Seoul is the official capital of South Korea and certainly a must-visit. The 2010 World’s Design Capital boasts a superb public transport system, 5 UNESCO World’s Heritage sites, the world’s largest underground shopping mall; and is a one-of-a-kind combination of futuristic modernity and historical preservation.
Seoul just has it all
We visited Seoul in the last two weeks in November 2015 and stayed there 5 days in total, 3 days after arrival and 3 days before departure. We expected to see a typically crowded, probably chaotic, Asian metropolis, but instead were pleasantly surprised at what the city has to offer. No matter what kind of vacation you plan, Seoul just has it all. The city is lively, dynamic, with endless things to see and to do. Word-class technologies are embedded in all kinds of services, from home delivery to buying metro tickets; while conservative cultural values still dictate every single action of its citizens.
Weather-wise, Seoul can be extremely different one day to the next. I spent the autumn there and had gorgeous, warm days almost the whole September/October (this is really the best time to visit Seoul!). In November, it started to rain more often; the days became colder and darker, but half of the time the sun would still be shining. It would not be rare to enjoy outings in T-shirts at 22 degrees. The weather worsened at the end of November and beginning of December. One day, the temperature plummeted from +10 to -4 degrees with snow and hard wind bombarding the city. If you decide to visit Seoul around this time, bring extra winter clothing, even if the weather forecast doesn’t warn you in advance!
Having said that, we still had a superb time with a lot of sunshine (and still superb even without sunshine). Since Seoul offers plenty of interesting visits indoors, a bad weather cannot prevent one from having fun and discovering the gigantic metropolis. Using the vast metro system and affordable taxis, we could easily went around in the rain and wind (or just when we were tired).
Visiting famous or important places in Seoul is extremely easy and fairly affordable with the metro. It is highly advised to buy the T-money card which can be used to pay for metros, buses, taxis and countless other things. The card costs about 2-3$ and can be bought from vending machines easily found at the airport or almost any metro station.
Metro: A metro ride within 10km in Seoul costs about 1.2$ in 2015. Here is the official info of metro fares around South Korea.
Also extremely useful is the Subway Korea app. The app is really well-made, it shows the exact departing and arriving times of each metro, as well as tips about which train car you should get yourself in for the quickest transfer. As the metro system in Seoul is VAST and fairly complicated, the app might come to rescue you in time of need, just like it did for us!
In general, metros are really the best way to get around Seoul, especially during the rush hours (between 6 am and 8.30 am, 4.30 pm and 8.30 pm). There are 25 million people living in and around Seoul after all! Expect to be stuffed in a completely full train sometimes, but keep in mind that it’s much worse on the road. I used to spend 2 hours to travel a 15-km-distance in taxis or buses inside Seoul – it can be really frustrating if you ever have to drive in Seoul. Stick with the metro whenever you can during the day!
A disadvantage we have noticed is that the facilities in the metro stations (and the metro) are not very handicap/stroller-friendly. Parents with toddlers may want to use alternatives to carry the little ones around.
Bus: Buses are generally cheaper than metros but they take much more time to get around ( the most expensive bus line costs about 1.2$ cover up to 10 km; after that, the cost is an additional 0.1$ per 5 km. Also, you can transfer up to 5 times for free – make sure to transfer within 30 minutes of scanning your T-money card). If you need to go where the metro doesn’t reach and don’t want to take a taxi, buses can be a good choice. You can find here extensive information about the bus system in Seoul: how it works, fares, how to use the bus etc.
We used Google Maps and the South Korean official information sites to look for the right buses and bus stops, and it worked most of the time. The biggest challenge was that most bus stops as well and the buses themselves show ONLY information in Korean! The bus drivers also don’t speak English. One of us can read the words in Korean so we managed somehow, but without knowing Korean, one might finding riding a bus in Korea a real challenge.
Luckily, all hope is not lost for bus-lovers. The blue and green bus lines do have stops spoken in English for foreign riders. And since Korean people are extremely friendly and anxious to help ignorant tourists (although many of them cannot speak English), you can always try to write down your destination in Korean and ask around, even the bus drivers will try their best to help!
Taxi: If you have some bucks to spare and want a comfortable alternative, opt for a taxi (again, not during rush hours!). Not many taxi drivers speak English, so you might need to show the address in Korean (phone or paper both work). You can find here information about Seoul taxis and standard fares.
Bike: Better forget about it, Seoul is anything but bike-friendly. There are no designated bike pads nor is it possible to bike on the pavement with the never-ending swarms of pedestrians and shopkeepers trying to get you inside. Even if you don’t mind mingling with the cars, the often mountainous roads will tire any ordinary biker out within minutes.
Car (rental): Car-lovers, Seoul is bad news for you! Not only is the traffic horrendous, but also is finding a parking place nearly impossible.
Seoul and Busan are very popular in Asia for shopping. The amount and size of mega shopping malls are overwhelming. They are heavens for petite people as Korean clothing are designed for small East Asian body frames. In contrast, if you are above 1m70 tall, finding fitting clothes might just be impossible (as it was for the taller of us). Beware that the quality of local brands is very questionable, and the designs virtually are the same from the one store to the next.
In the end, we ended up buying only clothes from American brands which were in very good sales. Outlet malls in Seoul and Busan offer sales of branded apparels such as Guess, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger at 50-90% discounts. Thanks to the local obsession with hiking, outdoors clothing of great quality can easily be found at as low as 20$ (I got myself some of those bad boys as well)!
Ladies, if you don’t find any nice apparels to take home, worry not. There are myriads of make-up products and brands to buy from. Organic make-up produce is much more prevalent and also cheaper than in Europe. Doing skincare and make-up are holy routines to Koreans, and everything is there to make sure that beauty can be bought from the stores, with good flavors too!.
It can be hard to find Koreans who speak English, and to understand those who do. Luckily, in Seoul it’s fairly easy to find instruction signs or menus in English. Besides, Korean people are super friendly and will go out of their way to help you whenever you ask for it.
When in need, tourists can opt for the free translation service: call Tourist Information Hotline 1330 (24/7 available) at local rates for information service in English! Details can be found here. Or dial the BBB Volunteer Service for Translation toll-free 1588-5644 and press #. You can then ask the volunteer translator what you want to say and give your phone to the person you want it said to (e.g. taxi driver). If you don’t have a phone, ask the taxi driver to dial the number. Amazingly, this service is also available in other languages than English. Talk about service!
Seoul (and South Korea in general) is a rather safe to have vacation in. Theft is unheard of and so are petty crimes. The earnest-hard-working-for-public-wealth mentality is hard-wired in every Korean citizen. Parents are often strict in teaching their children good manners, and pride themselves on following social rules thoroughly.
Being a supreme modernized metropolitan of a rather mono-ethnic country, Seoul is has a unique culture in itself, which we think can be defined by its contradictory facets. Korean traditions are preserved within the rapid internalization coupled with the miracle economic growth, driven by extreme fast-paced high-tech industry.
So this is the overview of Seoul. Let’s get on to the good part: the stories from our Seoul trip!
- Seoul – The City That Has It All
- Seoul Trip- Stories From An Autumn – Day 1
- Seoul to DMZ & North Korea – Stories From An Autumn – Day 2