South Korea · Travel Tales

Six Days of Seoul Searching: An Itinerary and Guide

My students were on semestral break, and so it was the perfect time for their teacher to go frolicking among the trees bursting with autumn foliage in South Korea.

Fall foliage at Nami Island, Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do
Fall foliage at Nami Island, Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do

The truth, though, was that I’d planned our trip to Seoul almost a year in advance (thank you, AirAsia sales) because that was around the time I got into the Korean wave. K-dramas took so many hours of my time, I swear. I understand that it kind of makes me a stereotype — like someone you’d find in a “Five Types of Tourists You’d Meet in Seoul” list — but I did have about eleven months to do my research about the country and, in effect, have a greater appreciation for its culture — whether it be pop, Joseon dynasty-era, or that of the last century.

Six Days in Seoul: Our Itinerary as it Happened

(I will write a more detailed itinerary of each day as I write each post!)

Day 1
  • departed from NAIA-3 with no incidents; flew via AirAsia to Incheon International Airport
  • studied hangul and hangukmal during the four-hour flight (it’s not that hard!)
  • took the train and checked in at Insadong Hostel
  • looked for restaurants which were still open at 11 PM; found one and had my first taste of legit spicy Korean food

Day 2

Do note that this was a haphazardly planned day, where we went to the south of the Han River in the morning, then back up north in the afternoon and evening. 

  • was late for the DMZ train 😦 took the train to Gangnam instead
  • spent the morning at the Seongjeongneung — part of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (₩1000, but free that day)
  • walked to Bongeunsa Temple
  • had lunch at COEX
  • took the train to Ewha Womans University
  • ate and shopped on the roads to Ewha
  • took the train to the Seoul World Cup Stadium
  • took the shuttle to the Haneul Park (₩3000 for roundtrip shuttle)
Haneul (Sky) Park at the World Cup Stadium Complex in Seoul
Haneul (Sky) Park at the World Cup Stadium Complex in Seoul
  • took the train back to the hostel
Day 3
  • woke up very early to take the ITX – Chuncheon to Gapyeong
  • took the ferry to Nami Island (₩8000 including roundtrip ferry ride and “visa”)
  • walked, took pictures, collected fallen maple and gingko leaves on Nami Island
  • took the shuttle bus (₩5000) to Petite France
  • walked around Petite France (₩6000 with discount)
  • took the shuttle bus to the Garden of Morning Calm (₩8000 on weekdays)
Garden of Morning Calm in Gyeonggi-do
Garden of Morning Calm in Gyeonggi-do
  • took the shuttle bus and train back to the hostel
  • ordered chicken and beer; ate while watching the championship of the Korean Series (ahem, baseball) on TV
Day 4
  • walked to Gwanghwamun Square
  • visited the royal palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung (₩10000 for a combination ticket, including entrance to Jongmyo Shrine and Deoksugung)
  • watched the palace guard changing in Gyeongbokgung at 10 AM
Palace guard changing at Gyeongbokgung
Day 5
  • walked to Unhyeongung; unknowingly gate-crashed a wedding
  • walked to the Jongmyo Royal Shrine
  • took the train to the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan
  • ate Korean barbecue
  • took the train to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza
  • took pics of the LED flowers at DDM
  • took the train to Myeongdong
  • shopped and ate at Myeongdong
  • took the train back home
Day 6
  • checked out of Insa Hostel
  • visited the Bukchon Hanok Village
  • took the train to Deoksugung; also looked around at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
  • watched a K-pop idol performance at the plaza of the City Hall (not planned, haha)
  • went back to Insa-dong, collected our bags, took the train to Incheon, and flew back home

Budget

Do note that I did not include below our airfare and my personal shopping. 🙂

Expenses
Cost per person
Accommodation
Insadong Hostel
booked via Agoda
double bed with private T/B and breakfast
₩65000/night for five nights
162500
Transportation
T-money card 2500
T-money card recharging, total
includes trains to/from Incheon airport
30000
ITX – Cheongchun
Cheongnyangni Sta. to Gapyeong Sta. (from Seoul to wharf going to Nami Island), reserved online
4000
Taxi
Gapyeong Sta. to Gapyeong Wharf
₩3200 divided by 2
1600
Gapyeong Tour Bus
all-day hop on/off
5000
Entrance Fees
Combination Ticket for Palaces
for Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung (with Huwon*), Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Jongmyo Shrine
*Huwon (Secret Garden) tour has to be reserved online
10000
Nami Island
entrance (“Visa”) fee with roundtrip ferry
Petite France
₩8000, with 25% discount; discount coupon here
6000
Garden of Morning Calm
entrance fee on weekdays
8000
Haneul Park (near World Cup Stadium)
with roundtrip shuttle
3000
Food
spicy pork over rice
along Jonggak
5000
Chimaek
₩22000, one box of chicken good for 4, devoured in one sitting by 2
₩1800, a can of beer
12800
Dakgalbi, near Gapyeong wharf
₩18000, good for 2
9000
Bulgogi, in Good Restaurant near War Memorial
₩16000, good for 2
8000
Dumpling soup 6000
Combination dumplings
₩8000, good for 3, devoured by 2
4000
various street food
estimated total per person
22000
Souvenirs
cute socks for ₩1000 each, bookmarks for ₩1000-2000 each 9000
candy and chocolates (estimated total) 30000
purses, keychains, etc. 20000
TOTAL 358400
about $300 or ₱14000

Attractions you can visit for free:

  • Bongeunsa Temple
  • War Memorial of Korea
  • Gwanghwamun Square
  • Bukchon Hanok Village
  • Unhyeongung
  • Dongdaemun Design Plaza
  • COEX Mall
  • Cheonggyecheon stream
  • Ehwa Womans University (and other universities)

Preparations

Visa

Except when you have arranged a trip direct to Jeju Island, Filipinos need a visa to get to South Korea. The process is quite easy if you have the requirements; you can check what they are in the embassy website.

A few notes: Since I was going with my husband, we had to file our visas together and give a copy of our marriage contract (original/true copy; it was not returned to us). I was able to file it on my own at the Korean embassy — he did not have to be present.

On the other hand, he was able to get a multiple-entry visa without even trying! Yes, for free! I guess it’s because he’s a teacher and government employee; either that, or it’s because his finances are, well, way better than mine. This, in spite of the fact that I was the one who showed my Japan visa (Japan is an OECD country, ergo, it’s a powerful visa) from a previous passport. Ah, well.

Weather and Climate

It was peak autumn when we arrived, and we had the loveliest views of Seoul. Imagine avenues lined with bright yellow (and smelly) ginkgo trees! We could not have gone at a better time.

Do your research on the weather, and — if you hail from a tropical country like me — don’t underestimate temperatures below 10 degrees C! A week before going to Seoul, I saw on weather forecasts that it was going to be chillier than the annual average temperature, so I was well-prepared with my winter coat. True enough, the temperature barely went above 12 degrees Celsius. I would’ve been so miserable otherwise.

Transportation

I am always Very Envious of cities with better transportation system than mine, and I could nearly cry with happiness (and sadness, at one point, when the DMZ train left at exactly the right time and we were still getting our tickets) at how efficient the train system is in Seoul. It’s also pretty easy to plan along the train lines because the local (Seoul subway) trains are simply named from Line 1 to Line 9.

You will likely fly in to Incheon International Airport. From here, you could either take a shuttle bus (₩10000 to Seoul) or take the Airport Express (AREX) train, and then transfer to a local subway. The cheapest option is to take the All-Stop Train — travel time is longer by about 13 minutes than the non-stop Express Train, but for almost half the price.

If you’re taking the all-stop train to Seoul, then you’ll have to buy the T-money card (₩2500) from any convenience store at the airport, and recharge it there. From Incheon to Anguk Station, we spent only ₩4050.

This page shows you all your options about getting in to Seoul from Incheon.

Plan your subway route using this website. In addition, download an app of the Seoul subway system to your phone.

You’ll be walking most of the time, so I would obviously recommend that you wear your most comfortable shoes.

Accommodation

I booked us a double room with private toilet and bathroom in Insadong Hostel, also known in some places as the Insa Hostel. I chose to stay at the Insadong area instead of Myeongdong because I wanted a relatively more peaceful area. Anyway, I think Insadong is in a more central location if you’re looking into visiting the sights more than partying or shopping for cosmetics. You could walk from here to all the palaces/gungs (except Deoksugung), Jongmyo Shrine, and Cheonggyecheon Stream. Plus, Insadong is an art street; walking around and looking at art and wares is a pretty nice experience. If you need the train, the Anguk Station (Line 3) is less than a five-minute walk from Insa Hostel.

Insa Hostel is affordable for its standards, and very homey. We got a clean room with hot water and daily cleaning. There’s free breakfast, too, though it’s pretty much self-service and you’d have to fry your own eggs. It’s quite relaxing. You’d likely share the dining table with other guests, and it’s going to make for an interesting conversation.

The staff was very helpful, too. They offered to order dinner for us, and gave great suggestions on where to go. You could also ask them random questions, like the name of that boy band group we saw at City Hall. (They didn’t know, but they searched for their name — it’s Boys Republic. Mystery solved!)

Uni, the resident cat
Uni, the resident cat

And they have a cat. Which sleeps in a suitcase. Deal sealed, yes?

Food

Oh my gosh, where to begin. Spicy pork over rice. Dakgalbi (chicken barbecue). Bulgogi (beef barbecue). Chimaek (chicken and beer), especially the just-slightly-spicy fried honey chicken. Fried mandu (dumplings) at one of the alleys in Insadong. I’m salivating just at the thought of those fried dumplings.

The fried dumplings are as crunchy as they look!
The fried dumplings are as crunchy as they look!

And the street food. Oh boy. That honey-nut hotteok (pancakes with fillings) somewhere near Samcheong-dong. Spiral potatoes rolled in sour cream powder in Myeongdong. A cup of fried honey chicken nuggets, cubes of hash browns, and tteok (rice cakes) near Ewha Womans University. Custard-filled fish-shaped cakes at the southern end of Insadong and outside Deoksugung.

Point is, even if you don’t like food slathered with gochijang (their ubiquitous spicy red paste), you can never go hungry in Seoul.

Shopping, Sales, and Tax Refunds

I bought so many skincare products in Insadong and Myeongdong because Korean brands seem to work on this poor face of mine. I would even say that if you are visiting Korea during the colder months, you should make skincare shopping a Day 1 priority. Stock up on moisturizers, BB/CC cream, and lip balm — your skin is surely going to dry up. Once you pay for your purchases, the store staff will put a lot of samples into your shopping bag.

Shopping for clothes is cheapest in university areas — I was able to check out Edae, the area near Ewha Womans University. The stores sell local clothing brands, and they’re quite nice and of good quality.

Clothes shopping in Edae
Clothes shopping in Edae

Do check out whether your stay in Korea coincides with the Korean Grand Sale! You’ll find that a lot of companies, including cosmetic shops, accommodations, and attractions offer discounts if you have the coupon. You can print out individual coupons from the website, or just get a brochure at the airport. Also print out coupons from the Visit Korea Committee website; I was able to get a 25% discount to Petite France from here.

If you make a purchase worth  ₩30000 and above, ask for a tax refund form from the clerk. You can exchange all of these at the airport — details can be found here. I was able to refund only $4, about the equivalent of ₩5000… but it could actually be useful if you want to buy coffee or snacks while waiting for your boarding!

Why You Should Go

Apart from the obvious — the K-drama locations, for example — I wanted to experience the seasons. South Korea is probably the best place to go to if you’re from Southeast Asia and are looking for an affordable way to see autumn, winter, or spring. I went to experience my first autumn. I know someone who went to Seoul because his family wanted to see snow. I would do this too. Probably.

You should also go for the very reason why we travel — to soak up history and culture. I’ve interacted with quite a few Korean students here in the Philippines, and some of my most unforgettable moments with them involved food — specifically, of them offering me something to eat and laughing/apologizing when I raced to the nearest drinking fountain to cool my tongue. It didn’t occur to me until just a year ago to read about Korean history beyond the ongoing cold war with the North —  and that’s only because I got to watching historical K-dramas. Even in Seoul, when we went to the War Memorial, I kept on realizing just how little I knew about the Koreans.

Finally, if you want a taste of efficiency and a sort of institutionalized respect toward nature and national monuments, you should go to Korea. Perhaps it would inspire you to do something about the country you’re going to come home to.

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