12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | Layover Tips

Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Transit Tour, Free Airport Tour, Seoul

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 Seoul Layover

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
  • Spa
  • Golf course
  • Ice skating rink (yes, seriously)
  • Indoor gardens
  • Casino
  • 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

Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Transit Tour, Free Airport Tour, Seoul

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 transittour@airport.kr 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.
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Transit Tour, Free Airport Tour, Seoul

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.

Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Transit Tour, Free Airport Tour, Seoul

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.

Insadong Street, 12 Hours in Seoul, Free Transit Tour

Insadong Street, 12 Hours in Seoul, Free Transit Tour

Insadong Street, 12 Hours in Seoul, Free Transit Tour

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.

Cat Cafe, 12 Hours in Seoul

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?

Cat Cafe, 12 Hours in Seoul

The cats were either very friendly and playful, or asleep. Seems like a pretty good gig to me.

Cat Cafe, 12 Hours in Seoul

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

Gwangjang Market | 12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | TheWeekendJetsetter.com

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.

Gwangjang Market | 12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | TheWeekendJetsetter.com

If you know me, you’ll know I was there for the food even though I’d just eaten lunch.

Gwangjang Market | 12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | TheWeekendJetsetter.com

Gwangjang Market | 12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | TheWeekendJetsetter.com

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

Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Transit Tour, Free Airport Tour, Seoul

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.

Cheonggyecheon Stream | 12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | TheWeekendJetsetter.com

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

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50 Comments on "12 Hours in Seoul, South Korea | Layover Tips"

  1. This sounds ah-ma-zing!! We are traveling to US via Korea in September. May I ask firstly where you kept your luggage whilst exploring and secondly did you need any type of Visa to leave Seoul airport?
    Loved your blog, fantastic tips we will definately be doing!!
    -Nicolle

    • theweekendjetsetter | January 18, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Reply

      Hi Nicolle, thanks so much! There was a place to leave your luggage in the airport. I don’t remember the exact location, but there were signs (and an information desk). Hope you have a great trip!

  2. Korea First Timer | January 27, 2017 at 10:58 am | Reply

    I love your blog!

    I have a clarification though, for a 15-hr layover, as it’s with the same airline, i don’t have to worry about my checked-in luggage as i won’t see that until i get to the US, right? (I’m traveling from Manila) .. i plan to just bring a purse as my carry-on bag as i want to roam around Seoul without having to worry about my bags.

    Thanks! 🙂

    • theweekendjetsetter | January 27, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Reply

      Thanks! No, they should keep your luggage checked. If you need to check something, there is also a place to store luggage at the airport.

  3. Korea First Timer | January 27, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Reply

    Thank you for responding! You are amazing. I am a fan. 🙂

    I just have one more question. How much Korean Won should i prepare to make sure i will be able to eat and perhaps buy a simple remembrance of my short visit to Seoul? I don’t think i will be going back any time soon so i don’t want to have too much Korean Won. How much did you spend during your 12-hr layover including the commute to the airport? (If you don’t mind me asking) thanks!

  4. This is so helpful! I was hesitant about 14 hour layover in Korea! I am so excited now that I can have this great opportunity to explore this country in such a short time!

  5. Thank God I stumbled upon this amazing blog! I have a 13-hour layover in Incheon, Seoul Korea this coming March and I’m traveling alone. I am so excited and anxious at the same time. Questions like, is the “Transit Tour” really legit and FREE? Can I do it alone? How much Korean won do I need to have exchanged? What documents do I bring when I leave the airport? hehehe I’m just worried I don’t get back to the airport in time for my flight to the US.

    • theweekendjetsetter | February 13, 2017 at 8:03 am | Reply

      Hi Samantha,
      Yes, the transit tour is legit! Especially if you have a 13-hour layover – you can safely take the longest tour. When you get off the plane, just look for signs/brochures that detail where and when to meet for the tour at information. You’ll definitely need your passport. It also depends on where you’re traveling from (as Americans we didn’t need a visa or anything). I can’t remember exactly how much money I brought, but all you really *need* is money for lunch. Any extra is for shopping, etc. as the tour is free.

  6. I am glad that I found this blog post! I am having a 13-hour layover this coming May and this just gave me an idea! I was wondering if you paid cash while taking the bus? or should i buy a bus ticket/pass somewhere? I am traveling by myself so I just wanted to be prepared while strolling around the city. Thanks!

    • theweekendjetsetter | February 17, 2017 at 11:30 pm | Reply

      Hi Jade! The bus tour of the city was free and you can sign up when you arrive at the airport (Transit Tour). The only money I needed was for lunch. We also ended up taking the train back instead of the bus as we wanted to stay in the city longer, so if you’re planning to do that, I’d bring a little extra. Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly how much money I spent, but it wasn’t anything crazy. Maybe the equivalent of $30 USD on lunch, train, and a cat cafe?

  7. Hello. Great blog. I will be in this airport in a couple of days. From Seoul I head to Vancouver so just an 11 hour lay over. Thinking my luggage will be checked so would like to take in all the great things inside the airport! Where are all these services in relation to my arrival and then departure? Also reading security lines long and slow do would think best to get in line early? Also lots of English going on in this airport? Thanks for your help

    • theweekendjetsetter | February 24, 2017 at 11:22 pm | Reply

      Hi Shelley,

      Thanks! We didn’t have any trouble finding people who spoke English. We arrived back at the airport two hours before our flight, leaving plenty of time to get back through security. When you land, you should be able to find signs pointing out all the airport’s amenities, or ask at the info desk. Have a great trip!

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience!
    I wanted to ask, my layover is in on my way to the Philippines and I have about 2 checked-in luggages, do I check them all out? How will I deal with it? Obviously, I only plan to carry one purse with me while on the tour. Please advise!
    I appreciate your help!

  9. Thanks for the article, always happy to read you!

  10. Hi! I am thinking about taking the free tour but I will be arriving in Korea at around 7 pm. Do you know if they have night tours? I have a 17 hour layover and wouldn’t mind looking around a little at night.

    • theweekendjetsetter | March 21, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Reply

      Hi Michelle, I’m not sure if they have night tours (I don’t think so) but you can also take the train into the city on your own. Just double check schedules to make sure you’ll be able to get back if you planned to sleep at the airport!

  11. Wow thank you for this amazing blog post! I have a 12 hour layover in Seoul tomorrow and this is exactly what I was looking for to help me make the most of the time there. I love the information you gave on booking a transit tour and exploring the city – that is so awesome! Thank you so much I am so excited (versus dreading) this layover now! 🙂

  12. thank you for this blog! Is the transit tour offered even in late afternoon? My flight has an overnight layover, but might just stay in the “hotel” airport for few hours as my flight leaves at 8am.

    • theweekendjetsetter | April 4, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Reply

      Hi Chrissy, I’m not 100% sure, you can check when you get there though!
      If you’re planning to stay in the hotel, try and reserve in advance. We tried that and it was sold out when we arrived for our layover!

  13. I’m going to take one of the free tours and wanted to know when we get back, do we have to go through customs, immigration, and security? Also, my plane leaves at 5:30 pm and my tour gets back at 3:00. Do I have enough time to get back to my gate? Thanks

    • theweekendjetsetter | April 19, 2017 at 8:42 am | Reply

      Hi Peter, yes you’ll have to go through immigration on the way out (the tour guide will show you how to get there and meet you on the other side). Then, when you get back, you need to go through security again. I would think 2.5 hours would be plenty of time!

  14. Hello,

    what if I plan to buy some skincare while on transit? Will I be able to carry that with me when I go back to the airport? Since I will only have my carry on luggage and usually they do not allow liquids from outside. Is there a way to shop in seoul and bring it to the airport?

    • theweekendjetsetter | April 19, 2017 at 8:40 am | Reply

      Hi Yoongi,
      I’m not sure if you would be able to check an additional bag on your way back into the airport. You should check with your airline. Have a good trip!

  15. hi! I wanted to ask for your advice. I will be lay overing for my manila to London flight. but I’m worried about my checked luggage. will my checked luggage have to go with me when I go out of the airport? I am booked with Asiana. I just wanted to ask about your experience regarding this as I have never done a layover. Thanks!

  16. Hi! Thanks for sharing your layover experience. I’ll be having our 13 hour layover with my daughter after our vacation in Manila ( How was that experience for you?). I was wondering how much you’ve spent and if we needed some Wons but I’ve seen your replies to the others. We’ve been to Korea before but my daughter has been so young back then and this would be a great opportunity for her to experience Korea again even if its for a short while.

    • theweekendjetsetter | April 22, 2017 at 9:33 am | Reply

      Thank for reading, Ida! I didn’t spend any time in Manila except for the taxi ride between airport terminals. My only memory from that was a LOT of traffic. Hope you enjoy it!

  17. Hi! i’m having a layover in Korea on my way back to manila from San Francisco. But my layover is from 530pm to 8am. Do they have tours at that time?

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Reply

      Unfortunately I don’t think they have tours at night, but you could always take the train into Seoul if you wanted to explore these sites on your own!

  18. erika ballard | May 31, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Reply

    HI, DO I NEED ANY TYPE OF VISA OR PERMISSION TO RE-ENTRY THE SEOUL AIRPORT ?

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Reply

      Hi Erika,
      All normal entry/visa requirements apply. After signing up for the tour, you will go through customs on your own and meet the guide outside. Since I’m from the US, I didn’t need a visa but I recommend you check the requirements before you go.

  19. no visa needed for passengers w/ layover and wishes to tour around outside?

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Reply

      All normal entry/visa requirements apply. After signing up for the tour, you will go through customs on your own and meet the guide outside. Since I’m from the US, I didn’t need a visa but I recommend you check the requirements before you go.

  20. After having such a great time during our long layover in Seoul, I think it d be nearly impossible to convince me to fly through Tokyo or Beijing ever again.

  21. Hi! You’re the coolest for posting this. I never knew about this before and now, the 14-hour layover in ICN doesn’t sound so bad after all. But, question– so I’m trying to get a round trip flight from JFK-MNL in the morning since I figured, it’ll be best to do a free day transit tour in Korea, but is there a place in the airport to shower and get yourself camera ready before the tour? Thanks. I would really appreciate your response!

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Reply

      There is a hotel where you can rent rooms by the day/hour, so if there’s availability when you arrive (or book in advance) that should be good!

  22. Our layover will be from 4 PM until 9 AM the next day. Do you happen to know what the transit tour hours of operations are, or whether it’s 24/7? Thanks! Great info, BTW, very helpful blog!!

    • Hi!

      I actually emailed the Korea Transit Tour customer service and unfortunately, the tour only lasts until 3p.

      This is the response I got from them,
      “Thank you for your e-mail.

      I’m sorry to inform you that our last tour departs at 15:00, and we don’t provide a night tour.
      If your arrival time is later than 14:00, it would be difficult to join our tour.

      We have free shower and transfer lounge on the 4th floor. Please visit information desk if you can not find it.

      Every tour starts from airport and finish at Incheon Airport.

      For the reservation

      We have an on-line reservation system. You can make a reservation on the website as below;
      http://www.cyberairport.kr/pa/en/t/2/3/5/index.jsp

      Hope this helps!

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Reply

      Hi Mien,
      Thank you! I don’t think they offer tours at night, but if you’re feeling adventurous you could take the train to the city, or just explore around Incheon on your own (there is an interesting temple, I believe).

  23. Hi,
    I am traveling to Vancouver in a few moths and I am planning to take a flight layover at Inchon for about 12 hrs.. and have some sight seeing tour around Inchon. What are the requirements needed for me to avail of the free trips and to have a safe pass in and out of the airport?

    jun.

  24. hi,
    I am traveling to Vancouver few days from now and I am selecting KAL flight and get a 12 hour layover. What are the requirements needed for me to get a free trip around Inchon and a safe pass in and out of Inchon Airport?

    jolar

    • theweekendjetsetter | August 3, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Reply

      All normal entry/visa requirements apply. After signing up for the tour, you will go through customs on your own and meet the guide outside. Since I’m from the US, I didn’t need a visa but I recommend you check the requirements before you go.

  25. Hi, what airline did you fly with? Also, how did you find a cheap flight with a long layover in Korea? I am going to the Philippines next year and I would love to know!

  26. Hi do you need visa for the free tour?

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