An overnight stay in South Korea might sound more like a layover than an actual vacation. But it was what made a recent trip to Seoul with my sister Kristine, our first together overseas, unique and memorable.
Being the well-travelled one of two siblings, Kristine had been to South Korea thrice this year alone. Our trip was her birthday gift for me, her ate (elder sister); she wanted me to also experience the charm and magic of “BTS Country.”
But while BTS, Asia’s biggest boy band, is a huge tourist-drawer along with other K-pop artists and the K-drama series, there’s a lot more about South Korea—its history, art, language, cuisine, architecture, fashion and beauty—that the world has grown to love.
It’s no surprise then that South Korea is a popular travel destination among Filipinos, even if getting a visa can be quite a challenge.
Grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given, I was intent on making every minute of my short stay in Seoul count. (We decided on a short trip so as not to be away from home too long.)
Many airlines offer direct flights from Manila to Seoul, but Cebu Pacific’s red-eye flight best fit into our schedule. We arrived early on Sunday (6:30 a.m. Korea time, 30 minutes ahead of ETA) at the Incheon International Airport. Immigration took almost an hour because of an unusually long queue.
After being cleared, we claimed the unlimited 4G pocket Wifi my sister booked with Klook for our trip. Its designated counter is in Terminal 1’s arrival area. We then headed to the airport transport center to get on the Airport Railroad Express Train (Arex), which takes you to Seoul Station in 40 minutes. Aside from being the fastest, it’s also the most convenient way to get to downtown Seoul. You’re guaranteed a seat, unlike the all-stop train, and offers free WiFi, toilets, and luggage compartments.
Seoul Station is a central transportation hub servicing the highest number of passengers in South Korea. Aside from Arex, it’s the main station for the high-speed KTX trains and three Seoul subway lines. A taxi bay right out front is an added convenience.
Around the station are restaurants and stores. A tourist favorite is the Lotte Zettaplex, where a wide variety of products including Korean food items can be purchased tax-free. Instant tax refund may be had at the cashiers upon payment provided you have your passport with you. (The store is closed every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month.)
Seoul Station is huge! After asking for directions, we finally found the escalator leading to the subway station and the underground passage that directly connects to Four Points by Sheraton, our hotel for the night. We took Exit 12 of the subway and made our way to the lift on basement 2 of the hotel building (a walk of about 15 minutes).
We got to the hotel’s main lobby on the 19th floor at around 10 a.m. Check-in is not until 3 p.m. Not to waste any time, we freshened up, left our luggage with the hotel’s free storage service, and were off to our first destination.
It took us under five minutes by cab to get to Cheonggye Plaza at the starting point of the westernmost side of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. (Taxi is the fastest way to get around Seoul. It was our preferred mode of transport during our trip. We booked rides through the UT (Uber + Tmap) app.)
The Cheonggyecheon Stream is a public park built along the Cheonggyecheon River that runs from east to west through the heart of Seoul. It is hard to believe that it used to be more of a sewer than a stream hidden beneath a highway before it was restored in 2005. Described as a “human-centered, ecological-friendly urban area,” it is now one of Seoul’s significant landmarks.
Exploring the Cheonggyecheon Stream from end to end would entail a long hike, and we had neither the time nor the stamina required. So we took a nice stroll along the stream, just within the vicinity of the plaza, to soak up the calming sights and sounds around us—the rushing falls that meet the silently running water, the walkways and bridges, walls adorned with pots of colorful flowers, the stepping stones across the stream, and the pigeons that occasionally greet visitors.
If Cheonggyecheon Stream is an oasis amid high-rises, Bukchon Hanok Village is ancient Korea nestled at the core of present-day Seoul. It is an actual neighborhood on a hilly area that is home to hundreds of well-preserved hanok or traditional houses dating back to the Joseon dynasty.
Walking through a maze of narrow streets between rows of houses reminiscent of a bygone era is a wondrous experience. There are also shops, museums, tea houses, cafes, and places of cultural interest. With so many alleys and streets to explore, we could have easily spent a whole day in the village.
It was well after noon when we left Bukchon Hanok Village, and about time we had our first full meal of the day. We chanced upon a restaurant on the third floor of a small building beside a Starbucks outlet on Bukchon-ro.
Kristine and I each ordered the bestseller—a hefty slice of breaded pork served with kimchi, corn and bell pepper salad, thinly shredded cabbage, white rice, and clear soup.
The satisfying meal fully enjoyed, we headed to our next stop: Gyeongbokgung Palace, another must-see historic site. The reconstructed 14th-century palace, a complex of buildings covering 40 hectares of land, was home to the royal family and the seat of government. (Entrance fee is KRW 3,000.)
While Bukchon Hanok Village provides a glimpse into the lives of the common people in Joseon-era Korea, Gyeongbokgung Palace showcases the workings of royalty.
The central edifice is the Geunjeongjeon Hall that houses the king’s throne and where coronations and other major state events were held. This majestic throne hall is easily the main attraction and the most-visited of all the places on the grounds, which include the royal living quarters, the council hall, a private library, the banquet hall and several pavilions, lakes and gardens.
As in the Bukchon Hanok Village, we saw local and foreign tourists roaming the grounds dressed in hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing.
The wearing of hanbok is promoted as part of the Korean culture experience. Several tourist spots, including Gyeongbokgung Palace, waive admission fees for visitors wearing hanbok. No wonder we saw many hanbok rental shops near the palace.
We decided that the palace was the last on our itinerary for the day.
Thus began our unplanned walking tour of Seoul, which turned into another trip highlight. We exited the palace through the Gwanghwamun Gate, crossed the street then walked down the road in search of a pick-up point that could be easily located on the UT app. This led to various discoveries that gave the locals good reason to step out of their homes on a Sunday afternoon.
We saw a show being staged on the service road; people gathered to watch a street performer; an outdoor reading nook with adults and kids comfortably seated on oversized couch pillows and bean bags as they pored over books; and a bazaar that displayed artists’ works. We also passed a crew busy setting up equipment in an open space for what looked like an evening concert.
It was early in the evening when we got back to our hotel, but we were ready to call it a day, pleased to have covered every item on our itinerary. Besides, we were eager to finally settle in our 23rd-floor room, a cozy 23 square meters with a double bed and a great view.
For dinner we had a light snack and instant ramyeon we bought from a CU convenience store. We had to be up early the next day and did not want to sleep on a full stomach.
After a quick video call with our parents back home, we got ready for bed and fell asleep almost instantly.
We rose at 5:30 a.m. the next day. We had enough snacks left for breakfast paired with hot drinks from the complimentary tea selection.
At exactly 7a.m. we were good to go.
Ewha Womans University is among the best universities in South Korea and on the list of places to visit in Seoul. There were already a few tourists when we arrived and a good number of local and international students heading to their Monday-morning class.
We met a fellow Filipino and an Indonesian couple who kindly offered to take photos of Kristine and me together—one by a church on the hill and the other at the central valley of the university’s impressive underground building.
“A building like no other, a building that goes down instead of up. Sometimes building, sometimes landscape, sometimes sculpture” is how French architect Dominique Perrault described his work.
Calling it an underground building can be misleading as one might think of it as a dark, airless place. Yet the building, resplendent with its stainless steel and glass facades, is in fact beneath perfectly manicured, meandering gardens.
We walked through the gently sloping central valley until we reached the bottom part or what looks like a plaza. Doors that blend with the façade allow access to the ground floor, where you can find food establishments and the university souvenir shop.
The other end of the valley features a majestic stairway. We did not attempt to climb it and instead went back up the paved slope which is less physically challenging.
From Ewha Womans University we dropped in at Lotte Zettaplex at the Seoul Station to buy pasalubong and lunch before returning to Four Points in time for the noon checkout.
We left our luggage in the care of the hotel and proceeded with our afternoon tour.
A trip to Seoul won’t be complete without a visit to the N Seoul Tower, an iconic symbol on top of Namsan Mountain in the center of the city. It is famous for its observatory with a 360° panoramic view of downtown Seoul and the locks of love attached to the railings around the viewing platforms found at the base of the tower. The love locks that come in different shapes, colors and sizes are left by couples and families with the hope that theirs would be an everlasting and unbreakable bond.
You can reach N Seoul Tower by walking up the many trails or taking the shuttle bus or the cable car. Kristine recommended that we take the cable car. Fortunately, there was no line at the ticket booth when we got off at the Namsan station. The last time Kristine visited with her friends, there were so many people they had to wait 40 minutes to ride the cable car. (Round-trip ticket for one adult is KRW 15,000.)
The three-minute ride on the aerial tramway to the base level of N Seoul Tower puts you in a vantage point to marvel at the lush greenery and the city skyline.
We lingered at the base level, a spacious open area, to enjoy the scenery while indulging in a sinful combo of ice cream and churros. Then we added our family padlock to the clusters of love locks that have piled over time, before heading to the main observation deck. (Ticket to the observatory is KRW 21,000 per adult, but we got ours at a discounted rate, almost KRW 5,000 less, from a trip.com promo.)
On the way to the elevator that takes visitors to the observatory, we passed a photo booth where you can have your picture taken. You can later view your photo and choose to buy it at the shop in the observatory.
In the elevator, guests are treated to a timed visual presentation that ends just as the elevator completes the climb to the observatory. Once there, we walked the entire circumference of the tower, looking through the glass panels, to get a full view of the city doused in sunlight. It was indeed a splendid sight. On the glass panels are capital cities and corresponding figures in kilometers to indicate the city’s distance from N Seoul Tower.
Before heading back down, my sister insisted that I first check the toilet with transparent glass windows. One might feel conscious using it, but it must be the only toilet in the world with such a stunning view from above.
There are many restaurants at N Seoul Tower but since our next stop is Myeongdong Market, we decided to pass.
It was 4 p.m. when our cab dropped us off at Myeondong Street, the area near the restaurant recommended by our friend. We had no trouble finding Myeonok. It has such big servings, so my sister and I shared a cup of rice and an order of the house specialty—beef kalbichim served with three kinds of kimchi and soup.
After our meal, we started an abbreviated exploration of Myeondong Market. We just had enough time to walk down a strip of food stalls and snack on interesting finds. I tried the black sesame ice cream and the tornado potato; Kristine had egg bread. We also bought bungeoppang (fish-shaped pastries with red bean filling), hotba (deep-fried fish paste), gimbap, and assorted sausages on a stick to bring home. (The food choices are usually priced at KRW 5,000.)
We made it back to the hotel a little past 6 p.m. After organizing our luggage, with three additional carry-on bags, we made our way to the nearby bus stop to catch the airport limousine, which arrived on schedule at exactly 7:02 p.m. (Fare from the bus stop near Four Points by Sheraton to the airport is 17,000 won per person. We paid using TMoney.)
It was a smooth ride with little traffic, as was the case during our entire stay.
At the tail end of an amazing trip, on board the airport bus, we found still more of Seoul to marvel at—its buildings and bridges outlined by bright lights in changing hues, and the majestic Han River, which I’d seen in broad daylight from the airport train, looking even more imposing under the moonlight.
We arrived at Incheon International Airport with time to spare before our 12:05 a.m flight to Manila.
My first trip to Seoul, albeit brief, will be a lasting memory, a special one I’m glad to have shared with my sister and best friend. Kamsahamnida.