When I went to the Philippines a couple months ago, my ultra-cheap flight came with a 15-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. At first I thought, no big deal. I can entertain myself for one day anywhere, right? But then I found out that Seoul is literally the best place one could ever schedule a long layover. Here’s why 12 hours in Seoul went above and beyond my expectations.
12 Hours in Seoul: Because Incheon Airport is Amazing
Incheon Airport is one of the nicest airports I’ve ever been to. Not only do they have tons of great shops and restaurants (hello Taco Bell… Kidding. Kind of… true story, I ate Taco Bell in Korea), but they offer tons of other amenities as well, including…
- A “Rest & Relax” area complete with comfy lounge chairs and couches for napping
- Free WiFi
- A hotel that can be rented for as short as 6 hours if you really need to crash
- Golf course
- Ice skating rink (yes, seriously)
- Indoor gardens
- Museum of Korean culture
You could spend an entire 15-hour layover at Incheon Airport. However, I only decided to spend about 3 hours of my layover there, leaving 12 hours in Seoul. First things first? The Rest & Relax area. I had flown overnight from Manila and wasn’t quite ready to wake up yet!
12 Hours in Seoul: Free Tours of Seoul for Layover Travelers
The absolute best thing about a layover in Seoul? The free city tours, aka “Transit Tours,” provided by the airport. At absolutely NO COST, you can take a tour that fits into your schedule (from 1 to 6 hours) and see a bit of the area before boarding your next flight. They provide transportation and a guide.
When you arrive, simply find the info desk for Transit Tours and look up the next convenient time. You’ll have to meet the guide there and they’ll help you exit the airport (note: you’ll have to go through customs). You can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to make reservations in advance, although we didn’t need one.
The shorter tours will take you to nearby temples or on an Incheon City Tour, whereas longer tours (4 to 6 hours) will bring you to Seoul. Since we had so many hours before our flight back to Chicago, we went with the Seoul tour.
The first stop was Gyeongbok Palace or Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace that was built in 1395. It’s known as one of the most beautiful palaces of the Joseon dynasty (there are five) and served as the home for the kings of the dynasty and the government. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a changing of the guards ceremony.
Next, the bus took us to Insadong Street, a famous shopping street in Seoul, for lunch. We ate a typical Korean lunch with fellow tour attendees.
After lunch, the tour was headed back to the airport. But with a few hours still left before our flight, we asked the guide if it was OK if we stayed behind and took public transit for our return. No problem!
12 Hours in Seoul: Refuel at the Cat Cafe
I’ve been intrigued by the idea of cat cafes for a long time. A former kitty owner myself (RIP Misty, my childhood pet), I love cats so of course I couldn’t resist when we stumbled upon one on Insadong Street after lunch.
These cafes ask you to pay for a coffee in exchange for your time with the cats. Caffeine and cats… what more could one want?
The cats were either very friendly and playful, or asleep. Seems like a pretty good gig to me.
The cafe is filled with toys to engage your new furry friends with. All in all it was quite an entertaining way to kill an hour and refuel for more city exploring.
12 Hours in Seoul: Street Eats at Gwangjang Market
One of the most famous sights in Seoul is the Gwangjang Market, a traditional Korean street market is filled with vendors selling everything from textiles and linens to handmade crafts but is most known for its food stands. It’s one of the oldest markets in South Korea.
If you know me, you’ll know I was there for the food even though I’d just eaten lunch.
I’m not going to pretend that spending 30 minutes here turned me into a Korean food expert, but these dumplings were yummy. If I wasn’t facing an 11-hour flight back to the U.S. shortly, I would have been a little more adventurous. Either way, Gwangjang Market was a fun place to explore for a bit during our 12 hours in Seoul!
12 Hours in Seoul: Walk Along Cheonggyecheon Stream
After eating a double lunch, it was time for some exercise so we decided to walk from Gwangjang Market to the train station where we’d catch a ride back to the airpot. It turned out to be quite a hike and took us about an hour. If you’re not up for a long walk, subway and taxi options are also available.
I love seeing how different cities build unique public spaces for people to escape from the hustle and bustle for a moment and almost (key word: almost) feel like you’re somewhere lovely. In Seoul, it’s the Cheonggyecheon Stream, an 11 km (about 7 miles) walk that’s popular with both locals and tourists. It’s actually located below much of the city.
It was a nice place to stretch our legs before the long haul back to Chicago.
Oh, and getting back to the airport was quite the adventure. We couldn’t figure out how to add money to our train cards, but luckily a nice man helped us when he saw us struggling. I’d recommend figuring this out right away when you ditch your tour bus back to the airport to avoid our last minute panic 🙂
Suggested Further Reading if You Have a Seoul Layover Planned
- Seoul: A Travel Guide for Your Perfect Seoul Adventure (written by a local – and it’s only $2.99 for the Kindle edition!)
- Seoul City Subway Tour: Complete Guide to Getting Around Seoul’s Top Attractions by Just Taking the Subway (a good idea to read if you don’t plan on returning to the airport with the bus – plus the Kindle edition is just $3.95)
- Top 10 Seoul (A little more expensive at $7.99, but this guide gets straight to the point on Seoul’s top 10 attractions for time-crunched travelers)
- Got another question? Join the Weekend Jetsetters community on Facebook to ask fellow travelers (including me!) and get a quick response.
Disclosure: the above links are affiliate links.