South Korea draws many Asian tourists but it isn’t yet as popular in the rest of the world. It will not be for lack of trying on the part of the tourism board, they really go out of their way to please tourists and they’re really proud of their country. Rightly so, we discovered a culture-rich peninsula with impressive natural assets.
Seoul, the country’s capital, has known fast-paced growth over the last years. Shiny skyscrapers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with ancient well-preserved temples and palaces. The city is bustling with activity day and night.
As soon as you exit the capital you will experience a totally different Korea.
The country has vast areas of unspoiled nature and counts many national parks.
Its rugged mountains attract many skiers every winter and during summer most locals’ favorite pastime is hiking in the mountainous and densely forested national parks.
Korea’s kitchen is also delicious and healthy. How else do you explain that after 3 weeks of vacation we weighed less than before? Surely those strenuous hikes can’t be the only reason.
The Koreans, like the Japanese, have a wide array of tantalizing dishes such that after a few weeks you still don’t crave for a pizza or hamburger.
Check this South Korea travel guide to learn all you need to know for an exciting trip to the land of the morning calm.
What you need to know before traveling to South Korea
The South Korean Won is the national currency.
You can use xe.com to check the up-to-date exchange rate.
Payment cards, both debit, and credit, are widely accepted in stores and restaurants but we did encounter problems to withdraw money at ATMs.
Seoul airport is literally dotted with ATMs but it took us an hour to find one that wanted to accept our cards.
Your experience may vary although we certainly weren’t the only ones who were desperately going from one ATM to the next hoping to get some cash.
We recommend bringing some cash or withdrawing enough once you find an ATM that works.
You may wonder why you need to withdraw cash if it is not required for the restaurants and stores.
Well, unfortunately, cards are not accepted everywhere.
You will need cash if you want to buy an MPass, a daily pass to ride public transportation.
The pass is only available to tourists and can be bought at the airport. It is a good deal if you will be spending several days in Seoul where you will probably use the subway a lot.
Payment cards are also a hit or miss at the toll roads.
Ours weren’t accepted, we heard that others had more luck. It’s best to have some cash to be sure.
There are also electronic toll gates, so-call HI-pass lanes. To use these you need to have an on-board unit.
Here you can find more info about driving in South Korea.
Lastly, having a little spare cash is always a good idea for situations where your card would suddenly stop working.
Koreans obviously speak Korean.
Not many Koreans master the English language.
We rented a car from an Avis office in the heart of Seoul and were surprised that even there nobody spoke English.
Don’t let this stop you from visiting the country though. Koreans are very polite and helpful. They will do everything to help you.
We started by using Google translate and eventually, the Avis office at the airport was invoked to act as an interpreter.
The fact that we didn’t speak Korean didn’t stop us from eating in small local restaurants and everywhere we went we were warmly welcomed.
When traveling to Japan, you might need a travel adapter, depending on where you’re from.
Japan uses plug type C and F.
This is the same plug that is used across Europe except for the United Kingdom.
The voltage is 220V.
Tipping is highly unusual in Korean culture and can even be seen as rude and impolite.
Decorum plays an important role in the lives of Koreans. Decorum means that it is important to always act appropriately and politely. This results in exceptional service everywhere you go.
Best Travel Time
The Spring months of April, May, and June are excellent to travel to South Korea as are the Autumn months of September, October, and November.
Both seasons offer an abundance of sunny days with little rain and temperatures are not as hot as during summer.
A bonus of Spring are the cherry blossoms.
Loads of people flock to Japan to see the colorful Sakura but few seem to know that those trees are also in full splendor in South Korea.
Here’s an overview of the different seasons in South Korea.
Springtime is an excellent period to discover the Korean peninsula.
Trees and shrubs wake up from their hibernation and everywhere you see is an explosion of colorful flowers, not to forget the magical cherry blossoms.
The temperatures range in between a brisk 10 degrees Celcius to an enjoyable 23 degrees Celcius.
You will need a jacket as temperatures drop as soon as the sun sets.
We traveled during this period and counted only 2 days with some light showers.
The temperatures were excellent for all the hiking we did in the national parks.
Many of the hikes involve a lot of altimeters, sometimes you just go up or down along a flight of stairs.
These hikes will for sure get you sweating in summer.
Summer is the peak travel season in Korea.
Many people are obviously forced to travel in this period because of their jobs.
If you go to Korea in June, July or August you may expect long lines and expensive accommodation.
In June the temperatures range around 26 degrees Celcius, July and August are the hottest and wettest months.
Average temperatures range around 30 degrees Celcius and massive downpours provide a daily refreshment.
These 2 months bring half of the country’s yearly rainfall.
Seoul is uncomfortably hot and humid and many locals escape the city to spend time at some of the country’s most famous beaches around Busan where the sea breezes make the temperature more enjoyable.
Autumn is another excellent period to head off to Korea.
The autumn colors make the landscapes very photogenic.
The national parks showcase a sea of colors ranging from yellow and orange to deep red.
Early Autumn the temperatures are usually mild and range somewhere around 20 degrees Celcius.
September has some rainfall but starting October the chance for rain is very limited.
It becomes colder once November starts and temperatures drop further to around 10 degrees Celcius.
Non-Asians may never have thought of Korea for skiing, but the truth is that South Korea is a popular winter destination.
In Wintertime temperatures can drop up to -20 degrees Celcius in the North. The Southern part of the country enjoys somewhat milder winters.
The ski resorts attract many winter enthusiasts and usually open late November or early December. Most are located in the northern provinces of Gyeonggi-do, where Seoul is located, and Gangwon-do.
As temperatures drop, prices drop as well.
South Korea is a relatively cheap country to explore.
The hotel prices become somewhat expensive in peak season but outside these periods it should be relatively easy to keep your daily expenses below € 180 as a couple.
Here’s an overview of the prices we paid.
We paid on average € 98 per night.
In Seoul and Busan, the prices are slightly more expensive, we paid around € 120 per night in these cities.
That is compensated by our stays in Jirisan National Park, Gyeongju, and Geoje where we only paid € 47 to € 72 per night.
We always stayed in 3-star accommodations or better and in most cases, breakfast was included in our rate.
South Korea also counts many hostels and budget-friendly hotels.
Here’s an overview of the budget you should foresee:
Low budget : € 50-80/night per room
Comfortable : € 100-110/night per room
Luxury : + € 200 /night per room
Food in South Korea
Korea has a healthy cuisine and all those local delicacies come at a price significantly below what we are used to paying at home.
As long as you avoid fancy and touristy restaurants € 22 should be enough for all meals for one day.
Light meals such as noodles and soups usually cost around € 4 – € 5.
Larger meals such as the famous buffet-style Korean BBQ cost around € 15 – € 20.
Bibimbap, a local mouth-watering delicacy can be found for around € 6 – € 8.
Street food is the cheapest option and not necessarily less tasteful. Snacks bought at stalls vary wildly in size and ingredients and as a result, their prices can range anywhere in between € 1 – € 4.
These are some local favorites: Kimbap or Gimbap (Korean sushi), Hweori Gamja (Tornado Potato), Yangnyeom Tongdak (Fried Chicken), Eomuk (fishcakes), and Hotteok (sweet Korean pancake)
Truth be told, we didn’t use public transport except for Seoul.
When we were preparing our trip we got the impression that the rail network in South Korea is not on the same level as that of Japan. A comparison with Japan means of course that the bar is set really high.
The train is still a great option if you want to visit Seoul and do side-trips to Busan and Gyeongju.
Korail operates a network of high-speed trains similar to the Shinkansen in Japan. These trains take you from Seoul to Gyeongju and Busan in 2 hours and 2 hours and 45 minutes respectively.
To book this train to Gyeongju you need to look for trains to Singyeongju station. This station is a little outside of Gyeongju and connected to Gyeongju by busses. It is served by direct KTX trains from Seoul and it’s faster to travel to this station than to take the train to Gyeongju which requires a transfer in Dongdaegu.
Korail offers various train passes to foreign visitors. The passes offer unlimited train travel on all trains operated by Korail, including the high-speed KTX trains.
You can choose passes for 3 or 5 consecutive days or you can opt for the flexible select passes. With the select passes, you can select either 2 or 4 days within a 10-window period.
Make sure to check the prices of the individual tickets before you opt for one of the train passes. Those passes are not always cheaper, sometimes it’s cheaper to just buy individual tickets.
Other places are not as good connected by train. If you don’t want to rent a car you could use express buses but for our itinerary, a rental car was just much more convenient. Driving in Korea turned out to be very easy, we share our experience here.
Korea has 2 large carriers that together operate numerous direct flights to large parts of the world.
The country’s flag carrier is Korean Air, its main competitor is Asiana Airlines which is renowned as a 5-star airline for several years in a row.
There are numerous other airlines that fly to South Korea.
The number of flights has increased significantly over the last years and because of the increased competition, you should be able to find affordable flights.
Especially Chinese carriers are known to offer rock-bottom prices. These flights often have a layover in Shanghai or other Chinese hubs.
We flew China Eastern. We were a bit wary about what to expect after we read several bad reviews, but everything about the flight was good and on-par with the reduced service that we can expect in today’s economy class.
Most international flights arrive in Seoul – Incheon or Seoul – Gimpo, the country’s capital.
There are other airports in for example Busan and Jeju but the best prices are usually found when looking for airfare to Seoul because of the sheer number of airlines that fly to the capital.
Twice a year we compare a number of travel sites and do some tests to see which one offers the best prices. See the results here.
We thought it was pretty easy to travel independently through South Korea.
Our local SIM card was of great use, without it it would have been a lot harder.
We mainly used our phone to help us express ourselves (see the language issues we covered earlier in this article) and to find our way. We list some useful apps in the below articles.
Some of these apps can be used offline which means that staying online is not a requirement.
However, a SIM or a local WiFi device is so cheap that it is definitely worth its convenience.
It allowed us to travel deeper and knowing that we could always access the internet to look up something if necessary gave us a clear conscience. It also allows you to plan your days more flexible.
If you don’t find the time to arrange your own travel plans you choose for an organized tour where you will be in the capable hands of an experienced guide.
TourRadar is a great place to start your search for such tours. They have grouped tours from various tour operators, small niche players with a lot of expertise in South Korea as well as large well-known international brands.
The below article contains an overview of some excellent Korea tours.
South Korea is a modern and civilized country. They have modern medical facilities and doctors, certainly, those in major cities, are able to speak and understand English. It may be more difficult to find English-speaking doctors in more rural areas.
Treatments can be expensive and for this reason, we strongly advise on taking out travel insurance.
Preferably insurance that covers the costs directly so that you’re not required to pay the costs and wait for a reimbursement from your insurance.
Insurers often only operate in certain countries and those operating in multiple countries oftentimes use different policies in each country.
The only advice we can give is to not just pick the cheapest policy but to carefully read the small print and to check what’s covered and to which extent.
Thanks to our travels we got to know two popular travel insurance available to people worldwide.
It may be worth comparing these to the insurance you usually take out. World Nomads covers a wide range of more adventurous activities making it popular amongst more intrepid travelers. Safetywing offers very competitive prices for very decent coverage.
Here’s a recent example to prove this. The COVID-19 pandemic was completely excluded by most travel policies but Safetywing covered the first 10 days giving you ample time to stop your trip and return home safely.
Drawing up a travel insurance policy may seem expensive at first but it can potentially save you a significant sum, significantly more than the small insurance fee. Make sure you make the necessary arrangements before you travel.
Therefore we love SafetyWing and World Nomads travel insurance. Both are good and trusted insurance companies.
South Korea Travel itineraries
Most will agree that Seoul, Busan, and Gyeongju together form the highlights of the country. South Korea does have a lot of other gems but if you only have a week this is where we advise you to start.
Below is our example itinerary for 1 week. Further down in this article we have more information on Seoul and Busan.
Highlights of South Korea
Here are some absolute highlights of the country.
We know that each traveler’s interests are different but we feel that these are the things that cannot be missed when it’s your first time in South Korea.
A unique mix of modern technology and deeply-rooted traditional culture make the country’s capital a unique, somewhat twisted, place to explore.
Seoul has experienced unprecedented growth.
Originally growth came first and quality of life only second but in more recent years the city has done a terrific job when it came to urban planning.
New parks popped-up and culture and design got a more prominent role.
Bukhansan park borders the city in the North. For a megapolis, it’s quite unique to have a national park in your backyard. Seoulites love hiking and the park draws many visitors each weekend.
If you have the time we recommend joining them and explore the park. The hikes can be strenuous but you’re rewarded with great views on Seoul’s skyline.
The coastal town of Busan has grown from a quaint fishing village into a striving metropolis.
The city counts many pleasant beaches and has tonnes of activities to offer. It’s also a paradise for lovers of fresh seafood.
In short, Busan has something for all tastes.
A visit to South-Korea is not complete without a visit to the DMZ. The DMZ is the Demilitarized zone, a 4-kilometer wide weapons-free buffer zone, at the border of North and South Korea.
It is one of the few still active remnants of the cold war.
The DMZ can only be visited with an organized tour. Some tours include the JSA and others don’t. The JSA is the Joint Security area, it’s the actual border passing with the blue barracks where the leaders of the two countries sometimes meet.
If you visit the DMZ we highly recommend to opt for a tour that includes the JSA.
We share more information about the tours and the various things that you will see in the below post.
South Korea counts several small charming towns and villages where finding a hotel or AirBnB is relatively easy.
In the spread-out cities of Seoul and Busan it takes some more planning to find a good place to stay.
It’s best to stay close to the things you want to visit in order not to waste too much time commuting.
We created a guide for both cities where we discuss the various neighborhoods with their pro’s and cons.