Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Trip to Seoul
Should you leave a tip? Drink the tap water? Stay in the touristy neighborhoods? We got you.
One glimpse of Seoul and you’ll know why it’s trending. There is no city in the world more adept at finding a fad and, with mind-boggling speed, blowing it up and putting it on every street corner and back alley. If you see it in Brooklyn today and it’s even remotely cool, you’ll likely see it in Seoul tomorrow.
World-class dining? Check. Museums and galleries? Check. A nightlife that never stops? I mean, we did rank Seoul the number one party city in the world, so. South Korea’s capital is a whirlwind of action, a high-energy hub of 10 million residents who fully embrace the work hard, play hard mentality. And since South Korea is small, with Seoul a mere four-hour train ride from even the farthest-flung city, it’s easy to go full vacation mode and explore the country at large. Allot enough time. I recommend at least a week, so you can really “do” Seoul and also take a day trip or two.
Nothing will prepare you for the rush you’ll feel surrounded by blazing neon, blaring K-pop, beckoning street food, beautiful natural escapes—and shopping, oh, the shopping! But you can get equipped for your first trip to Seoul with these basics, including when to visit, the best neighborhoods to check out, how to get around, and more.
The best time of year to visit Seoul is spring or fall
The weather in Seoul is not always agreeable. Winter is frigid. Summer feels like a swamp. At about the same latitude as the central States, Seoul’s weather and seasonality more or less mirror New York City’s. Aim for September-October or April-June, when temps range a comfortable 55-85 degrees.
Air quality, however, is a concern all year round. You’ll spot locals wearing masks to fend off the fine dust. In recent years, Seoul’s pollution levels have reached carcinogenic heights, on some days exceeding the World Health Organization’s exposure limits. If the smog is bad and you want to sport a mask too, you can find one at any convenience store or pharmacy (but at this point, you probably own about 50 of your own! Thanks, pandemic!).
Walking around Seoul can feel like a competitive sport
Except worse, because there are no rules. There’s no sense of directionality, as in “you walk on your side, I’ll walk on mine.” Pedestrians are pushy, motorcyclists are certainly not concerned about your safety, and the “sidewalks” are really just extra parking spaces for cars. Take it in stride (!) and bask in the bedlam. Half the country has packed itself into Seoul’s greater metropolitan area. Getting around the city can be hectic, but it’s a pleasure in its own way.
Luckily, public transit is easy to find and cheap to use
With more than 20 subway and extension lines, and hundreds of bus routes, to say that Seoul is well connected by public transit is an understatement. And despite its rapidly rising cost of living, transit is still cheap—usually only KRW 1,250 (about US $1.05) a ride. Buy a T-Money transit card and load it up at the station kiosks, or stop inside a 7-Eleven or CU convenience store and ask the clerk to do it for you. The touch-card will work on every subway, bus, and taxi—not only in Seoul, but nationwide. The super handy KakaoMap, KakaoMetro, and KakaoBus apps will help you navigate, and the Kakao T app will let you order a cab even without a Korean credit card (just select the “pay to the driver” option).
For the most part, a trip on the metro will get you within a short walk of your destination, and faster than a taxi in traffic ever could. But if you’re out late and the subway isn’t operating, do hail a cab. You’ll know the driver is available when you see the red 빈차, or “empty car,” sign illuminated in the windshield. The meter starts at KRW 3,800 (about US $3.15).
Hotels and accommodations come in many flavors
Lodging options are wide-ranging—hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and Airbnbs abound. There’s the affordable and the not-so-affordable. There’s the so-called Western style, with beds, and the more traditional Korean style, with sleeping mats on the floor. If you opt for an Airbnb, note that many Korean bathrooms don’t have bathtubs or shower stalls. Essentially the entire bathroom is your shower stall, so the whole floor is wet after you wash. That’s where those plastic sandals come into play (most Airbnb hosts will provide them).
The best neighborhoods to check out in Seoul
Seoul is made up of 25 districts, situated north and south of the Han River that divides the city in half. While none of them will leave you high and dry in terms of places to sleep, eat, and drink, certain areas are more quiet and residential, and others offer better access to the action.
If you’re here to party (you’re here to party, right?) post up in Hongdae or Itaewon, where going club-, lounge-, and bar-hopping is as simple as walking out your front door. (Just be warned it will be loud at all hours of the day and night. Drinking is basically a national pastime.) A mere couple of blocks away you’ll find the Kyunglidan neighborhood, an uphill-sloping street dotted with curiosity-inducing eateries and lounges just beckoning you inside. It feels uber-urban yet tucked away and almost secret.
If you’ve come to Seoul to go on a fevered unrestrained shopping spree, visit Myeongdong or Gangnam (yeah, that Gangnam). To explore the city’s history and culture, Jongno is the heart of old Seoul, home to royal palaces and traditional hanok homes. (To stay in a hanok, which are characterized by wide wooden floors and tiled roofs, book a guesthouse in Bukchon.) And if you’re looking for a more laid-back experience, try Mullae on the west side, or Seongsu on the east side, which are kind of like the Brooklyns of Seoul.
Pick up on local fashion cues
In Seoul, it’s all about dressing to impress… though not quite to stand out. The herd mentality is rooted deep in the culture here, and K-style is no exception. Korean idols dictate the trends; once a celebrity wears something, it’s minted a must-have and the masses rush to copy it. You might notice that everyone around you is wearing slightly different versions of the same styles. Last winter it was long puffer coats. Right now it’s hair clips, and dresses layered over shirts.
Tips for communicating with locals
Most South Koreans understand elementary English, and while they might be shy about practicing with you, you can absolutely get around the city without any extensive Korean skills. Still, don’t be that lazy American tourist who makes zero effort to speak the language. Take the time to learn a few basic phrases: “annyeonghaseyo” (“hello”), “juseyo” (“please”), and “kamsahamnida” (“thank you”).
South Koreans are a proud people; when an outsider shows an appreciation for the local customs, food, and language, locals usually respond with praise and a warm smile—and maybe even a freebie or two at a restaurant.
That being said, South Koreans are, by nature, an insular bunch. Having connections and a proper introduction are important here, so it can be tricky for foreign travelers to make fast friends at a bar—if you like companionship, it’s not a great place to travel solo. Locals might be up for a light-hearted chat, but it’s more likely they’ll keep to themselves.
Quick restaurant etiquette
Assuming you’ll be doing a lot of eating (and trust us, you will), you’ll quickly shake off any initial timidness about communicating in restaurants. At most places, it’s perfectly acceptable to call over the waitstaff with a shout—“yeogiyo!” or “here please!”—or push the button sometimes installed on the tabletops. Also, there’s no need to tip.
Get up to speed on Seoul’s extraordinary drinking culture
For South Koreans, drinking is an indispensable part of socializing and bonding with everyone from your friends to your boss. And, in Seoul, there is a party for every type, for every occasion, on every day of the week. So pick your poison(s) and brace yourself—a night out in South Korea goes ‘til sun-up and is conducted in cha, or rounds (up to five) hopping from establishment to establishment.
Round one might be BBQ and somaek. Round two is usually at a bar, whether it’s for spirits, cocktails, or craft beer. Round three will take you to another bar, followed by either a club or—for those left standing—a grand finale with perhaps the most beloved South Korean drinking experience of them all: noraebang, the country’s version of karaoke. Rent a private room, order drinks, select your jams, grab that tambourine, and sing your heart out. You can find a noraebang joint in any corner of the city, ranging from the luxe to the low-key.
The whole affair can sometimes span longer than a full workday. It may seem like a lot for the average reveler, but considering the endless number of unforgettable nights out to be had in Seoul, you’ll want to make time for it all.
Since you’re here, do sample the light stuff, too. In the evening, settle in at a neighborhood hof, or Korean pub, where it’s customary to order anju (drinking food) along with your pints and pitchers. Lively Nogari Alley is the place to be; you’ll find locals of every age sitting outside embracing this street-style version of Korean nightlife. Another fun local thing is to grab a few cans of beer at the convenience store and enjoy them on the patio outside, or to sit at a pocha—casual drinking spots that are usually tented with a plastic tarp on the street. Pochas can be a great place to meet young, social Koreans; get the ball rolling by asking a friendly group to show you Korean drinking games, and your evening is made.
That’s right, drinking in public is legal in Seoul
Seoul also has top-notch hookah bars, vinyl bars, and takeout bars, where you can get bagged drinks to go. That’s right, public drinking is legal in South Korea. While it’s not advisable to get carried away with public inebriation, a measured amount is also not something locals will find particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, you might be the one surprised at the state of the streets at five in the morning—people packed in like a sardine can, cans and bottles everywhere.
Stock up on water bottles
After your epic night out, we’re guessing you’ll need to spend a slow morning chugging heaps of H2O. Keep in mind that while authorities say the tap water is safe, no one actually drinks it. This is likely out of greater concern for the pipes it runs through than the quality of the water itself. You can buy the 2-liter bottled stuff for about a dollar at the convenience store.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to carry your own trash
Seoul has a complex trash disposal system that has led to a shortage of public bins. If you get a coffee to go, be prepared to walk for miles with an empty paper cup before finding a place to offload it. If you stay at an Airbnb and are responsible for taking out your own trash, be mindful of the rules: separate recycling from waste, and the compostable from the non-compostable.