A few years ago, my wife and I visited Seoul, South Korea on a trip that was very important to us. We were there to finalize the adoption of our son, who at the time had just turned a year old. Amid the hustle and bustle of those sometimes hectic and emotional days, we had some time to explore the city of his birth—and we did it all on Seoul’s top-notch mass transit system.
Whether you’re visiting Seoul on a special journey like we were or simply exploring a new culture, I highly recommend that you take the subway around town. It’s safe and healthy, since it gets you out and about instead of stuck in a cab. You’ll also get to mingle with locals and get a better feel for what Seoul is all about.
It’s a Simple and Easy, Even If You Don’t Speak Korean
The best part about Seoul’s subway system is that it’s completely accessible to English speakers. I had just a smattering of Korean—pretty much enough to say hello, thank you, and ask for the restroom—but that didn’t matter at all. All of the machines and signage in the subway system are both in Korean and English, so you should have any problems.
- Like most mass transit systems, you’ll purchase your fare first at a kiosk, which is in English and Korean.
- You can by a single trip ticket or a reusable card for multiple trips.
- Fares are cheap, ranging from 450 won for kids (less than $0.50) to 1350 won for adults (a little over a dollar).
- All of the subway lines are color-coded with numbered stops, so it’s virtually impossible to get lost. And if you miss your stop, simply get off at the next one, cross the street, and go down to the other side to catch the train in the opposite direction.
And if you really do get lost, you’ll find that most residents of South Korea speak English very well. Of course, your politeness goes a long way, so the best tactic is to say hello first in Korean (Annyeong haseyo) and then ask if they speak English after they respond.
If all else fails, make sure you have a business card from your hotel with you. The concierge can provide one. Hand it to any cab driver and they’ll whisk you back to the hotel. It’s your get-out-of-jail-free card.
So, What Can You See by Subway?
Historical sites, art exhibits, delicious food, markets where you haggle for trinkets (and sometimes treasures) … they’re all accessible on the subway. Here are three of my favorites, but don’t be afraid the branch out:
Namdaeun Market: This market is one of the oldest continuously running markets in Seoul. It can be overwhelming, but definitely worth a visit. A lot of it is outdoors, with shops and stalls lining the streets. Duck into one and find aisles and aisles of different products. There’s lots of good food here, so plan your trip so that you’re there during lunch time. Try the galchi jorim (braised hairtail fish) at one of the vendors in Galchi Alley. Yes, I know it sounds adventurous, but it’s delicious and you won’t be disappointed. Station stop: Hoehyeon Station, Line 4
Changdeok Palace: The Changdeok Palace, also known as Changdeokgung, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the five grand palaces in Seoul. The architecture of the palace will be interesting to any Western visitor, but my favorite part of the visit was the gardens behind the palace. There are lily ponds and hundreds of different types of plants and trees that I’ve never seen before, some of them more than 300 years old. Station stop: Anguk Station, Line 3
Jamsil Baseball Stadium: Yes, we even caught a baseball game. Go Doosan Bears! Baseball is a big deal in South Korea, both for the game itself and the crowd atmosphere at the stadium. Korean fans from opposing teams will have cheer battles led by cheerleaders, and every team has their own cheer culture. Seoul’s Doosan Bears’ cheers involve waving white flags emblazed with the team logo and pounding together noise-making balloons. The sound is deafening – a can’t-miss! Station stop: Sports Complex Station, Line 2
Grab your South Korean guidebook and mark off a few of your own favorites. Many of the current guides will have all of the cultural sites you want to see listed and coded by their stop on the subway line. Happy exploring!