Seoul is one of Asia's emerging cities - a dynamic metropolis with historic sites, a youthful vibe and cutting-edge cultural trends, such as K-pop and K-beauty. Flight Centre direct marketing executive Barbara Lima has visited the South Korean capital twice (plus she can speak Korean and read and write hangul), so she's definitely the go-to Travel Expert when it comes to all things Seoul. Luckily she's clued us in on what to know about Seoul before you go.
1. Download the local map apps
For some reason, Google Maps is lacking in South Korea, so you'll need to download KakaoMetro, KakaoBus and KakaoMap (available for Apple and Android). The maps are mostly in English, but sometimes you might need to search for a location in Google first, copy its Korean name in hangul (the Korean written characters) and then paste into KakaoMap to find your location. YOu can also use KakaoMap for reliable taxi fare estimates as well.
The KakaoMetro app is the most tourist-friendly app (it's all in English) and as the metro is the number-one way to get around Seoul, this is a must-have.
KakaoBus has helpful stop locations in exhaustive detail and the buses are tracked with real-time updates so you can see when your bus is arriving, the next available bus, what stop you are at or just left and what stop is coming up next.
2. Get a Tmoney transport card
Just do it. You can use the Tmoney card to pay for buses, metro and taxis and like the Hong Kong Octopus card, you can also use the card for purchases in some convenience shops. You can buy a Tmoney card at most convenience stores (GS25, CU, 7-Eleven, Ministop etc) - just look for the Tmoney logo, as well as from ticket vending and card reload machines at stations, including Incheon or Gimpo Airport Stations.
A custom-made Tmoney card is also a popular souvenir with Korean motifs or K-pop celebrities on it. (I have three of these now!)
There's other transport cards available, but Tmoney is the only one worth your time and it only costs 2.5 won, of which 2 won is refundable if you don't want to keep it! Just visit the deposit refund machine at any station.
3. Take the AREX Airport Express Line
The AREX Airport Express train is the best and cheapest way to get to and from Seoul Station (it stops at both Incheon and Gimpo airports - convenient!), unless your hotel offers a free transfer. The airport express line takes about 45 minutes to Incheon (less time to Gimpo) and costs only 9 won for adults. Be sure to get the Express train not the 'all stop' train, which pretty much doubles the trip time. KakaoMetro is your go-to for this, look up the next AREX Airport Express train after you land.
Most popular hotel areas, such as Myeongdong, are only one train line change and a short ride away. So from Seoul Station, change trains (very easy - even with luggage - and trains aren't usually overly full since they are so frequent) to the specific line you're after (they're all numbered, no names to worry about) and you should be at your hotel soon enough.
Taxi is another option - priced between 65 to 80 won, if you are travelling in a group this could work out cheaper per person as well as the convenience. KakaoMap will give you the taxi estimate as well. Your hotel website will have their address written in hangul to copy and paste into the app. If you don't want to take a taxi, and hauling your luggage up the stairs at Myeongdong Station isn't your thing, there are also airport buses. Ticket booths are outside most gates in the international arrival hall of Incheon Airport and the staff will help you find the right route for your hotel.
4. Get a SIM card
Seoul has great Wi-Fi connectivity so actually, you could survive on free Wi-Fi the whole time - just duck into any convenience store to access. However, I like to stay connected at all times and that's very easy to do in South Korea. You can order a SIM card online before you go and nominate to pick it up at the airport when you arrive (my recommendation is KT Olleh, formerly known as Korea Telecom), or when you arrive in Incheon Airport, visit the booth with the best data SIM deal. You'll need to show your passport to obtain a SIM card, and the staff will help you set it up. You'll be sorted in no time with South Korea's super-fast 4G network (Australia, take note).
5. Ride the KTX
Make sure you take the KTX aka Korea Train eXpress (the high-speed bullet train), because it's fancy and it's fun. You don't have to take the KTX all the way to Busan, you can go for just the day to Daejeon to walk in Gyeryongsan National Park. Or to Jeonju for the Hanok Village and the super-traditional food (highly recommended). Both destinations are day trips from Seoul and prices vary, so just check at Seoul Station when you visit the KTX ticket booth (yup, put the Tmoney card away for this one).
6. Go to Nami Island
Get yourself to Nami Island (aka Namiseom). Take the ITX train from Yongsan Station or Seoul Station to Gapyeong (FYI: you can't use Tmoney here, it's a standalone ticket), then take the tourist shuttle around the area to Nami Island.
If it's summer, take your swimmers and enjoy some watersports. Zip-line into the island (yes, zip-line over a beautiful lake to the island) or take the ferry. At Namiseom, you can also bungee jump, ride high-speed boats, windsurf, visit the floating water amusement parks, walk through the island and spy the squirrels scampering around or take your fancy camera for some exotic birdspotting or try your hand at some pottery or crafting...there's a lot to do here.
In winter you should also take your fancy camera because the snowfall is beautiful around the island. The admittance fee is 13,000 won and it is 100 per cent. Worth. It. Think about taking the bus to the Garden of Morning Calm back on the 'mainland' as well as it's very, very picturesque.
7. Time your trip for cherry blossom season
There are cherry blossoms in Korea. Let me say that again: there are cherry blossoms in South Korea between March and April. In Seoul specifically, you can spot them around the city here and there, but the best spot to view the cherry blossoms is in Seoul Forest.
If you venture away from Seoul, go to Busan and take the bus from the Seobu Intercity Bus Terminal for a day trip to Jinhae. It's only an hour away and magical. However, be prepared for huge crowds of people who are also there to see the same phenomenon as you. Make sure you visit the Romance Bridge and the abandoned Gyeonghwa Station where the blossoms have overrun an old Korail train and covered the railway tracks.
8. Experience Seoul's history and cultural sites
These are the must-visit attractions in order to do justice to Seoul's history and South Korean culture. Here are my suggested itineraries and all sites are doable in one day as I have grouped together those in close proximity for maximum convenience. You're welcome.
Jongmyo Shrine (It's a very sacred place and can only be visited as part of a tour. There are frequent tours available in English, so just turn up and wait a few minutes for the next tour.)
Bukchon Hanok Village (Set aside time to walk around here, maybe even stay for lunch. It's very popular and picturesque and you can hire traditional clothes to wear as well if you want.)
Tip: Most of these sites have minimal entry fees, so take some cash for the day.
Namdaemun Market (Korea's largest traditional market. Hit up the food alleys for something different i.e. spicy food.)
Namsan Cable Car
N Seoul Tower (Can also be reached via cable car. Just do it.)
Insa-dong (Souvenirs galore and local craft stores - the main stretch of road is pedestrian-only.)
Cheonggye Plaza.... which leads to
Cheonggyecheon Stream (Lovely. Walk the entire length of the stream - it's worth it. Don't be afraid to dip your feet or hands in the water and get on the rocks for photos, everyone does it. Exit near Dongdaemun Gate.)
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
DongDaemun Market (There are a lot of shops and factory outlets near the design plaza - you can spend many hours going around the multi-storey shopping towers.)
9. General areas of interest to check out
Gangnam and Apgujeong Rodeo Street
Seoul Forest(There's deers... need I say more? It's not a forest, it's a very large park that is very well maintained and super popular with locals.)
Common Ground(A shopping centre with local fashion outlets built entirely out of blue shipping containers.)
Garosu-gil (High-fashion shopping)
Hongdae and Hongik University area (A 'hipster' area)
Itaewon area (Very tourist-friendly with restaurants, bars and shops. This former red-light district had a rep as a place where US soldiers would go to misbehave, but now it's trendy.)
Myeongdong (Shopping, shopping and more shopping. And street food vendors.)
Some Sevit and Banpo Bridge (There's a great rainbow light show off Banpo Bridge around 8pm nightly. For something different, hire a little lantern boat on the pier and venture along the Han River for a better view of the complex. Best viewed after sunset.)
Lotte World (A big amusement park. Very popular with locals.)
10. For the K-pop enthusiasts...
Head to Myeongdong. Particularly check out the SMTOWN pop-up and YG Place store within the Lotte Department Store, the various shops in the Underground Mall and dine at YG Republique - although it's super pricey. Visit SMTOWN at Coex Artium (and COEX Mall in general).
Lotte El Cube in Garosu-gil has an entire top floor dedicated to K-pop. There's also YG's PBA in Itaewon, Big Bang Seungri's And Here cafe in Jongno or dozens of Aori Ramen chains around Seoul and AOMG's Cafe Dudart in Apgujeong. You can also watch a K-Live concert at the Lotte FitIn Dongdaemun store. Your favourite star/group/company probably owns restaurants or cafes around Seoul, too, but if you're a fan, you probably knew that already.
Images: Barbara Lima and Getty Images