South Korea is becoming a vacation hotspot. In 2016, the amount of tourists visiting Seoul increased by 30.3% from 2015; that means 13.5 million people experienced the Asian capital. More recently, the Korean Tourism Organization reported the amount of American tourists increased 10.2% in June from last year.
Seoul attracts people for many reasons: It’s a global beauty capital (valued at $13 billion), a technology powerhouse (it has the world’s fastest average Internet speed), and a foodie paradise (known for its spicy flavors). Whatever you seek, you will find in South Korea: History buffs will enjoy strolling through the Gyeongbokgung Palace, nature lovers will find adventure hiking Jeju’s Mt. Hallasan, and partiers will relish Seoul’s nightlife.
When I visited South Korea for the first time in 2014, I had no idea what to expect. My best friend and South Korean native Katie exposed me to K-beauty, kimchi, and Asian dramas beforehand, but I boarded our plane in an excited oblivion. She played the role of teacher while I embraced that of an eager student. Now it’s my turn to give a lesson. Here are the top tips you need to know before visiting Korea.
I noticed this as soon as I settled into my plane seat. No one was talking. Rather, passengers sat silently, slipped on their complimentary slippers, and plugged in their earphones. Perturbed, I turned to Katie and asked if something was wrong. She explained that public transportation in South Korea is notably silent. It’s all about respecting the person next to you. You don’t know what type of day they’ve had or their struggles, so it’s best to be courteous and refrain from making disturbing noise.
This was notably different from the NYC transportation I am accustomed to using: People perform songs and skits, blast music from their phones and speakers, and loudly chat in pairs or in groups. The silence remained a notable theme throughout the trip. Trains and bus rides were almost completely noiseless. To ride public transportation like a native, it is important to speak softly and keep electronic devices plugged into your personal earphones.
Homes in South Korea have a designated area for removing your shoes. Additionally, many restaurants, karaoke bars, and other public places require you to take off your footwear before entering. I struggled to remove my overly strappy sandals in a timely manner on a regular basis. Slip-on shoes and minimalistic footwear is the best investment for your trip abroad.
Nothing says “I am a foreigner” more that inappropriate attire. Revealing tops are not the norm and are often viewed as inappropriate. On the other hand, showing off a little leg is seen as appropriate and attractive.
In the United States, tipping is a way of life. It’s considered rude to tip less than 15 to 20% of the bill, and abysmal to leave nothing at all. This doesn’t apply in South Korea. Food service does not suffer as a result; restaurant and delivery service is quick and efficient. I will never forget my first dining experience. My main course was out within 15 minutes. Ordering delivery is no different. You can order lots of delicious fast food up until midnight and have it at your door in record time.
Korean culture places an emphasis on sharing, which is best exemplified during mealtime. The traditional Korean diet calls for rice, soups, fermented vegetables, grilled meats, fish, and teas. None of these foods will be your own exclusive plate. Instead, meals are served as many side dishes that everyone eats from. Double dipping is not considered rude or unsanitary.
My frequent hibachi dinner excursions with Katie tricked me into thinking I was a pro at using chopsticks. Wrong. Unlike wooden Chinese and Japanese chopsticks, Korean chopsticks are made of metal. This makes them much more difficult to hold. I recommend practicing with a pair before your trip to ease your learning curve and to make mealtime a less stressful experience.
Additionally, make sure your have chopstick etiquette down pat. Never leave your chopsticks sticking vertically out of your bowl (associated with death), stick your food with them, point them at other people, or play with them. When you’re done using them, place them on the chopstick rest.
In my hometown, life dies down after dinner during the week. Contrarily, South Korean communities come alive at night. Everyone heads to the local park to exercise and socialize. You can find women walking and talking, children playing badminton and basketball, and almost anyone using the public exercise equipment.
There are a variety of toilets you will encounter in South Korea. At the movie theater I visited, the toilets were modern and each stall had a mini screen in which you could watch movie previews while you took care of your business (so cool, right?). On the other hand, the historic palaces I visited often had squat toilets. Squatting may seem unusual, but it’s actually a very natural way to use the bathroom.
Never throw your toilet paper away in to the squat toilet. There will often be a trashcan to throw it away. This remains true for many other public bathrooms as well. I recommend that you bring a mini roll of tissue in your bag, as some restrooms do not provide it.
Japan is still viewed as a negative and oppressive force by many Koreans. While the two countries have a long and tumultuous history, many of the ill feelings towards Japan trace back to the 35 years of Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. During this period, Japan enforced cultural assimilation policies that encouraged the suppression of the Korean language and culture, forced thousands of men into their army, and kidnapped thousands of women to work as sex slaves or “comfort women” for military personnel.
Although Japan has made some efforts to apologize, many South Koreans have not viewed these efforts as sincere and sufficient. Needless to say, relations between these two Asian countries is a touchy subject. I would advise visitors to South Korea to avoid bringing up Japan throughout their trip.
A few years ago, my skincare routine was very minimal. I washed my face with a bar of body soap (the horror, I know), did not know the importance of toner, and never wore SPF unless I went to the beach.
View this post on Instagram
Everything changed after my trip. I applied less makeup, invested in a routine that accommodated my combination skin, and read more about Korean beauty. I began to see the everyday care of my skin as a self-care investment rather than a chore that I could sometimes skip. The payoff has been enormous: I rarely have breakouts and my skin looks radiant.
So splurge a little when you visit this international beauty capital. Slather on that snail secretion cream. Invest in a sleeping pack. Try a dozen sheet masks. Your skin will thank you.
For more ideas on what to do once you get to Korea, check out BTS’s new “Live Seoul Like I Do” promo videos:
Will you be visiting Korea soon? What was your experience like when you went? What do you want to see there? Let’s chat in the comments below!