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18 Hours in Seoul: What To Do, See & Eat

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During my whirlwind Asia trip, I was in Seoul for just one night to get Korean BBQ, which is my idea of a good excuse to fly Singapore Airlines First Class. Arriving at 8 p.m and leaving at noon the next day didn’t give me much time to explore the city, but I tried to pack in as much as I could during the trip, including a little tourism, a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul and of course: Korean BBQ!

Seoul is gorgeous at any time of year
Seoul is gorgeous at any time of year

Which is the Better Airport—Incheon (ICN) or Gimpo (GMP)?

I flew SFO-ICN on Singapore Airlines in first class, using 74,375 miles plus $203.30 per person. If I had paid out of pocket, each ticket would have cost me $5,473.80. A day later, I flew GMP-PEK on China Southern in business class, purchased for $390 per person and booked through Orbitz.

Having experienced both airports, these are my thoughts on each:

Gimpo (GMP): Located about nine miles west of Central Seoul, this was the city’s main international airport until Incheon came along and “replaced” it in 2001. This airport is nice because it’s close to the city center and offers mainly inter-Korea and inter-Asia flights (typically to China & Japan). It’s less of a trek to get out there and just a simpler experience in general.

Incheon (ICN): The biggest airport in Korea, ICN has been voted the Best Airport in the World several times, and came in second place this year. ICN is a fabulous spot for a layover, thanks to free WiFi, an observation deck to watch the planes taking off and landing, and cactus, flower, water, pine tree and rock gardens (1F Passenger Terminal), not to mention free concerts daily throughout the airport. However, it’s rather far from the city center of Seoul (approximately 30 miles) which can make getting to and from the airport a hassle. If you fly into ICN, I’d recommend taking one of the many buses to get to the city center.

I feel ICN is best for a layover if you aren’t leaving the airport, but if you have to get to the city center, GMP is the easier and preferred option, as it’s way closer.

Waking up to this view from the Ritz-Carlton Seoul was amazing
Waking up to this view from The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul was amazing

Where To Stay

My stay at the The Ritz Carlton, Seoul was wonderful, though short at just one day. I booked a one bedroom Executive Suite Club Level for a base rate of 610, 000 KRW/$560 per night through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts. Stay tuned for a coming hotel review.

Walking up to the stylish Ritz-Carlton Seoul
Walking up to the stylish Ritz-Carlton, Seoul

Another good option is the JW Marriott, which has a great location in Dongdaemun Square and rooms starting at just under $300 per night in April. The Park Hyatt Seoul (where I stayed back in 2012) is nice, but a little far from the city center; April rates start at about $340 per night or 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.

The W Seoul Walker Hill is also a cool property if you’ve got Starpoints to burn, though a bit of a hike from the central tourist attractions. In April, this Category 5 property starts at about $279 per night or 16,000 Starpoints.

The changing of the guards ceremony at the palace. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The changing of the guards ceremony at the Gyeongbokgung palace. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

What To Do, See & Eat in Just 18 Hours

If you’re pressed for time and want a quick overview of the sights, the hop-on, hop-off Seoul City Tour Bus service costs just 12,000 Won ($10 USD). There are also tons of other tours of Seoul that will take you all over the city.

During a visit to Seoul, it’s essential to see at least one palace. One of the most popular, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the former royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, dating back to the 1300s. The palace is surrounded by peaceful gardens, inspiring a break for some tranquility among the busy city of Seoul. Besides visiting the palace buildings and sprawling grounds, the entrance fee of 3,000 Won ($2.75) also gives you access to both the National Folk Museum of Korea, which is topped with a beautiful pagoda, and the National Palace Museum, which provides a full overview on royal living. Make sure to catch the changing of the guards ceremony (complete with period costumes) which typically occurs at 10 am, 1 pm and 3 pm.

The secret garden is a picturesque spot you can see only by guided tour. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The secret garden is a picturesque spot you can see only by guided tour. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Two other stunning palaces, Changgyeong Palace and Changdeokgung, were originally used to house the ladies and concubines of the royal court. The grounds boast beautifully restored buildings and gardens, plus the special six-acre Biwon “Secret Garden,” which is only available to visit via guided tour (English ones at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm).

The Bukchon Hanok village with a modern Seoul peeking through behind. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Bukchon Hanok village with a modern Seoul peeking through behind. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Going to all three palaces is probably overdoing it, but pick your favorite and spend a few hours enjoying the sense of zen these beauties provide. Once you’ve had your fill of ancient royal Korean living, head over to Insadong, a shopping street where you can find pretty much anything: souvenirs, accessories, porcelain, street food as well as trendy restaurants and boutiques. Then wander over to the Bukchon Hanok village to see hundreds of traditional “hanok” Korean houses and buildings. Today these buildings operate as teahouses, guesthouses, shops, museum and more. A walk through the village offers a real cultural perspective into traditional South Korea.

An amazing feast of Korean Barbeque
An amazing feast of Korean Barbeque

Dining: Korean Barbeque

One of the main reasons I planned a day in Seoul was to eat Korean Barbecue (often called gogigui). This type of cuisine is created by roasting meat, pork and chicken, often right at your table on built-in gas or charcoal grills or portable stoves. The cuisine dates back thousands of years (some say even back to B.C.) and was later pushed out by vegetarian Buddhists for a time. Korean BBQ returned with the Chosun Dynasty, and has been an integral part of Korean cuisine ever since.

Bulgogi is one of the most popular forms, with chunks of beef seasoned and marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper; however, there are also many types of Korean BBQ that feature un-marinated meats. One of my favorite parts of gogigui are the banchan (side dishes) that come along with the meal, like pajori (green onion salad), fresh cucumbers, peppers, radish, lettuce, bean sprouts, and seaweed salad.

Astounded by the Korean BBQ I was about to indulge in!
Astounded by the Korean BBQ I was about to indulge in!

My picks for some of the best Korean BBQ spots in Seoul are Mapo Sutbul Kalbi, Myongwolgwan and Parkdaegamne and Hankook Bon Galbi. Due to my short stay in Seoul, I only had time to eat at Hankook Bon Galbi, which was a exciting experience with delectable food (as you can clearly see in the photos above).

Strolling along Gangnam Street anxiously awaiting some KBBQ
Strolling along Gangnam Street anxiously awaiting some KBBQ

Seoul is a place I hope to spend much more time in, and of course there are a million places to stay, activities to do, sights to see, and meals to eat. The above list is perfect for a day, and if you’ve got even more time to burn there, check out our Destination of the Week: Seoul post for more ideas. I adore this city and I feel like it’s really an underrated place visit, and I can’t wait to get back soon to explore it more.

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