Incheon Day Tours and 6am Soju

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Flying through Seoul, Korea’s Incheon airport was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had on a layover. Incheon is sleek and modern, but is also located quite a ways from central Seoul. Because of this, or maybe just due to an abundance of very long layovers, the airport is kind enough to offer free (or almost free) tours of the surrounding area, or even to Seoul if your layover is long enough. We happened to have a very long layover, from early morning to around 7pm, so we took advantage of this service and partook in the extended tour into Seoul and the Gyeongbok Palace Museum complex, as well as two shorter tours to a few temples and a Korean War memorial.

After we had landed and gathered our luggage it was probably 5 or 530am and some of the airport restaurants were starting to open up. Outside of the few sites I was hoping to see in Seoul, the only thing I was hoping to experience on the Korean layover was some good food, and of course Soju. Soju is a clear rice liquor consumed in Korea offering varying levels of potency which seemed to start at 17% or so. Stronger Soju is most definitely available, but I’m not sure just how strong it gets, and I was a little worried I’d spend most of my layover passed out if we opted for the higher strength varieties.

Once we had exited security, we checked our bags for the day at the terminal and went upstairs to where a few sit down restaurants are located. We got a table at a place called Food On Air, which offered a variety of Korean dishes right off the bat at 6am, as well as several drink options, including Soju, also available bright and early at 6am. We had a couple of stew dishes, one featuring seafood, and one featuring beef short rib. Both were good, and came with a handful of condiments. I’m not sure what I was expecting in terms of the soju, but I thought it was pretty decent – a taste that reminded me of watered down vodka mixed with sake. Reading that now it doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but really, it wasn’t bad, and if you’ve ever enjoyed a vodka rocks, there’s a decent chance you’d enjoy soju. Apparently it’s customary to mix soju with all sorts of things, namely, beer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to partake in that combination, but I can report that the stuff works pretty well on its own. Not sure I’d recommend it at 6am with breakfast, but please don’t mistake that for an indication I didn’t enjoy it.

The free tours offered for Incheon layovers can be found at a counter near the entrances and exits on the first floor of the terminal. With our bags stowed and some soju on board, we headed off on our first tour of the day, which was scheduled to last about an hour. The first tour was to Yonggungsa, a Buddhist temple, a few minutes ride from the airport, dating back to the year 670. It won’t blow your mind, but I found it to be a very interesting and pleasant place to see. Our tour was maybe 10 people in a small van, which made the experience much more quiet and enjoyable, considering the relatively small size of the temple grounds. I’m not sure how much more crowded this tour gets as the day goes on, but I definitely think this is an ideal tour first thing in the morning, and I don’t think I would enjoy it as much with a larger crowd.

Our next tour was a trip into Seoul to the restored Gyeongbok palace complex and museum. If you have enough time and your schedule allows, this is the tour you want. It costs a few bucks, so it isn’t free, but I think for the modest price we paid, it was a great bargain. We had a decent sized crowd, maybe 25 people for this one, and a larger tour bus was used to get us into the city and back. The tour begins at the palace complex in Seoul. This is definitely a destination for sightseers, and numerous other tour groups will be present, so try to make a mental note of where your bus is parked and who the other people in your group and your guide are in case you get separated, which I recommend you do. We were a little nervous to leave any belongings on the bus when we got off, but our guide actually laughed at the prospect of anything being stolen, especially when she learned we hailed from the US.

The palace complex is pretty large, and quite a bit of time is spent walking around, looking at the different buildings, and learning the site’s history. The same guide that brings you from the airport will walk you around the palace and provide relevant information. Our guide was very knowledgeable and spoke great English, which was really helpful. The tour also includes admission into the on-site museums, which are located within the palace compound. Our tour actually spent the whole time walking the palace grounds, and we only ventured into the folk museum after we had left the group. While the museum is quite good, I think those on a limited schedule would be better served spending their time walking through the palace complex.

At the end of our tour, we witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony, or at least a reenactment of what that procession would’ve looked like, including historical costumes. This was interesting and attracted a huge crowd, but I felt like the palace complex itself was the main attraction, and was the thing I was glad to have gotten to see.

After the changing of the guard, our group got back on our bus, found our bags exactly where we had left them, and we then taken to Insadong Street, where we had some time to eat lunch at a Korean bbq place (not included in the price of the tour) and walk around for a little while. The street was a little touristy, and if you need a token Korea souvenir, this place will have you covered. That having been said, there were plenty of shops that weren’t just souvenir shops, and there were plenty of other things available for purchase. This tour took about five hours.

Upon our return to the airport, we had time for a final two hour tour, which would take us to a Korean War memorial, as well as a Buddhist temple set on a hillside. This tour was the smallest by far, and our group was only about 5 people. The war memorial was called the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall and was pretty minimalist, and very quiet. It was interesting to hear what our guide had to say about the conflict, and was time well spent. The memorial also features an armored vehicle or two from the war that you can climb on and examine as you please. 

This tour also stopped at Heungryunsa temple, which is built into the side of a hill, and requires climbing a few stairs. This temple complex was much larger than the one we had visited in the morning, and looked to be much more built up/restored for tourists. It was a very picturesque site, and had a great view of the area at the top. Compared to our first tour, I definitely think this one was the winner, but again, the real prize is the palace tour if your schedule allows.

If you’ve got a long layover or some time to kill at Incheon, I can’t recommend these tours enough. They are easy, free (for the most part), and the guides are very friendly. It probably helped that my friend and I were on our first visit to Korea, but unless I had already seen all the places offered, I’d probably still chose these over sitting in an airport lounge all day.