Mini Travel Guide: Korea

travel guide for Korea

Thinking of traveling to Korea? This is a travel guide to Korea from the lovely Andrea (the cutie in the party hat in the above photo) who lived in Korea for two plus years. This is part of our on-going series of mini-travel guides to amazing countries that you want to visit.  These are just a wee peek into travel, with just a few of the absolutely must things that will whet your travel appetite. 
travel to korea
I’ve recently returned to the states after teaching and traveling in Korea for the last 2+ years. Knowing little about this country before I moved there, Korea will surprise you as it did me, with its vibrancy and culture. Here’s why:

Must do in Korea

Jimjilbang

Koreans love their saunas. Though nakedness is uncomfortable for many of us, after visiting a jimjilbang for the first time, relaxation will be the only thing on your mind. Green tea and ginseng soaking tubs, steam rooms and saunas will help you unwind from the stress of the urban life of Seoul. Many are less than 10$ a visit.

Take picture stickers

Take picture stickers with your friends and decorate to full gaudy awesomeness.

Dance, eat, sing, drink or shop 24 hours a day.

Seoul may actually be the city that never sleeps.

Must eat in korea travel

Must go in Korea

Hongdae

An eclectic neighborhood centered around Hongik University in Seoul. It’s my favorite nightlife and daytime destination with every kind of dive bar, dance club, restaurant, singing room, and cheap shopping you could imagine. People-watch in Hongdae park or participate in a weekly silent disco there. Visit a cat or dog cafe, where for the price of a drink you can hang with friendly kitties and puppies. Kitties and puppies galore! Sing your heart out in a private karaoke room called Noraebang. Some of these are in glass rooms visible from the street so your vocal stylings can be seen and not heard.

Insadong

For traditional souvenirs, tea service and art galleries, walk the neighborhoods of Insadong and Samcheongdong. Within walking distance of each other, these two areas offer winding back alleys of hidden gems including a flying bird tea house. They’re both near many of the traditional palaces which are worth a visit and tour for the colorful architecture and changing of the guard ceremonies.

Seorak Mountain (Seoraksan)

Koreans love hiking. Even elderly ajummas and ajushis (ladies and gentlemen) in full hiking gear often hit the trails at 5 am. If they can do it, so can you. My favorite is Seoraksan during the fall leaves. It’s  a few hours by bus outside Seoul and offers easy – difficult hikes with stunning views and buddha statues. Little restaurants sprinkled all the way up serve seafood pancakes and fermented rice liquor called makgeoli. Be on the lookout for friendly Koreans ready to offer a snack or hand up the mountain.

cultural tips for travel in Korea

Must eat in Korea

Galbi

Korean barbecue is a must. Order your type and cut of meat then cook it right at your table. There’s a reason this part of Korean cuisine is taking off internationally: it’s consistently delicious. Use lettuce, kimchi, red pepper paste and various sides to make a little wrapup. Then stuff it in – one full bite is best.

Noryangin Seafood Market

Being a peninsula means Korea is full of seafood options. Yard upon yard of fresh fish and crustaceans of all kinds will startle you with their variety at the biggest market in Seoul. Try the live octopus, cut at your table and still wriggling, with sesame oil, if you’re brave. Or pick your fish to be filleted, served raw with the leftover meat made into a spicy soup.

Kimchi

Currently living in the states again, I’m going through serious Kimchi withdrawal. It’s fermented spicy cabbage with varying degrees of zing. It’s served with most dishes and it’s super healthy. Not your average flavor by western standards but you’ll crave it after just a few tries.
must eat in korea

Cultural tip for travel in Korea

Korea is a culture built around respect. A polite bow and the correct formal language for each rank and age of society is crucial to successful interactions. Though learning to read Hangeul, the Korean characters is surprisingly easy, a vacation to the land of Kimchi probably means you won’t learn much of the language. Try instead a small, polite bow to those you meet and try to give and take money with both hands as a sign of respect. These will get you far.At the same time, don’t worry about the pushiness of those on subways and in public. There are 50 million people in the area the size of Tennessee. Sometimes a little pushiness is needed to get by.Finally, watch k-pop videos!! The boys and girls in these bands can dance, sing and have wicked fun clothes. G-Dragon and T.O.P. from the boy band Big Bang are my favorite.
mini travel guide to korea
Travel on the cheap in Korea

Public transportation such as the subway, buses and taxis are all cheap and convenient. Walking is easy, too. If you travel outside the city, a minbak, or bedless shared sleeping room is the best way to go. You might have to make friends with a Korean to help you book one – but who doesn’t need more friends?

Related: Airbnb is always an affordable option and if you’ve never used it before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!

Thanks so much, Andrea! Are you Korean?  Or do you have tips to share on travel in Korea?

photo by moriza // cc

12 Comments

Kalei's Best Friend

Well, u have taught me a little bit of my culture.. btw, I was born in the u.s. as was my parents and maternal grandma….I remember relatives making Kimchi- both types and their version of Korean food is different from what is served in restaurants…My grandma cringed when we took her to a Korean restaurant for the first time… All she could say was "too much sugar" in the marinade,and I have to agree- also we never had those hibachis at the table- to us that is a gimmick thought of by the restaurant owners… kinda the Benihana thing…

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I'm glad you've done one of these about Korea!! I study east asia, but we don't really cover much on what you should eat and where you should shop when you go there. I really wanna travel around South Korea and Japan when i finish uni, so i think some bits from this will be really helpfull!

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Anonymous

you can also sleep at some jimjilbangs on the cheap – I believe somewhere from 6-15 bucks for the night. There's no beds, but there's always heated floors. Or check into a "love motel" for about 25-50 bucks a night. Usually not too sketchy, these are what Koreans use to conduct affairs in.

Another great thing to know is how to say "this please" which will get you far in terms of food & shopping. Most Koreans, especially in big cities know at least a little English "hello, how are you, how much?, money" etc. but the three most useful phrases i learned when i lived there for a year were:
hello – anyonghaseyo
thank you – kamsahhamnida
i'm sorry – mian hamnida

and here's a bonus –
this please – igo, jus seyo

Check out eatyourkimchi.com for more korean culture & tips.

Reply
Anonymous

I was thrilled to see a post featuring travel/life in Korea! My boyfriend and I lived and taught English there for 2 years and it was easily the best time of our lives!

The tips provided here are great–our only addition would be to visit as many Buddhist temples as possible! Not only is the scenery spectacular, but some temples offer an array of quaint shops and restaurants featuring traditional Korean food (Tongdosa's on-site restaurant features a vegetarian menu, which can be hard to find elsewhere!) Some must-see temples are Tongdosa, Beomeosa, Bulguksa, Magoksa, Seoknamsa, Haeinsa, Sudeoksa. Another hidden gem is the magically mysterious Mai-san/Tapsa Temple.

Food and beverage-wise, in addition to those already listed be sure to sample ori (smoked duck), Suwon galbi, jjimdalk, pajeon, dongdongju (not to be confused with magkeoli), kimchi jiggae, ddalk galbi, soondubu jiggae, hoddeok, galbi tang, kalguksu, bibimbap, mandu, hok dwaeji, sujeonggwa, hobakjuk, chamchee kimbap, tteokbokki, samgyetang, seollangtang, deokbaegi bulgogi, ddeokmandu guk, and hanwoo (Korean) beef.

Along with noraebang and love motels, DVD bangs are another cool feature (a private theatre for you and a friend or two–all for not much more than a single movie ticket!)

Koreans are typically friendly and very helpful, particularly if you make an effort to reach out and understand their culture and can speak a few basic words in the language. They love to introduce visitors to their country!

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I really want to travel around South Korea and Japan when i finish uni, so i think some bits from this will be really helpful.They love to introduce visitors to their country……

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