ICN is a darned nice airport, and one could easily occupy him/herself there for that period of time, we really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to see even a little bit of Seoul.

There are a number of available transit tours, covering everything from food to shopping to cultural sites to the demilitarized zone:

I believe Asiana and also maybe Korean Airlines also offer some day tours to people with long connections (ironically, our limo driver on the way home from O’Hare mentioned that he’d taken an Asiana city tour a few years ago).

But we generally aren’t “tour people” and could never really get excited about that option. After some research, we realized it should be pretty easy to do this on our own—even more so now with the recent opening of the express/commuter train service all the way out to ICN.

Given the early hour of our arrival, we didn't really rush to get out of the airport (what were we going to do in downtown Seoul at 6 am!). We took time for a little breakfast and coffee on the departures level--there's everything from Jamba Juice to Dunkin Donuts to Pascucci and various other options. Once we got going, here's what we did and how we did it.

<b>Planning resources</b>

We used one guidebook, <i>Lonely Planet</i>—primarily because that was the only one available at Borders when I was shopping for a book. It comes with a pull-out map that was fairly useful, but the print is so small that it is a bit challenging even with reading glasses. The book also has some more detailed maps of specific areas.

We also found this article on Trip Advisor to be useful for planning what to do and in what sequence:
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Old Apr 14th, 2011, 09:07 AM
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<b>Incheon Airport</b>

Very useful airport maps and information here:

At 5:00 am, the immigration lines moved very quickly. There are forms to complete for immigration and customs, as well as a “quarantine” survey with some health-related questions. For immigration, we just listed “N/A, city tour” as our “address in Korea” and the officer didn’t bat an eye.

We easily found an ATM (several of them, actually) outside of the baggage claim/customs area, and then went up two levels to the departures area to store our carry-on bags. There are two manned baggage storage facilities (which open at 6:00 am, by the way), one located behind the “B” check-in area and one behind the “M” check-in area (we’d determined this in advance from the aforementioned airport map). This wasn’t exactly inexpensive—we paid about $18 to store a computer bag and two daypacks for about seven hours—but it beat carrying said items (particularly mine!) around in the city. Although I’m skipping ahead here, we later happened to pass right by lockers at Seoul station that would have been a convenient and less expensive option.

The various transportation options (buses and trains) are back down on the lower levels, so there was a bit of walking involved. We found the airport, while expansive, to be very well signed, and there are info desks and maps throughout (although not all info desks were staffed early in the morning).

Going back through in the afternoon, we experienced almost no wait at security or immigration.


The airport express and commuter trains run between Airport and Seoul station—the former, as its name implies, runs straight through with no stops, takes 43 minutes, and costs 13,300 won (roughly $12) per person; the latter makes various stops, takes 53 minutes, and costs 3,700.

We opted for the express train to make the most of our time, although in hindsight the 10-minute savings is probably not worth the $8-9 premium. While there are manned ticket booths at both stations, we found the ticket machines (with English option) very easy to use. The train is very comfortable, and on the way in, we had a car completely to ourselves. There’s even a little video about what to expect once arriving at Seoul station.

There are also several varieties of limousine bus that run various routes throughout the city, and depending on destination those might be more convenient. The downside (from what we’ve read) is that traffic can be an issue at times (or maybe I just remember spending 2.5 hours on a limo bus going from Narita into Tokyo).

From Seoul station, we used the Metro (subway) to go on to our destination. An agent at the airport train station had advised us to take a taxi once in Seoul because the subway was “very complex,” but we figured if we were able to use the Tokyo (and other major metropolitan) system without incident that this wouldn’t be any more difficult—and it wasn’t. Figure out which line you want (they are numbered) and know the name of the station at the end of the line in the direction in which you are going. It is a bit of a trek up into Seoul station from the airport train (there are escalators) and then all the way through to the other side of the station to get to the subway, but we just followed the signs and got there with no problem.

Again, the ticket machines have an English option and are very intuitive, and the stations are well signed. Our guidebook (Lonely Planet) indicates which station exit to use for specific sites, but we also found signs in the stations with similar information.

Subway tickets were 1,000 won for each ride (about $1).
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Old Apr 14th, 2011, 09:16 AM
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There are certainly plenty of directions one could go. After some reading, we felt that it would be best to head toward the Gwanghwamun and Insadong areas, as there were multiple things we could do on foot once there. So this is how we spent our time (beginning and ending at the Jonggak Metro stop).

<b>Gyeongbokgung</b>—the “Palace of Shining Happiness.” Originally built in the 1500s, it was destroyed by the Japanese. It is in the process of a long reconstruction effort, but there is a lot to see at this point. The grounds are quite large, and there are also a couple of museums on the site (we didn’t visit the museums). You walk in through a series of massive gates, open courtyards, palace buildings, etc. until you reach a large, imposing structure (a former royal banquet hall) surrounded by a lovely (and photogenic) moat. This would probably be a good point to reinforce the need for comfortable shoes.

<b>Insadong</b>—the “craft” and gallery area. On Sundays, Insadong-gil is pedestrianized, and the shops put out displays and there are food vendors along the street. It was a little dead when we first got there, but it was starting to bustle by the time we came back by after visiting the palace. The small alleyways leading off the main street were crowded with interesting-looking restaurants and cafes, but we were not really ready for lunch at that point.

<b>Jogyesa</b>—the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul.It is vibrantly colorful on the outside, but somewhat dark and mysterious inside. When we visited, there were quite a few worshipers praying on mats outside the shrine. mr_go took off his shoes and stepped inside to look, but soon stepped back out because of crowded conditions. Not sure how normal that is for a Sunday morning.

We also walked by but were unable to enter <b>Tapgol Park,</b> which is a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese rule. There’s a 10-tier stone pagoda, which we were able to see through the gates.

With our time available, we easily could have added one more destination (which very likely would have been the Namdaemun Market, which is walking distance to Seoul Station) or a nicer lunch, but after a short overnight flight and a number of hours of walking, we 1) had sore feet and 2) were keen to make time for the showers in the Asiana lounge before boarding our flight to San Francisco.

It was a little chilly (40s F) when we got into town but evolved into a very pleasant and sunny day—perfect for some walking around. We’re very glad to have made the effort to do this and hope to make it back to Seoul for a longer visit at some point.

A few photos:
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Old Apr 14th, 2011, 10:44 AM
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Good report - glad you enjoyed Seoul. About that small print - I travel with a small magnifying glass these days, lol! (I use a lot of LP guides.) Another option for LP is to download the chapter(s) you want and print in a bigger font.
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Old Apr 14th, 2011, 11:00 AM
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Or LP is one of the guides you can down load to a Kindle and increase the print size. We spent a few days in Soule a 10 years ago and it sound like you covered in a day what we did in 3 0r 4, except the shopping.
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Old Apr 14th, 2011, 01:08 PM
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Great info!
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Old Apr 15th, 2011, 03:12 AM
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Thanks for this. We will be in Seoul in mid-July for a 24-hr stopover and are looking for tips. This was very helpful.

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Old Nov 2nd, 2011, 07:55 PM
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Thanks for info-working on a flight to Malaysia next year & hoping to upgrade to buz class-we may have an overnight in Seoul-this was very helpful-Thanks-Chris
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Old Nov 2nd, 2011, 09:57 PM
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wow, how weird! i was just looking at this thread early this morning, because i'm planning a trip to korea in jan., and up pops this post. ms go posted this excellent report, and i hope to benefit from it.
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Old Dec 21st, 2011, 10:22 AM
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Hi, I am new here. This post was perfect. I plan on going to Japan next year with a friend. It is her dream to go there. I went about 6/7 years ago and would love to go back. My dream though is to visit S. Korea. In just looking at differant flights I saw some w/layovers in Seoul. One was for 15 hours. More than enough time to see something while over there, before I can actually do a full trip there. Your iternary was perfect. When I do get my vacatoin plan I will be checking back for ideas.
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Old Dec 21st, 2011, 03:54 PM
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About the left luggage at the airport: When you arrive but before you leave the airport there are storage lockers that as I recall are either completely free or very inexpensive, but you have to do this before you go through immigration. See the information desk in the center hub and the lockers are right behind you. Also, if you are going to the Korean Airlines lounge there is a large free storage facility.

Also just to mention that the Insadong shopping street is car-free on Sundays and is a great place for all kinds of souvenirs, especially paper and small ceramics. there is also a tourist information booth at the intersection. The cafes just off the main street are quaint, serve delicious and inexpensive food. And if you need to go back to the airport in a hurry there is an airport express bus right across the street. All very easy.
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Old Apr 10th, 2013, 09:46 AM
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I had a 12 hour layover on March 30th 2013, returning from Thailand and took advantage of a 5 hour city tour and also the "Spa on Air" facility in the lower level of the airport.

I included my experience in my trip blog, with some photos:


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Old Jun 24th, 2013, 08:29 AM
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Old Jun 25th, 2013, 02:24 AM
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Shucks, now I'm disappointed that we only have a 4-hour layover when we travel next year!

Thanks for the great information. Next time, I'll schedule a longer stop.

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Old Jun 26th, 2013, 09:08 AM
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Darn! We have 1 1/2 hr. on the way and 4 hrs. on the way back home. Unfortunately we have an 8 hr. layover in Chicago which I've visited numerous times. Wish I had seen this post before purchasing my tickets. I would have tried to get a long layover in Seoul!

BTW lovely pictures.
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Old Sep 16th, 2013, 01:01 AM
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You make it seem so easy. I was stopped and told I could not exit the terminal. I think you can only go out if you're SWITCHING AIRLINES.
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Old Dec 16th, 2013, 06:54 PM
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I created an itinerary for my friend and her bf. They have a 14-hour layover, but it's overnight.

So, it made it a little challenging since the subway and buses stop running at 11:45~ on the weekends.

For convenience, I based their itinerary in Hongdae area...shopping, food, nightlife, proximity to the airport railroad, etc.

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