Five hours? That is actually enough for a city tour! And more! I immediately came up with an express tour in my head. I told her I knew Seoul very well, and getting around the city using only the public transport would be a breeze with nary a scare of even getting lost. When I told her I was better than any professional tour guide in the city, she knew I wasn't bluffing. Ha-ha-ha!
(A sleeping ajussi at the bus stop)
So, on a cool, spring Saturday morning in Itaewon, I waited for her Airport Limousine Bus Number 6030, which was the bus number I told her to take. Yes, of all places in Seoul, Maria's tour starts in Itaewon. Why? Because I live in the neighborboring Hannam-dong, which is less than ten minutes by bus from Itaewon. Plus, Itaewon is in every tourist's itinerary considering this place is a hot spot for shopping, dining and clubbing. But when she arrived at about 7:30AM, Maria saw a sleepy Itaewon with its shops and restaurants still closed. Aside from me, a sleeping, drunk ajussi was at the bus stop to welcome her, too. Ha-ha-ha!
(Welcome to Itaewon!)
(The NSeoul Tower from afar!)
And as we walked along the main Itaewon street, Maria went window-shopping on our way to the elevated walkway overlooking Nam-san at NSeoul Tower. Yes, on her first few minutes, Maria already had a picture with the NSeoul Tower! (A couple of hours later, she would be up there!)
(Window-shopping in Itaewon!)
After strolling around the area, we made a quick stop at a 24-hour fast food chain to get her a cup of coffee. This international traveler still hadn't gotten enough sleep from her red-eye flight from Manila and caffeine should help kick start her system. We weren't eating there as Maria told me she wanted a real Korean breakfast. We had to look for a Korean restaurant that's open this early!
(Waiting for the bus to Gangnam!)(The Blue Bus 421 and a tourist
crossing the Han River)
(Crossing my neighborhood bridge,
the Hannam Bridge)
From Itaewon, we took the Blue Bus 421 which crossed the Han River. And on her first hour in Seoul, Maria was already in the middle of Gangnam!. We alighted right next to the Gangnam Station, where there were already a lot of people walking around in their weekend get-up. After strolling from one side of the huge Gangnam avenue, we went down under the Gangnam Station's underground shopping, which is a labyrinth full of shops! But at this time, sadly, Maria wasn't able to shop as they were still closed!
(An empty shopping arcade!)
We came out at Exit 11 of the Gangnam Station where Psy's silhouette dancing Gangnam Style! welcomed Maria to, where else? Gangnam! Gangnam, which literally means 'south of the river', has the priciest pieces of real estate in the country. The Gangnam area is composed of three districts: Gangnam-su, Seocho-gu and Songap-gu, and Maria stood, not just in Gangnam-gu, but right at the Gangnam Station, where the most expensive commercial spaces are!
(The small alleys around Gangnam!)
Finally, a Korean breakfast!
And after a dancing welcome from Psy, we strolled at the back alleys of the Gangnam area and chanced upon a 24-hour kimbap place! How lucky we were! Maria could now enjoy a real Korean meal! I introduced Maria to my favorite Korean duo: cheese ramyeon and kimbap. These two are perhaps the fastest dishes to make and even faster to enjoy since we were under time pressure!
(Cheese ramyeon and kimbap with tea
and biscuits from Harrods in London
as presents from Maria!)
The hot broth and its mild spiciness filling the bowl of ramyeon (noodles) mixed with scrambled egg and blanketed with a slice of cheddar cheese; the slices of tuna kimbap; and slices of another kimbap enveloped in egg omelette were a perfect introduction to Korean cuisine for Maria. She loved it! This was my first time to even eat kimbap in the Gangnam area, although I have enjoyed a few dishes in this area such as buddae-jiggae and pasta.
(Maria taking a photograph of the
(A happy tourist enjoying a Korean breakfast in Gangnam!)
We tried to take our photographs at one of the media poles along the main street in Gangnam, but the camera didn't work. Oh, well.
(Maria with the Gangnam buildings)
National Theater of Korea!
Our tummies now full, we headed to the Gangnam bus station to cross the river again and back to the norther side of Seoul. We took the Blue Bus 420, which took us to the National Theater of Korea that sits on the eastern side of the Nam-san (Mt. Nam), the geographical center of Seoul. From this area, we waited for the yellow buses that go up to the Seoul Tower.
(Maria at the National Theater of Korea plaza with the NSeoul Tower at the background)
going up Namsan)
If Maria had arrived a few weeks later, she would have seen the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Nam-san. But with or without cherry blossoms, the NSeoul Tower is also part of every tourist's itinerary. I could not remember how many times I have gone up this mountain either by bus or on foot. The first time I went up I was tourist, but after I few times more, I'd go up the mountain to exercise my legs. On this day, I went up no longer a tourist, but as a tour guide. Ha-ha-ha!
(Finally, Maria is on Nam-san!)
When our electric bus arrived at the NSeoul Tower, we were surprised that there were already lots of international tourists enjoying the view. We decided not go up the tower as the lines may be long at the elevator entrance and again, we were roaming the city on a strict time schedule. So, after walking around and posing, it was time to go down the mountain!
(The electric yellow Namsan bus)
(Maria riding the bus going down the mountain)
The yellow bus from NSeoul Tower dropped us off at the first stop on the main Namsan road, the Yongsan Library. There, we took the Blue Bus 402 (or Blue Bus 405) that brought us to the Namdaemun Market. On our way to the market, we passed by and saw Sungnyemun or Namdaemun, the ancient south gate of the old Seoul, which just recently opened to the public. And on her brief visit to Seoul, Maria was able to see Korea's National Treasure No. 1! Yes, not number two or ten or 20, but the treasure numero uno!
(With the Sungnyemun at the background)
We walked through the alleys of Namdaemun Market and had a look-see at the shops selling Korean souvenirs, posters of K-pop stars, clothes and ginseng tea! But after getting some Korean snacks as presents to bring back to London, we just had to get something specially yummy in Namdaemun Market.
(With Korean delicacies!)
After that cheese ramyeon and kimbap in Gangnam, we needed dessert! And we were in the perfect place to have one. Hotteok! This pan fried Korean delicacy is very popular in the Namdaemun Market. Who can resist a mini-pancake, inside of which is cinnamon, melted sugar and sliced nuts? Each bite of warm hotteok dripping of sweet cinnamon syrup is an experience not to be missed by any tourist!
(Enjoying a freshly fried hotteok!)
We were still on schedule even as we had visited already a lot of tourist spots!
(On Myeong-dong's cosmetics lane)
By this time, we already had crossed the river to Gangnam, danced Gangnam Style, had a Korean breakfast, gone up the mountain, had dessert and bought Korean snacks. So, what other fun thing that was left to do? Shop! We then just walked from the Namdaemun Market towards the Shinsegae Department store and crossed over to the Myeong-dong area, where, by this time, shops were already open and ready to welcome Maria!
(With her shopping bag)
After dropping by a few shops in Myeong-dong, we walked up the steps of the Myeong-dong Cathedral. Maria and I being Catholics, we just had to make a quick visit to the biggest Catholic church in Korea to say a few prayers of thanks for all this fun (and food and dessert and shopping!) on a Saturday morning!
After her prayers were heard by the heavens, Maria was now ready to head back to the airport to catch her final leg back to London. We just grabbed a cab from that other Myeong-dong entrance near the cathedral to get to the Seoul Station.
(The old Seoul Station at the background)
The Seoul Station is a major hub for the KTX express trains that ferry passengers to the other parts of the country. During major Korean holidays, this station swarms with passengers eager to join their families back in the provinces. And today, there was one more. Ha-ha-ha!
The Airport Express Train!
At the Seoul Station, one can get an express train going back to the Incheon International Airport. I took this train a few years back on my way to Seoul. I suggested that Maria took this train, too, to get her back to the airport in just 43 minutes!
But I wondered. My express train ticket back then cost me KRW13,300 from the airport to Seoul, but Maria's express ticket only cost her KRW 3,950! That's not fare, er, fair!
Maria was able to take the express train that left before 12:30PM and arrived at the Incheon International Airport with enough time for some duty-free shopping before her 2:30PM flight to London!
By this time, she must be shaking off her jetlag while having her English tea at her Kensington apartment, while I enjoy the presents that she left, Harrod's tea and biscuits, in my home in Hannam-dong.
Without Maria visiting Seoul, I wouldn't have challenged myself to find out how many places one could visit and enjoy within five hectic hours. But with the help of Seoul's efficient transport system, Maria and I found out that one could actually squeeze in a lot of sightseeing, dining and shopping in half a day's time!
You can just imagine where she could have gone, what she could have shopped for and what Korean cuisine she could have enjoyed...if Maria had the whole day!
* * * * *
Here's a summary of Maria's five-hour stopover in Seoul:
1. Take Airport Bus No. 6030 from Incheon International Airport to Itaewon in Seoul
2. Arrive in Itaewon and sightsee around
3. Take Blue Bus 421 (bus stop is next to McDonald's Itaewon) and get off at Gangnam Station bus stop (there will be an announcement on the bus when it reaches the Gangnam Station bus stop)
4. Arrive at Gangnam Station bus stop
5. At Gangnam, visit Psy's spot near Exit 11, have breakfast and sightsee
6. From Gangnam, take Blue Bus 420 (the direction is towards back to the Han River, where you came from) and get off at National Theater of Korea at Namsan
7. Visit National Theater of Korea grounds
8. Take any Yellow Bus (number 02, 03, or 05) to go up to Seoul Tower (wait for the bus stop at National Theater; be prepared for a standing-room only bus)
9. Sightsee at Seoul Tower (don't go up the Seoul Tower as the queue will take a long time)
10. Take any Yellow Bus to go down to the Yongsan Library bus (the 1st stop at the Namsan main road) and wait for Blue Bus 402, or 405, and get off at Namdaemun Market
11. Sightsee and enjoy hotteok at Namdaemun Market
12. Walk towards Myeongdong (about 8 minutes)
13. Sightsee and quick shopping at Myeongdong
14. Visit Myeongdong Cathedral
15. Take cab from the main street near Myeongdong Catheral to go back to Seoul Station
16. Sightsee outside the old Seoul Station
17. Go inside the NEW Seoul Station and go to the Airport Railroad Express station at the other end of the Seoul Station (follow the arrows)
18. Buy express ticket going to Incheon Airport (express trains are faster due to limited stops)
19. Have fun!
IMPORTANT: Make sure you incorporate in your travel time going back to the airport the following: train schedule, train ride, x-ray security check at Incheon, Immigration check and walking time towards your boarding gate.
I HIGHLY suggest you should be on the airport express train on the way back to Incheon Airport at least TWO (2) HOURS before your BOARDING TIME to allow an hour for the train ride, and another to get through the long queue at the airport security and Immigration.
MAKE SURE your watch, or smartphone clock, is synchronized with the local time in Korea!