51, Myeongdong 10-gil, Seoul
16, Myeongdong 9-gil, Seoul
South Korea (Korean: 한국, 韓國 Hanguk), officially the Republic of Korea (대한민국, 大韓民國 Daehan Minguk) is a country in East Asia. South Korea occupies the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea to the north, China across the sea to the west and Japan a short ferry ride to the southeast.
South Korea is administratively divided into 9 different provinces as listed below. The largest cities actually are separate entities from these provinces, but from a travelers perspective we include them in the most relevant province.
Known as the "Land of the Morning Calm", Korea has for a long time served as a cultural bridge between its neighbors, China and Japan. In recent times, South Korea has emerged from the shadows of its turbulent past and cemented its place as one of the world's major economic powers. Since the turn of the 21st century, South Korean culture has become enormously popular all over East Asia, and this has resulted in South Korea becoming a very popular tourist destination.
Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) (고조선, 古朝鮮) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and its territories were governed as four commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (삼국시대, 三國時代), namely Goguryeo (고구려, 高句麗), Silla (신라, 新羅) and Baekje (백제, 百濟). Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje, and unified Korea under the Silla Dynasty. A subsequent later invasion by Tang was repelled by Silla forces, thus maintaining Korea's independence. The remnants of Goguryeo would go on on to found another kingdom known as Balhae (발해, 渤海) in what is now Northeast China, which would last until A.D. 926 when it was conquered by the Khitans.
Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo Dynasty (also called Koryo) (고려, 高麗), from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon Dynasty (also called Chosun) (조선, 朝鮮), after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world's first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world's first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.
Korea experienced a significant invasion by the Japanese led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century, which was eventually defeated by an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China's Ming dynasty. This defeat along with the untimely death of Hideyoshi, forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea for the time being.
Later, Korea's status as an independent kingdom under the Chinese sphere of cultural influence (사대) ended in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, China was to recognize the severing of the several centuries-old, nominal elder-younger brother relationship between China and Korea, bringing Japan the window of opportunity to force Korea into its own growing sphere of influence. Although the elder-younger brother relationship between China and Joseon was a voluntary diplomatic formality assumed by Joseon's rulers in order to receive the benefits of advanced Chinese culture and trade, it was a symbolic victory for Japan to achieve the breakage of this link. It put Japan in position to take possession of Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. In 1910, Imperial Japan officially annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain control of the peninsula.
After Imperial Japan's defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while U.S. forces occupied the southern half. North and South Korea each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. After antagonization from both sides, North Korea eventually invaded South Korea in 1950, starting the Korean War which subsequently destroyed much of the country. U.S. and other U.N. forces intervened on South Korea's side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, after the war had reached a stalemate with no significant territorial gains made by either side. However, as no peace treaty has ever been signed, the two Koreas technically remain at war with each other to this day.
Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea eventually emerged from the ashes of the Korean war and achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the iron-fisted rule of then-president Park Chung Hee (박정희). As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy's industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD. Today, South Korea is an industrialized and developed economy with some of the world's leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.
Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights led to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South's President Kim Dae-jung and the North's late leader Kim Jong-il (Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), however the peace process has since moved at a glacial pace. More recently the country elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in 2012.
In recent years, a phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave" (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought more attention to the country.
South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all native residents identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. In recent times however the demographics are changing, with immigrants having passed the one million mark for the first time in South Korean history. The largest resident minority are the Chinese, numbering around 440,000, although this number includes a large number of Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity. There are also workers from Mongolia, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and other parts of world. A sizable community of 20,000 English teachers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Africa are spread out throughout the towns and cities. In addition, about 30,000 American military personnel are stationed throughout the country, although they are gradually being stationed away from the DMZ. South Korea's large and growing economy has attracted people from all over the world and Seoul's status as a leading financial center has brought many financial workers from North America, Europe and Japan.
It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but also has one of the world's lowest birthrates (1.21 children per woman). Dealing with this very low birthrate will be one of the major problems for this country in the 21st century. Confucian attitudes about the importance of a male heir have led to a strongly skewed sex ratio, with about 112 men for every 100 women encouraging many Korean men in rural areas to seek wives from other countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas.
Though East Asian tourists have been visiting Korea in droves since the turn of the millennium due to the Korean Wave (also known as 한류 hallyu), it has been largely off the radar of Western tourists. As such, having locals stare or listen to your conversations is still somewhat a common experience among Westerners visiting South Korea. Children in particular may approach you or shout a "Hi!" in passing. Much of this is done out of curiosity and eagerness to hear English spoken by native speakers. Tourists will normally find Koreans to be quite friendly and helpful when trying to find their way around.
South Korea is a full and relatively stable democracy, with executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. Democracy began in 1948 but suffered frequent periods of military coups. The country has been a stable democracy since 1987 when the sixth republic was declared.
The president is the head of state, and is elected for a one fixed five year term. The current president is Park Geun-hye, daughter of a former president and first female head of state in modern times. There are presently (2016) only 4 political parties represented in the current national assembly, representing conservative, liberal and progressive platforms. Party composition and naming can change frequently in South Korean politics. The current ruling party, Saenuri, is conservative in outlook.
Although the military remain a powerful force in Korean politics (not surprising given that the country is surrounded by Japan, China and North Korea), it is widely considered that the possibility of another military coup is relatively remote.
Having been in the cultural sphere of China for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences are evident in traditional Korean culture. Nevertheless, many fundamental differences remain and Korea has managed to retain a distinct cultural identity from its larger neighbor. Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their resistance to outside domination.
During the Joseon dynasty, Korea's dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism, perhaps even more strict than the Chinese original. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors and a small group of nobility below him, a middle class of petty civil servants below them, and then a vast population of commoners at the bottom. The educated were superior to the uneducated, women served men, and everybody stuck to a defined role or faced severe consequences. Korea adopted its own version of the imperial examination system invented by and used in China to select officials, creating somewhat of a premodern meritocracy for government like its Chinese counterpart, though unlike the Chinese version, the Korean version was largely restricted to the yangban (aristocrat) and chungin (bureaucrat) classes. Buddhism was suppressed largely due to the widespread corruption and greed of monks and temples during the waning stages of the Goryeo dynasty. While the Joseon dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.
Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their Hangul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. South Korea also has a vibrant film and TV industry, and the country is one of only a few countries in the world in which local films have a greater market share than Hollywood films.
South Koreans strongly hold on to many ancient traditions which go back thousands of years, yet paradoxically they are often also obsessed with the latest technology. Consumer devices with amazing advanced technology are developed and produced by themselves and are often several years ahead of the rest of the world.
South Korea has a significant number of Christians (18% Protestants, 11% Roman Catholic) and Buddhists (23% practicing, 47% non practicing), with churches dotting the towns and temples and monasteries on hills. Over a third of the country professes to follow no particular organized religion, although most people (including Christians) are still strongly influenced by traditional Korean Buddhist and Confucian philosophies that have been seeped into the Korean cultural background. Islam and local religions also have a small number of followers in parts of the country.
Baseball was brought to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 and is the most popular sport in the country. Most cities have a team and the biggest are sponsored by the largest South Korean companies, with many South Korean players going on to become famous MLB players in the United States. The South Korean national baseball team is also regarded as one of the strongest in the world, finishing second at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Football (soccer) is becoming more important to South Korea over time, as well as being a sport shared by both North and South. South Korea is one of the strongest teams in Asia and many of their players work for the top European clubs. The sport gained an incredible amount of short term popularity when the South Korean national team reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, and even today the country stops for world cup matches. Unfortunately the enthusiasm for domestic and friendly international games is extremely low, and stadiums are usually mostly empty.
Other popular sports include golf and basketball. Badminton, table tennis and bowling are also popular and facilities for the public are widely available in cities. Korean martial arts such as taekwondo [태권도] are also popular. Golf particularly has a strong following, with membership fees for Korea's top golf clubs being more expensive than those in neighboring Japan or the United States. Many of the world's top female golfers are from Korea or of Korean descent.
As for winter sports, speed skating (especially short track) and figure skating are extremely popular due to the repeated success of South Korea in the Winter Olympics.
The South Korean city of Pyeongchang has been chosen for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
A long and complicated relationship between the Western world and the Korean nation have led to a plethora of books.
South Korea has a substantial film industry considering the size of the country. There are many films that can give you a good background to the country, and almost all DVD's will have good English subtitles. The list below could actually include literally hundreds of films, however the selection below will give you a good taste.
Korea's traditional holidays mostly follow the lunar calendar and therefore fall on different days each year. The two biggest, Seollal and Chuseok, are family holidays and involve everybody returning to their hometowns en masse, meaning that all forms of transport are absolutely packed. It is worth planning your itinerary around these dates, as well as noting that your best eating options may be noodle packets from a 7-Eleven! On the other holidays you will not notice too much difference, however all banks and government offices will be closed.
South Korean households and hotels use the same dual round sockets for their electrical outlets as are found in most of Continental Europe. Some hotels may provide an adapter for you to use which you can query from reception.
South Korean electrical outlets accept appliances with a voltage rating of 220V at 60Hz. If your appliance has this rating that includes 220V (Such as 100-240V that most laptop chargers now accept), you will be able to use the appliance with only a plug adapter. If it falls below or above this rating, you will need to purchase a transformer or a voltage adapter before leaving your country.
Some very old buildings and very new hotels and apartments are dual wired and also have 110V outlets (identifiable by the smaller dual flat sockets) in addition to the regular South Korean variety, built specifically to accommodate the Japanese and Americans.
Hence, the citizens of most countries will receive a visa on arrival valid between 30 to 90 days. The official 'Hi Korea' site has the latest details.
Note that Jeju island is an autonomous province with more relaxed entry conditions than the South Korean 'mainland', allowing in everybody except citizens of 11 countries. Citizens from Afghanistan, Cuba, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Macedonia, Nigeria, Palestine, Sudan, and Syria can visit the Autonomous province of Jeju visa free for up to 30 days. Subsequently leaving Jeju for the mainland will automatically require you to have a visa for the rest of South Korea.
South Korea is really good at keeping electronic track of everyone coming and going, so do not overstay your visa. Violations will at best likely result in you being banned from re-entering, and prosecution is a possibility.
Military personnel traveling under the SOFA for South Korea are not required to possess a passport for entry, provided they hold a copy of their travel orders and a military ID. On the other hand their dependents must hold a passport and A-3 visa for entry.
Most foreigners staying longer than 90 days must register with the authorities within 90 days of entry and obtain an Alien Registration Card. Contact your local authorities for further information.
South Korea has many international airports; however, only a few actually have scheduled services. South Korea has experienced an airport building frenzy over the last decade. Many large towns have dedicated functioning airports that handle only a handful of flights a week.
Korean Air (대한항공) and Asiana (아시아나 항공) are the principal full service carriers to and from South Korea that fly around the world. Low cost airlines Air Busan, Jin Air, Jeju Air, Eastar Jet and T'Way Airlines offer both domestic flights to Jeju as well as international flights across Asia.
Japan Rail and Korean Rail have an agreement where train trips between the countries can be completed via a ferry journey in the middle. Train travelers coming from or continuing on to Japan can purchase special through tickets giving discounts of 30% on KTX services and 9-30% on Busan - Fukuoka ferries as well as Japanese trains.
Travel to North Korea by train is not an option. There is a train track connecting the Korean Rail network with North Korea and even an active Korean Rail station (albeit with no scheduled trains) on the border. However there is no traffic and it will likely remain more of a political statement than a potential travel option for some time to come.
Note that the services listed here may change frequently, and English language websites may not be updated with the current information. Do verify before traveling.
Busan Port International Passenger Terminal is the largest seaport in the country and offers ferry rides mostly to and from Japan. The JR's Beetle hydrofoil service from Busan to Fukuoka manages the trip in just under three hours with up to five connections a day. It also offers service to near by Tsushima. All other links are slower overnight ferries, such as Pukwan Ferry Company's services to Shimonoseki. A Busan-Osaka ferry is operated by Panstar Line Co., Ltd..
Incheon's International Ferry Terminal 1 (Yeonan Budu, 연안부두) has services to several cities in China, such as Weihai, Dandong, Qingdao and Tianjin. The largest operator is Jinchon, but Incheon Port has full listings on their website. The Chinese ports of Rizhao, Rongcheng and Lianyungang, all in Shandong province, can also be accessed by ferry from Pyeongtaek.
There are also weekly departures from Sokcho (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD270 operated by Dong Chun Ferry, and from Donghae (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from USD205 operated by DBS Cruise Ferry Co.
Due the political and military situation with North Korea, entering South Korea overland is not possible. The border between North and South Korea is considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, and while some unauthorized crossings have occurred at the truce village of Panmunjeom they have usually resulted in gunfire.
Interesting enough, a select group of South Korean businessmen did until recently cross the border daily by bus in order to work in the joint industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong. However, as of 2016, the industrial park is closed, a casualty of inter-Korean tensions.
South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities including metropolitan Seoul. Larger cities currently have service or are developing subways. Travel by bus or taxi is easily available, although bus services are more economical.
South Korea is a relatively small country with a fast and efficient train service (see the KTX fast train below) and therefore flying around is not necessary unless you are going to the island of Jeju.
Nevertheless, plenty of airlines do fly between the main cities at a cost comparable to the KTX train. Most flights are with Korean Air or Asiana; however, many new options exist with budget airlines such as T-way, Air Busan, Jin Air and Jeju Air (which despite the name also serves the busy Seoul Gimpo to Busan route). The service doesn't vary significantly between full service and low cost airlines on domestic services, in fact low cost airlines offer complimentary soft drinks and 15kg of hold luggage.
National train operator Korail connects major cities in South Korea. A large amount of money has been plowed into the network in recent years and trains are now competitive with buses and planes on speed and price, with high safety standards and a good deal of comfort.
South Korea's flagship service is the high speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) services between Seoul and Busan, Seoul and Yeosu, Seoul and Mokpo and Seoul and Masan (with new services opening all the time) which use a combination of French TGV technology and Korean technology to travel at speeds in excess of 300 km/h. The fastest non-stop trains travel between Busan and Seoul in just over two hours. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).
Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon") and Tonggeun (통근), corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. All Saemaeul/Mugunghwa trains can speed up to 150km/h. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Though with the introduction of the KTX, there are much fewer Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, they are worth trying them out. Tonggeun, formerly Tonggil, are cheapest of all, but long-distance, non-aircon services have been phased out and they're now limited to short regional commuter services. Most longer-distance trains have a cafeteria car with a small cafe/bar, computers with internet access (W500 for 15 minutes) and a few trains even have private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!
Saemaeul and some Mugunghwa trains are equipped with power plugs on laptop seats.
Smoking is not permitted on any Korean trains or stations (including open platforms).
Tickets are much cheaper than in Japan but more expensive than other Asian countries - although the damage can be lowered by travelling on local trains rather than KTX. Buying tickets is fairly easy - self-service terminals accepting cash and credit cards are in multiple languages and are very simple to use. Station staff can usually speak basic English. Most stations are clean, modern and have good signposting in Korean and English, and compared to China or Japan, Korea's rail system is very user-friendly.
Pre-booking any train tickets a day prior (be they KTX or mugunghwa) is recommended for weekend trips, as all trains can be booked out for hours on end. On Sunday in particular, all but local trains have begun to completely book out regularly. Failure to reserve tickets in advance when departing busy hubs such as Seoul or Busan may see your options reduced to "unallocated seating" on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned space between carriages, or standing in the toilet for much of the trip. You are, however, free to sit on any seat that seems free until someone with the ticket to that seat shows up. If you are confident in your Korean, you can ask to reserve seats on sections that are available and travel standing up the rest of the way.).
The KR Pass is a special rail pass introduced in 2005 only for non-resident foreigners staying less than 6 months in Korea, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half the price if you wish. The pass must be purchased at least five days before travel (preferably before arrival in Korea). It’s not cheap as it needs a substantial amount of travel (e.g. Seoul–Busan round trip) to pay off and serious limitations on usage apply during Korean holidays and peak traveling periods including Lunar New Year in February and Chuseok in September. Up-to-date prices and reservation are available on Let’s Korail website. Passes as of May 2015 cost around₩66,900/₩93,100/₩139,700/₩168,400/₩194,400 for 1/3/5/7/10 days, with discounts for youth (age 13–25), students and groups.
Joint KR/JR Passes between Korea and Japan also exist, however, considering how much of a discount the JR Pass offers, and how strikingly little the KR Pass does by comparison, such a combination in all practicality simply deducts value from the JR Pass.
Korail Tourism Development provides a rail cruise called 'Haerang', which enables the customers to travel to all the major sightseeing destinations in Korea with just one luxury train ride.
Buses (버스 beoseu) remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.
There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses (고속버스 gosok beoseu) and inter-city buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), which often use separate terminals to boot. In addition, local inner-city bus (시내버스 si-nae beoseu) networks often connect directly neighbouring cities. The express vs. intercity bus differentiation comes down to whether the nation's toll expressways (고속 gosok) are traversed. In practical terms, express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but inter-city buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for Udeung buses (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra. However, Some inter-city buses use Udeung buses without extra fares on highly competitive lines such as Seoul-Andong routes. A fourth layer of bus exists, which is the airport limousine bus, a separate network of express buses that ferry people directly to and from Incheon International Airport. Note that the airport limousines typically run from separate pickup points again to the intercity or express bus terminal.
No Korean buses have toilets, and rest stops are not standard on trips of less than 2 hours duration, so consider thinking twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.
Unlike trains, the bus terminal staffs and drivers are less likely to speak or understand English.
The Korean Express Bus Lines Association have timetables and fares of the Express bus routes in South Korea on their website.
Ferry boats surround the peninsula and shuttle out to Korea's many islands. The main ports include Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang, and Busan. The most popular destinations are Jeju-do and Ulleungdo. Busan has resumed its daily domestic route to Jeju island. (as of April 2013) There are mostly undiscovered and scenic islands near Incheon that can seem almost deserted.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from ₩54,400 a day for the smallest car for about a week. Traffic moves on the right in South Korea.
If you are traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul or Busan, driving is not recommended as the roads often experience heavy traffic jams and with parking expensive and difficult to find. Many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, and several cars (including fully-loaded public transit buses) will typically run through the lights after they have turned red, whether pedestrians are in the crosswalk or not.
It is useful to note that Koreans consider driving rules as guidelines only, and don't expect to be punished for parking illegally or cutting through a red light. This means that if you want to drive you will need to do so assertively by pushing yourself into an intersection and forcing other cars to yield.
A GPS is highly recommended while navigating Seoul or Busan. Lanes end or turn into bus lanes with little to no warning and it may not always be obvious of the closest place where U-turns are allowed. A good rule of thumb is to stay in the middle lane as cars will often illegally park in the right lane while the left lane will end without warning. Because of stringent national security laws that mandate navigation processing be done on local servers, Google Maps does not give driving directions in South Korea. Free alternatives are Waze and Kimgisa (now KakaoNavi).
Taxis are a convenient, if somewhat pricey way of getting around the cities, and are sometimes the only practical way of reaching a place. Even in the major cities, you are extremely unlikely to get an English-speaking taxi driver, so it will be necessary to have the name of your destination written in Korean to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show the taxi driver in case you get lost.
Note that whilst technically illegal, cab drivers, particularly the lower-flagfall white cabs on busy Friday or Saturday nights, may deny service to short-distance fares. A very handy technique to counter this is to have your destination (hotel name or just gu and dong, in Korean of course) written in thick black ink on a large A4 sheet of paper and hold it to the traffic. Passing cab drivers responding to long distance call outs, or with space in their cab in addition to an existing fare in that direction will often pick you up en route.
When hailing a cab in particular, ensure you follow the local custom and wave it over with your hand extended but all your fingers extended downwards and beckoning as opposed to upwards in the Western fashion (this style is reserved for animals).
South Koreans speak Korean, and knowing a few words of this will come in very handy. Unfortunately the language is rather drastically different from any Western language in its grammar, and pronunciation is rather difficult for the English speaker to get right (though not tonal). Depending on which part of the country you go to, various different dialects are spoken, though standard Korean, which is based on the Seoul dialect, is understood and spoken by almost everyone. Most notably among the dialects, the Gyeongsang dialect spoken around Busan and Daegu is considered to be rather rough and aggressive compared to standard Korean, and the Jeju dialect spoken on Jeju island is known for being almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard Korean.
The Korean writing system is deceptively simple. Although it looks at first glance to be as complex as Chinese or Japanese, it is a unique and simple phonetic writing system called hangul (한글 hangeul) where sounds are stacked up into blocks that represent syllables. It was designed by a committee and looks like, at first glance, all right angles and little circles, but it is remarkably consistent and logical and quite fast to pick up.
Learning to read hangul before you arrive in Korea will make traveling much easier, as many signs and menus are written in hangul only. Even basic pattern-matching tricks come in handy: for example, if you know that a circle at the bottom of a block is read -ng, you can already distinguish Pyongyang (평양) from Seoul (서울). Further, the Korean words for many common products — coffee, juice, computer — are often the same as the English words, but will be written in hangul. If you can read hangul, you'll find surviving in Korea surprisingly easy.
Many Korean words can also be written with much more complex traditional Chinese characters, known as hanja (한자, 漢字) in Korean, and these are still occasionally mixed into text but are increasingly few and far between. Nowadays, hanja are mainly used for disambiguation if the meaning is ambiguous when written in hangul. In such instances, the hanja is usually written in parentheses next to the hangul. Hanja are also used to mark janggi (장기, 將棋) or Korean chess pieces, newspaper headlines, as well as personal names on official documents.
The spelling of Korean words in Roman letters can be quite inconsistent, so don't be too surprised to see adjacent signs for Gwangalli and Kwanganri — it's the same place. In 2000, the government officially standardized on the Revised Romanization system also used in Wikivoyage, but you will frequently encounter older McCune-Reischauer spellings and just plain weird spellings. Notably, words beginning with g, d, b, j may be spelled with k, t, p, ch instead, and the vowels eo and eu may be spelled o and u. The letters l, r and n also get swapped often, and the vowels i and u are sometimes written as ee and oo respectively. In foreign words imported into Korean, f turns into p, so don't be too surprised by a cup of keopi (coffee) or a round of golpeu (golf).
Nearly all Koreans under the age of 40 have taken English lessons as part of their education, and the English level of the country is being improved by government policy and investments. However, due to lack of practice (as well as fear of mispronunciation), most Koreans have little more than a very basic grasp of English phrases in actual conversation. If you're in a pinch and need someone who speaks English, your best bet would generally be the high school or university students. Reading and writing comes much easier however, and often people will be able to read and understand a considerable amount of English even without any practice with real conversation. Many employees at airlines, hotels and stores catering to international tourists are likely to speak at least basic English. Consequently, travelers can get by in major cities with English only, but it goes without saying that learning basic Korean phrases will make your travel experience more convenient and enjoyable.
A common experience for western travelers in South Korea is to be approached by children interested in practicing their English skills. They will often take a picture of you, as proof they really talked to you.
Older folks may also still speak some Japanese. The city of Busan, being a short trip from Fukuoka in Japan has a larger number of Japanese speakers per capita, and the dialect itself is more similar to Japanese in the same way that the Japanese dialect in Fukuoka also has a large Korean influence. However, many Koreans (especially older ones) still resent the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the occupation, so try not to address a Korean in Japanese unless you have no other choice. Thanks to the "Korean wave" (hallyu) of Korean pop music and soap operas throughout East Asia, many shopkeepers in touristy areas speak some Japanese, Mandarin or Cantonese.
Asian tourists have long discovered South Korea as a prime shopping, culinary and sightseeing destination. For the western world, it is a relatively new travel destination, but it has gained popularity fast. And for good reason, as South Korea offers a most pleasant combination of ancient Asian features and all the amenities you would expect from a modern, high-tech nation. Despite its compact size it boasts a broad range of fine attractions and an excellent infrastructure makes getting around easy.
For a definite list of activities refer to individual cities. However, some of the best ones are:
The currency of South Korea is the South Korean Won, denoted by "₩" (ISO code: KRW), written 원 in Hangul.
Bills come in denominations of ₩1,000 (blue), ₩5,000 (red), ₩10,000 (green) and ₩ 50,000 (yellow). The ₩50,000 is very practical if you need to carry around a reasonable amount of cash, however it can be hard to use on goods or services with a value of less than ₩10,000. The ₩50,000 can be hard to find and often only provided by ATM's that display a picture of the yellow note on the outside.
₩100,000 "checks" are frequently used, and some of the checks go up to ₩10,000,000 in value. These checks are privately issued by banks and can be used instead of cash for larger purchases, such as hotel rooms.
Coins mainly come in denominations of ₩10, ₩50, ₩100 and ₩500. Very rare ₩1 and ₩5 coins do exist. Generally speaking it is rare to buy anything valued less than ₩100.
South Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. A frugal backpacker who enjoys eating, living and traveling Korean-style can easily squeeze by on under ₩60,000 per day, but if you want top-class hotels and Western food even ₩200,000/day will not suffice. Seoul is more expensive than the rest of the country, and has been particularly expensive in recent years competing in many ways with Tokyo, but this has eased since the financial crisis.
Tipping is not expected anywhere in South Korea and is not practiced by Koreans. It could be considered an insult between Koreans as it is regarded as giving someone charity, although people generally know of American tipping culture and would be understanding of a foreigner doing this.
Many hotels and a few tourist restaurants add 10% service charge on their bills. Bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers and bars frequented by Westerners will not reject any tips that you care to hand out.
Restaurants sometimes provide complimentary food or drinks to customers as a sign of generosity or to reward customer loyalty. Colloquially, this is known as "service".
At certain retail outlets with a "Tax Free Shopping" or a "Tax Refund Shopping" sign, you can obtain a voucher and get a large percentage of your taxes refunded. When you leave South Korea, go to customs and have it stamped then go to the "Global Refund Korea" or "Korea Tax Refund" counters near the duty-free shops. However to get a refund you must leave within 3 months of purchase.
Bargaining is common at outdoor markets and applies to everything they may have to offer. However stating a monetary amount would be a mistake. Normally what you would say is ssage juseyo (싸게 주세요). That means "cheaper, please." Doing this once or twice would suffice. The drawback is you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.
Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. It can be an acquired taste, with lots of spicy and fermented dishes, but it's addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi (see below), typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and ranges from mild to roaringly spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chilli paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon. See the various city articles for more details.
A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Foreign food restaurants are also popular, albeit usually with a Korean twist. Fried Chicken has been adopted and many believe it better than the American original. Pizzas are also ubiquitous although you may wonder quite where the inspirations behind the toppings came from. Vietnamese and Mexican food appeals to Koreans as well. Japanese style restaurants of all varieties are very common. Strangely enough Chinese food is somewhat hard to come by, and Koreans often think of Jajangmyeon (자장면 - noodles in thick soy based sauce and distant Chinese origins) with sweet and sour pork as Chinese dining.
Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of metal. Restaurants typically provide stainless steel chopsticks, which unfortunately for the chopstick learner, are very difficult to use! These thin and slippery sticks are not as easy as the wooden or plastic chopsticks but you'll still manage with some fumbling.
When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.
In many traditional households, children were taught that it was impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.
Some etiquette pointers:
Not all food requires chopsticks, with the common Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurants providing knives and forks instead. Many Korean restaurants may also offer western cutlery to a westerner.
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
Koreans love coffee and thus coffee shops can be seen virtually everywhere in the country (even in small countryside villages). There are a large number of Korean chain coffee shops as well as independent ones. Foreign owned coffee shops such as Starbucks tend to be much less common than their Korean counterparts. Aside from coffee, these cafes will usually sell food such as sandwiches, toasties, paninis and quesadillas as well as sweet options such as bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Korean style toast, pastries and a wide variety of cakes, some even vegan.
"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi (불고기), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (갈비), which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and some chili-soya paste (쌈장 ssamjang) and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon; instead, common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (고추장 chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok, 떡) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (e.g. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions of jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is an interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕, pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans love noodles, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types available. Often sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as ₩3000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean speciality, originally from the north, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets. Generally comes in two distinct styles; Pyongyang naengmyeon and Hamhung naengmyeon.
Japchae (잡채) is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (신라면) for example.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) is considered to be Chinese food by Koreans, being somewhat related to northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic, and typically served at (what are liberally described as) Chinese restaurants. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet. A popular combination with 'Chinese' sweet and sour pork and chicken.
Finally, u-dong (우동) are thick wheat noodles which are effectively the same as Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe (회), pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap (초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Whale meat is available in a few restaurants in the cities and at festivals in smaller coastal towns, but is not easy to find and unlike Japan is not considered part of national culture. The city of Pohang has a long history of whaling, and its seafood market still openly offers whale. South Korea has outlawed whaling following the International Whaling Commission international moratorium in 1986, although makes an exception for whales caught by 'accident' during regular fishing. A recent scandal has been the selling of whale meat sourced from Japan in some restaurants which is technically illegal (although usually ignored). Whale restaurants are easy to identify, with pictures of whales on the outside leaving you in no doubt. If you choose to eat whale then you should understand that the species in question could be endangered and therefore a decision left to your own moral compass.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood. A (very) distant cousin of Black Pudding, sundae is very tasty in spicy sauce or soup.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
Vegetarians will have a hard time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. Spam can also be confused as not being meat, so be specific in explaining what you do not eat. If you ask for "no gogi" (고기) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared! It is probably best to have a very explicit list of foods you do and do not eat in Korean on a card or piece of paper to show restaurant servers and cooks; take a look at the Korean phrasebook section on eating: Korean phrases for eating.
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables. If you are willing to eat something flavored with brine shrimp then Kimchi will certainly take you a long way in Korea.
As per Korea's Buddhist tradition, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
When out and about, the following vegetarian and vegan food is relativity easy to find and safe to order:
Drinkers rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings. The drinking age in South Korea is 19.
Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (originally German, but 호프 hopeu in Korean) are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Recently, due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.
Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in ₩200,000-₩500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.
One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your 'status' to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.
On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju (see below) each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Oftentimes, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20% alcohol by volume). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over ₩3,000 at bars (as little as ₩1,100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc., to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc.), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - ion drink), 'so-maek (soju + beer) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.
Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and 'Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around ₩1,500 per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof (호프 hopeu), which serve pints of beer in the ₩2,000-5,000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of ₩10,000 or so.
Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
Like Chinese and Japanese teas, Korean teas are always drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea is available at Western restaurants and the usual American fast-food chains.
Coffee (커피 keopi) has in recent times become widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as ₩300, usually sweet and milky, but there is often a plain option.
Latte snobs will also be glad to know that quality western coffee shops are available in all cities costing around ₩4,000 from a good chain or independent coffee shop. Local chains such as 'Cafe Bene' and 'Angel in Us' serve good coffee, and there are plenty of Starbucks shops selling coffee just like in the rest of the world.
It is worth to hunt out independent coffee shops that take great pride in their coffee. Many Koreans dream of having their own coffee shop, some of them actually do.
If you find yourself in a smaller town then the ubiquitous bread shop 'Paris Baguette' will give you a decent latte for around ₩2,000.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
Whilst smoking in Korea is not quite as popular as in Japan or China, many Korean men and an increasing number of Korean women smoke, and it's fairly cheap compared to much of Europe and America. A pack of twenty costs around ₩5,000 and cigarettes can be bought from all convenience stores. Koreans favor mild cigarettes (around 6mg tar) so Korean-made cigarettes may taste bland and flavorless compared to those from America or Europe, and even the Korean-produced Western cigarettes are much lighter than the originals (e.g. Full-strength Marlboro Reds in Korea have only 8mg tar, the same as Marlboro Lights in the US). If you prefer stronger cigarettes it's wise to bring some duty-free cigarettes with you.
Smoking is forbidden in public buildings, public transport and restaurants. Various establishments will tacitly allow smoking despite the ban, although they will never explicitly tell you that you can smoke, for fear of legal repercussions. Smoking in public is also banned, but this is largely unenforced and designated smoking areas are sparse.
Note that in Korean culture, smoking is not regarded as a feminine activity and that women who do may give a negative impression to some people. This is obviously sexist, but it is an aspect of Korean society to be aware of if you are a female smoker.
There's plenty of accommodation in all price brackets in South Korea. Note that prices in Seoul are typically about twice that of anywhere else in the country.
Some higher-end hotels offer a choice of both Western-style and Korean-style rooms. The main feature of Korean rooms is an elaborate Korean-invented floor-heating system known as ondol (온돌), where hot steam (or, these days, water or electricity) heats stone slabs under a layer of clay and oiled paper. There are no beds; instead, mattresses are laid directly on the floor. Other furniture is typically limited to some low tables (you're also expected to sit on the floor) and maybe a TV.
Some of the cheapest accommodation in South Korea are in what are locally termed motels (모텔) or yeogwan (여관), but these are rather different from motels in the West and closer to Japan's "love hotels". Motels in South Korea are generally very cheap hotels targeted at young couples aiming to spend 'time' together away from their elders, complete with plastic beds, occasionally vibrating, with strategically placed mirrors on the ceiling, as well as a VCR and a variety of appropriate videos. However for the budget traveller, they can simply be inexpensive lodging, with rates as low as ₩25,000/night.
The easiest way to find a motel is to just look for the symbol "♨" and gaudy architecture, particularly near stations or highway exits. They're harder to find online, as they rarely if ever show up in English-language booking sites, but Hotel365 (Korean only) has comprehensive listings for the entire country.
In some motels picking your room is very easy, as there will be room numbers, lit pictures and prices on the wall. The lower price is for a "rest" (휴식 hyusik) of two to four hours, while the higher price is the overnight rate. Press the button for the one you like, which will go dark, and proceed to check-in. You'll usually be expected to pay in advance, often to just a pair of hands behind a frosted glass window. English is rarely spoken, but the only word you need to know is sukbak (숙박, "staying"). You may or may not receive a key, but even if you don't, the staff can usually let you in and out on request — just don't lose your receipt!
Full-service hotels can be found in all larger towns in Korea. Cheaper hotels blend into motels with rooms from ₩40,000, while three and four star hotels are ₩100,000-200,000 and five-star luxury hotels can easily top ₩300,000. Outside peak season you can often get steep discounts from the rack rates, so be sure to ask when reserving.
Hanok (한옥) is the name for houses built in traditional Korean architectural styles. Once considered to be old fashioned and an impediment to modernisation, in recent times many of these houses dating back to the Joseon dynasty are being renovated and opened to paying guests, and serve as Korea's equivalent of Japan's ryokan and minshuku. Amenities range from very basic backpacker-style to over the top luxury, with prices to match. Higher-end establishments typically provide the option of having a traditional Korean dinner, as well as a choice of either Western or traditional Korean style breakfast. Similar to their Japanese counterparts, guests would usually sleep on mattresses on the floor. Hanok accommodations can typically be found old towns such as Bukchon in Seoul, as well as historical towns and cities such as Hahoe and Gyeongju.
While not as common in South Korea as in other parts of Asia or the world, hostels and guesthouses can be found. Major cities, such as Seoul, will have a few dozen, while smaller cities may have a handful. Prices can vary widely, even within one hostel. In Seoul, mixed dorms average ₩15,000-25,000 per person; private rooms with a shared toilet and shower average ₩20,000-30,000 per person; and private ensuite rooms average ₩25,000-40,000 per person. Many hostels will have a common room with free TV, games, computers, and internet; some will have a public full kitchen and other amenities.
In rural areas in and near national parks, you can find a minbak (민박). Most of these are just a room or two in someone's home - others are quite fancy and may be similar to yeogwans (motels) or hotels. Generally, they have ondol rooms with maybe a TV and that's about it. You don't usually get your own bathroom in your room, although some of the fancier ones do have an en suite. Minbaks usually run around ₩20,000 off-season though the price may go up quite a bit during high season.
Very similar in concept to a Minbak, these aren't limited to just rural areas or near national parks. Since the World Cup in 2002, many families around the country have opened their doors and hearts to foreigners looking for a good place to sleep and a breakfast included in the price. These can run between ₩30,000 and ₩35,000 per night.
A fancier and costly version of rural Minbak. Most of them are european-style detached bungalows, equipped with private shower/bath, TV, air conditioner, private kitchen and camping grills. Pensions usually run around ₩60,000-150,000 off-season and over ₩200,000 peak season depending on the size of the house. Pensions near Seoul (Gyeonggi, Incheon) usually costs twice or more the price.
For the budget traveller public bath houses known as jjimjilbang (찜질방) can offer a great way to sleep, besides a relaxing bath and sauna. Entrance costs around ₩5,000-12,000 to get in, and includes a robe or t-shirts/shorts (for mixed facilities and sleeping hall) to wear. The facilities can be expansive, including showers, public baths, restaurants, computer/video game rooms, a room with DVD movies, and a warm hall to sleep, mostly with mattresses and sometimes soft head rests available. These places are generally used by families or couples during the weekend, as well as Korean working men from the countryside on weekdays (night), but travellers are welcome. Usually two lockers are provided, one for the shoes (at the entrance) and one for your clothes and everything else (near the bath entrance). A very large backpack may not fit, although you can usually leave it at reception. A Jjimjilbang is no more awkward than any western public bath - so go ahead. Some Korean Spas don't offer overnight stay, like the "Spa Land Centum City" in Busan, and some can be limited in time, like the "Dragon Hill Spa" in Seoul, but they are exceptions. When you leave, you have to take everything with you and pay to get back in.
South Korea offers many 'Temple Stays' in all parts of the country. The basic idea is that you stay for one or more days living with the monks and participating in some of their rituals.
Jogye (조계사), Korea's largest Buddhist sect, runs a popular Temple Stay program where visitors get to spend 24 hours living at a Buddhist temple. Speaking Korean helps but is not necessary at some temples, but you will be expected to work at the temple and get up at 3 or 4AM to participate in morning prayer. In exchange for three meals and a basic bed for the night, a "donation" of ₩50,000-80,000 is expected. Reservations are necessary and can be made at the Temple Stay site or via Korea Travel Phone (+82-2-1330).
Education is taken very seriously in South Korea, and the country is home to several world class universities, many of which have exchange agreements with various foreign universities, and are a good way for foreigners to experience life in the country. The most prestigious comprehensive universities are Seoul National University, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Yonsei University and Korea University.
Working in Korea can be a great way to experience the country. For English teachers the hours and pay are reasonable, however for other professions do bear in mind that South Korea has some of the longest working hours globally, and frequent obligatory after work evening drinking can be demanding. In addition, Korea isn't yet really set up to make entering the job market easy for foreigners. Reading and speaking Korean will definitely open up many more opportunities for you.
Foreigners must obtain an Employment Visa in order to legally work in South Korea, and will usually require a company based in South Korea to sponsor your application. For prospective teachers (see below) the school will almost always arrange this on your behalf. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan may apply for a one year Working Holiday Visa which allows for short term employment whilst on holiday in Korea.
After you have been living in South Korea continuously for 5 years, you may apply for permanent residency, which if granted, allows you to live and work in South Korea indefinitely with no restrictions. Alternative routes to permanent residency are by investing a large amount of money in a local business, by marrying a South Korean citizen, or by obtaining a PhD degree in certain scientific fields. Note that the application process is still complex even if you meet one of these criteria.
Work as an English teacher is the most common type of work available to foreigners from English speaking countries, with the requirements of being able to speak English and a minimum level of education being a Bachelor's degree. Schools prefer native English speakers and many prefer North American accents. In most instances, native English speakers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and the UK are the only applicants that are usually considered.
The main employer of native English speaking teachers are private academies called (hagwon). Many parents enrol their children in order to catchup or overtake their peers, and therefore scheduled classes are often in the evenings and Saturdays. People interested in these teaching positions often find them via professional recruiters. There are pros and cons to teaching ESL in the hagwon system. On the plus side the money can be quite good. As of 2016, the average monthly salary is approximately two million South Korean Won (KRW) and basic housing is usually provided. It's often possible to live comfortably on half of one's salary and to save the rest.
On the negative side, Hagwons are privately run and strictly for profit, and may only operate for a few years. As such it is important to research and evaluate each prospective employer before accepting an offer, since there are plenty of horror stories of unscrupulous academy owners and incompetent directors. Although you will have full employment rights in South Korea, there is practically very little you can do when an issue or dispute arises. It should be noted however that the majority of English teachers have a good experience through the Hagwon system.
University employment is also possible. Those who have a graduate-level degree, preferably in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language) may find professional opportunities at the post secondary level preferable to teaching in private academies.
Some of the best positions are in the public sector, although recent politically motivated changes in Seoul and Busan have are actually phasing out foreign English teachers and replacing with English-speaking South Koreans instead. Still year-long public school positions are available though the government-funded EPIK Program in most provinces and the rapidly contracting GEPIK Program in Gyeonggi, with a small number also handled by recruiter companies. Alternately, the TALK Program runs 6-month rural public school positions for non-graduates.
For more information about teaching English in Korea through the private-sector, visit Eslcafe, Worknplay, Eslstarter and Englishspectrum. For the public-sector, see the aforementioned EPIK program. Daejeon full-time public elementary school positions stand apart from most in the country in that they consist of multiple part-time support positions at different schools. Most public school and university positions start at the beginning of March or September, however you should note that these are the more desirable jobs and must be applied for months before the start date.
Keep in mind that South Korean Immigration is always constantly changing the visa regulations for E-2 visa holders so keep abreast of updates.
South Korea is often promoted as the world's most wired country, and as such has a massive IT infrastructure. There is plenty of IT work if you can speak Korean, although local rates are much lower than in western countries.
South Korea is a very safe country, with reported crime rates much lower than in the U.S. and comparable to most European Union countries. Crime rates are comparable to other safe places such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong and it is safe to walk around at night even in the major cities. Violent crime is rare toward locals and tourists alike. For the most part, the only foreigners who encounter trouble in South Korea are drunken ones that provoke fights at bars or clubs.
If you do happen to encounter any trouble, police stations are located in every district, usually in walking distance from subway entrances and bus stops. While most policemen won't understand English, they do have interpreters on-call that can assist you.
South Korea is a very ethnically homogeneous country, and for many South Koreans this is a point of pride. Discrimination against non-Koreans is systematic and there is no anti-discrimination legislation whatsoever. Nevertheless South Korea is changing. 3.5% of residents today were born overseas, a number expected to rise to 10% by 2020. Negative perceptions of foreigners is reducing all the time. As recently as 2000 it was not advisable for a foreign man to hold hands in public with a South Korean woman and today it is almost no issue at all. Any horror stories you hear should be taken in context of the positive changes that are happening.
The unfortunate reality is that being Caucasian will mostly give you a free pass from experiencing much if any racial abuse. When applying for work in South Korea, especially in teaching positions, many employers prefer Caucasians over other ethnicities (this may be one of the reasons they ask for a picture on your application). Darker skinned people do experience more problems, including being barred from saunas and bars.
Most visitors to South Korea are extremely unlikely to encounter any problems at all. If you do experience racial abuse then you can call on the police to help, although realistically if no other offence has been committed then they will at most just try and reason with the abuser.
People from North Korea also experience discrimination in society, partly out of suspicion (North Korea has sent assassins and spies disguised as refugees) and partly out of the difficulty to integrate themselves into a vastly different society. Ethnic Koreans from China are also often regarded poorly due to being associated with low economic status and crime. People from South East Asia are also discriminated against since most immigrant workers in low paid work come from that region.
With one of the highest rates of traffic deaths, South Korean motorists will speed through pedestrian crossings, jump red lights and come within a hair-width distance to pedestrians and other cars alike. Even when the light turns red, drivers will not stop. So, beware. Motorcyclists are particularly reckless weaving in and out on crowded sidewalks. It is up to you to avoid them.
There is a lot of discussion about the reason for this, although it basically comes down to Koreans regarding traffic laws as guidelines that are nice ideas rather than rules to be obeyed.
Pedestrian crosswalks stay green for a very short period of time. When the walk signal is flashing and you are still at the curb, do not cross. Instead, you should wait and be ready for the light to turn green. The moment it turns green, wait for about 3 to 5 seconds and see if other pedestrians start to cross, and if all the traffic has indeed stopped, then walk briskly to cross safely. It is safer to take underground passageways at busy intersections. Also note that most mopeds prefer to weave through pedestrians rather than wait with the rest of the traffic.
South Korea also follows the American practice of allowing cars to turn right at red lights as long as they (in theory) yield to pedestrians. In contrast, left turns on green lights are illegal unless there is a blue sign pointing left saying 비보호 or a green left arrow.
Stay in the middle lane on a three-lane street. The left lane will likely turn into a left-turn-only lane without warning (look for straight arrows painted on the road with X in them!) and the right lane is often blocked by illegally parked cars.
There are plenty of zebra (black and white pedestrian) crossings in Korea, and they are essentially ignored by all drivers. As a foreigner you can use them by stepping onto the crossing and directly staring down any approaching cars and they will usually yield. It is important for you to stay alert while crossing the roads. Taxis, buses, freight trucks, and delivery scooters are more likely to ignore traffic rules, since many of them are pressured to ignore rules by harsh timetables or their customers.
Illegal taxis are a problem and run even from the airport. Each Korean city has a different taxi scheme with a specific car color, so check out your destination city's taxi scheme before you arrive. At the airport, ignore anyone asking if you want a taxi at arrivals and head out to the official taxi rank.
In the heart of the political center of Seoul, near Gwanghamun and City Hall, you may witness political activists of one sort or another in the city center and demonstrations can grow to tens of thousands. You'll have to use discretion as violence during political demonstrations can happen, often with water cannons and tear gas, and also large crowds may pose safety issues. Fighting is always between the demonstrators and police, and foreigners are not targeted.
Ignorance of the law here is no excuse for breaking it and can even be seen as a reason for harsher punishment. They include heavy fines, lengthy jail sentences and immediate deportation.
South Korea has a draconian National Security Act (국가보안법) with regards to North Korea that restricts any unauthorized contact with that country or its citizens. Although it rarely applies to foreign visitors you should still be careful since being associated with any "anti-State group" (반국가단체) is a criminal offense. With this in mind, you should under no circumstances display any symbols that represent North Korea or be seen to praise (찬양) North Korean figures, in particular Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, in public, websites or social media. Doing this as a joke is not in anyway an excuse, and criminal convictions can incur a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
Websites in North Korea or from North Korean-affiliated organizations are blocked from South Korea. In any case you should not attempt to access them since it could be regarded as a "communication" (통신) with an anti-State group.
Gambling is illegal for South Korean citizens, although a limited number of casinos are available for foreigners only in Seoul, Busan and Jeju island. You will need to bring your passport to enter these establishments.
The Asian giant hornet (called 장수말벌 or the "commander bee") it is about 2 in (5 cm) long and can sting repeatedly and be extremely painfull. A hornet defending its nest or feeding spot will make a clicking sound to warn away intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, receive prompt medical attention, as prolonged exposure to the venom could cause permanent damage or even death. They are usually seen around summer time.
There are very few other animals that can be dangerous in Korea. The Siberian Tiger is sadly no longer found on the Korean Peninsula. Large wild boars can sometimes be found in forested areas and can be very dangerous if they attack. If you see a boar with piglets then keep well away since the mother will not hesitate to protect them.
Large sharks including the Great White and Hammerhead are being sighted more frequently off the coast of South Korea. To date there has never been a recorded attack on swimmers although a few abalone divers have been killed in the past 20 years. The most popular beaches are closely monitored, and this is unlikely to be a real risk to you.
South Korea is considerably less prone to natural disasters than its neighbors. Earthquakes are rare occurrences, though minor ones occasionally occur in the southwest of the country. Tsunamis are a recognized hazard in coastal areas, although Japan's strategic position prevents most Tsunamis from ever reaching Korea. While typhoons do not occur as often as in Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines, they are nevertheless an almost yearly occurrence, and are occasionally known to be deadly and cause major property damage.
An understandable concern about traveling to South Korea is the possibility of war. However, while war has remained a distinct possibility ever since the end of the Korean war over 60 years ago, the North Koreans appear to have become very skilled at sabre-rattling and limited provocations that are never allowed to escalate into out-and-out warfare. This is not to say that miscalculations could not spiral out of control, but simply that the odd missile launch or loudly publicized border closure does not mean war is nigh.
If a full scale war did break out between the North and South then it would almost certainly result in many casualties, military and civilian alike. If this were to happen when you are visiting Seoul then it would definitely be life-threatening. In recent times there was a great deal of brinksmanship following the appointment of Kim Jong Un as North Korea's leader, and open conflict seemed to become more likely. However, no big conflagration has broken out, and it is safe to say that the possibility of all-out war is very low, though it would be reasonable to weigh the risks when planning to visit South Korea.
There isn't really much you can do to mitigate the risk of military action. Find out the contact details of your embassy, and be aware of the current situation when traveling. Most embassies will have an evacuation strategy for their nationals in the case of war. Also be aware that Seoul's Incheon International Airport is relatively close to the North Korean border, so therefore it may not be advisable to run there looking for a flight out.
Emergency-service English interpreters are available 24 hours a day.
South Korean healthcare is known for its excellence in both research and clinical medicine, and most towns will be able to offer a high quality of healthcare. The sheer number of hospitals and specialized clinics in the country will also offer you a greater amount of choice. South Korea also promotes 'Health Tourism' where quality operations can be had for a fraction of the price of many other developed countries.
Coming from a land of strict Confucian hierarchy and etiquette, the Korean people are regarded as reserved and well mannered. As a visitor, you will not be expected to know every nuance, but making an effort will certainly be appreciated. The further you are away from metropolitan areas the more conservative the people are.
For the most part, Koreans are understanding of foreigners not knowing all the traditional Korean customs. Nevertheless following these rules will impress them:
Given the long history of unwanted intervention in Korea by foreign nations, Koreans are understandably rather sensitive about certain topics. You should avoid discussing the following topics since they are never going to achieve anything but getting you onto someone's bad side. Playing devil's advocate is really not appreciated in Korea.
Religion in South Korea has changed a great deal over time, with today's main religions of Buddhism and Christianity both having been oppressed over the past centuries. Today just under half of Koreans state that they have no religious affiliation. There are practically no tensions at all between the different groups, with religion being usually regarded as a personal choice.
Buddhism was historically the main religion in Korea (albeit often suppressed in favor of Chinese Confucianism), and Buddhist temples are major tourist attractions throughout the country. As in many Asian countries there are Buddhist Swastikas on display at religious buildings. You will notice they are actually drawn in reverse to the one used in Nazi Germany and in no way represent antisemitism. When visiting Buddhist temples you should be respectful by not making too much noise, eating or drinking.
Uniquely in East Asia and thanks to the American occupation during the Korean War, South Korea has a very high proportion of Christians (of mostly Protestants (18%) and Roman Catholics (11%) ) and dozens of churches can be found in absolutely every major city. Christians in South Korea tend to be strongly conservative and frequently highly evangelical, sending large number of evangelical Protestant missionaries abroad (rivalling the United States in this regard). It is common for both strangers and acquaintances to ask you to come to their church, although offence will not usually be taken if you decline.
Korean Shamanism, also known as Muism, is the indigenous religion of the Korean people since ancient times. Although it is followed by less than 1% of South Koreans today, its practices and beliefs are known to most and to some extent still practiced by many people, having been incorporated into both Christian and Buddhist rituals.
Confucianism was often promoted as the state religion during Korea's history, and although there are few adherents today the majority of Koreans will be familiar with its teachings and practices, and even Government officials are still required to sit Confucian examinations.
Although same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, there are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea. Gay clubs and bars exist in the larger cities, though openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to be met with disapproval. South Korea has a large number of evangelical Christians who generally strongly disapprove of homosexuality. Nevertheless, verbal and physical attacks against gay people are rare.
Conversely, platonic displays of physical affection between same-sex friends are very common, particularly when alcohol has been consumed, and holding hands with a same-sex romantic partner may be viewed in this light.
International dialing prefixes in South Korea vary by operator, and there is no standard prefix. Check with your operator for the respective prefixes. For calls to South Korea, the country code is 82.
South Korea uses the CDMA standard exclusively and does not have a GSM network, so most 2G (GSM) mobile phones from elsewhere will not work. Even quad-band GSM phones are useless. However, if you have a 3G phone with a 3G SIM card, you can probably roam onto the UMTS/W-CDMA 2100 networks of KT or SK Telecom; check with your home operator before you leave to be sure. 4G LTE has recently been made available in Korea; again, check with your provider.
The country has three service providers: KT, SK Telecom and LG U+. They offer prepaid mobile phone services (pre-paid service, PPS) in South Korea. Incoming calls are free. Phones and prepaid services can be acquired at any retail location found on any street (for Koreans). Second-hand phones are also available at selected stores in Seoul.
Mobile phone coverage is generally excellent, with the exception of some remote mountainous areas. SK Telecom has the best coverage, followed by olleh (KT) and LG U+.
As a foreigner without Korean residency your choices are:
If you want to buy a prepaid SIM card, you should be able to get a prepaid SIM card at one of the olleh expat locations. However, you must have been in Korea for at least 3 days, and you must bring your passport. The fee for a prepaid SIM card is ₩5,500, and you have to charge at least ₩10,000 at the spot. You must also have a compatible phone. All modern iPhones (3GS and later) should work. Contact olleh expat at @olleh_expats on Twitter for any questions.
All the carriers offer mobile phone rental services, and some handsets also support GSM SIM roaming. They have outlets at the international airports in Incheon, Seoul (Gimpo) and Busan (Gimhae). You can find service centers for KT SHOW and SK Telecom at Jeju airport as well. Charges start from ₩2000/day if you reserve in advance via the visitkorea website for a discount and guaranteed availability.
You can rent a 4G WiBro device between ₩5,000 ~ ₩10,000 a day for unlimited access, although coverage is not always available outside larger cities and in enclosed areas.
Prepaid SIM Card with 4G LTE Unlimited data plan
NeoKOSIM is a start-up company that has recently launched a partnership with KT to offer a 4G LTE unlimited data plan prepaid SIM card for travelers coming to Korea.
You can order online on their website and will receive a PDF voucher via your e-mail after payment. SIMs can be picked up at Incheon airport, at the Olleh KT roaming center (gate 6) inside in the arrival hall 1F. These SIMs are for purchase and not to be returned. >>> korea sim card for data
Voice & data pass
You can order online on their website and will receive a PDF voucher via your e-mail and will pay when you pick up the SIM. They can be picked up at Incheon airport, at the Olleh KT roaming center (gate 6) inside in the arrival hall 1F.
These SIMs are for rental and are to be returned: Voice and text consumptions will be billed extra. >>> Korea SIM Card for Data and Voice
Does your smart phone work with Korea SIM Card in South Korea?
Before enjoying Prepaid Korea SIM Card, you should first make sure that your smartphone will work in South Korea. K-SIM based on Korea Telecom (KT) Network uses the 4G LTE frequency of 2100 MHz/ 1800 MHz/ 900 MHz and the 3G UMTS/HSDPA frequency of 2100 MHz.
Make sure your phone supports this frequency in order to have full 4G LTE speed.
Remind that you should have an unlocked smartphone to use K-SIM, Korea SIM Card in South Korea.
* "Does your phone work in Korea with Korea SIM Card?"
The 1330 Korea Travel Phone service is a very useful service provided by the Korea Tourism organization. It is a 24 hour service and offered in four different languages (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese). The operator will answer questions on bus schedules, accommodation, museum hours, etc.
South Korea is the world's most wired country and Internet cafes, known as PC bang (PC 방, pron. BAH-ng), are ubiquitous through the country. Most customers are there for gaming but you're free to sit and type e-mails as well, typical charges are about ₩1,000 to ₩2,000/hour, although more "luxurious" places may charge more. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase in most PC bangs. Smoking is banned in PC bangs but many stores will give tacit consent to smoking, despite stating otherwise if asked explicitly (for legal reasons). Most PC bangs tend to be cash only.
There is also a lot of free wifi available throughout South Korea. Just check for an unencrypted signal, although using open wifi hotspots is a potential security risk anywhere in the world so be careful what you use it for.
Most households in South Korea do have broadband connections with wifi, and most are encrypted by default.
ollehWiFi is one of the most common WiFi hotspots available and requires payment. The service is fast (30Mbps+) and prices are affordable at ₩1,100 per hour or ₩3,300 per day. You can buy the service on your device by credit card, or by cash or card in most convenience stores. ollehWiFi is available at most convenient stores, coffee shops, some marts, restaurants, intercity buses, and on all subways and subway stations in the Seoul Metropolitan Area.
The Starbucks Coffee chain also offers wifi, however you will require a South Korean resident card to use it. Many other coffee shops offer free wifi with no registration required. ollehWiFi should also be available in all Starbucks stores.
South Korean websites frequently require Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer, especially those involving online payment. As elsewhere in Asia, a lot of services are becoming available primarily for Mobile Phones, with Kakao Talk being the most popular.
Korea Post is fast, reliable and reasonably priced. Postage for a postcard anywhere in the world is ₩660, while letters and packages start from ₩480. If you want actual traditional stamps, be sure to ask for them, or else you will just get a printed label. On request, fancy "tourist" cancellations (Gwangwang Tongsin Ilbuin) for your stamps are available at selected post offices without additional charge. Korea Post accepts Visa and MasterCard for purchases over ₩1,000.
Most post offices are open weekdays only from 09:00 to 18:00. Larger post offices also open Saturday mornings, and central offices in the main cities stay open late and are open on Sundays as well.
South Korea has several English language media sources for daily news and other information, such as the Yonhap News Agency
Daily Newspapers in English include the Hankyoreh, The Korea Times, The Korea Herald and The Chosun Ilbo.
For television, there is an English language channel called Arirang TV that is available throughout the world on some cable subscriptions. AFN Korea is available to US military community or via cable.
There are some English language radio stations in South Korea such as TBS e-FM (101.3 FM) and AFN channel (1530 AM and 102.7 FM in Seoul).
Lonely Planet: The world's leading travel guide publisher
Lonely Planet Seoul is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Walk along the long-buried Cheong-gye-cheon stream, wander the labyrinthine streets of Bukchon Hanok Village, or try some Korean cuisine at Gwangjang Market; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Seoul and begin your journey now!
Inside Lonely Planet Seoul Travel Guide:Full-colour maps and images throughout Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - including customs, history, religion, art, literature, cinema, music, dance, architecture, politics, and cuisine Free, convenient pull-out Seoul map (included in print version), plus over 28 colour maps Covers Myeong-dong, Gangnam, Apgujeong, Dongdaemum, Itaewon, Insa-dong, Yongsan-gu, Jung-gu, Hongdae, Sinchon, Edae, Yeouido, Namsan, Gwanghwamun, Jongno-gu, Jamsil, Daehangno, Seongbuk-dong, and more
Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet.
About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveller community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travellers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.
Lonely Planet: The world's leading travel guide publisher
Lonely Planet Korea is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Walk along Cheong-gye-cheon's long-buried stream, hike around Jeju-do's volcanic landscape, or jump into a vat of mud during the Boryeong Mud Festival; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Korea and begin your journey now!
Inside Lonely Planet Korea Travel Guide:Colour maps and images throughout Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - including customs, history, art, literature, cinema, music, dance, architecture, politics, and wildlife Free, convenient pull-out Seoul map (included in print version), plus over 97 local maps Covers Seoul, Incheon, Jeju-do, Gyeonggi-do, Gangwon-do, Cheongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Sokcho, Samcheok, Chungju, Daejeon, Gongju, Daegu, North Korea, Pyongyang, Panmunjom, the DMZ, and more
The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet Korea, our most comprehensive guide to Korea, is perfect for both exploring top sights and taking roads less travelled.Looking for a guide focused on Seoul? Check out our Lonely Planet Seoul guide for a comprehensive look at all the city has to offer.
Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet.
About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveller community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travellers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.
One of the world's most exciting and cutting-edge countries, South Korea is a fascinating East Asian powerhouse, where ancient temples rub up alongside dazzling technology. Be inspired to visit by the new edition of Insight Guide South Korea, a comprehensive full-colour guide to all that's weird and wonderful about the country.
Inside Insight Guide South Korea:A new edition by expert authors.Stunning photography that brings this fascinating country and its people to life. Highlights of the country's top attractions, including captivating former capital Gyeongju, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Haein-sa Temple and the still-relevant DMZ in our Best of South Korea.Descriptive region-by-region accounts cover the whole country, from pulsating Seoul to the remote islands of the Jeolla Provinces.Detailed, high-quality maps throughout will help you get around and travel tips give you all the essential information for planning a memorable trip.
About Insight Guides: Insight Guides has over 40 years' experience of publishing high-quality, visual travel guides. We produce around 400 full-colour print guide books and maps as well as picture-packed eBooks to meet different travellers' needs. Insight Guides' unique combination of beautiful travel photography and focus on history and culture together create a unique visual reference and planning tool to inspire your next adventure.
'Insight Guides has spawned many imitators but is still the best of its type.' - Wanderlust Magazine
For every fan of K-Pop music, Korean Wave dramas and Kimchi—or anyone intrigued by Korea and Korean culture—A Geek in Korea is a hip, new guide to the land of the Samsung smartphone and Gangnam Style.Author Dan Tudor first arrived in Korea on the eve of the 2002 World Cup when South Korea played Italy in the finals. What he saw inspired him to return and work in Korea. He served as The Economist magazine's Korea correspondent for three years, and he writes regular columns for the national daily Joongang Ilbo newspaper. Along the way, he has developed a great love and admiration for Korean culture and the Korean people.A Geek in Korea reinvents the culture guide for the Internet age. Packed with articles and photographs, it covers all the touchstones of Korean culture—from Buddhism and Confucianism to chapters on the traditional arts and disciplines like Taekwondo. There are chapters on cultural code words and norms; personal relationships; business and technology; and symbols and practices that are peculiarly Korean. A number of chapters are devoted to Korean pop culture, with attention to the stars, idols, and urban subcultures associated with them. For visitors to Korea, the author includes a mini-guide to his favorite neighborhoods in Seoul and other places of outstanding interest.Spotlighting the originality and creativity of the Koreans, debunking myths about them, and answering nagging questions like why they're so obsessed with education and success—Tudor has created the perfect book for the growing ranks of Koreaphiles in this inspired, insightful, and highly informative guide.
South Korea is one of the greatest economic success stories of the past 60 years, and more and more Westerners are traveling to this bustling, modern country for business and pleasure. But no matter why you visit, an understanding of Korea's etiquette and culture is essential to an enjoyable and successful trip.With Etiquette Guide to Korea, you'll never need to worry about an embarrassing faux pas-this authoritative guide covers everything the courteous traveler needs to know, including the importance of names and how to use them, shaking hands versus bowing, table manners for celebrations and everyday meals, and how to negotiate in Korea.
Insight Guide South Korea is an indispensable travel guide to a land of haunting natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, full of stunning travel photography. Be inspired by our Best of South Korea section highlighting unmissable sights and experiences and lavish Photo Features on festivals, street food, hiking and national parks, and mountain temples.With a longer and more in-depth history and culture section than its competitors, this travel guide provides an essential introduction to South Korea’s early kingdoms and dynasties, its recovery from the devastation of the Korean War, and contemporary politics and business culture. The informative text, written by regional experts, is a pleasure to read.A detailed Places section, with full-color maps, guides you around the regions that make up this beautiful yet off-the-beaten-track country, from the megalopolis of Seoul to the forested mountains of Seoraksan, and the Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest coast.A comprehensive Travel Tips section gives you all the travel advice you need to plan your trip. The selective listings for hotels and restaurants are the personal recommendations of a regional specialist.
In the late 1980s, New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester set out on foot to discover the Republic of Korea -- from its southern tip to the North Korean border -- in order to set the record straight about this enigmatic and elusive land.
Fascinating for its vivid presentation of historical and geographic detail, Korea is that rare book that actually defines a nation and its people. Winchester's gift for capturing engaging characters in true, compelling stories provides us with a treasury of enchanting and informed insight on the culture, language, history, and politics of this little-known corner of Asia.
With a new introduction by the author, Korea is a beautiful journey through a mysterious country and a memorable addition to the many adventures of Simon Winchester.
Apart from the headline-making politics, not much is known in the West about the Korean people and their ancient culture. Yet those who visit Korea, whether North or South, find a land of great interest. The Koreans, when not constrained by politics or other considerations, are friendly and sociable, and the peninsula has areas of outstanding natural beauty. The South’s cities, if not always beautiful, are vibrant and alive. The North, while very different, is complex and fascinating. The standoff between the two countries of the Korean Peninsula is a legacy of the Cold War and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite a brief thaw in relations a few years ago, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, a secretive single-party socialist state with a centralized industrial economy, conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south meanwhile, a free market democracy, has become a rising economic power, and in 2010 became the first former aid recipient to join the OECD Development Assistance Committee. Much has changed since the first edition of Culture Smart! Korea was published in 2005: the North’s defiant development of its nuclear program, the end of the South’s “Sunshine” or engagement policy in 2008, the opening up to US tourists by the North in 2010, and the death of its leader Kim Jong Il in 2011 and the succession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. This new, updated edition of Culture Smart! Korea looks at the changing social and economic situation and provides real insights into thinking and behavior in both countries. It indicates the pitfalls to avoid, and introduces you to some of the many delights of the Korean peninsula.
The decision to travel is your responsibility. You are also responsible for your personal safety abroad. The purpose of this Travel Advice is to provide up-to-date information to enable you to make well-informed decisions.
Tensions have increased on the Korean peninsula as a result of North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons development program and provocative statements. In April and December 2012, North Korea attempted to launch two missiles into orbit, and on February 12, 2013, performed a nuclear weapon test. Additional tests cannot be ruled out.
On March 11, 2013, North Korea issued a statement declaring that the Korean Armistice Agreement is invalid. While past threats made by the North to nullify this agreement have gone unfulfilled, further provocative action could occur.
Despite recent statements issued by the North Korean government, we continue to advise that there is no immediate threat to Canadians in South Korea. However, as tensions could escalate with little warning, be vigilant, monitor developments and follow the advice of local authorities.
Crime against foreigners is generally low. Remain aware of your surroundings and avoid walking alone after dark. The use of public transport after dark may be safer than using taxis when travelling alone. However, when subway and bus services end for the night, use officially marked taxis only and, if possible, do not travel alone. Ensure that your personal belongings, passports and other travel documents are secure at all times.
The Korean National Police operates a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Central Interpretation Centre where foreigners can report crimes (in Seoul, telephone 313-0842; elsewhere, 02-313-0842).
Sexual assaults against foreigners have occurred. Consult our publication entitled Her Own Way: A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide for travel safety information specifically aimed at Canadian women.
Political, labour and student demonstrations and marches can become confrontational or violent. Exercise caution, avoid areas where demonstrations are being held and avoid confrontations with protestors.
The rate of fatal road accidents is very high. Automobile drivers are presumed to be at fault in accidents involving motorcycles or pedestrians. Criminal charges and heavy penalties are common when accidents result in injury.
Consult our Transportation Safety page in order to verify if national airlines meet safety standards.
Dial 112 to reach police and 119 for ambulance and firefighters. An English interpretation service is available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Be sure that your routine vaccines are up-to-date regardless of your travel destination.
You may be at risk for these vaccine-preventable diseases while travelling in this country. Talk to your travel health provider about which ones are right for you.
Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver spread through blood or other bodily fluids. Travellers who may be exposed (e.g., through sexual contact, medical treatment or occupational exposure) should get vaccinated.
Seasonal influenza occurs worldwide. The flu season usually runs from November to April in the northern hemisphere, between April and October in the southern hemisphere and year round in the tropics. Influenza (flu) is caused by a virus spread from person to person when they cough or sneeze or through personal contact with unwashed hands. Get the flu shot.
Japanese encephalitis is a viral infection that can cause swelling of the brain. It is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. Risk is low for most travellers. Vaccination should be considered for those who may be exposed to mosquito bites (e.g., spending time outdoors in rural areas) while travelling in regions with risk of Japanese encephalitis.
Measles occurs worldwide but is a common disease in developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. Measles is a highly contagious disease. Be sure your vaccination against measles is up-to-date regardless of the travel destination.
Rabies is a disease that attacks the central nervous system spread to humans through a bite, scratch or lick from a rabid animal. Vaccination should be considered for travellers going to areas where rabies exists and who have a high risk of exposure (i.e., close contact with animals, occupational risk, and children).
Tick-borne encephalitis is a viral disease that can cause swelling of the brain. It is spread to humans by the bite of an infected tick. Vaccination should be considered for those who may be exposed to tick bites (e.g., those spending time outdoors in wooded areas) while travelling in regions with risk of tick-borne encephalitis.
Typhoid is a bacterial infection spread by contaminated food or water. Risk is higher among travellers going to rural areas, visiting friends and relatives, or with weakened immune systems. Travellers visiting regions with typhoid risk, especially those exposed to places with poor sanitation should consider getting vaccinated.
Yellow fever is a disease caused by the bite of an infected mosquito.
Travellers get vaccinated either because it is required to enter a country or because it is recommended for their protection.
|* It is important to note that country entry requirements may not reflect your risk of yellow fever at your destination. It is recommended that you contact the nearest diplomatic or consular office of the destination(s) you will be visiting to verify any additional entry requirements.|
|Country Entry Requirement*|
Travellers to any destination in the world can develop travellers' diarrhea from consuming contaminated water or food.
In some areas in East Asia, food and water can also carry diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, leptospirosis, schistosomiasis and typhoid. Practise safe food and water precautions while travelling in East Asia. Remember: Boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it!
In some areas in Eastern Asia, certain insects carry and spread diseases like chikungunya, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, leishmaniasis, Lyme disease, malaria, and tick-borne encephalitis.
Travellers are advised to take precautions against bites.
Travellers are cautioned to avoid contact with animals, including dogs, monkeys, snakes, rodents, birds, and bats. Some infections found in some areas in Eastern Asia, like avian influenza and rabies, can be shared between humans and animals.
The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the traveller. The traveller is also responsible for his or her own personal safety.
You are subject to local laws. Consult our Arrest and detention page and our Overview of the criminal law system in South Korea for more information.
Male dual citizens whose names appear on the Korean Family Relation Certificate may be subject to compulsory military service, even when entering the Republic of Korea on a Canadian passport. Before travelling to Korea, Canadian males of Korean origin may need to renounce their Korean citizenship or have their names removed from the Korean Family Relation Certificate to gain exemption from this requirement. Contact the nearest Korean embassy or consulate for more information.
The number of Canadians arrested and detained for drug-related charges has increased significantly. Penalties for possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs are strict. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences, heavy fines and deportation. Minor violations, including smoking minute quantities of an illegal drug, such as marijuana, in a private home, can lead to detention even before the trial has begun.
Tourists are required to make a declaration to customs officers if they are entering or leaving the country with more than the equivalent of US$10,000, including local currency.
Penalties for drinking and driving are strict. Convicted offenders can expect heavy fines and jail sentences.
Photography of military installations or government buildings is illegal.
An International Driving Permit is required.
Contracts to teach English (arranged by recruiters in Canada) should be carefully reviewed before being signed. There have been reports that some contracts have been modified after the fact. Ensure all terms and conditions of employment are clearly stated before accepting an offer and ensure that you meet all the necessary requirements. The Korean government investigates the use of fraudulent documents, university degrees and ESL certificates. Penalties for using fraudulent documents include arrest, deportation and restrictions on re-entry. Be aware that written contracts are not binding documents. Verbal agreements often take precedence over written agreements. Consult our publication entitled Teaching English in Korea for more information.
The currency is the won (KRW). Traveller's cheques are accepted at all chartered banks (Eunhaeng in Korean). U.S. dollar traveller's cheques are recommended for the best exchange rate. Some major banks have automated banking machines (ABMs) that accept international debit or credit cards. The amount allowed per withdrawal may be quite low, rendering the service charge disproportionately high. Most ABMs that can be used to draw money from Canadian bank accounts offer English instructions. Major foreign credit cards (Visa, MasterCard and American Express) are widely accepted by hotels and other tourist facilities and are generally regarded as safe to use.
When transferring funds from Korea to Canada, a local bank will place a stamp in your passport stating how much was transferred, in keeping with Korea's Foreign Currency Control Act. If you are working in Korea and paying Korean income tax, you can transfer your entire income based on your tax payment certificate.
The rainy (monsoon) season extends from the end of June until August. July is usually the wettest month. Severe rainstorms can cause flooding and landslides. Typhoons occur in August and September. These storms can result in significant loss of life and extensive damage to infrastructure, and can hamper the provision of essential services. Keep informed of regional weather forecasts, avoid disaster areas and follow the advice of local authorities. Consult our Typhoons and monsoons page for more information.
Pollution levels peak in March, April and May (due to yellow dust).