13-Hour Layover in Seoul: What to Do

Updated on January 3, 2018
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Part-time farmer, part-time traveler, Viet Doan lives in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii with his partner and a lazy old cat.

Clockwise from top left: Royal guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace, Jogyesa Temple, One Pillar Gate, Gyeonghoeru lake pavilion, Korean cuisine, Insadong Street storefronts
Clockwise from top left: Royal guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace, Jogyesa Temple, One Pillar Gate, Gyeonghoeru lake pavilion, Korean cuisine, Insadong Street storefronts | Source

You’ve just arrived at one of the busiest airports in the world: Incheon International Airport, South Korea. It’s only 6:50 in the morning. Your connecting flight is at 8:00 this evening. What to do for the next 13 hours? You’ve never been to Seoul before, why not take this opportunity to get out of the airport and do some sightseeing? To make it easier, Incheon International Airport offers Free Transit Tours—guided tours to visit some of the most popular tourist destinations in Seoul—specifically geared toward travelers with a long airport layover. There are several tour options, varying from one to five hours, and you can book a tour at any of the Transit Tour Desks located inside the airport.

Transit Tour Desk at Incheon International Airport
Transit Tour Desk at Incheon International Airport | Source
Transit Tour brochure
Transit Tour brochure | Source

Have you taken a Free Transit Tour at Incheon International Airport?

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Incheon International Airport

At the transit tour desk on level 2F a friendly receptionist helps you select a tour that fits your layover time. She suggests the 5-hour Seoul City Tour which covers 3 top tourist attractions: Geyongbokgung Palace, Jogyesa Temple, and Insadong Street Market. The tour leaves at 10:00 in the morning and returns to the airport approximately 3:00 in the afternoon. Transportation and a tour guide is included and free! All you have to pay is the entrance fee to visit Geyongbokgung Palace ($3US) and lunch at Insadong Street Market ($7US). You also need to present your passport, flight tickets/boarding passes in order to book a tour.

At 10:00, you meet the tour guide and 20 other travelers (who signed up for the same tour) on the airport’s ground level. The tour guide—who can speak multiple languages—leads your group out to the street where a large tour bus is waiting. The bus driver takes your carry-on bag and stores them safely inside the luggage compartment. Settling into a comfortable seat on the bus, you’re off to explore Seoul!

show route and directions
A markerGyeongbokgung Palace -
get directions

B markerJogyesa Temple -
get directions

C markerInsadong Street Market -
get directions

Gyeongbokgung Palace complex
Gyeongbokgung Palace complex | Source

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace is the grandest and most beautiful palace in Korea. Built in the 14th century, it served as the home of the Joseon Dynasty Kings and royal families. Located in the heart of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung (means “Greatly Blessed by Heaven”) Palace is a massive complex of some 500 large and small palaces, with countless gates, bridges, gardens, and courtyards. These magnificent structures have survived centuries of wars, disasters, and neglect. Many have been carefully restored to their former glory, thanks to the South Korean government.

Throne Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace
Throne Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace | Source
Smaller palaces in the complex
Smaller palaces in the complex | Source

It can take hours to walk through the immense palace complex! During the tour, the tour guide points out some major buildings, like the Throne Hall, the Council Hall, the King’s Residence, and explains their historical significance. You will have a chance to climb up an enormous staircase and peek inside the Inner Chamber where Kings once slept! Another highlight is the breathtaking Gyeonghoeru Pavilion—built on an island in the middle of a lake and connected to the palace grounds by three spectacular stone bridges.

Being the number one tourist attraction in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace is always crowded. Dozens of tour buses line up in the parking lot and the endless throngs of tourists can be challenging.

After two hours of exploring the palace, it’s time to go to the next attraction.

Jogyesa Temple courtyard
Jogyesa Temple courtyard | Source

Jogyesa Temple

Built in 1938, Jogyesa Temple now serves as the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. To enter the temple, you walk through a large gate called One Pillar Gate. The gate’s name refers to a single horizontal wooden beam that holds the entire gate structure together—symbolizes one mind. It is believed that when people pass under this gate, all scattered minds become one, enlightened by wisdom.

Whether you experience enlightenment or not, you will feel calm once you step inside the temple’s courtyard. During Buddha’s Birthday month, the courtyard is decorated with hundreds of colorful Nirvana fish lanterns. The main temple (Main Dharma Hall) is situated at the center, under the shade of a majestic Pagoda Tree which is about 450 years old!

Temple architecture, One Pillar Gate and Main Dharma Hall
Temple architecture, One Pillar Gate and Main Dharma Hall | Source

Inside the Main Dharma Hall, there are 3 giant Buddha statues. Korean men and women kneel, bowing down and touching their foreheads to the ground to worship. The hall is filled with fragrant incense and the whispering sound of prayers.

Located at the end of the courtyard is an ornate Bell Pavilion where the Brahma Bell is kept. Everyday, this bell is rung 28 times in the morning and 33 times in the evening, evoking the dharma (Buddha’s teaching) to end all human suffering. Also do not miss the exquisite Octagonal 10-story Stupa which houses a sacred Buddha relic. You may check out the temple’s gift shop and buy some souvenirs. Then it’s time to leave this peaceful place and head for the next attraction!

Vendor stalls at Insadong Street Market
Vendor stalls at Insadong Street Market | Source

Insadong Street Market

The bus pushes through mid-day traffic toward Insadong Street Market. The tour guide announces that lunch will be served at a restaurant in the market area. Insadong Street Market is located in one of the oldest shopping districts in Seoul. The street is lined with antique shops, art galleries, clothing boutiques, traditional tea houses, restaurants, and street food vendors. You follow the tour guide walking down a narrow alley and into a small family-run restaurant. As part of the Transit Tour, lunch is pre-arranged, you don’t need to order from the menu. Everyone in your group sits together at a long wooden table. Bibimbap is the main entrée—a traditional Korean ‘mix rice bowl’ of steamed rice topped with sautéed vegetables, hot chili sauce, slices of grilled beef, and one fried egg. The waitress also brings out a plethora of kimchi dishes! You will never see so many varieties of kimchi in your life! To enjoy bibimbap, just stir and mix everything together in your bowl and eat. Each bite brings out a different taste: spicy, savory, salty, sweet. Delicious!

Insadong Street Market scenes
Insadong Street Market scenes | Source
Curly ice cream cones
Curly ice cream cones | Source

After lunch, you have one hour to explore Insadong Street Market. The main street is connected to a labyrinth of alleys and passage ways which lead to yet more shopping areas. Stores sell everything from expensive traditional Korean fine art (paintings, sculptures, potteries) to cheap, cute cell phone accessories. You will find it is quite entertaining to browse the storefront window displays! Tourists and locals flock to this market to hang out at the many coffee shops and street food stalls. Must try the most unique and curious street food: a 3-foot long curly ice cream cone!

It’s 2:30, you find your way back to the tour bus. During the half-hour ride back to the airport, you relax and enjoy the cool air condition after a full day of walking under the hot sun.

Back at the airport, you thank the tour guide and give a generous tip to the bus driver when he hands over your carry-on bag. Then off you go up to level 3F, leisurely check through airport security, and find yourself inside the vast, modern departure concourse. You still have at least 4 more hours before your connecting flight. It’s time to go take a nap!

About This Article

Seoul is fascinating. The author had a great time touring the city during his 13-hour layover. He loves kimchi!

All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera.

© 2015 Viet Doan


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    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 2 days ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Mary! I think more airports at big cities around the world should offer free transit tours! It’s a perfect (and fun!) way to boot tourism. I hope to visit Seoul again and stay longer to explore this fascinating metropolis. Aloha!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 days ago from Ontario, Canada

      What an opportunity. We often just stay in the Lounge but next time we have a long wait, we'll take the chance. We were in Seoul once and enjoyed it.

    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 2 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Anne! I do want to spend more time exploring Seoul in the future. Such a lovely city with interesting mix of modern and old. May be I'll see you there! Aloha.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Seoul has long been on my to do list, your hub has inspired me to get there (for longer than 13 hours!) thank you, and congratulations on HOTD

    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 2 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Patty! I did have a lot of fun shopping at Insadong street market. It's a great place for people watching too! Fascinating to see young, hip Koreans jam packed inside a Starbucks while old folks gathered in traditional tea houses. Aloha!

    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 2 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Thanks Kristen! Glad you enjoyed the tour. I was quite impressed with Seoul during my tour. Hope to return some day and spend longer time there. Aloha!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      It is refreshing to see these photos and read about your wonderful day in Seoul. Our very few Korean restaurants in my city are long gone now and I miss the many kimchi appetizers and the bibimbop, along with the friendly people I met in such places. The marketplace must be fun to stroll!

      One friend has a mother who still lives in the mountains of Korea, in a rice-paper walled home.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Viet, what a terrific visual travelogue in Seoul South Korea. Your photos were lovely and your descriptions were terrific. Thank you for sharing and taking us on this tour. Congrats on HOTD!

    • SkelbimaiTaip profile image

      SkelbimaiTaip 2 years ago from lithuania Kaunas


    • projectalods profile image

      Audrey DS 2 years ago from MNL | PH

      I love this hub! Gotta bookmark this for future reference :)

    • SkelbimaiTaip profile image

      SkelbimaiTaip 2 years ago from lithuania Kaunas


    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 2 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Gyeongbokgung Palace is truly an amazing place - architecture, history, culture, and all! You were so lucky to see the re-enacted ceremony! I really enjoyed my short visit of Seoul. Thanks for reading the hub and your comment.

    • Aussieteacher profile image

      Di 2 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

      I spent a few days in Seoul and one of the Gyeongbokgung Palace - and just happened to be there on a day that they re-enacted an old custom which was an amazing ceremony. Awesome!! In filled my hours there in this amazing city. (I was teaching at a city south of Seoul for 3 months) and visited Seoul on a couple of occasions.