South Korea is a magical country. There is something so at odds in a country that values tradition and yet seeks to bring technological change to the masses (rather than relegating it to the military or ultrarich). The people are some of the most helpful in the world, and yet cults abound with a little too much friendliness. It’s conservative, and yet many traditional plays contain an abundance of raunchy material.
A long layover: The Incheon Airport is pretty awesome. They offer a lovely service to see some parts of Korea on your layover so you can get out of the airport with a guide. There is also a Korean spa in the airport if you want a cheap but wonderful place to sleep. Be aware, you will have to get naked for the baths, please don’t be one of those shocked people in all the reviews. It makes everyone else uncomfortable if you keep your clothes on and you will probably get yelled at. Recently I was in one and two foreign girls had on bathing suits and I immediately felt body conscious. Don’t try it.
2-10 Days: I would honestly just stay in Seoul. There is so, so much to do! Have two days for the various palaces, a day for Gangnam, a day for Insadong, and a day for Hongdae at the very least. These places are not super close to each other so it’s best to spend a day in one area at a time. If you are on the long end of this, a day-trip to Nami Island or Suwon might be a good option for you. Check out my 10 Days in Seoul Post!
10-18 Days: Keep around 9 days for Seoul and then start heading out and about. Maybe keep your base in Seoul to see Nami Island and Suwon. Then head down to Busan. Busan is a very spread out city so to see a lot of it, it’s best to have a few days. If not, I’ve done a whirlwind daytrip. I’d spend about 5 days here, and if you have the time a trip to Daegu on the way back to Seoul is a good idea.
18+ Days: Now you really have some options. I would still keep a lot of the time in Seoul and Busan, but now add some days on to see Jinju, Gyeongju, Namhae, Andong (I would give yourself three days here, I did it in two and felt very rushed due to infrequent buses), or even Jeju. Heck, you can even take a ferry to Japan from Busan so why not!
Below I have some other tips and information you might find useful! Just click on the Spoilers to reveal more 🙂
Korean history is very hard to find....Open
Korean history is very hard to find, as it’s often not taught in the West. Most of the sources haven’t been translated either. However, there are some important points.
The Japanese have invaded Korea multiple times, leading to a fair amount of tension between the two nations. The most recent time was in 1910 and lasted until 1945. Many people still alive today were affected greatly by the annexation in horrible ways. While Korean people are generally kind to anyone, and wouldn’t generally say anything to anyone’s face, maybe don’t go speaking Japanese or comparing things to Japan.
Korea is home to some pretty badass military leaders. My favorites are General Yi (who you can watch this entire YouTube series on) and Choi Young (who is not as well known, but a main character in my favorite Kdrama, Faith. When he was executed for treason on trumped up charges he said nothing would grow on his grave, and nothing had in over 600 years until very recently).
Korea was an isolated country for a very long time, especially in the 1800s, giving rise to its nickname as the Hermit Kingdom (now generally applied to North Korea). When French and US forces wanted to trade with Korea, they had to send messages through China in order to get them to Korea. The US actually attacked Korea due to their unwillingness to trade, and massacred many Koreans in 1871.
The Joseon Dynasty, from 1392 to 1863 is largely regarded as the most important time in Korea’s history as it was a time of great peace, for the most part. It also involved their greatest king, King Sejong, who oversaw incredible advances in almost every area of life. He also helped to in creating Hangul, the Korean system of writing, it order to allow everyone to read more easily. Unfortunately the dynasty ended with increasing corruption and oppressiveness, followed by the Japanese annexation.
What Time to Visit
Despite it being typhoon season...Open
October. Despite it being typhoon season, I would really recommend you come in October. October seems to be the autumn festival month, with something happening somewhere practically every day. My October was absolutely packed with a lantern festival, a masked dance festival, Busan Pride, and the Kpop World Festival. There are many more things as well, like Namhae’s Octoberfest, Seoul Fashion Week, and Hiking festivals.
If you can’t make it in October, I’d recommend the Spring. A lot of festivals happen around this time as well, and the entire country is in bloom, including the famous cherry blossoms. However, Yellow Dust season has been increasingly bad in the past few years, starting to encroach on spring. Yellow Dust season is the time when pollution comes down from China, making it very difficult/bad to breath. Hence, why I’d recommend autumn over spring 🙂
I really recommend you learn the alphabet...Open
I really recommend you learn the alphabet. It’s incredibly easy (I learned it in under an hour) and phonetically based. This website seems pretty good. By knowing the alphabet you will be able to better navigate using apps like Kakao Maps. A lot of words are still written in Korean even if they are English, so it helps a ton with being able to read a menu and order.
As always, I recommend you learn the very basics of any country’s language, because it will ingratiate you to the people who live there. Saying hello, sorry, and thank you are awesome options and so useful. You should probably also learn “where” in Korean, as just this one word is enough to get someone to try their utmost to help you find what you want.
Hello is 안녕하세요 pronounced “annyeong-ha-say-yo” but if you want to sound more authentic, smush all of the sounds together “anyah-sayo.”
Thank you is 감사합니다 pronounced “gam-sa-ham-ni-da” but again, smush it and it’s “gam-samni-da”
Sorry is 미안해요 pronounced “mian-heyo”
Where is 어디에 pronounced “awdi-ay” so just say “awdi-ay Subway” and someone will almost certainly know what you’re asking.
Shockingly trains often aren't as convenient...Open
Plane: You can take a plane, but that will probably take you a lot of extra time what with getting to the airport ahead of time, inevitable delays, etc. Especially seeing as the main airport is in Incheon, which is an hour away from Seoul depending on traffic. Gimpo is the better option if you are flying in Korea though.
Train: The trains are great, but shockingly often not as good as the buses. The trains are honestly a bit pricey, so unless you’re going far I would choose a bus. If you are going a distance of over 4 hours by bus, then a train will probably be more worth it.
Bus: I have been so shocked to find the buses generally more convenient and sometimes even quicker than the trains. And a good deal cheaper, often 1/4th of the price of a train ticket. The buses are often direct, with no transfers or stops in-between. It’s hard to mess that up. If you use Kakao Maps, often helpful people have posted pictures of the train schedules for each station. Buses are just as comfortable as a train in Korea, with reclining seats, air conditioning, and spot lighting.
Unless you can read Korean...Open
Unless you can read Korean (which you should) stick to subways in places like Seoul. Buses are very confusing in Seoul if you don’t use an app, and most of the station/stop names will be written in Korean. The subway is generally more English friendly, although very extensive and using an app is honestly still better. Even Korean people use the apps because the lines are like a knotted mess on paper. Outside of Seoul, where places may not have a subway, use a Korean App like Kakao Maps to get incredibly specific time tables and alerts for which stop to get off at.
This is Korea's Uber...Open
Kakao Maps. I like Kakao Maps. So far it’s my favorite navigation app and it has a lot of very useful features. Check out my entire post on how to best use this app!
Kakao Taxi: This is Korea’s Uber. You can’t add a card but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it! Simply type in where you want to go and make sure your pinned location isn’t confusing. You don’t want a phone call trying to figure out which side of a highway you’re on. Pick a convenience store next to you or something. Honestly I use this more than I flag down taxis because then the drivers are not confused as to where I want to go. Whenever I flag someone down we spend five minutes trying to figure out what I want even though I have the place written in Korean, with a freaking map right there *rolls eyes*.
Anyways, hit Select Taxi and pick General Call. This means you get an actual taxi driver! Very nice, I wish we had something like this in the US so I could support actual taxi businesses. Then choose “Select a payment method” and now you can say “pay in person.” All taxi drivers I’ve ever encountered will take cash, card, or T-Money.
Kakao Talk: This should go without saying by now but just in case…It’s like Whatsapp, but Korea. It’s the general way people in Korea communicate with you. It’s also very nice if you are at a bar/clubbing, as many guys and even random girls will ask for your Kakao. You can try talking to them but if they seem weird it’s very easy to block them and move on. Hooray.
Papago: This is the best Korean translate app. It tends to give far more accurate translations that Google Translate. It also offers the same Google option to take a picture and translate the words directly from that. Yay!
Yogiyo: The Korean food delivery service. If you are in Seoul, use it’s rival Shuttle because it’s all in English (although they will charge you a bit more for that luxury). If you’re not in Seoul, Yogiyo is the one to go for. You can find tons of guides on the internet and it’s honestly not as confusing as it first looks. I recently successfully ordered friend chicken to my apartment. Fun.
A VPN. The Korean Government has certain restrictions on what you’re allowed to see on the internet. Even normal videos on YouTube can sometimes be age-gated and if you’re not Korean you can’t bypass that. Also, it’s just nice to be able to get the video options I like. I don’t have an affiliation with them, but I use Nord VPN and I like it quite a bit. Just know that it doesn’t work on Amazon Prime.
Where to Stay
If you're looking for cheap long term options...Open
Cheap, Short term: if you are really city hopping, stay in the spas or a hostel. Spas are generally 24 hours (but do check just in case) and really, really cheap, often under $10 a night. Hostels are becoming pretty popular here too, and they are slightly more convenient, as you can leave your bag there during the day. But you also don’t get the amazing bath so it’s a toss up in my opinion. For Seoul I recommend Siloam Sauna and Bunk Guesthouse. Siloam is foreigner friendly and not as crazy as Dragon Hill. Bunk Guesthouse has a great location in Hongdae and a very helpful owner and great guests. I probably made the most friends in the shortest amount of time at this hostel, and from all around the world!
The Traditional Option: stay in a hanok house. These are generally very small so if you have a lot of luggage don’t do it. But they are beautiful and peaceful and a taste of the real Korea. I adore them. I stayed in a Hanok style hostel in Andong and it was a lot of fun!
Cheap Long Term: check out goshiwons. These are incredibly small apartments for only around $280 a month. A lot of people seem to think they’re awful but I personally think they’re awesome. After all, I use my home basically only to sleep if I’m traveling. Renting a regular apartment in Korea isn’t really an option.
Study Abroad Options
I studied abroad to learn Korean...Open
I have studied abroad in Korea to learn Korean. I still think Sogang is the best bang for your buck. It’s significantly cheaper than any of the organized study abroad options from my school or major companies. They also teach for conversation, not grammar, unlike most other schools (Namely Yonsei). I still use the skills I learned at Sogang and I still maintain good friends from the program.
What to Buy
Some Korean stables can make great tourist purchases...Open
Some of the different staples of Korea also make great tourist purchases. Sun umbrellas are very common and wonderful to use all the time here. You can find them in department stores, generally very cheap. I bought mine for around $9, but fancier auto-close crystal studded ones can run up to $70. Skincare is abound and much better and cheaper than most options in the US. A lot of people come to Korea solely to buy the skincare products. They’re pretty awesome. I also recommend buying sunblock. Unlike the sunblock in the US, Korean sunblock is often formulated to be light, go under makeup easily, and not give that awful shiny, slimy, white-cast. Hand fans also abound here, both in electronic and traditional forms. I love fanning myself with a Venetian style fan in the subways, and not even looking odd. You can also buy some hanbok-style clothing, which involves a lot of wrap around skirts and babydoll dresses.
What to Pack
The weather forecast is always wrong...Open
An umbrella. Korean weather never seems to follow the forecast. If it says it will be cool, it’s probably going to be blazing hot. If it says it won’t rain, it probably will. As such, bring an umbrella.
Easy slip on shoes. Depending on what you’re doing/where you’re going, you may have to take your shoes off a lot. That amount of time untying and retying shoes while all the Koreans march past you gets really annoying.
American snacks. If you are planning to stay longer than two months, get some snacks. I had a massive craving for nacho cheese Doritos about two weeks in. Especially with cheese flavored snacks you will find the majority will taste sweet. Ick.
Annnnd….that’s it! Anything I missed? I hope this South Korea travel itinerary and tips has been useful!
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