I hadn’t been to South Korea in over a decade, so I thought that our Asiana Airlines First Class adventure on our way back from Asia would be the perfect opportunity to schedule in a long layover.
I managed to find a flight from Beijing to Seoul Gimpo Airport arriving at 9:45pm, which would connect nicely onto our 8:40pm departure to Los Angeles the next day. That was a healthy layover time of 22 hours and 55 minutes, which gave us plenty of time to explore the city a little before jetting off.
The late-night arrival also meant that there wasn’t much we could do on the first night, except for heading to our hotel (the lovely JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square) and resting up. The next morning, though, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the Executive Lounge and then headed out bright and early…
9am | Palaces & Shrines
No matter how little time you have, you’ve gotta take the opportunity to absorb some history whenever you get to visit a new place, and Seoul’s beautiful palaces, shrines, temples, and parks provide the perfect setting in which to do so.
Dating back to the Joseon Dynasty of the 14th century, most of these historic sites were destroyed at various points in time but have since been restored to their erstwhile grandiosity.
Gwangbeokgung and Changdeokgung are the two primary sites of importance, both having played host to the kings of the Joseon Dynasty throughout history (the former prior to its destruction by Japanese forces in 1592, and the latter thereafter). An integrated ticket that provides access to all of Seoul’s Five Great Palaces can be purchased for as little as 10,000 Korean won ($12).
The two main palaces are within walking distance from each other, so you can either hustle between both of them or pick one to wander through at a leisurely pace. Make sure to catch the changing of the guard at Gwangbeokgung at 10am (or 2pm if you’re visiting later on in the day), or you can take an English guided tour through Changdeokgung at 10:30am as well.
11am | Lunch at Insa-dong
After a tranquil start to the day, walk over to the famous Insadong-gil pedestrian street to kick things up a gear.
(Speaking of walking, one of the most annoying things about being a tourist in South Korea is the lack of Google Maps functionality. The country is apparently reluctant to export its map data out of concern over the North Korean threat, so as a result the Google Maps coverage is ridiculously low-resolution, and you can't get any walking or driving directions either.)
Things are just picking up around Insa-dong at this early hour, but you can start to get a taste of the artistic and cultural value that this little area holds.
Sprawling outwards from the main pedestrian drag is a series of tiny alleys and side-streets, each containing a plethora of interesting establishments – from tea houses to art galleries to traditional porcelain shops – for you to discover.
Meander through the network of side streets to your heart’s content, before circling back to Insadong-gil to watch the cultural performances and grab a bite to eat. A quick tray of kimbap from the street vendor will surely hit the spot, but you can also head up to the second-floor eateries to enjoy a wider breadth of Korean cuisine while people-watching.
1pm | Dongdaemun Market
Swing by the east side of town for some old-meets-new shopping action, because the Dongdaemun Market area is not only home to one of the city’s most popular afternoon and evening markets (it gets started around noon and lasts well into the night), but also no less than two dozen department stores.
You’ll have many more opportunities to continue your shopping frenzy later on, but now’s the time to get a head start on bargain-hunting for all the fancy skincare products, face masks, and cute animal-themed creams and lotions that South Korea has to offer, because entire buildings here are full of them!
If you enjoyed the eclectic alleyways of Insa-dong, don’t forget to give the winding backstreets of Dongdaemun Market a go as well. And if your long layover in Seoul does happen to afford you some meaningful nighttime exploration, then I’d save Dongdaemun for the evening, since that’s when the area really gets lively.
3pm | Yongsan
The Yongsan district is Seoul’s tranquil heart, located at its very geographic centre within the distinctive meander of the Han River. Head for the sprawling green space of Namsan Park to enjoy a breath of fresh air within the bustling metropolis, and ascend the N Seoul Tower in the middle of the park for commanding 360° views of the city.
The nearby Itaewon neighbourhood is another interesting place to pass through, as it’s known as Seoul’s foremost international district. Boasting authentic cuisine from all sorts of distant lands (Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, Western foods, etc.), Itaewon is popular with foreigners and an insightful glimpse into the “expat lifestyle” led by many who have relocated to South Korea long-term.
You didn’t come to Seoul to hang out in the foreigners’ enclave, though, so I’d advise you not to stay too long in Itaewon. Instead, head to some of the many museums that are located around Yongsan, such as the National Museum of Korea or the National Hangul Museum. The latter in particular tells the fascinating story of the Korean language and writing system, which is well-known for being one of the few writing systems that were invented from scratch!
5pm | Gangnam Style
Popularized by the generation-defining hit single, the Gangnam district of Seoul is known to billions worldwide, so I’d consider it a must-visit. Catch the Seoul Metro to get to the vibrant streets and buildings of Gangnam, which is located south of the Han River.
Gangnam is in-your-face glitz and glam, showing off all the fruits of the rapid economic boom that’s been witnessed in South Korea since the 1970s. Luxury goods, luxury cars, and luxury hotels line the streets. Digital technology that you’ve never seen before appears rather commonplace. Guileful street vendors, looking to make a quick buck, rub shoulders with upmarket bars and clubs catering to the affluent crowd. It’s the best thing about Asia, if you ask me…
Shopping-wise, drop into the gigantic COEX mall, which houses a cinema, a conference centre, and an aquarium in addition to hundreds of Korean and international shops. The Galleria department store will supply you with all the South Korean goodies you crave, from snacks with interesting flavours to K-pop merchandise to every Korean beauty product you’ll need. And if you’re looking for luxury, then Apgujeong (known as the “Beverly Hills of Seoul”) is sure to be your playground.
Sadly, if you have an evening departure from Incheon Airport (as I did), you won’t get too much time to turn on your Gangnam Style. Before catching the 40-minute AREX express train out to the airport, though, you’ll have enough time to watch the sun go down, the lights turn on, and the crowds of people swell…
Seoul is just so much fun, and a long layover here allows you to taste the many distinct flavours of South Korea’s multifaceted capital, from traditional dynastic palaces to cutting-edge modern technologies.
While I’m happy that I got a good 23 hours to rediscover the city on a surface level, I know that only a much more in-depth visit can do it justice. With so many other places in Asia I’d like to visit, I’m not quite certain when I’ll make a return trip, but I know I can count on Seoul for a good time when the occasion does arrive.