SEOUL – Everyone needs a break from the stress-percolator that is Tokyo. But heading off to a different sprawling metropolis for some peace of mind might not seem the most obvious play. Sometimes, though, heading to a new metropolis and surrounding yourself with new sights, smells and sounds can prove the refreshing break you need.
Seoul sits just a 2½-hour flight from Tokyo. In recent years, heading out to South Korea’s capital has become an easy and economical possibility, to the point where going there for the weekend is a totally reasonable proposition.
Thank the rise of affordable low cost carriers traveling to international destinations for that, along with hostels and Airbnb accommodations that boast cheaper rates than hotels, especially when compared to what you’d find if you made the trip in reverse (one of the perks of living in Tokyo — not paying visitor prices).
So, with this knowledge in mind and no shortage of work-induced stress, I booked a night flight out of Narita International Airport for a good few days in Seoul.
From Incheon International Airport, getting to downtown Seoul is a breeze thanks to the Airport Railroad Express (AREX), which takes you to Seoul Station for 9,000 won (about ¥900) in just under an hour.
However, the trains end early; make sure your plane lands in time for you to catch the last train before midnight, or else you’ll be dropping the equivalent of ¥8,000 to get to the city by taxi, putting a dent in the cheap, weekend-trip plan.
Peace and quiet
The main point of my jaunt to Seoul was to find time to zone out. While the city has no shortage of busy places, it also has its fair share of quiet areas to retreat to, too.
One of the most pleasant areas in town can be accessed from the shopping district of Myeongdong, a popular tourist hub filled with major brand-name stores and stalls serving up food. Head here first, and then walk to the path that leads up toward N Seoul Tower, which sits atop Mount Namsan.
Visitors can reach the top via bus or cable car (9,500 won, or about ¥950 for a return ticket), or brave the 45-minute trek up. The walk is recommended for some solitude, but your calves will need a break by the end of it.
An alternative way to reach the summit is from Hangangjin Station, on the other side of Mount Namsan. There are numerous trails to the top of the mountain, as well as several botanical gardens, each of which has a different theme.
From either side, it’s a scenic hike to the top, where visitors can soak in postcard-ready views of Seoul’s cityscape and the tower. Inside the tower are various restaurants and stores, so if you’re looking for refreshments after the walk, it’s a good spot to go.
Other areas in the city to relax surrounded by nature include the large Seoul Forest park just north of the Han River, Yangjae Citizens’ Park and Bukchon Hanok Village in the northern part of the metropolis. Don’t expect any of those to be empty — fellow tourists and locals alike flock to them, too — but they still offer more calm than most of the busier neighborhoods. For real peace, you’ll have to head past the borders of the city, but for a weekend trip, that might be asking a bit much.
An alternative to parks is settling down at a nice cafe and chilling out for a few hours. Seoul has experienced several coffee booms in the last two decades and cafes are found on nearly every street in the capital.
Not all shops are created equal, but the best offer a great brew and a good place to sit for a bit. Highlights include Coffee Montage Roasting Co. near Seoul’s Olympic Park, Hell Cafe in Yongsan-gu, Coffee Temple in Mapo-gu (check out the fruit-accented options) and Summer Lane in Itaewon.
However, for something a little different, go to Thanks Nature Cafe in Hongdae. It makes nice drinks and desserts, but the real draw is the two sheep hanging out in the cafe for most of the year.
One happy accident of this recent trip to Seoul was staying on Euljiro avenue.
I booked an Airbnb there because it was economical and only one minute from the nearest train station, but I soon found I was staying in one of the city’s more vibrant neighborhoods.
Euljiro, to quote Time Out Seoul, “seems frozen in the ’70s and ’80s” as many of the buildings there were built during those decades and many haven’t undergone redevelopment. Corners of this area still reflect these industrial beginnings — one pocket features stores collecting old sewing machines, complete with trucks filled with used and broken machines.
Yet parts of the neighborhood, particularly around Euljiro-3-ga Station, have become trendy in recent years (some say “hipster,” but that’s just code for “I’m old and don’t get young people”). Walking around here on a brisk day makes for a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Take in the Cheonggye River, which cuts through the middle of the neighborhood, and visit the various stores hiding down back alleys.
Recommended stops include Clique Records, a music shop offering a good mix of older records and newer underground vinyl, Jan, a cafe adorned with throwback flower wallpaper where patrons can choose the cup they’d like to drink from, and Cosmos Wholesale for those seeking out an unpredictable set of old toys and knickknacks. For fans of live and electronic music, check the schedule at art space Seendosi. They regularly host shows, DJ nights and other events, all set in one of the more eclectic spaces you’ll find in the city.
Food is just as big a draw. One of the things you can’t find in Tokyo that is prevalent in Seoul is the night markets, with stalls popping up along streets and in shopping arcades.
Euljiro features two great options: Nogari Alley has a bunch of stores serving up dried seafood and beer for folks who’ve just finished a long day at work, making for one of the more festive scenes around. Then there’s Gwangjang Market, which features dozens upon dozens of pop-ups cooking all kinds of South Korean street food.
Even if you aren’t that hungry, walking around these markets is a treat for all senses.
Late night delights
Taking in Seoul after dark can be just as relaxing as strolling around the city during the day.
A time-tested spot for fun come the weekend is Hongdae, a neighborhood surrounded by universities that boasts a college-town atmosphere rarely found in Japan. On Friday and Saturday nights, you’ll see groups of students mimicking K-pop dance moves or performing original choreography to eager crowds. Grab a drink to-go from cocktail bar Vinyl and soak it all in.
Another option is Itaewon. Five years ago, this neighborhood was described to me as “the Roppongi of Seoul” and it featured all the sleazy hallmarks you’d expect of that description. But, visiting in 2018, everything seems more orderly and the area now boasts an array of great food and shopping options with just enough messiness to make it stand out as interesting. So … it’s kind of like the Roppongi of Seoul, 2018 edition.
Grab dinner at a Korean BBQ joint or enjoy some of the international spots dotting the neighborhood (sure, grabbing American food while in Seoul might seem stupid … but you tell me where in Tokyo to get Nashville hot chicken like in Itaewon’s Rocka Doodle).
Then head to a bar such as the lively Sunset Beach to pregame before heading to one of the area’s clubs. Top ones include Cakeshop and Soap Seoul, which strike a good mix between mainstream and underground dance music. You might be wiped-out the next day, but you’ll feel much more rejuvenated as you get on the plane to go back to the Tokyo grind.
Flights from Tokyo’s Narita International and Haneda airports to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport take around 2½ hours one way and can be found from approximately ¥20,000 return via low cost carriers such as Peach Aviation or Jeju Air.
Seoul’s Airbnb selection is strong. You can find solid studio options in areas such as Euljiro and Hongdae for as low as ¥4,500 a night.
Hostels are a good choice for those on a budget, with rooms from around ¥2,500 per night. Some well-established options include Backpackers Inside, Time Travelers Relax and The JA Coex.
Finally, for unique hotels, Hotel Cappuccino in the ritzy Gangnam district and Hotel28 in Myeongdong offer a pampered experience from around ¥10,000 per night, without feeling like your usual lodging experience.
Seoul boasts one of the most convenient subway systems in the world, which makes getting around the city a breeze.
Unlike Tokyo’s zig-zagging collection of disparate lines, the 22 lines of the metro system in Seoul are mostly under the same network, easy to transfer between and cheap. While you can buy single-ride tickets, the best approach is to get a T-Money Card (500 won) from a convenience store or from the machines found near the subway entrances.
The city also has an extensive bus network, though you’ll need a basic grasp of Hangul to ride them successfully. You can pay with a T-Money Card.
Don’t be afraid to use taxis while in Seoul. While they drain your wallet in Japan, they’re actually affordable in South Korea (starting at ¥300 and about ¥70 per kilometer after), and are often the best choice for visitors. Just know where you want to go, show the driver and let them take it from there.