South Korea is an incredibly unique and beautiful country, from raccoon cafes to insanely beautiful mountains, there is something for everyone here. I had the opportunity to travel with my husband to South Korea, and while we spent the weekend together, many days I was alone in my adventuring because he was there on business. However, I had an amazing time, and I want to share my most important travel tips for South Korea with you as you plan your visit to this amazing country.
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1. Language Barriers and English
I managed to get around South Korea by knowing these two phrases: Annyeonghaseyo which means “Hello” and is always given with a slight bow, and Gamsahamnida which means “Thank you.” Those two phrases managed to get me everything I needed in Korea.
Many people that you will encounter outside of the Seoul city center and other tourist areas will speak little to no English. However, you can get by with hand motions and yes and no in those cases. I’ve found google translate to be incredibly helpful in those situations. One of the best travel tips for South Korea is to download google translate from English to Korean on your phone so that you don’t need data to use it. I usually just show my phone to whoever I am trying to communicate with since I can’t read or pronounce the Korean alphabet.
In the cities, many things are written in Korean and in English or at least English lettering so that it is easy to find your way around. Many people in Seoul will be able to help you in English, especially in the big hotels. I would always advise learning the basic phrases in a language before traveling. But if South Korea is your destination and you don’t have time to learn, you will still be able to find your way around and enjoy yourself.
Outside of the major cities and the touristy areas, however, you will find English less and less prominent. Hand signals and translators will be your friend. When we took a local train to Songnisan National Park in central South Korea, we found that most people were shocked to see Americans there at all. Very little English at all was spoken in this area.
If you are interested in learning more about Korea before you go and a few essential phrases. Check out the Lonely Planet’s Guide to South Korea. Also, here is a guide to 15 Korean Phrases You Need to Know.
2. Public Transport in South Korea
If you are worried about public transport in South Korea, don’t be. Getting around using public transport is incredibly easy! They have subways, trains, and buses that are constantly running. I’ve never been a huge fan of using the subway, so I stuck mostly with their bus system. I chose this also so that I could see more of the city while riding around.
Their buses are on time, efficient, and easy to figure out. One of the best travel tips for South Korea is to take a picture of the bus routes located by the bus stop so that you can figure out what bus to take to the stop you are planning to go to and what bus to take on your return.
They have multiple buses stopping at each stop, but the buses are clearly marked. If you use google maps, it ONLY works with the bus system in the major cities in South Korea. If you download the subway Korea app, that will help you navigate the subway system. Like in the USA, they use Waze here to get around, so if you plan on driving, make sure that you have the Waze app!
3. Soju and Alcohol
Soju (actually pronounced Sue-Ju), is the DRINK of South Korea. It is about 17.6% alcohol content, depending on the brand, and tastes a lot like watered-down vodka with a bit of blueberry flavor to it. Soju is sold in just about every corner market with a refrigerator. The typical way to drink Soju is 1 part Soju, 5 parts beer of choice.
Personally, I don’t like beer generally, so instead, I just drank it straight from the bottle on the streets in Myeong-dung Market. Another important thing to note on the list of travel tips for South Korea is that South Korea has open carry alcohol rules, so drink away on the streets!
When going out in Cheong-Ju we found a restaurant that served their beer and soju in measuring cups!
4. Starbucks and Paris Baguette Company
On my first day in South Korea, I was shocked at the amount of Starbucks I saw! They are obsessed with it here. You can find one on almost every corner when you are in the city. You will never have to go without caffeine here as they love it probably more than you do.
Actually, as I write this, I am sitting in a Starbucks in Cheong-Ju (A city outside of Seoul) that is filled to the brim with people at three in the afternoon. It makes me wonder when people work if this is how they spend time on a Monday afternoon. They also have many cafes here, but café doesn’t always mean the American version of café.
Often, “café” here means a place with coffee and tea or a normal restaurant. Also, they are equally obsessed with the Paris Baguette company, which I can attest to because it is delicious. It is essentially a famous bakery with a plethora of amazing bread-related products. You can also buy wine here which I thoroughly appreciate and definitely think that it is worth listing as one of the most important travel tips for South Korea. You can find them often on the same corner as Starbucks. Both stores are everywhere and not at all Korean.
5. Street Food
Korean street food is some of the best that I have ever had. It is amazing and didn’t make me sick. I am a picky eater by nature, but when I am traveling, I attempt to try everything that is handed to me. Food is a huge part of the culture, and without experiencing the culture, you haven’t truly experienced the place.
6. Safety in South Korea
As a young female, I still felt incredibly safe walking around during my first time in South Korea. In the USA where I’m from, there is nothing really remarkable about how I look, so I am not used to people staring at me. However, in Korea, especially outside of Seoul, I can tell that my white features and hair are an oddity by the way that people look at me. Even though I stand out like a sore thumb, I feel safe walking around by myself.
People will, for the most part, leave you alone, and I have never got the feeling that I am unsafe. The streets are very clean and the people mind their own business. It is common for travelers to worry about safety, and smart by-the-way, but in South Korea, I have little concern for my personal safety. I find it to be one of the safest places that I have traveled.
7. Power Adaptors
This travel tip for South Korea is really simple. Make sure that you bring the correct power adaptor! For South Korea, you need the power plugs and sockets type C or F. The standard voltage for South Korea is 220 V which is different than the United States (check your hair dryers to see if they are compatible). Make sure that your electronics can run on that voltage so that you don’t break them! Personally, I travel with this universal travel adaptor that works in almost every country. It is perfect for South Korea and has a ton of different outlet options for regular plug-ins and USBs.
One of the things that I love about Korea is that many cities display their menus outside of the restaurant. This is incredibly helpful in deciding where to eat because you are able to see prices and options. When the menu is completely in Korean, you can use the camera feature on google translate to translate the lettering and figure out what it says. This makes it easy to quickly look at a menu before even entering the restaurant, and it helps you avoid that awkward “I don’t actually want to eat here and now I can’t leave” feeling when you walk into a restaurant and decide it’s not for you.
Side note: They LOVE chicken and beer here! Don’t be surprised to find out that your chicken is a bit spicier than what you expected. Also, diet coke is impossible to find, you’ll be lucky to find Coke Zero Sugar to settle for instead. Anybody who knows me knows that I have a diet coke obsession, but this country is worth settling for other forms of caffeine.
I hope you find these travel tips for South Korea helpful!
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