Having just completed my vacation to Seoul, I figured I’d share some of my experience and travel tips. First, I think Seoul is an overlooked and underrated travel destination. Honestly, going into the vacation, I wasn’t expecting much, but came away with a high appreciation of how cutting edge, tourist friendly, and accommodating this city is. I found Seoul fascinating, beautiful, very clean, orderly, extremely safe, and world-class in many ways. The culture is deep and rich in many ways. It is certainly in the same league as the other major Asian cities such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I visited Seoul in the late 80s, but it is a totally different city today. Here is a rundown of what I thought about various aspects of the city.
Food: I can honestly say that we did not have one bad meal in Seoul. All the food was wonderful, such as the noodles, bibimbap, samgatang and congee. There were also a number of street vendors selling some freshly made hot snacks all over the city. I highly recommend that you eat at local Korean restaurants, not only are they delicious and healthy, but also very inexpensive. I don’t think we paid more than US$15 for a single meal, and most meals were in the US$5 – 8 range.
Hotel: We stayed at the IP Boutique Hotel in Itaewon, Seoul. It was a funky and fun place to stay, very uniquely designed. According to Trip Advisor, this is one of the better hotels in Seoul. I booked the hotel through Expedia for $148 per night (includes taxes/service fees) for a standard room. Of all the online sites, Expedia seemed to have the most variety and best deals for Seoul. However, when we checked in, they upgraded us to a suite for free, which normally would cost double the amount we paid. Needless to say, we were very, very happy with the room. The hotel also had free Wi-Fi, which worked relatively well, two large flat screen televisions with lots of English channels, a great coffee maker (Nescafe Dolce Gusto Melody), free bottled water and fitness center (although I didn’t get a chance to use it). The staff spoke English and were very nice. Highly recommended if you are looking for something other than your standard run-of-the-mill hotel. Below are some photos of our hotel.
Airport: We arrived at Incheon International Airport late at night on United Airlines. I’m not a big fan of United, but since I was able to use my frequent flier miles, it only cost me 20,000 miles plus US$57 per ticket from Tokyo. The Incheon airport was very modern, efficient and there are various means of transportation into the city. We cleared customs in about 15 minutes after arriving. It was just as quick when departing. It amazes me how much more calm and efficient the foreign airports are compared to the U.S. airports. It takes about an hour to get to downtown Seoul and we took the train, which is the cheapest option – about US$3.50. There is also an express train, but you’ll need to catch it before 10 PM and it will cost a little more. It is a bit of a walk to the train station, but it will save you a little money. You can also take a bus, which will cost you around US$14 and may be a better option if you have a lot of luggage. A taxi will cost approximately US$50.
Transportation: We could pretty much get anywhere in the city within 20 minutes by subway. This seems to be the best way to get around and costs less than US$1 per trip. The system is very logical and English signs are everywhere to help you navigate between stations. This is probably one of the best public transportation systems I’ve encountered, very convenient, clean, cheap and efficient. There is also a number of buses and taxis available, but it seemed like there was a subway station within walking distance of all the places we wanted to see.
Places to See: Seoul is probably one of the cheapest places I’ve ever been to for sightseeing. Many of the museums are free or only charge a very modest fee. Also, the city is extremely walkable and many of the sightseeing areas are clustered together. If you plan it right, you can see a handful of sites each day and not really have to travel any significant distance. Here are the top 10 places we saw over 3 days, with my favorites listed first.
1. Cheonggyecheon (Free)
2. Namsan Park (Free)
3. Seoul Tower (US$8)
4. Gyeongbok Palace/National Palace Museum of Korea (US$3 to enter palace, museum free)
5. Samcheongdong/Bukchon Hanok Village (Free)
6. Myeongdong (Free)
7. War Memorial of Korea (Free)
8. Nanta Musical (US$50 per ticket)
9. Namdaemun Market (Free)
10. National Museum of Korea (Free)
Shopping: To be frank, I hate shopping, so not much to say about it here. Other than walking around the various shopping areas and buying a few gifts for friends, our shopping was minimal. However, if shopping is your thing, Seoul seems to be a great place for it. I will mention that the convenience stores are wonderful, especially if you are looking for a quick bite to eat. Korea didn’t have a lot of breakfast places, so we normally stopped by a convenience store in the morning to grab some rice balls and other snacks that would hold us over until lunch.
Nightlife: Can’t really comment much here either since we pretty much went back to our hotel room after dinner, although the nightlife does appear to be in abundant supply. We stayed in the Itaewon area and the streets were lined with nice restaurants and nightclubs.
People: The Korean people were very kind, accommodating and approachable. We felt welcomed wherever we went. The city has done an outstanding job making the city truly international – many of the signs are translated into English, Japanese and Chinese. There are tourist guides all over the city anxiously waiting to help anyone. The younger folks also seemed to want to interact with foreigners and very often greeted you with a nice smile.
Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable as well as cheapest vacations my wife and I have taken. In total, we spent less than US$100 a day for two people, which included food, gifts, transportation and sightseeing. Although it was December and very cold, it wasn’t that uncomfortable. In fact, it seems much of the Korean food is great for cold weather. Also, because of the off season, the sites were not crowded at all.
I have a new found respect for South Korea and it is certainly a country that will be very competitive in the future. That is what is so great about traveling, you not only learn about other cultures, but you can gain an appreciation for a place that you never gave much thought to before. Hopefully, I’ll have an opportunity to come back again soon – there is still a lot we didn’t get to eat or see.