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This post is part of our Around-the-World Series.
During our trip around the world, I built in a few long layovers, thanks to United’s (formerly) generous routing rules. The first of these layovers was in Seoul, South Korea. We had only 19 hours on the ground, including an overnight stay. I did some careful planning to maximize our time. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and we had to cancel a few things. We still had fun and got to experience a few great things during our Seoul layover.
What We Planned
Before I get into what we actually did, I will detail the plans we made. We would be arriving too late to join any of the layover tours provided by Incheon Airport, and most of the temples were closed by that time. I was very happy with the itinerary I built, so hopefully, you can use it as a basis for your visit.
This was the outline of the layover visit. We planned to take cabs between the stops, which form a triangle, ending near our hotel. Everything was on schedule until the rain interrupted our well-laid plans.
What Actually Happened
Arrive in Seoul – 5pm
We actually landed slightly ahead of schedule. The flight with Asiana airlines was a very smooth 9-hours from Honolulu. They fed us two in-flight meals and provided beer/wine/soft drinks. We even scored exit row seats with legroom for dayyyys!
Airport Express (AREX) train from Airport to Seoul Station – 6:10pm-6:53pm
After disembarking the plane, we rolled smoothly through immigration and customs. With no bags to check, we took very little time to reach the terminal. Here, we followed signs for the Airport Railroad and found the nonstop express train to Seoul Station. The process to find the train was fairly simple, and the ride into the city only cost 8,500 Wan ($7) each. We narrowly missed the earlier train, but everything was still progressing according to schedule.
Check in Four Points by Sheraton, Seoul Station – 7:15pm
When the train arrived at Seoul Station, we followed the signs to exit 12 for our hotel. Seoul Station is a MASSIVE maze, but the exit signs are clearly marked. We selected the Four Points by Sheraton, because it is connected to the train station. It was also a bargain at only 7,000 SPG points.
We arrived at the front desk right on schedule. They thanked us for being SPG Platinum members and upgraded us to the top floor. We headed to the room to change clothes and load the daypack. Fortunately, I thought to toss our rain jackets in the pack… foreshadowing…
Banpo Bridge Light Show – 8pm-9:15pm
Leaving the hotel, we grabbed a cab to Banpo Hangang Park to watch the famous Banpo Bridge light show. The cab ride was supposed to take only 8 minutes, but we hit traffic. Fortunately, our cab driver managed to find a better route, and we arrived at Banpo Hangang Park at exactly 8pm.
Only one problem, it was starting to rain, and there were no signs of any light show. We donned our raincoats and stood with a small crowd of expectant onlookers. 8:10, 8:20… still no lights. Since the show runs every half hour, we decided to wait and hope it would begin at 8:30. Still no lights, so I asked a local what was happening. He told me that the Banpo Bridge light show is canceled whenever it rains! Ughh! Well, time to hail a cab…
Noryangjin Fish Market – 8:45pm-9:45pm
I was really looking forward to visiting this chaotic fish market. Research told me that I could haggle with vendors over their eclectic displays of fresh fish, octopus, scallops, and all sorts of seafood. Then, restaurants within the market would prepare my selection upon request. Sounds awesome!
Unfortunately, we wasted too much time waiting for the light show. The Namsam Cable car stops running at 11pm. If we wanted the best view of Seoul, we had to head over to the Namsam Tower and forego the fish market.
Namsam Tower – 9:45pm – 10:45pm
It took a while to flag down a cab under the Banpo Bridge. We asked the driver to take us to the Namsam cable car. A quick, 5-minute ride had us at the base of the mountain to buy our cable car tickets. Round trip tickets up to the tower cost 8,500 Wan ($7) each – not bad.
There was no line for the cable car, so we boarded immediately. The ride to the top ascends quickly and offers a wonderful view of the city below. When we reached the top, the rain had thankfully subsided. We snapped a quick picture of the tower and walked toward the viewing deck. Apparently, the rain wasn’t finished… as we approached the deck, the fog rolled in and the rain came down hard. We couldn’t see anything beyond 20 feet, so we took cover inside.
We waited nearly half an hour for the rain to slow, eventually going back to the viewing deck for some pictures. Our wait paid off, and we had a lovely view of the city below. Love locks also adorn every spare inch of railing along the platform, creating a rainbow of heart-shaped tokens. We spent about 20 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the scene, before returning to the bottom.
Myeongdong – 11pm-midnight
Hungry, tired, and a bit frustrated by the circumstances, we decided to walk to Myeongdong instead of visiting the fish market. Myeongdong is a lively shopping district with many food options and street vendors. The walk was a very easy half-mile, straight down a hill.
We strolled through the neon-lit streets, among the shops and food peddlers. Plenty of people were still out, despite the rainy conditions and late hour on a weekday.
After walking for a few blocks, we found a restaurant full of people, with wonderful smells wafting from the door. We grabbed a table and ordered the house specialty – spiced chicken, fried rice, and cabbage. Our server actually prepared the dish at the table, using a burner hidden under the tabletop. We watched as he shredded the chicken, added the extras and stirred everything together. Despite my generally wimpy palette, I really enjoyed the spicy chicken dish!
We returned to the hotel completely exhausted. Needing a full night of rest, we decided to cancel the early temple layover tour and sleep later. Seeing a temple would have been cool, but we really appreciated the extra sleep. Many more temples to see in the upcoming cities.
Temple Layover Tour – 7am-8am
AREX train from Seoul Station to Airport – 6am-6:43am 7:34am-8:17am
The extra hour-and-a-half of sleep was absolutely golden! We left the hotel at 7am for the 15-minute walk to the AREX train… or so we thought. When we entered Seoul Station, we immediately realized that the signs were not helpful. While exits are clearly marked, signs for the express train were nowhere to be found!
Knowing that our time was tight, I flagged down a local guy to ask for help. He was a HUGE help! He guided us through the crazy maze of Seoul Station, even asking for help when he got lost. We reached the ticket booth with 3 minutes to spare and boarded the train just in time!
Asiana Airlines Lounge – 9am-10am
Thanks to Priority Pass from our Chase Sapphire Reserve, we visited the Asiana Airlines lounge for free. Here, we grabbed a nice, hot meal and some lattes before boarding the flight. The lounge was spacious, swanky, and not crowded. It also offered massage chairs, shower facilities, and extra-clean bathrooms.
Board flight to Hong Kong – 10:20am
We boarded our Thai Airways flight from ICN to HKG on time. The gate agent offered us bulkhead seats for extra legroom, which we happily accepted.
Tips for an Overnight Seoul Layover – What We Learned
Take the AREX Train
AREX is easily the most efficient and cost-effective way to travel between Incheon Airport and Seoul. Only 43 minutes and around $7.
Choose a Hotel at Seoul Station
For convenience, this location simply can’t be beat. We initially planned to stay near the airport, but trains stop running back there around 9pm. Staying at the station allowed us to be out as late as we wanted.
Seoul Station is Complicated
Even our very helpful guide admitted that Seoul Station is not “foreigner-friendly.” The exits are clearly marked, but most other signs are not available in English. Give yourself plenty of time to catch your return train, and ask a local if you get lost. Everyone we met in Seoul seemed very friendly and willing to help.
Taxis are Cheap and Efficient
I spent a lot of time trying to map our itinerary using the subway system. Planning which trains to catch and where to walk from each station was time-consuming and complex (see subway map above – yikes!). Taxis in Seoul are inexpensive and will drop you exactly where you need to go. None of our rides cost more than $8.
Weather is Unpredictable
With limited time in a city, we always hope for perfect weather. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. For us, the rain nearly derailed our entire time in Seoul. While I hated missing out on the light show and fish market, we still were able to enjoy the view from Namsam tower and the food in Myeongdong. Be flexible and try to keep a cool head when things go wrong (and they will, at some point).
Seoul is a beautiful city. We rode through winding streets, connecting interesting-looking bars and shops. Views from the top of the mountain and down by the river were lovely, despite the rainy conditions. I hope to return for a longer stay in the future. I would love to roam the streets and take in the vibrant culture… and of course, make a trip to the famous fish market!