Offering plethora of activities ranging from beaches and mountains to the charming countryside and bustling vibrant cities, South Korea is an amazing travel destination and one of the safest countries on Earth. You might think that South Korea is similar to other East Asian countries but it’s actually rather different. There are a lot of things that make South Korea and Koreans unique and there are a lot of things you should know before visiting Korea. Here are some of the things I wish I knew before my trip to Korea.
Things to know before visiting Korea- Getting a Visa
First things first. Before planning to visit South Korea, you need to check if you need a visa. You can do that here and if you’re coming from a country that needs a visa, you can apply for one on the same page. IVisa is a reputable company with a long history behind them and even though I usually don’t support applying for visas online, I can vouch for them as I have used their services personally.
Learn some basic Korean
One of the most useful things you can do before traveling to South Korea is to pick up a few words and phrases. Sure, you can try to get by with simply speaking English everywhere you go, but you’d gain so much more out of your experience by learning to fraternize with the locals a little bit. A lot of locals do speak some English but most of them won’t simply because they’re too conscious and uncomfortable with their pronunciation.
If you want to prepare yourself for an immersive experience and learn Korean, you might want to pick up a few lessons with an online tutor. Here are the best Korean tutors online that should help you learn some basics before your trip. You should at least learn how to greet people, order food and drinks, and ask for directions. These are all things that’ll make your time in Korea far more meaningful. I mean, how can you say you experienced what South Korea has to offer without even interacting with its people?
Or if learning the language is too much of a challenge, you should at least try to…
Learn some Hangul (it’s very easy)
Hangul is the South Korean language alphabet. Different from Chinese, it’s actually phonetic, which means that it’s made from letters that you can sound out as opposed to having characters that you need to memorize.
When you first look at it, it might seem a bit incomprehensible, but it’s actually rather simple to learn. Some people can even get the hang of it in a single day. If you’re able to learn Hangul, it can make your Korean trip easier, even if you aren’t able to speak the language. This is because you’ll have the ability to recognize the names of food on the menus and even street names and destinations.
Get acquainted with Korean culture
One great way to learn about a new country’s culture is through movies, music, and local pop culture. K-Pop is a very important part of Korean society and some of their movies are severely underrated.
Fortunately, Korean popular culture is easier than ever to get into. There’s the hit movie Parasite, the World-renowned boy band BTS, and you can even find a Korean drama website to brush up on even more TV and movies. Immersing yourself in these things will do more than just give you a crash course in pop culture though, you can also pick up a few Korean words if you’ve got an ear for languages.
Of course, this isn’t necessary but it can help you relate to and understand Koreans and their ways of doing things. This will also help you converse with Koreans while…
Distinguishing patriotic pride from arrogance
Most Koreans are proud of their country and they aren’t shy to bring up kimchi, soju or famous K-pop stars. As a first-timer, this might seem like Koreans thinking that their things are better than everyone else’s but that’s not true. This is just a way of them showing their patriotic pride. In situations like this, try to show some appreciation or share some positive things you learned about Korea and you might even make some local friends along the way.
Korea might be a democratic republic with a president and a Prime Minister but Confucius is still the king. Today, the legacy of Confucianism is a fundamental part of Korean society. In fact, Confucianism is shaping not only the country’s moral system, but also the way of life, all social interactions between Korean people, and is even the basis for much of Korea’s legal system. For many, Confucianism in Korea is a pragmatic way of keeping the entire nation together despite the civil wars and internal dissent inherited from the Goryeo dynasty.
Get used to no personal space
Even though South Korea covers a territory of only 100,000 square kilometers, the country’s total population is 50 million. Half of these 50 million live in the Seoul Metropolitan Area! If you’re traveling to Korea, a visit to Seoul is inevitable. And since we’re speaking of things to know before visiting Korea get used to shoving and pushing while you walk down the street. Don’t take this personally, people aren’t being rude. It’s just the only way to move around a sardine can like Seoul or even Busan and Incheon.
That’s why it’s very surprising that…
Public transport is very efficient
Getting around South Korea is very easy because of the amazing public transport. One good piece of advice I can give you is to buy a T-money card as soon as your reach. You can use this on public subways and buses in quite a few of the cities. It’ll also save you the hassle of having to buy a single ticket each time you ride the bus or subway, and it gives you discounts on rides when you have to transfer.
Transport-related apps you can use
When you have the world’s longest metro line (Seoul), it’s natural to expect that figuring out public transport can be challenging at times. And the fact that everything on the station is written in Korean certainly doesn’t help. However, there are a few apps that can make this easier. Every bigger city has a metro app (in English) that you can use while staying there (ex. Seoul Metro App, Busan Metro App, etc.). And if you’re looking for some more useful tips about traveling to Korea, check out the app VisitKorea.
What about using KTX?
The Korean Train Express is probably the easiest and fastest way of getting around Korea. These trains can get you to your final destination twice faster than a regular train but it’ll also cost twice as much. So, it all comes down to what’s more important for you; time or money. The website is relatively user-friendly and allows travelers to book their tickets up to several months in advance.
Intercity buses are a great budget option to get to different places. You can get to every small village in Korea by buses, they’re slightly faster than regular trains and provide more flexibility to canceling and making changes to your booking. The best way is to buy tickets at bus terminals but you can also book in advance on websites like Bustago and Kobus.
And speaking of important transportation things to know before visiting Korea …
Don’t use black cabs
If you end up making this mistake, you’ll be hit with a big bill at the end of your ride. These cabs are known as “deluxe taxis” and charge a premium fee for supposedly being safer and more trustworthy. However, once you get to Korea, you’ll see that these cabs are just not worth it.
How are the hotels in South Korea?
Even the cheapest hotels are relatively nice and hygienic but you’ll be surprised by the price difference. Sure, you can find guesthouses and small hotels that charge $15- $20 per night but the most expensive hotels like the Holiday Inn can charge up to $300 per night which is more than the Holiday Inns in the US or Europe!
If you’re looking for a great hotel deal in South Korea, use this Booking.com discount code to save up to 15% on all properties in South Korea.
And speaking of hotels, one of the most important things to know before visiting Korea is…
Beware of check-in and check-out times
Most Korean hotels don’t allow their guests to check-in before a certain time (ex. 10 AM). The ones that do might charge 50% of the daily rate for early check-in. You should always have this in mind when planning your trip.
What are love motels?
Love motels originally appeared in South Korea in the 1980s and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul fuelled their growth. Love motels are, just as their name describes, a place where couples can enjoy some privacy and charge their customers per hour. They’re still a taboo topic in Korea and a lot of people don’t like them in their neighborhoods but you can find a lot of nice love motels offering cleaner rooms and a lot of modern services.
Things to know before visiting Korea- Korean food
If you like spicy food and are a non-vegetarian, you’ll have a great time in Korea. Kimchi is an obvious first choice but there are a lot of great dishes to try, like Korean BBQ, gamjatang, pajeon, japchae, bulgogi, Korean seitan sandwich, naengmyeon, and of course, street food. However, before you do this, learn some (Korean) table manners. Here are a few things to know before dining in a restaurant (or in someone’s house) in Korea.
Koreans usually use metal chopsticks. Obviously, these are used the same way as wooden chopsticks, except they’re more slippery that can be challenging if you don’t know how to use chopsticks. Luckily, most Koreans won’t judge you for your chopstick skills but they might judge you for some of the things you do at the table.
- If there’s an elder person on the table, offer to pour them a drink before getting one for yourself.
- Don’t grab your chopsticks before the older person starts eating.
- Don’t pick up your rice bowl to eat. This might be common in China but not in Korea.
- Avoid leaving food on your spoon/chopsticks while eating.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice bowl.
- Drink your soup first before trying anything else.
Soju is as cheap as water
In case you didn’t know, Soju is a mix of distilled ethanol and water and it’s very popular in Korea. A lot of people make soju themselves and you can buy a soju bottle for as little as 1,000 won (around $1 USD). Soju dates back to the 13th century but it hasn’t lost its popularity throughout the years. This popular drink ranges from 20-45% of alcohol and most people drink it neat but there are a lot of local cocktails that use soju as the main ingredient.
Don’t worry about tipping
Korea has a no-tipping culture but despite this most restaurants offer next-level service. In fact, leaving a tip might even be taken as an insult because, in Korea, the only workers who customarily receive tips are strippers. However, this isn’t the only difference when it comes to dining.
Most restaurants have ‘ding-dongs’ on every table which you can use to call your waiter. In the restaurants that don’t have ‘ding-dongs’, don’t be shy to shout “Yogiyo” (meaning I’m here) to summon your waiter. Unless you call him/her, they won’t come to check if everything is okay because most people in Korea take this as an unnecessary disturbance while eating.
One exception about this is asking for the bill. In Korea, you don’t call for the bill. The bill is probably already somewhere at your table (in a special pot, on the sides or underneath the table) and it comes with your order. The payment is done at the register, not at the table like in most western restaurants.
Is Seoul the greatest drinking city on Earth?
Very possibly, yes. Drinking is an indispensable part of socializing in Korean culture and it’s natural to expect to find a lot of great bars and pubs in the country’s capital. Seoul has a lot of top-notch vinyl bars, hookah bars, and even takeout bars. Takeout bars are places where you can grab bagged drinks to go because drinking in public in Korea is completely legal. You’ll see a lot of people drinking beer or soju in front of convenience stores while eating some Anju (a popular local drinking snack).
However, Seoul is great at a lot of other things other than drinking. For example…
Seoul is one of the most teched-up cities in the world
With Wi-Fi integrated into every corner of the city, Seoul is probably the world’s most connected city. Wi-Fi is available on every subway station, train station, transit stations, and even energy-efficient street lamps and billboards! Even the poorest people in Seoul are equipped with smart devices because they get free second-hand devices. Technology in the capital is so advanced that the u-Seoul safety service alerts caregivers and authorities when children or people with disabilities or Alzheimer’s stray from their designated safe area.
And as silly as it might sound, all this technological advance didn’t kill superstitions. Which leads me to my next point…
Asking for a fan while staying in a hotel room, might cause an alarm because most Koreans believe that sleeping with a fan on can suck the oxygen out of the room. If you use the elevator, you’ll inevitably notice that the number 4 isn’t there on the elevator buttons. The order goes 1, 2, 3, F, 5… The reason for this is that the number 4 is associated with bad luck in Korean culture. And Koreans take bad luck very seriously. A lot of them don’t wash their hair around the Lunar New Year because they fear that they’ll wash away their good luck…
How are things at the border?
The so-called demilitarized zone isn’t quite demilitarized. The 250-kilometers-long border that divides the Korean Peninsula into two parts is armed with heavy artillery, nukes, and over two million soldiers. This zone was created as a buffer zone and to return the prisoners among both sides but no peace treaty was ever signed. This technically means that the two Koreas are still at war. At the border, you can see soldiers from both sides of the border a surreal abandoned North Korean village, underground tunnels that were dug by the North Korean forces, an abandoned train station that was built in case the two countries reunite (even though most South Koreans are against the idea today), and tension can be felt in the air.
Hence, it’s no surprise that…
Google Maps isn’t very useful in South Korea
Korean regulations restrict the map data Google Maps has access to. The first limitation consists of Google Maps being unable to give you accurate directions. Sometimes, Google Maps will show you a direction from point A to point B while completely disregarding all streets in between. Another limitation is that Google doesn’t provide connections between public transport routes. You can always use download some local maps that are only available in South Korea but all of them are in Korean (one of the reasons why I said learning some Korean is one of the most important things you should know before visiting Korea).
If you still want to rent a car in South Korea, you can and I suggest you use this AutoEurope offer and save up to 30% on all car rentals in South Korea.
How many days to spend in Korea?
If you have read any of our previous articles, you’ll know that we always encourage slow travel but we know that not everyone has the time to do this. If you want to fully experience Korea, you’d need at least 3-4 weeks but we have some suggestions even if you have less time.
If you only have a week, base yourself in either Busan or Seoul. If visiting for the first time, we recommend seeing more of Seoul and visiting Busan or perhaps taking a few day trips, like a trip to Korean Folk Village, Hwaseong Fortress or Ganghwado.
If you have two weeks, it’s probably a good idea to spend a week in Seoul and explore the northern part of the country and spend a week in either Busan or Gwangju and explore the southern part of the country. Busan is a more laid-back version of Seoul with plenty of things to keep you occupied while Gwangju is a great station if you want to explore more of Korea’s countryside.
As I said, this is the best option to get the most out of Korea. You would have enough time to spend a couple of days in all the bigger cities, explore the countryside, see the coastline and even make it to the beautiful Jeju Island.
With that being said, we can’t talk about things to know before visiting Korea without mentioning…
Things to know before visiting- The best time to visit Korea
This usually depends on what you want to do but it’s generally fall or spring. Early spring brings out the cherry blossoms while autumn has the magnificent foliage. Summers are too hot and humid and I don’t see another reason to visit except to sunbathe at some of the beautiful beaches on Korea’s east coast. Winters, on the other hand, are very cold and not for most people, unless you’re very fond of winters.
Should you take a tour or organize the trip by yourself?
The short answer is ‘it depends on what you want to do’. If you want to get off the beaten track and go hiking, we suggest you take a guide. You wouldn’t want to get stuck in a remote village where no one speaks English or even worse, an uninhabited place without access to Google Maps. However, if you want to wander around the city or plan your intercity transport, you can totally wing it without any issues.
And if you still want to take some tours, here are…
The best websites for tours in South Korea
Here are our suggestions for booking tours in Korea.
Trazy has a lot of tours around the country and they run a lot of promotions. If you have time before your trip, it’s a good idea to subscribe to their newsletter and stay updated with all of their offers.
GetYourGuide is another great choice for finding affordable tours in the bigger cities (including Jeju Island).
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive tour that includes all transportation, tours, meals, and other activities, check out this Best of South Korea Tour (8 Days) by GAdventures or South Korea Highlights (10 Days) by Intrepid Travel.
I suggest checking out all of these websites, making a list of things you want to do, and comparing the prices on all of these websites.
Buy an adapter
South Korea uses type C and type F outlets with a voltage of 220 volts and a frequency of 60 Hz. If your charger is different, you need to get a travel adapter. So, if you’re coming from the US or Europe, you might need a converter in addition to an adapter because, in some countries, the standard voltage is lower than 220 volts. Travel adaptors can be easily found in most electronics stores, but you can probably get it for even cheaper on Amazon.
It’s not a big deal if you don’t bring your skincare products
If you’re obsessed with skincare, you’ll love Korea! Seoul and Busan are covered with skincare shops and beauty stores and a lot of Korean women (and even men) apply 10-14 different skincare products per day! Koreans are absolutely obsessed with skincare products and the fearsome competition in the industry is keeping the prices relatively low which might not be the case if you’re buying Korean skincare products in your home country (because of export and other taxes).
A few more things to know before visiting Korea
For the cheapest flights to Korea, check out Air France’s Oh-La-La deals and save big on your flight!
If you want to rent a car in Korea, use this AutoEurope offer and save up to 30% on all car rentals in South Korea.
For the best travel insurance deals for your trip to South Korea, check out World Nomads. Sure, they’re slightly more expensive than most other travel insurance providers, but their plans cover any bad thing that can potentially happen on the road.
If you want to save on accommodation, use this Booking.com discount code to save up to 15% on all properties in South Korea.
Did you like this list of things to know before visiting Korea? Do you think we didn’t mention something important? Would you like to visit Korea someday? Let us know in the comments!
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