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South Korea

Your Guide To South Korea

Seoul, soju, and samgyeopsal (삼겹살)

The world just can’t get enough of South Korea, also known as The Republic of Korea. 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 a flurry of people, but a small representation of the 10 million strong in the greater metropolitan area. This is a city where the past and the future sit side-by-side. As day melts into night, you’ll be greeted by a new side of Seoul⁠—one that never sleeps.

Korea has great nightlife and every pastime, be it shopping, drinking, and even eating, is considered a social activity. Koreans take going out very seriously and don’t be surprised if you walk out of a club and the sun is out. There’s a reason they call South Korea “the land of the morning calm”–the “morning calm” refers to the time when the party animals call it quits and head home… at the crack of dawn.

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. And fear not, getting around Korea is so easy. It would be an actual crime to not take advantage of the efficient transportation networks. Korea is not a passing trend; it is here to stay. The question is, are you ready for it?

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Hike to the top of Namsan Mountain at sunset in Seoul
Go snowboarding at the former Olympics venue, Yongpyongin, in Gangwan
Drink some tea at the Boseong Tea Fields in Jeollanam
Chow down on Korean street food at Gwangjang Market in Seoul
See dazzling fall foliage during an autumn hike in Jirisan National Park
Ride a rollercoaster at Everland Resort, South Korea’s most visited tourist attraction
Do a temple stay at Bongeuynsa Temple in Seoul
Try some sannakj i산낙지 (raw octopus) at Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan
Get a sex education at the 18+ Loveland in Jeju
Catch a glimpse of North Korea from The DMZ
Wander the colorful alleys of Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan
Pose for pretty pictures at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival in Gyeongsangnam
Bask in the glow of otherworldly lanterns at the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SOUTH KOREA

South Korea Travel HelpLanguage – Korean and hangul 한글 is the Korean alphabet. English is not widely spoken around the country, and even in the larger cities like Seoul and Busan, many Koreansespecially adultsare still very shy when it comes to speaking English. Children and teenagers are more likely to know the language and assist you when asking for help.

CurrencyThe unit of currency is the ₩ Korean Won (KRW). Banknote denominations come in 1000, 5000, 10000, and 5000 KRW. Coins range from 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 won. Debit and credit cards are accepted everywhere, with no minimum charge.

WeatherKorea is one of the only of places in the world where you can experience the textbook descriptions of all four seasons. The best time to visit is either the spring (Mar-May) or autumn (Sep-Nov), when the weather is not extremely hot or cold, and nature is at its most spectacular. Expect frigid, harsh winters with light snowfall, and muggy, hot summers.

Transportation – When it comes to transportation, Korea is a well-oiled machine. The only downfall is that with the language barrier, figuring out how to get around can pose somewhat of a challenge. But what you have available to you is inexpensive taxis, timely buses, impressive subway systems, and both slow regional trains and fast inter-city bullet train. For travelers, the best thing you can do is invest in a T-Money card, a transportation card that can be used on buses, subways, and even taxis. For more info, jump to the ‘Plan Your Trip‘ section of the page.

Food – Korean cuisine is savory and spicy. It is defined by rice, fermentation, and pork. Staples include korean barbecue (고기구이), bibimbap (비빔밥), and on every table, you’ll find kimchi (김치), the quintessential side dish. This is not a vegetarian friendly cuisine, however if you are looking for traditional vegetarian meals, you’ll most likely find them at Buddhist temples. 

Safety – Korea is considered to be one of the safest destinations in the world, especially for female solo travelers. Since most businesses/establishments stay open all night long, there is little need to be vigilant when being alone late at night. Koreans are very honest and non-confrontational. The only thing to be cautious of is verbal harassment/drinking-related misbehavior from people in nightlife areas.

Health – Drinking the tap water is not advised. Also, Korea has been suffering from a serious air pollution problem, ranking 5th country on the countries with the world’s worst air pollution list. Those with severe respiratory conditions are advised to check the air quality indexes while traveling.

WIFI/Sim Card – Korea has the world’s fastest internet, readily available in many public spaces like tourist attractions and cafes. At the 1st floor arrivals hallways in Incheon Airport, you can buy the KT Olleh data-only sim card (only for unlocked phones), which includes unlimited data. Buy a 1-day card (6,600 KRW), a 5-day card (27,500 KRW) or a 10-day card (38,500 KRW). This is highly advised given that many of the navigation tools in Korea are all web-based mobile applications. South Korea is also on the KeepGo mobile hotspot list.

What To Bring Home – Soju, beauty products and cosmetics, engraved dojang name seals, stationery goods, metal chopsticks, cute socks, Korean snacks, street fashion

Travel Tips for South Korea

COST PER DAY

Meals: $25-30
Korean BBQ: $10-15
Dorm Room: $15-25
Guesthouse: $30-70
3-star Hotel: $120+
Local subway/bus: $15-20
Inter-city Train: $10-40
Soju: $1-2
Spa/Sauna: $5-13

TOTAL = $90 USD

MUST PACK

Voltage adapter
External battery pack
A pair of good walking shoes
Scarf
Umbrella
Breathable clothes (Jun – Aug)
Winter jacket (Oct – Mar)
Tampons (hard to find)
Deodorant (most have whitening cream)

GOOD ADVICE

Love or money? – If you’re a couple traveling on a tight budget and aren’t picky, stay at a love motel. Love motels are short-stay hotels, booked by local couples looking for some alone time. While some are a bit sketch, others are simply standard rooms with queen size beds plus all the amenities (and then some) for around 40,000 KRW a night.

How Do You Say... in Korean

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 – 맥주 (maek-ju)

How much is it? – 얼마예요 (ol-mah-ye-yo)

Please give me a discount 카카 주세요 (ka-ka-ju-se-yo)

Foreigner –외국 (way-gook)

Navigating A Menu in South Korea

BIBIMBAP (비빔밥)

Meaning “mixed rice,” this rice dish is topped with dried seaweed, vegetables, meat, egg, and dressed in gochujang (a spicy chili paste) to bind all the elements together. Dolsot bibimbap is served in hot stone vessel, toasting the rice at the bottom.

KOREAN BBQ (고기구이)

A do-it-yourself dining experience where you grill your own meat at the table with a built-in hotplate. The most popular meats are salty-sweet marinated beef ribs (galbi 갈비) and fatty cuts of pork belly (samgyeopsal 삼겹살). This is a group activity more than everyday, solo fare. The meat is wrapped in the lettuce leaves and eaten with ban chan.

SOJU (소주)

A clear liquor traditionally distilled from rice, but can also be made with other starches like potato and tapioca. Mass produced soju is cheapyou can buy it at a convenience store for 1,600 KRW, and comes in the iconic green bottles. Typically consumed neat, you can also buy the flavored kinds.

CHIMAEK (치맥)

Chicken, meet maekju 맥주 (beer). The result of the union is none other than chimaek, a favorite Korean meal. Korean fried chicken is double fried to achieve its oh-so-crispy skin, and then smothered in a delightful sweet and spicy sauce. The chicken is always eaten with picked radish cubes, known as chicken-mu 치킨무.

GIMBAP (김밥)

Korea’s equivalent to sushi. The main difference is gimbap rice is seasoned with sesame oil, whereas sushi rice is soaked in vinegar. Also gimbap are usually packed with pickled vegetables, burdock root, meat (bulgogi being my favorite addition), and rolled egg. A quick and convenient meal.

DAK GALBI (닭갈비)

A spicy stir-fry consisting of gochujang-marinated chicken, tteok 떡 (steamed rice cake), perilla leaves, and cabbage. The meal is normally cooked right before your eyes by the servers. The cheesy take of dak galbi is very popular with the younger generation.

NAENGMYEON (냉면)

Made from chewy buckwheat noodles, garnished with cucumbers, egg, and sliced radish. There are two types: mul naengmyeon (물 냉면), an icy soup served with mustard and vinegar, and bibim naengmyeon (비빔 냉면), a dry version served with gochujang.

BAN CHAN (김치)

Ban chan is the term used for the bottomless side dishes that accompany a main meal. Sit-down meals are typically served with a smattering of ban chan. The most popular is kimchi (김치), a spicy fermented cabbage and permanent fixture at every dinner table. My personal favorites are pajeon (파전), a savory pancake, and japchae (잡채), a noodle dish made from sweet potato.

Plan Your Trip to South Korea

Flights to South Korea from the USA are becoming more and more affordable. Asiana Airlines and Korean Air are my preferred airlines when traveling to Korea.

WHERE TO FLY INTO

Incheon International Airport (ICN), sometimes called the Seoul-Incheon International Airport. Ranked the 3rd best airport in the world, it sports luxury amenities like an ice skating rink, a spa with private sleeping rooms, a casino, a Museum of Korean culture, and even a golf course. From the airport, take the Seoul Metro or splurge on an express train that goes directly to Seoul Station, the main train station.

Gimpo International Airport (GMP) is another international airport located in Seoul that services regional routes to neighboring Asian countries, as well as handles most domestic flightpaths.

VISAS FOR AMERICANS

90-day visa upon arrival for tourists and business travelers.

LOCAL TRANSPORT

Overnight buses: $15-20 USD (usually 2-5 hour rides)
Flights from Seoul (GMP) to Jeju: Starting at $30 RT

SUGGESTED TRAVEL DAYS

If you have only a week, spend it all in Seoul. Splitting a week between Seoul and Busan is a big ask. If you have two weeks, divide your time between Seoul, Busan and Jeju:

Seoul – 6 days
Busan – 3 days
Jeju – 3 days

South Korea’s infrastructure has been designed with convenience in mind. The easiest and fastest way to cover ground is by train. There are three methods of train travel: 1) the high-speed Korean Train Express railway (KTX for short) takes only 2 hours and 45 minutes from Seoul to Busan. A step lower are 2) the Saemaeul trains, which only stop at major towns. Last but not least, while you’re subjected to many more stops on the 3) regional Mugunghwa trains, the upside is you can travel at an even 50% the cost of both the KTX and Saemaeul lines. On weekends and public holidays, the trains get booked out well in advance so try to check times and availability ahead on the Korail website. If all the trains are booked out, there always the intercity bus routes that will take you to every corner of South Korea at all hours of the day.

Pro-Tip: When you travel, the T-Money transportation card you can buy at any convenience store will be a lifesaver (see under ‘Transporation’ in Essentials). You can purchase the card for 2,000 KRW and load with any given amount. Also, make sure to tap off the bus/subway when transferring to another mode of transportation. In Korea, you are charged per ride (transfers are considered one ride) and not by distance traveled. Also Google Maps does not work in Korea—their preferred navigation system is Naver Maps or Kakao maps. You will need to download the Korean keyboard on your device to input addresses on the apps.

Capital of South Korea

Seoul

When I first moved to Korea, I never imagined Seoul would become my favorite city in the world! There’s never a dull moment in Seoul. Armed with a good pair of walking shoes and the Naver Maps and Seoul Metro apps on your phone, you can go just about anywhere. Avid walkers can find much needed respite within the dynamic city at the likes of Seoul Forest, Seokchon Lake, and Cheonggyecheon Stream. More of a bike person? Cycle the banks of the Han River. For the fashion fanatics, shop ’til you drop in Myeongdong, a shopping district with cutesy boutiques, cult cosmetic brands, and luxury department stores. For a more historic approach to the nation’s capital, visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of all the Joseon dynasty complexes located in Seoul. Pro-tip: rent a hanbok (the traditional Koran dress) for free entry to the palace. You can even spend a night in a hanok 한옥, the houses of yesteryear, complete with their heated floors and mulberry paper doors, in Bukchon Cultural Village. Insadong has various teahouses and cultural performances for in need of a crash course to Korean culture. There’s never a shortage of food options in Seoul, but if you’re a serious eater, make your way to Gwangjang Market to sample some kalguksu 칼국수, knife-cut noodle soup, or bindaetteok 빈대떡, a mung bean pancake washed down with a fermented rice wine known as makgeolli 막걸리. For more offbeat stops on your itinerary, check out Ihwa Mural Village to snap up some street art shots, or cuddle up with meerkats at Meerkat Friends, one of the many trendy themed cafes to have cropped up in recent years. Party the night away in hipster playground of Hongdae, or the foreigner’s stomping ground of Itaewon, or the flashy clubs of Gangnam.

If I could suggest one place to visit, it would be to hike Namsan Mountain just before sunset 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. The route to the top is riddled with hidden lookout points and charming gazebos.. Once you’re at the summit, take the elevator to N Tower observatory deck or the rotating fine dining restaurant called N Grille. At the base of N Tower is the site of Seoul’s Locks of Love public art display. You can buy or bring your own padlock to tag with the name of a loved one to then lock onto the railway as a testament of your enduring love to your special person. Take the cable car down once the sun has set.

Getting Around

While taxi is inexpensive, Seoul’s subway is so impressive and simple. Download the Seoul Metro app on your phone and plug in your destination to find out the best route. If you need a taxi, stick to the orange taxis. They are regular taxis (although the base rate changes from day to night). The black taxis are the deluxe taxis and cost double the orange taxis. The subway opens at 5:30 AM and closes promptly at midnight.

Read More

Check out my City Guide: Seoul for a more detailed look at Seoul.

A beachside second city

Busan

Busan, the second largest city in Korea, is located on the waterfront and has a much more chilled-out vibe than that of Seoul. Mellow out at one of its many beaches, the most popular one being Haeundae, or find your zen at Haedong Yongungsa, the well-known seaside temple splashed on many of the city’s tourist campaigns. With its close proximity to the ocean, the seafood here is cooked fresh and you can sample the best of Busan’s seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market. Busan also has a pretty fancy submarine-themed aquarium with an elevated Korean sauna experience called Spaland. For you artsy types, take a bus to Gamcheon Culture Village and soak in all the pretty colored houses of this former slum. In Busan, you get to work on your soul as opposed to losing it in Seoul.

How To Get There

Take a direct flight to Busan’s Gimhae International Airport from a regional Asian destination. You can also take a train or bus from any bus terminal or train station. A one-way ticket from Seoul to Busan on the KTX is 60,000 KRW and takes roughly, 2 hours and 45 minutes. The Saemaeul class cost 43,000 KRW one way and takes 4.5 hours. The Express Bus from Seoul to Busan takes the same time and is only half the cost, at 23,000 KRW.

The Hawaii of Korea

Jeju Island

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, mystical statues known as ‘dol hareubangs, ’ or the ‘stone grandfathers” in the island’s dialect, and its bizzare sex theme park called Loveland, which is not actually all that peculiar considering the island is one of the top honeymoon destinations for Korean newlyweds. I haven’t visited the island so go check out Adventures with NieNie’s action packed 2-day Jeju Itinerary.

How To Get There

Fly into Jeju International Airport or take a ferry from a port city, the most convenient being Mokpo. Flights during low season are $30 roundtrip from Seoul, and take only an hour.

MY PACKING LIST FOR SOUTH KOREA

Do more research

The Soul of SeoulA family-friendly expat blog dedicated to Seoul

50 South Korea Travel Tips by There She Goes Again

22 Fun Things to Do in South Korea by Two Wandering Soles

A One Stop Guide For Where To Stay in Seoul by Bobo and Chichi

First Timer’s Travel Guide to South Korea by Will Fly For Food

A 2D,1N Busan Itinerary by The Calm Chronicle

50 Quintessential Bucket List Items by The Hedgers Abroad

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Millette Pulido is a Bay Area-based, Boston-bred Filipina who loves to vagabond. At 29, the former expat has traded in her nomadic ways for a semi-grounded life in San Jose, CA. Recently married, she's focusing on balancing travel with a full-time job and a destination wedding side hustle, all while planning her honeymoon in 2020. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps. Find out her #wheretonext on Instagram @thenextsomewhere.

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