A glimpse of South Korea’s past and present – Seoul, South Korea

Before coming back to the reality of our life and adventures with friends here in the good ‘ol USA, I just had to sneak in one more quick post related to my trip to the Philippines that I thought was interesting.

My recent return flight to the states included an 11+ hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, and I feared I would be bored out of my mind sitting in the airport all that time.  Luckily I overheard other passengers talking about a free tour of the area outside the airport, and that really piqued my interest.

Incheon Airport
The items in this display at the airport are traditional Korean instruments used by farmers praying for a good harvest

I learned that Incheon International Airport provides a special service for transit passengers with layovers in excess of 3 hours.  There were six tours to choose from, and with plenty of time to kill, I selected the 5-hour Seoul Culture Tour.

Being in a foreign country, of course, I had to deal with immigration in and out of the airport.  What’s amazing is that even though this airport is one of the largest and busiest in the world, navigating the massive complex is easy and all of the workers speak English.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
A quick pose in front of Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Our tour took us first to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), the newest and most iconic landmark of the South Korean design industry.  DDP is the world’s largest atypical architecture project, so large that I couldn’t capture it in a single frame.  We walked under it and across its roof as we traversed to the restaurant for our lunch.  See the red “Migliore” sign in the picture below?  That was our first destination.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Staircase inside DDP

This building is a fashion hub and a popular tourist destination.  It features a walkable park on its roof, large global exhibition spaces, futuristic retail stores and restored parts of the Seoul fortress. Koreans come here to bargain and shop till they drop.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza spans 85,000 square meters (over a quarter-million square feet!)

After savoring an authentic Korean buffet, our next stop took us back to a time of kings and dynasties.  We headed out to Changdeokgung Palace – the second grand palace of the Joseon Dynasty – built in 1405 by King Taejong (the 3rd king of the Joseon Dynasty).  For 270 years, the palace was home to the Joseon government and was also the favored residence of many Joseon Dynasty kings.  Unlike other palaces, Changdeokgung Palace is well-preserved and still has many of its original features.  Between 1405 and its renovation in 1991, it had been destroyed by fire and painstakingly rebuilt several times.

Injeongjeon, the center of Changdeokgung Palace where national events took place

South Korean palaces cover a large surface area and are made up of many buildings.  These buildings are arranged with great sensitivity to the geographical features of the land.

Throne Hall inside Changdeok Palace
Inside the throne, hall is where coronations of kings and meetings with officials took place

A particular feature of Changdeokgung Palace is the way its buildings blend into the surrounding landscape.  It is considered the best-preserved of the Joseon Dynasty’s five palaces, and as such was designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage location in 1996.

Geumcheongyo (Bridge)
Geumcheongyo (Bridge)

Our tour guide mentioned that colors and designs in the buildings are full of meaning and purpose.  The main buildings of South Korean palaces feature “japsang”, which are small figurines of humans or animals displayed on the roof.  These figurines serve as both ornaments and guardians of the building.

Japsang Rooftop Figurines
Japsang rooftop figurines

Roof tiles are decorated with the dragon and the phoenix, symbols of the king.


Dancheong, which literally means “red and green”, refers to traditional five-element designs found on the walls, pillars and eaves of South Korean wooden buildings.

Changdeokgung Palace

All structures within the palace are painted with those colorful and vibrant combinations also believed to protect a building from evil spirits and emphasize the authority of its resident.


Given the limited time available, we did not see all of the buildings.  The tour guide was sensitive to our various departure times and only briefly described the historical facts and significance of the buildings within the palace complex.

Although the tour was short, it gave me a glimpse of the traditional homes and political seat of South Korea’s royalty.  It was also a good way to get a feel for the country’s culture.


It was about an hour from the airport to where we toured, so two hours were spent sitting on the bus, plus another hour for lunch.  That left me plenty of time back at the airport to avail myself of another service available to transit passengers, a nice shower at one of the lounges.  After that, I enjoyed a much-needed power nap before boarding the flight for my long flight back to the states.


  1. Wow, that’s a long layover. What an interesting tour and the fact that you still had time to shower and nap is amazing…and must have made the last leg of your trip so much more comfortable!

  2. I love the stunning architecture both new and old and the drastic and unique differences between the two. Time well spent 🙂

  3. What beautiful very old and very modern architecture. The colors used in the palace buildings are beautiful…so vibrant! Thanks for sharing a place we will never be able to visit.

  4. Boy am I impressed with opportunities for layover passengers in Korea. Glad you got to take advantage. The US has nothing like that as far as I know. Simply gorgeous pictures of the fabulous palace Mona Liza. What a great contrast to the futuristic looking plaza.

  5. What a wonderful way to spend a layover at an airport. Your photos of the palace eaves and the roof lines are so cool. The colors are beautiful. An interesting tour, a Korean buffet, shower, and a nap! You did well, MonaLisa!! (I, for one, wouldn’t mind more posts like these. I bet you have lots more lore and photos to share!)

  6. That is a very neat thing… to be able to tour during a long layover. Loved your photos, especially that great roof perspective!

  7. Thought I’d try commenting with my new email address and see if that works 😉

    Such a smart idea for the airport to offer these tours. Gives people a glimpse into Korea that they might otherwise not get. I love the colorful details on the temple. And that staircase inside the DDP is quite a statement feature.

  8. So glad you had the opportunity to visit South Korea while on layover. That is such a nice feature to offer travelers. That silver building sure is futuristic and amazing! But I loved the designs and colors of the older buildings. Thanks for the close ups of the intricate features:)

  9. I agree, such a wonderful way to be able to use your time during a layover instead of just stuck inside of an airport! I find the modern architecture fascinating, but the ancient architecture is so rich and gorgeous.

  10. Very sweet layover! Next time I fly to Philippines, I’ll purposely choose a flight with a layover here. Ahihihi. 😀 The DDP looks wicked awesome! The Japsang figurines remind me of His Lai Temple in LA and the building looks like the Korean Bell of Friendship in San Pedro.

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