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.
Port of Seoul (Incheon)
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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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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 caf?, Internet cafe, ATM and tourist information desk. There are also banks and Internet cafes at Incheon subway station, about 15 minutes away.
Good to Know
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.
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.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and metered. It's best to have your destination address written in Korean.
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.
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.
Food and Drink
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.
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.
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.