Guide to Seoul: things to know before visiting. South Korea is similar to America in a lot of ways but we have had a few surprises during our time here. Aside from occasionally burning off our tastebuds and almost being ran over a few times, we are having an absolute blast and enjoying learning about Korea’s quirks!
Things to Know Before Visiting Seoul, South Korea
1. The air quality sucks. I live out in the country where the grass is green, the skies are blue, and the air is clean but when I say that the air quality is terrible in Seoul, I don’t mean city air vs country air. I mean like actually hazardous to your health. You’ve probably seen people in Asia wearing masks on TV or online somewhere; germaphobes typically assume it’s to prevent getting sick, but it’s actually to filter the air they’re breathing in. (You can see the gray/yellow haze in the picture below. It looks like the picture was taken at dawn, it was noon.)
Download the app Air Visual by IQAir and see for yourself. This app will tell you how bad the air is, which pollutants are present (and their risk), as well as precautions to take. Seoul was in the top 5 for the WORLD several days we were in country. Apparently it was a new record for most consecutive days of hazardous air quality. (One day we couldn’t even see the mountains behind us, the haze was so thick!)
2. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Or if they do… no one cares. You might think there’s no way a car can fit down this street… you’re wrong. You might even assume you’re safe on the sidewalk… you’re wrong. Always use the crosswalks and whatever you do, stay out of the way of the delivery motorbikes! They stop for no one. Even the mail is delivered by motorbike. (Pictured below.) At least the cars/buses look cute while almost running you over…
3. You will see some English. Depending on which area you are visiting, you will see a lot of English (and American brands). We stayed in Hongdae, a younger area near Hongik University with college-aged locals and many restaurants and stores with English writing. (As well as English speakers.) There was a McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Forever21, H&M, and Nike store a few blocks away. However when we traveled to Bucheon or more traditional markets, like Namdaemun or Dongdaemun, we didn’t see as much English.
4. Starbucks is everywhere. I went to one for a quiet place to write around 8am and it was dead- maybe two other people in the entire place. Things picked up significantly around noon and there were zero available tables when I left at 1pm. Local cafes (and animal cafes) are everywhere as well. Most serve coffee, tea, fruit-ades and pastries.
5. WiFi is everywhere and it’s insanely fast. Even the subway! At home (in the country) our internet speed hovers around 6mbps (1mbps for upload), in South Korea it was consistently above 300mbps (200mbps for upload) for us. I’ve yet to visit a restaurant without WiFi, even hole-in-the-walls. You can also get portable pocket WiFi to carry with you everywhere. Our Airbnb provided one WiFi egg and we rented an additional one from the airport in case James and I ever split up exploring.
6. Nothing is open early. Maybe this varies by area? The streets in Hongdae were happenin’ until the wee early morning hours and then absolutely dead until just before noon. We went to a restaurant for lunch around 11:30am and the server kept telling us that everything we tried to order was “sold out.” I asked him when they usually start selling out (i.e. how early do we need to get there next time??) and he said the the issue was just the opposite- they don’t really start cooking the full menu until 2-3pm. Even the coffee shops (except Starbucks) don’t start opening until closer to 11am.
7. Avoid the subway during rush hour. This is typically between 6:45-9:00am and 5:30-7:00pm. (Transfer stations are the worst.) Another subway tip: do not sit in any of the reserved seats (section at the back for elderly/ pink seats for pregnant women).
If you are lucky enough to have a seat, it’s commonplace to give up your seat to someone who may need it more than you, such as pregnant women, people who are injured or disabled, families with young children, and the elderly. (James was constantly offered a seat… sometimes told… to sit when he had Ian on his back. We tried to politely decline because sitting down enabled Ian to stand up and try and climb out haha! Plus he loved “honking the horn” aka holding the handles.)
8. There is a whole underground world! One of our first days in Seoul we went down the into the subway to check it out, fully expecting to just see a barren platform. We had no idea what we were in store for- there’s a whole world under there. Shops, food, tunnels! We’ve become proficient at walking underground to get where we need to go to avoid the cold (and being ran over) above ground. At one stop we went down to B5 (how deep that is- I don’t really know). Sophia begs us to go through the Hapjeong station every time because they sell these amazing piping hot custard filled little bite-sized cakes.
9. If they tell you it’s spicy, believe them. We love spicy food, but there’s spicy and then there’s Korean spicy. Callie has a really funny story about the time she chose chicken with only “one pepper” heat rating next to it on the menu and then immediately regretted all prior life decisions as soon as the waitress set it down on the table. If you value your tastebuds, tread lightly.
10. You are probably being recorded at all times. Everywhere. Most cars have dash cams; there’s cameras in the subways, stairwells, and outside of almost all buildings. With over 8 million surveillance cameras (reported 2017 stats), Korea is one of the most-watched nations in the world.
11. Every bathroom is different. Most homes have bidets, complete with seat warmers. 🙂 Download Google translate so you can figure out the different buttons- typically one to wash your hiney and one for your lady business, each with different settings for the spray volume, temperature, and to stop. (Side note, the button to flush is usually on the side/close the back of the toilet with a bidet… don’t just try pushing buttons on the control panel in an attempt to flush unless you also want a shower!)
Some public bathrooms only have “squat toilets”… which is exactly what the name implies… you squat over a potty hole in the ground. Oddly enough, Africa prepared me for this haha.
Some bathrooms are unisex, so if you walk in to see a stall and a urinal, you may need to also lock the main door, not just the stall door. Some bathrooms are shared between multiple businesses and do not provide toilet paper… learned this the hard way… you need to ask the shop you’re visiting for a roll (usually found by the front door). Pro tip: tuck a few squares in your pocket for emergencies.
Additional note about toilet paper: don’t flush it. Most public bathrooms (especially older buildings with weaker infrastructure) have a sign on the back of the door (in Korean) asking you to politely throw the tissue in the trash can.
12. Speaking of trash, you will need to sort it. At home (aka your Airbnb) AND at restaurants. I’ll never forget when we went to McDonalds on our first day here (at 4am… thank you, jet lag) and went to throw away our trash. There were about six different trash cans with all kinds of instructions on them (in Korean). One for straws, one for the plastic cups, one for food waste, another for liquids, one for recycling… it was a lot and I’m still not sure we’re doing it right.
13. The floor (ondol) is your heater. Having a heated floor is as amazing as it sounds. Seriously, going to miss this. It doesn’t feel hot to the touch, instead it’s a subtle warmth that you won’t even notice after awhile… unless you step on to the freezing cold bathroom tile in the middle of the night. There are days in Texas where we will run the heater at night and the air conditioner during the day, it’s been so weird to not be constantly adjusting the thermostat here.
14. Speaking of heat, Koreans like it hot. Dress in layers (multiple!) because it may be 17 degrees F and snowing outside but I promise if you go into a restaurant or are on the subway for more than 90 seconds, you will start shedding layers like your life depends on it. (#heatstroke) From now on the heat index will be referred to as: hell -> Texas summer -> surface of the sun -> indoor Korean establishment.
15. Forget stranger danger. I’ve heard mixed opinions on this, some feel that Koreans are extremely nice to Westerners, some say they were stared at in an unfriendly way. Other than the one time we were scolded by an ajumma for having Ian out in the cold, we’ve had nothing but positive interactions! We’ve been invited to people’s homes, exchanged information with people we met on the subway, and found that people especially love to talk to Ian (or shake his hand/ rub his hair/ pick lint off his jacket on the subway… and he wants none of it… haha). Except for the time a man ran back into his home and came back out with a package of chocolates for him… he was on board with befriending him. 🙂
16. Forget personal space. South Korea is one of the world’s most densely populated countries (about 1300 people per square mile). I haven’t been shoved on the subway yet, but I have been in an elevator that made the bells go off because we were packed in so tight we surpassed the weight limit. Personal space just isn’t really a thing here like it is in America.