Seoul Airport layover: What to do?

by Feb 25, 2016South Korea

Seoul Airport Layover

What do you do if you have a long layover in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, South Korea? We have put together travel tips for long layovers in the Seoul airport.

So you have a Seoul airport layover in Incheon Airport, South Korea. If you know you have four or six or even nine hours in the Seoul airport, what can you do other than walk past the same trinket shop six times?

When it comes to Incheon Airport in Seoul, you may end up wishing your layover were longer – whether you leave the airport or not. It has been voted in the past as one of the best airports in the world, and we can see why. It is not only clean and efficient, but offers an array of services to keep you busy and comfortable for your stay or visit.

Seoul's Incheon Airport inside

If you choose to stay at the airport

On the upper floor there is a free “Rest and Relax” area with wide reclining lounge chairs for sleeping or just hanging out, free massage chairs, plus nearby free computer stations and free Wi-Fi, not to mention a gallery by the Cultural Museum of Korea. The airport also has free shower rooms and children’s play areas, plus (for fees) a bathhouse, yoga and massage facility, ice rink (yeah, really), and a movie theater. And, of course all the typical amenities in large airports, such as pharmacies, banks, bookstores, etc.

The list goes on, including cultural and artistic performances. You can download a PDF brochure with maps in English and lists, but you’ll want to also inquire at information desks for any changes or performances and cultural demonstrations. Unfortunately, the official Seoul Incheon Airport website is still mostly in Korean and is not intuitive or very complete, so we don’t recommend it. But if you must, then go here.

If you choose to leave the airport

If you choose to leave the airport on your Seoul airport layover, the official Visit Korea website lists your transportation options.  The quickest way into town is the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) to main Seoul Station, which takes 43 minutes, travels from 5:20 a.m. to 9:40 p.m. from the airport (6 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Seoul), runs about every 30-40 minutes, and costs 8,000 Won (USD $6.50) for adults one way. (Non-express trains run more frequently but make 11 stops on the way.) Refer to the website for detailed and updated information.

With that in mind, it really may not be worth your while to leave if you have four hours or less, depending on your desire to step into Seoul.

Let’s assume you do go into Seoul. Obviously you do not want to miss your continuing flight, and you do want to allow for getting lost, delays, etc., so you would likely need to know the precise train departure from main Seoul Station (and then not miss it!), and leave Seoul Station three hours prior to your departure (more or less depending on how close you like to cut things like this!). This means you will need approximately four or even five hours for transportation and general to-and-from gyrations, so plan this into your short visit to Seoul.

Map of Seoul downtown showing sites and public transport

Quick glance at Seoul downtown, showing the main train station in the lower left corner and the the subway lines. Look for Line 1 (light blue) from the main station and heading right and Line 4 (dark blue), heading up and then to the right, both referenced in this story.

Once in town on your Seoul airport layover

You will likely want to keep things simple in terms of where you go in Seoul, remember it is a very large and very bustling city. Getting lost may be a given.

If trying to plan, you may want to refer to the official Seoul tourist site for maps and guides.

We recommend the following:

  • Be sure you are wearing very comfortable walking shoes.
  • Make sure you have a good map and/or GPS on your phone. We also love Ulmon’s CityMaps2Go for its superior offline maps (read more about some of our preferred apps).
  • Assuming you won’t have more than three or four hours in Seoul on your layover, keep it easy. From the main Seoul Station, choose a destination either along the subway Line 1 (deep blue) or the subway Line 4 (light blue) since they go directly to and from the station and eliminate possible errors in city travel.
  • Buy a so-called T-Card, which is a transportation ticket for the subway that allows you to swipe the card at the gates, which automatically deduct the fare.

This leaves you the attractions along those two lines (1 and 4) as your options. And honestly, that’s a lot of options. We can’t begin to list them all. However, here are a few ideas:

Insa-dong (Line 1) – Although officially a street (Insadong-gil), it really is an entire neighborhood with shops, handicrafts, restaurants and plenty of people watching. Yes, there will be tourists, but that is tempered with locals just out for a stroll, enjoying ice cream if it’s summer or watching impromptu performances at the Nam Insa Madang information center area (basically the south end of the street). Since it’s a business district with restaurants, you could even go early and find something to see or do. Late is a given since it’s a bustling area. Off Line 1 (dark blue), exit at Jonggak Station (two stops) at the east end of the station (exit 11), then either make your way north through a side street into Insa-dong or stay on the main street (jewelry district) heading east and then head north (left) at Tapgol Park. About a five-minute ride from the main Seoul Station. About 400 meters from the exit.

Insa-dong shopping area in Seoul.

Tapgol Park (a.k.a. Pagoda Park) (Line 1) – Got time or curiosity? Then wander through the park (even on your way to Insa-dong) and maybe you’ll be lucky even and find men gathered to play Paduk, a traditional Korean board game. They may even challenge you to a game. Same directions as above.

Men playing Paduk in Tapgol Park in Seoul

Men playing Paduk in Tapgol Park (photo by Therese Iknoian)

Jogye-sa (temple)  (Line 1) – If you head to this spectacular Buddhist temple and its grounds, you could do a loop through Insa-dong then back past the temple on your way back to the station (or vice versa). If you go there first, take exit 2 from Jonggak station and go north up the large main street. You will find the temple up a few blocks (about 400 meters) on your right.

Jogye-sa Temple in Seoul

Inside Jogye-sa, Buddhas stand guard.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (Line 4) – For a change of pace, you could also head to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a modern structure that opened in 2014. Sure, there are exhibits and halls that have regular business hours, but you can also just wander around the structure and its grounds, including visiting part of the Old Seoul Fortress Wall that was unearthed during construction. There is also plentiful shopping around the perimeters and nearby. We had the honor of experiencing an amazing LED Rose Exhibit, now closed, but our story also discusses the Dongdaemun Design Plaza itself.  From main Seoul station, take Line 4 (light blue) four stops to the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park stop, take Exit 1, which if you did it right should pop you out at the Design Plaza.

Dongdaemum Design Plaza at night in Seoul

Namdaemun Market  (walk from main Seoul Station) – This is the largest traditional market in South Korea. It lines the streets around the ancient Southern Gate to the city, which has been recently restored. About 500-800 meters depending on how you go (or how many times you get lost). You can head northeast on the main street Togye-ro, but honestly there are a lot of different routes so get a map or use your GPS.

HITT Tip: The Seoul subway system is one of simplest and most intuitive and hand-holding system we have experienced anywhere in the world. The colors of the subway lines are key since colored markings on the ground, walls and on signs lead you to and from trains and transfers. Give it a whirl on your Seoul airport layover. You’ll succeed!

You might also be interested in reading:

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  1. Juliette @ Snorkels to snow

    Great guide! We have just booked our flights to Tokyo & there’s an 8 hour layover on our return. So hopefully that gives us enough time to see a little bit of Seoul? We only have 2 hours airport layover on the way there – just wish I was taking my ice skates with me so I can go skating – can’t believe there’s an ice rink in the airport!!

    • <div class="apbct-real-user-wrapper"><span>Therese Iknoian</span><div class="apbct-real-user" title="The Real Person (TRP)"><div class="apbct-real-user-popup"><span class="apbct-real-user-title">Therese Iknoian acts as a real person and passed all tests against spambots. Anti-Spam by CleanTalk.</span></div></div></div>

      Thanks! Mentioned in the story is Insa-dong. Because it is a bustling area day or night, where you can shop, people-watch, see a few sights, and find food, it may be your best bet so you don’t have to over-think it all. Do let us know if you discover anything you’d like to share!

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