Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a sprawling metropolis where hyper-modern skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture meet Buddhist temples, palaces and street markets. Notable attractions include futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a convention hall with curving architecture and a rooftop park; Gyeongbokgung Palace, which once had more than 7,000 rooms; and Jogyesa Temple, site of centuries-old locust and pine trees.
HOW TO GET TO SEOUL
Seoul is one of the transportation hubs in Asia so many flights are going through the International airport
Most visitors arrive via Incheon International Airport located on Yeongjong Island in the neighboring city of Incheon
The A’REX, or ‘airport train connects the airport to Seoul Station (for further connections to KTX high-speed services) and Gimpo Airport (most domestic flights and some International flights from/to Japan, China, and Taiwan), operating from 5:20 AM until midnight. Two versions exist: Express services to the city (every half hour) takes 43 minutes and cost ₩8,000 (with WiFi available on board), while all-stop trains (every 6 to 12 minutes) take 53 minutes and cost about ₩4,000. Some subway lines of Seoul are connected directly to the all-stop train, so consider it if you have plans to take subway to go on.
Upon arrival, it is worth visiting a convenience store to purchase a T-Money card. This is a rechargeable transport card that can be used on subways, city/local buses, a reasonable number of taxis and can even be used to make purchases at convenience stores. Along with ₩50 discount upon each bus/subway use, it also gives you discount for connecting buses from subway, or vice versa up to 5 times within 30 mins.
There are few high speed rail service (KTX) linking Incheon International Airport with Seoul Station (hub station of Korea) as well as the connecting cities to Busan and Mokpo (stopping at some cities i.e. Daejeon, Daegu and Gwangju).
Seoul is the northern terminus of the KTX high-speed line. There are three KTX stations within city limits:
Seoul Station for trains to Busan, Ulsan, Kyeongju, Daegu, Daejeon Cheonan/Asan, and Suwon. Accessible via subway lines 1 & 4.
Yongsan Station (용산역), for trains to Mokpo, Gwangju, Daejeon and Cheonan/Asan. Also on line 1 & 4 (Sinyongsan Station).
The newly added KTX at Youngdeungpo is now running to southern destinations.
Nearly all ordinary (non-KTX) services also use one or both of the above terminals, but services east to Chuncheon or Gangneung and southeast to Gyeongju via Danyang use Cheongnyangni Station (청량리역), to the east of the city on line 1.
Many people also use buses to get into or out of Seoul so there is 5 major bus station around the city and you need to make sure on which one you need to get.
WHAT TO SEE AND WHAT TO DO IN SEOUL
As the ancient seat of Korea’s royalty, there are no fewer than 5 major palaces in Seoul, and some are definitely worth a visit. You can pay admission fee with T-money at the entrance(no additional discount applies). ISIC holder can get a discount at ticket office.
Gyeongbok-gung(경복궁,景福宮), Yulgukno (subway Gyeongbokgung or Gwanghwamun). This is Seoul’s grandest Joseon Dynasty-era palace and the seat of power for centuries before it was razed in 1592 by a Japanese invasion (and again by the Japanese in 1910). This was the first palace used by the Joseon Dynasty. Large parts have now been restored and the vast grounds also house the Joseon Palace Museum and the Korean Folk Museum. Admission fee is ₩3,000, open 9AM-6PM (open till 7PM on holidays) daily except Tuesdays.
Changdeok-gung(창덕궁,昌德宮), 99 Yulgong-ro, Jongno-gu (Metro Line 3, Anguk station 5 min walk or Line 1, 3, 5 Jongno-3ga Station). This palace is second only to Gyeongbok-gung (the original Gyeongbok-gung was built before Changdeok-gung but wasn’t used for as long a time) in historical importance, this was first built in 1405 and was the seat of power between 1618 and 1896. The buildings have all been recently restored and freshly repainted, creating a dazzling but still elegant effect that got the palace listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Buildings of particular note include the blue-roofed Seonjeongjeon, which was the King’s office, and the Daejojeon (“Great Making Hall”), his bedchamber, but perhaps most famous of all is the Huwon (“Secret Garden”) in the back. Access to the complex is by guided tour only (₩3,000) except on Thursdays when only self-guided tours are available in summer from April to August. Korean-language tours run every half hour (Japanese-language tours also available) but English tours are only offered at 10:30AM and 2:30PM, and last around 60 minutes with a walking distance of about 2.5 km, including some steps and inclines for the Huwon portion (the grounds are wheelchair-accessible for most parts but may have to enter certain areas in a reverse direction from the group). Closed Mondays. Mainline bus (blue): 109, 151, 162, 171, 172, 272. Branch line (green): no.7025.
Deoksu-gung (덕수궁,德壽宮), (subway City Hall). Located in downtown Seoul across the street from City Hall, Deoksu Palace vividly contrasts to the other nearby palaces like Changdeok Palace. Built during the mid-fifteenth century, the architecture of the buildings inside are heavily influenced with Western designs. Hence, you will see a fusion of both Korean and Western architecture. Closed on Mondays. Admission: Adults (19 to 64 years old): ₩1,000 (groups: ₩800), Children (aged 7-18) and soldiers: ₩500 (groups: ₩400), Children 6 and under, seniors 65 and over: free.
Changgyeong-gung (창경궁,昌慶宮), (Subway line 4, Hyehwa Station 10 minute walk or 20 min walk from Changdeok-gung). Originally built in 1104 as a summer palace for the Kings of the Koryo Dynasty, it became one of the main palaces during the Joseon Dynasty. The palace was used as a temporary home for the King during the time Gyeongbuk Palace was being built. Unlike other palaces that has a North-South orientation, Changgyeong Palace faces East-West. Also, what is famous about this palace is the fact it connects to Jongmyo Shrine, a holy place for the Joseon Dynasty, where sacrificial rites are practiced for previous kings and queens. Closed Tuesdays. Admission: Adults (19-64): ₩1,000 (groups: ₩800), Children (aged 7-18): ₩500 (groups: ₩400), Children 6 and under, seniors 65+: free.
Gyeonghui-gung (경희궁,慶熙宮) and Seoul History Museum (서울역사박물관), (Subway line 5, Seodaemun Station, exit 4). Originally built in the 17th century, it was burnt down twice in the 19th century. It was largely destroyed by the Japanese during the colonial rule to build a school for Japanese children. It was finally restored in 1985 and opened to the public. Free admission.
Seoul offers many excellent opportunities for hiking. The mountains in Seoul are at most 800 m (3,000 ft), accessible by public transit and the trails range from easy to difficult.
Mount Bukhan Offers probably the best hiking opportunities in Seoul. It is in the north of Seoul and can be extremely crowded on holidays. To visit a popular area, take line 1 to Dobongsan station.
Mount Gwanak – Gwanak station, line 1. The sammak temple is located in.
Mount Samseong – Close to Gwanaksan.
Mount Inwang – Located in central Seoul.
4.19 Memorial Cemetery – 224 people were killed during the April 19 Movement, and were buried in this cemetery. It became a national cemetery in 1995. This place has a museum, several statues, and a mausoleum. It is a popular park to learn about culture and heritage.
Boramae Park – Formerly the site of the Korean Air Force Academy, which in 1986 turned into a park – Boramae, or hawk in English, symbolizes the Air Force. The size of the park is about 360,000 square meters and its sports facilities, a small zoo, a pond, and walking paths are well designed. The huge pond, which is 9,000 square meters, is surrounded by willow trees and benches, and people love to sit here. The pond is full of cool shades during the summer, and is spectacular when snow falls in the winter.
Namsan Park – Located in the center of Seoul and considered a symbol of Seoul. Namsan Park is an ecology-island surrounded by urban districts. In spite of being an urban ecology-island, wild animals live in the park. Located in the middle of Seoul, the mountain filled with pine trees can be seen from almost every corner of the big city and the residents of the areas surrounding the hills enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Olympic Park – Built for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. A lake, a large field covered with the grass, and a square with sculptures are very popular among visitors. It is frequently visited by brides and grooms to take their wedding pictures. There are a couple of courses that are ideal for jogging or walking. In addition, the outdoor stage and the six stadiums are often used for concerts and other special events. Also a well known modern art museum named SOMA Museum is located within the park that features modern artworks of both korean and international artists. the entrance fee for the museum is ₩3,000.
ACCOMMODATION IN SEOUL
Seoul’s has two unofficial backpacker districts, Jongno (Anguk/Sinseol-dong) to the northeast of the city and Hongdae, Sinchon out to the west. Within walking distance to Dongdaemun Market, Jongno is better located for sightseeing and can be reached directly from Incheon Airport on limousine buses or city bus 6002 toSinseol-dong stop (₩9,000, 90 min). Hongdae, Sinchon area is located in university area. Yonsei Univ., Ehwa woman’s Univ., Hongik Univ. and Sogang Univ. are around this area. so there are many restaurants, bar, club and shopping center and easy to be reached from Incheon Airport by limousine bus and Arex (Airport express train) in 1 hour.
Alternatively, try a jjimjilbang. ₩4,000-15,000/night. You don’t get a room of your own, but you can store your luggage into one of the small lockers and you can live quite cheaply for a long time, sleeping in the public sleeping rooms and enjoying the hot-tub and steam room facilities (sometimes a gym is available, also movies and TV shows often play until 11PM or so). To find a jjimjilbang keep an eye out for the the words jjimjilbang (찜질방) or 24 hr sauna (24시 사우나) in Korean. Not all saunas have jjimjilbang stay-over facilities to watch out for that. E.g. try Dragon Hill Spa at Yongsan station, ₩13,000/12h with overnight stay possible, but quite packed sometimes.
Best Western Premier Seoul Garden Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn, located in the Mapo area across from Yeouido Island.
Co-op Residence Serviced Apartments, Samseong, Ul-Jiro (near Dongdaemun Stadium), Western (Dongdaemun), Whikyung, Ohmok, Sincheon. From around ₩80,000 for very small but very comfortable single-bed studios to slightly larger double studios. Depending on the property, super-fast internet is either free or cheap (you need to ask for it). The staff are very nice but don’t always speak more then rudimentary English. Some of them have restaurants that serve decent food. The Ul-Jiro Co-op is across from the Dongdaemun Stadium and Market and is a little worse for wear. The Samseong Co-op is newer and has heated floors for winter. All of them are handily located and are a fine place to stay if you are on your own. The bathrooms are tiny, as are the TVs.
Hamilton Hotel, in the heart of the Itaewon shopping district, and next to the Itaewon subway station. Nice rooms, stay here to help reduce culture shock.
Han Suites, in Chungmuro, right near Myeongdong. An unassuming building, it has a range for rooms from ₩80,000 for a reasonably-sized Studio through to ₩250,000 for a two-bedroom ‘Premier.’ Popular with both Koreans and expats, it also has super-fast internet at a reasonable price, they restock with fridge in the kitchen with free beer and water and a reasonable selection of TV stations (including ABC Asia-Pacific for homesick Australians). It isn’t glamorous or in an amazing part of town, but it’s a nice walk to City Hall through Myeongdong.
Seoul is a remarkably safe city given its size, comparable in safety to Hong Kong or Tokyo. Pickpocketing is not very common and violent crime is minimal if not almost unheard of.
If you happen to be a non-Korean male walking hand-in-hand with a Korean female, drunk older Korean men might give you a tongue lashing or occasionally worse. Note that this is far less of a problem than it used to be.
If you do end up in a fight, remember that Korean law is possibly different to your home country. Just because someone else started the fight does not provide you with legal protection if the attacker ends up hurt. As in anywhere else in the world, get out of such a situation as quickly as you can.