South Korea is an incredibly unique and beautiful country, from raccoon cafes to insane 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 tips for you as you dream (Or PLAN!) of going to this amazing country. Here are my must-read tips for your first time in South Korea
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 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. 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.
I have found this page incredibly helpful with learning key Korean phrases.
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. The buses are on time, efficient, and easy to figure out. 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!
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. Side note: South Korea has open carry alcohol rules, so drink away on the streets! Below is the video of me trying Soju for the first time. It is a South Korea must-do, so go get your drink on.
Starbucks and Paris Baguette Company
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 in the cities. 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 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. You can find them often on the same corner as Starbucks. Both stores are everywhere and not at all Korean.
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 culture, and without experiencing the culture, you haven’t truly experienced the place. You can read my entire article about the street food SOON (Subscribe to the blog to read it when it comes out)
Safety in South Korea
As a young female, I still felt incredibly safe walking around during my first time 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.
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 in to 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 tips helpful!
If you like this blog post, check out my blog interview with a North Korean Defector here.