Rising out of the ashes of the Korean War, Seoul’s rich history and traditional yet modern culture has made it one of the most visited cities in the world. As one of the largest cities in South Korea and the capital city of South Korea, the city itself is an amalgamation of cutting-edge skyscrapers looming over traditional wooden houses and cobblestone alleyways.
With its unrivaled public transportation system, progressive technologies, and unprecedented WiFi access, this forward-thinking city is fast becoming one of the world’s best. So if you’re planning a visit to South Korea, read on for a comprehensive Seoul travel guide to help you plan your trip.
Situated between China and Japan, the Korean peninsula lies in the center of northeast Asia, near the Yellow Sea. The Hangang River flows horizontally across Seoul, dividing the city into two areas: the northern part, which houses 14 districts (from Dobong-gu to Yongsan-gu), and the southern part which houses 11 districts (from Gangseo-gu to Seocho-gu). See the Seoul map below:
For most international tourists, the gateway to visit Korea is through Incheon International Airport. Dubbed one of the world’s best airports, it is situated approximately 50 km west of central Seoul on the island of Yeongjongdo.
Most international airlines provide flights to Seoul, including the country’s flagship carrier Korean Air, which services 123 countries. From the Seoul airport, you can opt to take a bus, taxi, or train to the city center or your chosen accommodations.
From the airport, Korea travel is fairly easy, with plenty of options to get to your accommodations.
There are two types of buses that can take you from the airport to downtown Seoul. The city limousine buses can take up to more than an hour to reach destinations around the city, and average anywhere from ₩9,000.00 to ₩15,000.00. The KAL limousine buses are another option, running along four routes, with over 20 major hotels listed as stops. This one averages anywhere from ₩10,000.00 to ₩16,000.00.
You can also take a regular metered taxi which will also take you about an hour to get to the city center. Usual fares for a regular metered taxi range anywhere from ₩60,000.00 to ₩80,000.00 depending on the traffic and your destination. Take note that regular taxis have a 20% surcharge from 12mn to 4am. If you get a deluxe or jumbo taxi (which can seat up to eight passengers), you don’t have to pay surcharge. You can also opt to book an international taxi in advance, which has a flat rate of approximately ₩65,000.00 to ₩90,000.00 depending on your destination.
There are also two types of trains that you can take from the airport to your destination within Seoul. You can opt for an express train that departs every 30 minutes, with travel time between 45-50 minutes. Or you could opt for the more frequent all-stops train with travel time averaging at one hour. Keep in mind that the trains run from 5:20am to 11:45pm.
There are also several ferries that connect some Chinese and Japanese cities to Incheon. Approximate South Korea travel time via ferry ranges from 12 to 24 hours, with one-way fares starting at ₩115,000.00.
Seoul was founded as far back as 18 B.C. by the Baekje, one of the three kingdoms during the Three Kingdom period. The city formed a border between the kingdoms of Silla, Goguryeo, and Baekje. Shortly after it was founded, the capital was moved south across the Han River, and by 1068, King Munjong had started building his summer palace, which marked the beginning of the construction of other palaces and a large settlement in the area.
During the 16th century, Japan invaded Korea, and thus started the long struggle for supremacy between the two countries. By the early 1900s, Japan had won, turning Korea into one of its colonies. Under Japanese rule, Korea became more urbanized with the construction of numerous factories, bridges, railways, and roads.
Following World War II, Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945, and the capital was renamed Seoul. However, not even 10 years later, the Korean War began, with North Korean troops (strengthened by communist Russia and China) invading South Korea. While much of the city was destroyed during the war, the fighting ended with a stalemate in 1953.
Following the Korean War, South Korea saw a huge leap in development in the 1960s. By the 1990s, the country had overcome its war-ridden troubles and emerged a thriving, economic metropolis.
In 1988, the city hosted its first Olympic Games, which set the stage for the city becoming internationally known. Today, South Korea continues to impress with its urban development, international businesses, and high-technology industries, forming several fascinating and sought-after Korea tourist spots.
With four seasons, Seoul has a temperate climate, and is usually well visited during spring and autumn. However, each season has its own allures and shouldn’t be discounted. You might also want to check the South Korean holidays before traveling.
Spring (March-May): Temperatures range from 6-18°C, with dry air. Spring flowers such as cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and azaleas are in bloom, making the city a scenic wonder to behold. Most tourists claim that spring is the best time to visit Seoul.
Summer (June-August): With temperatures reaching beyond 26°C, summers in Seoul can be hot and humid. Expect light rainfall around mid-June to mid-July. Some popular activities to do in the summer include biking, swimming, in-line skating, and windsurfing on the Hangang River.
Autumn (September-November): Temperatures start to get cooler, and gardens take on golden and brown hues, making activities like hiking, temple and palace hopping, and visiting the mountains quite popular. Chuseok, one of the more important holidays in Korea is also celebrated during September.
Winter (December-February): Seoul, Korea weather gets very cold, with temperatures dropping to -15°C, with heavy snow a common symptom of the South Korean winter.
Wondering where to stay in Seoul? Seoul accommodation shouldn’t be hard to find in the city. Whether you’re a backpacker looking for a cheap and affordable place to spend the night or a jet setter looking for the best hotels in Seoul, South Korea, the options and choices in the South Korean capital are almost unlimited.
From guest houses in Seoul, motels, and Seoul hostels, to serviced apartments and hotels, the choice is yours depending on your budget and preference. Check out our Guide to Finding Accommodations in Seoul.
Korean cuisine has made it to the forefront of the international food scene. Made with a variety of local and fresh ingredients, there is a wide spectrum of dishes to enjoy while in the city. Read our Complete Guide on Eating Your Way Through Seoul!
A large part of South Korea tourism and Seoul tourism involves shopping. A bonafide shopper’s paradise, Seoul is full of distinctive items that both tourists and locals love, from beauty creams and textiles to gadgets and design pieces. Read: A Shopaholic's Guide to Seoul's Markets & Malls.
Wondering where to go in Seoul for a night out? While nightlife is commonly associated with clubbing, drinking, and bar-hopping, Seoul has many activities (besides the alcoholic kind!) that are best done at night. Read our 10 Best Things To Do In Seoul After Dark.
You can purchase a prepaid SIM card online and pick it up at the airport for a stress-free experience. Alternatively, you can also buy a SIM card at the airport or in most convenience stores around Seoul, such as CU, 7-11, and GS25.
You can also rent a phone by visiting any of Seoul’s major telecom companies, like LG, SK, and KT, or at some major hotels. Most carriers charge approximately ₩3,000.00 per day, with an additional ₩100.00 per 10 seconds of every outgoing call.
There are no charges for incoming calls. Take note that phone rental companies may require your passport for identification and a credit card. Rented phones must also be returned at the same counter from which they were rented out.
Known as one of the countries with the fastest internet speeds, Seoul has an extensive arsenal of areas that are outfitted with internet. Public facilities such as the airport, subway and railway stations, tourist information centers, libraries, hospitals, and even restaurants, cafes, stores, taxis, and many South Korea attractions have Wi-Fi and internet access.
You can find many ATMs around Seoul, some of which are open until 11:00pm and some open 24 hours. You can find ATMs by convenience stores or shopping centers; however, do take note that there may be transaction fees as well. Try to find ATMs that accept international cards—they are marked with a ‘Global’ sign at the top. Most of the ATMs also provide foreign language services in English, Chinese and Japanese.
While most hotels, shops, and restaurants accept international credit cards (e.g. MasterCard, Visa, American Express, etc.), take note that budget places, stalls, and kiosks usually only accept cash.
With a far-reaching subway system that is known worldwide for its efficiency, cleanliness and frequency, Seoul’s subways are one of the best in the world. Seoul currently has nine subway lines, with another twelve lines that cover Incheon, Suin, the airport, Bundang, Gyeongchun, Uijeongbu, Gyeonggang, and more.
The first trains depart at around 5:30am and usually run continuously until midnight. Each line is color coded, with station signs in Korean, English, and Chinese, making it easier to get around.
You can ride the Seoul subway by purchasing either a single or multiple journey pass. You can get a single journey pass at any subway station. This will require you to pay the exact fare of your destination plus a ₩500 refundable deposit (which you can get back at your destination when you return your card).
If you’ll be using the subway to get around during your Seoul trip, get the multiple journey pass (also known as Tmoney), which you can get in most convenience stores. Besides free transfers between subway lines, Tmoney users also have the privilege of free transfers between bus and subway lines. You can also purchase individual tickets instead; however, it comes out more expensive compared to Tmoney.
Note that the Airport Railroad Line and the Sinbundang Line charge higher fares. For more information about routes, schedules, and transfers, smartphone users can download apps like Seoul Subway, Metroid Korea Subway Info, and Subway Navigation by Kakao.
Unlike other countries where taxis have a reputation for being expensive, Seoul’s taxis are a common and inexpensive means of traveling around the city. With an ample supply of taxis around, it’s easy to flag one down on the street, or find one in the many taxi stands around popular Seoul attractions.
All the taxis use a meter, with the base fare differing depending on the kind of taxi that you get. Besides the kind of taxi, rates also depend on how far the destination is and the time of day. For payment, most taxis accept cash, credit cards, and money.
Seoul also has an inexpensive and advanced bus system with four color coded kinds:
Take note that there is a shortage of English signs and information in the bus stops, which may make it difficult for tourists. However, if you’d like to experience this mode of transportation, you can also download the SeoulBus app on your smartphone for English information and tips on bus times, stops, and schedules. If you’re a Tmoney user, you will receive an automatic ₩100.00 discount.