A Day in Seoul, South Korea

A Day in Seoul, South KoreaStuck with a 10+ hour layover in the Incheon Airport in South Korea on my way home from Vietnam, I knew I had to find something to occupy my time. As I was wandering down the corridor after disembarking from the plane, I caught a sign out of the corner of my eye for a tour provider. The company, Transit Tours, which offers day trips out of the Incheon International Airport for those who have long layovers, had a selection of offerings to choose from. About an hour later, I was on my way to spend a day in Seoul.

I’ve traveled to South Korea before, but I’ve never spent any time on the mainland, and instead headed straight for the small island of Jeju. But my husband was an English teacher in Seoul and lived there for several weeks, and he’s often said that it’s one of his favorite cities in the world, so I was eager to check it out.

Many people don’t realize that Incheon International Airport, while located near Seoul, is actually on a small island of its own. The airport in Seoul is actually for domestic flights. The drive from Incheon to Seoul takes about 40 minutes.

The tour began at Gyeongbokgung, an ancient palace where the royal family lived. Built in 1395 and then reconstructed in 1867, the palace was all but destroyed in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A major effort has been undertaken since 1989 to reconstruct the buildings again, and about 40 percent of the structures standing before the occupation have been rebuilt since then.

A Day in Seoul, South KoreaWe got to Gyeongbokgung as the changing of the guards was taking place, and men dressed in colorful costumes were entertaining the crowd in the courtyard. There are several buildings sprawled across the compound and we had the chance to poke through a few of them, which were outfitted as though the royal family still met and lived there.

Within walking distance of Gyeongbokgung is the National Folk Museum, which has several wings devoted to the history and lifestyle of Korea. We had minimal time in the museum, so I chose to check out the section devoted to traditional culture. The small part of the museum I did get to see was fantastic, and I’d love to go back and spend more time there some day.

By this time it was about noon, so we piled back into the van and headed for Insadong, one of the most popular shopping streets for tourists in Seoul. I wasn’t in the market to buy anything, but I had a blast walking along the street, laughing and remembering all the quirky things I’d grown to love on Jeju. I snapped pictures of men dressed in business suits preparing to spend their lunch hour in the arcade and little anime creatures in storefront windows. I always liked the way the Korean language looked, so I savored a few moments just looking at the writing on the outside of the buildings. It was one of those moments of traveling where I really wished my husband could have been there with me, reliving the last time we had been in Korea.

A Day in Seoul, South KoreaFor lunch we ate at a little mom-and-pop shop that served a traditional, family style meal of beef bulgogi! And seaweed! And bean sprouts! (There was kim chi too, but I still can’t find any love for it, so I passed on that.) It was a delicious meal … truly a great way to end a day trip in Seoul.

And then it was time to go. Back in the van we went, happy and fulfilled, for our trip back to Incheon. The day went by way too fast for me, and we just barely skimmed the surface of some of Seoul’s best sites, but now my interest in the city is definitely piqued.

Besides … it beat the heck out of sitting in the airport.

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A Day in Seoul, South Korea
JoAnna is a globe-trotting, idea-inventing, culture-collecting creativity connoisseur with big dreams and a desire to touch all seven continents. You can also find JoAnna at joannahaugen.com and at The 52 Letters Project.

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20 Responses

  1. its great you had something to do during your layaway, i hate waiting in an airport

  2. meli says:

    WOW! I cannot wait to go and visit and have me some beef bulgogi,seaweed, and bean sprouts! Sounds like an amazing little adventure. It is cool that they have tour people at the airport!

  3. Gray says:

    What a great idea for long layovers! I wonder if other airports do that? Everything I read about Seoul makes it sound like a terrific city to visit.

  4. JoAnna says:

    The concept of having day tour companies at an international airport is brilliant, I think. I hope to get a post up soon about the company at Incheon and the other tours it offers. Check back!

  5. JoAnna says:

    Seoul was fantastic ~ I can definitely understand why my husband loves it so much. I can’t wait to go back!

    I’m not sure if other airports offer a day tour service like Incheon does, but they definitely should!

  6. Leigh says:

    I did exactly the same tour on a layover. What a treat it was to get away from the airport. And the 6 or so hours I had in Seoul gave me a much better impression of the country than I had beforehand.
    I agree — other airports the world offer — should offer short but worthwhile tours.

  7. Leigh says:

    the world over — not offer — oops.

  8. JoAnna says:

    I totally agree with you, Leigh. The tour was a great way to get out of the airport. I actually have a post specifically about the tour company going up next week just because I think the concept is such a great idea.

  9. Joel Tillman says:

    I just got back stateside from teaching in South Korea for a year. On vacation I spent some time on Jeju exploring the beautiful island.

    Where did you go when you went to Jeju? Have you ever thought of going back?

  10. JoAnna says:

    I mainly stayed in the main city center on the island, though we did make our way to the beach one night where we saw the famed divers. I would absolutely love to go back to Jeju ~ I had a fantastic time!

  11. Joel Tillman says:

    If you ever go back make sure you visit the Southern city of the island. They have some wonderful waterfalls and crystal blue water flowing off the of mountain for you to swim in (beware, it’s cold though!) I think we paid 10,000 Won a night for a hostel there.

    What are the famed divers?

  12. JoAnna says:

    I’m talking about the haenyeo, the female free divers who dive for clams and seaweed without any special diving equipment. They’ve been diving for decades. We just happened upon them one night at the beach. Here’s some information about them: http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=260918

  13. Joel Tillman says:

    Oh wow. Crazy.

    Thanks for sharing that with me. Next time I go back I need to visit that museum and try to see them diving.

  14. JoAnna says:

    It was a complete fluke that we saw them. I’m not sure if there’s a schedule or anything, but if you do happen to run into them, it’s very, very cool!

  15. jennifer says:


    I would like to ask, how many hours was this day tour?


  16. JoAnna says:

    This particular tour was 10 hours, I believe, but the company offered about a dozen different tours, each of varying lengths of time. I think the shortest one was three hours.

  17. jennifer says:

    are the places you’ve mention above as part of the tour far from each other?:D

  18. JoAnna says:

    Each of the tours has sites and stops that are close to each other. It wouldn’t make sense to run all over the city at places that weren’t at least relatively close to each other. The tour company knows that it has to get people back to the airport in time for their flights.

  19. Javie says:

    Great article! I am looking forward to doing this next year on a vacation trip. Some of the travel agency sites said that they needed at least 2 persons for the tour, some at least 4. If I was traveling alone, could I just join with other groups interested with the same tour? Thanks!

  20. JoAnna says:

    You are right; some of these tours require a minimum number of people. However, I was traveling alone, and there were about 15 other people on my tour, so filling a tour with random people definitely didn’t seem to be a problem. You can book a spot, and they’ll let you now if it’s going to be full or not. If your chosen tour doesn’t fill up, there are other tour options, so you can always switch to another one that has more people confirmed.

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