Seoul has always been one of those fascinating places for me. I thought I had an idea what it would be like but it wasn’t until I arrived and spent a few days exploring with Matt that I realised it was actually much different to what I’d imagined. There’s a love of hiking and coffee and a vibrant world of beauty and music. Food is everything and there’s so much good stuff on offer! It’s a modern city infused with old-world quirks where skyscrapers overlook historic sites. If you’re lucky enough to be planning your own adventure, here are 19 things I think you really need to know before you visit Seoul.
You may like to read: This is what you need to pack for a trip to Seoul.
1. You can get around easily and cheaply on the train
We used the train/subway to get around Seoul and found it really easy to figure out. Not only that but it’s an affordable option too, especially if you’re travelling on a budget. The only downside to the train is there can be a big walking distance when transferring between lines so make sure you’re wearing very comfortable walking shoes.
2. It’s a safe country
We felt totally and completely safe in Seoul during our stay. There was never a moment we felt like we shouldn’t be walking in an area or as though we were in a dodgy area. I’d say Seoul is a great destination for solo travellers, especially solo female travellers. Of course, as always, it’s important to have a common sense approach to safety no matter where you are in the world! Don’t get wasted and wander down a dark alley late at night with all your money pinned to you.
3. The locals are unfazed by North Korea
Both Matt and I were curious to find out how the locals of South Korea felt about potential safety threats from North Korea. We got the opportunity to ask a local and, simply put, they aren’t worried. From what I understand, the locals are used to it and don’t let it bother them. We visited the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea and, I gotta say, we felt safe the whole time. It was surprisingly normal (minus the invasion tunnels…)
4. Cafe culture is real
If you love cafes you are going to love Seoul! There are so many great cafes to visit and what I loved is that many of them are themed cafes or offer special, cute and unique food and beverages. I’d recommend doing an Instagram or Google trawl looking for cute cafes in Seoul and putting together a ‘must-visit’ list for yourself if you love cool cafes.
5. Tipping isn’t necessary
While it may feel weird to anyone from Canada or the U.S, you don’t need to tip in Seoul. But a simple thank you and a kind smile will go a long way.
6. The street food is amazing
You know when you visit some countries and you’re a bit cautious about eating the street food just in case you get an upset tummy?! Well, we went in on the street food in Seoul and it was delicious and didn’t cause a single bout of an upset tummy. As I understand, not all street food is equal and you may find some is far from authentic so pick and choose your spots and follow your instincts.
7. South Korean’s are coffee addicts
I really wasn’t expecting this but it turns out the people of Seoul are coffee addicts and, honestly, same! The drink of choice is an Americano and you’ll see them plastered on signs all about Seoul. The feedback I’ve heard is that an Americano in Seoul may be a little more watery and less strong than you may be used to but, when in Rome… or… Seoul…! Also, if you don’t drink dairy products (me) you may find it a little hard to find a soy latte… Starbucks is going to be your best bet!
8. Make sure you pack an umbrella
We went out one day and didn’t pack an umbrella and very much regretted it when the skies opened up! The rain was pelting down hard and we had no choice but to buy a new one and save our very expensive cameras while the rest of us got wet. Idiots. So, make sure you pack an umbrella and take it with you when you go out. We also found it came in handy a few times when we were walking around in the very hot sun.
9. Hiking is a favourite past-time
If you love hiking, you’re in for a real treat! There are some great hikes near Seoul and getting out into nature will give you a different perspective on this awesome city. Hiking culture is real and the locals absolutely love it so make sure you pack your hiking gear and make the most! Some of the trails near Seoul offer amazing views of the city, which will make for amazing photo opportunities (Airdrop me!)
10. The chopsticks may be a little trickier
I lived in Singapore so, you know, I don’t exactly consider myself a chopstick rookie but, you guys, the chopsticks in Seoul really threw me! Rather than being thick with the round at the bottom, square at the top shape, we all know and love, they’re significantly thinner and flatter, like uncooked, metal fettuccine! They’re also usually made of steel! I got the hang of it but, dang, I had some crazy hand cramps.
11. Soju is King
Let me warn you up front – do not try to outdrink someone from South Korea. There, you’ve been warned. Soju is the drink of choice in South Korea and it’s lethal when consumed at the ‘right’ pace and volume. It’s a clear, colourless rice liquor that’s usually consumed straight-up, though you can mix it with something like Sprite if needed. The dangerous part is it’s incredibly cheap and can be purchased at any 7-11 style store! Make sure you read the bottle to check what you’re buying because I’m pretty sure someone at some point has accidentally bought one thinking it was a soft drink.
12. There’s a ‘less is more’ approach to makeup
The North American approach to makeup can include things like carving out your brows, baking, highlight and contour, fake lashes and full-coverage foundation. In Seoul, I didn’t see anything like this! All the make-up I saw was light and dewy skin with natural-looking brows, mascara and blush topped off with a coloured lip gloss. I really enjoyed seeing the different Korean makeup trends and styles – I definitely adapted some of them myself and enjoyed wearing less makeup.
13. You can spend days shopping
Sometimes I like to go into beauty stores and spend an hour or two just looking at stuff and trying it out. In Seoul, I’m pretty sure you could spend weeks doing that because there are loads of beauty and makeup stores to visit! Not to mention all the awesome clothing, accessories and shoe stores too. If you love to shop, Seoul is going to blow your mind.
14. K-Pop is truly amazing!
I’d heard of K-Pop but I didn’t truly understand it until we got the amazing opportunity to attend the filming of a K-Pop television show. It gave me a much better understanding and appreciation for it! The band members work really, really hard, dancing for something like 10 hours a day to learn routines followed by singing sessions.
The fans love them for it and they create their own fan lyrics for songs which they sing during the pauses of the actual song. They sing things like, ‘we love you, we remember you, we support you,’ and so on. Each group has their own special light or torch with its own unique shape and colour. The fans hold them up and the artists can spot their fans! The whole thing is actually really cool and many young people from Seoul dream of becoming a K-Pop idol. I know I do!
15. There’s Won currency to rule them all…
Yep, that’s my attempt at a really cool ‘Won’ joke. Don’t judge me. As you’ve now guessed, the currency in South Korea is the Won! Make sure you download a currency conversion app to help you figure out the cost of things as you go. We use XE Currency because it’s free (yes!) and reliable but if you have another one you prefer, that’s cool too. Now, go forth and spend… Obi Won Kenobi… (How’d I do that time?)
16. If you can’t read Korean, get Google Translate
We can’t read or speak Korean so we did struggle a little bit the first day we were there. We just found it hard to know what was what because we couldn’t tell! Is it a restaurant? A spa? A hotel? We didn’t know. Then, we met a couple of friendly Americans at a restaurant and they told us Google Translate would help us. You download the app to your phone and can use it to translate a conversation from English to Korean and back again (super helpful when ordering at a restaurant, especially if you have food allergies). The app can also translate signs and menus, for example, with your phone’s camera. Look, it’s a bit hit and miss at times but you’ll get the general idea of what’s what.
17. The food is generally pretty spicy
Korea did not come to play! When they say something is spicy, they really mean it. That said, I’m not a spicy food master. I like a bit of spice but I still like to have feeling in my face after I’m done eating. I ordered a spicy tofu soup at a restaurant and it was fine! So, yes, they don’t mess around with spice but you should be able to handle it. If you really hate spice, you best be downloading Google Translate ASAP!
18. English can be tricky…
I asked a local if English is widely spoken and she felt that, yes, most Koreans do know some English but they most likely wouldn’t speak it to us. According to her, this is because they may feel self-conscious about their pronunciation and rather than feel embarrassed they stick to Korean.
19. Plastic surgery is popular
Where people in North America, for example, may hide their surgeries and treat it as a taboo subject, the people of South Korea are all about it! As I understand, plastic surgery procedures are very popular among young people in Seoul who will undergo procedures like nose jobs without hesitation. In fact, plastic surgery procedures can be ‘gifted’ to children by their parents (not little kids but, like, when you’re off to college or whatever). If you want to read more about it, this article is really interesting and delves into the history and unique cultural aspects of Korean plastic surgery.
How to get there and where to stay
We flew direct from Singapore to Seoul with Singapore Airlines. If you’re thinking of doing the same thing, flying via Singapore is a great way to do it. We got to spend a few days exploring Singapore on our way back, which extended our trip and broke things up nicely. Of course, we had an amazing experience with Singapore Airlines. The food was delicious, the service was exceptional, we had plenty of great movies to watch to pass the time and our seats were super comfy.
In Seoul, we stayed at TMark Grand Hotel in Meyongdong and loved it. The hotel was located close to a train station and Meyongdong so we could easily get around and there was plenty to see and do nearby. The room was modern, clean and very comfortable. You may find it a little smaller than what you’re used to in places like North America but it was honestly fine! I’m not sure if smaller rooms are a consistent thing throughout South Korea but, like I said, it didn’t bother us. The hotel staff were amazing, the breakfast was delicious and we had a really good stay.
Useful travel resources for your trip to South Korea
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Skyscanner – our go-to for booking flights
Agoda – one of our go-to sites for booking hotels
Booking.com – another of our go-to sites for booking hotels
RentalCars.com – a great search engine for renting a car
TourRadar – a great search engine for booking tours