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Seoul (Incheon) Overview
A 5,000-year-old culture blended with startling modernity makes South Korea's capital, Seoul, a fascinating place to visit. You'll find old-fashioned tea shops and centuries-old temples with ornate roofs sitting between skyscrapers and smart malls selling the latest electronic gadgets, while the rocky peaks of Bukhansan National Park form a scenic backdrop.
Tradition is important to Koreans and, even among hip young Seoulites, Confucian principles like respect for elders still hold sway. Visiting a Buddhist temple, sampling some fancy royal cuisine or tucking into a tabletop barbecue are simple ways you can get a taste of the local culture for yourself, even on a short visit. You might even choose to hang out with the friendly locals in the steam rooms and lounges of one of the popular bathhouses.
South Korea is a relatively new destination on the cruising scene. You'll dock at Incheon in its Northwest, which is about 90 minutes from the capital and handily also the location of the International Airport. This peninsula was the site of the pivotal U.N.-led Incheon landings in the Korean War. For those with an interest in modern history, there are other fascinating sites to visit, including the Demilitarized Zone just outside Seoul, which marks the divide between South Korea and its secretive northern neighbours.
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Bokbunjaju, a raspberry flavored wine-like liqueur, is very palatable. Soju is Korean vodka. For more international tastes, there are 40 varieties of vodka and 200 wines on offer at the Woo Bar at the trendy W Seoul Walkerhill hotel.
Korean ginseng is renowned for its health-giving properties. It's available in many shops, including major department stores. Cheong-Kwan-Jang is a major brand. Also look out for beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid jewelry boxes in major markets like Namdaemun. For a quirky souvenir, pick up some DMZ chocolate in the Demilitarized Zone.
Korean is the official language, but many young people learn English. Seoul locals are friendly and keen to help tourists, so if they can't direct you themselves they will often find you someone who can. It helps to have your destination written in Korean for taxi drivers.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
South Korea's currency is the Won (KRW); visit oanda.com or xe.com for current rates. ATM's are widely available, but you will need to find one displaying symbols for global credit cards like Visa; subway stations are a good bet. More budget shops and restaurants may accept cash only.
Where You're Docked
Incheon is set on a peninsula in South Korea's Northwest. It's a 90-minute drive from the capital, Seoul, over the grand Incheon Bridge.
Incheon is a fairly basic cruise port at present, more used to container shipping and ferries, with a new international passenger terminal scheduled for completion in 2014. The existing terminal does, however, include a café, Internet cafe, ATM and tourist information desk. There are also banks and Internet cafes at Incheon subway station, about 15 minutes away.
By Bus: Buses making routes around Incheon include Nos. 3-1, 17-1, 23 and 24.
To get to Seoul, take an intra-city bus from Incheon inter-city bus terminal (Gwangyo-dong) into Seoul which takes around 90 minutes. You will need to change at Inha University Hospital Station to bus No.3-1. You'll probably find it easier, as a tourist, to take the subway; it's also more reliable, as Seoul traffic can be very slow at times.
By Subway: Seoul has an extensive underground system that is relatively easy to use. You can take a taxi or bus from the port to the Dong-Incheon subway station (Line 1), 10 to 15 minutes away. From there, it will take about an hour and 20 minutes to get to the Seoul city center. Look out for Express trains that don't stop at every station. The rechargeable T-money Card, available from subway ticket counters, can be used to pay for public transport and some Seoul taxis. seoulmetro.co.kr/eng
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and metered. It's best to have your destination address written in Korean.
Watch Out For
Kimchi. This ubiquitous foodstuff makes an appearance at every meal and is considered so important that Korean astronauts were sent into space with a freeze-dried version. Chilli-spiced fermented vegetables (cabbage, most commonly) may sound unappetizing, but give it a go -- it's a refreshing side dish.
Seoul has several ancient palaces. Gyeongbokgung the oldest and grandest, was once the center of the important Joseon Dynasty and incorporates old Chinese and royal court architecture. First established in 1394, the present building was constructed in the 1860's, the original having being destroyed during Japanese occupation.(Jongno-gu Sejong-ro 1, closed Tuesdays) Nearby is UNESCO-listed Changdeokgung, which dates back to 1405 and once housed the royal family. It's built on Confucian principals and features a pretty "secret" garden designed for scholarly reflection. (110-360 Yulgok-ro 99 Jongro-gu, closed Mondays)
A favorite hangout with locals and visitors alike, Insa-Dong (or Insadong) street (nearest subway stop Anguk, line 3) and its surrounds are known for antique and ceramics shops, art galleries, traditional tea shops and street stalls where sweet sellers and the like ply their trade, some dressed in national costume.
The National Museum of Korea includes some beautiful artifacts like Buddha statues, calligraphy and an intricate 5th-century gold and jade crown. Admission is free. (Yongsan-dong 6-ga 168-6, Seobinggo-ro 137, Yongsan-gu, nearest subway stop Ichon, line 4; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays)
Full- and half-day tours to the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ outside Seoul are popular. This is the weapon-free no-mans-land that has separated North and South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. You can descend into the "Third Tunnel," which North Korea is believed to have dug in an attempt to breach the border and peer across to the neighbors through telescopes. Some full-day tours will also take in Panmunjom, the site of the armistice signing, where, under the gaze of soldiers, you can walk around a conference table into North Korean territory. You will need an advance booking and a passport with you.
Been There, Done That
If you're sticking to Incheon, head for the seaside atmosphere of Wolmido Island, which has a fun fair and stalls selling seafood, including dried octopus tentacles. Yeonan Pier has a fish market with more than 50 stalls. The area is also known for its saltwater baths, found on Seawater Bath Street.
If you are interested in the Korean War, take a stroll in Jayu (Freedom) Park in Incheon, which features a monument to General MacArthur, who organized the pivotal U.N.-led Incheon landings. There's more information in the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall (Yeonsu-gu Ongnyeon-dong 525, closed Mondays). In Seoul, you can visit the War Memorial of Korea (Yongsan-gu Yongsandong 1-ga 8, closed Mondays), which includes a Korean War exhibition. Admission to both is free.
Buddhist Jogyesa Temple in Seoul gives tours and offers visitor activities like lotus lantern-making. (45 Kyunji-Dong, Chongno-gu)
N Seoul tower is a landmark on a forested hill with fine views over Seoul. At the top is a restaurant and an observation deck decorated with thousands of padlocks left by lovers, inscribed with their initials.
Seoul's Bukchon heritage district showcases traditional Hanok houses. You can wander the streets, popping into cafes and museums.
Experience one of Seoul's traditional bathhouses, where you can alternate between hot and cold water and steam, relax or get a massage. Those called Jjimjilbangs offer more comfortable facilities -- even places to lounge watching TV in your pajamas. Among the most famous is Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, which includes a rooftop cinema, computer rooms and an indoor golf range.
Once covered by a highway, Seoul's Cheonggyechon Stream is now an urban park lined with walkways and crossed by 22 bridges. At night, waterfalls and fountains are illuminated at several points. For a respite from hot weather, join it at Insa-dong, and follow the locals strolling or even paddling.
The Carved tablets at UNESCO-listed Jongmo Shrine are thought to house the spirits of dead kings and queens. Each May, the ghosts are honored with food offerings, mass ritual bowing and dancing. (Seoul-si Jongno-gu Jongno1-ga 155)
Despite being majorly reconstructed in the 1970s, the Suwon Fortress is UNESCO-listed for its faithful recreation from 18th-century records. It is found 48 km south of Seoul and runs for 5.7 km.
Korean food is generally beautifully presented, healthy and fun to eat.
Popular meals include:
Bibimbap: a large bowl of rice, vegetables and sometimes minced beef, into which you stir an egg and chili paste using your chopsticks.
Tabletop barbecues (bulgogi): a not-to be missed experience. This generally includes beef or pork, grilled before you with an extractor fan pulled low to suck up the smoke. The meat is traditionally cut into small pieces and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with roasted garlic and chili paste.
Royal Cuisine: a fancy feast of small, delicate taste sensations that arrive like a Mediterranean meze, in small dishes spread across your table.
Incheon has a small Chinatown, which makes a good spot for lunch. There are also fish restaurants and snack stalls around Wolmido Island. Lunch spots in Seoul are plentiful, particularly around Itaewon, Meongdon and Jongno districts.
Eat Like a Local: The Sun on Dongchun Dong road in Yeonsu-Gu district, Incheon is a great restaurant to try royal cuisine. The staff may not be fluent in English, but they're happy to help tourists choose dishes like abalone sushi, eel in raspberry sauce, marinated beef and chicken soup.
Eat Like a Tourist: Seoul's royal cuisine restaurants include tourist-orientated Korea House cultural center, where you can also learn about tea ceremonies, dress up in the national costume and even see a mock wedding. (80-2, Pil-dong 2 (i)-ga Jung-gu)
Korean Barbecue: Byeokje Galbi specializes in Korean tabletop barbecues and made a Wall Street Journal list of top-five Asian restaurants. (205-8 Songpa-gu, Bangi-dong)
Western Food: Get European favorites and Australian steaks with a city view at Top Cloud on the 33rd Floor of Seoul's Jongno Tower Building (1-1 Jongno 2-ga, Jung-gu). Nashville Sports Pub & Restaurant serves up steaks, burgers, kebabs and chops and offers barbecues in the rooftop beer garden. (128 Itaewon-dong Yongsan-gu)
Many of the large malls will include a food court with a good choice of Western and Asian food.
Vegetarian: Eat "temple" food created by a female monk, and learn something about Buddhist etiquette as you sit cross-legged at Balwoo Gongyang restaurant above the Templestay information center, opposite Jogyesa temple. (71 Gyeongjidong Jongnogu)
Cheap Eats Near Main Attractions: Insa-Dong and Jongno district have snack stalls, where you can join locals waiting in line for particular specialties like egg rolls, pancakes and fish skewers.
Staying in Touch
South Korea is said to be the most wired country in the world, and Internet cafes -- known as PC Bang (bang, meaning "room") -- are plentiful. Look out for a neon sign saying PC outside a building. There is a PC Bang at Incheon Port's International Passenger Terminal.
Best for First-timers: Full-day Seoul city tours are a standard cruise-line excursion choice, taking in one or two of the royal palaces, a stop for a traditional lunch and other popular attractions. One such tour, for instance, combines palaces with the national Museum of Korea, Insa-Dong and Namdaemun Market.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've seen Seoul before and want to stick close to the port, discover more about Incheon with a half-day tour, typically visiting the Incheon Landing Memorial Hall, Jayu Park and Yeonan Pier Fish Market, one of the largest in Korea, with perhaps a shopping stop at Shinpo market and a wander round Chinatown and Wolmido Island. Tours on offer include full-day Incheon sightseeing with a private car and guide.
Best for History Buffs: A visit to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is a popular day-trip; shore excursions are usually scheduled to visit the site of the third tunnel, the nearby telescope viewing area and museum, but not Panmunjom. One excursion combines a morning at the DMZ with lunch in Seoul, as well as time in the antique shops, galleries and tea houses of Insa-Dong.
For More Information
On the Web: Korea Tourism Organization: (02) 7299 9561/9568 or 1330 (24-hour travel information in English); Seoul City Tourism
In Person: The main Tourist Information Center is located on the basement level of the Korea Tourism Organization headquarters in Seoul (40 Cheonggyecheon-no, Jung-gu). There is another at Incheon International Airport. A tourist information desk is available at Incheon's passenger terminal.
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--by Debbie Ward, Cruise Critic Contributor