South Korea Travel Tips – Things to know before visiting Korea
South Korea is an up-and-coming country that’s gained its popularity from K-pop, trendy hipster fashion and of course, its delicious Korean BBQ! Its capital, Seoul, is the number one hotspot for tourists, due to it bustling atmosphere and attractions. With endless amounts of things to see and do, places to visit, cool and quirky foods and drinks to try, no wonder many travellers pick South Korea as their top destination.
Having spent a lot of time in Korea, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of tips for visiting South Korea, highlighting pretty much everything you need to know, so you can plan ahead of your trip to this futuristic country. Whether you’re planning on visiting the capital for a few days or travelling the entire country, we hope our South Korea travel tips and tricks come in handy 😊
- The first South Korea travel tip on our list is to check that your passport is valid for the entire duration of your stay in South Korea. If visiting for over 90 days, make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months.
- If you’re visiting for 90 days or less, your passport may allow you to apply or what’s known as a K-ETA, or Travel Entry Authorisation. This simple online application form is available to passport holders from almost 100 countries. For longer stays, you can apply for an extended Visa when you’re in South Korea. If you have a passport that isn’t on South Korea’s K-ETA list, be sure to check entry information on your local government travel website well in advance of arrival. Find out more about the K-ETA visa here.
Note: Visitors from some countries don’t need to apply for a K-ETA Visa if arriving before the end of December 2024. Simply show your passport on arrival. Check if your country is included on the E-KTA exclusion list on your local government website.
- Make sure you have travel insurance cover for the full duration of your trip. We recommend getting a quote from various companies online and getting the best deal to suit you and your travel needs. We personally use Compare The Market to find the best deal (in the UK).
- Depending on where you’re visiting in South Korea, you may want to buy a data package to help you get around and stay connected. Wi-Fi is readily available in most places, but if you’re heading out of the cities, a data SIM can come in handy. We recommend SK Telecom. If you have an E-SIM compatible smart phone, sign up to one of their E-SIMs. You can also buy a SIM card in the airport on arrival or in any Korean shopping mall.
- Card payment is accepted in a lot of places, but it isn’t as commonly accepted as credit/debit cards in North America, Australia and Europe. Many market stalls and smaller restaurants will only accept cash. We recommend bringing some of your own currency with you and exchanging it at a bank or currency exchange booth in South Korea. You’ll get a much better rate than you would exchanging in your home country.
- South Korea is a place with extreme seasons. It gets very warm in the summer months and very colder in winter. It also gets its fair share of rain and temperatures can vary quickly no matter the month. We recommend packing a selection of clothes for all seasons. Pack for cold weather from October – February and a light raincoat and jacket for other months.
Planning your trip
- Visiting the capital, Seoul, is a must for any first time visitor. It’s the heart of the country and is a city like non other we’ve visited. We recommend allocating at least 5 full days to see Seoul. Many people visit South Korea and spend their whole time in this city!
- Consider visiting two or three places in South Korea to get a different experience of the country. Busan, Jeju Island and Seoul are must-sees. It’s easy to get around using the high speed trains or short internal flights.
- Consider visiting a city away from the beaten trail. Daejeon and Gwanju are areas where you won’t see many tourists. There’s a lot to see and do in addition to the likes of Seoul, Busan and Jeju. This is a South Korea travel tip that you probably haven’t considered. Most people spend the entirety of their trip in only a couple of city destinations.
- South Korea’s sprawling cities are the most common stops on tourist itineraries. However, we encourage you to head away from the city and into the countryside during your visit. Remote temples, national parks, rice fields and villages are areas of the country that many people don’t see. South Korea’s rural attractions are just as good as any city.
- Booking accommodation in advance is a must in Korea, especially during peak times. If you book ahead of time, you’ll be able to get better deals and will a wider selection of hotel options. South Korea is densely populated and hotels can fill up fast if you leave it until the last minute. As a rule of thumb, always try to book accommodation at least 1 month before you arrive.
- Think about the type of holiday you want. Unlike the relaxing nature of the likes of Thailand and the Philippines, South Korea is an adventurous place with a city-break appeal. Seoul offers endless amounts of things to see and do. You’ll be out and about pretty much the entire day, exploring the cultural side of South Korea. If you’re looking for beach holiday vibes, Busan or Jeju Island are the places to be. Warm weather, beautiful beaches and lots of leisure activities provides a different type of holiday.
CHECK OUT OUR TRAVEL VIDEO ON 50 THINGS YOU MUST DO WHEN VISITING SOUTH KOREA
When’s the best time to visit South Korea?
South Korea has four very distinct seasons. The summertime is hot, humid and sticky and the winter can be surprisingly harsh. Whilst there isn’t a right or wrong time to visit, we recommend visiting either during spring (March – early May) or autumn (September – October). South Korea is known for its beautiful cherry blossoms that bloom during the month of April. Meanwhile, autumn provides crisp and cooler weather, which is perfect for sightseeing.
Top tip: South Korea weather can be unpredictable at times, so be sure you’re prepared for all weather scenarios. Read more about this in our ‘clothing to pack’ South Korea travel tips section below.
- South Korea may have a reputation for being a little expensive, but contrary to this, we found it fairly affordable. It’s more expensive than South East Asia, but expect cheaper hotel prices compared to North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.
- Airbnb’s aren’t a thing in Korea, so expect to book hotels, hotels, and more hotels!
- This is probably one of our most important South Korea travel tips. Book accommodation in advance! We’ve mentioned this above, but it’s so important to get your accommodation booked a few months in advance. It’ll save you time, money and stress!
- Location is key, especially when visiting a city such as Seoul. You’ll want to be as central as possible, right in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Be sure to do your research on potential areas and cross check it against the things you want to see and do. Public transport in Korea is excellent, but you can’t beat the convenience of walking.
- Always check hotel reviews before booking. In general, the standard of hotels is very good and rooms are very clean. However, as with any destination, you’ll find some poor quality hotels that have the potential to ruin your trip.
- If you’re staying in a few different hotels during your visit, consider booking a traditional Korean hotel where you sleep on the floor. The unique décor and design of a traditional Hanbok home is an experience you’ll remember.
For tips on finding the best price for your hotel room, check out our accommodation booking guide.
Getting around in South Korea
- South Korea’s transport system is second to none, especially in Seoul. The metro is the best way to get around in most cities; it’s quick, affordable and convenient. Buses are also a good option, but the language barrier can make things difficult.
- Uber is available in some cities but it can be more expensive than standard street taxis. Therefore, for cost savings and ease, we recommend simply hailing available taxis on the street. You’ll also have taxi queues at popular attractions.
- South Korea is one of the few countries that doesn’t use Google Maps, but don’t worry, you won’t get lost! Download Kakao Maps ahead of your trip and pinpoint attractions/ places you want to visit. Google Maps still has a lot of useful information, it’s just less accurate than most other countries. We personally used a combination of Google and Kakao Maps.
- The very best method of transport for getting between cities is the KTX high speed rail network. Also known as the ‘bullet train’, these trains can reach up to 300mph and make inter-city travel a breeze. Journeys are fairly affordable if you book in advance.
- We don’t recommend renting a car, especially if only staying in cities. The public transport is very good and driving in South Korea can be challenging if you’re not used to driving in busy Asian cities. You may need to hire a car if visiting a rural attraction.
- Most public transport requires you to buy and top up a special transport card. You can’t use contactless with the machines directly. Each city has its own unique transport card, which can be topped up at convenient stores or metro stations.
Food and drink
- Korea is known as the land of kimchi, fried chicken and BBQ. All jokes aside, it’s much more than that! Korean cuisine is known for its spice, tender meat, delicious noodles and all things red bean. There are so many delicious dishes to try, so be sure to check out our article on the top 20 dishes. Our favourites are Japchae, Bulgogi, Dakdoritang and Korean BBQ. Be open to trying new things and your taste buds will awaken to flavours you’ve never tried before.
- Like many Asian countries, weird and wonderful drinks are hugely popular in Korea. From bubble teas to fruit drinks and sodas, there’s something for all tastes. It’s uncommon to see someone without their favourite drink in hand! Try as many drinks as you can at cafes, restaurants and even 7/11 stores. By the time you leave you’ll probably have a new favourite beverage.
- There’s at least one bakery at every corner you turn in Korea. Korean’s love to have a coffee and a sweet treat on the go, for a mid-morning or afternoon snack. Live like the locals and try at least a few bakeries during your visit. Many of the bakeries in Korea rival the finest spots in Paris.
- Street food is a must in Korea, and in our opinion, it’s the best type of Korean food you can try. It’s a great way to sample a variety of different dishes at a low cost. Just be sure to have cash with you as most food vendors don’t accept credit/debit card. This South Korea travel tip is great for your budget too! Most dishes cost only a few dollars/pounds/euros.
- South Korea has a lot of unusual foods that you might find weird if you’re not used to eating raw seafood, delicacies and other unique dishes. You can easily avoid this type of food if it isn’t to your taste, but we encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try a little bit.
- There aren’t a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants outside of Seoul and Busan. Meat and seafood is huge in South Korea and whilst you can find lots of veggie dishes, the language barrier can cause confusion. We recommend researching Vegan or Vegetarian Korean dishes and writing them down for reference. You’ll find some excellent vegan/vegetarian restaurants in the main tourist areas, but be sure to do research before heading out. There aren’t readily available.
- The local currency is known as ‘Won’.
- Bring cash from your own country and exchange it at a currency exchange booth or a bank on arrival. You’ll often get a better exchange rate for Korean Won compared to your home country.
- Many attractions in South Korea are free of charge or have a small cost. It’s surprisingly affordable to sightsee compared to other countries and some of the country’s best tourist attractions have no cost. If you’re on a budget, add as many free attractions to your itinerary as possible.
- Whilst most places accept card payment, be sure to always carry cash with you to pay for entrance fees for attractions and other small charges. Whilst in South Korea, we use cash and card equally.
- One great positive about Korea, unlike many other tourist places in the world, is that they don’t rip you off for being a foreigner. You won’t feel taken advantage of (in most cases) and you’ll often feel like you’re getting good value for money. Let your guard down and enjoy this rare experience!
- Following on from the above point, when heading to a local market, try to haggle for clothing, accessories and other apparel. It’s common practice and you can get a good bargain. Haggling for food and other incidentals isn’t a thing.
- Eating out costs vary wildly. You can eat for less than $10 per day. However, you can also eat at some extremely expensive fine dining restaurants. There’s something for all budgets.
- Our final South Korea travel tip on the money side is to only keep a little bit of your money with you and leave the rest in the hotel safe. It’s unlikely you’ll get pickpocketed or robbed. However, it’s easy to lose money when out and about.
- Respecting the elderly is a huge thing in Korea. Even if they aren’t your relatives, be sure to show respect to those older than you.
- In most countries, it may seem rude to slurp and eat with your mouth open, but not in Korea! In South Korea, eating loudly is a sign that you’re enjoying your delicious meal. The louder, the better, so try not to let it bother you.
- Family is a huge part of Korean culture. Families are often really close and they get together on a regular basis, either to have a Korean BBQ or a home cooked meal. Take time to meet the locals and they’ll often introduce you to their family and friends.
- Koreans can sometimes be impatient and don’t like to be kept waiting – especially when it comes to eating out. There are often buzzers or bells to press in restaurants, so you can alert the staff when you need more food, water, or want to pay the bill. Don’t be scared to make your presence known if you want service. Just do it in a polite way.
- When entering someone’s home in South Korea, be sure to take your shoes off at the front entrance of the porch. They’ll have slippers for you to put on. This is the case not only in homes, but in some restaurants too.
- Koreans eat with a pair of metal chopsticks for pretty much every dish you can think of. They’re tricky to get the hang of, but if you need to, you can ask for a fork and spoon.
- You’ll see Koreans greet you with a gentle bow. If you forget the word for, ‘hello’ and want to be polite, you can bow as a greeting. It’s a common form of respect.
- Koreans are very friendly and will often go out of their way to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. In general, we’ve found that younger people have a higher chance of speaking English.
The local language
- ‘Hangukmal’ is the language spoken in South Korea.
- English isn’t widely spoken in South Korea, and even in the capital, English is only spoken amongst the younger generation. Keep this in mind when asking for directions.
- When visiting Korea, we recommend learning a few basic words and phrases. Not only will it help you to communicate better with the locals, but you’ll impress them too. They love to see foreigners taking their time to speak the Korean language. Here are a few basic words and phrases to remember:
- Hello: an-nyeong ha-se-yoThank you: gam-sa-ham-ni-daGoodbye: an-nyeong-hi gye-se-yoNice to meet you: mannaseo bangawoyoA table for two: salam du-myeongYes: neNo: a-ni-yoDelicious: masisseoyo
- No sugar: saltang mal-gu
- Take note of the above phrases on a Notepad or on your smartphone. They’ll come in Handy throughout your trip.
- If you’re at a shop, café, or restaurant, you can simply say ‘igor’, which means this/that, and point to the food or object you want. It isn’t the most accurate thing to say, but it’s easy to remember and can help you beat the language barrier.
- Download Google Translate on your phone and use it’s intelligent translation features. You can take a photo of Korean writing and it’ll instantly convert it to your own language. You can also use its handy voice translate feature.
- Making friends with the locals is a great way to immerse yourself in the language. If you’re in doubt, just ask, and they’ll be more than happy to teach you. Asking friendly locals how to say something in Korean is a great way to learn on the go.
- South Korea is generally a really safe country. It has a respectful culture where most people are considerate and aware of others. So much so, locals often leave their phone, handbags and other expensive items on a table without any worry of them being stolen.
- When visiting larger cities such as Seoul and Busan, traffic is wild. Be sure to have your wits about you when navigating the busy streets. Always use the designated crossings where you can.
- At a crosswalk, it’s illegal to cross the road on a red light in South Korea. Even if there are no cars on the road and you think it’s safe to cross – don’t.
- Whilst crime is extremely low, you still need to keep a watchful eye on pick pocketers in busy streets, especially within tourist areas. For women, we recommend carrying a cross over strap bag so you have your valuables within close reach.
- South Korea is one of the safest countries we’ve ever visited. It’s fine to go out to explore by yourself without any worries, even at night. Be aware of your surroundings and you shouldn’t run into any issues.
Medication to pack
Whilst you’ll be able to get hold of all the medication essentials in South Korea, it’s always a good idea to have your must-haves with you, in case of an emergency. South Korea is a well developed country with excellent healthcare, so if you need to head to your local store or pharmacy for a top up, you won’t have any issues. Here are a few of the essential items to consider packing:
- Travel sickness tablets
- Ginger tablets – these are great for jet lag or when you’ve eaten something dodgy. It’s a natural herb that can be taken to sooth the stomach.
- Diarrhoea tablets
- Paracetamol and Ibuprofen
- Wet wipes
- Antibacterial gel
- Any medication you take on a regular basis
- Contact lenses. If you’re travelling for a long period of time, make sure you have enough lenses to cover you for your stay.
- Bug spray – there aren’t many mosquitos in South Korea, but it’s always worth taking a bottle that contains deet, just to be on the safe side. Cities are less of a problem in the cities but you may encounter them in rural areas.
Clothing to pack
The weather in South Korea can be unpredictable at times, and even if you visit during dry season, it may decide to rain heavily for a few days on end (trust us, we’ve been there). No matter when you visit South Korea, we recommend packing extra items of clothing/ gear for all weather.
- Light jacket/ cardigan
- Trousers/ jeans
- Trainers / hiking shoes (waterproof if possible)
- Mini umbrella
- Tops/ vests
- Light jacket
- Rain jacket
- Flip flops
- Thick coat
- Gloves / Mittens
- Wool hat
- Non-slip boots/ shoes
Our final South Korea travel tips
- South Korea has a very unique culture. If you’ve visited other Asian countries, you may be in for a shock as Korea is completely different. It’s such a modern, high-tech and thriving country that has developed very quickly in recent decades. You’ll come across lots of unique cultural phenomenon that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else, so take it all in and enjoy it!
- If you’re visiting for a few weeks or more, we recommend getting away from big cities such as Seoul and Busan and exploring some of the lesser-known areas. We visited Daejeon to see family. Whilst it doesn’t have as many things to see and do as in Seoul, it still had some excellent attractions, many of which were unique to the area.
- If you only have a limited amount of time in South Korea, try not to squeeze too much into your itinerary. This will only tire you out and ruin your trip. Pinpoint a few places and things you want to try ahead of your visit, plus some ‘nice to haves’ for when you have spare time. Seeing one place fully is better than only getting a short glimpse of many places.
- Plan in plenty of rest breaks when you’re out and about sightseeing. Koreans work hard but they know how to relax, too. Stop by a coffee shop, grab a drink and sit on a park bench or indulge in a unique Korean spa.
- Immerse yourself into the food culture on day one of your trip. The cuisine is amazing and you won’t want to regret not trying more. We personally regret not eating more Korean Fried Chicken. It’s out of this world!
- Our very last South Korea travel tip is to speak a bit of Korean. The locals will love it and will appreciate the effort! Don’t worry about making a mistake.
We hope you enjoyed reading our top tips for visiting South Korea. It’s a special place for me and it was not only great to visit family and explore my Korean roots, but to also see a different side of Korea that I hadn’t experienced before. If you have any other South Korea travel tips or have any questions for us, please leave a comment below. 😊
By SusieAuthor bio:
I’m a passionate traveller that loves a sunny beach holiday, but also appreciate the cultural side to a trip and checking out undiscovered destinations. I’m the go-to Toucan Traveller for great holiday stories, cool photos and foodie recommendations.