Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Trip to Seoul

Should you leave a tip? Drink the tap water? Stay in the touristy neighborhoods? We got you.

Cait Ellis/Unsplash
Cait Ellis/Unsplash
Cait Ellis/Unsplash

Editor’s note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favourite places around the world. Be sure to check the latest CDC guidelines as well as local travel restrictions and protocols if you decide to head out.

One glimpse of Seoul and you’ll know why it’s trending. There is no city in the world more adept at finding a fad and, with mind-boggling speed, blowing it up and putting it on every street corner and back alley. If you see it in Brooklyn today and it’s even remotely cool, you’ll likely see it in Seoul tomorrow.

World-class dining? Check. Museums and galleries? Check. A nightlife that never stops? I mean, we did rank Seoul the number one party city in the world, so. South Korea’s capital is a whirlwind of action, a high-energy hub of 10 million residents who fully embrace the work hard, play hard mentality. And since South Korea is small, with Seoul a mere four-hour train ride from even the farthest-flung city, it’s easy to go full vacation mode and explore the country at large. Allot enough time. I recommend at least a week, so you can really “do” Seoul and also take a day trip or two.

Nothing will prepare you for the rush you’ll feel surrounded by blazing neon, blaring K-pop, beckoning street food, beautiful natural escapes-and shopping, oh, the shopping! But you can get equipped for your first trip to Seoul with these basics, including when to visit, the best neighbourhoods to check out, how to get around, and more.

The best time of year to visit Seoul is spring or fall

The weather in Seoul is not always agreeable. Winter is frigid. Summer feels like a swamp. At about the same latitude as the central States, Seoul’s weather and seasonality more or less mirror New York City’s. Aim for September-October or April-June, when temps range a comfortable 55-85 degrees.

Air quality, however, is a concern all year round. You’ll spot locals wearing masks to fend off the fine dust. In recent years, Seoul’s pollution levels have reached carcinogenic heights, on some days exceeding the World Health Organization’s exposure limits. If the smog is bad and you want to sport a mask too, you can find one at any convenience store or pharmacy (but at this point, you probably own about 50 of your own! Thanks, pandemic!).

Chinh Le Duc/Unsplash
Chinh Le Duc/Unsplash
Chinh Le Duc/Unsplash

Walking around Seoul can feel like a competitive sport

Except worse, because there are no rules. There’s no sense of directionality, as in “you walk on your side, I’ll walk on mine.” Pedestrians are pushy, motorcyclists are certainly not concerned about your safety, and the “sidewalks” are really just extra parking spaces for cars. Take it in stride (!) and bask in the bedlam. Half the country has packed itself into Seoul’s greater metropolitan area. Getting around the city can be hectic, but it’s a pleasure in its own way.

Luckily, public transit is easy to find and cheap to use

With more than 20 subway and extension lines, and hundreds of bus routes, to say that Seoul is well connected by public transit is an understatement. And despite its rapidly rising cost of living, transit is still cheap-usually only KRW 1,250 (about US $1.05) a ride. Buy a T-Money transit card and load it up at the station kiosks, or stop inside a 7-Eleven or CU convenience store and ask the clerk to do it for you. The touch-card will work on every subway, bus, and taxi-not only in Seoul, but nationwide. The super handy KakaoMap, KakaoMetro, and KakaoBus apps will help you navigate, and the Kakao T app will let you order a cab even without a Korean credit card (just select the “pay to the driver” option).

For the most part, a trip on the metro will get you within a short walk of your destination, and faster than a taxi in traffic ever could. But if you’re out late and the subway isn’t operating, do hail a cab. You’ll know the driver is available when you see the red 빈차, or “empty car,” sign illuminated in the windshield. The meter starts at KRW 3,800 (about US $3.15).

Travel man/shutterstock
Travel man/shutterstock
Travel man/shutterstock

Hotels and accommodations come in many flavours

Lodging options are wide-ranging-hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and Airbnbs abound. There’s the affordable and the not-so-affordable. There’s the so-called Western style, with beds, and the more traditional Korean style, with sleeping mats on the floor. If you opt for an Airbnb, note that many Korean bathrooms don’t have bathtubs or shower stalls. Essentially the entire bathroom is your shower stall, so the whole floor is wet after you wash. That’s where those plastic sandals come into play (most Airbnb hosts will provide them).

The best neighbourhoods to check out in Seoul

Seoul is made up of 25 districts, situated north and south of the Han River that divides the city in half. While none of them will leave you high and dry in terms of places to sleep, eat, and drink, certain areas are more quiet and residential, and others offer better access to the action.

If you’re here to party (you’re here to party, right?) post up in Hongdae or Itaewon, where going club-, lounge-, and bar-hopping is as simple as walking out your front door. (Just be warned it will be loud at all hours of the day and night. Drinking is basically a national pastime.) A mere couple of blocks away you’ll find the Kyunglidan neighbourhood, an uphill-sloping street dotted with curiosity-inducing eateries and lounges just beckoning you inside. It feels uber-urban yet tucked away and almost secret.

If you’ve come to Seoul to go on a fevered unrestrained shopping spree, visit Myeongdong or Gangnam (yeah, that Gangnam). To explore the city’s history and culture, Jongno is the heart of old Seoul, home to royal palaces and traditional hanok homes. (To stay in a hanok, which are characterized by wide wooden floors and tiled roofs, book a guesthouse in Bukchon.) And if you’re looking for a more laid-back experience, try Mullae on the west side, or Seongsu on the east side, which are kind of like the Brooklyns of Seoul.


Pick up on local fashion cues

In Seoul, it’s all about dressing to impress… though not quite to stand out. The herd mentality is rooted deep in the culture here, and K-style is no exception. Korean idols dictate the trends; once a celebrity wears something, it’s minted a must-have and the masses rush to copy it. You might notice that everyone around you is wearing slightly different versions of the same styles. Last winter it was long puffer coats. Right now it’s hair clips, and dresses layered over shirts.

Tips for communicating with locals

Most South Koreans understand elementary English, and while they might be shy about practising with you, you can absolutely get around the city without any extensive Korean skills. Still, don’t be that lazy American tourist who makes zero effort to speak the language. Take the time to learn a few basic phrases: “annyeonghaseyo” (“hello”), “juseyo” (“please”), and “kamsahamnida” (“thank you”).

South Koreans are a proud people; when an outsider shows an appreciation for the local customs, food, and language, locals usually respond with praise and a warm smile-and maybe even a freebie or two at a restaurant.

That being said, South Koreans are, by nature, an insular bunch. Having connections and a proper introduction are important here, so it can be tricky for foreign travellers to make fast friends at a bar-if you like companionship, it’s not a great place to travel solo. Locals might be up for a light-hearted chat, but it’s more likely they’ll keep to themselves.

Quick restaurant etiquette

Assuming you’ll be doing a lot of eating (and trust us, you will), you’ll quickly shake off any initial timidness about communicating in restaurants. At most places, it’s perfectly acceptable to call over the waitstaff with a shout-“yeogiyo!” or “here please!”-or push the button sometimes installed on the tabletops. Also, there’s no need to tip.

me Darat/shutterstock
me Darat/shutterstock
me Darat/shutterstock

Get up to speed on Seoul’s extraordinary drinking culture

For South Koreans, drinking is an indispensable part of socializing and bonding with everyone from your friends to your boss. And, in Seoul, there is a party for every type, for every occasion, on every day of the week. So pick your poison(s) and brace yourself-a night out in South Korea goes ‘til sun-up and is conducted in cha, or rounds (up to five) hopping from establishment to establishment.

Round one might be BBQ and somaek. Round two is usually at a bar, whether it’s for spirits, cocktails, or craft beer. Round three will take you to another bar, followed by either a club or-for those left standing-a grand finale with perhaps the most beloved South Korean drinking experience of them all: noraebang, the country’s version of karaoke. Rent a private room, order drinks, select your jams, grab that tambourine, and sing your heart out. You can find a noraebang joint in any corner of the city, ranging from the luxe to the low-key.

The whole affair can sometimes span longer than a full workday. It may seem like a lot for the average reveller, but considering the endless number of unforgettable nights out to be had in Seoul, you’ll want to make time for it all.

Since you’re here, do sample the light stuff, too. In the evening, settle in at a neighbourhood hof, or Korean pub, where it’s customary to order anju (drinking food) along with your pints and pitchers. Lively Nogari Alley is the place to be; you’ll find locals of every age sitting outside embracing this street-style version of Korean nightlife. Another fun local thing is to grab a few cans of beer at the convenience store and enjoy them on the patio outside, or to sit at a pocha-casual drinking spots that are usually tented with a plastic tarp on the street. Pochas can be a great place to meet young, social Koreans; get the ball rolling by asking a friendly group to show you Korean drinking games, and your evening is made.

Kelli Hayden/shutterstock
Kelli Hayden/shutterstock
Kelli Hayden/shutterstock

That’s right, drinking in public is legal in Seoul

Seoul also has top-notch hookah bars, vinyl bars, and takeout bars, where you can get bagged drinks to go. That’s right, public drinking is legal in South Korea. While it’s not advisable to get carried away with public inebriation, a measured amount is also not something locals will find particularly out of the ordinary. In fact, you might be the one surprised at the state of the streets at five in the morning-people packed in like a sardine can, cans and bottles everywhere.

Stock up on water bottles

After your epic night out, we’re guessing you’ll need to spend a slow morning chugging heaps of H2O. Keep in mind that while authorities say the tap water is safe, no one actually drinks it. This is likely out of greater concern for the pipes it runs through than the quality of the water itself. You can buy the 2-litre bottled stuff for about a dollar at the convenience store.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to carry your own trash

Seoul has a complex trash disposal system that has led to a shortage of public bins. If you get a coffee to go, be prepared to walk for miles with an empty paper cup before finding a place to offload it. If you stay at an Airbnb and are responsible for taking out your own trash, be mindful of the rules: separate recycling from waste, and the compostable from the non-compostable.

Ann Babe is a journalist based in Seoul. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ann_e_babe.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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