South Korea is a tiny country that punches way above its weight in a number of arenas, and that extends to being one of Asia’s greatest travel spots!

The land of KBBQ, the world’s fastest internet speeds, futuristic cities, and a breathtaking mix of ancient and modern, this is one of the best countries in Asia to travel in, and yet it’s criminally underrated.  

I spent a few years calling this country home, and I’ve created the ultimate Korea travel guide to help you navigate your way through this gem of northeast Asia.

Whether you’re a first-time traveler or a return visitor, here’s a list of 26 South Korea travel tips you need to know before stepping off the plane!

a tourist and two korean locals hanging out in south korea
Hanging out with some locals in Daejon.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

26 EPIC South Korea Travel Tips

After years of living and traveling in South Korea, here are some of the most important tips I’ve learned along the way!

1.  Download These Apps!

South Korea is one of the most tech-savvy societies on the planet, and you’re going to need to keep up. These apps are just a few of the essentials you want to have to make your trip to South Korea the unforgettable experience it should be.

Subway Korea

Not the most exciting app to download but crucial all the same, this is going to make your time in Seoul so much easier.

With a full, interactive map of Seoul’s (Korea’s capital city) absolutely sprawling subway system, Subway Korea tells you exactly which station you need to begin and end at, which stations to transfer at, and how long it’s going to take you from start to finish.

You can find this on the App Store for both Android and iPhone, and a companion app exists for Busan’s smaller (but still pretty big!) subway system.

Papago

When it comes to Korean, Google Translate can give you some hilariously bad translations and while that’s always entertaining, you’re going to need to be able to communicate with more than just hand gestures!

That’s why you need to download Papago. It serves many languages and its Korean translations are far better than Google’s, so this is going to make traveling to South Korea for the first time go much smoother.

You can get around places in Seoul with only English, but beyond that you’re going to need some help which makes Papago a must-download.

Kakao Maps

In my experience, Google Maps isn’t too helpful in Korea, and that’s why you’ve got to download Kakao Maps!

screenshot of kakao maps to use while traveling in south korea south korea travel tips
A screenshot of the app.

An app made by a Korean company, Kakao Maps is going to provide you with a level of detail, precision, and helpfulness that Google Maps simply can’t deliver.

Whether you’re exploring the city or out in Korea’s gorgeous countryside, this app is the best option for navigating the country.

2.      Learn Some Basic Korean Phrases

Having a solid translation app is all well and good, but it’s also important to memorize a few basic phrases in Korean just in case your phone doesn’t come through for you.

a tourist looking confused in south korea
You don’t want to be like this guy!
Photo: Flickr

Anyeong Hasaeyeo – Hello

(You might have heard anyeong as meaning “hello” in Korean before and while that’s true, it’s important to say the full phrase because shortening it to anyeong can be seen as disrespectful.)

Kamsamnida – ­Thank you

Kohn Bae! – Cheers!

Odi / Odi…? – where / where is…?

Hwajangshil – Bathroom

3. Explore the Dramatic East Coast

Staying in Seoul is great, but the country has SO much more to offer.

Korea’s east coast in particular flies far under the radar for most foreigners and isn’t visited nearly enough. But I can attest that it’s easily one of the most epic regions in Korea!

a view of boats on the water and mountains behind them at a port in south korea
The breathtaking mountains of Seorak soar right out of the East Sea.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

With tall, jagged peaks rising straight out of the sea, the east coast is the perfect place for travelers looking to escape Korea’s ultramodern cities and get out to explore the country’s natural wonders.

The east coast holds some of Korea’s best hiking spots, and Seoraksan National Park in particular is a favorite of mine, especially during winter and spring.

4. Korea is a Shopper’s Mecca

If you’re keen on shopping for the latest fashion or newest tech, South Korea is pretty much unbeatable.

Between Shinsegae, Lotte World, and a TON more, Korea has limitless options for shoppers of all stripes.

a woman walking in one of south korea's largest shopping complexes
A humble entrance to Shinsegae’s gigantic shopping complex.
Source: Flickr

Shinsegae and Lotte are two absolutely massive department store chains in Korea that house countless stores within their walls, and there are so many more on top of those two to choose from and explore.

Your choices really are infinite.

The one thing you need to keep in mind though is that you should be prepared to spend.

Korea is not a cheap country in general, and that extends to its shopping scene. If you’re going to buy a higher-end item here, be ready to shell out a lot of cash.

5.      Avoid Drinking Tap Water

Sadly, Korea isn’t a place where you can drink the tap water worry-free. While many places in the countryside have springs with fresh water straight from the mountains, you will need to have a filtered water bottle for your trip!

a grayl geopress waterbottle on the ground
The best filtered water bottle on the market.
Photo: @intentionaldetours

That’s why we strongly recommend you invest your hard-earned cash in getting a Grayl Filtration Bottle to accompany you on your travels!

It’s a reusable, zero-waste system that allows you to drink water from pretty much anywhere and in the long run, will save you countless dollars that you would have otherwise spent on water bottles, filters, and purification tablets.

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6. Learn How to Get Around in South Korea

Nearly every corner of South Korea is connected by an intricate web of trains and buses that link large cities like Seoul and Busan in the south with the tiny villages and hamlets in the countryside.

Public transportation in Korea is fantastic: it’s reliable, clean, convenient, and always on time!

Even if you’re waiting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, if the schedule says a bus arrives at 8:30, it will be there at 8:30, give or take a few minutes.

how to get around South Korea cheap
What a Korean bus station looks like.

On that note, if you’ve got a bus or train ticket departing at a certain time, make sure you’re there early because you will get left behind if you’re not there on time!

That brings me to one of the most important points of this piece: I highly recommend that you do NOT rent a car or motorbike in Korea if you’re considering it.

While the roads are modern, impressive feats of engineering, drivers here can often be very unpredictable and that can lead to some dangerous situations on the road if you’re not used to it.

view of a paved road in south korea around fall time
These roads are deceptively tricky to drive on.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

A one-hour motorbike ride between two cities in Korea felt longer and scarier to me than a nine-hour ride on Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway, and anyone who’s made that trip can tell you how much that statement means!

It’s for that reason that I think you should avoid getting your own wheels in Korea, and that risk combined with the excellent public transportation system makes any rentals a needless expense.

When going between different cities, you can use Trip.com to book your train or bus tickets.

Remember to book in advance because if you show up and try to buy the ticket the day of your intended departure, there’s a good chance you’ll be out of luck.

Simple Seoul Travel Tips You Need to Know

Whether you’re traveling to South Korea for the first time or coming back for more, you’ll be spending a ton of time in Seoul so it’s good to know how to stay on top of things when exploring this behemoth of a city!

7. Invest in a Month-Long Tmoney Card

You’ll probably be using public transportation a lot, so it’s best to invest your money where it counts to get the most bang for your buck.

Bus and train fares in Korea are cheap anyway (about one dollar or less per ride), but the government just launched a new transit card option which allows passengers to spend $49 for a one-month pass and get unlimited access to Seoul’s huge network of trains and buses, as well as public bicycle rentals.

The card is rechargeable, so if you plan on staying in Korea for longer than a month, this is a great option to make your Seoul itinerary easier to execute.

green and white public bicycles are a great tip to get around seoul south korea cheaply
Not exactly fast, but they’re reliable!

You can get one at any major subway station, but sadly this card only covers public transportation in Seoul for now, so keep that in mind before buying.

If you’re just looking for a good old-fashioned Tmoney card without the month-long plan, you can get one at any convenience store or subway station and charge it with cash.

8. Make Reservations in Advance if Possible

When it comes to accommodations or more popular restaurants/cafés, it can be difficult in Seoul to simply show up to a place and expect to find an open spot, especially in high season.

This is a country where it’s best to make your reservations beforehand. If you don’t, there’s a very good chance that you’re going to miss out and get turned away.

9. Try Seoul’s amazing street food

Korean cuisine has plenty of tasty street snacks that are quick and cheap, making this one way to cut costs in Seoul! There’s no shortage of markets and stalls offering a quick bite, so be sure to check them out.

a plate of meat and cylinder shaped noodle looking pieces in south korea
Spicy AND delicious
Source: Flickr

Kimbap and tteokbokki are two classic Korean eats that are cheap, delicious, and filling.

10. Understand Internet and Data in South Korea

Wifi is everywhere and internet speeds are lightning fast, but you’ll still want to stay connected when you’re on the move!

SIM cards and data plans tend to be pricy by Asian standards, and while you can get Korean e-SIMs at the airports, there’s a better option: a WiFi Egg rental.

You can check out a list of rental options here, and any of them will keep you connected to Korea’s ridiculously fast internet while you’re on the go without breaking the bank.

11. Korea Isn’t Cheap

Expenses in Korea aren’t quite as scary as Western Europe in summer but this isn’t Thailand either, so you need to be prepared to spend a little more.

Hostels will cost at least $15 USD/night but usually a bit more, and proper meals will start at around $8.

Public transportation is cheap, but going to a different city is going to cost a bit more: between $10-$50 depending on how far you’re going.

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12. Bring Masks to Protect Yourself from Pollution

Korea and neighboring China are heavily dependent on coal for their energy needs, and as a result, the skies can occasionally have dangerous levels of smog, especially in big cities.

seoul south korea under a massively thick cloud of smog pollution
You don’t want to be breathing this air without a mask!
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

Masks are technically not an essential, but you’re going to want to have a few masks on hand to help you deal with this problem.

Just to give you an idea of how bad this can be sometimes: I’ve had an easier time breathing whilst hiking in difficult conditions at 5000m+ altitudes than I’ve had while just sitting outdoors at a café in Seoul trying to enjoy my coffee on a day when the pollution is at its worst.

13. Pay Attention to the Rules

Koreans are meticulous rule-followers, and it’s very important to keep this in mind when planning a trip to South Korea.

a person crossing a crosswalk on a busy street in seoul south korea
Even jaywalking is frowned upon
Source: Flickr

No matter how ridiculous a rule might seem to you, Koreans will obey it almost without exception. Even if it’s 3am and the roads are completely empty, a pedestrian is going to wait until the crosswalk turns green before they think about venturing out onto the empty road while the sign is red.

Many countries are really loose with the law but this is not one of them, so make sure that you’re completely respectful of the rules when you’re visiting South Korea.

A Few South Korea Cultural Travel Tips

Respecting Korean societal norms are SUPER important. Let’s get into a few of them…

14. Don’t tip

This might come as a huge relief to visitors, especially for Americans, but it’s important to know that tipping isn’t really a thing in Korea. Very rarely a place will ask for tips for its workers, but otherwise you should avoid tipping in all situations.

woman serving liquor at a bar in south korea
A hidden gem of a bar, hiding deep in the countryside.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

15. Politeness and respect are non-negotiable

Korean culture is deeply rooted in visibly showing respect for others, and it’s important to adopt that attitude while you’re visiting South Korea. Sass and sarcasm are looked down upon in nearly all situations so it’s best to avoid using those entirely.

16. Koreans tend to be reserved

While Koreans are very polite and hospitable, they are usually pretty reserved and it takes awhile for them to open up, so don’t worry if it seems like they’re not too friendly at first!

17.      Learn to Read Korean

Okay, I realize this might sound insane, but hear me out!

Hangul – the name for the Korean alphabet – is incredibly easy to learn how to read and will take you an hour or two max to get the basics down.

korean hangul script
Photo: Wikipedia

Just a bit of study goes a long way in helping you read signs and menus, making this a great return on investment for your time.

Even if learning languages isn’t your thing, I promise you that this is way easier than it sounds and strongly recommend giving it a try!

18. Understand When to Visit South Korea

Autumn and Spring are majestic.

Japan gets a lot of recognition for its stunning seasonal colors (and rightly so!) but these seasons in Korea are just as magical and can’t be missed.

It’s also way less crowded than Japan, and the colors you’ll see here are simply unreal.

a traditional south korean home seen in autumn in a garden
Sheer, silent majesty.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

These are not busy seasons in Korea as far as foreign tourism is concerned, so you’ll have a lot more space than you would in summer.

You’ll have to get out of the city to see these colors at their best, and Magoksa Temple is one of the most stunning locations in Korea during peak foliage!

one of the best south korea travel tips is to visit during the fall foliage season where you can see yellow and red leaves like this
Did I mention how unreal these colors are?
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

Magoksa Temple is not too far from Seoul so it’s very accessible. If you’re in Korea during Autumn, this spot is a can’t-miss.

If you’re keen on visiting South Korea during Spring, you will see spellbinding cherry blossoms pretty much everywhere you go, but Seoraksan National Park on the east coast is one of the best spots in the country this time of year.

a cherry blossom tree in front of a jagged mountain peak in south korea
Magic happens when sunset hits the cherry blossoms.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

This one’s a bit further out of the way as it’s a 3-hour bus ride from Seoul, but it’s more than worth it! I’ve made the trip out to Seoraksan multiple times and it still isn’t enough.

Going to South Korea in summer is going to be a non-stop sweatfest and while winter can be utterly breathtaking, it’s freezing cold, so Autumn and Spring are the ideal seasons to visit Korea.

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19. Seoul is a Foodie’s Paradise

Not only does Seoul have tons of excellent spots for trying Korean food, but the capital is also home to cuisines from all over the world! Italian, Japanese, Mexican, barbecue of all kinds, and so much more: you name it, Seoul has it.

mexican meal in seoul south korea
And the portions are huge.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

While you could easily dedicate an entire book to Seoul’s many restaurants, here are a few highlights!

One of the best Mexican restaurants I’ve found anywhere in East Asia is Taco Amigo, located right in the heart of Itaewon.

Just up the road and right on Itaewon’s main street is Vatos, a Mexican fusion restaurant that has a seemingly infinite number of delicious meals to try out.

If you’re craving some classic Texas BBQ, Low and Slow Itaewon has got you covered.

The Royal Food and Drink is a cliffside restaurant with a stunning view of Seoul and serves a majestic brunch that will send you into a food coma.

Not only one of the best brunch places in Seoul but one of the best I’ve been to anywhere, meals here are unforgettable.

Whether you’re looking for izakayas, Levantine restaurants, kebabs, Mexican, or pretty much anything else: this city is a paradise of cosmopolitan cuisine, and taking advantage of that is a must.

Seoul does have unforgettable KBBQ restaurants and countless more excellent Korean restaurants, but the best (and cheapest) Korean food will be found beyond Seoul’s expansive boundaries!

20. Being Vegetarian or Vegan in Korea Isn’t Easy

As with a lot of Asian countries, it can be a challenge to navigate the food scene if you’re vegetarian or vegan. When visiting Busan, Seoul, Daegu, and other larger cities, many restaurants can cater to your diet but in the countryside, you’ll find that your options are much more limited.

Thankfully, Korean food does have some options for those of you who don’t eat meat!

a popular south korean food in a black bowl
Filling, delicious, and (sort of) healthy!
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

Vegetarian mandu (dumplings), kimbap, and bibimbap are all tasty vegetarian dishes that you can’t miss out on, and jjajangmyeon is one of my personal favorites.

If you’re at a restaurant and ordering food that may or may not come with meat, like dumplings, just ask the waiter for “gogi opsoyo” (“no meat”) and you’ll be all set.

21. Explore Korea’s Amazing Café Scene

Going to South Korea means you get to explore a café scene which is second to none. A massively diverse range of cafés awaits travelers from the traditional to ultra-modern and quirky.

Seoul itself is home to countless unique, very photogenic cafés that you could probably spend a lifetime venturing through.

courtyard of a cozy cafe in south korea
The courtyard of my favorite traditional Hannok cafe in Korea. 
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

One of the capital’s most iconic spots is C.Through Café, which you’ll find here. Not only are the drinks delicious, but they also look so good that you almost feel bad for drinking them.

The coffee itself may or may not be what you’re looking for depending on your own personal tastes, but Korea’s cafés and teahouses are so diverse and incredible that I highly recommend you spend some time exploring what they have to offer!

22. Discover Korean Meals You Might Not Know Of!

Korean BBQ, samgyupsal, and kimchi are famous Korean culinary exports for good reason, but there are so many more Korean dishes that any backpacker worth their salt has got to try at least once.

Dakkalbi is a truly epic dish served in a massive pan that contains meat, rice cakes (called dak), vegetables, spices, and more depending on what you request. 

a popular meat and vegetable dish in a black pan in south korea
An endless pan of epicness.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

This is the perfect meal to have after you’ve worked up a huge appetite from exploring all day, and best to share with friends.

Quite possibly my favorite Korean meal is jjimdak. Often served in an enormous pan, this dish consisting at its core of chicken, glass noodles, rice, spices, and onions is a gluttonous, decadent meal that everyone should reward themselves with, and you can add more to the pan to mix things up a little.

Hint: add cheese.

23. Get Lost in Seoul’s Insane Nightlife

Seoul’s nightlife is famous and for very good reason: it’s amazing.

Coming out of a difficult few years due to the COVID pandemic, the capital’s bars and clubs are slowly returning to their former glory.

Gangnam, Itaewon, and Hongdae each have an endless supply of bars, restaurants, and clubs to explore that are wild fun, and a visit to Seoul is incomplete without at least a few sleepless nights spent in these districts.

south koreans having fun at a bar in south korea
And the bartenders are awesome people.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

You’ll also find unique escape rooms, board game cafés, and more.

It’s simply not possible to list all the things you can do in Seoul, which is exactly why you should get hopelessly lost in wandering through this amazing city’s nightlife.

24. Get Off the Beaten Path

South Korea is rightly well-known for being a haven of futuristic cities, shopping, and lightning-fast internet, but it’s so much more than that!

This is a country where ancient wonders mix with natural beauty in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else, and one of the best tips for traveling to South Korea I can give you is to journey away from the typical tourist loop of Seoul, Busan, and Jeju.

a traditional structure in south korea in the dark being coated in snow
You’ll see sights that most people miss.
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

That might seem like hard advice to follow in a tiny country that’s so modernized, but venture beyond the confines of the cities and you’ll find a side of Korea that most people don’t see.

Experiencing Korea’s ancient, rich culture and all the gems hiding in its many hills simply can’t be missed out on, and this is what makes going to South Korea an unforgettable experience, far more so than a night out in Seoul or Busan.

25. Know Which Places to Stay/Avoid

Korea has no shortage of great hostels to stay at that range from cozy and classy to social and wild, but here are just a few to keep in mind:

If you’re looking for a good time in Seoul that doesn’t involve much sleeping, The Time Traveler’s Party Hostel in Hongdae is hard to beat. Fun and social with a downstairs bar and a crew that goes out into Hongdae’s vibrant nightlife every night, this is the place to be for all kinds of partiers.

Its sister hostel, Time Travelers’ Relax Guesthouse, is for backpackers looking for something more low-key and restful. Also in Hongdae, this hostel is in a quiet neighborhood that’s just a short distance from the district’s unbelievable nightlife scene, so it gives you the best of both worlds.

the common room of a hostel in seoul south korea
Cozy, relaxed vibes
Photo: Hostelworld

Seoul Cube Itaewon is also an incredible hostel with a great reputation, and its location right in the center of Itaewon is basically unbeatable!

When it comes to Seoul – and Korea in general – pretty much any hostel or guesthouse you choose is going to be solid with one exception: the Hongdae Bird’s Nest Hostel. This is the one place I recommend you absolutely avoid at all costs unless you have no other choice.

You might be tempted by its low prices and convenient location (I was!), but the facilities are less than ideal and the management is strange, unhelpful, and at times very unfriendly to guests. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

FIRST TIME IN SOUTH KOREA

Time Traveler's Party Hostel

With a basement bar and a perfect location just 7 minutes from Seoul's Hongdae neighborhood, this is the best hostel for those looking to get the most out of the city's epic nightlife. It's super social, and you can even get a taste of authentic Korean BBQ every Friday night at their weekly group dinners.

26. Travel With Good Insurance!

Travel insurance is one of the most essential items all travelers simply should not go without, and you need to make sure you’re covered in the event a disaster happens!

Korean healthcare is some of the best – and most affordable – in the world, but you still don’t want to be stuck paying for 100% of a hospital bill.

That’s where SafetyWings comes in: at $40 per month and contract-free, this is an excellent choice for travelers and digital nomads.

Having that peace of mind that you’re covered in case of emergencies is priceless, so don’t forget to sign up before you set out on your travels: it could make all the difference.

ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.

They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.

SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!

Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.

So is South Korea Worth Visiting?

100%, absolutely, undeniably yes. Not only is it more than worth the effort, I stand by the fact that Korea is one of Asia’s greatest countries to travel in.

Temples, towers, unforgettable nights, delicious food and more await travelers who make the trip to this unique land caught at a crossroads.

Going to South Korea is the experience of a lifetime and when your trip is at an end, no matter how long it is, you’ll find yourself wanting more.

I hope you’ve learned something from these South Korea travel tips. Now all that’s left is to book that ticket.

A wild ride awaits!

More EPIC Backpacking Content to Help You Plan Your Trip!
rainbow colored lanterns made into a tunnel going up a stone staircase to a historical building in south korea
Have an epic trip to South Korea!
Photo: @nathanjordanphotography

And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!