When I left South Korea after three weeks of backpacking around the country, I found myself experiencing a genuine pang of sadness. It had weirdly felt more than just a holiday – it was like leaving somewhere I had settled in for much longer.
South Korea totally exceeded my expectations in every way and in fact, was very different to how I thought it was going to be.
South Korea is a pretty easy country to travel; the transport is convenient, the people are friendly and everything is generally really modern, clean and ordered. That means less time stressing and more time enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of South Korea!
If you are headed there, here are 12 things to know before you visit South Korea to brush up on Korean culture, etiquette and to ensure you are well prepared!
It’s safe (even though next to North Korea)
South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. This is not to say there are no pretty thieves and con artists of course, but it remains pretty safe by day and night. Just be aware of your surroundings as normal.
My personal experience of South Korean people was extremely positive and their kindness blew me away. One time when I was at a pedestrian crossing in the rain, a lady came up to me and sheltered me with her umbrella until I crossed. It was so sweet and totally epitomises what the South Korean’s are like.
Despite being next to North Korea, one of the world’s most politically unstable countries, South Korea is currently at no real threat from them. The relationship with North Korea is obviously complicated, but tensions are low right now and international travel to South Korea is actually at an all time high.
Recently there have even been shows of diplomacy between the two nations, such as athletes competing together at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Many people are worried about nuclear weapons and would not consider visiting South Korea (they’re missing out!!). South Korea has many allies such as America so it’s unlikely to happen. If North Korea did use nuclear weapons, they sure as hell would trigger a world war which I think even Kim Jong-Un isn’t stupid enough to do!
During your visit to South Korea, you can take a day tour from Seoul to the North Korean border called the ‘DMZ’ (demilitarised zone).
what is the DMZ actually like?
Showers are not always private in hostels
This was something I experienced twice whilst staying in hostels in Busan (but nowhere else) and I really didn’t expect it!
Although bathrooms often have a very handy boudoir-style room attached to the bathroom to dry your hair and do you make-up, the actual bathrooms can often be pretty basic.
In one hostel, there were simply three shower heads on the wall with divides between them but no shower curtain in front for privacy.
In the other, there was a plastic shower curtain separating each area but it was see-through with a few flowers printed on it! If this is something that would bother you, check what the bathrooms are like before you book a hostel.
Showers are not often in cubicles and so shower shoes are also commonly provided. If you’re funny about using communal footwear, it would be best to bring your own.
Google Maps doesn’t work
I rely on Google Maps to assist with my directions pretty much everywhere I go and so I was disappointed to find out that it is blocked in South Korea. When I was researching before I went, I didn’t come across this information on the internet.
Although the map may load, you can’t get directions and your GPS location won’t show. Instead, it is best to download the local alternative Kakao Map. You can download it with an English interface which is great news.
South Korean people dress Smartly
Buming around Seoul in my leggings and baggy jumper with old trainers made me feel like a distinct hobo backpacker! Everyone around me was very smartly dressed and I did feel like I totally stood out!
The women in South Korea are especially very elegantly dressed, often with beautiful flowing dresses and pristine make-up. It’s also not uncommon to see people cleaning their teeth in public too.
It seems like beauty is taken very seriously in South Korea. That being said, it’s a great place to go shopping for clothes or beauty products.
If you want to dress in elegant traditional clothing, you have opportunities at many of the open air museums and palaces such as Gyeongbokgung Palace. You’ll often see locals doing this and couples having romantic photo shoots.
Shoes off inside
Like in many parts of Asia, you are expected to take off your shoes when you go inside. Indoor shoes or slippers are often provided, but again, if this bothers you, it would be best to bring your own travel slippers.
I occasionally saw travellers ignore this rule which I think is really rude. This is a cultural norm and so it is respectful to conform, especially when entering someone’s house.
There’s good WiFi everywhere
And it’s often free!
I had loads of things I needed to do online and so I was relived to discover that the WiFi in South Korea is brilliant (especially having come straight from the Philippines which is the total opposite!)
Pretty much every cafe, restaurant, hostel and hotel has internet available for public use. There are even some public WiFi hotspots around the touristy districts should you need it.
There are loads of free attractions
Although South Korea was a bit more expensive than I expected it to be, it made up for it with all the free things there were to do.
Unfortunately the main open air palace museums cost to enter, but aside from these, there are plenty of free places to visit across the country such as temples, waterfalls and historic buildings.
Rubbish bins are scarce
For a country that is remarkably clean and tidy, the fact you cannot often find a garbage bin is surprising.
Your best shot is near a public landmark like a train station. Otherwise you may have to take any rubbish home with you like I had to on more than one occasion.
The downside to there being so few public bins is that when you do find one, it’s likely to be completely full!
They love cute and quirky foods
South Koreans seem to be obsessed with making foods absolutely adorable or down right quirky. Travelling South Korea is a gastronomic journey and you’ll discover all sorts of cool foods that are totally irresistible. The sweet treats here are especially creative.
You can try a 32cm ice cream, drink lattes that look like the Cookie Monster, eat cakes that look like cartoon characters and even have a drink from a toilet bowl at the Poop Cafe!
Avoid taxis (especially black cabs)
A local told me that the best taxis to get are the yellow ones. Black cabs are ‘premium’ taxis although they provide relatively the same level of comfort as yellow ones- just cost a lot more!
You probably won’t really need to take a taxi anywhere. The metro is a really modern, comprehensive and well thought out network so you can get practically everywhere you need to go. That includes to and from the airport.
South Korea has a huge population of over 51 million people and so you’re likely to get stuck in traffic if you do end up taking a cab.
Be polite on the street
If you have an altercation with a local in the street over something minor, it is best to just walk away. If the police get involved they do not look very favourably upon you as a foreigner and are more likely to take the side of the local. No matter who started it, you may end up to blame and face some pretty severe punishments. Of course if a crime has been committed then this is a different story and go ahead and call the police if you need them!
The frustrating thing is you’ll often find people pushing in front of you when queuing – you’ll just have to bite your tongue. Something I find especially hard!
Restaurant and market etiquette is also something that may take some time to get used to (there’s a lot of shouting). Other than this, South Korean’s in my experience are very respectful.
Elders are especially respected and people will often give up their seat on the metro for someone older than them.
Be careful talking about Japan
Japanese-Korean relations are complicated. They have been at war in the past with Japan having taken control of Korea in 1910 before it was liberated back to the Korean’s shortly after WW2.
South Korea still grapples with the fall out with Japan and have largely not forgiven them.
I found that at the open air museums you’ll often read how everything now is a replica as Japan destroyed the majority of their historic palaces. They definitely talk about Japan with a distinct bitterness so be cautious talking about Japan unless you want an annoyed history lecture from someone!
You may also see memorials of solemn looking girls around which are commemorations to the thousands of South Korean women who were forced into prostitution for Japanese men at war. They are otherwise known as ‘comfort women’ and you should be respectful whenever you see such a monument.
That concludes 12 things I learnt having backpacked around various places in South Korea. If you have been and would add anything else to this list – feel free to add it in the comments below!