Korea is an often-overlooked destination when travelers plan a tour of Asia, but it shouldn’t be that way. Korea has a vibrant traditional culture with the benefits of modern infrastructure. Seoul in particular is one of the easiest Asian cities for westerners to visit, and the city provides convenient access to all of South Korea.
Incheon International Airport is well-ordered and comfortable. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Getting to Seoul
Most travelers arrive in Korea by air at Incheon International Airport. The facility is modern and easy to navigate. Virtually every major international airline serves Incheon, so there’s plenty of competition to offer the best price for your ticket. Immigration and customs are efficient and businesslike.
Pro tip: Have your first-night hotel’s name and address ready. The immigration officials will ask for it, and you won’t get through until you provide evidence that you have somewhere to stay.
Incheon is located on an island off the Korean coast in the Yellow Sea. Seoul itself is a bit inland, but near the west coast of the peninsula. Like many major cities, outlying towns have been absorbed into Seoul’s metropolitan area, so the journey from the airport to downtown is through urban areas.
You can take a taxi or Uber in Seoul, but the subway or bus lines are more fun. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The airport is served by bus, train, taxi, and town car services. The train or bus cost less than $20, and the taxi ride is about $40. Uber is available at Incheon, and an economy ride costs about $55 into downtown Seoul. Town cars are dramatically more expensive, ranging from $110 to more than $300 for a ride into downtown.
Walk in Seoul’s neighborhoods
Seoul is a very big place. With a population of about 9.75 million people, roughly 20 percent of South Korea’s population lives in this sprawling metropolitan area. Neighborhoods in Seoul are walkable, but you’ve got to get to them first.
One popular destination neighborhood is the upscale Gangnam District, made famous in the west by K-Pop star Psy’s viral video. Gangnam is known for shopping and fine dining, and it’s going to be on the expensive side. You can get here on the Seoul Subway, by bus, or on a surface train line.
Hongdae is a university district with plenty of great places to eat and play. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
If you’re on a budget, another great destination is the Hongdae neighborhood. This is a university district, so places to eat and drink are plentiful, along with street vendors and quite a few western chain businesses. But there are also mom & pop shops. Hongdae is a great place to pop into one of the many Korean barbecue restaurants for a long dinner. You’ll grill your own meat and sample the house kimchi. Drinking beer sweetened with Soju rice wine is typical.
Pro tip: In a family restaurant, the kimchi is made from the owner’s personal recipe. If you compliment the kimchi, it means a lot to the proprietors.
Walking to get around in Seoul is very straightforward. Most street signs are written in both Hangul and English. Your only challenge is the distance to travel.
Taking the bus is a great way to get between Seoul’s neighborhoods. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Get on the bus
Seoul has efficient bus service, and this is the most affordable way to catch a ride. Buses in Seoul are color-coded to tell you something about where the bus goes. Blue buses run between neighborhoods on major roads, green and yellow buses are more local. Red buses are express service for commuters traveling between the downtown core and the suburbs. You can expect a Seoul bus to be clean and orderly, and to be on time.
Buses in Seoul run 24 hours a day, but service is limited between 11:30 pm and 6:00 am. Bus fare ranges from about $1.20 to $2.00 depending on the line and the time of day. Late night and red lines are more expensive.
Buy a transport card
You can pay for your bus ride in cash or with a transport card that works in the Seoul Subway as well as bus lines. The driver doesn’t have change to give you, so either carry some small change or get a transport card.
Pro Tip: You can buy or reload a Transport Card at any convenience store or subway station.
A transport card costs about $3.50 (4,000 South Korean Won) and comes loaded with the same amount of credit. You get a discount of 100 Won (about 9 cents) on bus fare when paying your fare with a card.
The subway in Seoul is clean and orderly, and best of all, it’s affordable. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ride the subway
The subway is the most popular mode of transportation in Seoul. It’s affordable, with most fares ranging from about $1.20 to $2.00. If you use your transport card, you get the 100 Won discount here, too. You can also buy single journey tickets. With these, you pay the fare plus a 500 Won (about 45 cents) deposit for the card, which is refundable at a ticket return machine at your destination.
There’s an interactive map of the Seoul subway system maintained by the Seoul Metro agency, and there are convenient maps and information assistance in the subway stations. Seoul Metro has an informative website with a full English translation.
Pro tip: Basic good manners are the baseline for subway riders. Be polite and you’ll get along fine.
The Seoul subway is generally clean and safe to use. If you’re planning to return by the same route, many larger stations offer rental lockers you can use to stash your purchases for up to four hours. Storage lockers cost about $2-$4 depending on size and location.
If you want to get to other parts of South Korea, the KTX train travels the length of the peninsula in less than 3 hours. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Take the train
Seoul has several train companies that operate lines in the metro area, plus there’s Korail, the national rail service that connects the entire country. Korea’s train system is very advanced compared to the United States, and this is a great way to get anywhere in Korea outside of Seoul.
Trains come in several types, mostly defined by their travel speed. The KTX trains travel at speeds up to 190 MPH, which will get you from Seoul to Busan on the southern tip of the peninsula in about 2.5 hours. There are also ITX trains, local Mugunghwa lines, and slower tourist trains.
Pro tip: Busan is a great second destination in Korea, with beautiful beaches and excellent seafood.
Riding the train is a great value. A one-way economy ticket from Seoul to Busan on the KTX is about $60. Slower and local train services will be less. If you plan to do a lot of rail travel, a Korailpass might be a smart move. Like rail passes in other countries, this is a single-fee card that allows you to travel on any rail line for a period of days. Korailpass includes KTX trains, and they are available for 2, 3, 4, and 5-day periods. A full-fare adult 2-day Korailpass starts at $104, and rises to about $180 for a 5-day pass.
Seoul is a vibrant and prosperous city with great opportunities for food and tourism. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Korea should be on your bucket list
Korea is a great destination for business or vacation. Whether you seek out excellent food, historic sites, or a modern Asian experience, Korea has a lot to offer. Within an hour or two of downtown Seoul, you can find winter sports in the mountains, or attractive beaches.
Pro tip: A sincere “Kamsahamnida” (thank you) helps you be a good guest in Korea.
Seoul is one of the easiest cities in Asia for an American tourist to have a successful and enjoyable visit. There are many ways to stay mobile easily; you can even rent a car. You stand a better chance of driving safely in Korea than in most unfamiliar countries, though Seoul offers all the usual challenges of driving in a big city. But with so many other good mobility options to choose from, a car is hardly worth the expense. There are much better ways to explore the city.