The quick guide to Korea covers all your basic traveling needs to Asia’s hottest destination!
IN A NUTSHELL
Korean Fever has taken over the planet.
Ever since Psy’s breakout hit of ‘Gangnam-Style,’ the world just can’t get enough of South Korea. From beauty products and barbeque to the return of boy bands, Korea is exploding on the fashion, food, and entertainment scenes.
After living in Korea, I’ve come to understand how this frenzy came to be. Seoul, Korea’s glamorous capital, is becoming Asia’s coolest city. As you step out the gates of Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s oldest palace, you are greeted by dazzling skyscrapers and streets teeming with people, a small representation of the 10 million strong in the greater metropolitan area. There are three main things for the traveler who ends up in Korea to remember.
Number 1: the party NEVER stops. I learned why Korea’s nickname is “The Land of the Morning Calm” during the first time I stayed out until sunrise. When you step out of the club at 7 am, dehydrated and haggard beyond belief, it’s unusually eerie to see quiet, empty streets. The “morning calm” is indicative of the time when the whole nation of partygoers call it quits and head home (finally). Fridays in Korea are called “Bul Geum,” literally meaning “Fire Friday”. It’s a term used to describe the excitement the entire nation engages in just as the work week ends and the weekend begins.
Number 2: you WILL shop until your drop. South Korea is consumerism at its finest! There are shops above ground, below ground, and ten-stories up in the air. People love to buy, buy, buy here. Shopping is not a pastime in Korea; its an actual lifestyle and you better be up for spending the moolah or else you’ll be missing out on the action.
Number 3: prepare to eat like a champion. Korean cuisine is spicy and savory and will take your tastebuds to places it has never been before. Scraping sizzling rice from the bottom of a hot stone bowl while grilling your own marinated pork ribs over a bed of charcoal as you pound shots of soju will be THE experience you talk about in years to come. Eating here is not about sustenance, it’s more of a social activity! Friends become family around the table. And I cannot tell you how much of a shock it came to me that Korea not only serves up its own cuisine as good as it gets, but that it has taken favorites from all over the world and made them (dare I say) better?!! From pizza to pastries to good ol’ fried chicken, you won’t even believe me until you try it yourself.
It’s not just about partying and shopping and eating. Apart from high-tech, modern cities, South Korea’s countryside is filled with rolling mountains and sandy beaches lining the peninsula. In the springtime, cherry blossoms rain down from the sky. After summer passes, lush greenery transforms into fall foliage that could even outmatch that of my beloved New England. It is a destination where one can experience all four seasons in their truest state. And fear not, getting around Korea is a piece of cake! With a hyper-speed train system similar to that of Japan’s bullet train for half the cost, you can get around quickly without breaking the bank. From Busan to Seoul on the KTX which are on other sides of the country, it would take you only 2 and a half hours! If you wanted to take the slower Mugunghwa train, you’d be subjected to many more stops but at an even cheaper rate. Inner-city bus systems available in all the major cities are reliable and the Seoul Metro at first may overwhelm even the bravest of adventurers but once you get in the habit of figuring out the last stop on the lines, you’ll be navigating the underground like a pro!
Korea is not just a passing craze. It’s here to stay – question is, are you ready for it?
HOW DO YOU SAY?
Hello – 안녕하세요 (ahn-yeong-ha-seh-yo)
Thank you – 감사합니다 (kahm-sa-ham-ni-dah)
Yes – 네 (ne)
No –아니오 (anee-yo)
I’m hungry – 배 고파요 (bae go-pa-yo)
Excuse me/just a moment – 잠시만요 (jam-shi-man-yo)
Please (Please give) – 주세요 (ju-seh-yo)
Where is the (something) – 어디예요 (…. o-di-ye-yo)
Beer/Soju – 맥주/소주 (maek-ju/so-ju)
How much is it? – 얼마예요 (ol-mah-ye-yo)
I can’t speak Korean well – 한국말 잘 못해요 (han-guk-mal jal mot-hae-yo)
Foreigner –외국인 (way-gook-in)
NAVIGATE A MENU
The name literally translates to “mixed rice” which denotes the entire premise of the dish. If you order it dolsot-style, the rice, dried seaweed, sautéed vegetables, meat and eggs are served in a hot stone bowl.
Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), Galbi (갈비), and Bulgogi ()
The triumvirate of all gastronomical delights in Korea. A do-it-yourself experience as you grill sweetly marinated beef ribs and fatty cuts of pork strips on a hot plate. The perfect accompaniment to a charbroiled dinner is the Korean rice liquor, soju, which makes everything taste so much better. Warning: beware of drinking too many shiny green bottles – it’s highly potent and will induce stupidity beyond your wildest dreams.
When chicken meets maekju aka beer, the most beautiful union is formed. This is the secret (South) Korea has been hiding all these years. Korea makes the BEST friend chicken in the entire world! There is simply no contest. Don’t forget to munch on the sugar radish cubes that come as a side dish.
If the first time doesn’t charm you, try it again. This meal is the reason why Koreans actually look forward to their muggy hot and humid summers. You will find the icy soup of cold buckwheat noodles garnished with cucumbers, egg, and radish strangely delightful, especially on a hot summer’s day.
The suffix “jeon” refers to a Korean pancake made of wheat and rice flour and a variety of other meats and vegetables. Its usually recognized by the specks of diced green onion which is the perfect treat for vegetarians looking for some solace in this meat-heavy culture. My personal favorite is haemul pajeon, a seafood variety of the jeon where pieces of squid and clam are fried into the battery goodness.
Although it looks a lot like sushi, there are major differences between the two recipes. First and foremost, gimbap rice is lightly seasoned with sesame oil whereas sushi rice is soaked in vinegar. Also the closest thing you’ll get to raw fish in gimbap is a sliver of imitation crab. Gimbap are usually stuffed with pickled vegetables, meat (bulgogi being my favorite addition), and eggs. It’s a snack food rather than fine dining.
PLAN YOUR JOURNEY
When I first moved to Korea, I never imagined Seoul would become my favorite city in the world! There’s a lot to do and see in Seoul so I’ve drafted up an extensive guide to the city here.
The one thing I suggest you cannot miss in Seoul is an afternoon visit to Namsan Mountain, the highest point in all of Seoul. Climb Namsan Mountain to get a bird’s eye view of the mega-city which is especially great for those who don’t have enough time to see it all by foot. It’s a bit of a cheat (not to mention a legit rip-off) to take the cable car to the top of the mountain so if you’re in good enough shape, I suggest putting in the hard work and trailing up the mountain. You’ll be rewarded with hidden lookout points, Korean-esque gazebos to rest up, and a great glute exercise. It’s quite a romantic spot so if anyone is anti-Valentine’s Day all-year-round, invest in a pair of blinders. The giant N Seoul Tower sticks out like a sore thumb as you summit. Once you’re at the top, you can elevator on up to the tower’s observatory deck. But if you stay grounded, you get to hang with locals and tourists alike who are all snapping selfies with their significant others holding their Locks of Love, padlocks that testify to a couple’s enduring love, as the sun sets in the background.
Too much partying not your style? Busan, the second largest city in Korea is located on the waterfront and has a much more chilled-out vibe than that of Seoul. With beaches to mellow out on and the possibility of a temple stay at nearby Buddhist temples, you get to work on your soul in Busan as opposed to losing it in Seoul. With its close proximity to the ocean, the seafood here is cooked fresh. Busan also has a pretty fancy submarine-themed aquarium with a great Korean spa close by. For you artsy types, take a short trip outside of Busan to the Gamcheon Culture Village and soak in all the pretty colored houses.
Jeju Island is one of the elite seven that make up “7 The New Natural Wonders of the World”. Also called the “Island of the Gods,” it is home to Hallasan Mountain, the tallest peak in Korea (and also a dormant volcano), the famously sweet hallabong tangerines, and its bizzare sex theme park, which is not actually all that peculiar considering the island is one of the top honeymoon destinations for Korean newlyweds.
Korea definitely surprised me with all it had to offer and I’m lucky to have lived there as an expat. Do you have anything to add to this quick guide to Korea? Leave a comment below! xoxo Izzy