15 Things To Know Before Travelling To South Korea

Here are a few tips and some basic etiquettes to keep in mind before you plan a trip to South Korea
15 Things To Know Before Travelling To South Korea
The cityscape of South Korea/iStock

South Korea is slowly burgeoning into a much sought after travel destination. With a healthy mix of culture, natural vistas, modern day and historical cities and world class cuisine, the country holds something for everyone. Safe, friendly, easy to navigate with superb transportation and infrastructure, here are some tips to make your experience even smoother.

1. Use Public Transportation

South Korea has one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world. All buses, trains and subways are cheap, clean and convenient. For travelling within the city, metro is your best option. For intercity travel, a bus or train is the best option. The bus and train tickets are readily available if purchased on arrival, except for some popular routes and during rush hour on weekends. Check the routes before making a decision. Tickets can be purchased on KORAIL, the national operator of railway networks.

2. Learn a bit of the language

English is widely used in South Korea and spoken by almost everyone in the younger generation. Public places also have signage in both Korean and English. Hangul, is one of the easiest languages to learn and it is also phonetic, so you can sound out the words. This makes you slightly independent while travelling and also allows you to converse easily with the older folks in the country.

3. Basic eating etiquettes

Eating in South Korea is a communal activity, so don’t be surprised if many restaurants do not offer single seating, especially bars and barbecue joints. The servers don’t usually come up to you, instead there are present call buttons on tables. You have to go up to the counter to pay your own bill and tipping is not prevalent. Water is usually self-service, as are some of the side dishes. Do not touch food with hands, except lettuce leaves and don’t use chopsticks to pass food.

Korean food/ iStock

4. Varied accommodation options

South Korea has a wide range of accommodation options depending on your preferences. For budget stays, you can opt for hostels or homestays. They usually offer breakfast and Wi-Fi as well. If you wish to experience the local culture, you can choose to stay in hanoks, traditional guesthouses that provide Korean style rooms with floor mattresses.

Hotels are otherwise the common choice, ranging from budget to luxury, in most popular cities. In national parks or other such areas, you can also choose to glamping.

5. Communication requirements

South Korea is one of the most hi-tech countries in the world, and provides Wi-Fi connectivity throughout its length and breadth, except a few rural areas. You can do without a local sim for the most part but if you wish to buy one, it is readily available at the Incheon airport at one of the many roaming centres. Important applications that you should download include Kakao T, a cab booking service app, Subway Korea and Naver Maps, which is the equivalent of Google Maps.

6. Dressing choices

You can easily opt to dress according to your comfort and weather. However, more than most South Koreans are modest. If visiting a temple, it is advisable not to don tank tops, shorts and skirts. Most of the men and women dress easy, and low-cut tops are the exception rather than the norm. At the beach, opt for a t-shirt instead of a swimsuit. While tattoos are mostly acceptable in South Korea now, in some places, like certain bathhouses, you can be denied entry if seen with ink.

7. Understand the drinking culture

South Korea is famed for its nightlife, and drinking is the mainstay for Korean socializing, also known as hoesik- loosely translated to “a gathering of people”. A night of revelry is sure to include bar hopping to several places, sometimes ending in severe hangover and a blur. The drink of choice is easily soju, and the national drink is soaked up with bar snacks known as anju. This is mostly fried food like French fries or fried chicken.

If you do not prefer drinking, spending the evening at a coffee shop or a bakery is usually the norm and also equally rewarding.

Soju shot being poured/Matador Network

8. Ritual of Gifting

Gifting is an essential part of South Korean culture- both in personal and business relationships and is linked with showing respect. If you are invited to someone’s home, be sure to carry a small gift, like a bottle of wine or flowers, to show your graciousness. Gifts are always received with two hands and never opened with in front of the giver.

9. Prevalence of Confucianism

The social fabric of South Korea is governed by the principals of Confucianism and the subtle etiquettes that are brought into the fold with this practice will benefit you if you make an effort to learn and apply them. It includes talking politely to elders, letting your boss or elders eat first at the table before digging into dinner and always accept when a shot or drink of Soju is offered to you.

10. Lack of Personal Space

Personal space in a country of 25 million people that is also fast paced is a myth, so occasional pushing and shoving is not uncommon. People would not stop to apologize, but this is normal and should not be taken otherwise by tourists.

Furthermore, you are bound to be asked personal questions by curious Koreans, pertaining to your age, opinions, marital status and occupations. These inform the way you are conversed with, and hence should not be taken personally.

A crowded junction in the country/ The New York Times

11. Some Safety Measures

South Korea is a modern country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so you don’t need to worry much about safety measures. South Koreans are very hospitable people. However, it is better to know some basic emergency numbers, like 112 for the police,119 for emergency services or 1330 for the Korean Tourist police.

12. Navigate through your dietary preferences

Tourists have to learn to be slightly flexible with their food choices in the country. Vegetarianism or veganism is slowly catching on, but there are not many places that serve vegetarian fare. Even dishes that you might consider to fall under one of the above categories can be made of shrimp or anchovy broth. Some safe vegetarian options include japchae, bibimbap (without meat) and vegetable pancakes.

Families enjoying street food/ ShutterStock

13. Align your visit with cherry blossom season

It is recommended that you visit South Korea during the spring or fall months, when the weather is temperate and cherry blossoms have started blooming. In October and November, the gingko trees turn golden, giving the cities a particularly majestic look. Jeju Islands are the place where cherry blossoms bloom the earliest, in mid-March, and the natural landscapes that the place offers is the reason it should be on top of your list

Cherry Blossom in South Korea/ Forbes

14. Explore both cities and the countryside

Take a break from the fast paced, urban and hi-tech pace of modern-day Korea, and explore the less talked about but equally stunning natural landscapes and panoramic views that the rural areas offer. Most of South Korea’s natural beauty is hidden in the small towns and a road trip to one of them is the ideal escape. Life in these areas is slower, most of the population is above 40 and follow the traditional way of living.

The Korean countryside/KoreabyMe

15. Monitor air quality

It is always a good idea to carry a mask, as air quality levels can drop pretty low in some areas. The problem is more prevalent in spring season, when desert winds blow from Mongolia and China. Download apps like IQ Air Visual to keep a track of real time air quality.

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