What you need to know before going to Seoul
From ancient palaces and temples to stunning skyscrapers, this bustling megalopolis of almost 10 million people perfectly blends the past with the future. Here is what you need to know before visiting South Korea’s capital city.
- May 2019
It’s a place where the bubblegum beats of K-Pop contrast against the serenity of wooden teahouses, local markets against brightly-lit shopping meccas, and traditional Hanok houses stand in quaint villages alongside towering apartment buildings. It’s also a city that outgrew its ancient fortress wall to become one of the most Wi-Fi-connected capitals in the world.
It’s Seoul, and this is your essential guide to visiting the vibrant city.
How to see the best of Seoul by subway
Insider's guide on the best things to do in Seoul opens in new window
From Incheon Airport, it’s about 45 minutes aboard the fast, spacious, seat-heated, Wi-Fi-connected Railroad Express (AREX) to downtown Seoul, departing from terminals 1 and 2. Adults can expect to pay less than AUD $15 for a one-way trip into the city and it costs around the same for a bus trip, which takes about an hour. An international cab, carrying a maximum of three passengers from the airport to Seoul Train Station costs from 55,000 KRW (around AUD65) for the one-hour journey.
Buy a Korean Tour Card (Transportation Card) for 4,000 KRW (about AUD $5) at a subway ticket booth or convenience store then top it up with money as you go; you can use it to pay for bus, train and taxi rides. This prepaid piece of plastic is very popular in Seoul, and works in a similar way to an Opal in Sydney, a Myki in Melbourne or a GoCard in Brisbane, except you can also make purchases from a select number of stores, plus get discounts on tours, attractions, and hotels across the city.
Taxis are relatively cheap and it’s recommended to only use an official international taxi - they’re the orange cars with their top lights switched on - preferably ordered through your hotel, and always insist the meter is used (use numbeo.com to calculate the fare). But locals will tell you it’s a breeze getting around the city by BMW - bus, metro or walking.
For stays of up to 90 days, you'll be issued with a visa-on-arrival if you’re a citizen of one of 107 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. For longer stays, you'll need to apply for a visa before entering the country. You’ll need to fill in an Arrival Card (usually given to you on the flight), then get your fingerprints and photo taken for ID at Immigration. Like most countries, ensure you have at least six months validity on your passport from the end of your stay.
The official currency in South Korea is the won (KRW or the symbol ₩). Most department stores and restaurants accept credit cards, but it's useful to carry cash for smaller vendors and visits to the markets. Switch your dollars to the local won at money changers, or at banks during opening hours between 9am and 4pm Monday to Friday. It’s not considered customary to tip in South Korea.
The spicy fermented vegetable side-dish Kimchi is considered synonymous with South Korea, followed closely by the Bibimbap - mixed vegetables, meat and rice served in a heated stone bowl. There’s also the marinated barbecue beef called Bulgogi, which you can enjoy in a traditional Korean restaurant, sitting on an embroidered cushion on the floor in front of a low table with a cooktop in the middle. The dish sizzles while you wait and is perfect for sharing. The most common Korean eating utensils are slim metal chopsticks and a spoon. Don't forget to try Korea's national alcoholic drink - soju.
The official language and alphabet is Hangul, which is also commonly referred to as Korean. There are plenty of English signs around but keep the Naver Papago translation app in easy reach on your mobile phone to avoid those awkward “where is the toilet” moments.
Also, download the very handy WayGo app - all you do is point your mobile at street signs and menus and it will convert it all into English for you.
Summers are hot and humid, especially during the rainy monsoon season which runs from June to August. September is the hottest month, with temperatures hovering between about the 23 and 32C mark. And with an average of about 25 days of snow during the coldest days from January to February, you’ll definitely want to rug up in cosy knits, thermals, gloves, beanie and scarf during the winter months. The weather between March to May and September to November is milder, and probably the best time to visit.
Customs and etiquette
South Koreans respect their elderly, so offer them your seat, lower your gaze and only shake their hand if they extend theirs first. Using both hands to pour someone’s drink (when they're older than you) is another way to get friendly with the locals, but physically touching a stranger or a non-relative is taboo in this conservative culture.
The general look on the streets of Seoul is smart casual but since the rise of K-Pop, the city has become awash with bright colours, statement shirts, oversized jackets and coordinated contrasts. The colourful traditional Hanbok costume consists of a full high-waisted skirt (chima) for women and wide-leg pants for men (baji) that are worn with a fitted long sleeve shirt or jacket (jeogori). You can hire an outfit and what’s more, it will get you free entry into the city’s five palaces - Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Gyeonghuigung, Deoksugung and Changgyeonggung.
Home to tech giant Samsung, Seoul is one of the most wired cities in the world, so expect fast download speeds even on public transport. South Korea was also one of the first countries to introduce the ultra-fast 5G mobile network. Depending on your data plan, it might be best to disable data roaming on your own account and pickup a local prepaid SIM instead.
It's best to carry an international travel adapter for charging or powering your devices. South Korean power plugs and sockets are of type C and F (two round pins), the standard frequency is 60Hz and the standard voltage is 220V. To compare, in Australia, the sockets are type I, the frequency is 50Hz and the standard voltage is 230V.