KOREA ON A BUDGET: Seoul Travel Guide 2017

Some countries change your life even before you set foot in it.

One lazy day at the university, I was chillin’ with friends at the lobby of our college building when the College Secretary approached us. “I’m looking for volunteers,” she said. Apparently, exchange students from Korea had arrived way earlier than expected. She needed people who could tour them around the campus while they were preparing whatever it was they were preparing. Bored af, I was first to raise a hand.

Many of these exchange students became good friends of mine. They were my first foreign friends.

At the time, my brother was coincidentally working at a factory near Seoul. The computer that I relied on in college was a product of his hard work there. (Katas ng Korea, sabi nga nila.) This also means that every now and then, we would receive a package bursting with Korean products, which would then fill our living room racks and kitchen drawers.

After graduation, my first job was with a Korean company that brought Korean students to the Philippines to learn English. So yes, my first boss, the first person who believed in my skills as a worker, was Korean.

South Korea had already changed my life way before I set foot in it. So when I finally did, it felt wonderful. It felt like I was giving thanks. But yeah, the whole time, I was grateful.

 

Guards at the Gyeongbokgung Palace

Understanding Seoul

The political and economic center of South Korea, Seoul is home to almost 12 million residents. The larger Seoul Capital Area (Sudogwon), which includes neighboring Incheon and Gyeonggi-do, houses 25.6 million people (half of the country’s population), making it the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world, after Tokyo, Shanghai, and Jakarta.

Like most capital cities in East Asia, Seoul is pulsating with curiosities. Think of it as a younger but more tamed Tokyo. Everywhere you go, there’s always something interesting to find even in a random neighborhood. A regular cafe (often located next to another cafe across another cafe) displays how many calories are in your order for the benefit of the weight health-conscious in you. If you’re feeling a bit offbeat, walk into a cat cafe to indulge the animal-lover in you or a toilet-themed one to satiate your appetite for humor. And that’s just the coffee shops!

Seoul is also known for its obsession to beauty, something that became apparent as soon as I passed by half-dozen cosmetic shops after only two minutes of walking. (I LOVE IT. Here, I could step into a cosmetic store without anyone giving me judging stares.) But their constant quest for physical perfection isn’t limited to beauty products. Almost everything here looks pretty! Street food looks gourmet, university grounds are tourist spots, and historical sites are well-preserved!

  • Language: Korean. English is getting increasingly common. Most signs have English translations.
  • Currency: South Korean Won (KRW, ₩). KRW 1000 is roughly USD 0.85, EUR 0.8, PHP 42.62 (as of Jan 2017).
  • Modes of payment: Many establishments accept credit cards, but most still prefer cash.
  • Electricity Info: 220 volts. Plugs have two round pins.

 

How to Get to Seoul

If you’re a Filipino citizen, you’ll need a visa. Here’s how to get a Korea visa.

Seoul is served by two airports: Incheon International Airport (ICN) and Gimpo International Airport (GMP). Gimpo is used primarily for domestic and a few international flights (mostly from China, Japan, and Taiwan). Incheon, on the other hand, is used by most international flights. It is the largest and the primary gateway to South Korea. Gimpo is much closer, just 30 minutes away from Central Seoul, while Incheon is roughly an hour away by train or 1.5 hours by bus.

If you’re coming from Southeast Asia, the cheapest flights to Incheon are offered by low-cost carriers. The lowest rates are often from Manila. AirAsia has the lowest year-round fares and they get even lower when there’s a promo. Here’s a quick search on SkyScanner.

Manila to Incheon (Seoul)

Kuala Lumpur to Incheon (Seoul)

 

Where to Stay in Seoul

Seoul has three major backpacking districts: Jongno, Myeongdong and Hongdae. Which is the best? Well, I hate answering with “It depends,” I would have to say “It depends.” Haha. All these areas are close to major tourist stops, so it will depend on which of these attractions you will visit. But here’s a quick summary.

  • Myeongdong. Seoul’s main shopping district, dotted with boutiques and department stores. Close to Myeongdong Shopping Street and Namdaemun Market. If you love shopping, stay here. Check rates of Myeongdong hotels here.
  • Hongdae-Sinchon. Seoul’s university belt. This place is driven by Seoul’s youth culture, nurturing a more romantic and underground atmosphere. Lots of creative and quirky shops and food places. Close to: Hongik University Street, Hongik Mural Street, and Ehwa Women’s University. If you’re a foodie, stay here. Check rates of Hongdae hotels here.
  • Jongno. Seoul’s historic core. Its map is littered with shrines, temples, and other traditional sites. In fact, four of the city’s five grand palaces can be found in Jongno. It is also where the Bukchon Hanok Village, Gwangjang Market, and Insa-dong are located. If it’s your first time in Seoul, stay here. Check rates of Jongno hotels here.

I have experienced staying in all three districts, and I personally prefer Jongno. There’s just so much to see and explore within walking distance.

Here are the hostels and a hotel that I have tried. (I will write a separate post with more detailed reviews soon.)

Fully Hong Hostel

Aka Fully Guesthouse. Located in Jongno. Tidy rooms, and excellent service. Perfect if you’re also interested to meet other travelers. Location couldn’t be any better: Seoul’s key historic sites are all within walking distance. Easily accessible from the airport.

How to get there from Incheon Airport: Board Bus 6002 at Gate 5B or 12A and alight at Jong-no 3ga station.

Rates: We paid KRW 58,000 (USD 49.6, EUR 46.4, PHP 2470) per night for a twin room.

Check updated rates here
Pencil Guesthouse Twin Room

Hongdae Pencil Guesthouse

Located just one block from Hongik University Station (Exit 3) and a short walk from Hongdae University Street. Lots of great but cheap food places and convenience stores around. Room given to us was neat and properly maintained. Common areas were a bit small, but during my stay, they were never crowded. Staff wasn’t as friendly as I am used to, but still okay. Overall, pleasant experience.

How to get there from Incheon Airport: Board Bus 6002 at Gate 5B or 12A and alight at Hongik University Station.

Rates: We paid KRW 68,000 (USD 58, EUR 54, PHP 2900) per night for a twin room.

Check updated rates here

Namsan City Hotel Twin Room

Namsan City Hotel in Myeongdong

I don’t normally stay at hotels, but when I saw that the cost wasn’t that far from hostels, I decided to give it a try. It’s a limited-service hotel but a legit hotel nonetheless. The room I was given was small but super clean and had hotel quality beds (because, again, it’s a hotel, haha). Myeongdong Shopping Street is just a walk away, albeit a long one. But it’s just one station away by subway, which is convenient because Namsan City Hotel stands just a few meters from Exit 3 of Hoehyeon Station.
How to get there from Incheon Airport: By bus. Board Bus 6015 at Gate 5B or 11B and alight at Namdaemun Market. Walk across the market and you’ll find the hotel on the other side of the road. You can also reach it easily by train. Just ride the Airport Railway Express (AREX) train to Seoul Station, transfer to Line 4 and get off at Hoehyeon Station. Take Exit 3.

Rates: We paid KRW 78,700 (USD 67, EUR 63, PHP 3355) per night for a twin room.

Check updated rates or book here

For more hotel options, you can search below:

 

How to Get from Incheon Airport to Seoul City Center

There are three modes of transportation available: train, bus, and taxi. Taxis will be much more expensive let’s not discuss that. Haha.

The fastest option. The Airport Railroad Express (AREX) EXPRESS Train. Emphasis on EXPRESS because there are two types (Express and ALL STOP, which I will discuss below. The Express Train usually costs ₩14,800, but I think discounted rates are still in effect, which is only ₩8000 for adults and ₩6900 for children. Travel time is 43 minutes.

The cheapest option. AREX ALL STOP Train. Will stop at all 12 stations before arriving at Seoul Station. It’s 15 minutes slower (travel time: 58 minutes), but costs only ₩4250.

The easiest option. By bus, if your hotel is close to one of the many bus stops scattered throughout the city. I say it’s easiest because there is no need to switch trains. I personally prefer this method because I despise transferring to another train line when I have 20+++ kilos of baggage on my back. The good news is, the three main backpacking districts in Seoul have their own bus stops! Here are the buses you need to catch:

  • JONGNO: Bus 6002 (at Gate 5B or 12A). Get off at Jongno 1, 2, 3,4,5, or 6, whichever is closest to your hostel/hotel. Last bus: 11:30pm. Fare: ₩10,000.
  • HONGDAE: Bus 6002 (at Gate 5B or 12A). Get off at Hongik University Station. Last bus: 11:30pm. Fare: ₩10,000.
  • MYEONGDONG: Bus 6015 (at Gate 5B or 11B). Get off at Myeongdong Station. Last bus: 10:50pm. Fare: ₩15,000.

If your hotel is closer to a subway station than the bus station, then take the train instead.

The changing of the guards at the Gyeongbokgung Palace

 

How to Get Around Seoul

You’ll find Seoul an extremely walkable city. Walk when you can. If you’re staying in Jongno, most historic attractions are within walking distance of each other. Otherwise, there’s always the subway, which makes Seoul-searching a walk in the park.

Seoul’s expansive subway system is the third largest in the world. It consists of 14 lines criss-crossing underneath the vibrant city. It looks intimidating when you look at it, but it’s actually pretty easy to get the hang of. It uses cards that require a ₩500 deposit, which can be refunded after the ride.

Before the trip, I encourage you to download a FREE app called Subway Korea. It is available for iOS and Android. Here’s how to use it.

  1. Open the app. You will be greeted by Seoul’s complicated subway map.
  2. Find your station of origin and tap it. It will reveal options. Choose Departs From.
  3. Find your destination station and tap it. Choose Arrives at.
  4. Choose between the route that will get you there fastest and the route that will make the fewest stops.

It will then tell you the following:

  • The estimated travel time (top of the screen)
  • Number of stops (top of the screen)
  • Fare (bottom, in green)
  • The recommended route

Here’s how to use Seoul’s subway system.

  1. Find a single journey traffic card ticket machine at the station.
  2. Select your destination.
  3. Select the number of tickets.
  4. Insert payment + refundable deposit of ₩500.
  5. Collect the single journey traffic card that will be released.
  6. After your ride, you can get the ₩500 deposit from one of the payment return machines at your destination.

Each station stems into several routes that lead to exits that are far apart. Check the map displayed near the gates to make sure you’re taking the right exit. Often, signs leading to key tourist attractions are found around the station. Also, when walking inside train stations, keep right.

There are prepaid cards available at every station, too. One of the most popular is the T-Money Card. It will save you ₩100 per ride, which isn’t much, but it’s convenient because you don’t need to get a ticket every single time. Another great thing about it is its coverage. You can use it on trains AND buses in many cities including Seoul and even Busan. Just make sure you load it with just enough credit so you don’t need to worry about getting a refund.

Left: Vins at Bukchon Hanok Village; Right: an animal playing around at teh Seoul TrickEye Museum in Hongdae. With a panda.

 

Places to Visit in Seoul

Below are some of the tourist attractions in the city and the nearest subway station.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, the grandest among the city’s five important palaces.
Admission fee: Adults (19-64yo) ₩3,000, Youths (7-18yo) ₩1,500.
Nearest station: Gyeongbokgung Palace (Line 3, Exit 5)
Changdeokgung Palace, a well-preserved royal villa that has been standing for more than six centuries.
Admission fee: Adults (19-64yo) ₩3,000, Youths (7-18yo) ₩1,500.
Nearest station: Anguk (Line 3)
Bukchon Hanok Village harbors traditional houses called hanok, the history of which can be traced back to the Joseon Dynasty. Many of these houses also function as restaurants and shops.
Entrance Fee: FREE
Nearest station: Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 1 or 2)
Gwangjang Market. Built in 1905, it is Seoul’s oldest traditional daily marketplace. It’s mostly a food market so make sure you’re hungry when you visit.
Entrance Fee: FREE
Nearest stations: Jongno 5-ga Station (Line 1, Exit 8) or Euljiro 4-ga Station (Lines 2 or 5, Exit 4)
Gangnam. Prior to the global success of PSY’s Gangnam Style, Gangnam has always been popular among locals for social gatherings and events.
Admission Fee: FREE
Nearest station: Gangnam (Line 2, Exit 10 or 11)
Myeongdong, one of Seoul’s main shopping districts! If you’re after branded clothes, mid-range restaurants, cosmetic products, and all sorts of street food, this is the place for you.
Admission Fee: FREE
Nearest station: Myeongdong (Line 4, Exit 6).
Ewha Women’s University. Founded in 1886, it is Korea’s first educational institute for women. The area around it is a popular shopping destination, too. You’ll find a whole bunch of accessories and footwear, and quirky apparel. Since they cater to students (mostly), prices are much friendlier!
Entrance Fee: FREE
Nearest station: Ewha Womans University Station (Line 2, Exit 2 or 3)
Hongdae. The epicenter of Seoul’s youth culture, it is a place for many students’ self-expression. Lots of creative shops and quirky food places. Visit on a Saturday, when the Hongdae Free Market comes to life. It is a flea market that offers some unique items that are often handcrafted by young student artists.
Entrance Fee: FREE
Nearest Station: Hongik University (Line 2, Exit 9)

Other Attractions:

  • Everland is Korea’s largest theme park.
    Admission Fee: Adults, ₩52,000; Children, ₩41,000.
    Nearest Station: Jeondae-Everland (Yongin EverLine, Exit 3).
  • Lotte World is another theme park that is great for kids.
    Admission Fee: Adults, ₩52,000; Teens, ₩45,000; Children, ₩41,000.
    Nearest Station: Jamsil (Line 2, 8; Exit 4)
  • N Seoul Tower, the city’s iconic skyscraper that allows breathtaking views of the city. It also has a revolving restaurant. It’s accessible by bus, but a scenic approach is by cable car. The boarding station is located 15 minutes from Myeongdong Station (Line 4, Exit 3). Just walk down the street on the right side of Pacific Hotel and you’ll find it soon after.
    Admission Fee: Adults, ₩10,000; Children, ₩8,000.

 

Where to Shop in Seoul

Aside from Myeongdong and Hongdae:

  • Dongdaemun Market. Everything fashion, from the trendiest fabrics to bridal wear. Composed of 26 shopping malls scattered around 5 blocks, housing 50,000 different manufacturers and 30,000 specialty shops. Although best known for wholesale, retail is also alive here.
    Nearest Station: Dongdaemun Stadium (Line 2, 4 or 5)
  • Namdaemun Market. The oldest and the biggest traditional market in Korea, this 400yo shopping mecca houses 10,200 stores across 66,000 sq. m. You’ll find all sort of products here, from clothes to kitchenware to electronics.
    Nearest station: Hwehyeon (Line 4, Exit 5)
  • Insadong. Great if you’re looking for traditional souvenirs such as artworks, ceramics, paper goods, or if you want to try some of its traditional teahouses. If you can, visit on a Sunday, when they close off the road from vehicular traffic.
    Nearest station: Jonggak Station (Line 1, Exit 3)
More info here: 8 Shopping Places in Seoul

 

Day Tour Destinations from Seoul

Many other attractions outside Seoul Capital Area are easily accessible. Here are some of the most popular.

Nami Island
  • Nami Island, a half-moon shaped island in the middle of the Han River in Chuncheon. It became the final resting place of General Nami, a well-known historical figure during Joseon Dynasty. Foreigners are most familiar with it as the filming location of Winter Sonata, a Korean TV series (koreanovela) that became a hit all over Asia.
    How to get to Nami Island: Travel by train to Gapyeong Station. Walk or take a cab from the station to the ferry wharf, where you can buy tickets to the island. You can also travel by bus. Catch the shuttle bus in Insadong (near the West Gate of Tapgol Park) or Sungnyemun Square Bus Stop in front of Namdaemun Market. Bus leaves at 9:30am. Roundtrip fare is ₩15,000. You can reserve a bus seat by emailing bus@naminara.com or calling +82-2-753-1247.
    Entrance Fee: ₩8,000 for foreigners.

  • Boryeong, a port city located 3 hours from Seoul, is most famous for the Boryeong Mud Festival, which happens in July. Koreans sometimes refer to the place as Daecheon because the present-day Boryeong is a merger between Daecheon City and Boryeong-gun. Hemmed in by the waters of the Yellow Sea in the west, it is a popular summer destination, with Daecheon Beach as a top place to visit. During the festival, giant inflatable slides, a performance stage, and other attractions are set up along Daecheon Beach, where all the fun happens.
    How to get there: From Seoul, take the train/subway/metro to Yongmun Station, where you will board a Korail train to Daecheon Station. The Korail train ride takes 2 hours and 40 minutes and costs ₩11,700.
  • Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA). Learn more about the Korean War and how these places came to be. Some of the stops are Imjingak Park, the Bridge of No Return, the DMZ Museum, the Third Infiltration Tunnel, and other places in Panmunjom. You can also take a glimpse of North Korea from the Dora Observatory. Tour rates range from USD 120-250, depending on the itinerary. DMZ and JSA tours are also offered separately if you want to see just one. Often, reservations have to be made at least 3 days in advance.
  • The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival is a must if your trip falls in late January. Join the many icy activities like ice fishing, ice sledding, and seeing ice sculpture exhibits. Day tours are usually at USD45.
A pond inside the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds

 

Sample Seoul Itinerary and Breakdown of Expenses

Below is a sample 5-day/4-night Seoul itinerary. This assumes the following:

  • You are a group of two.
  • You will be staying in a twin room at Fully Hong Hostel.
  • You will be using a T-Money card (T-Card).
  • Your meal allowance is limited to only ₩5000 for breakfast and ₩15000 for lunch and dinner. It’s actually too much for me considering that you will find a bowl of delicious bibimbap for only ₩5000. But I think it’s better to overestimate so let’s leave it at ₩15,000. I’m not a breakfast person, either. But fine, let’s still include breakfast for good measure.

Just make necessary adjustments to match your needs.

Pre-trip expenses
Hotel booking – ₩116,000 (₩58,000 x 4 nights divided by 2pax)

Day 1: ARRIVAL + GYEONGBOKGUNG
01:00pm – Airport to Jongno-3ga – ₩4150 + ₩1250
02:20pm – Check in at hostel
03:00pm – Gyeongbokgung Palace – ₩3000
06:30pm – Cheonggyecheon Stream
08:00pm – Gwangjang Market – ₩15,000 budget
10:30pm – Sleep!

Day 2: ANGUK AREA + MYEONGDONG
08:00am – Wake up
09:00am – Grab breakfast – ₩5000
09:30am – Bukchon Hanok Village
11:30am – Lunch – ₩15,000
01:00pm – Changdeokgung Palace – ₩3000
06:00pm – Subway to Myeongdong – ₩1250
06:20pm – Dinner – ₩15,000 budget
09:30pm – Back to Hotel

Day 3: NAMI ISLAND
07:00am – Wake up
08:00am – Grab breakfast – ₩5000
08:30am – Subway to Gapyeong Station – ₩2250
10:00am – Taxi to ferry wharf – ₩3000
10:20am – Buy ferry ticket – ₩8000
10:50pm – Explore Nami Island
01:30pm – Lunch – ₩15,000 budget
02:30pm – Continue exploring Nami Island
04:00pm – Ferry back
04:30pm – Taxi back to Gapyeong Station – ₩3000
05:00pm – Subway back to city – ₩2250
06:30pm – Dinner – ₩15,000 budget
09:00pm – Sleep

Day 4: HONGDAE & SINCHON
09:00am – Wake up
10:00am – Brunch + Insadong – ₩15,000 budget
01:00pm – Subway to Ewha Women’s University – ₩1250
01:30pm – Ewha Women’s University
02:30pm – Subway to Hongik University – ₩1250
02:45pm – Seoul Trick Eye Museum – ¥15,000
05:00pm – Explore Hongdae
08:00pm – Dinner – ₩15,000 budget
10:30pm – Back to hotel – ₩1250

Day 5: PACK UP + DEPARTURE
Train back to Airport – ₩5400

This itinerary will cost you ₩286,300 (USD 244, EUR 228, PHP 12,170), excluding the airfare.

You can still bring down the cost by staying in a dorm (and there are great options in the city), skipping the Trick Eye Museum (it’s not really unique to Seoul), or cutting down on your food budget (Please don’t. Korean food is awesome!)

If you’re coming from Manila and you’re able to snag PHP7700 fare, the total cost of this trip is PHP 19,870.

For my first trip, I got my plane tickets from a SEAT SALE and paid only PHP 6000, hehe. Add the travel tax (which was being collected separately at the time) and the total is pretty much the same.

 

Other Tips for the Poor Traveler

  • Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung are the best palaces, but if you’re interested to explore more + Jongmyo Shrine, get an Integrated Palace Pass. If you buy individual tickets, the total will be at ₩14,000 but the palace pass is only ₩10,000.
  • Walk when you can. Like I said, Seoul is very walkable and you’ll discover something along the way. In the itinerary above, I included the fare for the subway ride from Ewha University to Hongik University, but in reality I just walked. I also never used the subway to go around the Jongno area.
  • Get a T-Card. It will save you ₩100 for every ride. But I said that already.
  • If you’re on a really tight budget, you can skip restaurants altogether and just eat at Gwangjang Market (considerably cheaper) or munch on street food because they’re pretty tasty too. But if you can afford it, spend! For me, Korean cuisine is one of the best in the world! I’m salivating right now just typing this. (Sorry about the mental image.) Hahaha.

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  • James Russ Ferrer

    Thank you for generous people like you!! this is very informative and helpful

  • Divine Gonzales

    Is it true that there is one card that you can you purchase then it will allow you to enter most of the tourist attractions? Like it’s valid for 24 hours. I heard something like that. Can you help me?

  • Rob

    South Korea is great. Thanks for the guide and cool pics of their traditional parade.

  • mike

    Planning to explore the area around Ewha and Hongdae when visiting Seoul soon! How long does it take to walk from Hongdae to Ehwa?

    • It’s gonna be a long walk, probably 40 minutes to an hour, if I remember correctly. You can take the subway. Hongdae is just 2 stops away from Ewha.