For anyone planning their first trip to South Korea, here’s our Seoul guide with all kinds of helpful info.
Nothing quite beats the feeling of exploring a new city. Forgetting about your troubles back home and simply taking in the sights is an experience to behold. But what we don’t enjoy is the pre-travel jitters of entering a country we know nothing about. To our fellow anxious travelers, we get it. Which is why we’ve put together this guide to Seoul with a ton of helpful tips you should know before heading there.
Seoul guide: Everything you need to know before heading to South Korea
1. Bye bye, Google Maps. Hello, Naver
Google Maps will always be our best friend when it comes to navigating a new city (and even around Singapore sometimes). Unfortunately, you’ll have to put it away for Seoul. The South Korean government requires any mapping data in the country to be saved on local servers. National security and all that jazz, you know.
This means Google Maps doesn’t have a lot of data to help you map out your journey. But don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to get around. You can either download Naver or Kakao Map to get around. They’re basically the South Korean versions of Google Maps with similar functions.
You can search for locations, and some directions including train stations and bus stops are given in English, so it’s pretty intuitive to use. However, since Naver and Kakao Map are Korean apps, it might be a little tricky to get the exact result you want. Most restaurants don’t provide English names in the database. So if the English name of a location doesn’t come up in your search, try looking for it by phone number instead.
2. Cashless, but with a catch
Yes, Seoul has gone mostly cashless, which ups the convenience factor so much more. If you’re hitting up the city for street food, it’s good to have some cash on hand. Otherwise, you can rely on your trusty card to pay when you go shopping. Here’s the catch: contactless payments work a little differently in South Korea than in Singapore. Unfortunately, if you’re accustomed to using mobile payments like Apple Pay or Google Pay, they won’t be of much use. You’ll need a physical card with a chip in it so it can be inserted into payment terminals.
If you haven’t already gotten a travel card, we suggest taking the time to apply for one. You’ve got plenty of options. Pick from brands like YouTrip, Wise, or Revolut and you’ll have a handy dandy card for overseas purchases. And if you can’t get a dedicated travel card? You can always activate overseas transactions on your local bank card.
3. Hi, do you speak English?
Since English isn’t the official language in Seoul, it comes as no surprise that everything is in Korean. If you’ve recently decided to take up Korean language classes, good for you! It’s the perfect time to practice reading and speaking. But if you’re going in not understanding a lick of Hangul, it’s helpful to have a translation app on hand.
For anyone with an iPhone, there’s a translation app built into your phone. And there are plenty available on the Google Play Store for Android users. We recommend finding something that has a camera function to take pictures of signs to translate them too.
4. Restaurant staff need breaks too
It’s common for restaurants to set aside a dedicated lunch hour for their own staff so they have ample time to rest. It’s a great practice, but it sometimes proves inconvenient for anyone looking to dine out. If you’re itching to drop by specific restaurants, take the time to double (or even triple) check the opening hours. Some restaurants only sit patrons up to an hour before the set break time. You may need to have lunch a little earlier than expected, but that’s just fuel to keep you going for your afternoon adventures.
5. The one-drink-each rule
For anyone planning a huge cafe hop through Seoul, be prepared to drink a lot of coffee. It’s common etiquette in cafes to order at least one drink per person when you visit. So if you’re going into a group of four, you’ll need to order four drinks at minimum. This also applies to some restaurants where each person is required to order one dish. Our hot tip is to space out all the restaurants and cafes you want to visit over the course of your trip. It’s not ideal to try and tackle them all in one day unless you want a really intense food coma.
There you go, South Korea newbies. Bookmark our first-timer’s guide to Seoul with all the best tips and tricks.