So you’ve made the arrangements, you’ve got yourself pumped up to travel abroad, and you’ve got your tickets. You’re coming to visit (or live) in South Korea. But what can you come to expect while in South Korea? Well here is a list of 27 things to know before arriving in South Korea.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot more difficult for you to manage without knowing any of the local language, but you can manage. If you’re in Seoul, or any major cities, most roads, signs, and other forms of directional or important messages will be in Hangul (written Korean), and English, as well as Japanese and Chinese (usually).
I’m not advocating just forgoing learning the language, but if you aren’t going to be country long, you’re just coming for a visit, or you just struggle with learning languages, it is reassuring to know that you can manage your way through the language barrier (though you will have some difficulty with buses). Many Korean stores have employees who can speak English, and there are frequently people you will run into who will have at least a rudimentary if not fluent grasp of English.
There are also several apps I cover in our navigating Korea article to assist you. If you can though, you should learn to speak at the very least a few words. TalkToMeInKorean is a wonderful resource to learn the language and Duolingo has just recently launched it’s Korean course.
A few important words you should learn regardless though, are:
A few other things to keep in mind are:
South Korea is very easy to travel within. Having come from places in the US with virtually no public transportation, I had nearly no experience with public transportation. With that in mind, we had few issues navigating here.
The Metro system can be daunting at first, but everything is printed in English as well and there are English announcements for each station. If you get a T-Money card, you can easily access the Metro and buses with a simple swipe of your card. These cards can also be easily recharged at Storyways or 7-11s which are plentiful in South Korea.
The Korail system also has some speedy trains that can take you just about anywhere in the country in a matter of hours. Even without a car, you can get just about anywhere you want via public transportation. On top of that, most everywhere is pedestrian friendly.
Keep in mind though, that while public transportation is pretty easy, it’s not always the fastest method. Our trip from Songtan into Seoul averaged around an hour and half or more depending on the number of transfers needed.
As well, travel to Jeju Island in the south will probably take you a day or two to get to from Seoul along with a mandatory plane ride. Buses also run throughout the country, taking you between neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions.
South Korean toilets are where some westerners may run into a few surprises. If you’re in newer buildings you can expect to find a western style toilet or even nice bidets, however in some older locations, you’re going to find squat toilets. These can be difficult and uncomfortable for someone not used to squatting down, or for those who may be a bit heavier.
You have to keep your balance, and if you have long hair you need to keep your hair out of the toilet. Toilet paper is found near the entry way, and not in each stall so grab it before you enter. And once that toilet paper is used, never flush it! South Korean plumbing isn’t designed to handle paper waste, so a trash bin is provided in each stall for you to dispose of the paper. A solid bar of soap is attached to a stick for everyone to use at the sinks as well.
The South Korean bathroom is a true work of efficiency, though a little different from your regular western bathroom. Generally, the bathrooms are completely tiled and the shower head rests on the wall. You have to hold the shower head generally as it is not anchored anywhere. There is no shower, curtain, or tub, just a drain on the floor.
So when you shower, everything gets wets, but this also means that cleaning is super easy, you can just rinse everything down with the shower and let it drain and dry. In the winters though, especially in older buildings, the bathroom floors can become very cold. In our bathroom, we also had the washing machine, so dirty water also would simply drain out onto the floor.
The Korean heating system is pretty unique, but awesome once you experience it. The Ondol was developed in ancient times and is still used today. Essentially it its a heated floor. In the past, hot air froma fire passed through cavities under the floor, heating the ground and warming the room through convection.
Today, hot water runs through pipes under the floor. It is nice to have toasty toes in the winter, and you don’t get that weird smell a heater can sometimes create. All I know is, I want one of these in my house. If it breaks though, as happened to us, you will need to use a space heater while it gets fixed.
Because of the Ondol system, most Korean beds, and furniture for that matter, are right there on the floor. The beds usually are plain mats that sit on the floor, these are fine enough. But when you encounter traditional beds that are raised such as when you are in a hotel, they are very stiff. For reasons unknown to me, they prefer their beds very hard. If you want, you can get a western style, soft bed, or foam top, but don’t come to expect it.
We were staying in a westerner’s home during our time in Korea, so we had a soft western style bed from Ikea (they’re even in Korea). However, whenever we were in hotels, we found hard beds.
Kimchi, as I covered in another post, is pretty ubiquitous here in South Korea. It was created about 300 years ago as a way to preserve cabbage and provide nutritious food for the bitter winters here. Today, the spicy dish is served at every meal with just about every dish and in a wide variety of forms. It’s pretty good, and you’ll have a hard time avoiding it here.
Beer and wine can be pretty expensive here, but have no fear for Soju is here. South Koreans love to drink, more than any other people in the world actually (Soju is actually the best selling alcohol in the world due almost solely to Koreans) and you can expect to drink in most social situations.
There are no laws against public drinking or intoxication so you can drink to your hearts content and not be judged. Soju is a fermented drink from rice, with a similar taste to vodka and a ABV of around 20%. Soju is great for sipping, and wonderful for mixing. But your first drink is always supposed to be taken as a shot.
Recently, they’ve introduced flavored Soju that is a little lower ABV but great tasting. We prefer to mix regular and flavored for a little extra kick with our flavor (this is not traditional though). But be warned, because of the sugar content it can pack a killer hangover.
South Korean cuisine does not have much, if any dairy in it. So most dairy products are pretty new here for the most part. In the past few years, cheese has begun to make a huge impact here, however it’s just not quite right. It’s highly processed and there is just something different about it.
It doesn’t melt right, it tastes weird, and it is sometimes mixed with meat product, collagen, and other things. We don’t like the cheese you can get here. But if you really need to get your cheese fix, you can find the real stuff in some of the larger markets like E-Mart or Home Plus. You’ll be paying a far steeper price for it than you would elsewhere though. South Korea is the world’s fastest growing market for cheese though. So it can be expected that higher quality cheese should become more available in the coming years.
South Korea is not super vegetarian or vegan-friendly (since they aren’t big on dairy it vegans and vegetarians will be in a similar situation). Meat is viewed as a part of being healthy as well as a measure of wealth, so most people want to eat meat and view not eating meat as unhealthy. Most dishes center around meat, and have some form of meat in it. Fish, beef, chicken, pork, and all manner of seafood find their way into most dishes.
It can also be difficult because if you say you are vegetarian, many here won’t understand what you mean unless they have traveled abroad as well. If you say you don’t eat meat, they will assume you mean you don’t eat beef. So you have to say you don’t eat beef, or pork, or chicken, or fish, etc. And even then, you may find something has been slipped in.
With some luck, you can tell them you CAN’T eat any animal because it will make you sick, and they might get the point. But be warned, it will be difficult to eat out at local restaurants. You will mostly be relegated to Banchan (side-dishes) such as kimchi.
Aside from some restaurants which specialize in western food, there are only a select few places such as the Loving Hut in Seoul which can cater to you. Otherwise your best bet is an Indian restaurant or a Buddhist restaurant if you want to be safe as a vegetarian.
However, you can easily cook your own food with traditional Korean ingredients at home by visiting a local grocery which is what we typically did and you can find the occasional place to eat out.
In the US, you take for granted the fact that we can import anything from anywhere at any time (though it might be more expensive for part of the year). But in South Korea, the foods are more seasonal. When you go to the store, expect to see fresh produce from this season. So if you’re really craving a certain food, but it’s just not ready, you’ll have to wait for it to come into season before you get to eat, either that or you will be shelling out money for imported goods.
How different can a grocery store really be right? Well, it is pretty familiar, but as I said above, food is seasonal, so things change every time you go. You have to bag, weigh, and tag produce such as potatoes yourself before getting in line. So unless you can operate the machine which is not in English, you’ll have to settle for pre-bagged items (though you may be able to get someone to help).
Because of the seasonality of foods, as well as South Korea’s more northern location, most fruits including tomatoes are imported and carry a pretty high price, as high as triple or quadruple what you might find in the states. Meat is pretty expensive as well. Other items though run much cheaper. You can find ice cream bars for as low as $0.25 each, so have fun with those.
Of course, you’ll also run across all the unique foods that only South Korea has to offer. An interesting aspect is the fact that they have a live announcer at the store, who I can only assume is giving information regarding food deals – but they sound like they are running an auction the way they talk.
Regular South Korean grocery stores don’t carry much for the western palate, such as bread, cheese, dairy, chips, chocolate, and a few other items. So when you need to get your fix, you can head to an E-Mart or Home Plus, both of which carry just most things you could want. While I won’t go into too much detail because you can simply read our post about them specifically here, be assured that they have a wide variety of items (though some things from back home may cost a little more). They are very similar to a Super Walmart back in the U.S., only much nicer.
South Korea is a pretty mountainous country, and with mountains comes a love of hiking. There are beautiful national parks all over. You can even find several mountains within Seoul or give a shot at hiking the Seoul City Wall. You can go hike a mountain and not even leave the city. Just spend a little time here, and you’ll see why people love to spend time outdoors. It’s even South Korea’s national past time.
South Korea, like many places around the world, is filled with both recent and ancient history. The peninsula has had pottery found dating over 8000 years old, and you can still visit many ancient sites all around the country. Even within the city of Seoul you can visit several UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the East Palace, a Buddhist temple over 1000 years old, and many other cultural sites.
South Korea has been subject to invasions from China and Japan over the centuries and has a very colorful past. But not everything here is ancient, it still bears scars and memories from the Korean War, which can be remembered and honored at the Korean War Museum. If you want to know even more about the people, you can check out the National Museum of Korea or the History of Korean Culture at Gyeongbukgung Palace.
South Korea is a mountainous country, which means that much of its land isn’t habitable, nor arable. The country also has a population of 50 million, pushing them to have some of the highest densities in the world. Seoul alone has 25 million people in it’s greater metropolitan area.
Because of this, Koreans have learned to squeeze the most out of every available piece of land. Buildings here are stacked high, with parking garages under or above buildings rather than a lot out front. Streets are narrow, yet efficient. Everything has a cozy feel to it. When you get out into the country side such as in the areas surround Pyeongtaek and Songtan, you will find that farms dominate the landscape.
Every available strip of land will have cabbages, peppers, and a whole variety of vegetables being grown. This includes along sidewalks and roadsides. Most homes have some form of a garden, which is really wonderful to see although it would make any HOA in the US scream in terror. The efficiency is impressive, seen not only in their use of space, but in the application of most products.
During the summer, things can get pretty warm and cozy here. And by that I mean it gets really hot and humid. While it may not outdo the tropics, it will certainly make you sweat, wish you had a better AC and sleep with no sheets. (We haven’t experienced a Korean summer ourselves, but have heard about it.)
South Korea also gets very cold. The first snow can come to Seoul has early as late November. When the Siberian winds kick up temperatures can drop to well below freezing with windchill dropping to 0 F. While it’s not as cold as some extreme places, it isn’t just any winter here. If you’re going to be here during the winter, be sure to pack your layers and some warm clothes for snow.
Spring is a lovely time of year, and similar to Japan experiences the cherry blossom bloom. While autumn exhibits brilliant colors and a nice crispness to the air.
So without getting too into it, South Korea and Japan have a rather rough history. Japan has had a habit of getting a little aggressive and invading the peninsula over the centuries. Every time they do they tend to inflict a lot of damage on the countryside and people.
Understandably, Koreans can hold a bit of a grudge against the Japanese. Although in today’s modern times the two cultures do get along and go about peaceably, the tension is still obviously there. While you’re here, it’s best to keep in mind that Korea is always better than Japan. There is no such thing as the Sea of Japan, it is the East Sea. If you feel differently, I’d suggest you hold your tongue, as differing opinions on the subject will most likely ostracize you here, not to mention just be very insulting to the country that is hosting you.
I’ve lived in Texas and Florida, so I’ve had my fair share of mosquitos and biting bugs. I’ve heard things about mosquitos in the tropics and big fat monsters up in Canada. But I never heard a thing about Korean mosquitos. These things are monsters and they’re everywhere in the fall until the temperatures drop.
They’re really fast, small, and difficult to kill. In our first month or so here, we would run across upwards of 20 mosquitos a day in the apartment alone. I don’t even know how many swarms we went though just outside. Mosquito nets are your friends here, as are other bug killing devices. It’s no fun walking around with a dozen or so bites or waking up every five minutes to buzzing in your ears.
Many foreigners associate Koreans with eating dogs. While this practice still exists, dog meat is not widely consumed and is a dying trend. Outside and internal condemnation has been turning the practice to mostly only among the older and more rural communities.
South Koreans are now becoming pet owners much more frequently than in the past. You can even visit cat and dog cafes in the big cities. South Korea also has a specific breed called the Jindo. It is a strong, proud, white dog that you will see out and about. Many Koreans keep their Jindos chained in their yards or by the homes, and while you may be tempted to go up and pet one because they look so friendly, do not do so.
They are quite loyal to their owners and can be very aggressive towards strangers. Because of the size limitations of South Korea, small dogs such as shih tzus, poodles, and chihuahuas have become increasingly popular over the years. You’re likely to see them walking down the street in stylish clothes.
South Koreans can wear a stern face and be very serious and work oriented. But they are also very kind and helpful. We have found that South Koreans tend to be quite gracious and giving, and always want to help out. We have been offered various treats and gifts on our outings for reasons that we don’t really understand. As well, if a South Korean knows some English, they’re always ready to try and talk with you to practice their English skills. The South Korean culture is a kind culture.
In South Korea, it is good manners to give gifts. They don’t need to be large, or extravagant, it’s more about the thought. When going in for interviews or visiting someone’s home, it is good practice to give gifts as it shows respect to your host or new friends. A few tokens most appreciated are small bottles of alcohol (think single shot bottles) or fruit.
But don’t give anything too expensive, otherwise it comes off as you showing off and can accomplish the exact opposite of what the gift giving is supposed to do. Also, you should never open the gift in front of the giver. The gift can even be as simple as a piece of gum or candy when meeting for the first time. It is certainly a nice gesture to be remembered by.
This is a trend that I’ve seen spreading around the US for a few years, but it is especially important here in Korea. Because of the Ondol floors, it is usual to walk around in just socks. Floors used to be covered in paper, so wearing shoes could ruin the floor.
Today, when you enter traditional restaurants, some stores, and even some offices, you will be asked to take off your shoes and leave them at the front. You then walk around in your socks, or will be given soft shoes for indoor wear. Just don’t forget to take them off though, as it’s seen as very rude to wear your shoes inside.
South Korea has become a largely secular country, though it also has a growing Christian community. But it also has a deeply engrained Confucian history. In South Korea, age is a major determinate in your status. If you are older than someone, you are owed respect, and you can do what you want.
The oldest here are revered by the younger and respect must be given to them. The metro and buses have specific seats for the elderly. Even if the train is mostly empty and there is not a single older person riding, you do not sit in those seats. Because of the Confucian mentality, you also never touch someone on their head or shoulders. It is seen as rude due to the head being the most pure part of the body.
It is also viewed that the foot is unclean, because it is at the bottom of the body touching the ground. So you should never point the bottom of your foot towards someone as it is seen as an insult. And when you’re drinking with someone older than yourself, you should always turn away from them as you drink.
In the west, you start counting your age from 0 when you are born. In South Korea, you are considered being 1 year old upon birth. So when you are telling someone your age here, remember you’re a year older than you were back home.
In Korea, you can walk into a clinic without an appointment, be promptly seen, receive medical treatment, and be out the door in under 30 minutes and $30. Now obviously circumstances may dictate things a little different. But South Korea wants to take care of its people, and in a country so densely populated it is important to make sure the populace is healthy.
Drugs are also readily available at pharmacies. You don’t need to go to a specific one to fill your specific prescription or deal with some weird bureaucratic reason as to why you can’t have your medicine. It’s affordable, and you can get it. Women can also get birth control and other necessary medications over the counter quite easily, say the name of the brand you want, and they’ll give it to you or match it as close they can no questions asked (you may get disapproving looks however if you are not accompanied by your husband). Of course, there are the pros and cons, as there are to any nation.
Seoul is by far the largest city I’ve ever been in. Its immensity is truly staggering. Traveling via Korail can take two hours to cross the span of the city. Skyscrapers and high-rise buildings populate the landscape for miles on end. The greater metropolitan area of Seoul contains over 25 million people and is the 2nd largest in the world.
The capital was founded in 18 BCE and it has not stopped growing ever since. You can find many sights and experiences among its 25 districts, the most famous of which to internationals may be Gangnam. Seoul proper is noted for having a density twice that of New York City.