After visiting Daejeon for the Australasian UDC, I’m spending a few days in Seoul. As a bit of a disclaimer, this is the first time I’m here and I don’t speak Korean. Just so you know.
So what are my thoughts on Seoul after just a few days?
Transport: The subway is very easy to use, most important signs are written in both Korean and English. The trains themselves are remarkably clean compared to other subway systems I’ve encountered. A few hints that might be helpful for travellers: speak quietly, you’ll notice that the locals speak with their indoor voices on public transport and you should do that too. The seats marked as reserved for the elderly and disabled really are reserved for the elderly and disabled, don’t sit there. The ticket vending machines are bilingual, your ticket price includes a deposit for the ticket and you’ll get it back when you return the ticket into a deposit machine. Haven’t used the buses or attempted to take a taxi, so can’t comment on those. But the subway system is quite big, so it will most likely be sufficient for regular tourist needs.
Accommodation: I’m staying at a small hostel near Seoul Station, it’s nothing special but not horrible either. The beds are very narrow compared to what a lot of western travellers are used to, so you might want to take that into account. Another thing that I’ve heard is typical for Korea is that the beds are very firm, hard almost. This is great for your back but it’s not a very comfortable surface to use if you’re just on your laptop or something. You’re expected to take your shoes off near the entrance and use slippers when you are inside, this seems to be common in Korea and it’s quite nice to not have the floors wet and dirty whenever it rains. They have a small breakfast bar every morning and there’s computers you can use, again pretty standard hostel stuff. This is the one.
Food: it is my firm belief that you should make an effort to try at least a few local dishes when you travel. If you’re the kind of person who complains that the food isn’t western in a non-western country, I will judge you. Seoul has a lot of food options. A lot. There are entire markets with really exciting street food. The restaurants range from local to foreign and western, so you definitely have the opportunity to try a range of things. Due to my allergies, eating food out is always a bit risky, so I can’t try as many things as I would have liked. For snacks, I’d recommend trying seasoned dried fish meat. It’s quite delicious. There’s a lot of different dishes to try, I myself went for topokki which is “a popular Korean snack food made from soft rice cake, fish cake and sweet red chili sauce; gochujang”. I’m not sure if it’s gluten free or not, but I haven’t had any major reaction from it. It’s good but on the spicy side. Octopus, hot dogs, and ice cream seems to be sold everywhere. There’s a seemingly endless selection of cafes for your coffee needs (I’ll do a separate post on Seoul cafes).
Things to do: due to the constant rain (it’s just that season, not much can be done), I decided to avoid visiting the typical sightseeing places. I’ve spent most of my time in cafes, shopping, or just walking around interesting areas (mainly when I got lost). There’s a lot to see by just checking out different areas of the city and it means you run the chance of discovering things you never would have otherwise.
Shopping: Massive selection, this place has more makeup stores than Manhattan has Starbucks. I’ve never seen anything like it, it will get its own post.
Wifi: it’s everywhere. Not only is there random free wifi popping up in places, but almost every coffee shop and restaurant has wifi you can access via a password. I wouldn’t spend money on buying a Korean sim if you’re just here for tourist purposes, just use wifi to message people. Google Maps tends to show up in Korean, so look things up before you leave the hotel/place where you sleep and then use google maps as a back up when you’re trying to get there.
ATMs: some vendors don’t accept international credit cards, so have cash on hand. You’ll need to find an ATM that is marked as ‘global’ as not all atms can handle foreign cards. It might take a few tries to work it out
Safety: Have encountered no issues. Haven’t been out clubbing/drinking so can’t speak for nightlife safety. But yeah, I’ve had no problems as a solo female traveller, never felt unsafe or at risk.
Language: few Koreans speak conversational English. Remember, it is not their fault that you don’t speak Korean. Be polite, be patient, and remember that a language barrier affects you both equally. Don’t yell or curse at people because you don’t know the Korean word for whatever it is you’re looking for. Learn to say at least “thank you” in Korean as a sign of good will. A lot of things are written with western letters alongside the Korean writing, but if there’s literally no writing in English then you can probably assume that non-Koreans are not the target group of that specific business.
Would I recommend Seoul to other travellers? Absolutely, I’m really glad I decided to visit. I’d try to pick up on a few Korean phrases before going though. I don’t know why Seoul has such a low status among Australians, but it really is a fantastic destination if you’re willing to keep an open mind. I’d say Seoul is in my top 10 or maybe even top 5 favourite travel destinations.