Planning Out Your Trip To Seoul: A Beginner’s Guide
Planning Out Your Trip To Seoul: A Beginner’s Guide
A look at the Gangnam district in Seoul at night
So you’re almost ready to go to Seoul. Inside the airport, you make sure you have everything for your trip. You got your ticket in hand, your passport in your bag, and enough money and clothes to survive on for two weeks. So far, everything looks good.
As the wait for your flight counts down, an announcement “departing to Incheon International Airport” suddenly breaks the silence. The trip to Korea has now begun.
For most visitors of Korea, their first destination outside the airport is Seoul.
In the past five years, Seoul has been getting considerable notice on the world stage. The ‘Seoul’ of Korea has been voted the top Asian tourist city by Japanese, Chinese, and Thai travelers from 2008-2011. As the center of the Korean Hallyu Wave, one of the most powerful economic cities in the world, a blend of Eastern and Western culture, and the birthplace of K-pop, Seoul is the new “cool” city to visit. The possibilities of fun in Korea’s capital are endless.
Whether you’re here to learn Korean, learn about Korea’s cultural highlights, catch your favorite drama actor on the street, or stalk your favorite K-pop star, Seoul has it all.
So what will you do first when you get to Korea’s largest city? Let’s find out.
Quick Things to Get Once in the Airport – The 4 Gets
After your plane touches down in Incheon International Airport, you’ll have to go through the usual immigration check and luggage pickup. Once you’re finished with that, make getting these things below a priority:
Note: $1.00 USD equals roughly 1,000 ₩
1) Get Korean Won – The Won, or Korean money, is used here in Korea. While Korea, like the US, is a credit card based country, some vendors and merchants only take cash. It is recommended to keep $200 (200000 ₩) to $300 (300000 ₩) on you in case shops don’t take credit cards. Stop by the nearest foreign exchange center or ATM to get Won.
2) Get a T-Money Card – Make sure to get a T-Money card. This card is basically a transportation card that can be used for subways, buses, and even taxes. It makes paying for all three as easy as sliding a card. All you do is put money on it and use.
To get a T-Money Card, you can buy one at most convenience stores like GS 25, 7-11, and Buy the Way. They are about $3.50 (3500 ₩).
Without a T-Money card, you’ll have the hassle of taking out money every time you want to pay for transportation fare. With people behind you waiting for you to pay, you’ll quickly feel the impatience from some Seoul citizens. Save yourself some stress and hassle by getting a T-Money card.
3) Get a Subway Map – Getting a subway map will go a long way in navigating through Seoul. As explained further below, using the subway is the most efficient way to travel in the city. Having a map makes planning and getting to your destination seamless.
4) Get a Korean Phrase Book – Need the Korean word or phrase to ask for directions or buy something? A simple Korean phrase book is the answer. If you can say “to buy” or “to order” in Korean, that will be enough to communicate with most Koreans when shopping. It also goes a long way in trying to learn the host language of the country, as many Koreans appreciate it.
Seoul – A Quick Overview
With a population with over 10 million people, Seoul is a sprawling metropolis. It really is the New York of Asia. With millions of people commuting in and out of the city, the city never sleeps. Yet, for first-time visitors, it’s incredibly easy to get lost and confused in this city.
But don’t worry, that’s what this guide is here for. We’ll break down how to travel in Seoul and make navigating through the craziness easier.
Rather than just have a “here’s 5 places to visit” and that’s it, we’ll break down how Seoul works and what it’s like to live here. Then we’ll list our 5 recommended places to check out J.
Here’s a map of Seoul and all of its districts below:
The green line (line 2) circles around the city. It will be your best friend J
Seoul is divided into 25 “gu”, or districts. While there are many districts, most of them are residential areas. Some areas, however, are a lot more fun and have more activity. These are known as the “hot spots”. Some of the hot spots include: Mapo-gu, Yongsan-gu, Jung-gu, and Gangnam-gu.
As seen from the map above, the Han River cuts through Seoul in the middle. Thus, to Seoul citizens – also known as Seoulites – the people refer to the sections as either “below the river” (South of the river – e.g. Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu, etc) or “over the river” (North of the river –e.g. Mapo-gu, Yongsan-gu, etc).
Until the late 1980s, Seoul just consisted of districts north of the Han River. Before the 1980s, everything south of the river was literally farmland. When the Korean government decided to make economic development a priority, the farms were bulldozed for modernization. Thus, many of the newer buildings, offices, and shopping centers are located in the southern half of Seoul – especially the Gangnam-gu area.
Subways – Your Best Friend in Seoul
Using the subway will be your best friend throughout Seoul. While there are three main ways of traveling in the city – subway, buses, and taxis – subways are, by far, the most efficient. Here’s why:
The Seoul subway system is fast, cheap, and efficient
Buses: This is the cheapest way to travel. They range from about 80 cents (800 ₩) to $1.20 (1200 ₩). In addition, there are many buses, so you don’t have to worry about missing a bus since the next one will be coming in the next 5-10 minutes.
Yet, the problem with buses is that you need to memorize all the bus routes. The routes are also in neighborhood names, so you’ll need to know the area. Not only that, but nearly all bus route maps are in Korean. Buses are most often used by people that know Seoul and its inner streets well.
Asking first-time visitors to know bus routes, neighborhood streets, and enough Korean makes bus travel more stressful than it should be!
· Very cheap
· Many buses
· Close at 12:00 am
· Need to know the area well
· Need to know the bus routes well
· Some bus routes have many stops, so it will take a lot longer to travel
Taxis – While buses are the least expensive, taxis are the priciest option for travel. They are also the most flexible, as they run 24 hours a day, unlike buses and subways. Furthermore, they are the fastest, as a taxi goes from point A to B.
To travel from one end of Seoul to the other, it will cost anywhere from $15.00 (15000 ₩) to $20.00 (20000 ₩). Using a bus or subway, instead, will only be $1.20 (120 ₩) to $4.00 (400 ₩).
With taxis, you are really trading money for flexibility and time.
Most Seoulites use taxis only if they’re in a hurry or at night. Since buses and subways close at 12:00 am, taxis are the only option of going back home (outside of having a friend with a car). Be prepared to shell out a lot of money at night, as taxi fares double. Taxi drivers know they can make a killing at night here. After party-goers are done clubbing, drinking, and bar-hopping, a safe ride home can cost $30.00 (30000 ₩) or more.
· Runs 24/7 (all day)
· Many taxis
· Fast; will go from point A to B
· Expensive (especially at night)
· Will have to fight for a taxi at night
The Seoul subway system is fast, cheap, and efficient
Subways – Using the subway provides the best of both worlds: fast travel and cheap prices. You can get to most places riding a subway in 10 to 20 minutes. The price to take a one way subway trip is $1.05 (1050 ₩), which is slightly more expensive than a bus fare.
The subway map is very friendly to newcomers. All of the stations and routes are labeled in English. In addition, there are help centers and maps littered throughout the subway stations.
If knowing the subway stations is intimidating, just remember one subway line. As long as you know the green line (line #2 – see map below), you can get around Seoul in no problem.
Most Seoulites use the subway more than buses and taxis. The convenience, low price, and easy-to-use subway map makes it an ideal choice to get around the city. This is true especially for first-time visitors to Seoul too.
· Many subways
· Closes at 12:00 am
· Can be very crowded during rush hour (5:00 pm), after a K-pop concert, and near closing time (11:00 pm to 12:00 pm)
A quick reminder: As stated earlier, make sure to get a T-Money card. This card is basically a transportation card that can be used for subways, buses, and even taxes. This is mentioned twice since getting a T-Money card makes traveling so much easier in Seoul.
Five Recommended Places to Visit in Seoul
It’s the time of the guide to recommend places to visit while in Seoul. There a good variety of tourist, party, cultural, and entertainment recommendations on the list. While there are a lot more than just ten places in Seoul, these hot-spots below are a good start to any visitor.
1) Gangnam District
The famed COEX Mall in Gangnam
Want to get your shopping on? Ready to experience some of Korea’s finest cuisine? Want to club at some of the coolest hotspots? Ever wondered where the K-pop agencies have their headquarters at? Then Gangnam has to be on your list to visit.
Gangnam is known to Seoulites as a ritzy, rich area for shopping. The famed COEX Mall, the largest underground mall in Asia with over 300 stores, is in Gangnam. Teheranno Street, a street named after the Iranian capital Tehran, is one of the most expensive areas of Seoul.
Apgujeong, a local neighborhood in Gangnam, is one of the most expensive areas in Korea. It’s known as the Rodeo Drive of Seoul. Thus, it is littered with fancy restaurants and shopping. It is not known to many, but Seoul is diverse when it comes to ethnic foods. Italian, French, Greek, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine are just some of the selections in Gangnam.
Fashion is also up-to-date in Gangnam. Just by walking down the street, you will see the latest fashion and trends on people. Many people say that Apgujeong makes you feel fashion conscious. If you pick one day to look dab and lazy with your hair and makeup (if you are a girl), going to Apgujeong is ill-advised.
Garosugil Street is a popular shopping street
Gangnam is also known as a business and professional district as well. Some of the companies that make Gangnam their home are Google Korea, Microsoft Korea, Pandora TV, Korean music companies SM Entertainment and JYP (in the Apgujeong area). There are several other, smaller companies that also reside in the area as well.
The area is lastly known as a place for filming. The 2012 Bourne Legacy has a couple of scenes straight from Gangnam. Various Korean dramas have also been shot in Gangnam neighborhoods as well.
To summarize, here are some places inside Gangnam you should check out:
· COEX Mall (Shopping and Eating)
· Club Answer (Clubbing)
· Club Eden (Clubbing)
· Apgujeong (Shopping)
· Kyobo Bookstore in Kyobo Tower (Reading and Music)
· Garosugil Street (Shopping)
· 10 Corso Como (Shopping)
2) Hongdae District
A typical night for people walking in Hongdae
Is partying, drinking, and hanging out with chill people your idea of a fun time? Do you like the arts and indie music? If so, Hongdae will be your destination.
Hongdae is known as a liberal, creative place where the indie scene thrives. In fact, some of the finest music can be found here, deep in underground lounges and stages. Crying Nut, Peppertones, Epik High, Viva Soul, Dynamic Duo, The Quiett, and various other artists started off as indie artists in the area. Street performers singing and playing instruments are common daily.
A recognized music day, “Sound Day”, celebrates indie musicians in the area. A wristband that allows entry into various concert halls and venues is only $15.00 (15,000 ₩).
Unlike many K-pop concerts, where tickets are expensive ($70.00 and up – 70,000 ₩), many indie concerts are very cheap – ($5.00 to $10.00 – 500₩ to 1,000 ₩). In addition, once the concert is over, you usually get to meet the indie artists.
Hongdae is a hotbed for the graffiti arts, b-boy, and art. The area’s history has been largely influenced by Hongik University, a top five university in Korea for fine arts. Thus, many students, artists, and performers have flocked to the area – away from the ritzy, rich areas – to practice their craft.
The area is also known for its clubbing and partying. Since nearby Ehwa Woman’s University, Sogang University, and Yonsei University are nearby, Friday and Saturday nights turn into a virtual college clubbing scene. Cafes and clothing stores accommodate the clubbing culture, as some of them stay open until 3 AM.
Fancy lounges (left) and poppin’ clubs (right) are staples in Hongdae
Hongdae even has a “Club Day”, which is very similar to “Sound Day”. Clubs sell wristbands that allows entry into 13 clubs for only $15.00 (15,000 ₩). This happens on the last Friday of every month.
To summarize, here are some places inside Hongdae you should check out:
· Sound Day (Music)
· Club Day (Clubbing)
· Club M2 (Clubbing)
· Club NB (Clubbing)
· Flea markets (Shopping and Eating)
· Hongik University (University)
· Indie music shows (Entertainment)
· B-boy shows (Entertainment)
· The Hello Kitty and Charlie Brown cafes (Eating)
3) Namsan Tower (N Tower or Seoul Tower)
Namsan Tower during the evening
This tower is a popular destination for both dates and tourists. For dates, the couple will climb the 40 minute trek up the mountain to reach the top. For tourists, the top of the tower provides a majestic view of Seoul from above. Fortunately, if you wish to skip the climb to the tower, a bus or trolley can take you to the summit.
Whatever you do, it is highly recommended to not wear high-heels or uncomfortable shoes while climbing the mountain. Many females climb the mountain wearing heels in the name of fashion. Yet, when they reach the top, blisters will soon appear on their feet.
Once you reach the top, there are a variety of cafes and restaurants. Souvenir shops are also there as well. One noticeable area is the stone wall of messages, where you can write a message and your name on the wall. Common messages on the wall are: “I made it to the top! Seoul is great!”
The favorite activity for many people is the “Locket of Love” wall. Thousands of padlocks are on the wall, as people leave various items on the wall. Pictures, teddy bears, and necklaces are just some of the things people contribute to the wall. However, you’re free to leave anything to the wall if its deemed appropriate.
The locket of love wall is a popular attraction
Of course, the tower is most known for its birds-eye view on Seoul. There are observatory telescopes in the tower. If there is one place to not forget your camera, Namsan Tower is that place. Taking pictures of Seoul from the top – especially at night – is one of the most beautiful shots you can take.
4) Han River
The Banpo Bridge over the Han River
Fought over throughout much of Korea’s storied history, the Han River is known to be more peaceful and tranquil today. Along with the Namsan Tower above, the Han River was voted by Seoulites, tourists, and travel experts as the most beautiful place in Seoul.
For visitors of the famed river, the biggest draw is unwinding and relaxing. While the river is not the most popular tourist place, experiencing the Han River should not be missed.
As noted earlier, the Han River cuts through Seoul in the middle. Thus, there are 27 bridges that cross over the bridge. One bridge in particular, the Banpo Bridge, is one of the highlight views at night.
Alongside the river, there are many things you can do here. Some activities you can do alongside the river are walking, bicycling, playing basketball, or having a picnic there. Taking a boat to travel from one end of Seoul to the other can also be done as well.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is a popular tourist attraction
Blending the both of ancient culture and 21st century modernization, the Gwanghwamun area represents both worlds. Neglected after the Korean War (1950 – 1953), it went a four year renovation project from 2006 – 2010. In the last two years, the area has experienced a boom of tourists and citizens visiting the area.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is located in the area. Known as the most important palace in the Joseon Dynasty, it met its unfortunate end when the Japanese set it on fire in 1592. Fortunately, the palace was part of the restoration project. Today, it is open to visitors, as you can experience both the history and Korean drama scenery the palace backdrop provides.
One of Korea’s most famed military generals also lives here… in statue form. Admiral Yi (Yi Sun-shin) is in the middle of the Gwanghwamun Square. Yi is famous for a series of naval battles back in the 1590s, where he took 13 turtle ships and smacked down over 300 Japanese ships. For that, he got his name immortalized in Korean annals and a pretty statue today.
This place is also known as a hotspot for shopping – Korea always has shopping around – and hanging out. Malls, stores, restaurants, and cafes are scattered throughout the area. Since Gwanghwamun is only 10 minutes away from three universities, many university students also come here.
It is a popular place for dates, as well as eating out. For partying though, that Hongdae area (see above) is just around the corner!
Admiral Yi is one of the most famous historical figures in Korean history
Wrapping It Up
Seoul is a majestic, vibrant city to explore. While there are definitely more than these five places to visit, these recommended areas are just scratching the surface. It’s no accident that Seoul is one of the most powerful, visited cities today. It really has everything for everyone. Whether you like shopping, clubbing, cafes, culture, or art, Seoul has them all in spades.
Tell us what you think of this guide. And if you’ve been to Seoul, let us know which hot spots you recommend!
Jason has worked with BBC World, the Yonhap News, various K-pop stars, and more. When he's not working, writing, or coding, you can find him at the gym, learning new languages, listening to music, or playing video games. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea. Check out his Asian pop culture site: GreenTeaGraffiti