11 Things Tourists Should Know Before Traveling to Seoul

Seoul may not have been on your travel radar before. But with Pyeongchang now in the limelight, tourism to Seoul is primed and ready to flourish. If you’ve never traveled to South Korea before, it may take a bit of adjusting. Give yourself a day or two to get acclimated, and you’re sure to love this buzzing city. Here are 11 tips every first-timer should know before traveling to Seoul.


1. Google Maps will only get you so far

Korean laws and regulations restrict how much map data Google Maps has access to. Therefore, when traveling to Seoul, almost everyone recommends downloading other navigation apps to use in Seoul. The problem is that they’re all in Korean. Honestly, you can still use Google Maps to get around – you just have to know how to use it and know its limitations.

Limitation #1

It will NOT give you accurate driving/walking directions. If you map your route, it will simply show a direct line from point A to point B, completely ignoring the layout of the streets on the map. However, you can still see your location, so simply refer to the map and decide your own route to get to your destination.

Limitation #2

Google Maps does not provide connections between public transportation routes. Yes, it will show you how to get from point A to point B using the subway system, BUT it won’t show connections between different lines (even if it’s more efficient to do so). For instance, if the most efficient route is to take the green line, then hop off at a connecting station and take the orange line the rest of the way, Google Maps might simply recommend you take the orange line the entire way (which may require more walking to get the station on your part). So, again, you can’t rely on Google Maps 100%, but take an extra minute and you’ll be able to navigate yourself pretty easily!


2. The subway system is surprisingly easy to navigate

That being said about Google Maps, the subway system is very organized, clean, and extremely affordable. There is almost no need to take taxis when you’re traveling to Seoul. The subway signs and maps are very clearly marked in Korean (both in Hangul and in Romanized Korean) and English. The subway lines are also color-coded, and the exits are always indicated by yellow numbers.


3. There’s no tipping

It may be ingrained in Western culture, but in Seoul, it’s not customary to leave a tip. Whether it’s taxi drivers, wait staff, bartenders or even bellhops, keep that extra gratuity to yourself. If you try to leave a tip, it may even be construed as rudeness. So, it’s best to follow the norm when traveling to Seoul!


4. There are a lot of ways to say “thank you” in Korean

There’re several ways to say “thank you” in Korean, including “gomab seubnida” and “gamsa habnida” … If you’re not sure which one to use, feel free to use both as they are all considered formal expressions (there are also informal ways, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to use between strangers).

However, “gamsa habnida” is the most formal and therefore, the most frequently recommended to travelers, since you really can’t go wrong with being overly polite. The “g” is pronounced more like a guttural “k” sound, and the “b” is more like an “m” – so, “kahm-sa ham-nee-da” is the correct pronunciation.


5. Korean food tends to be spicy

If you’re a wimp and have zero tolerance for spice, then you’ll definitely want to be careful about what you try. Generally speaking, if a dish is orange or red, you might want to steer clear. But there are plenty of non-spicy Korean dishes that you should try while traveling to Seoul – pajeon, gimbap, jjajangmyun, bulgogi, japchae, and even Korean fried chicken (without the spicy sauce).


6. Corn randomly appears in the most unexpected dishes

Another thing Koreans love to add to food is corn. It would be great news for those who love anything with corn in it. You can come across corn in Korean sandwiches, on pizzas, and even in ice cream in Seoul. Go figure!


7. Toilets are either high tech or very much the opposite

You may be familiar with high tech western style toilets in Asia that have all the buttons and gizmos with features like bidets, heated toilet seats, and even the option to play music. Just be careful pressing the buttons, as they’re typically only marked in Korean.

On the very opposite end of the spectrum are the Asian style squat toilets, which you may or may not encounter in old buildings. In most public restrooms, DO NOT flush the toilet paper. There is a trash bin in each stall meant for the discarded tissue. This can be an awkward adjustment for many, but you don’t want to be the person responsible for clogging the pipes either. Don’t be that tourist!


8. There are a TON of cafes

Seriously, you will not be able to turn a corner without seeing at least one cafe everywhere you go in Seoul. Themed cafes, dessert cafes, and regular coffee shops are incredibly widespread with plenty of fodder for your Instagram feed!


9. Not all street food is authentic…

But it’s still really fun. It is said that a lot of the street food is ridiculously priced and not even authentic Korean food. But as long as you’re cool with that, there’s no reason to let that stop you from trying some of these crazy concoctions when traveling to Seoul! A corndog covered in French fries? Yes, please!


10. Shopping late at night is a big deal

Seoul is a shopper’s paradise, and the retail party doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. On the contrary, that’s when some stores are just heating up! If you stay in Myeongdong, you can see how empty all the shops in the area were around lunchtime, but by 10:00 at night, the streets were packed with consumers and street vendors. Night owls can also choose from Dongdaemun Market, Sinsadong Garosu-gil Road, Paju Premium Outlets, and Apgujeong Rodeo Street for more nocturnal shopping.


11. Korean chopsticks are different

You’ll frequently have to use metal chopsticks, which are flatter and wider than what you’re probably accustomed to holding. This can be a bit challenging even if you consider yourself pretty adept at using chopsticks. Koreans eat rice with a spoon, so at least there’s one less food to struggle with!


Find out more tips for traveling to Seoul here.