Useful tips for traveling/first steps in Korea
No need to withdraw much Korean currency (Won, 전/₩): most of the stores accept debit and credit cards, whatever the amount. It can be useful to plan a bit of currency, for street food stands or taxis, but be careful where you withdraw money: some ATMs don’t work with foreign cards, you’ll have to hunt for “Global ATM”-marked ATMs.
If you’re from continental Europe, you won’t need any AC converter. Korean power sockets are a standard CEE outlet.
In many temples and indoor places, you might be asked to leave your shoes at the entrance. If you see shoes at the entrance of a public place, ask yourself the question.
There’s free Wi-Fi everywhere in Seoul - but if you need a reliable connection, you can get egg Wi-Fi hotspot devices at the airport.
If you want to visit the DMZ: don’t miss the JSA, the military camp managed by the UN forces and your only chance of setting a foot on North Korean land from South Korea. You’ll need to book the tour at least a week in advance, they usually get sold out a few days before tour day. There’s DMZ tours, JSA tours and DMZ+JSA tours.
Most Koreans (except in touristic zones) don’t speak English - if you can write down a few useful Korean expressions, you won’t regret it.
You might get some pleasant surprises if you travel a bit outside the beaten paths - folks inviting you in their homes, for a meal, and such. But don’t forget to be careful of scams.
If you’ve booked an AirBnB or a guesthouse (Korean name for youth hostels), ask your host for some restaurant recommendations. There’s so many restaurants in Korean cities that he’ll surely be able to recommend you some good places. Asking him/her visit recommendations can also be a good idea.
Unlike western restaurants, in many cases, the waiter won’t check on you often - you’ll have to call him to order more food or to ask for the bill. Either you have a button on your table to call a waiter, or you’ll have to call him orally (“djokiyo!”). Most places have either menus in english, or pictures. Don’t tip - it’s considered rude. One interesting thing to do is go eating in food markets.
Bars: It’s common in bars to order food with drinks - some bars don’t let people order drinks without food. The alcoholic beverages you’ll find the most are beer, soju and makkoli.
The emergency number is 112 - there’ll be an English interpreter answering you at the end of line. The immigration/tourism hotline number is 1345.
If you’re travelling in cities, your best two options are taxis and the subway.
The subway works really well, especially comparing to US public transportation systems. In most cities, it works until midnight. To use it, you can use either single-use cards (which I advise you against strongly) or T-money cards, that you can buy and reload in every convenience store (7-11, GS25, CYU…). You can also reload it inside every subway station. The basic price for a trip is 1200w, but it can increase depending on the distance.
Taxis work really well too - you can find them everywhere in cities (they’ll usually wait in taxi-specific lines until they get a customer). It’s pretty cheap (around 9000w for 15mn trip, which translates to 7 or 8€). Most taxi drivers don’t speak english - unless it’s a famous place with an explicit name, your safest option is to have the address written in Korean, so you can show it to the driver. Black taxis are luxury taxis - they’re more expensive, and the service’s not significantly better.
Unless you read Korean, I don’t recommend buses, that are not in English.
Coming from the airport, the cheapest option’s the subway. Some hotels also offer shuttle services for a decent price.
I’m visiting Seoul for the first time. Where should I stay?
- Hongdae would be the go-to option if you’re young (under 30). It’s a neighborhood full with flashy lights (in a Tokyo way), youngsters, bars, clubs and clothing shops. If you want to meet people and share a drink, the Hongdae Playground is always very lively on week-end nights, with street performances of music and arts, and alcohol is usually involved.
- Myeongdong is more of a shopping district. It probably beats Hongdae to the flashing lights game, but doesn’t offer much more than its crowded shopping streets and a close-by famous night market. It doesn’t make it a bad option either - the neighbourhood is well located, and offers convenient access to most parts of Seoul.
- I wouldn’t recommend Itaewon for a first time - it wouldn’t be as interesting culturally as other places, given that it is very expat-centric. However, in the same way that Myeongdong, it’s well-located, and offers a large number of restaurants, bars and clubs in the area (near Itaewon-ro 27a-gil) that are usually frequented by an older crowd than Hongdae (30 or 40-somethings).
- Gangnam is Seoul’s financial and corporate district - much like Manhattan in New York, or Ginza in Tokyo. It’s expensive, but expect quality and customer care. Places to go out are notoriously more expensive that in other areas, and attracts subsequently a wealthier crowd than the rest of Seoul. It can however be far away from the rest of Seoul, given that it’s located at the south limits of the metropolis.
Annyeong haseyo: Hello.
Kamsam hamnida: Thank you. In informal situations, you can use komaoyo.
Eulma ieyo? (Uh-lma e-ae-yo?): How much is this?
[something] isseoyo? (iss-uh-yo?): Do you have [something]?
[something] chuseyo. (chew-say-oh): Please give me [something]. Works in a variety of situations, from ordering in a restaurant (Ramyeon chuseyo: I’ll have some noodles) to a store (Tambe chuseyo: please give me cigarettes).
[somewhere] kachuseyo. (ka-chew-say-oh): Please bring me [somewhere]. The only expression you’ll need in a taxi.
[somewhere] ka eodi e isseoyo? (ka uh-dee eh iss-uh-yo?): Where is [somewhere]? If you’re looking for the subway, you can say “chiacheol”.
KakaoTalk: Indispensable if you’re staying long-term or want to interact with Koreans. It’s the most basic messaging app used here.
KakaoMetro: Very convenient for public transport use. The app’s in English, and works offline.
KakaoTaxi: Last Kakao app of the list. It does exactly what you expect: calls a taxi wherever you are.
Naver Map (kr) or Maps.me (en). Google Maps works very poorly in South Korea following a beef between Google and the authorities, and will most of the time give you the wrong location for a place (if it finds it at all) - so you’d better use those apps to navigate. Maps.me works pretty fine, and has an offline mode - Naver is way more complete, but is only available in Korean. [Update: there’s now an english version for Naver Map.]