When my friend Maria, who lives in London, sent me a message in Facebook that she was stopping over for a few hours at the Incheon International Airport on her way back to England from the Philippines, I already knew I could get to tour her around Seoul if she had enough time. After we studied her time of arrival at the airport, the length of time it would take her to get to Seoul using the airport limousine bus and most important, the time she needed to be back at the airport for her flight out, we realized she had five hours to spare!
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!
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!
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!)
After strolling around the area, we made a quick stop at a 24-hour fastfood 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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
Wen 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 yellow bus from NSeoul Tower dropped us off at the first stop on the Namsan road, the Yongsan Library. There we took the Blue Bus 402 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!
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.
Hotteok for dessert!
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!
We were still on schedule even as we had visited already a lot of tourist spots!
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!
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 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!
For more photographs of Maria’s tour of Seoul….