The main thing one learns during a nine-hour trip to Seoul is that Seoul deserves so much more than nine hours.
But if your time in this booming mega-city of more than 10 million people is limited to several hours between flights at its airport, the South Korean capital's lively atmosphere, great food and efficient transportation will help you make the most of a long layover.
My day in Seoul started just after 6 a.m., when I walked off of a red-eye flight from Vietnam about 14 hours before I had to be on another plane back to the United States. The layover was a consequence of booking a cheap flight, but it also presented an opportunity to see a city I'd never otherwise thought seriously about visiting.
That's exactly what tourism officials hope travelers who come through Incheon International Airport will do. The airport -- a hub for Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and other carriers -- organizes free tours of the city's sights for people passing time between flights, with options that last from one to five hours and include an English-speaking guide. If you want to visit Seoul on your own, it's easy to reach by taxi, bus or train.
Those waiting for connections inside Incheon need not fear either -- with a spa, sleeping areas, free wifi and plenty of dining and entertainment options, there's a reason it's often ranked among the top airports in the world.
I decided to try to see the city on my own, and mentally mapped out a fast-paced, day-long walking route in central Seoul that would take me through historical attractions, exciting neighborhoods and bustling shopping districts.
By the time I arrived back at the airport that evening, I'd seen just enough of the city to make me want to take a trip that ends in South Korea, rather than one that passes through it.
Seeing history while Seoul sleeps in
After clearing customs, I quickly found the airport's subway stop and hopped on a sleek commuter train to the downtown hub Seoul Station, about 40 miles away.
Signs in both Korean and English made navigating the subway easy even in my sleep-deprived state, and the hour-long trip cost the equivalent of about $4. Travelers can take the more high-end express line downtown as well, but it's only 10 minutes faster and costs three times as much.
Once I emerged from the maze-like Seoul Station, I caught a taxi outside and headed north to my first stop a few miles away: The Bukchon Hanok Village.
Newer structures have sprouted up in this centuries-old neighborhood, but the area is still dotted with hanoks -- elegant, historic Korean homes characterized by their beautiful wooden architecture and tile roofs. Situated on a hillside of winding roads and alleys between two major palaces, Bukchon was an enjoyable place to wander, take in views of the city and wake up with a cup of coffee on a crisp February morning.
Getting there around 8 a.m. meant avoiding Bukchon's most popular hours later in the day, when tour groups crowd its streets. The downside, though, was that I'd arrived when the traditional tea houses that give visitors a chance to see inside the hanoks -- many of which are still private homes and closed to the public -- had not yet opened for the day.
In fact, while I could peer into the windows of several interesting-looking cafes and tea shops around the village and nearby Samcheongdong-gil Road, I didn't see any that opened before 10 a.m. Perhaps a flip side to Seoul's reputation as a city with great night life is that some of its neighborhoods seemed to prefer sleeping in.
From Bukchon I walked west to Gyeongbokgung, Seoul's largest palace, a sprawling walled complex first built in 1395 by the Joseon Dynasty, then destroyed in ensuing centuries by Japanese invasions and occupations, and finally rebuilt in recent decades. It's worth the 3,000 Won admission fee -- about $2.50 at 1,200 Won to the dollar -- to walk through the recreated palace, marveling at its imperial architecture, ornate halls and imposing gates.
Those interested in the history being made in South Korea today may want to check out the plaza across the street from Gwanghwamun Gate, the palace's main south entrance, which was the site of massive protests that led to the ouster of President Park Guen-hye earlier this year. (Heads up, though, that the State Department generally warns Americans to avoid protests abroad, even in democracies such as South Korea.)
Modern Korea excites in Insadong
After a morning dedicated to history, the 10-minute walk to the Insadong neighborhood brought me to a place that seemed to blend Seoul's past with its hyper-modern present.
Centered around a main street lined with craft shops, caligraphy supply stores and art galleries -- from which sprouts a maze of alleyways dense with bars and restaurants -- Insadong feels exciting and cosmopolitan.
Near the northern end of the street is the Ssamji-gil shopping center, where visitors can buy everything from handmade Korean pottery to desserts in the shape of the poop emoji at stores and stalls packed onto the four-story mall's spiraling walkways. It's also filled with art projects -- a towering metal stem of roses grows through the middle of a stairwell, while hundreds of pink love notes fill every inch of wall space in a hallway on the top level.
My favorite places in Seoul were the ones that felt like some really fun idea of the future. Ssamji-gil was one of those.
The restaurant Gogung on the center's basement level serves tasty bowls of the Korean classic bibimbap, and the winter weather made this a perfect day to enjoy mine in a hot stone bowl. I only had time for a couple of meals in Seoul, but this one, combined with the spicy fried chicken I had for an early dinner, confirmed I could've spent a long time eating my way across the city.
Park, markets liven up Downtown
Just south of Insadong is the Cheonggyecheon Stream, a once-neglected urban waterway since transformed into a park that runs three-and-a-half miles through the city, where murals and rushing waters make the area below street level feel like an oasis in dense downtown Seoul.
A few blocks farther south are two bustling shopping districts -- the Myeong-dong neighborhood, packed to the gills with people there for its luxury shopping and restaurants, and Namdaemun market, where visitors can buy everything from live seafood to fur coats.
From Namdaemun it's just a couple of blocks back to Seoul Station, with Sungnyemun Gate, another historical site, along the way.
After an important stop at the massive station's Lotte department store to pick up some Korean snacks for the flight I boarded a train back to the airport as the sun started to set, my all-too-brief time in Seoul having run out.
With another day, I might have checked out the Gangnam District or other interesting areas on the south bank of the Han River, which divides the city. A night in town would've been even better, as my day-time trip meant I didn't get to see the city lit up in its full neon-and-LED glory.
Still, when it comes to a layover, I'll take Seoul over O'Hare any day.