Seoul, South Korea has a lot to offer any traveler. With so many options for food, lodging, and entertainment, it can feel overwhelming to someone unfamiliar with the mega-city. However, with a little research, you can show up in Seoul armed with the knowledge you need to have an unforgettable experience.
Preparing for Your Trip
While certain things in Seoul can be remarkably cheap (looking at you, street dumplings!), it’s wise to remember that it still costs a pretty penny to stay in one of the world’s largest cities. Compared to other cities in Asia like Tokyo or Singapore, Seoul can seem positively cheap; however, setting a budget for yourself and practicing a savings plan leading up to your trip can make a world of difference. Of course, the best things in life aren’t free, so don’t be afraid to spend that money you saved up while you are in Seoul!
Brushing up on Korean culture before you set off is also a good idea. South Koreans have the utmost respect for the elderly in their culture, and it shows. The elderly have special seating on public transport, and if it is already taken, you are expected to give them your seat. Tourists are also seen as generally loud and annoying, so being on your best behavior, especially on public transportation, will get you far in the eyes of the locals. Despite this view of tourists and expats held by the locals, you’ll find South Koreans get just as rowdy as anyone else on a Friday night.
Finally, try to learn some Korean before you head out. Obviously no one expects you to become fluent, but at least attempting to speak to South Koreans in their native tongue is usually met with thanks, or at least novel amusement. Most South Koreans learn to speak English during their primary schooling, so navigating Seoul and shopping is relatively easy. Even if the person you are speaking to doesn’t understand English, a friendly passerby will usually be more than willing to stop and help, even without being asked.
Where to Stay in Seoul
From swanky hotels to cramped, dorm style hostels, Seoul will have somewhere for you to stay no matter your budget. It is also important to note that depending on which area of Seoul you stay in, you will have a radically different experience. Here are three neighborhoods that might fit what you’re looking for:
For the Big Spender
Sinsa is the underappreciated cousin to the now famous Gangnam district. Specialized boutiques, hip restaurants, and flashy cars can be found on every block in Sinsa, and if you like to spend money, this is the area to do it. Furthermore, if you’re interested in a bit of quick body modification, Sinsa has an extremely high concentration of plastic surgery centers, evidenced by the advertisements found on the walls throughout the subway station in Sinsa. If you do plan on staying in Sinsa, be sure to pick up some high-fashion clothing, as South Koreans in this area will judge you based on what you’re wearing.
For the Party Animal
New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, but Itaewon in Seoul certainly gives it a run for its money. Located near Yongsan Military Base, Itaewon is one of the more expat-friendly areas in Seoul, catering to military personnel and foreign English teachers by offering all the trappings of home. American style bars, Mexican restaurants, and clubs that pump out K-Pop hits in between American club standards make Itaewon a hub for the young and party-hungry traveler.
For the Relaxer
Sanbon is as close to a sleepy neighborhood as Seoul has. Developed with Seoul’s growing population in mind, Sanbon has some of the widest streets in all of Seoul, with ample area on the sidewalks — a far cry from the busy streets of Itaewon or Sinsa. Walking around the city, you’ll see a mixture of beautiful mountains as well as cozy urban developments nestled right next to each other. The majority of Sanbon’s population is made up of young families and the elderly, so the nightlife is a bit lacking, but the views and relaxed nature of Sanbon alone are enough to make up for it.
Eat, Drink, and be Merry
Koreans do not mess around with their food, and they mess even less with their drinking. If you end up making any South Korean friends, they will undoubtedly take you out for dinner and drinks. When they do, buckle up, because after a delicious dinner at a nondescript tofu house, they will feed you shot after shot of soju, the local liquor, until you are blind drunk. This isn’t out of spite, but more because they want to see you push your limits — though waving off the third or fourth shot of soju is not a faux pas and won’t hurt your reputation with the locals.
If you can find a seat, try to get into Olde Knives in Yongsan, near Noksapyeong station. With seating for about 20 people, you’ll see a line forming an hour or so before they open up at 6 p.m., so be ready to put your name down and go have a drink while you wait. The wait, however, is more than worth it. Olde Knives offers up only two dishes: a beautiful steak (ordered by weight) and seasonal vegetable medley that is always cooked to perfection, and a cream pasta made from scratch that is topped with a thick slab of pork belly. Paired with one of their expertly crafted cocktails, this is one of the best eating experiences you’ll have in Seoul, let alone the world.
For libations, you can head to any convenience store to pick up soju and beer which can be enjoyed outside in plastic lounge chairs. If you’re looking for a more high-key drinking experience, head to The Fountain in Itaewon. A multi-level club with multiple bar tops within it, The Fountain is synonymous with all-night partying for both locals and expats alike. If the driving bass gets too loud for you, you can head to one of the dozens of more relaxed bars surrounding The Fountain.
Get a Check Up (No, Really)
Aside from all of the delicious food, strong drinks, and beautiful sights to see, Seoul has one very practical commodity to provide travelers. Medical care in Seoul is top notch and far less expensive than in the US, depending on what you are looking to get done. It isn’t surprising that Seoul one of many medical tourism destinations, considering they have everything from plastic surgery to Lasik that can be done even during a short trip to South Korea.
One of the first things that you will notice when walking around Seoul is that optometrists’ storefronts are about as common as Starbucks. For whatever reason, South Korea has made access to vision care incredibly easy and inexpensive. No matter what shop you end up going to, the time it takes from the initial exam to receiving a new pair of high quality frames and lenses is around an hour, usually less. Even better than the time-saving factor, your new glasses will cost a fraction of what it would run you in the US.
South Koreans view plastic surgery with far less stigma than just about anywhere else in the world, so no one will look at you funny if you happen to get a bit of rhinoplasty done while you’re in Seoul. Safe and world-renowned, South Korea has cutting edge procedures available, though they do tend to be expensive. If you’re content with the way you look, though, consider improving the way that you see and reserve at least one day to recover from an inexpensive Lasik procedure instead, which are widely available throughout Seoul.
While there are certainly less expensive foreign cities to travel to in the world, few can compare to the wealth of experiences Seoul has hidden in every corner. When you go, take the time to get to know the people, as they are some of the friendliest on earth, and don’t be afraid to cut loose. If you get itchy travel feet, then you should put Seoul at the top of your list and take the trip of your life.
Author – Ross Cowan