The best things to do on a Seoul Incheon layover, from palaces and theme parks to spas and a noodle museum
Spice up your time in Seoul with our guide to fun and fascinating experiences, whether it is pampering in the airport, a quick trip to Chinatown, or a longer jaunt to Jamsil Special Tourist Zone to see the world’s fifth tallest building
Ranked the third best airport in the world this year by consumer-aviation website Skytrax, Incheon International Airport is almost a destination in itself.
Memories of my first experience of this airport are a little hazy, having just stepped off a 12-hour overnight flight during which I did not sleep a wink. I do, however, recall the sounds of a gayageum (a wooden 12-stringed instrument) soothing my ears the moment I walked into the terminal.
The best things to do on a Singapore layover, from airport jacuzzis and street food to tropical exploration
I looked around to find the source of the music and saw a woman wearing a brightly coloured hanbok (a traditional Korean dress). She sat on a small stage with a backdrop of handmade paper decorated with elaborate Korean calligraphy, and the elegance of the scene was captivating.
It is scenes such as this that not only add a little something extra to Incheon International Airport, but also display Korea’s unique culture.
Here are some suggestions for making the most of a layover at Incheon, both in and outside the airport.
Three hours: relax and revive
Other than an abundance of duty-free shopping, Incheon Airport has a cinema, sky garden, restaurants and cafes galore. The airport is clean and organised, free Wi-fi keeps you connected, and charging points abound.
There are a number of places to relax. Prayer and meditation rooms offer tranquillity and calm, while massage chairs soothe and stimulate tired muscles.
For a complete pampering session, head to Spa on Air. Located on B1 and open 24/7, the spa provides segregated saunas with hot and cold pools, showers, steam rooms, resting and sleeping rooms, a selection of massages and facials, and complimentary luggage storage.
If you’re keen to escape the terminals, however, just five minutes from the airport you’ll find Paradise City, a self-described “art-tainment” resort which opened in April. It is a huge complex and includes a hotel, art gallery, safari-themed entertainment area, boutiques, spa and sauna, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, clubs, bars, a casino, and performance venues.
Five hours: Wolmido and Chinatown
Take the subway to Incheon station. Upon exiting the station you will see the impressive gates of Incheon’s Chinatown across the street. Here, the paved streets are lined with red lanterns and the smell of freshly made moon cakes wafts from small roadside vendors.
This is also the birthplace of jjajangmyeon, a popular Korean-Chinese noodle dish in a thick, black bean sauce. There’s even a jjajangmyeon museum to provide more information about the famous dish.
After grabbing something to eat, wander Chinatown’s 150-metre-long Samgukji Mural Street with a bubble tea in hand and feast your eyes on colourful murals depicting ancient Chinese fables.
After exploring Chinatown, head back to Incheon station and catch one of the buses to Wolmido, a former island which was connected to the mainland in 1989. A popular day trip for Seoulites, the area offers a vast array of seafood restaurants and cafes, a small amusement park, and fresh sea breezes. A number of rides, games and performance venues add to the carnival atmosphere.
If you want something a little more relaxing, head to the area’s Wolmi Park, which offers tranquil walking trails and beautiful displays of traditional Korean architecture.
Alternatively, Incheon airport offers a free transit tour programme, with tours from one to five hours long.
For a taste of tradition, the five-hour Seoul City Tour 1 takes visitors to Gyeongbokgung Palace and the neighbourhood of Insadong. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung is Korea’s most renowned palace. With the 342-metre Mount Bugaksan behind it, it is a sight to behold, especially during the colourful changing of the guard ceremony.
Insadong is a gorgeous area, home to hanoks (traditional houses), quaint tea houses, restaurants serving traditional temple cuisine, and a plethora of antiques and souvenir shops to browse.
Nine hours: Eastern attractions
Jamsil, in eastern Seoul, is only 90 minutes from Incheon Airport via subway and is packed with attractions.
The Jamsil Special Tourist Zone includes Lotte World Amusement Park, Lotte World Tower, Seokchon Lake, Olympic Park and more. For those wanting a bit more action, Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor theme park, has everything from high-octane rides to jungle adventures and bumper cars.
Looming over the theme park, and the rest of Seoul, is Lotte World Tower, which opened in April this year and is currently the world’s fifth tallest building. From the tower’s 123rd floor you get a real feel for the sprawling megalopolis.
If you need some grounding after your trip up the tower, Seokchon Lake is a picturesque place to take a relaxing stroll or a run before your next flight. Take off your shoes and try out the acupressure therapy track or dip your feet in the lake’s cool water.
12 hours: trendy and hip
If you have half a day to spare, you can go and check out some of Seoul’s coolest central areas.
A fast and inexpensive way to get to central Seoul from the airport is to take the subway. The Airport Railroad Express takes less than an hour and costs less than 5,000 South Korean won (US$4.60) to reach Hongdae (near Hongik University) and Seoul Station.
Hongdae is full of stylish young students, cheap eats, fast fashion and theme cafes (think raccoons, Lego, Hello Kitty). Leave the station via exit nine and make your way towards the university, where you are likely to come across some free, live entertainment – buskers, K-pop idol wannabes, up-and-coming indie bands and break dancers.
You can easily spend hours wandering the streets, eating, drinking and browsing small shops. If you’re travelling with a companion, the Seoul Trick Eye Museum provides an hour or two of photo fun.
At Seoul Station, not far from exit 2, you will find Seoullo 7017 – a disused overpass built in 1970 which has been transformed into Seoul’s version of the New York High Line. The old road is now an elevated garden with more than 24,000 plants and is the perfect way to explore downtown Seoul at 17 metres above street level.