South Korea is a country that many travellers would love to travel to. Some of you will be in it for the scenic nature destinations and historical landmarks, while some of you look forward to fulfilling that K-drama filming location bucket list. But wherever your love of South Korea will take you, keep these South Korea tips in mind if you’re flying there for the first time!
Also read: 10 Stunning Hanoks in South Korea You Can Book on Airbnb
Useful South Korea travel tips you should know
1. Learn basic Korean words and phrases
Let’s not just rely on our English-speaking Korean tour guide for help. Why not help ourselves by learning a Korean word or two when travelling to South Korea? We already have a headstart thanks to the exposure we get from K-dramas and K-pop, so there’s virtually no excuse not to thank or say hi to locals in Hangul when you explore the bright streets of Seoul or breathe the fresh air of Jeju Island.
2. Be aware of the things that might rub off as rude
No country is completely the same and there will be cultural behaviours you’re used to that might not sit well with other nationalities. For instance, Koreans don’t like it when you get touchy with them right off the bat. They also discourage calling someone by their first name. There are a lot of customs to consider when interacting with elderly Koreans too. Review some South Korea travel tips about what makes Koreans upset so you don’t have to stress!
3. Make sure you’re packing for the right weather
It goes without saying that you should be checking the season and weather in South Korea in time for your trip. South Korea has four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. If you want to catch the cherry blossom season, it usually takes place from the end of March to April. On the other hand, you can witness Korea’s beautiful autumn leaves from September to November; and of course, catch the snow from December to February. Always check the weather forecasts in the case of rainy weather.
Also read: South Korea Cherry Blossom 2023 Forecast: When & Where to See
4. Experience wearing the traditional hanbok
Speaking of dressing accordingly, there’s no better place to see what you look like in a traditional Korean hanbok than in South Korea. Don’t be shy, because this is a legit tourist experience you can pay for. In Seoul, there are places where you can rent a hanbok for six hours while roaming the streets, passing by shops and taking photos of temples, which all embody traditional Korean architecture. Think of it as a way of transporting yourself into your favourite Korean period drama!
For similar South Korea travel tips, check out our breakdown of where you can rent hanboks and the price range here.
5. Save your money for the shopping districts and flea markets
Whether you’re on a budget or not, you’ll thank yourself later when you have more than enough money to splurge in Korea’s shopping avenues. The shopping districts and flea markets have it all: fashionable coats, tops and scarves of great quality, designer-like bags, on top of the Korean cosmetics, accessories, and of course, tasty street food.
As part of our South Korea tips for beginners, we suggest you visit places that aren’t typically in the limelight. The shopping districts near Ewha and SookMyung Women’s University would be good places to start for the ladies. If you’re on the go, Goto Mall might be a convenient market for you as it’s located underground as a bus terminal. However, if you’re looking for a shopping mecca, head to Dongdeamun, the country’s largest wholesale shopping district!
Also read: 10 Tips for Shopping in Seoul, According to Frequent Travellers
6. Join a kimchi-making workshop
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a kimchi-making workshop on this list of South Korea tips. Koreans love their kimchi. It’s pretty much a staple dish in all the K-dramas we’ve watched, and we’ve definitely eaten some in our favourite Korean barbecue joints. You can immerse in Korean culture all the more if you actually learn firsthand how Koreans make their kimchi through the cooking classes available in Seoul.
These classes will only take up about 40 minutes of your time and will provide all the ingredients you need. Some classes will even give you the option to wear a hanbok while you’re making your kimchi. If that isn’t an authentic Korean experience, we don’t know what is!
Also read: The Dos and Don’ts of Eating at an Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant
7. Go on a historical walking tour
With just how beautiful South Korea is, riding a bus or taking cabs from place to place just won’t cut it. To appreciate its cities, you need to dedicate a significant amount of time to walking tours, whether it’s a DIY or a paid and guided tour. But here’s a piece of not-so-secret advice: You can book free walking tours all around South Korea.
In Seoul alone, there are more than 25 free walking tours to choose from. These tours consist of trained guides from Seoul tourism offices, as well as Korean university students who want to practice their English. Notable free walking tours include the Sky Park and street food tour, the Gyeongbokgung Palace Tour, and the Bukchon Tour where you get to see traditional Korean homes.
8. Shout for your server in Korean restaurants
This is the most interesting information you’ll get from these South Korea travel tips. We’ve already discussed how important it is to observe silence in Korea’s public transportation systems. But ironically, tourists are also encouraged to shout at their restaurant servers to get their attention. This is considered the norm and not at all impolite.
This is because Korean servers don’t wait on customers and they don’t normally stand near the tables. Therefore, they actually prefer it when you raise your voice so that they can hear you. Either that or you can ring the bell should your table have one. If you need to call out to your waiter, just say “Cheo gi yoh!,” which means “Over there!”
Also read: All the Dos and Don’ts in South Korea That Locals Wish You Knew!
9. Know your Korean taxis
Knowing the four different types of taxis in South Korea will really help you out as a tourist since these also determine the kind of service you’re going to get. The four taxis are the General Taxi, International Taxi, Model Taxi, and Large Taxi.
In Seoul, the General Taxi is an orange-coloured vehicle. In other cities, they’re silver or white. These taxis are the most common taxis and it isn’t a guarantee that the driver will know how to communicate with you in English. They are, however, the most affordable cab in Korea.
The International Taxi looks a lot like the General Taxi as both of them are orange. You’ll need to look closely at the signs on the car to know if the cab is the International Taxi. These service vehicles were launched for international tourists, so expect to receive free translation services in English, Japanese, and Chinese. That said, these taxis can only be booked online or through phone call reservations.
The Black Taxi is basically a posh vehicle with an expensive rate due to the spacious interiors and the drivers being able to speak some English. The drivers are also trained to open the door for their passengers and assist them with their luggage.
Meanwhile, the Large Taxi by definition is the largest one of the bunch that can accommodate multiple passengers at one time. These vehicles usually have “JUMBO TAXI” written on their sliding doors.
10. Don’t be upset if you get rejected from entering a nightclub
In South Korea, some clubs and bars are not open to foreigners, so it’s normal to get rejected for this sole reason. Some nightlife establishments won’t allow you to enter unless you’re Korean or have a Korean residence card. The reason may be that the club have had negative experiences with foreigners in the past, or they are trying to cater to a specific demographic.
Nonetheless, don’t worry as there are still tons of foreigners-friendly clubs and bars where you can still party and have fun in. That said, remember to bring your passport for identification purposes (some clubs are strict and don’t allow any other type of ID) before you enter! Make sure to dress appropriately as well; no short pants for males, no slippers regardless of gender.
Also read: 12 Most Popular Bars & Clubs in Seoul to Dance the Night Away!
11. Avoid handing tips (no matter the amount)
In most countries in Asia, tipping is actually not a norm and is not usually practised, unlike in Europe and the United States. One of the things to know before travelling to South Korea is that tipping is not expected. In fact, it may be considered rude and offensive if you give tips to waiters, staff, or even taxi drivers. You may still give tips in western-style restaurants that accept tipping, but do keep in mind that tipping is a no-no in local restaurants and most places in South Korea.
12. Utilise reliable navigation apps
It is important to equip yourself with reliable navigation applications when travelling in a foreign country. But apparently, in South Korea, Google Maps is not as useful as it is in other countries. One of the most helpful South Korea travel tips is to download applications like KakaoMap and Naver Map.
Aside from maps, KakaoMap also has features that show you the weather, attractions, restaurants, and other useful information. However, you may have to utilise another translating app when using KakaoMap if you don’t know basic Korean, as not all information is translated into English.
Naver Map, on the other hand, has excellent translation and shows both Korean and English words. Since Naver is one of the biggest internet portal sites in South Korea, the app also provides adequate information, and basically acts like a Google app.
13. Be fashionable and dress well
If you’re a fan of K-pop or Korean dramas, then you probably already know how fashionable South Koreans are. Especially in cities like Seoul, the locals are conscious about their appearance and tend to dress in trend. Therefore, when travelling to South Korea, pull out the most fashionable pieces of clothing from your closet and dress up well to blend in! Although this is not so much of a ‘useful’ South Korea travel tip, it doesn’t hurt to glam up and take pretty pictures for your trip, right?
14. Familiarize yourself with the use of tissue
Don’t be weirded out if you see toilet paper rolls around the tables of local South Korean restaurants, or when the locals use toilet paper as napkins. Here, toilet paper rolls are commonly used to wipe the mouth and clean the nose. Thus, when travelling in South Korea, using toilet paper as table napkins and seeing toilet paper rolls in a restaurant is totally normal.
However, washrooms in South Korea usually do not have toilet paper provided. Hence, you have to prepare your own toilet paper, or purchase it before using the washroom. In some toilets, there are also rules where you cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet bowl, but discard them into the trash bin nearby instead.
15. Take off your shoes when needed
In many Asian countries, taking off your shoes before entering a household or a certain place is a norm. The same applies to when you’re in South Korea. When entering a Korean house, remember to take off your shoes so you don’t dirty the floor. Besides, when visiting a religious site such as a Korean temple, you’re required to remove your shoes as a sign of respect. Some restaurants may also need you to take your shoes off if they offer indoor floor-sitting dining.
Also read: 13 Fun Facts About South Korea You Should Know About Before You Visit!
So to the first-time travellers out there, take note of these things to know before travelling to South Korea, and prepare your mind, body, and heart for a fun and cultural experience. Since the country has several customs ingrained in their society, you can’t just travel there in naiveté. Let these South Korea travel tips guide you on your first SK adventure!