Travel Tips: South Korea

It can be so confusing travelling to a new country and trying to make sense of all the basic practicalities that you take for granted at home. Here I’ve gathered together a list of practical tips for travelling in South Korea that I learned from my three weeks exploring the country. Expect to see more ‘Travel Tips’ posts as I continue my travels!


  • It’s well worth learning the Korean alphabet (hangul) – it’s not difficult and is pretty fun. There are 30 letters (19 consonants, 21 vowels), but many of the vowels are combination vowels and five of the consonants are just doubled-up (kk, tt), so there’s not much to remember. Letters are arranged into blocks to form syllables. Learn the alphabet and you’ll know how to pronounce any word you see (especially useful for reading place names).

  • Basic vocab (written in unofficial phonetics): Greeting – An-Yong Ha-Say-Yo Thank you – Kam-Sa-Ham-Ni-Da Please give me – Ju-Say-Yo (put the item you want first e.g. “Mek-Ju Ju-Say-Yo” = “Please give me a beer”)

  • Numbers – there are two different number systems in Korea, the Korean numbers and the Sino-Korean numbers (influenced by Chinese language). The Sino-Korean are used for things like prices, while the Korean are used for numbers of things (e.g. one banana or three apples). I won’t list them here, but it’s worth trying to learn them if you have time.

  • Politeness – A particular feature of the Korean language is different endings for different situations, and for different levels of politeness. As a foreigner this won’t greatly affect you unless you really want to get into the language or you’re doing business here and want to make a good impression.

  • Pronunciation can be a bit tricky, even when you know the alphabet, so it’s worth learning with audio, not just with a book.

  • My preferred app was EggBun, available on iOS (and possible Android, I haven’t checked) – it’s cute and easy to use, although it doesn’t really work offline so that’s worth bearing in mind.

Communication & Navigation

  • Wifi is very easy to come by in South Korea – you’ll find free wifi in restaurants and cafes, shopping centres, transport stations, and often on the street (though this is variable). If you’re in a restaurant and don’t see the wifi details anywhere, just try asking your waiter. The easy access to wifi means you can probably get by without buying a local sim card unless you need it for business.

  • If you don’t get a sim card, a good tip is to make sure you download maps to your phone (Google Maps allows you to download maps for offline use, as do other apps). If you’re short on storage space to download, then just search for the place you’re going before you leave wifi, star it as a favourite, and leave your maps app open. Google Maps will still track your location without internet, so as long as your maps are loaded, you’re all set.

  • If you’re looking for addresses, bear in mind that buildings might not run in number order along a street. Apparently they got numbered in the order they were built, so following number order won’t help you much.

  • In Seoul (and in some other cities), larger roads cut the city into a grid of blocks a bit like the American system. However, within these blocks the streets tend to be small and winding, and it’s easy to get lost. They are great fun to wander down, but make sure you keep yourself oriented to the main road so you can find your way back.

Food & Drink

  • Korean food is delicious and varied. It can be pretty spicy, so if you’re not a spice fan you may need to be a bit careful.

  • Restaurants are everywhere and vary in price from very cheap to quite expensive. If you stick to the more tourist-friendly areas of Seoul then most will have either an English menu or pictures, but if you go further out there may only be hangul characters on a board. I don’t think I ever went to a restaurant where the food wasn’t delicious, so I’d recommend just strolling around until somewhere catches your eye rather than bothering with review sites.

  • Bills are usually either placed on the table after you order, or kept at the counter. You pay at the till as you leave, not at your table. You don’t need to ask for the bill, just get up and go to the till when you’re ready to go.

  • Tipping is not expected in restaurants.

  • Banchan are side dishes, served with pretty much every meal. Alongside what you order you will get a free selection of small dishes like kimchee, miso soup, vegetables and little fish. You can also get meals which are pretty much just a huge selection of banchan with some larger dishes like whole fish. In some fast-food style restaurants you may find that banchan are self-service, a bit like a salad bar.

  • Water is typically provided free. Often you are given a jug of water on your table, but sometimes it’s self-service from a water cooler. (It is not advisable to drink the tap water).

  • Tea is sometimes served instead of water – it is usually served cold and tends to be a barley tea that to me tasted a lot like Weetabix. There are a lot of tea varieties in Korea, and it’s a fun experience to try one of the traditional tea houses (I went by accident, mistaking it for a restaurant!)

  • Coffee has become a national obsession (probably because of the American connection) and coffee shops are everywhere. They tend to be relatively pricey but are the only place to sit and hang out with people if you don’t want to drink alcohol or buy a meal. Coffee tends to be combined with cakes, for which there is a similar obsession. You’ll find Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts all over the place.

  • Alcohol is usually consumed with food, so you may find that some bars won’t let you just have a drink without ordering some food. Others will give you a snack with your beer (e.g. pretzels).

  • The main drink of South Korea is Soju, which is not dissimilar to vodka and is pretty strong. Koreans drink a lot and you’ll often see groups of business colleagues throwing back soju in bars and restaurants (just look for the green bottles). People also drink a lot of beer (mekju). Wine is less common but there are wine bars dotted around.

  • One of my favourite drinks in Korea was Makgeoli, which is a cousin of soju that tastes a bit more like sake. It has a milky colour and a slightly sweet flavour. Be careful because it’s deceptively strong!


  • Public toilets are everywhere and they are free and usually well looked after. Some of the best are found in the metro stations.

  • Most of the public toilets do have toilet paper, but some don’t (especially in places like parks and at attractions) so it’s always a good idea to carry tissue

  • Western-style toilets seem to be the norm in most places. You do also get traditional drop-toilets but there are usually also Western toilets – pictures on the door will tell you which is which.

  • Japanese-style high-tech toilets are quite popular and can catch you out because you can’t read any of the buttons. However, the flush is actually just a normal handle, so ignore the crazy buttons and look for something familiar near the top of the tank.


  • The metro service is typically well maintained, efficient, and easy enough to understand. Seoul has a large metro system, as does Busan. Free maps are available in stations, with English versions usually on offer. You’ll know when the train is arriving because they’ll play a music fanfare over the loudspeaker.

  • The best way to get around is with a reloadable metro card (similar to an Oyster Card in London), but they aren’t so easy to get as you often need to buy one in a small station shop from someone who doesn’t speak English. I got mine by asking in a shop and they fetched the one English-speaker who took me to another shop to buy one (he even bought it for me!). Once you have your card, they are easy to top up with cash at the machines in the stations, which have the option to display instructions in English.

  • Metro cards are usable on the metro and the buses, and the same cards can be used in Seoul and Busan (and probably other cities, though I’m not sure).

  • Uber wasn’t available when I was in South Korea, so you shouldn’t count on it. Cabs are reasonably priced though and are fair with the fares. However, bear in mind that drivers in South Korea are pretty crazy (see Personal Safety)

  • The train network is strongest between Seoul and Busan, and it gets harder to find trains on the East side of the country (the main routes run in a wishbone shape going South and South-East from Seoul). It also gets very difficult to find any train information online once you’ve left Seoul as there aren’t many English translations online. Trains are comfortable and tickets are easy enough to buy from the ticket window. Bear in mind that Seoul has a few different train stations and they are quite large, so make sure you check which one you’re going to and get there earlier enough to find your way around.

  • Intercity buses are a very comfortable way to travel, although they can be a little slow. You can get between most cities by bus, but again you will find it hard to get information in English on the bus routes. The best thing is to ask for advice from your hotel reception or Airbnb host, otherwise you’ll need to visit the bus station and see what buses they have and when. Tickets are quite easy to buy at the ticket window, though further from Seoul they may not speak any English. Be careful when you pronounce your destination as there are cities with very similar names (I nearly ended up with a ticket to Gwangju when I wanted to go to Gyeongju) – best to write the name down or point at it on a map to be safe. Some buses will be very clear about rest stops and announce in English when you have a 15-minute stop to pee and buy snacks (this happened to me on a 4-hour direct bus). Others are less clear and if they have multiple stops along the way they will stop at some only for long enough to let people off and on, and others you’ll have time to hop off. Best way to tell you’ve got time is if your driver gets off for a smoke, but make sure he knows you’ve gotten off!

Personal Safety

  • I have never felt so personally safe as I did in South Korea. People are generally respectful and law-abiding and you just don’t get any sense of danger walking on the streets, even late at night. Prices of goods aren’t jacked up for foreigners and taxi drivers don’t try to hide the meter. You don’t have to worry too much about your belongings – if you left your phone on the counter in a bar, you’d probably go back and find it exactly where you left it.

  • The one place of real danger in South Korea is the roads. I don’t exaggerate when I say the drivers are crazy. Avoid pedestrian crossings with no lights – drivers will not stop for them; they often won’t even stop for the ones with lights. People will sail through intersections after the lights change, with perhaps a honk of the horn to let people know. Watch out for mopeds driving on the pavements and cars turning onto crossings. As I mentioned in point 10, there are a lot of small windy roads, so be especially careful on these as you may have to duck between parked vehicles to escape the cars.


  • The currency is the Korean Won, which takes a little getting used to because of the ridiculous numbers involved. 10,000 KRW is only around 8 USD (at the time of my visit), so trying to convert prices is pretty tricky. Often items in shops show the prices without the ‘000’ (e.g. 10- instead of 10,000), and that’s the best thing to do in your own head too to simplify things. Notes come in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10,000 denominations, and then coins for 500, 100 and 50 won (I didn’t see anything smaller than 50)

  • Also tricky is the number system – while we speak of large numbers in terms of thousands, they tend to work in terms of ten-thousands (‘Man’ = 10,000 in Korean).

  • You can pay by card almost everywhere, although some hostels will only take cash payments, so it’s definitely worth having a supply of cash.


  • Shopping in South Korea isn’t particularly cheap, but it usually isn’t outrageously expensive either. It’s a nation that loves to shop, so you can find pretty much anything. They have a lot of Western brands, including an abundance of 7-Elevens and CVS stores (called C4U).

  • Thanks to Korea’s supersized companies like Lotte and Samsung, they have a lot of gigantic malls. In fact, Busan boasts the world’s largest shopping centre, Shinsegae Centum City.

  • Underground metro stations can be a good place to find smaller, more basic stores, typically selling things like cheap underwear, purses and phone cases.

  • If you are a fashion lover with money to burn, you’ll find all of the designer stores lined up neatly on Gangnam’s ‘Fashion Street’, each with their own specially-designed building.

  • The beauty industry is very successful and Korean beauty products are becoming world famous, so worth checking out if that’s a passion of yours.

  • South Korea has a wonderful selection of charming souvenirs if you want something to take home. One of the easiest places to pick up art and knick-knacks in Seoul is Insa-dong, a street lined with interesting shops and street food stands. In Busan, Gamcheon Culture Village is a great place for souvenirs.

  • Shops in art galleries sell some really wonderful items, and aren’t as overpriced as these kinds of stores can be in other countries.

  • Haggling isn’t common, but you can always give it a go if you’re at a market.

Places to Stay

  • I have a budget to stick to, so can’t advise on nice hotels – for travelling on a budget I rely on Airbnb and I always book accommodation in advance, because I want to know where I’m going with my bags. However, it didn’t look like it would be a problem to book on the day, though October wasn’t peak season.

  • Airbnb has pretty good coverage in South Korea. I stayed in Airbnbs in Busan and Gyeongju and both were great (one was a whole apartment and one was a guesthouse). Some less touristy cities, like Donghae, have fewer options available.

  • Most cities have a good selection of cheaper hostels – you can get a single room quite cheap though it may be very small, and if you’re willing to stay in a dorm room that will be your cheapest option. I stayed at the Kimchee Guesthouse in Gangnam, and they have a few different location across the city. Most of the hostels only took payment in cash, so bear that in mind – Airbnb is the best way to guarantee you can pay by card.

  • The only city where I had trouble getting cheap accommodation was Donghae, so if you’re going there for the ferry you might want to consider staying somewhere else nearby. The hotel I stayed in was both the most expensive and least pleasant place I stayed in my entire trip.

  • If you want a traditional experience then look out for a hanok, the traditional wooden Korean home. For the full experience you’ll sleep on mats on a heated floor. Jeonju Hanok Village is a charming but touristy place to visit with the largest collection of these homes (most hanoks in the country were knocked down in favour of monotonous modern apartment blocks).

  • Korean beds tend to be very hard (or you’re on a mat on the floor), so bear this in mind if you prefer a softer mattress.



  • Seoul has a wonderful collection of historic palaces to visit. Gyeongbokgung is the largest of these but I preferred the slightly smaller Changdeokgung, with its beautiful gardens (which requires an extra ticket for timed tours). Changdeokgung has more original architecture, whereas Gyeongbokgung is mostly reconstructed.

  • The contemporary art scene is wonderful in South Korea, and if you want a really unique modern art experience I strongly recommend Arario Museum in Space in Seoul (conveniently just round the corner from Changdeokgung)


  • If you go to Busan (South Korea’s second largest city), take a trip to Gamcheon Culture Village (read this post for more info)

  • Another fun Busan activity is to ride the cable car in Geumgang Park, which is a great start point for some hikes if you’re the active type.

Other stops

  • If you visit Jeonju for the Hanok Village, make sure you don’t miss Jaman Mural Village, which is just 10 minutes’ walk down the road and is utterly charming.

  • Gyeongju is a must-see – historic, scenic and delightful!