For multiple years, Incheon Airport has been ranked the best airport in the world for its impeccable service, staff, and infrastructure developments, and while I agree that the airport deserves high marks in each of these categories- seriously, the efficiency and service is unmatched- I feel that what really makes it stand out from the others is that passengers are able to get the sense that they're really in Korea without ever leaving the airport.
Also, the sheer amount of facilities available make the airport an attraction in itself. It's impossible to get bored at Incheon International and on my most recent visit, I decided to do some research to prove it.
The Korean Cultural Street is the place to go get a feel for traditional Korean culture. The area boasts replicas of a giwa (tiled roof) house and a jeongja (pavilion). Nearby, passengers can watch regularly scheduled cultural performances and reenactments and sample tasty Korean snacks from Bizeun, a rice cake shop. I picked up some blueberry makgeolli bread there for my family to try while I waited for my flight. It turned out to be a hit!
For a more hands-on experience, visitors can head to one of the two traditional culture experience zones where they can learn how to make Korean crafts such as pencil cases, fans, and lucky bags, and take home their handmade craft at no cost. A variety of styles of hanbok, the national dress of Korea, can also be tried on. This area is particularly popular with children, though the adults seemed to be having fun, too. There are also music and dance recitals held near this site.
The Korean Culture Museum offers travelers a glimpse into the past and is probably one of the world's only airport museums that boasts 5,000 year-old historical relics. Themes of the museum include royal culture and clothing, traditional art, Buddhist art, printing and Hangul (the Korean alphabet), and traditional music. Although small, it's a nice way to pass the time while waiting for a flight.
After getting a feel for the country's traditional culture, visitors can experience Korean pop culture by checking out the latest flick at the CGV Theater in the Transportation Center or grab a cup of coffee with a spoon of kitsch at Charlie Brown Cafe or Hello Kitty Cafe. Because, let's face it, a themed cafe is necessary on any itinerary in northeast Asia, even if it's at an airport.
When hunger strikes, there are a number of places to eat, ranging from fancy dine-in restaurants to fast food joints. Although I haven't personally tried any of the restaurants, Punggyeongmaru caught my attention with its beautifully designed interior and traditional decor. Galbi tang (short rib soup) seems to be the best seller here and with most menu items under 10,000 won ($8USD) diners can fill their bellies without breaking the bank, which is uncharacteristic of most of the world's airports. (Update: As of March 2015, this restaurant space is under construction... not sure what it will be next.)
It's no secret that Seoul is a shopping heaven and this proves to be true at Incheon International, as well. I browsed quite a few of the duty free shops and although everyone seemed to be shopping for different souvenirs, it was evident that cosmetics are a hot commodity, as are packaged food items like kimchi and kim (dried seaweed). There are also a number of high-end shops such as Burberry, Cartier, and the world's first Louis Vuitton airport boutique for those looking for luxury items.
The folks that planned Incheon International obviously took into consideration the fact that travelers stuck on layovers or long-haul flights need some R&R. There are a number of tranquil gardens located throughout the airport and areas of secluded leather lounge chairs are available for resting.
Yet Spa on Air, the airport's in-house spa, allows visitors to experience superior pampering in a Korean jimjjilbang environment. With a number of luxurious hot tubs and a variety of massages offered, travelers can rid of those stiff necks and sore muscles often induced by long flights. For around 20,000 won ($16USD), they can also get a few hours of shut-eye in one of the spa's sleeping quarters.
In addition to the facilities mentioned above, the airport also boasts a number of playrooms for children, prayer rooms, hot showers, phone charging stations, and internet lounges, which are all free of charge.
Thanks to Incheon International Airport, gone are the days of airport-hatred and lackluster airplane travel. It's one of the few airports in the world where you'll be smiling at the mention of a delay or wishing your layover was just a little bit longer.
Have you been to Incheon International Airport before? What did you enjoy most about it? What do you think needs improvement?
For more information on Incheon International Airport, including maps and location information on the facilities noted above, click here.
Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be republished unless authorized.