Things You Need to Know Before Travelling to South Korea

Seoul is not usually on people’s travel list but with the emergence of k-Pop, K-Drama and K-Beauty, more and more people are travelling to the country of the morning calm. If you are planning to travel to South Korea, you may want to learn about its culture and customs to avoid looking like a tourist. Here are 15 things every first-timer should know before travelling to South Korea. 

Things to know before travelling to South Korea

15 Tips to Know Before your Trip to Seoul

Try to learn a few words in Korean

The Korean alphabet known as “hangul” seems complex and impossible to learn.  However, it is actually easy to learn because there are only 26 phonetic characters. Once you have mastered which character corresponds to which sounds, you will be able to read. You can basically read and recognise restaurant names, signs and locations without knowing what they mean!

Things to know - Hangul

If learning the alphabet is easy as ABC, pronouncing is another thing. Korean is extremely difficult to pronounce and add in the different regional dialects and the complexity will get tenfold.   

Even if you can’t pronounce well, trying to speak in the local language, even to simply say  “thank you” or “hello” goes a long way with the locals. It makes it fun and allows you to actually immerse yourself into another culture.

It’s a safe country

Things to know before travelling to South Korea - safe country

Although South Korea is a country sharing a border with North Korea, it’s a very safe country. We felt completely safe during our trip, even at night. Streets are always packed with people so you don’t feel alone in a sense. For that reason, Seoul makes a great destination for female travellers and solo female travelers. Having said that, when travelling alone, it is always important to use your common sense and avoid dangerous situations.

Know before travelling to South Korea - safety is important

Another safety aspect of the country is that underground stations, particularly Seoul Metro, are stocked with emergency supplies such as oxygen masks, water etc… short clips are also played in the subway trains. I have never seen a city more prepared for emergencies than Seoul. Even Tokyo didn’t have that level of procedure in place, at least not that visible. 

You’ll be pushed by the lovely ahjummas, but it’s normal

South Korea is a fast paced country so of course everything will have to be done quickly. There is an urgency to live, to eat, to do, to drink and to to everything “palli, palli” (which can be translated as quickly, quickly) as if there was no tomorrow. If you hear “palli, palli”, get out of the way or else you will get elbowed by someone in a rush to get somewhere. This behaviour is quite common and normal in Korea and practiced mainly by the lovely ahjummas. These “senior” ladies are easily recognisable thanks to their short and permed hair. They will push or shove you out of their way especially near the escalators, pavements or near the underground carriage door.  Older people are well respected in Korea, so they basically do what they want. If you are shoved, don’t be alarmed, you’ll get used to it. 

High tech toilets vs squat toilets

Toilet instructions in Hangul and English

If you have been to Japan or similar countries, you will be familiar with the ultra high tech western style toilet with all the magic buttons to make your visit to the restroom an interesting one! As well as the high tech toilets mainly found in hotels and restaurants, they also have squat toilets. Toilet paper is often outside the cubicle so be sure to take enough with you. Additionally, there is a “no flushing” policy in most public toilets, there will be a bin for discarded tissues instead. Even if this is alien to you, don’t be that tourist, so follow the rules. 

You can shop until late

Seoul is the shopping Mecca of Asia from clothes to tech products and beauty, the city is always bustling with shoppers, no matter what time of day or night. Walk down the streets of Myeongdong at 9pm, and you will see the streets packed with shoppers and street vendors. With streets lined with cosmetics and beauty stores, you can spend a day exploring them. If you prefer shopping after dawn, you can head over to some amazing night markets including Dongdaemun Night Market, Namdaemun Night Market, Apgujeong Rodeo Street, Sinsadong Garosu-gil Road, Migliore Mall and more. These traditional markets and shops you will find everything from clothing to souvenirs and of course food. For more shopping ideas, check out Visit Korea’s website.

No showing your…shoulders

I have noticed that Korean women do not have their shoulders uncovered. I’m unsure if the reason is because it’s frowned upon or cultural but you will not see a Korean woman wearing a tank top or showing her cleavage. Even with a 27 °C temperature, they were seen wearing long sleeves as if they weren’t bothered by the hot weather. In comparison, my friend and I were sweating mad but they looked refreshed. However, if their top is covered, their lower half isn’t as they have no problem wearing very short skirts or dresses. 

Remove your shoes indoors

Shoes rack with warning sign about thieves!
You have been warned! Sign seen at a temple.

Similar to Japan, it is a normal thing to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house, some traditional restaurants or temples. There will be a shelf where you can store your shoes. To avoid embarrassment, bring along all your best socks. Alternatively, you can buy some in one of the many markets.  

…and wear shower Shoes

Korean shower room are the ultimate wet rooms. There isn’t a bath, shower cubicle or curtains so when you get into the shower, everywhere else gets wet. To avoid walking on wet floor, you wear shower shoes which are provided by the hotel. 

The subway system is efficient and easy

I found the underground system in Korea to be very efficient, clean and affordable. Signs and maps are clearly marked in both Korean and English. Stations are announced in korean, English, Jpanese and Chinese. The lines are colour coded and exits are indicated in yellow. The only downside is that platforms are not always located opposite each other so look out for the direction of travel. 

Google Maps is not practical

Due to data restrictions law, Google Maps is pretty limited in South Korea. However, you can still use it in addition to other navigation apps, of which most are in Korean. During my trip I downloaded 2 other apps, Kakao Maps and Naver Maps, the latter being the most convenient since it offers directions in English. You can still use Google Maps but you will need to remember the following:

  • Do not use Google Maps for driving or walking directions. You will be met with a “can’t find a way there” or you will be shown a line from point A to point B. The walking direction will completely ignore the layout of the streets. If your destination is close enough, you will be able to get there using your GPS location and direct yourself with the blue dot as you move. A very advanced technique indeed!
  • Google Maps works for buses and subways routes. 

Coffee lover? You will be spoiled for choice 

Things to know before travelling to South Korea - cafes everywhere

South Koreans are coffee lovers so if you like coffee too, you will love Seoul and South Korea. I knew before coming to South Korean that Koreans loved their coffee, but not to the extent that they have several cafes on the same street. Chained cafes, themed cafes, cute cafes, there is such a wide variety on offer that you won’t know where to look first. They have a “soft spot” for americano, preferably iced. Although their coffee is less strong that what I am used to, they taste pretty good. 

Korean food is amazing

When I mentioned to people that I was going to South Korea, the comments that people made were either: “be safe” or “eat loads”. As mentioned before, Korea is a safe country. As for eating, I did just that: from convenience store food, restaurant to street food, I made sure to try as much as I could. 

know before travelling to South Korea - delicious food
Delicious Samgye-tang (ginseng chicken soup)

The food is pretty spicy, but oh so delicious

Unlike Japanese cuisine, Korean cuisine is very spicy. Koreans love their spicy food so much so that everything from sides dishes to mains is covered in the spicy red substance. I love spicy food so I was in my element, but my travel companion who wasn’t used to spicy food had to train her palate and master the phrase “너무 매운 아니 제발 – neomu maeun ani jebal” meaning “not too spicy, please”. However, if you ask nicely, they will offer you a less spicy versions. Koreans get their beautiful skin allegedly from eating healthy, low-calorie and spicy food which makes them sweat thus help exfoliation…Who says beauty comes easily! 

Korean chopsticks are harder to use

Korean chopsticks are a little different in the sense that they are made of metal and are thinner and flatter. They prove to be more difficult to use since they are more slippery. Try eating you bowl of ramen with metal chopsticks, I can guarantee some hand cramps!

Press the button to call the server

To get the waiter’s attention in a restaurant, you can either shout jeogiyo pronounced “Yogiyo” in smaller restaurants or press a call button. You will generally be left alone until you press the button. A copy of your order will be left on your table. Then you will need to take it to the counter to settle your bill. Be aware that there is no tipping in Korea. Whether it’s vendors, restaurant staff or taxi drivers, you are not expected to leave a tip, they won’t take it anyway. Simply thank them. 

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If you have travelled to South Korea, what are the other things, tips to know to know before travelling to South Korea? If so, let us know in the comments!

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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

10 thoughts on “Things You Need to Know Before Travelling to South Korea

  1. This is sooo interesting. I did not know most of the things mentioned here. Thank you for this post, truly changed my way to see South Korea ❤️

  2. Great article! I’ve never considered South Korea but it seems like a lovely country. I especially love the respect for older people. The older I get the more I think we should be able to do whatever we want!

  3. I never thought about south Korea before but it sounds like an amazing place to visit. I like your advice, especialy learning couple of words can be an icebreaker.

    1. Coffee is really something in South Korea. The atmosphere and selection are great. There are so well designed that you just want to stay there all day long.

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