A sprawling metropolis that is alive and kicking literally 24 hours a day, Seoul is one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities in Asia. But visiting somewhere where few people speak English can seem like a daunting prospect if you’ve never visited before.
So we’ve put together a guide to the essential tips you need to know in Seoul, which will help you navigate your way from the airport right the way through to what to eat. With this guide to Seoul, you’ll fall in love with the city in no time!
Get a T-money card
Seoul has a great public transport system, but to travel hack your way into making it even better (and cheaper), buy a T-money card. This rechargeable smart card will save you money, and save you the hassle of buying individual tickets for each ride on the subway or bus.
If you’re flying into Incheon airport, you can buy it straight away from a convenience store at the airport, from any shop in the city where you see the T-money sign, or at subway stations.
The card will cost you 2500 won, but you’ll save around 100 won each time you use it versus paying the normal ticket price for a single fare since a whole journey is counted as one, even if you transfer from subway to bus or vice versa.
Learn some Korean phrases
English is spoken few and far between in Seoul, and even in touristy areas being able to speak English won’t help you out much. Most locals only speak Korean, but a few understand basic Mandarin.
If neither of these is your forté, it’s certainly worth learning a few basic phrases before you go! No one is expecting you to be fluent, but locals will be pleased to hear you making an effort. Basics like “annyeong haseyo” (hello), “annyeonghi kaseyo” (goodbye), “gamsahamnida” (thank you), “igeoeodiyeyo” (where is), and “juseyo” (I would like) will go a long way!
Armed with photos of where you’d like to get to and these basic phrases will mean you get by, but downloading a Korean language app to do the translation work for you is even better.
Use public transport
As we’ve already mentioned, the public transport system in Seoul is great, and the subway will be your new best friend while you’re in town! Both the bus and subway maps are easy to get to grips with, but there are useful apps like Subway Korea which make planning your journeys even easier - metro stations even have wifi underground so you don’t need to worry about losing connection.
As well as planning your journey, the app is full of useful information like the times of the first, last and next arriving train. Even getting from Incheon airport to downtown Seoul on public transport is a breeze; take the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) which can be paid for with your T-money card either direct to Seoul Station, or the All Stop train which stops at 13 subway stations so you can make transfers to where you’re staying.
Know your restaurant etiquette
It always helps to know some of the local customs before you visit a new city, especially when it comes to food! Korean culture is based on the importance of the group rather than the individual, and this practice translates to table manners and food etiquette.
Instead of ordering food for yourself, the locals order as a group and share their meal together - even if you don’t know the people you’re dining with very well, it’s much better to embrace the custom and do like the locals rather than stick to your own dish!
Group culture also means that it’s quite unusual for Koreans to eat out alone, and you’ll find that many restaurants actually have a ‘two portion’ rule. Don’t worry if you are travelling alone, all this means is that in some local eateries you may have to order two portions of food rather than just one, but they tend to not be huge so you should be able to manage!
Tips for eating out
It’s also good to be aware of local table manners, especially if you’re eating out with new local friends! Start your meal by drinking the soup before you move on to the other dishes, remember not to pick up your rice bowl while you’re eating, and don’t leave chopsticks sticking out of the bowl as is something that’s done at traditional ceremonies for ancestors.
Something else you may be unfamiliar with when eating out is the call button that many restaurants have at each table. Instead of calling your server, or waiting for them to check up on you if you need something simply press your call button and your server will be over in no time.
Rent a pocket wifi
Seoul is the world’s most connected city when it comes to wifi, but frustratingly this still means that you’ll often struggle to find a free wifi connection. You can always connect at the city’s subway stations, but if you’d like to be online 24/7 we’d recommend renting pocket wifi.
Book online in advance and you can pick up your portable hot spot at the airport when you arrive, or have it delivered to your accommodation for free so it’s ready and waiting for when you arrive.
Knowing you’re always connected certainly helps in a city where you may have absolutely no idea what people are saying to you, how to get to where you’d like to be or what food you just ordered!
Simply pay your deposit, the small daily fee which varies between companies and don’t forget to charge it up - you’ll be exploring the city with ease in no time.
Embrace trying new foods!
Of course, one of the best things about visiting Seoul is trying the incredible cuisine that the city is famed for. Even if don’t come across English menus, most restaurants have photos of each dish which should give you a vague idea of what you’re ordering, or simply be brave and take your tastebuds on a journey into the unknown!
The city’s street food markets are a reason to visit alone, and a little research into the specialties you can’t miss trying will mean you’re rewarded when you arrive.
From “tteokbokki”, sticky rice cakes in a spicy sauce to “kimbap”, seaweed rice rolls, “bungeo-ppang”, sweet pastries shaped like fish to “sannakji”, live octopus, street food in Seoul will exceed any and all expectations, so try as much as you can!
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