8 tips to surviving Seoul as a tourist

Koreans wearing the traditional hanbok. Pic: Wikimedia Commons.

IF you’re coming to Korea as a tourist, you’ll be able to use a lot of what you’ve read from the blog, which will definitely be relevant in your journey. I don’t usually write from the tourist perspective since I’ve lived there, but a reader e-mailed me requesting some practical information about Seoul to keep in mind for future travels.

Without further ado, I give you the following 8 tips to survive Korea as a tourist …

  • Learn the Korean alphabet

Korean hangul alphabet. Pic: languagesgulper.com

Korean hangul alphabet. Pic: languagesgulper.com

  • Place names suddenly become readable, people’s names become readable, and your fear of being surrounded by unfamiliar characters becomes a game to play instead of culture shock. Give it a few hours of studying (and by studying I don’t mean reading a page, then playing a game, then grabbing a drink, then reading another page), and allow yourself to practice.
  • Learn at least a few Korean words

  • Annyong haseyo (literally ‘are you at peace?’ but commonly means ‘hello’); Kamsa-hab-nida (thank you); ego allmyeyo (how much? – the spelling’s not perfect but it is grammarical); ggagga juseyo (discount please) and so on. Few Koreans have ‘conversational’ English, but most in the touristy areas know enough to sell you something =)
  • Learn the numbers and the slightly odd way in which Koreans count

  • With apologies to other languages that may count the same way, Koreans will say the number 11 as shibil (shib = 10 and il = 1, in other words, 10 plus 1), 22 as ishibi (i = 2, shib = 10, i = 2 – in other words, 2 10′s plus 2), and the number 234 as ibaeksamshibsa (i = 2, baek = 100, sam = 3, shib = 10, and sa = 4 – in other words 2 100′s plus 3 10′s plus 4). With the bigger numbers, cheon is 1,000; ocheon is 5,000; and man is 10,000 – add won after each of these and you’ll be talking about money.
  • Have an idea of specific places you want to see

  • There’s more to see than I could visit in the year I was there, so it’ll help to be choosy for those with limited time. It will help that the subway system (and perhaps a bus or two) can get you almost anywhere you want to go, and the taxis are reasonably priced for short / shorter trips.
  • Find or print a subway map (in English!) as soon as possible

Map of Seoul's subway system. Pic: korea4expats.com
  • Maps at the subway station are usually plentiful, and any tourist information center will have in many many different forms. Most tourist / expat magazines usually have a map in them, and can make it handier to carry around. Every subway car has a map just above each door, but they can be a little hard to see if you’re shorter or don’t have 20/20 vision. Some of the touristy maps are nice to hang on a wall or look at for ideas, but subway maps are a little more practical for getting around.
  • Feel comfortable with negotiating a price

  • There’s lots of ways to do it well – the biggest stumbling block is that many tourists don’t want to do it or don’t think it’s right. While department stores, convenience stores, and so on all have fixed prices, a price that’s not posted may be subject to a little ‘inflation’ if they think they can get away with it.
  • Know that several areas in Seoul are fun at any time 

  • Hongik University (AKA Hongdae) is great anytime, especially on the weekends; Insa-dong is known for its art galleries (supposedly over 70 within walking distance of the subway; Yeouinaru / Yeouido Park is simply serene; Itaewon is always willing to take your money, and so on. Even without a plan or anything to do, you can find something pretty easily.
  • Accept the fact that you’ll get stared at

  • While some Koreans might be curious about you, you’ll stick out almost anywhere you go. The less ‘touristy’ your destination, the more likely you’ll get stared at and notice it. I’ve blogged about how to deal with stares, so check that out for some more help.