South Korea may not have been on your travel radar before, but now tourism to South Korea is primed and ready to flourish. If you’ve never traveled to South Korea before, it may take a bit of adjusting. Give yourself a day or two to get acclimatized, and you’re sure to love this buzzing city.
Here are things you should know before visiting South Korea.
It’s safe, but…
South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the modern world. While its metropolitan areas are not free of petty thieves, con artists and drunken brawlers, they remain mostly safe at any hour of the day so long as you remain vigilant of your surroundings and keep a low profile.
That said, it should be noted that some of the country’s legal adjudications are, at times, unfairly biased against international visitors and residents.
Transportation is efficient and inexpensive
South Korea has a very good public transport system, it’s incredibly easy (and cheap) to get around. When you arrive, pick up a T-Money card, which can be used on public buses and subways in several different metropolitan cities. It also saves travelers the hassle of purchasing single journey subway tickets for every ride, and provides discounts on rides during transfers.
Note: If you’re on a crowded bus and standing, don’t be surprised if a passenger seated under you tugs at your bag. They are typically just offering to have you rest your bag on their lap. Politely decline or if feeling it’s safe, place the bag on their lap, but keep the strap around your arm/wrist.”
Google Maps will only get you so far
With South Korean secrecy on high alert, Google Maps is blocked from operating in its entirety in Seoul. Fortunately, “Maps.Me” works just as well but you’ll find that not everything is listed in English so it does take some getting used to!
The other option is planning your trip with Sygic Travel (formerly Tripomatic). I love this app. It makes travel planning so much easier. Sygic Travel allows you to plot points of interest on a map, including your hotel, so you can see exactly how far you need to travel between points. It shows you where each attraction is on a map, so you can visit them in the right order and save travel time. With pocket WiFi, it turns your mobile phone into a GPS tracking device so people with a poor sense of direction (like me) never get lost again. Pretty sweet right?
Seoul is very tech-ed up
This is the world’s most connected city. WiFi is integrated into every subway station, platform, train, and many public spaces, including some energy-efficient street lamps. Transit stations are equipped with digital information terminals and virtual stores, posted on street billboards, enable shopping and scheduling deliveries on the go.
In Seoul, low-income families are given free second-hand smart devices. The u-Seoul safety service pairs CCTV technology with GPS devices to alert caregivers and authorities when children, the elderly, and people with disabilities or Alzheimer’s stray from their designated safe zone. Driven by expansive infrastructure and competitive business environment, the city boasts super high-speed Internet at super low prices.
There’s no culture of tipping
Tipping is not customary in South Korea. In fact in many areas that westerners are accustomed to tipping (taxis, haircuts, drinks at a bar) it is seen as rude, because the recipient can be seen as not providing an appropriate service. So it’s best to follow the norm!
Soju is as cheap as water
South Korea is a drinking culture, and their national drink is soju, a clear, vodka-like drink. This distilled ethanol and water mix is so affordable it’s become the ultimate every-person’s drink. It can be enjoyed neat, in a cocktail, flavored with fruit, blended with yogurt, and combined with beer.
Soju is drunk out of shot glasses, and like all liquor in South Korea, it’s always served with food. Koreans drink in boisterous groups, regularly clinking glasses, while shouting geonbae! (cheers) and one shot-uh!
South Koreans have strict drinking etiquette: never pour your own drink, and when pouring for someone older than you, put one hand to your heart or your pouring arm as a sign of respect.
Korean chopsticks are made of metal, and are therefore more slippery than wooden ones, that can take some getting used to. Koreans won’t care about your chopstick skill level, but they might judge you for your chopstick etiquette.
Sitting down to a meal and picking up your chopsticks before your elders do, is considered rude; so is using them to dig around looking for something specific in your food. Don’t wield them as a spear or skewer.
Also, chopsticks must never be left sticking out of the rice bowl, as this resembles the way rice is offered to the dead. Unlike the Japanese, Koreans usually eat their rice with a spoon, and they never raise the rice bowl off of the table toward their mouths.
Look out for public demonstrations
News listings about demonstrations should be checked, especially near US Military bases. Demonstrations do tend to turn more violent than not. South Koreans fought hard to achieve the democratic society they now enjoy, and are among the top in the world when it comes to exercising their right to protest.
It’s okay to shout at your server
At restaurants in South Korea, servers will let you eat your meal without interruption, until you call them over to let them know that you need something, like second servings of galbi or another bottle of beer. This can be done in two ways. First, you can shout “Yogiyo!” which means, “I’m here!” Or, at some places, you can simply push the call button, a convenient summoning device built right into the table. When you’re ready to pay, take your bill (which is usually left on the table) straight to the counter.
Street food is everywhere
South Koreans hold dear an endless array of food rituals, but they are most sentimental about the street snack: warm goldfish-shaped bread stuffed with sweet red-bean filling, paper cups of chewy tteokbokki rice cakes with explosive spice that stains your mouth red or sugary cream-frosted waffles.
Korea’s street food is plentiful and varied. Sometimes it’s whimsical: spiraling skewers of potato chips, or hot dogs encased in French fries. Other times it’s homey: battered and deep-fried peppers, odeng fish cakes swimming in a salty broth. Koreans know these foods will be waiting for them, lining Seoul’s streets at all hours of the day and night. You’ll come to count on them too.
There’s no such thing as personal space
South Korea is a crowded country. It’s a cluster of stony mountains with only a few valleys and plains on which to build; there is simply no room for personal space in Seoul, or any other South Korean metropolis. The result is a lot of people in small spaces, and folks will not think twice about pushing and jostling in order to get onto a bus, into an elevator, or to those perfect onions at the market. So, if you happen to find yourself being elbowed in the subway or pushed while you’re waiting in line for the bathroom, don’t take it personally.
Japan is a touchy subject
South Korea has a long and complicated history with Japan that many tourists, long-term foreign residents, and even presidents don’t fully grasp. Tread lightly, as South Koreans are haunted by the 35 years of Japanese rule that from 1910 to 1945 forced tens of thousands of men into the Imperial Japanese Army and tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery.
Since then, the tragedy of “comfort women,” as they are euphemistically called, has cast a shadow over Korean-Japanese relations, as these partners in trade and allies in international relations, struggle to settle on history. It’s best to do some research on Korean-Japanese relations before you pack your bags.
Seoul is the city for lovers
South Koreans are romantics at heart, and have some distinctive ways to display their love. Couples wear matching outfits. Couple’s rings proclaim commitment, even without an official engagement. Lovers celebrate not just anniversaries but every one hundred days of their relationship. They observe Valentine’s Day, when girls dote on their boyfriends, and also White Day, imported from Japan and celebrated March 14, when the roles are reversed. If you’re lucky enough to be in love in Korea, don’t hold back.