Packing for Korea:
Plug converters (they are easy to find at the airport BUT the packaging often doesn't know what's the right size for Korea, so if you don't know yourself...). Electricity is 220 volt. It's two giant round prongs that are fairly fat but not as fat as some countries.
|Here I've photographed my American plug next to the plug converter I use for my computer.|
Slip on/off shoes (and nice socks, since everyone will see them). If you have to unlace and retie your shoes each time you go to a restaurant or a hotel room... it's going to get old fast.
Tops that reveal no cleavage (and no shoulders unless you plan to layer). Koreans find upper body exposure very racy and yet wear shorts that end after the transition from leg to butt, and skirts that look like belts.
Feminine products unless you prefer pads (pads are available everywhere)
Getting Around in Korea:
One of the best things about Seoul, the entire greater metro area, and the whole country of Korea is AMAZING public transportation. You will experience this as soon as you arrive at the airport. You can take shuttle buses to many specific destinations (around the entire country) or you can take the subway into Seoul. Buy a transportation card immediately. I cannot emphasize that enough. If you buy single trip tickets you can only transfer to other subways, not the bus, and it's annoying to figure out how much money you need on the ticket (the computer system will lead you through, but you need to know the name of the stop, etc.), there is a deposit for single pass tickets, and you have to get it back at the other end, etc. The transportation cards are vended at some subway stations by machines (you can pick the ones that look like credit cards, or the fob style) and at most minimarts. The cards are called T-Money cards (even when it is not made by the T-Money company). They usually cost around 2 dollars (card) and 5 dollars (fob). Then you add money to the card at the machines that are at each subway station. These machines speak multiple languages. Add a good 20,000 Korean won to start with-- the transport is good, and fairly cheap, but when touring around it's not hard to use more than 10,000 in a day. Oh, these cards also work in Seoul taxis!!! and as money in some minimarts!!! Anyway, you buy and then load your card. You "beep" on the way in and out of all buses and subways and it will then give you 30 minutes to transfer (from bus to subway or subway to bus or bus to bus)(if you don't beep as you exit the bus, you'll be charged for going to the end of the line). It does not work if you take the same bus number twice in 30 minutes, but otherwise it is all golden. When you beep on the way off it calculates the length of your travel and deducts additional money beyond the base fare. When you beep on the way off take a look at your total remaining and refill anytime you need.
Green Buses: Only travel within the district of Seoul you are currently in.
Blue Buses: Only travel within Seoul.
Yellow Buses: Are rare and just for tourist things, like going up the mountain in the center of Seoul.
Red Buses: Go to satellite cities and bedroom communities. They cost more, so only use the red buses if you want to go all the way out of Seoul.
Kids under 7 are free on public transit (but not trains and inter-city buses). Kids under 19 are discounted, and there is a way to get the card to know you're a kid (it announces to the driver that you're a kid so adults can't use a kid's card). If you buy the card at a minimart try to get them to help you get the card coded for the elem school/middle school/high school rate. I have no idea how to do it, I just know you CAN do it. Over 65 is free on public transit if you get a special card to show your age and use on the bus and subway-- I don't know if that is hard to get or not. It may be restricted to Koreans.
Also entry to most tourist sites are reduced for elderly and children, so pay attention if you have those in your group.
Leaving Seoul: I understand that you probably like the train. Trains are nice, I like them, too. There are even some package deals and specials for foreign tourists in Korea. (Korea Rail) I have many friends who prefer the train, but in Korea I almost always take the intercity bus. This is partially because of where I tend to go (small towns with no trains), but it's also because you need reservations on trains at any popular time of the day/week (I really prefer to take the first bus after I got up, ate, and got to the bus station instead of stressing about a specific departure time), and the prices for the bullet trains (the only trains that beat the bus times) are higher than the buses (and for the bus I can almost always just show up at the terminal and catch the next bus that's leaving). Also most Korean buses are 2 seats on one side of the aisle and 1 on the other. Very big, very comfortable. Yes, you can't just walk down the aisle to the restroom, but they do stop at a rest stop halfway there.
Seoul has three major bus terminals-- the terminal that's called the Express Bus Terminal/Central City (it's two different buildings, back to back), the south bus terminal (Nambu Terminal) and the East Seoul Terminal (Dong Seoul Terminal). Many destinations are served by more than one terminal, but there is usually one terminal that has more frequent departures. For example if I go to Andong the Dong Seoul Terminal will have buses every 15 minutes or so, but Central City has one an hour. (Express Bus Association info for all the Express buses from Dong Seoul, Express Terminal, and Central City)(Nambu Terminal info in Korean for Nambu Terminal departures).
Must See Locations:
Seoul Streets: You cannot come to Korea without wandering the streets in the center of old Seoul. You will find palaces, museums, and modern wonders (like Seoul City Hall). In addition to making an effort to visit specific sites in Seoul, I recommend wandering around. Sit in a coffee shop (everywhere) and watch people. Window shop. Eat street food. Find something that others didn't. Seoul is a very walking friendly city, and the entire old part of the city is pretty flat, too. Getting out of the subway system at a major stop like Jongno 3ga(종로3가) or Jonggak(종각) or City Hall (시청) would put you in the center of this area. There is a law that any large building must have public art, and some of it's really good. There is a "stream" (recirculated water except in the rainy season when it sometimes closes due to flooding) in the center of the city that is very pleasant to walk next to, it's called Cheonggyecheon (청계천). I really recommend a stroll after a meal along the stream. Very near the godawful expensive and ugly blue and red shell at one end of the stream is Kyobo Bookstore -- the best source for non-Korean books/guides/magazines in Seoul (they have another outlet in southern Seoul, but it's smaller). Publishing in Korea is cut-throat and therefore relatively cheap, you can buy coffee table books of Korean temple scenes or landscapes often for 30 USD, and domestically printed books on Korean history and culture may only set you back 20 for a hardcover (considering that Korea is in general not a cheap country, the price of books is pleasantly low).
People Watching There is soooo much good people-watching in Korea.
If you want to be shocked and outraged about plastic surgery, go to Apgujeong in the afternoon and sit in a cafe by the window and watch people with bandaged faces come out of clinics. Look at your barista and her supernaturally wide eyes. Look back at the bandaged faces. Spend the rest of your vacation telling kids with thin eyes, round faces, and low nose bridges that you think they're so beautiful or so handsome in hopes that your words will offset what they learn every time they watch a TV drama or a music video or see any kind of advertisement. Try to get over the judgment, though. Korea is one of only two countries in the world where it's legal to require a photo with a job application.
In general the old part of Seoul is all easily walkable. I know the temptation to go into the subway and then come out at the right stop is strong, but honestly you often spend more time walking down and finding the platform and riding the train and coming back up than you would have spent just walking from point A to point B in old Seoul (esp. if you need to transfer lines). If you have a smart phone use your map functions, if you're good with directions you don't even need that, most of the time. Just make a note of what MAJOR site is in the direction you're heading and the road signs above the street will tell you that Seoul Station or City Hall or Gwanghwamun is in this direction or in that. You'll discover stuff as you walk.
Palaces: There are several palaces. The one that is the most beautiful is Changdeok Palace. The "Secret Garden" tour is worth the additional entry fee, especially if you go at a nice time of day for photographs, however you must enter that part with a guide, you cannot go on your own schedule. The guides are mostly horrible, with memorized (but not understood) information of a very superficial nature. The reason I mention this is that I would urge you to go with any guide according to your own schedule, even if you can't understand the language they are speaking, because even if you can understand you're unlikely to learn much (or to "learn" the wrong thing). Gyeongbok Palace is also very nice, although almost all the buildings are recent reconstructions (because the Japanese destroyed the palace to sit their colonial government right in the middle of it in symbolic subjection of the Koreans to Japanese authority). This palace has two advantages-- regular "changing of the guard ceremonies" to watch (I believe they are right on the hour), and inside the grounds is the peerless National Folk Museum of Korea. This museum is really well done, and definitely worth a trip. Go to the museum or palace right after your meal and plan on staying there until you get hungry again... the two should take at least 4 hours to be done properly, without rushing. If you're going to rush one of them, rush the palace. You could basically just walk through it, pausing for photos. The folk museum, on the other hand, is a leading part of the ICOM (International Committee on Museums) and reflects the latest understanding on display of culture/folklore. There are audio guides, docents, and even an acceptable amount of English signage. Deoksu Palace, closest to City Hall, is also very nice and also has changing of the guards, but it's much smaller.
Museums: Speaking of museums (and I'm not the biggest museum person, although it might seem like it right now), the National Museum of Korea is excellent. It's worth a day, if you're a real museum-goer. And since it's free and a 5 minute direct walk from the subway stop, it's worth it for just a flying visit, too. There are multiple restaurants in it, multiple gift shops (with really excellent gifts, many of which are under 15 dollars, none of them are a rip-off. I'm talking about a place you can REALLY buy cultural gifts without getting ripped off). It's closed on Monday, but open late on Wednesday (go and look around, then have dinner, then look more!). There are lockers to store your stuff for free as you walk around. There are audio guides and docents and really acceptable English signage. I recommend the Buddhist sculpture and Buddhist painting sections-- this is jaw droppingly amazing art. Simply take a subway to Ichon(이촌) and follow the signs (I think it's exit 2). I recently visited the Museum of Contemporary Korean History (the Korean name is actually the Museum of History of the Republic of Korea (South Korea)). This museum doesn't have that much signage in any language, relying more on displays, but there is an acceptable amount of English (but not Japanese/Chinese or other languages of foreign visitors to Korea). It's free, and very close to Gwanghwamun Gate (the gate that takes you into Gyeongbok Palace). Since it's so centrally located, even if you only have an hour, why not? It's nicely temperature controlled, a great place to escape on a steaming/freezing day, and it's fun to see political posters from the 60s and the covers of old comic books, and what not. Also nearby (five minutes stroll eastward from the intersection closest to the famous statue of General Yi Sunshin standing grimly defending the nation) is the Seoul Museum of History. That museum has much less non-Korean signage, but it has some interesting displays, too. A lot of it is focused on Seoul, a city founded in the very end of the fourteenth century, there is a lot of history to display!
Honestly, Korea is very museum-crazy. There are tons (over a hundred museums exist just on university campuses, of the one's I've visited my favorite is the one at Ewha Womans University (not a typo)). There is a kimchi museum. A friend opened an amazing Museum of Shamanism, it's probably the third shamanic museum in Seoul. [See the end of this to find good directions to the museum] There are museums everywhere. Many are quite small. The War Memorial of Korea is pretty big and parts are well made, but fairly grim if you think war is evil. The best reason to go there is to see displays of the Korean War from a totally different perspective than the way it's remembered outside the Republic of Korea. It's a two minute walk from the Samgakji Subway Station (삼각지).
City Hall. Yes, go into City Hall. It's a crazy architectural achievement with a curved glass exterior and walls covered with plants and cool art, and it's open to the public. Since you'll be walking by, why not? Next to City Hall in the winter there is a skating rink that costs only 1,000 won and another 1,000 to rent a pair of (very bad) skates. The rest of the year that same area may have performances, political rallies, or other cool events.
If you're a night-life type of person, you could go to Gangnam (the part of the district of Gangnam near Gangnam Station), to Hongdae (take the subway to Hong-ik University and exit on the side nearest the university), or to Itaewon (the subway stop is called Itaewon). There is night life everywhere in Korea, though. These three districts would be either more "stereotype" of young Korea, more "alternative" young Korea, or more "international" Korea, in the same order as listed above. I don't give a rat's batookus about night life, though, so that's all I have to say on the subject. Live music, though, def. more likely to find small crowded venues with live music in Hongdae than the other two. It is possible you could find a place that doesn't welcome foreigners. Get over yourself and your outrage and go somewhere else. You don't want to support someone who doesn't want your money, anyway. This is not very common, so don't worry.
The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts/ The National Gugak Center: In southern Seoul you can find the Seoul Arts Center (nearest subway stop is the orange line Nambu Terminal Station). There are galleries and operas and various events... and on the same grounds is the National Gugak Center. This center for Korean traditional performance includes four venues, a museum dedicated to Korean music, and a gift shop with traditional music CDs. There are regular concerts that show large varieties of Korean traditional and neo-traditional music on Saturday afternoons that are sort of marketed for foreigners. They're good, unless you're me, in which case you may prefer a more focused program prepared for a Korean audience. They have an outdoor series (it pauses in the coldest and hottest months) that is particularly fun and good for kids (since it's usually exciting folk performances) that is even free. I wish I could link you to a reliable site that showed all the performances on the calendar, but even their Korean calendar is last minute and not always up to date-- the English language one is ... well, it sucks.
Jogyesa and Bongwonsa. These are two Buddhist temples in Seoul, and if you're not leaving Seoul, you should go. The best time to go is 4 a.m. when there won't be other tourists and there is a beautiful morning service. Try going right after you arrive when you have jetlag waking you up super early. Jogyesa is the namesake of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism (roughly 80% of the Buddhists in Korea-- and Buddhists are the majority of the religious population-- 47% of Koreans answered non-religious on the last census, though). Jogyesa is in the center of old Seoul. The buildings are quite old (if refurbished) and the (smaller) Buddha statue in the glass case inside is a marvelous example of Buddhist sculpture. Bongwonsa is much more beautiful, it's on a mountain above Yonsei University, and the head temple of the Taego Order (that's 10% of Buddhists and the only significant order in which monks can marry, although they seldom do). Walk around super slowly and look very carefully at all the old buildings-- some of the premier master painters of Buddhist temple art made/make Bongwonsa their home, it's exquisitely beautiful. Unlike Jogyesa, which I really only recommend at 4 a.m., Bongwonsa is beautiful all day. Remember if you go into any temple building you need socks (if you're wearing sandals, just bring socks in your bag like I do). It is completely acceptable to enter the buildings from side doors (never the central door which is reserved for monks). You are welcome to observe respectfully (no photography inside the building, but you can always take shots outside), or to follow along. Like most religions Buddhism is open to you learning more about their religion something that's much easier when you come in and get close to the action, so as long as you are respectful you'll be welcome.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza recently opened, and although I haven't gone yet, apparently it's worth the trip. The architecture is very innovative (like a space ship is the popular comparison), and inside there are exhibits and displays both free and ticketed (and they seem to change every month, which is nice).
Leeum Gallery is one that folks who like art galleries tend to enjoy. I've been there twice, once at the current location just last year. Honestly, I am the wrong audience. The lack of thorough historically situated information about historical pieces displayed as art removed from their history (except rough date details) just irritates me. The cherry-picking aspect of showing a little ceramic, a little metal, a little Buddhism, etc. may (to some people) seem like a well-curated and not overwhelming introduction to Korea's artistic greatness, but to me it just smacks of "I'm freaking rich and I bought all this stuff, so trust me, it's the best." The one part of this gallery that I enjoyed was the contemporary art exhibits-- and although I'm sure they often change, you might want to see them, too. It's a little hard to find by public transit, but you can do it. Leeum website.
If you like traditional markets, the bustling Gwangjang Market at the Jongno5ga (종로5가) subway station is a great place to sit on a plastic stool, eat mungbean pancakes, drink while it's still daylight, and watch an older section of the population rush around doing their errands. It's also a good place to buy some random presents. Traditional markets are falling by the wayside in Korea, and they're harder to find and smaller in Seoul every time I turn around (they're doing okay in rural areas), but the bargains are really great. And doesn't it feel good to support some old grandmother instead of a corporate chain? This is where I go to buy off-the-shelf hanbok (한복) or Korean traditional clothing. Silk children's hanbok are about 80 USD for a girl and 50 USD for a boy at a reasonable degree of quality (lower quality ones are on sale at the airport for 140 for a girl's hanbok). Adults tend to buy tailored hanbok, and when I buy silk hanbok so do I, because I like to choose all my colors and styles, so I'm not sure how much they cost. The market is ALL CASH. Other things you can buy there-- almost everything, but what stands out to my mind as perhaps interesting to buy or look at... bamboo mats, blankets, fabric, and decorative dangles called norigae that traditionally hang off hanbok but can be a relatively low-priced unique gift for friends back home (hang it in a window? on an X-mas tree? wear it as a broach-like decoration on your clothing similar to how it's used with hanbok?).
Speaking of buying traditional things, I know you can find some nice presents in the "traditional shopping street" of Insadong (get off the subway at Anguk Station (안국) and go out exit 6), but those people are being pushed out by corporate interests and rising rents. So if you do go there and do some shopping could you do me a favor and NOT shop in any of the franchises on the street? I don't care if it's the tea-shop Sulloc, Crown Bakery, Starbucks, or one of the mini-marts, just please don't support them pushing out the mom and pop businesses. The new shiny three story shops-- those displaced funky galleries and antique sellers. Please support the people in the older rag-tag looking buildings with a sliver of display space. As I explain below it's really easy to buy Made in China here... if you want Korean made, culturally Korean gifts be ready to spend a little more and be vigilant. Insadong is blocked to vehicle traffic on the weekend, and it has a nice artsy vibe. But it's crawling with international tourists, too, and can start to feel like a real mob scene. Traditional tea shops, restaurants, really everything in this district costs more than elsewhere due to the rents. However it can be hard to know where to find the stuff outside Insadong's concentration.
If you were a Chinese tourist, you'd want to go to the trendy and fashionable shopping district of Myeongdong (명동)(that's the name of the subway stop, too). If you like fashion, clothing, and want to go to an area where young Koreans enjoy shopping, I recommend it. I go there and enjoy shopping at the largest UNIQLO in Korea, this is a Japanese fast-fashion brand, and if you are not fairly slim it's not for you, but... if you are, check it out. This district also is home to Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral and it's a pretty cool building/grounds, worth a visit if you're into seeing old architecture. There is an English service on Sunday (check with them to find out what time is the English one. Many churches have English service, including the Anglican Cathedral across the street from City Hall, next to Deoksu Palace, others have instantaneous translation through headsets, like the Yeouido Full Gospel Church, largest in the world). If you were a well-heeled person you'd go to Apgujeong (앞구정) to go shopping, where the super upscale stores like Chanel are located. Unless you're a sucker for brand names, I'd recommend just using that district for people watching.
Where to Stay?
Korea is getting into creating little guesthouses, airb&b is doing well, and there are big and little hotels. Outside Seoul it's not hard to find a place to stay that's 30,000 for the night (if you have more than two people in there they might start to ask for more money). Inside Seoul and the central areas of other large cities you're going to pay (a lot) more unless you search well (it's not that hard to find places in Seoul for 25,000 a night if you're not that picky, but you need to search and the easiest places to find with an English search may already be booked up... there are a lot of places that don't have good English websites, though). In the winter when it's best to sleep on the heated floors you might want to ask for an "ondol" (온돌) room instead of a room with a "chimdae" (침대) or Western style bed. The good thing about an ondol room (there are very nice floor mattresses to sleep on) is that you can fit a lot of people in one room. If you're traveling on a budget with friends, this is your best option.
Guesthouse is just ge-seu-teu-ha-u-seu (게스트 하우스) (that's guesthouse as well as you can write it within the rules of the Korean alphabet). This is what it's called when it's either made for a backpacker market, or several rooms in a house in a urban setting that are being rented out.
Yeo-gwan (여관) is technically a love hotel-- but the slight trashiness can be amusing. Like chairs made for acrobatic sexual positions with a graphic card explaining how to use the chair. Or mirrors on the ceiling.
Mo-tel (equal weight on both syllables, unlike in English)
Ho-tel (again equal weight). Hotels in Korea are not going to be cheap.
Minbak (민박) Minbak are old school guesthouses, Korean style. You mostly find them in the rural areas, where Koreans would want to escape the city and stay in someone's house or out building. I don't think I've ever seen a sign for a minbak in an urban area. They have blankets, and generally have a small kitchen and will loan you a few pans. Korean college students and 20s will go stay in a minbak and cook their own meals to facilitate a really cheap vacation. Back in the day they cost 5 or 10,000 per night. I'm sure they're probably fancier and more expensive these days.
Pen-shyeon (펜션) are pensions... whatever that means, I think it's what Europeans might call a little weekend rental cabin, because that's what they tend to be. Mostly they are entire buildings, often quite nice, with several bedrooms, and they can be the size for a family or the size for a university club or major to go party in (and of course they include cooking facilities so you can make your own food, too). If it's off season they are really cheap, and they're often located at really nice places. Primarily this word is used to describe places in small towns and in the countryside, not in the city.
Outside of Seoul:
The common places for tourists to visit if they leave Seoul are:
Suwon Fortress and Suwon Folk Village Folk Village Website
Jeonju (especially Jeonju's Hanok Village)
Start at this website for some info on touring Jeonju. I also really recommend staying in a hanok (traditional house) if available (reserve in advance).
Gyeongju (Silla Dynasty sites galore). Among the sites to see here there is the Gyeongju National Museum (great Buddhist art), Seokguram Grotto, Bulguksa Temple, and the tombs of the ancient kings of the Shilla and Unified Shilla Dynasties.
Busan (just because it's the second biggest city and has beaches)
Andong (Confucian culture)
I'm telling you the truth here-- most of these are common places to visit because the tourist guidebooks and the Korean guestimates about what foreigners want to see all push you towards these spots-- not because they are really the most amazing things you ever saw. I'm not saying these are places you shouldn't go-- they're all quite nice, and they are better equipped to handle non-Korean speaking tourists. HOWEVER, they are not my favorite places. The only one I would really say you should do, since you came all the way to Korea, is Gyeongju.
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Dynasty, the first dynasty to unify Korea. The city is a virtual "museum without walls" -- this is further enforced by zoning and building regulations that impose things like "traditional" roofs over gas stations. In Gyeongju you can see the beautiful temple Bulguksa, the peerless Buddhist grotto of Seokguram, tombs of the royals, Buddhist statues carved into the rocks on Mt. Namsan (that pains me to write as san=mountain so I just said Mt. Nam Mountain), and various other sites (none as interesting as the ones I just mentioned). There are tourist info booths, public transit to the major sites, and abundant lodging and dining options.
I am going to come back and add details to this in the future, but here are some other places you could go that I personally want to visit again and again:
Tongyeong (south coast)
Yeosu (south coast)
Songgwangsa (temple of the sangha)
Tongdosa (temple of the buddha)
Haeinsa (temple of the dharma)
Jindo (island connected by a causeway on the southwest corner of Korea)
Ulleungdo (island accessible only by ferry that stops if the weather sucks)
Jirisan (mountain in the central south)
And do a Temple Stay! You get to stay in the temple, be part of activities (this is more planned out at some temples than others), eat the food the monks/nuns eat, and so on. You can only share a room with your same gender and you have to wake up early for morning prayers, but you can do it for one, two, or more nights and it's a great (if unusual) way to learn about a culture. The price can vary a lot depending on if they offer a lot of fancy activities (tea ceremonies, temple roof tile rubbing, etc.) or if it focuses more on things like meditation. This link will get you started.
Easy to Find in Korea:
Ibuprofen (pronounced EE-byu-pro-pen) and all kinds of over the counter drugs
New sandals/shoes for small feet (top size is about 8 for women, 10 for men)
Chintzy tourist gifts (be aware that you're often buying Made in China if the prices seem quite "good" and unless you can tell the difference, that chintzy thing might be culturally Chinese. The Koreans know the difference and sometimes like to buy "ethnic" gifts or artwork, just like you do. No one is trying to fool you into buying Chinese stuff, it's your responsibility to bring home a culturally Korean gift for a friend, if that's what you want).
Cheap places to stay. Of course the cheapest may rent the next room over by the hour, and there may be thin walls, and you may hear a lot of ahem, noise. Unless you are there are the same time as some local festival with a ton of people flowing into the area, it's not necessary to make reservations, unless you're picky. Only one time did K and I have to ask at about 5 places before we found an acceptably priced available room-- but we didn't start looking until after 10 pm and there was a HUGE multi-day festival... so that was really our fault.
Other Cool Things:
The Post Office. They have free internet connected computers, so if you're not using a smart phone and want to duck in and google some directions or something, go to the post office. Also it is cheap to send things home to your country (and there are strong boxes available for sale at the PO). Because the PO is also a bank and also a place to pay public utility bills, they are in every (even small) town. If you're looking for a longer session on the computer the Korean word for internet cafe is "PC-bang" (soft a in bang), look for the English "PC" on a business on the second floor of a building and that's it. They're also now mandatorily non-smoking (awesome).
No tipping (the cost is the cost for your taxi, haircut, dinner, etc.-- workers earn a living wage, too)
They only think their food is spicy, it's milder than Mexican, Thai, Indian spice
Food poisoning is very rare, the street food is particularly safe.
Timothy Holm made this literary travel guide to Korea-- if you're into literary history and Korean lit, this is the guide for you.
I promise I'll go back and add photos to this at some point.