Complete Guide for Planning Your First Trip to Seoul, South Korea
Seoul, South Korea is a complex city. It's full of history and culture both new and old. From the complicated dynamics between the two Koreas to the super modern youth compared to the traditional older folks, Korea is full of experiences and opportunities to be had. When we hopped on a place to Korea back in October 2022, we knew enough about Korea to be really really excited to finally visit this country, but we were also pretty unsure what that to expect. Personally, the mystery is half the fun to me! I love being surprised by a destination and approaching with little to no preconceived thoughts or ideas.
While Korea is a safe, modern, and friendly country to visit, you'll want to go prepared, especially if you've never been to Asia before. If you're traveling from the USA or another western country, Korean is the perfect Asian country to visit. It clearly had lots of western influence as it rebuilt after the Korean War, so it's familiar but also completely foreign. It's hard to explain, but if you're nervous about this big leap across the Pacific Ocean, just go in knowing that you'lre going to be FINE and you're going to have so much fun! The people are kind, the city is clean, and no matter what happens, you're never far from wi-fi and a kind person to help you find your way again.
To help you prepare for your trip to Seoul, South Korea, here is everything we recommend knowing before hopping on that plane.
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Seoul is a part of the Asian nation of Korea and is located in the northern part of the South Korean peninsula. While it's a relatively small country by landmass, its population of the city of Seoul is quite large. Seoul, the capital city of South Korea and its largest metropolis, is surrounded by mountains and has a population of over 10 million people. This vibrant city offers visitors an endless array of things to do – from exploring traditional markets to sampling delicious street food.
What is Seoul best known for?
Seoul is best known for its culture, art, food and nightlife. From traditional palaces to cutting-edge museums, Seoul has something for everyone. Seoul's most popular attractions include the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul City Wall and Bukchon Hanok Village – all of which feature an abundance of cultural architecture to explore. Seoul's traditional markets, such as Namdaemun and Insadong, offer an exciting way to experience Seoul's unique culture. Seoul is also renowned for its delicious street food, with some of the most popular dishes including kimchi, bibimbap and Seoul-style fried chicken. Lastly, Seoul has a vibrant nightlife, featuring a wide array of bars and clubs to explore.
Is it safe to visit Korea?
Seoul is generally a safe place to visit. As with any large city, it's important to exercise caution when exploring Seoul by being aware of your surroundings and keeping valuables close. We spent three weeks in Seoul and never once felt unsafe. I don't want to give a false impression that nothing bad will happen. We were just very cautious in avoiding bad neighborhoods and we always stuck together. When we traveled to neighborhoods we didn't know anything about, we opted for a taxi instead of the subway so we wouldn't stumble into a bad area.
Like with any new place you travel to, exercise caution, trust your gut, and when in doubt, ask the locals for their advice.
Is Seoul, Korea expensive?
Seoul is a relatively affordable city to visit, even for budget travelers. The cost of living in Seoul is slightly lower than other large cities like London and New York City, with basic items like bread and milk being much cheaper than most big cities. Accommodation in Seoul ranges from cheap guesthouses to luxury hotels depending on your budget. Public transportation is also very affordable, with most trips costing less than $2.
A lot of tourists visit Korea expecting it to be incredibly affordable like nearby Thailand and Vietnam, but it definitely is not. I'd say Seoul is in line with most midsize cities in the USA, with the small towns and villages in South Korea being much less expensive.
When we visited Seoul the dollar was fluctuating significantly and the Korean won was down by about 25%. Because of this, our grasp on how expensive Korea is is slightly more skewed than what you might experience. To check your home country's current currency conversion, checkout Google free calculator HERE.
Best time of year to visit Seoul
Seoul is a great place to visit all year round, and depending on your interests, different seasons offer different experiences. Seoul has four distinct seasons – spring (March - May), summer (June - August), autumn (September - November) and winter (December – February).
Spring in Seoul is mild with temperatures ranging from 50-68 Fahrenheit (10-20 Celsius). Seoul in the spring is a great time of year to visit as the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and many outdoor festivals take place throughout the city.
Summer in Seoul is hot and humid with temperatures reaching up to 90 Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) at times. If you're interested in exploring Seoul's parks and outdoor attractions, as well as Seoul's famous beaches and islands, summer might be the perfect time to visit.
Autumn in Seoul is mild with temperatures ranging from 45-68 Fahrenheit (8-20 Celsius). Seoul in the autumn can be a great time to visit due to its vibrant fall foliage, although the weather can get quite cold at night. We visit for the month of October and had perfect weather! It only rained two days and the temperatures were perfect for walking around during the day and required just a jacket and warm shoes at night.
Winter in Seoul can be bitterly cold with temperatures reaching below zero Celsius, but Seoul in the winter is also a great time to visit as many of Seoul's festivals, including the Seoul Lantern Festival and Winter Sonata Music Festival take place during this time. We were advised by the locals to avoid South Korea in the winter because the Siberian winds are brutally strong and cold when they come down from Russia.
No matter when you choose to visit Seoul, there is something for everyone!
How to get to Seoul
Korea is a peninsula with North Korea to the north and only the ocean to the south, so getting to South Korea you’ll need to fly. The only exception is if you’re traveling from Japan, then you’d have the option to take one of the ferries over. All of the ferries from Japan will stop in Busan, which is about a 4 hour train ride from Seoul. This would be a really fun way to travel if you have the time to visit both Japan and Korea in the same trip! We personally haven’t tried the ferry yet but really hope to next time we visit this region of the world. Because we can’t give first hand advice on how to make the journey, we recommend you check out this article for more information.
We flew Delta round trip from Nashville (BNA) which cost ~$1250 per person. The route included a short layover in Seattle both ways which was nice to break up the long haul flight. You can fly direct from the USA to Seoul (ICN) from several major cities including Detroit, Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, and more. Our long leg of the journey was from Seattle to Seoul which was about 12 ½ hours on the way there, and just under 10 hours on the way home. Not too bad! If you’re like us and like to break up long haul flights, Korea makes a really great stop on your way to other places in Asia. For example, we’d strongly consider visiting Korea again for an extended layover on our way to somewhere like Thailand or Singapore.
Something really important to note: Seoul’s main airport is actually in Incheon (ICN), a neighboring city to Seoul’s west.Most international flights will fly into Incheon (ICN), then you’ll either need to take the 1-1 ½ hour train ride into the city, or catch a taxi. There are plenty of taxis and Ubers going to and from the airport to the city, so don’t worry about being able to catch one! While we love using public transit when we travel, after a long travel day, we typically opt for the taxi or Uber since we’re usually jet lagged and hungry by then.
Do I need a visa to visit Korea?
To answer this question, you'll need to know the passport you hold. Citizens from many countries and regions are able to enter South Korea without a visa for up to 90 days, but there are some exceptions. We recommend checking out the official Korean government website for more information about which passports require a visa, as well as all of the other details.
For us as Americans holding passports from the USA, we are not required to have a visa when traveling to Korea for less than 90 days. However, as of September 2021, all visitors from visa free countries must register their visit via K-ETA before arrival. The websites states that you'll receive your QR code/access to Korea within a few days, but as always, we recommend applying as soon as you know you're visiting to save yourself the headache. I applied just a few days before we departed and had my code within the hour. Super easy to get!
Money in Korea
The Korean currency is called the won (KRW). Seoul and Korea in general is an inexpensive place to visit, but prices range depending on where you are. Seoul is definitely more expensive than other cities in South Korea, such as Busan or Daegu.
COVID definitely moved many businesses to being a more credit card friendly place to visit, but there are still a few places that require cash, and it's nice to have on hand to tip throughout your trip.
How to pay in Korea
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Seoul, and most places accept Mastercard, Visa, American Express, etc. Money exchange is available at Seoul Airport (ICN) but not all airports in Korea so it's best to come prepared with some won in your pocket. It's always cheapest to convert money through your home bank a couple of weeks before your trip. We use Bank of America and we just go online to order our cash in whatever currency we need, then pick it up at the local branch.
Should you tip in Korea?
Tipping is not super common in Seoul, so it's not expected but always appreciated if you receive great service. If you do decide to tip, 5-10% of the total bill is appropriate. Just be aware that many restaurants add a 10% service charge to your bill already, so check before tipping extra!
We'd definitely recommend tipping guides if you participate in any sort of food, historical, or DMZ tour. These guides are often working for larger companies and many of the individuals are still recovering from COVID hitting Korea really hard.
Cell phone service and wifi in Korea
If you're visiting Seoul for a few days, you'll either want to purchase a SIM card upon arrival or bring your own unlocked phone with an international plan. I have a Google Fi plan which works well for me both at home in the USA and abroad. I had excellent service in Korea, so if you travel internationally a good bit, I'd highly recommend giving Google Fi a try.
For most though, renting a SIM card (or even an entire phone!) is the best option. You can reserve your SIM card before you even leave home and just pick it up at the airport. If you forget to reserve it ahead of time, no worries, you can still rent one in the airport, just for a slightly higher price. For more information regarding renting SIM cards in Korea, I'd recommend checking out this blogpost.
Public wifi is widely available all throughout Seoul including on the subways, many of the parks, and most restaurants. Korea is incredibly connected so you're never too far from wifi!
Where to stay in Seoul
Seoul has a variety of accommodations for all budgets, from Airbnbs and hostels to luxury and budget hotels, to even staying in a traditional hanok house. You can find just about every type of accommodation in all the most popular neighborhoods (except for the hanoks which are best found in Bukchon). Instead of looking for a particular type of accommodation, I'd recommend figuring out which neighborhood you'll most enjoy staying in while you're in Seoul.
This neighborhood is close to many of the major attractions including palaces and the Bukchon Hanok Village. This neighborhood has plenty of shops and restaurants to explore, plus it's conveniently located close to multiple subway stops.
If you know the song "Gangnam Style," you know what to expect of Gangnam. It's fashionable, flashy, and expensive. This is the neighborhood we stayed in, but only because we booked late and it was the only hotel we could find in our budget that was dog friendly. Gangnam is incredibly safe, but you will likely pay more to stay here. Unless you're really into Korean fashion or are planning on having any K-beauty treatments performed while you're there, I'd recommend staying in one of the other neighborhoods with more charm. Gangnam definitely feels very new and western compared to other parts of the city.
This was our favorite neighborhood in Seoul! Lots of great restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and overall just a really fun, young environment. There's a large university in Hongdae which certainly has a heavy influence on the neighborhood. It's a young area, but in our 30s we didn't feel too out of place here. There were plenty people of all ages enjoying the little winding streets and city park, perfect for hanging with friends and grabbing a drink after dinner.
Myeongdong is another great neighborhood option if you want to be close to many of the most popular attractions in Seoul. It's situated right between the palaces and Namsan Tower. This neighborhood offers a lot of different hotel options, so if you're planning to stay in hotels instead of Airbnbs, this might be the best place to check.
Itaewon is very popular among expats, especially American expats given its close proximity to the American military base. The neighborhood is famous for its lively nightlife scene and shopping options. If this is your first time to Asia and nervous about feeling too out of sorts as an American, this might be a good option for you. There's still plenty of Korean charm in this neighborhood, but you will see plenty of other expats walking around. Personally, we like immersing ourselves in the culture, but we do have friends who prefer to ease their way into it. There's nothing wrong with that, whatever gets you out there and traveling. Do note that Itaewon is very hilly! If you plan to walk a lot but aren't too athletic or struggle with mobility, keep that in mind.
Transportation in Korea
We most commonly rely on public transit and Uber when traveling, but taxis, buses, high speed rail, and car rentals are all an option, too. Do note that if you plan on renting a car in Korea, you need to get an International Drivers Permit before you leave home.
The subway system in Korea is incredibly clean, safe, and reliable. Oh, and it's very affordable too at just ~$1 per ride. We recommend using the Naver App to help you navigate the complex Subway system throughout Seoul.
Buses are another very affordable and reliable option for getting around Seoul, although we never actually took them. We found the subway to be faster and more direct everywhere we planned on going. The Naver App also works well for helping you navigate the bus system.
Ubers and taxis are both very affordable in Korea and are easily available everywhere in the city. Taxis accept American credit cards and, of course, you pay for Uber in the app. One thing to note though: Uber in Korea will show up as UT.
You can rent a car in Korea so long as you have an International Driving Permit with you. We did not rent a car in Korea, but just glancing at the availability online, you can pick up rental cars at the airports and in most neighborhoods.
High Speed Rails
Korea has high speed rails which are very safe, efficient, and far faster than driving. If you plan on visiting places outside of Seoul, consider hopping on the high speed rail and check out other cities like Busan.
Navigation in Korea
While Google Maps works well in most of the world, Korea is not one of those places. They have their own apps for navigation, all of which work well. We highly recommend the Naver app because of its subway navigation help. The app easily guides you through the subway tunnels, tells you when to get on and off, and even what place to stand on the platform. The app is available for both iOS and Android.
What to pack for Korea
Like with any place you travel to with fluctuating weather, packing layers is key. Sweaters and jackets are best so you can take them on and off as the weather warms and cools. If you're going to be in Seoul during the fall, winter, or spring, I'd recommend bringing gloves and a hat just in case you get some colder days. If you're like us, you'll be doing a lot of walking in Seoul so be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes for both cooler and warmer days.
We absolutely loved our three weeks in Seoul. It's a massive, busy, complex, and interesting city. There's so much to see, do, and try any season of the year. If you have a piece of advice or information for other travelers to Seoul, Korea, be sure to drop it in the comments below!
Like this article? Be sure to checkout our other travel guides for South Korea!
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!