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Seoul is a special city for me because I lived and taught English there for 18 months (from Aug 2013 – Jan 2015). This city is one of the few places in the world that I call home, and I have fallen deeply in love with everything about Korea and Korean culture.
In this Seoul Guide, I will share my experiences while living here, and give you tips and recommendations for culture, food, nightlife and things to do.
First thing to note about Seoul is the massive size of the city. It’s so spread out, that it’s nearly impossible to see everything if you’re just taking a short trip. The topography of Seoul is quite amazing as well, with high mountain peaks in every directions, the beautiful Han river, and luscious greenery in the spring/summer months.
Seoul is very tech savvy, and the city is ranked as one of the highest leading technology hubs in the world. Given that Samsung and L.G. (two of the world’s largest technology companies) are both Korean brands, everything is technologically advanced from washing machines to printers and cell phones. There are even Samsung-made cars driving on the roads.
I’d argue that Seoul has one of the most distinct cultures in world. Pretty much everything is done completely opposite than what I grew up with in the U.S. To be honest, I still don’t understand dozens of things that happen everyday, so my biggest advice is to just accept everything around you and always have a smile on your face 🙂
Korean people are extremely friendly and respectful. Although they might stare at you because you look different, they will happily welcome you into their country.
People here don’t shake hands when they greet, they give a bow. So, remember to be polite and give a bow at people who you are meeting for the first time- especially when you walk into a restaurant, or in a situation when someone helps you out. This is their way of showing respect.
Most things in Seoul are relatively cheap (compared to big cities in the U.S. and Asia), so you should be able to afford doing as much exploring as you want. I’m specifically talking about the food, transportation, souveniers, beer & soju, etc. That being said, shopping for brand name clothes (a Korean favorite) are actually quite expensive, as well as some of the touristy restaurants- just like any other big city. But don’t worry, if you are traveling on a budget, then you are in the perfect place.
Alright, let’s dive into some quick facts:
– Currency: South Korean Won (KRW)
– Language: Korean
– Population: 10 million (city), 25 million (metro)
– Seoul is the 2nd biggest metropolitan area in the world (behind Tokyo)
– The GDP of Seoul is U.S. $774 billion- the 4th biggest of any city in the world
– The city’s history stretches back 2,000 years when it was founded in 18BC by Baekje– one of the original 3 kingdoms of Korea
– Hangul- the Korean alphabet- was invented by King Sejong the Great in the year 1443
– The Seoul subway is the world’s largest subway system by length
– Incheon International Airport has won the #1 best airport in the world for the last 7 consecutive years
– Seoul contains the headquarters for Samsung, Kia, Hyundai and Kia
– Over 12 million international people visit Seoul every year
– Soju, a Korean rice liquor, is the #1 most sold and consumed alcoholic beverage in the world
– More than half of Korea’s population lives in the Seoul Metropolitan Area
– With extremely low crime rates, Seoul is considered one of the safest cities in the world
– Seoul is home to some of the best food in the world (ok, I had to throw an opinion in there…)
If you want to know more facts and interesting things, check out 50 Reasons Why Seoul is the World’s Greatest City by CNN.
Culture and People
Korean culture is wonderful!
Culture shock will hit you hard, and you may feel uncomfortable in the first few days upon arrival. Everyday since I’ve been living here, I learn something new about how Koreans live their life. It takes some time to adapt, so don’t be surprised when you see lots of bizarre/interesting things- especially if it’s your first time in Korea.
Korean people are honestly some of the friendliest in the world. I’ve made dozens and dozens of Korean friends and I must say that each and every one of them is charming and admirable. Just by the fact that I am a “white foreigner,” people have come up to me on the street wanting to practice speaking English with me. Bottom line is that Koreans will always make you feel welcome into their society.
First thing to know about Korean culture is the importance of the family. Essentially, Koreans spend lots of time with their family and family-time it always comes play-time. Along the same lines, Koreans are very good about showing respect to other people- specifically people older than them. There are hundreds of customary things that Koreans do to show respect to the elderly.
As opposed to writing long paragraphs about each cultural distinction, I will lay out some key bullet points:
– The Korean Language has different dialect and verb conjugations when speaking to your friends vs. speaking to someone older
– When you greet someone older than you, it is necessary to bow (the older the person, the deeper the bow)
– If someone older than you offers you a shot or some food, you must take it
– If you give or take something from a person that’s older than you, you MUST use 2 hands
– If you take a shot with someone older than you, you must turn your back and face the other way
– K-Pop (Korean pop music) dominates the music scene, and all teenagers and young adults are obsessed with the songs
– Traditional Korean restaurants have no chairs. You must sit on the ground and eat. This is also true in many Korean houses.
– Many Korean couples will wear identically matching jackets and clothes (strange, right?)
– Koreans are afraid of the sun and they want to be as white as possible (in opposition to being tan). You’ll see many people whip out their umbrellas on a sunny day to protect themselves.
– Koreans dress very fancy all the time, even if they are just going shopping. Korean girls always wear high heels.
– Koreans have bad manners like dramatically spitting in public streets and loudly slurping up noodles
– It is nearly impossible to find a trash can in Korea (don’t ask me why)
– Yes, Koreans do in fact eat dog meat. It is mostly eaten in summer months by men who believe it is good for their health
I hope this list gives you some good insight on Korea culture. I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and make some new local Korean friends! Click this link to learn the Top 10 Korean Words to keep in your back pocket 😉
What to Do?
Seoul is crazy big and there are so many things to do. The size is overwhelming.
There are plenty of things to so you’ll never get bored. The biggest tourist attractions are the ancient temples around town- specifically The Gyeongbok Palace and Bukchon Village. The Seoul Tower (shown in pic) is easily the best spot to get a 360 degree view of Seoul.
Hiking is probably the most common sport/activity to do around town. Koreans love to hike and there are lots of nice mountains around town, ranging from easy-to-difficult hiking paths. Additionally, the Han River is a really nice spot to hang out, especially in the summer months. Along the riverfront are plenty of parks where lots of recreational activities and sports are taking place.
The most hip areas to hang out in are Gangnam, Itaewon and Hongdae. Gangnam is like the beverly hills of Seoul, with expensive stores and luxury night clubs. Itaewon is the foreginger district of Seoul with a lot of unique cultural blends and good food. And Hongdae is the ultimate young hipster area with a millino bars and trendy fashion.
For a complete list of things to do in Seoul, check out my post on 10 Things to do in Seoul!
Korean food is amazing and I absolutely love it. I would rank it the Top 3 best cuisines in the world, along with Japanese and Thai.
The cuisine mostly consists of rice, vegetables, seafood (squid, octopus, fish, etc.) and a variety of meats (pork, beef, chicken, duck, etc.) The most notable, popular and national dish of Korea is called Kimchi (김치). Kimchi is a fermented side dish that is made from vegetables mixed with spicy seasoning. It is served with nearly every meal in Korea, and there are hundreds of varieties (depending on the region.)
Korean BBQ (called galbi in Korean) is my favorite thing to eat here. Just like you’d imagine, you cook the meat in front of your face. These types of restaurants are found everywhere. Along with the beef or pork that you will cook at the table, you’ll constantly be given amazing side dishes. The side dishes normally consist of a variety of vegetables (they love onions), soups, salads, sauces and spices. There is no limit to them- they just keep coming until your so full that you can’t stand up.
If you want to learn more about the tasty dishes that Korea has to offer, then please read my post on the Top 6 Korean Foods to Try.
In my opinion, Seoul has the best nightlife in the world. It is absolutely insane.
First off, Koreans love to get drunk. People drink Soju– Korean traditional liquor- with almost every single meal. It is ridiculously cheap, about $1USD per bottle and is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. Some 95% of ALL Korean liquor sales is soju. But be careful when drinking it because although it might not taste that strong, it will creep up on you and give you a terrible hangover the next morning…
There are an unimaginable amount of bars and clubs that you will find around Seoul- something for everyone. The top three areas for nightlife are Hongdae– the hipster, young college area, Gangnam– the Vegas style-clubbing district, Itaewon– the foreigner district with many cool bars. No matter which one of these areas that go to, you’ll have a blast!
Expect to stay out all night, because nothing closes until the sun rises. Late night food after the bars is a must!
If you’re still not convinced about the nightlife in Seoul, then check out my post: 5 reasons why Seoul is the #1 party city in the world.
Also, see my Ultimate Guide to Clubbing in Gangnam — it’s the most popular post I’ve ever written on my blog!
*Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to book your hotels on this link 🙂 Happy travels!